The roots of the Renaissance surfaced in Italy, where urban life, banking, and capitalism had progressed at a rapid pace. By the 14th century, the city–state of Florence was the leading center of international finance. But, even more importantly, there was a growing consciousness of political identity in 14th–century Italy. Many Italians became interested in renewing their rich classical past, and scholars actively studied the Latin classics.
Following the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi (c. 1182-1226), who advocated religion as an intense personal experience, religious and secular thinkers of this period emphasized the importance of personal intuition and experience in seeking both divine and natural knowledge. They challenged the existing Christian scholastic philosophy that sought to rationalize religion through argument.
This new emphasis on personal experience contributed to a new view of the world called humanism. Thomas H. Greer broadly defines humanism as "any view that puts the human person (humanus) at the center of things and stresses the individual’s creative, reasoning, and aesthetic powers."1Early on, Florence was the major center of humanism. Francesco Petrarch (b. 1304) and Giovanni Boccaccio (b. 1313), two of the most important humanists, were born in Florence and influenced the progressive thinking in that city.
Second only to Giotto, Bernardo Daddi was among the leading painters active in Florence during the first half of the 14th century. Though we do not know when Daddi was born, we presume it was during the late 13th century. He is recorded in a register of the Florentine guild of apothecaries for the years documented 1312 and 1320 and in another for the years between 1320 and 1350. He died during the "black plague" in 1348.
Daddi recognized a demand for personal devotional altars and popularized the small–scale portable triptych (three-paneled picture). He made an industry of producing these portable triptychs, which Duccio and his circle had merely experimented with. He established a large workshop with many assistants to complete the commissions he received.
The market for such small altarpieces arose from an increasing emphasis on the more human aspects of the divinity and the attainment of a more personal relationship to God. Preaching orders, primarily the Franciscans,2 were largely responsible for this change. Further, the heightened emotionalism of contemporary preaching and the increasing growth of individual wealth in the great cities encouraged personal or private devotion. With an ever–growing middle class, more individuals could afford the luxury of having their own portable triptych. The small scale of the triptychs made it possible to carry them on travels, and the two side wings, when folded, protected the painted panel. The pattern established for these by Daddi (as seen in the MIA work) was used throughout the century.
THE MIA’S TRIPTYCH
The MIA’s Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints
is dated 1339. It is painted in tempera on panels, and while the inner paintings are well–preserved, the paintings on the reverse sides of the outer wings are almost completely lost. Typical of Daddi’s known works, several narrative scenes are depicted.
The central panel of the triptych depicts the Madonna and child enthroned, flanked by Saints Helen and Peter to the viewer’s left and by Saints Catherine and Paul to the right. Each of the saints carries symbolic attributes which help to identify him/her.
The Madonna and Child
The significantly larger size of the Madonna and child group indicates that they are more important. Her traditionally red gown signifies the passion of Christ and her blue mantle that she is queen of Heaven. Her ornate throne, which repeats aspects of Gothic architecture, signifies that she is not only the queen of Heaven but represents the Catholic Church itself. The golden star that falls on her shoulder derives from her title "Star of the Sea" (Latin Stella Maris), which is the meaning of the Jewish form of her name, Miriam.3
The mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, Helen was believed to have discovered the True Cross (the cross on which Christ was crucified). The saint here carries a miniature cross and wears a golden diadem to signify her royalty.
An apostle and one of the founders of the Church, Peter holds a key referring to the keys of Heaven, given to him by Christ. His bright yellow mantle is symbolic of Revealed Faith. The book, which he is often shown carrying, is the Gospel.
St. Catherine of Alexandria
Believed to be of royal birth, Catherine wears a golden diadem. She carries a book in reference to her great learning and carries a palm frond, a symbol of Christian martyrs signifying their triumph over death.
An apostle and one of the founders of the Church, Paul holds the book of his Epistles and the sword, with which he was beheaded in Rome.
In the left panel, Daddi shows St. Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata (the marks of Christ’s wounds) from a seraph (a category of angels, traditionally depicted with red wings) with the figure of Christ. He wears the brown habit of the Franciscan Order, which he founded. He is an appropriate figure for this proto–Renaissance painting since he put forth the ideas that an individual could have a more personal relationship with God and that humans were noble and worthy creatures—central ideas for the Renaissance.
The right panel presents a scene of the Crucifixion of Christ with St. John the Evangelist and Mary. The Virgin Mary and St. John express visually the passage from John’s gospel (19:26–27) wherein Christ entrusted the care of Mary to his disciple, John the apostle. The skull beneath the cross identifies the site as Golgotha and refers to the legend that the site of the crucifixion also marked Adam’s burial place. According to Christian doctrine, by sacrificing himself on the cross, Christ made it possible for humankind to redeem itself from the original sin of Adam that it had inherited.
Left & Right Pinnacles
The left pinnacle features the Archangel Gabriel announcing to Mary, who sits in a chamber in the right pinnacle, that she will be the mother of Christ. Gabriel holds a lily—his attribute and a symbol of Mary’s purity—in one hand. The Virgin holds a book, from which, according to St. Bernard, she was reading Isaiah’s prophecy that "a young woman is with child, and she will bear a son. . ."4 at the time of the Annunciation.
By the late 13th and 14th centuries, two distinctly different styles had developed in Tuscany—the Sienese and the Florentine. Though Daddi trained in the school of Giotto (Florentine tradition), from the beginning, his paintings exhibited a fusion of the Sienese and Florentine traditions. Daddi frequently tempered elements of Giottoesque three–dimensional realism with unnaturalistic compositions and decorative passages that reflected the new Gothic style preferred by Sienese painters a that time.
The Sienese style, exemplified in the paintings of Duccio, Simone Martini, and the Lorenzetti, emphasized decoration and elegance. Though consideration was given to evoking actual settings, delicate and often mannered figures were frequently depicted against gold and/or richly patterned surfaces.
In general, Florentine art, under the directions established by the sculptor Giovanni Pisano and especially by Giotto, placed a greater emphasis on sculptural forms, spatial relationships, and modeling in light and shade. Figures often interacted in believable natural settings and exhibited truly human emotions.
These two Tuscan styles drew primarily from three basic traditions which influenced Italian art to varying degrees during the 12th and 13th centuries: the Byzantine or Eastern tradition, the late Gothic or courtly style, and the classical tradition. Geographically, Italy was in an ideal position to absorb and to fuse diverse influences. The Byzantine style spread to different Italian states by means of manuscripts and icons that were dispersed along trade routes through Siena and up to Florence. Northern styles made their way into Italy along trade routes that ran downward through Tuscany. Elements of each of these traditions are visible in Daddi’s Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints.
The Byzantine style or "Greek manner" dominated Italian art in the early 13th century after the conquest of Constantinople by the fourth–crusade armies in 1204. This Italo–Byzantine style reflects characteristics of Byzantine icons and mosaics dating back to the 6th century. It was upon this Eastern tradition that the Sienese artists drew most heavily. Perhaps the clearest example of Byzantine–influenced painting in our collection is the Madonna and Child by Segna di Bonaventura. The Byzantine– related elements in Daddi’s Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints are:
This extensive use of gold leaf, which denotes a heavenly or other–worldly realm, considerably flattens out the figures.
The two–dimensionality of the figures in the Byzantine style developed from an increasing emphasis (since the 6th century) on the symbolic or didactic function of images. Recognition of the figure became more important than realistic representation. The almost column–like bodies in Daddi’s saints and in the standing figures in the Crucifixion scene reflect this tradition.
The formal and even artificial pose of the Madonna and child became a standard means for representing the two figures who appeared so frequently in Byzantine mosaic programs as well as in painted icons.
Madonna’s Facial Features
The typical Byzantine Madonna featured almond–shaped eyes, a long thin nose, and a "rosebud" mouth, all visible if somewhat softened in the Madonna in the central panel.
With the reduction of figures to formulas in the Byzantine tradition, line, as opposed to modeling, was used to indicate folds in garments and the edges of figures against the gold backgrounds. This quality is particularly evident, for example, in the figures of Mary and John in Daddi’s Crucifixion scene.
Due to her importance, the Virgin is larger in size than the saints.
The late Gothic tradition, often called the courtly or international style, had a significant impact on Italian art during the late 13th and 14th centuries and, in combination with the Byzantine style, in large part shaped the decorative Sienese style. This aristocratic northern style appeared in late Gothic cathedral sculpture and in manuscript illumination. Elements of the Gothic style in Daddi’s work are:
Shape of the Triptych
The overall shape of Daddi’s triptych and the shape of Mary’s throne, with its spires, resemble the pointed arches of French Gothic Cathedrals. This architectural style also influenced Italian architecture of the 14th century (e.g., Siena Cathedral), which Daddi would have been familiar with.
The human relationship of the Madonna and child reflects the more gentle treatment given to religious images during the late Gothic period. With the growing need for a more human and personal religion, figures became less rigid and more approachable. Through the influence of St. Francis’ teachings, the Virgin grew in popularity as an accessible and gentle intercessor so the new naturalism was particularly evident in depictions of the mother playing with the Christ child. This Gothic humanism had a strong impact on Giotto and the Florentine style which developed in the 14th century. It is also very well–reflected in the human qualities of the suffering Christ in Daddi’s triptych.
Decoration and Patterning
French manuscript illuminations were highly decorative and characterized by bright colors, fluid curving lines, and relatively large patterned surfaces. This very elegant quality was particularly influential in Siena. Daddi takes advantage of this decorative appeal in the patterns on the Madonna’s throne in the central panel and the patterns in her chamber in the upper right–hand panel. As in the manuscripts, this tends to flatten out the figures and, therefore, to emphasize their linearity.
Use of Symbols
Though commonly used in Gothic art, the practice of using symbols and/or attributes to identify those portrayed in Christian art dated back to the early Christian era.
The Classical tradition, the tradition of antiquity, had special importance for Italian artists who were surrounded by the ancient reminders of their past. Antique statuary, particularly Roman sarcophagi, had a strong impact on the sculpture of Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, who were, in turn, an inspiration to Giotto and his followers. Further, some ancient Roman frescoes still extant in the 14th century, inspired artists to render scenes naturalistically. The classical elements, as they were interpreted by the Italian artists, evident in Daddi’s triptych are:
The figure of St. Francis appears as an actual body under the garment. Looking at sculpture (particularly of draped figures) as a model, Giotto and his followers achieved the effect of corporeality by modeling in dark and light. The effects is, likewise, achieved in the body of the Christ figure in the Crucifixion scene.
Related to the achievement of corporeality is the idea of "realistically" depicting a figure as though it is occupying an actual space. This effect is evident in the turned pose of St. Francis, who appears in a landscape scene. This desire to realistically render forms in space was long a concern for the ancient Romans.
While it is necessary to consider the traditions from which Daddi and other Italian artists developed, it is equally important to acknowledge just how forward–looking the MIA’s triptych is. Several aspects of the work, including those that derive in part from the classical tradition, are like a mini–preview of things to come in the Renaissance. Hence, the name proto–Renaissance given to the art of this period.
As suggested, Daddi’s treatment of St. Francis is considerably more advanced than his treatment of the figures of the saints. Inspired by Giotto’s full–bodied forms, this figure appears fully modeled in dark and light. There is a solid body under his garments. Further, despite the gold sky, Daddi has placed St. Francis outdoors in a natural setting. This concern with convincingly representing humans in nature would preoccupy artists during the Renaissance.
The figure of Christ on the cross is also fully modeled and reveals Daddi’s interest in rendering a believable figure. Although flattened by the patterned surfaces behind them, the figures of the Virgin and child in the central panel appear quite massive. The Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin in the Annunciation scene both appear as real figures occupying believable spaces.
The use of empirically drawn architectural spaces in the Virgin’s chamber in the right pinnacle and, less successfully, in her throne in the central panel, also illustrate the proto–Renaissance interest in producing convincing presentations of reality. Both Sienese and Florentine artists dealt with architectural structures. However, the rich patterning and delicate lines of Daddi’s structures link them more closely with the Sienese style.
The very presence of St. Francis, an important figure for the dawning of humanism, indicates that this is a transitional work from the medieval age to the Renaissance. His prominent position in the triptych suggests that whoever commissioned the devotional piece was deeply committed to the Franciscan order.
That an individual commissioned the triptych for private devotion tells us something more about the transition from the medieval period to the Renaissance. Commissions of artworks were no longer restricted to the church. Wealthy individuals who wanted luxury items for their homes or who were unable to be home for prayer, owing to traveling, could now commission such devotional objects. In Florence, with the rise in banking and trade, private industry and wealth had become an aspect of everyday life. Humanism encouraged people to realize that they were capable of shaping their own world.
The Technique of Panel Painting in 14th Century Tuscany
The technique followed in the production of this small devotional item is essentially the same used for all panel paintings, regardless of size. In fact, in medieval Italian workshops the same artisans undertook major commissions and small objects simultaneously and indiscriminately, turning out parade banners and book covers as well as large altarpieces.
Knowledge of the techniques of medieval Tuscan painting has in modern times been vastly extended by technology. Identification and analysis of support, medium and pigments, as well as X-radiography and infra-red reflectography, have all helped to clarify the methods and materials used by medieval painters. Yet the single most valuable source remains the treatise called Il Libro d’Arte (The Craftsman’s Handbook) written in about 1390 by Cennino Cennini, a Tuscan painter who himself practiced the very techniques he describes. Cennini specifies the methods used in both fresco and panel painting, since a painter would have been required to be proficient in both.
The exacting and multi-step procedure for producing a panel painting had been in use for some time before its description by Cennini. It is interesting to note that because medieval artisans artisans adhered so strictly to proscribed methods, the surfaces of panel paintings are very stable and have been able to resist the effects of environment and bad treatment to a surprising degree. Thus a tempera painting of the early 14th century is often better preserved, and consequently easier to conserve, than an unvarnished acrylic painting of the 1960s.
First, a plank of seasoned wood was chosen, usually poplar since other types of timber were not generally available in Tuscany. Our triptych is a single panel, but in the case of larger pictures or multi-partite altarpieces, several planks were butt-joined to form a continuous surface. According to Cennini, a strong casein glue made from quicklime mixed with a skimmed milk cheese was employed. Sometimes the butt-joins were secured by wooden dowels.
The panel was then prepared with a gesso ground. This stage may have been executed by an artisan in the master’s workshop or by an outside specialist hired for the purpose. The first stage was to give the whole panel, including any attached parts of the frame, several coats of glue size, made from boiled animal skins or clippings made from goat or sheep skins left over from making parchment sheets for manuscripts. Pieces of worn linen, usually of a quite fine and open weave, were then soaked in size and laid over the flat areas. The main purpose of this canvas appears to have been to reinforce any joins and to even out flaws on the surface of the panel.
When the size used to attach the linen was completely dry, the panel was ready for the application of several layers of gesso. Essentially, gesso consists of hydrated calcium sulphate, or gypsum, mixed with animal glue, and in fact the word gesso is simply Italian for gypsum. The warm, still humid gesso was applied with a with a large, soft bristle brush to all surfaces to be decorated. After several layers of gesso had been applied -- as many as eight, Cennini suggests – and were thoroughly hardened, the gesso ground was scraped down with a straight-edge scraper, to achieve an ivory-smooth surface. Cennini recommends the bone of a goose as ideal for this purpose.
Since very few 14th century Italian drawings have survived, very little is known about the way a composition was designed. It has been theorized that painters may have followed a standard proportional system to calculate the dimensions of the components, or relied on previous models. In most cases, as Cennini instructs, the painter made a preliminary underdrawing directly on the gesso ground in charcoal (which could be erased and corrected), which he then traced over with dilute ink.
Now that the design was fixed, the divisions of the areas to be gilded and those to be painted were usually lightly scored into the gesso with a stylus. Gilding was done before painting. An area to be gilded was prepared by the application of a layer of bole, a soft, greasy clay, orange or red-brown in color. The bole provides a smooth cushioned surface to which gold leaf adheres, and it imparts a warm rich color to the gold. This is important because gold leaf is beaten so thinly that it can appear rather green and cold in color if applied to a white surface.
Gold leaf was applied in small sheets only millimeters thick. A small piece of gold was beaten between leaves of parchment into extremely thin sheets. Cennini indicates that the standard Florentine gold coin, called a fiorino d’oro, was commonly used. The fiorino was ideal for this purpose, the purity of the gold used in making the fiorino was rigidly controlled: nominally 24 karat with only minor impurities. The fragile and precious gold leaf was applied with great care in small sections to the bole, which had previously moistened with water. The process was repeated, each section slightly overlapping the other, until the whole area to be gilded is covered. The gilded area was then gently rubbed, or burnished, with a hard polished stone, so that it bonded with the bole underneath. Burnishing brought out the sheen of the metal, and the resulting surface appeared to be solid, gleaming gold.
Once burnished, the surface was ready for decoration with incised lines, tooling and ornamental punching, especially in areas such as haloes and garment borders, where added surface texture was desired. Lines were indented into the gold with a stylus, while tiny hand-held punches were used to make composite punch marks, usually in foliate patterns. Since the punch marks tend to differ on the products of different workshops, distinguishable marks can serve as evidence for the attribution of some works.
The artist now proceeded to paint the non-gilded areas of gesso ground with tempera colors, using egg as the binder. The pigments used to produce various colors were derived from natural mineral and earth deposits, plant and animal sources, and some artificially produced colors not of an organic nature, such as vermilion. Most pigments could be obtained from apothecaries, who stocked materials for a whole range of crafts, as well as for medicinal purposes. Some were available locally, others were imported at great cost. For example, scale-insect byproducts were used to manufacture red lake pigments, also widely used in dyeing cloth, a major industry in Florence. Azzurite, a copper ore mined in France, Spain and Germany, was used to produce shades of blue.
Lead white, the key white pigment for all aspects of painting on panel, was manufactured from sheets of metallic lead. Lead white was invariably used for lightening all other colors; it is the basis for certain flesh tints and is sometimes used as a pure white underpaint to provide luminosity to paint layers laid on top.
A variety of easily made black pigments were also available. These included willow charcoal, black earth, and lampblack, as well charred almond shells, peach stones and vine twig. All these materials principally composed of elemental carbon are permanent on egg tempera.
The most precious and sought-after of all artist’s materials was ultramarine, a blue mineral extracted from the semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli. Ultramarine was a rare, imported commodity, more expensive than pure gold. It produced a brilliant blue, and has the further virtue of preserving its color and clarity, whereas azurite has often turned black over time, due to chemical change.
Another pigment that produced a versatile, stable color is a clay-like and siliceous deposit known as terra verde, or terre verte, both literally meaning "green earth". Its most important function in panel painting is as the underpaint in flesh tones. This explains the seemingly unnatural occurrence of green in faces and other flesh areas where the superimposed paint layer has been abraded.
Pigments were prepared in the painter’s workshop, carefully washed in water and ground by hand to the right consistency. Because tempera colors cannot be mixed in the same way as oil paint, it had to be applied in separate brushstrokes in a complex, multi-layer structure. The modeling and blending of the colors were achieved optically, the result of the painstaking application of layer upon layer of fine, intermeshed brushstrokes. Each layer had to dry before the next was applied. Brushes were made of the hairs from the tips of the tails of minever or ermine, trimmed and fitted onto turned wooden handles.
The final stage of execution was the embellishment of the painted draperies with lines of gilding in imitation of gold embroidery, sometimes termed feathering. In the 14th century the most commonly used method for this was mordant gilding, whereby small pieces of gold leaf were laid on an adhesive or oil mordant previously applied to the areas to be so decorated. The Madonna and Child by Segna da Bonaventura in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts collection exhibits gold striations of this type, which indicated the person’s divine status.
The extent to which early tempera paintings were varnished and the type of varnish used is a much-debated topic among conservators and art-historians. Some paintings were not varnished, since the painter evidently preferred the matte sheen of the tempera. At the end of his section on panel painting, Cennini gives brief instructions on how on how and when to varnish a painting with an oleo-resinous varnish. This varnish, which may have consisted of semi-hard resins dissolved and boiled in linseed oil, would have been viscous and hard to apply, as well as slow to dry. Cennini advises a waiting period between the completion of a painting and varnishing, although the delay of one year he recommends may not have been feasible in all cases. When newly applied, an oleo-resinous would have been quite clear, but with a glossy finish. Over time, however, it darkens to a grayish-yellow or orange color. Therefore in the intervening centuries many panel paintings have been subjected to harsh cleaning methods, such caustic alkalis and abrasives, to remove the varnish, resulting in damage to the surface and losses in the paint layer.
The Painter and his workshop
Panel paintings were not the works of individuals, but they were collaborative efforts of a master painter and his assistants. It is important to remember that the medieval artist was not thought of as a creative genius, but as craftsman, no more distinguished than a shoemaker or a wool-dyer. The status of painter ranked low among professions, even among other crafts. There were, of course, some painters who were more competent than others and rose in status. In rare instances we know their names, such Giotto in Florence and Simone Martini in Siena. For the most part painters of the 14th century remain anonymous, since they did not routinely sign their works and no documents citing them survive.
All professions were organized into guilds – organizations regulating production, sales, ethics, etc. It was obligatory to belong to a guild in order to practice one’s craft. In Florence painters were subsidiary members of the Arte dei Medici e Speziali (Guild of Doctors and Apothecaries) because they employed the same substances and materials.
The master painter was certainly responsible for the design and supervision of a work, and probably executed the most important parts himself. However, as we have seen, much of the artist’s work involved the preparation as well the application of the materials. In a workshop setting, much of the arduous preliminary work, such as grinding pigments and mixing size glue, would have been carried out by apprentices or lesser assistants. A youth was apprenticed to a master, by contract, for a period varying from three to eight years. He learned all phases of the production of a painting or other work, and could only become a master in his own right when he satisfied standards stipulated by the painter’s guild.
Two or more masters sometimes worked in collaboration. On occasion specific tasks were sub-contracted to specialists, such as carpenters (for panel construction) or gilders. Within a workshop the members could vary in status, working at correspondingly varied rates of pay. Workshops often contained members of the same family, particularly father and son or brothers, setting up a sort of dynastic partnership.
Since Bernardo Daddi was active in Florence between 1312 and 1348, we can be reasonably sure that he was trained in the traditional methods of tempera painting on panel and followed them in the production of this triptych. In 1348 a cataclysmic event occurred that decimated the population of Europe and threw it into a period of economic decline – the spread of the bubonic plague. Daddi was one of the countless Tuscan artists who perished in that plague. Nevertheless, the techniques of fresco and panel painting practiced during his lifetime were transmitted to the next generation of artists, and were not substantially altered until the medium of oil on canvas gained supremacy in the mid-16th century.
Use on the following tours:
- European Art (14th to 18th centuries)
- How Was It Made? (to illustrate gold leaf and tempera)
- Spirituality and Art
- Visual Elements
Highlights of the Museum’s Collection tour with a symbolism theme
This is an excellent work to use to illustrate the transition from the medieval period to the Renaissance in terms of style and culture. On a general tour, you need not distinguish between Gothic and Byzantine characteristics. Instead, organize your discussion to illustrate what is medieval (this will encompass both) versus what is looking forward to the Renaissance. This painting makes a great comparison to several other works you will use regularly.
Compare this to the stone 14th–century Gothic Madonnas. Note the same growing humanism in the relationship between mother and child as well as the heavy reliance on symbols.
Compare Costa’s Portrait of a Cardinal in His Study with this to illustrate the development of concepts such as people in believable spaces and the importance of the individual during the Renaissance.
When discussing the triptych format at the Master of the St. Lucy Legend, Lamentation with Saint John and Saint Catherine, refer back to this piece. You could also discuss how the different sizes suggest different functions.
While discussing the importance of the Virgin and saints or the use of gold leaf, it is useful to point out the predominance of these aspects in other paintings.
- Thomas H. Greer, A Brief History of the Western World, 5th edition (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987), p. 278. For a good account of the changes taking place during this period, see Greer, pp. 243-250 and 277-288.
- The Franciscans taught the word of Francis of Assisi, a mystic who encouraged others to seek god's truth through inner inspiration and revelation.
- James Hall, Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 330.
- Hall, Dictionary, p. 19.