TRANSITION
TO THE
RENAISSANCE: MEDIEVAL STYLES
IN
ITALY
The Gothic style, which is often thought of as a French style, was international in scope. Gothic buildings
are found throughout northern Europe and England—in fact, Gothic is often the style chosen for churches
and universities in America up to the present day. The Gothic style did make inroads on the Italian
peninsula, but it had to compete with other styles there. Early Christian basilican churches were still in use
in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (as many still are today). Byzantine styles were strong in Sicily
and in northern Italy, especially in Venice and Ravenna. And a local variation of Romanesque, decorated
with stripes of contrasting colored marbles, was popular in central Italy. There were also classical ruins in
many Italian towns, and even as early as the thirteenth century prosperous Italian towns like Pisa claimed
to be “the New Rome.” In the fourteenth century, Italian writers became interested in their classical
heritage, but it was only in the fifteenth century that a similar revival became widespread in the visual arts.
More important for the history of painting is the formation of the Franciscan and Dominican monastic
orders. Both were mendicant orders, that is, the monks supported themselves by begging rather than by
living within self-sustaining monasteries. The monks were preachers and teachers who vowed to live in
poverty while they did their work among the people. St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan
order, is the beloved saint who encouraged his followers to look to the natural world for evidence of divine
power and love. Many works of art that show renewed interest in natural appearances were made for
Franciscan churches. Dominicans, on the other hand, were theologians who studied and upheld traditional
church teachings. When they commissioned works of art, it was often to explain relationships between
theological concepts. Some art historians have seen the Dominican style as more orderly and static, and
consequently not as “progressive” as other works. Whether or not this is true, painting became the most
important art form in fourteenth-century Italy. At first, it was heavily influenced by the Byzantine style, but
then artists began to break from those patterns and develop new ways to convey their messages to viewers.
This chapter focuses on works made in central Italy. Tuscany, and especially the city of Florence, was the
area where the innovations we associate with the Italian Renaissance took place. Fourteenth-century
paintings foreshadowed some of those developments, and so the period is sometimes referred to as the
“proto-Renaissance.” However, artist of the 13th and 14th century could not foresee future developments;
their goal was to create the most effective images to convey religious ideas to a largely illiterate public, and
to produce the best work in fulfillment of their patrons’ wishes.
ITALIAN GOTHIC CHURCHES
The medieval churches of Florence use the basilican plan that originated in Roman secular architecture and
was adapted for Early Christian churches in the 4th century. With only a few exceptions, medieval churches
in Italy do not use the complex structural systems of French Gothic churches. Some churches built in the
thirteenth and fourteenth centuries have pointed arches and ribbed vaults, but flying buttresses are rarely
seen on the exterior. A good example of an Italian Gothic church is Santa Maria Novella, illustrated below.
More importantly, the amount of stained glass is limited in these churches; instead, walls are left solid and
are decorated with fresco paintings. In the sixteenth century many of the early wall paintings were white-
washed, but the most significant of them (especially around the main altar) have been preserved. Sculpture
was used on pulpits, altars, or tombs, but elaborate portal sculpture is rare, especially in central Italy. We
should keep in mind, however, that many Italian churches of this period were finished several centuries
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