It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that (Clive Bell)


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Monday, July 18, 2011

John White : Early Sienese Masters

(this is chapter 4 of John White's "Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space. Quoted text is in RED. Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN)


The panel painting of the Maestà, which Duccio completed in the years between 1308 and 1311, is the masterpiece that marks the first full flowering of the new school of Siena. The flowing line, and the glowing colour unattainable in fresco, form an unforgettable contrast with the works so far discussed. It is an art in which the harmony of the decorative surface is never disturbed, and never has to be restored.
The emphasis on the picture plane is shown in the structure and interconnection of the figures. In architectural terms this characteristic attitude is expressed by the virtually complete absence of the oblique setting. In almost every case a centralized, or a foreshortened frontal setting is used. This does not mean a lack of interest in the development of space. It only shows that the development takes place within a framework which is more strictly regulated by the flatness of the picture surface.

Why aren't the actual three dimensional features of the wooden frame considered as disruptive of the surface as the illusionary oblique setting?

and doesn't this "foreshortened frontal" setting in the Annunciation (lower left corner) disrupt the surface as much as it would if small adjustments were made to make it oblique?

The size of even the largest altarpiece is relatively restricted. It follows that the problem involved in creating a decorative unity out of a large number of narrative scenes is far less acute than in fresco painting, where the area covered by the decoration is so much greater. Apart from the strong central accent of ‘The Betrayal of Christ’, ‘The Agony in the Garden’, and ‘The Crucifixion’ there is no attempt to balance the scenes on the back of the Maestà symmetrically about the middle.’ The framing is, as in most panel paintings, neutral. The often repeated foreshortened frontal, and centralized interiors are freely intermingled without optical relation to each other. Since all the foreshortened frontal interiors are seen from the left, however, there is no extreme conflict of viewpoints. The most important unifying elements may, in fact, be summarized as the colour; the consistent compositional style; the light, which always falls upon the architecture from the left; and, finally, the careful observation of the unity of place, which is not, however, visual in its impact.

‘The Agony in the Garden’ is, however, his supreme in the creation of pure landscape forms. The inclusion of two episodes within a single scene does not detract from the way in which the rocky landscape provides a convincing, and fairly deep, natural platform for a number of figures. It is a more thoroughgoing representation of figures in landscape than any of Giotto’s Paduan compositions, in which it is normally a question rather of landscape enhancing figures.

The only comparable scene is the early 'Sacrifice of Joachim’ which only serves to emphasize the distinction.

Those two scenes do make a nice contrast, don't they?

Duccio feels more lyrical, while Giotto feels more dramatic.

Giotto's world of concrete-like landscape style is much more appropriate to the early 20th Century.

Duccio's descriptive conception is approached more closely in the Assisi Miracle of the Spring’ , which does not equal it despite the spatial advantage of the blue, fresco sky over the gold leaf of the panel painter. The Byzantine rock convention is much more softly and more naturalistically conceived by Duccio, and almost all the space is inhabitable by the figures.

Doesn't the first sentence suggest that a softer, more naturalistic landscape is somehow better than the harder, more stylized kind that Giotto was painting?

I'm sure that opinion is widely shared among those who love 19th C. French landscape.

Duccio is, moreover, alone amongst the painters discussed so far in trying to present a near view of a scene that takes place in a town. He does more than show the figures set against one or two isolated buildings, or uncertainly connected with a town that is presented as a whole and seen from the outside.

In ‘The Healing of the Blind Man’ it is true that all the houses are behind the figures, and only the well upon the right reaches the very foreground of the scene. Nevertheless, the low viewpoint, and the large figures, reasonably in scale with the clearly co-ordinated buildings, bring the idea of town much closer than it has ever been before.

How greatly the achievement of this result is assisted by the foreshortened frontal construction of the buildings can, perhaps, be gauged by glancing at the fresco of ‘St Francis Repudiating his Father’ at Assisi.

It seems to me that the "idea of town" is no more distant in the painting by Giotto than it is in the example by Duccio.

But the Duccio scene does feel flatter -- as if it were seen through a telescope from a great distance, while there is a great, deep space in the center of that St. Francis painting, and the pavement could be beneath my feet as well.

The most ambitious of all Duccio’s designs in terms of space, and naturalism in general, is that of ‘The Entry into Jerusalem’. The low viewpoint of the buildings makes it perfct1y possible to accept the composition climbing the surface of the tall pictorial rectangle as a road winding steeply upwards into the hill city of a Sienese Jerusalem. Only the small, obliquely set gate in the foreground introduces a slight note of conflict. The scale of the city gate, and of the buildings in the distance beyond it; the relation of the trees to the children crowded under them; all these are quite remarkable. The spatial continuity, and the distance traveled into depth as the eye moves steeply upwards, round, and inwards, leveling out as the even rooftops mark the summit of the hill, are astonishing, especially when the date of the Maestà is brought to mind. Only amongst the figures crowded at the city gate is there some difficulty and a slight loss of conviction. Not least remarkable is the lack of any of that sense of strain which might be expected to accompany so daring a pictorial leap. The iconography goes back to the Byzantine prototypes. The composition as a living organism is Duccio’s own.

What's most remarkable about the "naturalism" in this scene is that White finds any.

Jesus and his horse appear to be floating on air.

Only the heavy tree with its giant-sized climber above keeps him down on the ground.

I like that lonely, mysterious little gate in the foreground that introduces more than just a "slight note" of conflict regarding a realistic p.o.v..

That gate is meant for the viewer, isn't it? That's why it's so lonely, and it appears to be in a different world.

Why is White compelled to applaud a naturalism that is so minimal?

Is that the only quality worthy of celebration here ?

White asserts that in Duccio's scene "an attempt is made by means of a change of scale to create diagonal movement into space"

Has this ever been done before?

The Duccio scene is certainly different from
this 6th Century Byzantine version
whose diagonals are not going back into space.

In interiors Duccio’s starting point lies in centralized and foreshortened frontal buildings, such as those in ‘The Last Supper’ and ‘The Flagellation’. In the former the receding lines of the central section of the coffered ceiling vanish approximately to a single point, whilst those on either wing produce a vanishing axis pattern. There is therefore only a tendency to converge to a point in part of a single plane. The side walls run, however, to the very edge of the composition, and only the thinnest line of gold ground intervenes between roof and frame, so that the building is almost a true interior.

I wonder why Norris K. Smith did not include Duccio in his discussion of Last Suppers.

With the figures on the forward bench no larger than those in the rear, the viewer seems to be "taking his stance" in the middle of the table.

As with Giotto, the architecture is not so much a stage for figures as a vehicle for figurative expression. The beams in the ceiling express Christ's majesty more than they create an illusionary space.

But the principal vehicle of expression seems to be facial.

Can you imagine how this scene would look if the faces were blurred out?

And despite the severe symmetry of putting Christ right in the middle, the sharp arrangement of objects on the table and the contours of the figures make this a lively, non-static, scene.

Even more does the architectural detail of the Flagellation express the vulnerability of Christ (with the tall, thin, twisted columns) and the authority of Pilate (with the ornamental band that extends horizontally from his shoulders, parallel to his outstretched arm)

In foreshortened frontal buildings, amongst which the sense of enclosure increases in such compositions as that of ‘Christ at the House of Caiaphas’, the rule is generally for parallel recession in the ceilings, and for slight convergence in the orthogonals of the side walls. The buildings in the three scenes mentioned are each repeated several times, and form the compositional foundation on which Duccio builds.

Look at how the three different styles of doorway reflect the different groups of people who stand before them.

And note the too-sharp angle of the moulding on the right side of the middle doorway as it cranks up the emotional intensity and pushes Christ forward.

The linking of the courtyard scene of ‘The Denial by St. Peter’ with that of ‘Christ in Front of Annas’ immediately above it, by means of a diagonally climbing staircase, creates quite a strong impression of a two storey building with its upper wall laid open for inspection. The courtyard at the bottom lets out through the archway on the left, giving a feeling not only of extension to the side of the main space, as in a number of examples both at Padua and Assisi, but also of moving inwards from the enclosed court into the depths of an extensive building, only a fraction of the wall of which is shown. The spatial relationship of the two levels is, however, rather shifting. There are also minor difficulties, such as the precise relationship between the two uprights of the left-hand arch, and between the serving maid, who stands in the left foreground, and the banister beyond her. Actual contradictions, particularly those involving the relation of the figures to the architecture, are quite frequent amongst the compositions in the main body of the altarpiece. The recurring lack of co-ordination between the viewpoints of architectural details and the buildings as a whole, or in the relation of objects such as thrones to the interiors which contain them, is illustrative of the same approach. All these things reveal a lack of interest in the fundamental realism which was typical of Giotto.

Duccio does not avoid anomalies regarding the world as it might actually be seen.

His figures live in a special world of emotions - and so do Giotto's.

What strikes me in the above scenes is the contrast between the two central figures, Christ above and Peter below.

Peter seems boxed in and unable to ascend the stairs to a higher level, while Christ is surrounded by hostile forces, but has no need escape them.

In spite of this, the nascent qualities of the courtyard are developed further still in two of the subsequently isolated panels.

The first of these exceptional designs is ‘The Presentation in the Temple’ . The scene is centrally arranged, and the action is shown taking place before a sturdily constructed, arched ciborium. This is itself framed by a wide Gothic arch, cut by the upper border, and looking out into the gold- leaf distance. On either side a smaller arch springs forward to enclose the entire scene, and is cut short almost immediately by the verticals of the frame. Through these narrow openings aisles are seen extending outwards to the left and right beyond the confines of the picture space. A thin strip of gold above the spandrels of the main containing arch shows that the central space is not roofed in by vaulting like the aisles or cloisters flanking it. Despite the representation of an encircling courtyard rather than of an interior, properly so called, the attempt at a complete spatial enclosure is far more radical than any that have previously been considered. The bold truncation of the main space both at top and bottom, and on either side, aims at an inclusion of the spectator that is rarely found again before the fifteenth century. No forward surface, no exterior faces of the principal structure can be seen at all. The main space, as well as the subsidiary enclosures beyond, stretches out and round, outside the confines of the frame. Helped by the scale of the arches soaring above the figures, the doll’s house world of the one room building is left far behind.

I wish there were a website for the earlier eras of Byzantine painting so we could confirm that indeed it never deviated from the "doll's house world"

That phrase sounds a bit disparaging, doesn't it?

How is a one-room setting less adequate than the suggestion of many rooms, truncated by the framing?

It certainly is less adequate for a scientific view that is painfully aware of the limitations of our view into an exterior world of endless rooms.

But it might better depict our window of inner awareness, where the scenes might change, but at any one moment, it's only one room.

The same breadth of conception is found in the panel of ‘Christ Teaching in the Temple’. Here the immediate impression of depth is, perhaps, increased by the open foreground that is only partly filled with figures, all of which are ranged into the picture space. Once again a courtyard, rather than a true interior is shown. But the distinction is reduced to a minimum by the nearness of the frame to the upper line of the architecture. The scene is asymmetrically viewed, and despite a number of internal conflicts caused by the recession of different architectural features impartially to left and right, the breadth of the conception remains unaffected. The vaulted arcade is cut short by the lefthand border, whilst on the right the arches springing forward to enclose the central space are similarly cut. Enclosure of the onlooker is once again implied.

The floor tiles in the above scene do not recede to a vanishing point as they would in an Albertian grid, but don't they still encourage the viewer to "take a stand" on the same floor as the other characters ?

These two compositions create for the first time the impression of a slice of life, a view into a small part of a clearly indicated and extensive architectural space through which the mind is free to wander. This partial view of an extensive whole is an idea which Duccio also develops in his treatment of the exterior in at least one of his compositions.

The scene in question is ‘Christ’s Temptation on the Temple’ . The action unfolds on the balcony of a great, centrally planned Gothic structure. Two whole storeys are shown on a convincing scale, views of the interior opening into each. Above, the building soars beyond the boundary of the upper frame. This new scale of representation matches the advance in the conception of enclosure. It completes the picture of the development of pictorial space within the confines of the single work which is the Maestà.

That's a fascinating little peek through the doorway into the temple, isn't it?

The floor tiles inside are running every which way in a kind of confusion.

I'm sure Norris Kelly Smith would have declared that the artist was attacking the institution of the church.

It's also neat how the four supporting struts are all seen from the right even though the building as a whole is seen from the center. This puts the viewer on the same side as Christ.

The estimate of Duccio’s achievement implied by these analyses might seem at first to nullify, at least in part, the arguments establishing a close connection between the observation of nature and the emergence of the oblique setting in the work of Cavallini, of the Assisi painters, and of Giotto. The apparent contradiction disappears, however, on consideration of the fundamental qualities of the different styles.

The extent of Duccio’s achievement is partly due to the very fact of his conservatism; to his willingness to retain conventions questioned by Cavallini and Giotto. To these artists the fundamental reality of the ground is its flatness, its absolute contrast to the vertical of the human figure. Giotto was never prepared to climb the surface of a composition and use the sloping instability of a hill in order to achieve depth. To him depth was valuable only if it could be created at eye level on the flat earth. Duccio, on the other hand, was willing to accept the convention of the surface climbing composition, and, combining it with natural observation, achieved ‘The Entry into Jerusalem’.

If "The Entry into Jerusalem" had been lost, would Duccio's achievement really be recognized as that much less?

This design would still have been impossible without Duccio’s equal willingness to accept the older figure canons to a greater extent than had either Cavallini or Giotto, or even the artists of the St. Francis cycle at Assisi. He did not see plasticity as the fundamental quality of the human body. In his art a more natural articulation and a limited solidity were combined with a dominant, linear, surface pattern strengthened by exquisite colour. Only the more limited realism of his conception of the human figure allows the crowds to gather on the road that leads up to the Holy City.

In the same scene of ‘The Entry into Jerusalem’, it is the acceptance of the foreshortened frontal setting from Duccio’s Byzantine sources which allows the buildings to fit with such harmonious unobtrusiveness in the background of the composition. He does not abandon the convention, as did Cavallini and the painters ofAssisi at least in part, and Giotto almost entirely. Instead, as with his figures, Duccio inflated it a little; blew in enough reality to give it life, and was content to work within the limits it imposed. As a result he was neither controlled, like the artists at Assisi, by the too powerful spatial effects of the oblique setting, nor did he have to concentrate considerable energy upon the restoration of a pictorial balance disturbed by the fundamental realism of an artist such as Giotto. Duccio’s concentration upon the bases of individual phenomena was less intense. Consequently he was free to try for more daring representational effects than the Roman and Florentine artists without setting up uncontrollable internal conflicts in designs not yet sufficiently evolved to contain such intense realism.

The above detail area from the "Entrance to Jerusalem" exhibits both the "foreshortened frontal" and the "oblique".

Did White expect readers to examine his examples?

If he were writing for the art academic community, he would have rightly assumed that they would not.

The foreshortened frontal convention, which Duccio accepted and developed, created little of that tension between the representation of interior and exterior which was experienced by the artists who espoused the oblique construction. There is no inherent dualism in Duccio’s art. The rapidity of his expansion of the interior, and the magnitude of the final achievement, reflect the greatness of his genius.

Or perhaps that just reflects a different set of concerns from those who came before.

White has stepped away from his scientific role as an archeologist of illusionary buildings to play the role of an Art historian whose primary job is to confirm the genius of famous artists.

They also reflect the fact that the very limitations of his figure style and the inherent qualities of surface harmony in his perspective constructions, together with the brilliance of his colour combinations, the strength of his linear patterns, and the non-naturalistic gold ground of the panel painter, all helped to relieve him of concern for the integrity of his decorative surface, enabling him to develop a more and more complete conception of internal space, and a greater complexity of grouping in architectural landscapes and exteriors. There is never too abrupt a spatial pattern in Duccio’s painting, never any need for the ambivalent architectural features used by Giotto. Orthogonals and transversals are always clearly distinguished. This positive approach to spatial questions was also characteristic of the frescoes at Assisi. But here a more inherently harmonious architectural result is obtained through the accented frontal elements that appear in every construction. The readiness with which the basic organizational qualities of the foreshortened frontal setting lend themselves to the creation of unified compositional groups is underlined by the subsequent career of Simone Martini. At the same time it becomes even clearer how much the rapidity of Duccio’s advance was assisted by the compositional docility of this convention.

One "advance" that White has proposed is the spaciousness of that hill scene for the "Entry into Jerusalem", which does indeed include an oblique as well as a foreshortened frontal construction.

The other "advance" was using the picture frame to crop architectural features, which it would do regardless of how those features were constructed.

So his above conclusion is rather far fetched.



The first surviving example of the perspective grouping of several scenes about a clearly defined central axis occurs in the predella of the altarpiece of ‘St. Louis of Toulouse Crowning Robert of Anjou’, which Simone Martini painted in 1317. The idea was adumbrated in the Paduan frescoes, and developed in the single, vertical ranges of the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels. It is in the work of Simone Martini, however, that the new relationship between the spectator and the narrative composition is defined most clearly.

The central scene of the predella shows ‘St. Louis Serving at the Table of the Poor’. The perspective pattern is now hardened into a rigid vanishing axis system (. Uniform parallel recession replaces Duccio’s tentative advance towards the focusing of receding lines upon a single point. The vanishing axis system is standardized by Simone to such an extent that, in the later ‘The Death of St. Martin’ in the Lower Church at Assisi, part of the axis itself is visible in the ceiling pattern. The orthogonals run together in an even herringbone within the boundaries of the architecture, instead of only meeting invisibly when extended in the mind. In the predella scene, however, the art of Duccio is still reflected in the composition as a whole, as well as in the contradictory foreshortened frontal setting of the table which fills the centrally composed room.

The four flanking scenes of the predella are all foreshortened frontal in construction. Their orthogonals recede in parallel towards its centre. In contrast to the table in the central composition, the various cubic objects shown conform completely to the architectural setting of the interiors which contain them. The steep recession of the parallel orthogonals of the floors and ceilings precludes the possibility of any mathematical construction based upon a single axis valid for the entire group of five compositions. The continuity of the recession towards the middle of the predella, and the way in which the scenes run into one another, nonetheless create a powerful pull towards the centre about which they balance.

Why would this set of scenes be constructed around a single viewpoint?

Perhaps because its patron, Robert of Anjou who is kneeling down to receive the crown from his older brother, the boy saint, wants you to know that these episodes really happened. They occurred in the natural, as opposed to the spiritual, world.
And they show why he is a king worthy for the preeminence in Italy that the Pope recognized in the year, 1317, this painting was made.

It's a neat story.

Obviously, his older brother, Louis, was not suitable to run the family empire, but unlike Freddo , he renounces worldly things and joins the Franciscans. Perhaps his untimely death followed a change of heart?

Whatever, Robert of Anjou certainly found the best artist to paint this memorial with the same dreamy sweetness of the Annunciation that would follow 15 years later.

This is only predella scene that's been enlarged for the internet.

As with many of the other paintings shown earlier, the figures express themselves through the architecture rather than just inhabit it -- and that expression is kind of spooky.

A similar, spooky feeling re-emerged locally, here in Chicago, with the paintings of Gertrude Abercrombie, in the 1940's.

The same ideas are carried out with even more assurance in the Chapel of St. Martin at Assisi. Here the ten narrative scenes are ranged above each other on the side walls immediately to left and right of the chapel entrance. The two lowest registers on either wall contain a pair of frescoes each, whilst on either side a single fresco, which adjoins the entrance wall, carries the scheme into the vault. The three interiors in the frescoes nearest to the entrance wall are all centrally seen, establishing the onlooker’s position immediately in front of them. This position is confirmed by the foreshortened frontal setting of the four buildings in the frescoes nearer to the altar. Their orthogonals, and those of all the cubic objects they contain, recede towards the chapel entrance. The problem of co-ordination is more complex at Assisi than it is in the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels, but the solution is essentially an extension of the same idea.

Unfortunately, views of entire walls are scarce, so it's hard to confirm White's conclusions.

But as you can see above, the walls are packed with images of buildings.

The different treatment accorded to panel and fresco, in recognition of the different problems that are posed, seems to show that the new organization is not simply a device for compositional co-ordination. Its implications as regards the position to be taken up by the spectator are intentional. This is confirmed at Assisi by the perspective structure of the niches in the embrasures of the windows, which are all presented as if seen from the body of the chapel.

Further evidence is supplied by the increasingly complex realism with which the pattern is developed in such panels as that of ‘Beato Agostino Novello’ in the church of S. Agostino in Siena. In this work the centralization of the flanking panels covers a far more complicated range of architectural designs. At the same time the sense of depth is increased by the extension of the ground plane, and by the representation of a street scene in one composition, whilst in another the eye runs on into the golden distance through an archway set between two houses.
It is interesting to notice that, in their consistent use of centralized and foreshortened frontal settings, both Duccio and Simone Martini come closer than either Giotto or his immediate followers to that unity of construction which is one of the fundamental characteristics of fifteenth century artificial perspective. The contrast between the early stages of development in these two artistic streams throws further light upon the interaction between the observation of nature and the organization of the flat surface. Each feeds, and is dependent on the other. Each creates, and is created by, the form the other takes.

As a whole, "Beato Agostino Novello" feels claustrophobic to me. Since the side panels present scenes that are seen from the center of the painting, they feel like compartments that built into the panel instead of windows on the world.

And even though they are seen from the same position horizontally, each has its own height.

But when each is seen from the front of itself, they are wonderful (and wacky) views.

I love this falling bambino.

The imaginative sweep of the Sienese approach to the natural world, and its conservative base, are epitomized in the bold spatial and decorative contrasts of the fresco of Guidoriccio da Fogliano which Simone painted in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena in 1328. Horse and rider, blended into one by the flowing curves of the compelling diamond pattern, parade, caparisoned in gold, across the foreground. The splendid golden silhouette swells and gleams against the blue backcloth of the sky. A characteristic medieval ground strip fills the lower third of the wide proscenium rectangle. There is the usual uncertainty in the relation of the figures to the ground plane, the usual abruptness in the change of scale between flgures and surroundings. It is impossible to say if the charger walks across the landscape or upon the picture frame. There is no knowing its relation to the foreground palisade, under, behind, or in front of the highstepping hooves. Yet the result is no mere archaism, but a new, and vivid evocation of reality. Each of the inherent contrasts is intensified. The landscape detail is more widely scattered, smaller, and more distant, the figure more boldly in the foreground than in the miniatures and panel paintings the characteristics of which are here seen exploited on a monumental scale and with dramatic consequences. In the Palazzo Pubblico, as in the Peruzzi Chapel, space, no matter by what widely disparate means, is taking on new meaning both for artist and for onlooker alike.

Once again, the evidence does not justify the broad, sweeping conclusions.

Someone needs to do a website called "European painting 800-1300" to give us a better idea of what came before.

If this is the first large equestrian mural, then yes, that is an innovation. But its sense of space feels neglected, perhaps because most of the original painting has been damaged and/or replaced.

One page on the internet even asserts that:

"No, this Guidoriccio is not a masterpiece: it is hard to think that a genius as Simone Martini realized a fresco which is on a quality level very inferior to his Majesty."
(shown above)

I'm also wondering about the "conservative base" that White attributes to Duccio and Martini. Is that just because they mostly don't use oblique constructions?

Or does it relate to a political conservatism -- i.e. serving the ideals of the landed gentry instead of the urban businessmen ?

Giotto has more hustle and bustle, while Martini has more dreamy elegance - and weirdness.

But White has continued to frame his discussion within the discourse of modernism that separates technique from content and priveleges an objective, scientific view above all others.

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