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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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

John White : Giotto - Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels

(this is chapter 3 of John White's "Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space.
Quoted text is in RED. Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN)

The paintings in the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels in Santa Croce are all that remains of the rich catalogue of frescoes completed by Giotto after his triumph in the Arena Chapel. It is most exciting that these two fresco series, preserved by chance, and separated by well over a decade from the work of Padua, should, despite their highly individual qualities, reveal in full the striding steadiness of development and intensity of purpose which are characteristic of the greatest artists.

The lighting within the scenes falls on figures and on architecture as if from the windows which, in both chapels, create a unified source of outside light. Furthermore, the internal architectural perspective is co-ordinated with the viewpoint of the observer as he enters. The tentative experiments of Padua are perfected and complete coherence finally attained.

Or maybe these two features are more appropriate in the these smaller chapels that have only one window and will mostly be seen while walking past them through the church.

In ‘The Apparition at Aries’ the strictly limited depth is enclosed by the unbroken back wall, characteristic of all four of the scenes below the lunettes. The effect of this is reinforced by the low socle and slim columns which mark the forward boundary of the building and strengthen the already powerful network of forms maintaining the surface tension of the wall. Furthermore the smoothly sloping roof is so designed that the eye runs up its outer surface, instead of being forced downwards into depth by the orthogonals of an enc1osed ceiling.

There's a few anomalies in this architectural view that White doesn't mention.

The doorway on the left makes the POV seem to be as high as the head of Francis, but then we should see the upper edge of the two horizontal window sills, unless that partition is paper thin.

And, if the forward columns echo the arches that are behind them, then our POV would be left of center. But the tiles on the roof give us a POV that is dead center.

Though, of course, it's quite appropriate to have mysterious architecture framing a supernatural event (i.e. the ghost of St. Francis floating in the air)

The figure disposition completes the picture of Giotto’s efforts to create a convincing space which itself stresses the flat reality of the wall. It is the p1anar distribution of the figures that prevents the one obliquely set exterior from bursting through the composition of ‘St. Francis Repudiating his Father’ in which it occurs. The knife edge of the solid block simultaneously centres all attention on the figure of the Saint and is blunted, and held back by it. On either side the line of figures holds the plane against the spatial pull of the receding cornices. These same cornices fit ideally into the curved frame of the lunette, allowing the decorative surface to be filled completely. This probably provides a partial explanation of this isolated use of the extreme oblique construction.

In his chapters on Giotto, White has focused his discussion on the disposition of the architectural box. Is it frontal, or some degree of oblique?

But there are several other interesting anomalies - in this case, the tiny size of doorways that makes the people in front of them seem to be giants, and the enjoyable suggestion of the empty volume within that upper courtyard.

And it's fun to compare this design with the one at Assisi on the same theme:

The figures of Francis and his father and the supporting cast are basically the same, but the architecture behind them is quite different. At Assisi, the opposing blocks of houses echo the opposing groups of people, while at Florence, the massive palace in the background brings them together.

There are, apart from the constant use of the Paduan softened oblique setting, two other interesting features in the architecture of the scenes in the Peruzzi Chapel. The first is the strong cutting of the buildings by the upper border of the frame in both the ‘Zacharias in the Temple’ and in the ‘Birth and Naming of the Baptist’.

White does not elaborate upon this movement away from complete enclosure.
(and BTW - the frame does NOT appear to be cutting the building in the Birth of the Baptist)

In ‘The Resurrection of Drusiana’,Giotto tries, for the first time, to emancipate the idea of space from the tyranny of the solid.

In this fresco a varied, but unbroken wall stretches continuously, in soft recession to the left, from one side of the composition to the other. At neither side is there any indication that the wall comes to a stop, or that its ends lie just outside the frame. Space is no longer extended beyond the limits of the composition only by the movement or the cutting of the figures, or by the amputation of a few protuberances from a central architectural mass. Space no longer comes to an abrupt end with the block-like building to which it clings. No one can tell how far the wall runs on.

It is also significant that its softly receding continuity allows the domed basilica and the twin gate-towers to resume the spatially strong extreme oblique construction with complete success. Their interconnection is established, and their potentially aggressive quality calmed by the continuity of the wall.

A similar maturity is present in the crowds which flank the miracle. They are, for the first time, composed of individuals. Like the architecture they have been coordinated, not congealed into a block.

Giotto does seem to have picked up on that more urbane, neo-classical Florentine vibe.

This is his one painting that most resembles the work of Masaccio.

Before leaving this brief chapter, I do have to point out the above, my favorite Giotto painting at Sta Croce. (and I still remember it, even though it's been 40 years since I was in Firenze )

(Though, there's nothing remarkable about the architectural rendering, I suppose)

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