of John White's "Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space.
Quoted text is in YELLOW.
Text quoted from other authors is in GREEN)
Late Fourteenth-century Painting and the
Meaning of the Picture
Qne of the most important developments in recent surveys dealing with minor artists, and particularly with those working in the late fourteenth century, has been the replacement of a largely negative attitude by one that is thoroughly positive. Unfortunately for the present study, the varied interests and achievements of these painters lie predominantly in fields other than those of spatial realism and perspective innovation. At times they have, indeed, been credited with inventions which do not exist.
White, exemplifying an academic in the modern science centered university, thinks of painters as research engineers whose designs can be considered innovative regarding a variety of separate, technical issues.
So spatial realism in paintings can be considered just as independently as navigational systems in airplanes.
The most intriguing of these mythical monsters, inverted perspective, largely deriving from such scenes as that of ‘St. Mary Magdalen’s Journey to Marseilles’ in the Lower Church at Assisi, is based on the idea of systematic diminution towards, instead of away from the spectator. The difficulty is that the variations in figure scale are neither dependent on any spatial relationship within the composition nor upon the relationship of the scene as a whole to the observer. The deciding factor is invariably the importance which, for one reason or another, is attached to each particular figure. The impossibility of finding any systematic diminution away from the principal figure in the composition is of some importance. It illustrates the general truth that in Italian art all deviations from a naturalistic diminution away from the spectator, other than for purely decorative reasons, are due to the intervention of a hierarchic scale based on the importance of the person or object represented, and not upon any principle of optical inversion.
In his footnotes, White further details how the size of the figures in the above scene is proportional to importance rather than distance, but without a further explanation of the narrative, how can relative importance be a factor?
It's a dream-like scene that is even more bizarre since it is floating in a vault up near the ceiling.
The painter of this unusual fresco, the Master of Magdalen Chapel, is, nevertheless, one of the three closest followers of Giotto, the other two being the Master of the Early Life of Christ, working in the north transept of the Lower Church, and, last but not least, Taddeo Gaddi. It is a significant confirmation of the position the oblique setting held in Giotto’s art, and in his vision of nature, that it is used consistently by all three artists. With a couple of minor exceptions, the foreshortened frontal setting does not appear at all.
The many variations on the oblique construction are, however, indiscriminately used for compositional purposes and do not reveal a pattern of development in any new direction, except, perhaps, in the case of the extreme oblique design of Taddeo Gaddi’s ‘Presentation of the Virgin’
In this fresco a tall-columned temple, standing on a high, complex base containing several flights of steps, juts forwards from a spatial inlet formed by similarly constructed flanking buildings. But although the only structure architecturally isolated from the main mass is the small building on the left, the impression given is rather of a series of coordinated solids than of a single heavy block.
The reappearance of this design in the work of Pol de Limbourg underlines the fact that both the northern miniaturists and the countless minor Italian painters turned to sophisticated, yet not too monumentally inclined artists such as Taddeo Gaddi; to men who combined structural conservatism with ever increasing naturalism of detail.
The extreme oblique setting, as the most obviously powerful and direct way of achieving architectural realism, remained, throughout the century, one of the stock patterns for artists unable to understand, or simply disinterested in, its later transformations and refinements.
Even handicapping it for its damaged areas, this still is an awkward painting whose only value appears to be how it shows, by contrast, the success of the better paintings in Giotto's style.
Where is the "ever increasing naturalism of detail"?
The concentration on a single pattern, that of the oblique setting, which was seen in the work of Giotto and his most important followers, was never a feature of the output of minor, provincial, or derivative artists. It is likewise foreign to the majority of painters working in the second half of the fourteenth century. The return to a mixture of patterns, similar to that found at Assisi and in Rome during the earliest stages of the late thirteenth century revolution, is, at the later date, a reflection of a less intense observation of nature, as well as of the confluence of the Sienese and Florentine artistic streams during the thirteen,forties.
Or perhaps it's a reflection of a preference for a different kind of feeling for the world.
By the end of the century, an artist such as Lorenzo Monaco, although largely uninterested in the problems of pure naturalism or of spatial realism, is among the most important in these very respects because of his technical power and high aesthetic sensitivity. It is this sensitivity that leads Lorenzo Monaco to a differentiation in his use of patterns which, though more abrupt, is reminiscent of the Chinese practice. All the distant towns and buildings, necessarily small in relation to the picture surface, are seen in the sharpest of extreme oblique settings and usually have a doll’s-house delicacy and certainty of structure. On the other hand, those buildings which fill the frame, particularly in fresco painting, are presented in foreshortened frontal setting.
I'd tend to agree that Lorenzo is "uninterested in the problems of pure naturalism or of spatial realism", but why is that more true of him than the artists White has already mentioned?
The architectural rendering in the above scene seems as realistic as all the others.
Perhaps he is considered backward because his world feels more Christian than neo-Platonic.
The slackening, and even reversal of the acceleration towards realism, which are characteristic of the painting of the last half of the fourteenth century, are reflected not only in the individual scenes, but also in the architectural framework which surrounds them. The framing of a panel or a fresco is amongst the most important factors in establishing the relationship between real and painted space. It may serve to magnify their separation, or to blend them yet more closely into one another. It is therefore worthwhile to consider for a moment what has happened to this framework within which so much had been achieved during a century and a half of turbulent activity.
In some situations the distinction between real and painted space is a matter of life and death. Is there really a tiger in the room, or just a painting on the wall?
But aesthetically there is no need to distinguish them.
The eye, searching a space for an imaginative/aesthetic experience does not need to notice where the real architecture ends and the painted illusion begins.
It's just that in modern times it's very rare for paintings to be designed for specific spaces, so usually one needs to look at a painting to the exclusion of everything that surrounds it.
The first steps towards the conquest of the barriers between reality and art are already taken by Cimabue in the heavy cornice, with cowered underside and supporting consoles used to emphasize the spatial unity of choir and transepts at Assisi. The plasticity of this painted architecture is in noticeable contrast to the tapestry like framing of the individual frescoes. Like the similar features used to support the massive ribbing of several of the vaults, it is intimately connected with the real architecture of the church. In the latter case there is the obvious supporting function. In the other an attempt is made to nullify the break caused by the encircling passage, and to push back the lower wall, so that the whole surface may appear to run on upwards, broken only by a bold, projecting ledge.
Isn't it a lot quicker, and therefore also much less expensive, to paint the illusion of architectural detail than to actually carve those details into stone?
Wouldn't that be the strongest incentive to "break the barriers between reality and art" in situations where the prestige of the more labor intensive materials was not required ?
Both in Cimabue’s work and in the subsequent framing of the St. Francis cycle in the nave, it is quite difficult to tell where painted mouldings give way to the real stonework of the diaper-patterned cornice which lies just below the passage.
Perhaps such faux-architecture is more appropriate for a building designed for a widely dispersed community based on fervent belief rather than locality (like the municipal cathedrals built in the previous centuries).
Even more striking is the clear equation, in the southern transept, of monumental, painted archangels, who stand behind an actual arcade and angelic half length figures above them, framed by an arcade which is this time only painted.
In a Gothic cathedral, this would all be carved in stone.
How well the space has been designed is, unfortunately, impossible to tell with the tiny image that was all I could find on the internet.
The element of architectural illusionism is intensified in the nave, despite the bay-by-bay. perspective. The monumentality and plasticity of the architecture grows. The added depth of the colonnade makes the pushing back of the pictorial surface of the lower wall more thoroughgoing than before. Spatial illusionism is cut short, however, before it reaches the pictorial scene of action. The immediate framing of each composition is a pair of flat, patterned colour bands. The latter separate the narrative from the architectural illusion. They at once assert the flat reality of the wall, proclaiming the depicted scene to be indeed a picture and no more. These separation bands make every scene appear as a flat tapestry stretched out between the solid-seeming architectural forms. As yet pictorial space itself has no illusionistic quality.
"No illusionistic quality"?
Each of these bays suggests a shallow stage set with props and costumed human figures, so the viewer feels some kind of spacial illusion.
The purposeful nature of the coloured separation bands seems to be shown aleady at Assisi by the selective way in which they are applied. All the narrative scenes, both in the transepts and in the St. Francis Legend, are surrounded by them. In the niches of the angels in the transepts , and of the saints upon the soffit of the entrance arch, however, nothing intervenes between the painted figure and the painted architectural frame. It seems as if a higher degree of illusionism was considered possible for the single pictures of the saints or angels in their niches than for complex scenes containing architectural and landscape features, and carrying associations both of time and place.
An alternative explanation would be that frames (i.e. the painted bands) are used to mark the edges of a window onto an imaginary world.
Just like the Virgin and Child shown above (from an 11th C. Spanish church), the angels in the niches are present in the church itself, but not because they fool the eye into believing that they are actually there.
The highly stylized figures are more like pictographs than illusions.
In the single figures, whether considered as real presences or as lifelike statuary, there is no element of contradiction in their appearance all together in a single building.
Some churches don't have any imaginary picture windows, and worshipers seeing these picture windows for the first time might have been surprised, happily or otherwise.
In the work of Giotto and his immediate followers the situation is more complicated, and its interpretation more exciting. The conclusions reached carry a new conviction, since there is more evidence that bears on the elucidation of the artist’s purpose and ideas.
At Padua the architectural framework of each wall is surrounded by a plain red band. This functions as a neutral strip, drawing attention to the fact that this is painted architecture on a flat wall, and not solid marble.
Yes it does - if that's what you're looking for.
Otherwise, it just defines forms in an overall rhythmic scheme.
A similar, neutral, surrounding strip occurs already in the entrance arch of S. Francesco, where the tiers of niches ‘float’ between the ribs of the real architectural structure. The differential use of separation bands in the Paduan architectural framework elaborates exactly those distinctions visible in the different parts of the Assisi decorative scheme. The frescoes of ‘The Life of Christ’ in the middle and bottom registers are all surrounded by the twofold decorative bands.
These do not appear, on the other hand, in the niches of the grisaille figures of Virtues and Vices, nor in the realistic painted chapels flanking the entrance to the choir . They are similarly dispensed with in ‘The Last Judgement’, which fills the entrance wall, and in the scenes of ‘The Early Life of the Virgin’ forming the uppermost row of frescoes on the side walls .
Yes, the virtues and vices are framed by framed by faux architectural features, but those features (imitation marble etc) appear to lie just as flat as that red band, while the figures of virtues and vices appear to be that kind of sculptural relief which has an illusionistic quality of its own - i.e. it appears to project further into space than it really does.
Does anyone, besides White, really care whether a flat, horizontal band on the wall has been painted to represent the face of a stone block, or nothing more than just a painted stripe?
Nor are they present in ‘The Annunciation’ which occupies the entire upper part of the triumphal arch. All these scenes are therefore framed essentially in the manner which became the rule in the succeeding century. The distinction in degree of realism has been extended into the area of the history compositions themselves. Now, scenes which stand alone or occupy the entire area of a wall, and scenes placed at the top of a surface shared by several compositions are given a degree of realism formerly confined to single figures in their individual niches. The flatness of the pictured scene is no longer emphasized in the same way, and, whenever the position of the fresco allows the conflict with its neighbours to be minimized, the absence of the separation bands permits the architecture to become a window looking out into a new reality. It is no longer a picture frame, bounding an impenetrable decorative surface.
Byzantine mosaics are also usually framed by their architectural setting.
In an earlier chapter it was seen that in the individual frescoes Giotto was changing and developing his pictorial method as he worked. The present analysis of the function of the frame in the Arena Chapel shows that his conception of the relation between picture and spectator, together with his whole idea of the significance of the pictorial surface, was also in a state of flux. The flatness and non-reality of the decorative scheme as a whole is asserted by the neutral bands which isolate its major units.
The decorative bands are no less an architectural feature when they are made with paint and brush rather than stone and chisel.
The onlooker sees before him painted walls. Yet this indication of the actual nature of the decoration is not in any way obtrusive. Only the most observant notice it at all, and as the spectator focuses his attention on the individual scene the illusion of a marble framing is allowed to work upon him. He is, in fact, free to see the entire decoration of the chapel now as space, and now as plane. And when he chooses to see space, he is allowed, according to the logic of the situation, to see sometimes a painted scene on a flat surface emphasized by coloured separation bands that run within the marble frame, and sometimes a new world that opens out beyond the wall—a world partly dependent on his own, but not as yet a mere extension of it.
I wonder whether this tension between flat surface and depth is as important to art academics in the post-modern era?
In Sta. Croce, under the influence, possibly, of the more assertive forms of the real architecture, Giotto makes a firm choice between the possibilities implicit in the Paduan scheme. Here are no floating panels, no flat, neutral bands. The painted architecture now supports the plastic elements of the actual structure of the church. The realism of the painted marble surrounds the onlooker completely. There is no labouring of the structural logic. Neither is there the assertion that what looks like marble is but paint. The onlooker is now completely free to think of the appearance as the actual thing.
Has any sane person ever thought that the painting of an apple was the actual apple itself?
Within this ‘marble’ framework there is here the same distinction as at Padua between the pictures with their separation bands, which occupy the lower surfaces , and the realities which are seen through the architectural framing of the large lunettes that top the walls. Similarly, no separation bands insist on the non-plastic, pictorial nature of the saints within their niches. The same distinction is systematically applied throughout the frescoes by Taddeo Gaddi in the Baroncelli Chapel, and by the Master of the Magdalen Chapel at Assisi, as well as in the transepts of the Lower Church. In Gaddi’s case the illusionist intention of the architectural framework is confirmed by the small, realistically lighted inlets in the marble socle, which, with their simple, still-life objects, are the forerunners of the fifteenth-century intarsia cupboards.
The paintings with window frames are no more or less real than those without.
But they do summon the viewer to ignore the rest of the church's interior, and look into a special world of the imagination - much like the framed art in a museum gallery.
Without those frames, the viewer's mind is kept inside the church which is itself an imaginative world of which the painted images are particular details.
This developing conception of the picture is accompanied, as has been seen, by the increasing use of oblique settings within the individual composition. There is, at the same time, a firmer placing of the onlooker on whose position the appearance of the contents of the scenes, as well as of their framing, is now definitely dependent. At this point the blending of the real and the pictorial worlds is already far advanced.
The final stage before the advent of perspective theory can be seen in Maso’s frescoes in Sta. Croce in which the separation bands have completely disappeared.
Aren't there bands of ornamentation that completely frame the above painting?
Would they do so any less if they were stripes of solid color, as shown above?
A similarly complete conception of the picture frame as a window into space is to be seen in Jan van Eyck’s Van der Paele altarpiece. The contemporary frame is foreshortened so as to form a plastic window ledge with its orthogonals continued inwards by the foreshortened pavement of the actual picture space.” Although the panel dates from 1436, the construction of pictorial space is still a matter for empirical approximation, not the application of a unified system.’ In the north, as well as in Italy, the new idea of pictorial reality is expressed in practice well before the evolution of a mathematical theory. The fundamental change is carried forward hand in hand with the developments within the composition which were previously discussed. The same great artists were responsible both for the detailed growth and for the general change in values.
Why has White jumped a century ahead to look at a Van Eyck frame which serves the same function as the 14th century frame shown above? (Duccio)
It is no contradiction that the new ideas remained restricted to a relatively narrow circle. The existence of Giotto’s figure style is not disproved because its meaning was not understood for a full hundred years. There can be no doubt that the majority of craftsmen and minor artists still painted on wall and panel, and still thought of their artefacts in the same way as their medieval forbears. There is a similar contrast between the ideas of the artistic leaders and those of their minor and provincial followers in first century Pompeii and in fifteenth century Italy. Cennino Cennini throws little or no light on the meaning of the fourteenth-century picture surface. His silence has no positive value, for he shows a similar backwardness in his advice about perspective.
‘And always use this method for buildings: that the cornices which you make at the top of the building fall down towards the shadow below; the cornices in the middle of the building, half-way up the surface are even and level; the moulding of the base of the building runs upwards from below, in the opposite way to the upper cornices which hang down."
Such instructions do scant justice to the perspective subtleties of Giotto and Maso and the Lorenzettis.
If only Cennnini had advised artists to make the horizontal edges of buildings recede ever so slightly even in full frontal view.
Assuming that the history of art, like the history of science, is the story of an ever-progressing, ever-more-accurate, body of knowledge, then yes, Cennino Cennini's
How-to-paint book is backward, as it described how things had been, rather than might better be, done.
Though one might notice, in the only painting now attributed to him, he places elements of the carved frame on top of a painted figure, a rather forceful way of pushing the pictorial space beneath the surface of the panel, and one that has not appeared in any of the paintings White has yet shown us.
Turning from the question of pictorial framing back to that of compositional content, it is on three artists working in North Italy during the last quarter of the fourteenth century, namely Altichiero, Avanzo, and Giusto de’ Menabuoi, that attention must be focused in order to discover the most interesting developments in spatial design. It seems to be unlikely that these three artists, the one a Veronese, the second Paduan, and the last a Florentine who settled in the North, have any of them a direct historical connection with events in Florence in the early fifteenth century. The analysis of their achievement does, however, help towards an understanding of the explosion in spatial realism which was touched off by the invention of artificial perspective.
Altichiero’s great fresco of ‘The Crucifixion’ in the chapel of S. Felice in the Santo at Padua was probably painted by 1379. This scene marks the highest achievement of this group of artists in the realm of landscape. The spreading of the unified design across three column separated bays recalls the similar treatment of the tripartite Gothic panel in Pietro Lorenzetti’s ‘Birth of the Virgin’. Although the conventional, constructed rock forms show that it is not a landscape in the new Sienese manner, the variety of grouping and movement, and the skillful use of horsemen to increase the crowd’s extension into depth and also to carry the design well up the surface of the wall, combine to give a real feeling of outdoor space. The impression is increased by the deep, and unusually realistic architectural coulisses which run far into the distance upon either wing. Finally, the oblique construction of the architecture accommodates the scene to the roving eye of the spectator as it moves across the three bays of the wall, whilst a culvert in the foreground confirms the impression that the painted world continues forwards and downwards beyond the lower border, as well as out to either side. The non-naturalistic landscape detail and the contrasting realism of the buildings reveal the essentially architectural basis of Altichiero’s sense of space.
By way of comparison, here's Giotto's crucifixion from the Arena Chapel.
Altichiero da Zevio gives us a much larger stage, in three-screen cinerama as it were, and as White notes, it projects forward as well as backward. While Giotto uses a close-up to magnify the emotions of the actors.
White doesn't mention it, but I think Altichiero's great achievement is incorporating the complex architectural frame into his design.
"Presentation at the Temple"
"St. George Drinking the Poison" is just to the left of the left window.
Oratory of St. George, Padua
A similar foundation is even more apparent in the work of Jacopo Avanzi and of Giusto de’ Menabuoi.
The fresco of ‘The Presentation in The Temple’ , in which Avanzo elaborates the architectural design of his signed ‘Funeral of St. Lucy’, also in the Chapel of St. George beside the Santo, reveals the essential qualities of his approach to spatial realism. The characteristic elaboration of imitative architectural detail is here accompanied by a determined inwards thrust, particularly on the left. The sense of nearness, and of the onlooker’s inclusion in the event is, on the other hand, less emphasized than in the scenes such as that of ‘St. George Drinking the Poison’, which takes place in a small, and only partly visible courtyard opening out from an elaborate Gothic cloister. In spite of this relatively self-contained quality, the scene of ‘The Presentation’ still appears to be seen from close at hand. In the degree of realism, and the extent of the spatial movement, there is no parallel for such a composition in Tuscan art before the coming of theoretical perspective.
What a strange looking chapel!
The walls are stuffed with images of architecture, and the upper story has been so truncated, it makes the characters beneath appear to be giants.
And although the architectural drawing creates a deep interior space, the figures feel flat and comical against it.
The entire effect is as if the pages of a comic book have been made big and plastered onto a wall, quite a let down compared with Giotto's work that's only a few blocks away.
There is such an emphasis on buildings, I wonder why Norris Kelly Smith didn't discuss this cycle.
Perhaps because however great the interest in the depiction of architecture, it's the overall aesthetic effect that makes a painting worth writing about.
The only comparable designs are the work of the last member of the northern trio, Giusto de Menabuoi, who was working during the seventies on the decoration of the cathedral baptistery.
The artist’s forceful approach to architectural space is witnessed by the fresco of ‘The Feast at Cana’ in which the depth of the interior is reiterated time and again by the orthogonals on the left. Its precise extent is measured out by the monotonous sevenfold accent of the seated figures ranged in depth. The limits of the cluttered central floor space are shown through the careful disposition of the gaps that open up between the figures of the servitors.
That "careful disposition of gaps" also participates in a rhythm of volumes in space, from the P.O.V. on the far right, across the wine jars, through the servitors, into the line of disciples, and against the wall openings behind them.
What are those two fellows directly in front of the viewer doing?
They seem to be sampling and discussing the wine, while paying no attention to the Son of Man and his mother seated at the table behind them.
In some scenes, such as ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’, the whole interior is filled by a seething crowd. But even then, a row of heads, as if of soldiers on parade, runs down the side wall to ensure that the spatial content is not lost on the beholder.
Smith discussed this painting in his chapter on The Two Allegiances
He wrote: "Although by means of perspectival orthogonals Giusto has created a deeper room than any that Giotto defined, he has no perspective in regard to his subject - that is to say, he has taken no stand, assumed no standpoint toward the issues involved in the massacre"
Looking at that image again, I think there is a stance, although it's a very cynical one that suggests that such behavior is business as usual. The soldiers who are prominently featured seem to be fine, upstanding nobles rather than crazed, dehumanized butchers.
The deep, but crammed, stage in both of these paintings creates a space that's hard to escape from. The figures seem to be getting pushed off the wall.
It makes more sense as part of the entire wall that glorifies the Virgin and Child.
In other frescoes, grandiose, vaulted architectural schemes, cut short by the intervention of the frame, are used to create impressive space. In ‘The Feast at Cana’ itself, only the left- hand wall and a small part of the back wall can be seen before the room is cut from view. The considerable depth of the pictorial space is established by the emphasis on recession, and the sideways extension of the banqueting hall is left to the imagination.
Menabuoi’s obvious weaknesses as a landscape painter, and his tendency to abrupt transitions into the realm of popular imagery, are thrown into increased relief by the growing control of internal and external architectural space revealed in the Belludi Chapel in the Santo, which he decorated in 1383.
Where did Menabuoi paint a landscape?
Where is one of those "abrupt transitions into popular imagery"?
And where is the evidence that his control of architectural space was growing?
What White does not mention is the distinctive character of the St. Anthony Basilica.
It's been over 30 years since I stood in it, but I still remember the intensity of the child-like sense of veneration, for which the Menabuoi frescoes seem appropriate.
The vast crowd filling the piazza in ‘The Martyrdom of St. James’ is convincing in the extreme. There is no piling up of heads over the surface, and the imagination is free to accept the continuation of the mass of figures far into the distance. The portrait quality of the architecture is enhanced by its convincing scale. The sense of recession, conveyed by the orthogonals receding arch on arch into the distance, particularly in the magnificent edifice on the left, is more typical of the 1430’s than the 1380’s. The perspective remains empirical, and there are still uncertainties in detail. But in what has been attempted the artist reveals precisely that spirit which was to flourish to the full under the impact of a systematic method of creating space.
How would this scene look any better if all the orthogonals converged to a single vanishing point ?
Concerning those "uncertainties in detail", White explains that: "The mouldings of the pillars supporting the arches in the building on the right run upwards far too steeply, while the crowns of the arches and the line of windows above are almost horizontal, so that there is little co-ordination with the falling recession of the building on the left"
But try as I might --- I just can't see what he's talking about.
What I think is remarkable about the architecture is that he shows the verticals leaning towards the center, which has the viewer looking up from his position down the piazza.
The same spirit shows itself in the great Gothic interior, crowded with figures, which contains the scene of St. Philip Exorcising a Devil’. The huge central hail extends above, and out to either side beyond, the boundaries of the frame with which its wide Gothic arches are in such close harmony. The alignment of the figures carries the spatial play of the, architecture into the crowd which it encloses. The sense of a great, echoing space, teeming with life, is achieved as never before.
The fact that such explosions of originality in the creation of pictorial space could occur in the Italy of the 1370’s and 1380’s is highly significant. In a period generally characterized by economic and political tension, and by artistic uncertainty and even stagnation, there was a siow combustion of ideas, which finally burst into flame, fanned by the favourable conspiracy of events in Florence in the early fifteenth century.
Regretfully, no image of "St. Philip" exorcising the Devil" could be found on the internet today, so I've had to post the rather miserable image from the book.
What I find interesting about Menabuoi is that he shows how paintings can display a deep, convincing architectural space without the geometrics of linear perspective.
Regarding the subject of this chapter, beginning with Giotto, there does seem to be emerging paintings as windows on the world, with the frame functioning like the proscenium of a stage. Over the following centuries, many painters will make that imaginary world will feel more like a real world and less like a puppet theater, or at least they'll make the puppets feel more real.
Some followers of Giotto make more elaborate architectural props on that stage, and Menabuoi makes the stage feel deeper.
White suggests that it's important whether a fresco is framed by painted ornamentation or by the actual architecture of the building itself, but the examples that he offers don't convince me that it makes any differenc