Seminal Trecento: Art Theory and Practice

Luca Palozzi

Ambrogio Lorenzetti: Pope Boniface VIII receiving St Louis of Toulouse as a Novice (detail), fresco. Siena, Basilica of San Francesco

This project seeks to contextualise art-making in the highly interconnected knowledge society of the fourteenth century, characterised by contiguity between artists and makers, in general, with intellectuals and 'scientists.' The Trecento was a time of experiments. Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted for the Franciscans in Siena a storm of hail and thunderbolts so furious that (in Lorenzo Ghiberti's words), "pare a vederla dipinta pericoli il cielo e la terra." His surviving works confirm that Lorenzetti was interested in the depiction of natural elements–a hotly debated issue in ancient writings on the arts–and suggest that he positively engaged in the study of his surrounding world. The dark eyes-blue eyes ratio, for example, is inverted in his paintings, hardly a fortuitous incongruity at a time when eye colour was debated by physicians, writers and poets both in the East and West. Giovanni Pisano, for his part, carved tracks on the base of one of two marble lions in his pulpit for Pisa cathedral, betraying both his skills in terms of analytical observation (the tracks are to size to a real lion's), direct knowledge of medieval bestiaries, and possibly also some form of mediated knowledge of the ancient anecdote in which the Greek sculptor, Phidias, gauged the size of a lion by looking at one of its claws. Giovanni, Tino di Camaino and Taddeo Gaddi experimented with different methods to portray natural light, fire and smoke in their respective media of relief carving and painting; these representational challenges had already been discussed by Pliny and other ancient authorities. This project enquires whether Trecento artists had any access to popularized or excerpted/partial versions of such ancient sources, as well as to the musings on the arts by their contemporaries, and knowledge produced by other branches of contemporary thought, e.g., medicine, botany, and optics. If so, learning to what extent this impacted art production would be of great scholarly value.


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