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Mira marmora depicta: the Origin, Development and Significance of Fictive Marble Decoration from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance

Giacomo Guazzini

Giotto: Allegories of Vices and fictive marble decorations, 1303-1305, fresco. Padua, Arena Chapel

The project investigates the complex decorative systems imitating marble which, after an initial diffusion in the classical period, flourished in Italy between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Although this type of decoration is particularly widespread, occasionally yielding such spectacular results as Giotto's Arena Chapel in Padua, critical studies have often treated it as a marginal phenomenon. It therefore seems important to confront the problems of the complex relations set up between aniconic and figurative components, the dynamic relationship between ancient and contemporary models, the significance of materials and the correlation of such features with the actual architecture, modes of perception, the development of framing systems, as well as with specific pictorial techniques and the economic dynamics of artists' working methods.

Starting from a careful selection of exemplary cases in Italy from the Middle Ages to the early Renaissance (13th to 15th century), I shall investigate the classical Roman models rediscovered and freely interpreted by medieval artists. Once again Giotto is responsible for a profound rethinking of decorative systems in light of classical examples as well as those of the recent past and of his contemporaries. These systems became essential for the organisation and completion of figurative elements, with which they came to bear ever closer and more intimate relationships. These decorative ensembles, evoking the most precious and highly prized materials of the time, will be reconsidered in the light of ancient literary and philosophical sources, not only in relation to the significance of specific materials, but also to the context, destination and function for which they were intended, without losing sight of their reception on the part of contemporaries (whether artists, patrons, or lay or ecclesiastical entities). A final aspect will be the ever closer relationship that these decorative schemes developed with their real architectural settings, remodelling or dynamically interfering with them, sometimes achieving complex results that replace or even outdo the real architecture.

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