Duecento (Innovation and Tradition)

by Dave

Do we know yet what impact the current pandemic might have on the art of the future? The Black Death of twelfth-century Italy caused new styles of art to emerge. At the same time, some individual artists deliberately called back to more archaic artistic styles. This article explores why artistic styles began to change at this time in history.

Consider the issue of innovation and tradition. Is there a reversion to early Duecento types in the wake of the Black Death? Or does this deliberate archaizing occur during the late Duecento and into the early Trecento? Is the Classicism of the Trecento a form of archaizing, given that the style looks back to Antiquity?

A New Style – Humanism in Duecento

The icons of the Duecento were in Byzantine style. They had the customary tilted head, front-facing, gold background, and lack of perspective. The careers of Giotto, Duccio, and the Lorenzetti brothers, to name a few were significant. The rise of Humanism signaled the shift of style to a more naturalistic, emotive, and spatially consistent look. Giotto, and artists like him, became the new standard in the early Trecento. This is because contemporaries and art historians from Vasari to the present day praised them. However we must take into account the tumultuous years before the plague. This led historians to question whether the effects of Humanism on art survived the wave of catastrophes. There is not a full reversion to the early forms of art, instead there is some deliberate archaizing.

A Return to Duecento Styles

There is archaizing both before and after the plague. The classicism from the Trecento is deliberate archaizing, with style that is from antiquity. We are defining archaizing as deliberately utilizing older style elements. They may have been deliberately using an older style. This is because the Byzantine style would legitimize power and it seems more iconic.

The altarpiece Annunciation painted by Simone Martini. Martini painted it in 1333. However, there are Byzantine elements, specifically the gold punch work and hard ovoid faces. This is because this was the second altarpiece in a collection of the Transept Chapels in the Siena Duomo. This is an example from before the plague of deliberate archaizing on Martini’s part. This would be in order to echo the style of earlier painting to provide a unified program.

In Orsanmichele in Florence an icon of the Madonna and child by Bernardo Daddi was created in 1347. This icon was actually the third iteration. This is because it was repainted after the 2nd one in order to have a more Byzantine style. This was deliberate archaizing. Because the function of the piece was an icon, so they wanted it to be of the style of Duecento. Also it was not just an original icon but a deliberate remake of an older original. These two examples together show that there was deliberate archaizing occurring both before and after the plague.

Example of Using Duecento Style

In Orsanmichele, the architects created the tabernacle that housed the icon with money from after the Black Death. The sculpture is very naturalistic, especially on the drapery around the painting. Including in the Dormition, the robes and the volume of the figures are very naturalistic. This is even though the background is mosaic and unnatural. The scene Birth of the Virgin is reminiscent of the scene from Pietro Lorenzetti’s Birth of the Virgin before the plague. Also the Annunciation is very similar to Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s painting of the same title.

The tabernacle made after the plague used works from before the plague. This means that the style of before the plague was still important and powerful imagery. This shows that the Black Death did not reduce the naturalism. This is because the artists after the plague created the sculpture more naturalistic than the painting of the icon done before. This is only because of deliberate archaizing in this specific case.

Changing the Iconic Style

The tradition of the style of the icon as Byzantine remains largely unchanged through the Trecento and unchanged by the Black Death. However artists innovate even in deliberately archaized works.

Even in a painting that is focused on the iconic Byzantine traditional style, utilizes innovation from the Giotto/naturalism era of the early Trecento. This means that the older style from this painting is a function of its function, not because it was painted after the Black Death.

Also different functions: icons are necessarily less naturalistic than narrative scenes b/c of their function, not because the artist was unable to do naturalistic forms.

Another Example

The pilgrims passing through Siena to Rome for indulgences stayed in the Ospedale and so it held a lot of power in the city, even enough to rival the influence of the Duomo. Also, after the events of the plague, the Ospedale in Siena grew in power and wealth from donations of money and land from grateful survivors. Artists decorated the frescoes inside in the Salla dell Pellegrinaio in 1441 and told the history of the hospital and the services performed inside. Ospedale in Siena uses Roman columns and architecture to bolster their claim of being a Roman city.

Even though the architects included Roman columns, the dominant style is naturalistic. The scenes from the Caring of the Sick are very naturalistic. They aren’t necessarily narrative scenes because there is no story element, but they aren’t icons either. Instead they are meant to be as naturalistic as possible and combined with the specific rooms pictured (rooms from the hospital), it shows how good the hospital is. This shows how the function of the art affects the style chosen.

Discovering Why

Also, arguments could be made for either case: that the events of the plague would lead patrons and artists to paint more naturalistic (because they want their God figures to be relatable to humans that are in need) or more iconic (because they want to believe in the power of their God and want to show respect to Him). The subjective nature of these arguments does not lend credence to any particular one of them. There is examples of works that use naturalism and perspective and works that are awkward or spatially confusing both before and after the plague, a fact Meiss uses to argue for the the decline of art in the years after the plague.

Any observers must be careful not to label a specific style as “good” or “bad”. This is because we can not truly experience these through the eyes of the intended audience or the artists. Artistic style is complicated and doesn’t always originate from from nicely defined causes.

The Affect of the Plague

As an event, the Black Death largely affect Europe during this time in all forms of civilization at the very least through the loss of life. One example being the loss of the Lorenzetti brothers, who were forerunners on the cutting edge of the developing naturalistic style. Had they survived this time, who can know how they would have shaped the art of the time? However, what we do know is that the changes in the style, Humanism and naturalism, beginning in the late Duecento largely continue through the entire Trecento and into the years beyond.

Reminiscing on the Past

For those artists who deliberately archaizing their work, it could be said that they wanted to reach back into the old sacred typologies with the new visual language. Also that they felt cut off from their “dead past”, a yearning that is not unique to this time period. Tuscan art during the Trecento was too complex to characterize it nearly, or for it to align within a linear time frame. However much artists may revisit the past, they will never return completely. Instead they move onward, in this case directly into the Renaissance.