Painting in the age of Dante: Visions of the Afterlife in Trecento Italian Painting (2) – by Sandra Cardarelli

In this second part of the blog we are looking at the Last Judgement in the Camposanto of Pisa, and we shall see that this cycle became a widely recognised visual narrative in the representation of the afterlife that was replicated elsewhere, including, for example, the Strozzi chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella, the headquarters of the Dominican Order in Florence. While the Camposanto frescoes draw their ethos from the Dominican attitude to the afterlife, they also evoke a more popular tradition later associated with the stories written by Boccaccio (1313-1375) in his Decameron, where the timor mortis contrasts with the attachment to life and its pleasures. 

The Camposanto was the old cemetery of Pisa and was allegedly built on sacred soil transported to the city from the Holy Land after the Third Crusade. The walls of this monumental building are decorated with fresco images that required new pictorial conventions to convey the patrons’ views of the divine, the macabre and the unknown (Figs. 1-2). 

Fig. 1) Pisa, Camposanto, exterior.
Fig. 2) Pisa, Camposanto, interior.

The fresco cycle of the Camposanto comprises of large-size scenes that invite the viewers to reflect and contemplate on the effects of sinful and virtuous behaviours. The illusionism created by the height of the pictorial space and the hierarchical scale of the figures contribute to the construction of a compelling narrative of death that ranges from comic to macabre, as in the Triumph of Death, painted by Buffalmacco c. 1336. The monumental narrative does not overshadow the individual scenes within the image, such as the group of richly dressed young men and courtesans conversing in a lush garden, while angels and demons fight for the souls of the dead (Fig. 3). 

Fig. 3) Buonamico Buffalmacco, Triumph of Death, fresco, detail, c. 1336-41, Pisa, Camposanto. 

Nearby, Buffalmacco’s vision of the Inferno in the Last Judgement shows the damned divided in different circles, each one of them corresponding to the punishment of a sin according to the law of the “contrappasso” (from the Medieval Latin ‘contrapassus’, lit. “suffer the opposite”) (Figs. 4). This was based on the biblical concept of retribution that is indicated by the correspondence of the punishment to the crime, and therefore in inflicting the offender with the same injury he caused to the offended party. Dante talks about this in the 28th chant of Hell when the poet meets Bertran De Born, one of the greatest poets of medieval Occitan, who is held accountable by Dante for his role in the plotting of Prince Henry against his father King Henry II at the English court:

“Because I parted persons so united,
  Parted do I now bear my brain, alas!
  From its beginning, which is in this trunk.
 Thus is observed in me the counterpoise.” (Inf. XXVIII, 139-142).

Fig. 4) Buonamico Buffalmacco, Hell, detail from the Last Judgement, fresco, Pisa, Camposanto. 

The representation of the Last Judgement and Hell in the Camposanto of Pisa is part of a larger cycle that included the Crucifixion (by Francesco Traini, c. 1330), the Resurrection, the Incredulity of St Thomas, and the Ascension of Christ, that along with the image of the Triumph of Death (Fig. 5) and the Thebaid, a moralizing painting with the Stories of the Holy Fathers, were painted by Buonamico Buffalmacco around 1336-1341 (Fig. 6). The scope of these scenes is evident: the devotee was confronted with the suffering and resurrection of Christ, before seeing the transient nature of life on earth and the grim prospect of eternal damnation, followed by the redemptive life of the friars in the desert. The textual sources of these images were likely suggested by Dominican friars, whose preaching was popular in Pisa at the time. These were based on the writings of the Dominican preacher Domenico Cavalca (c. 1270-1342), and Fra Giordano da Pisa (c.1260-1311), who was also a Dominican theologian who preached in the convent of Santa Maria Novella in Florence and was heavily influenced by Dante’s writings. In fact, in their original condition, the frescoes were completed by scrolls with moralizing inscriptions that are now lost, but that came to us thanks to a 19th century transcription:

“Wise soul, if you aim well / 

the future time of divine judgement / 

and the good ones who are elected to Paradise / 

and the offenders damned to eternal torture. 

Your life in the world will be perfect / 

following the virtue, and leaving the vice /

and renouncing everything beloved / 

you will meet with others in heaven who are chosen by God”

Fig. 5) Buonamico Buffalmacco, Triumph of Death, fresco, c. 1336-41,  Pisa, Camposanto.
Fig. 6) Buonamico Buffalmacco, Stories of the Holy Fathers, fresco, Pisa, Camposanto.

In the Last Judgement, Buffalmacco creates a fascinating iconography: at the top Christ and the Virgin are enclosed in colourful Mandorle of divine light and are surrounded by the Apostles (Fig. 7). Christ is not represented as the Judge, but as Christ in Glory, as we have seen in the Bargello chapel in Florence. Below, at the centre, hosts of angels play the trumpets of the Last Judgement, while the Archangel Michael, armed with a sword, separates the worthy from the damned, offering a variation of the apocryphal New Testament according to which Michael was the protector of souls after death and battled the devils over their possession. While saints with golden halos and the blessed pray at the right of Christ, the damned are at his left, where some angels push them towards the mouth of Hell. Sharp hooks that harpoon some of the crowd and pull them towards the door that leads to the circles of Hell, emerge from the rocks (Fig. 8). 

Fig. 7) Buonamico Buffalmacco, Last Judgement, Pisa, Camposanto.
Fig. 8) Buonamico Buffalmacco, Last Judgement, detail.

The Camposanto images became highly influential and the inspirational source behind other Trecento images of the Last Judgement, such as Orcagna’s cycle with the Triumph of Death, the Last Judgement, and Hell in the Franciscan church of Santa Croce in Florence, of which only a few fragments survive, and in the fresco decoration of the Strozzi chapel in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella, also in Florence. Located at the end of the western transept of the church, this was the family chapel of one of the ancient and richest families of Florence: the Strozzi. This chapel was commissioned by the heirs of Rosso di Gerio Strozzi’s (d. 1319) sons Ubertino, Strozza and Marco as the family tomb for their descendants, as detailed in Rosso’s last will of 1317 (Fig. 9). The chapel was later frescoed by Nardo di Cione (c. 1354-57) with a cycle of the Last Judgement, Paradise, and Hell, unfolding around the three walls of the space, which in that strategic position within the church, then led, via a flight of stairs, onto the Chiostro dei Morti (Cloister of the Dead), the oldest cemetery of the convent of Santa Maria Novella. The choice of subject was deliberate: although the chapel was dedicated to St Thomas Aquinas to whom the Strozzi were devoted, the family chose to decorate their private chapel with a cycle on the afterlife. At the time, the city of Florence would have been recovering from the effects of the plague, the Black Death, that had ravaged much of Europe in 1348, thus making the theme of the destiny of the soul after the death of the body particularly cogent. The cycle was carried out when Dante’s Divina Commedia had already been completed over a couple of decades earlier and was becoming known to the cultural and social elites of Florence. 

Fig. 9) Strozzi Chapel, Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

However, the moralizing purpose of the frescoes in the chapel would have been apparent only to selected people, as the chapel was accessible only to members of the Strozzi family, the friars, and occasional visitors connected to the patrons by business or political ties. Endowing and decorating a chapel with pious images was one of the manifold ways to acquire the salvation of the patron’s soul and that of his family. As a wealthy family of bankers, the Strozzi perceptively recognised the importance of patronage in one of the most important Mendicant churches of Florence, and the choice of iconography is revealing of their knowledge of current devotional trends and relevant visual narratives.

 The window that occupies the west wall of the chapel obliged the artist to adapt the iconography of the Last Judgment to suit the reduced space (Fig. 10). Christ is therefore depicted half-length, in a mandorla of golden light and floating on a cloud. Angels are playing the trumpets of the Last Judgment and carry Christ’s instruments of Passion: the Arma Christi. The Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist, flanked by the Apostles, are shown as intercessors with the divine. In the lower section of the fresco there is the crowd awaiting their final destination: on the left, the blessed that will be admitted to Paradise or Purgatory, and on the right the damned who will follow their destiny in the circles of Hell (Fig. 11). As in the chapel of the Podestà in the Bargello, a portrait of Dante has been recognised among the blessed, wearing the hat that has become traditionally associated with him (Fig. 12). The poet had never succeeded in going back to his native city of Florence, but his longing for the motherland was made evident in a chant of Paradise, where the passage with him “taking the hat” was thought by some scholars as a reference to Dante’s wish of being officially recognised as a poet by his fellow citizens, but even more cogently, of his desire to overturn his ban from Florence: 

“If it should happen that this sacred poem—

this work so shared by heaven and by earth,

that it has made me lean through these long years—

can ever overcome the cruelty 

that bars me from the fair fold where I slept,

a lamb opposed to wolves that war on it, 

by then with other voice, with other fleece,

I shall return as poet and put on,

and at my baptismal font, the hat.” (Par. XXV, 1-9).

Fig. 10) Nardo di Cione, Last Judgement, fresco, c. 1354-57, Strozzi Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.
Fig. 11) Nardo di Cione, Last Judgement, Hell.
Fig. 12) Nardo di Cione, Last Judgement, detail with the portrait of Dante Alighieri?

The south wall of the Strozzi chapel features Paradise, with the Virgin and Christ majestically enthroned at the centre and surrounded by those admitted to Heaven (Fig. 13-14). On the opposite wall, the more complex architecture of Hell shows an array of corpses involved in horrific punishments. They appear fashioned on Dante’s descriptions in his Divina Commedia that had become available to wealthy readers through illuminated manuscript copies.

Fig. 13) Nardo di Cione, Last Judgement, Paradise.
Fig. 14) Nardo di Cione, Last Judgement, detail of Paradise with Saints and Blessed.

The images examined in this contribution articulate the concerns of Trecento society about the destiny of the soul after the death of the body. It has been shown through some relevant examples, how the Divina Commedia encapsulated these concerns and gave them voice through the characters that Dante met along his epic journey in the afterlife. The emotional intensity generated by contemporary theological debate and the new spirituality conveyed by the preaching of Mendicant Orders constituted part of the complex cultural environment in which Dante’s Divina Commedia was conceived and written. Societal views and concerns for the afterlife presented in Dante’s and other contemporary writings translated into visual narratives that were shared, replicated, and adapted to suit the needs and beliefs of individuals and groups, and were fostered by patrons in the civic, religious, and lay domains. This blog is intended as a modest contribution to this year’s celebrations for the 7th centenary of Dante’s death, the poet whose name our society bears. It is hoped that these essays will encourage further observations and studies on the relationship between Dante’s poetry and the visual arts across time, and that these celebrations will contribute to promoting cultural exchange and dialogue between cultures.

Further Reading:

Bent, George, Public Painting and Visual Culture in Early Republican Florence (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), 2017.

Brilliant, Virginia, “Envisaging the Particular Last Judgement in Late-Medieval Italy”, Speculum, 84/2 (2009), pp. 314-346.

Frugoni, Chiara, “Cercando il Paradiso (il ciclo di Buffalmacco nel Camposanto di Pisa e la committenza Domenicana), Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, 18/4 (1988), pp. 1557-1643. 

Maginnis, Hayden B.J., Painting in the Age of Giotto (University Park, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania University Press), 1997.

On Dante online:

On Boccaccio online:

Painting in the age of Dante: Visions of the Afterlife in Trecento Italian Painting (1) – by Sandra Cardarelli

The 700th anniversary of Dante’s death (1265-1321), and the forthcoming exhibition organized by the Uffizi Gallery of Florence ”Dante: La Visione dell’Arte” that will be housed in the Musei di San Domenico in Forlì from 12 March to 4 July 2021,  offers us the opportunity to look at the cultural environment that constituted the backdrop to the work of the most iconic Italian poet of all time, and to reflect on how contemporary theological debate and artistic development influenced Dante’s most renowned work, the Divina Commedia, and vice versa. 

The afterlife as the place of abode of the souls of the dead and as the prelude to eternal life after the death of the body, has been a concern of all cultures in all periods of time. Since the 5th century, the iconography of the afterlife was deeply influenced by mythological Greek tales, and in the course of the 14th century, by Dante’s Divina Commedia. From literature to painting, the journey to the afterlife has inspired generations of artists, writers, musicians, philosophers, and theologians. In this first blog contribution we will look at some specific examples of imagery of the Last Judgement that were produced at the time when Dante was writing his Commedia, but we shall also see how Dante himself was influenced by contemporary artists and other prominent figures (Fig. 1). 

Fig. 1) Dante’s House. House on the site of Dante’s birthplace, now the site of Dante’s House Museum, Florence. 

The Last Judgement, that is the destiny of humanity after the end of the world, and the distribution of eternal reward or punishment presided over by Christ, is described in the Old Testament in the Book of Daniel (VII, 13) and in the New Testament in the Synoptic Apocalypse: Matthew (25, 31-46) Mark (13, 24-37) and Luke (21, 25-38). One of the most cogent issues that became the centre of theological debate in the 12th century was the condition of those who died in the grace of God but who were not fully purified. However, it was only with the Council of Lyon of 1274 that Purgatory was sanctioned as doctrine of the Catholic Church. In spite of formal recognition by the church, this fundamental dogma became widely known only after the Jubilee of 1300, and therefore only a few years before Dante undertook the writing of the Divina Commedia, c. 1308. Before then, the iconography of Purgatory was outlined in the Golden Legend, a compilation of hagiographic accounts of the lives of saints that was written by Jacopo da Varazze, Archbishop of Genoa, c. 1260. This highly influential volume was the reference text for generations of artists who sought to portray saintly figures by interpreting the descriptions of the Dominican preacher and theologian. This is how the Golden Legend described Purgatory: 

“In a vision he saw the King of Kings surrounded by all the angels. Then the Virgin of Virgins came forward…the man in camel skin was John the Baptist…All these people had come before the King to thank him for the honour done them by mortals on this day, and to pray for the whole world. Then the angel led the warden to another place and showed him people of both sexes, some reclining on golden beds, others at tables enjoying delicious viands, still others naked and needy, begging for help. This place, the angel said, was Purgatory.”

It was in this cultural climate that Dante wrote the Divina Commedia and gave verbal form to the theological concept of Purgatory discussed in Lyon. Dante’s poem records his epic journey from the darkness of Hell, through Purgatory to finally reach the divine light of Paradise, and the vision of God. The representation of the afterlife in art continued to portray the binary vision of good and bad, sin and virtue, Hell and Paradise, with the vision of Purgatory appearing mostly in illuminated manuscript books until the 15th century (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2) Domenico di Michelino, Dante and his poem, 1465, Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore. The poet is represented between the mountain of Purgatory and the city of Florence. 

In art, passage to the afterlife went through a slow process of change, from the byzantine iconographic tradition to large-scale fresco images. One crucial element in representations of the Last Judgement was Christ depicted as a judge in a Mandorla of light, holding the triumphal Cross and accompanied by the apostles and angels. This “template” representation went through a slow process of characterization whereby the position and form of Christ and the Cross changed shape, position, and importance within the image. 

One of the few surviving 13th century panel paintings with this theme is the Last Judgement painted by the Sienese artist Guido da Siena c. 1280 and now housed in the Museo Archeologico e d’Arte della Maremma in Grosseto. The panel will be part of the Dante exhibition in Forlì this Spring. (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3) Guido da Siena, Last Judgement, tempera and gold leaf on panel, c. 1280, Museo Archeologico e d’Arte Sacra della Maremma, Grosseto.

This image of the suffering Christ on the Cross portrayed with the instruments of Passion—the Arma Christi—is a clear reference to the mystery of Redemption through the example of Christ’s life on earth. The panel shows a Franciscan friar leading a group of the saved in the two separate episodes at the right of Christ, clearly indicating a hierarchy of the saved and providing strong evidence that the Franciscans were likely involved in the patronage of this painting. The inscription that runs across the two angels at the bottom of the Cross recites: “SURGITE MORTUI, VENITE AD IUDICIUM” (Arise ye dead, and come to judgement), a popular shortened admonition originally attributed to St Jerome, that doesn’t follow the usual inscription from Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 25, 34-41): “VENITE BENEDICTI PATRIS MEI POSSIDETE REGNUM […] DISCEDITE MALEDICTI IN IGNEM AETERNUM […] (Come you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom I prepared for you […] Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire […]” (Fig. 4). 

Fig. 4) Guido da Siena, Last Judgement, detail.

The pictorial space under the Cross is divided into four parts. At the bottom right of Christ, dead bodies arise from their coffins, while the group of the saved is led by a Franciscan friar. A lay man and woman followed by a bishop and another friar can be recognised, as they walk behind the leading friar. The group features members of both the religious and lay realms of the community. In the space at the top another group of people are climbing the stairs to be admitted to the presence of Christ, and they are also led by a Franciscan friar, possibly St Francis himself. They are welcomed by St Peter, who stands at the entrance of the kingdom of Heaven. The damned are represented rising from their graves at the left of Christ. Below, as the damned fearfully approach the entrance of Hell, they witness the destiny of those ahead of them, who are consumed by flames and devoured by wild beasts. 

The Franciscans had a long-standing history in Grosseto, as according to records the Order had founded a monastery in the city c. 1220, therefore before the death of St Francis, the founder of the Order, in 1226. The friars’ vision of St Francis as the Alter Christus, and thus as the prime example of redemption through the imitation of Christ’s life, would have informed contemporary imagery commissioned by the friars and their supporters, and the ideals of Franciscan spiritual life were made available to the masses of illiterate people thanks to specific iconographic programmes. The Grosseto panel would have absolved this didactic function and at the same time would have presented the Franciscan friars as those who were able to show the way to salvation.

Concern with the afterlife was not exclusive to specific social or religious groups but also of individual members of the community. In c. 1303 Giotto, the most influential artist of the time, begun the fresco decoration of the Scrovegni chapel (also known as the Arena chapel) in Padua (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5) Giotto, Enrico Scrovegni offers the model of the chapel to the Virgin and other female saints, fresco, c. 1303-5, Scrovegni chapel, Padua.

This cycle proved to have a connection with Dante. Enrico Scrovegni, the patron, was the son of Reginaldo, a member of the Paduan nobility that Dante placed in the inner seventh circle of Hell as the wicked usurer: 

“A Paduan am I with these Florentines;
  Full many a time they thunder in mine ears,
  Exclaiming, ‘Come the sovereign cavalier,

  He who shall bring the satchel with three goats;
  Then twisted he his mouth, and forth he thrust
  His tongue, like to an ox that licks its nose.” (Inf. XVII, 70-75)

Undoubtedly, as a moneylender himself, Enrico Scrovegni built the chapel for the salvation of his soul as well as for the redemption of his father’s sins. The image of Enrico bent on his knee, portrayed in the act of offering the newly built chapel to the Virgin Mary functioned as a stark reminder of the attitude to the afterlife in 14th century Italy. At the Last Judgment Scrovegni is depicted to the right of Christ, among the blessed (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6) Giotto, Last Judgement, fresco, c. 1303-5, Scrovegni chapel, Padua.

Christ is represented at the centre, in the traditional Mandorla, surrounded by the Fathers of the church and hosts of angels. Lucifer, enthroned on a dragon, overlooks the punishment of the damned on the left. The torment that is administered to them is described in detail, as a powerful admonition for the viewers.

Dante’s admiration for Giotto emerges clearly in the 11th chant of the Purgatory, when the poet meets Oderisi da Gubbio, a painter and illuminator from Umbria, who had died in Rome in 1299. In his humble words, Oderisi, who is in the circle of vainglory and pride, talks about the vanity of our achievements on earth, which are never long-lasting, as our talents are surpassed by others, in the same way as Giotto surpassed Cimabue (c. 1240-1302). Cimabue was the first artist to break from the byzantine style, and was considered one of the greatest artists of his time:

“In painting Cimabue thought he held

the field, and now it’s Giotto they acclaim —

the former only keeps a shadowed fame.” (Purg. XI, 103-08)

In the course of the centuries many images of Dante have been painted to celebrate him as one of Florence’s most important poets. One of the earliest and most famous images of Dante is part of the Last Judgement cycle that decorates the chapel of the Podestà in the Bargello palace in Florence (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7) School of Giotto, Portrait of Dante Alighieri?, fresco, c. 1321?, Bargello, Chapel of the Podestà, also known as the Magdalen Chapel, Florence. 

An article authored by E.H. Gombrich that appeared in The Burlington Magazine in 1979 challenged the attribution of the identity of the figure that is represented in the lower right section of Paradise in the chapel as the portrait of Dante. Gombrich’s scepticism was based on the knowledge that Dante, at the time when the frescoes were probably devised and completed (c. 1321), had been exiled from Florence for two decades. This was the time of the struggle between Guelphs and Ghibellines, and at the turn of the Trecento there was fierce fighting between the Neri and Bianchi factions of the Guelphs represented in Florence by the Donati and Cerchi families respectively. Although both factions were supporters of the Papacy, the Bianchi were in favour of the Florentine Signoria and advocated stronger autonomy from the Pope, while the financial and economic interests of the Neri, comprised of Florence’s wealthiest families, tied them to the Pope and granted him de facto control over the internal affairs of the city. These internal struggles ended with the supremacy of the Neri, and the Bianchi started to be exiled from Florence in 1302. Dante, an exponent of the Bianchi, was exiled in March of that year, and never returned to Florence. He moved around Italian courts until his death in Ravenna on 14 September 1321. This is not the place to argue about the likeness of Dante’s portrait in the Bargello, as the date of completion of this image is also still the object of study, but it is important to remember that this profile image with the prominent nose and the typical Florentine hat was replicated in many later representations of the poet by different artists. We can however take this opportunity to mention Dante’s own view of his exile, when in his Divina Commedia, in Paradise, he meets his ancestor Cacciaguida who forecasts his ban from Florence:

“You shall leave everything you love most dearly: 

this is the arrow that the bow of exile

shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste

of others’ bread, how salty it is, and know

how hard a path it is for one who goes

descending and ascending others’ stairs.” (Par. XVII, 55-60)

The Bargello building was originally used to house the Capitano del Popolo of Florence, and in 1261 it became the seat of the Podestà, the highest civic official of the city, and the administrator of civil and criminal justice (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8) Bargello, now a National Museum, but formerly the Palazzo del Popolo (1255-1308) and the Court of Lords (1316-1346).

The fresco cycle of the Last Judgment in the chapel of the Podestà was attributed to the circle of Giotto, and some scholars envisaged that the hand of the master himself might have been at work in parts of the fresco that is now largely lost or damaged. In spite of the lack of relevant documentary evidence, the surviving inscription in the frescoes suggests that at least parts of the decoration of the chapel might have been commissioned by Fidesmino da Varano, Podestà of Florence at the time of his tenure between 1331-1337. 

The chapel, also known as the Magdalen Chapel, because of the images from the saint’s life on the side wall, would have been the location where convicts condemned for the most serious offences received their last rites by the hands of members of the confraternity of S. Maria di Croce al Tempio before their execution. The brethren brought spiritual comfort to the condemned, heard their last confession and administered their last communion. Giorgio Vasari recalled in his Lives of the artists, that Giotto had painted the image of the commune in the guise of a seated judge holding a scale as a symbol of his impartial decisions in the Great Hall of the Palazzo, the place where the accused stood to be judged. The frescoes in the chapel would therefore have presented the condemned with a bleak outlook of the fate of their souls in the afterlife (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9) Bargello, Chapel of the Podestà. 

The vision of Hell occupies the entrance wall of the chapel, while Paradise is shown on the East wall, opposite the entrance, contrary to other traditional representations of Hell and Paradise that flank the left and right sides of the Last Judgement (Fig. 10).

Fig. 10) Bargello, Chapel of the Podestà, Paradise.

The cycle is badly damaged, and in spite of the restauration of 2005, large parts of it are unfortunately lost, and so it is not clear whether the figure of the Christ Judge was depicted above the representation of Hell, although the large portion of wall above the figure of Lucifer lets us assume that this might be the case. In the image of Hell, the central figure of Lucifer holding the damned with both hands surrounded by those condemned to the abyss of eternal damnation is distinctively recognisable (Fig. 11).

Fig. 11) Bargello, Chapel of the Podestà, Hell.

The lateral figures are too damaged to make a hypothetical reconstruction of the missing parts, but it is likely that these were fashioned similarly to the Last Judgement painted by Buonamico Buffalmacco (c.1336-41) on the southern wall of the Camposanto of Pisa, a fresco cycle that we shall examine in greater detail in the second part of the blog (Fig. 12). 

Fig. 12) Buonamico Buffalmacco, Hell, detail of the Last Judgement, c. 1336-41. Pisa, Camposanto. 

In their own peculiar forms and iconographies, the panel painting by Guido da Siena, the fresco cycle in the Scrovegni chapel, and the cycle in the chapel of the Podestà at the Bargello, all show different ways in which the narrative of the afterlife was fashioned and reflected contemporary views on the consequences of virtuous and sinful behaviour. The iconography of the Guido da Siena panel suggests that this was likely the product of the Franciscan mentality, but individual patrons, such as Enrico Scrovegni, and civic governments, such as that of Florence, were all active agents in the dissemination of the redemptive imagery of the Last Judgement. 

Further Reading:

Bent, George, Public Painting and Visual Culture in Early Republican Florence (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), 2017.

Cardarelli, Sandra, “St Francis in Southern Tuscany” in The world of St Francis of Assisi, ed. by Brad Franco and Beth Mulvaney (Siena, 2017), pp. 83-92.

Elliott, Janice, “The Judgement of the Commune: The Frescoes of the Magdalen Chapel in Florence”, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 61/4 (1998), pp. 509-519.

Jacobus, Laura, Giotto and the Arena Chapel: Art, Architecture and Experience (London/ Turnhout, Harvey Miller Publisher), 2008 (revised edition in preparation).

On Dante online:

State and courtly portraiture at the time of the Duchy of Florence (3) – by Sandra Cardarelli

The cultural elite: Laura Battiferrri and Lucrezia Panciatichi

A portrait of poetess Laura Battiferri degli Ammannati (1523-1589) is housed in Palazzo Vecchio, in Florence. She was the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman from Urbino, but she enjoyed a literary education and published several works. Although Battiferri was married in a second marriage to renowned architect and sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati (1511-1592), her fame was achieved solely by means of her literary talent (Fig. 1).

She was one of the few Renaissance women who wrote eclogues, a type of favola pastorale in verse that was popular at that time. One of them was dedicated to the Duke of Florence, Cosimo I, and his wife Eleonora, who were disguised under the names of Alpheus and Galatea, king and queen of shepherds. The story is set in an idyllic landscape tentatively identified by Victoria Kirkham either as the Villa Medici at Poggio a Caiano, or as the Medici residence at Fiesole. Although the position of the sitter is the traditional three-quarter, half-length portrait, Battiferri does not face the viewer, but shows her hard-line profile, a clear reference to Dante’s portrait painted by Bronzino a couple of decades earlier (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 Bronzino, Allegorical portrait of Dante, c. 1530, National Gallery of Art, Washington. (Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Similar to the allegorical portrait of Dante the supreme poet, where he pensively holds a book of his Commedia, also Battiferri clasps an open book in her hands. Contrary to Eleonora of Toledo’s portrait, where the sitter’s hand points towards the tassel at the end of her chain belt, Batttiferri’s holds open the pages of a book with the text of two sonnets by the humanist poet Petrarch (1304-1374), whose Rime were in vogue at the Medici court at the time. The reference to Petrarch in Battiferri’s portrait was deliberate: both Bronzino and Battiferri had exchanged sonnets with each other, and the name Laura lent itself to the literary comparison with Petrarch and his literary love, a woman who was also called Laura.

The plain, dark-grey background gives no suggestion of the environment where Battiferri is sitting, but the subdued tones of grey, black, white, and garnet red contrast with the rich and bold palette of ultramarine blue, gold and red used in Eleonora’s portraits, and confers a sad, almost mournful atmosphere to the painting. As observed by Carol Plazzotta, Battiferri’s portrait is a depiction of Bronzino’s description of the poetess in one of his sonnets, where he declares Battiferri to be “Tutta dentro di ferro e fuor di ghiaccio” (all inside is of iron and the outside is of ice”). Battiferri gravitated to the circle of historian Benedetto Varchi and the artists and scholars of the time that included Bronzino. Bronzino painted several portraits of female members of the Medici family and prominent women of the Florentine elite as models of virtuous behaviour and worthy representatives of family wealth and power. However, Battiferri’s image goes beyond the mere representation of female virtuous demeanour to focus on the sitter’s literary prowess. Bronzino had been rejected by the Accademia Fiorentina, but a change to the academy admission policy in 1549 meant that members could be readmitted on the basis of their publications, and Bronzino was re-admitted in 1566 following the presentation of a codex of lyrics including references to the portrait of Laura Battiferri.

Contemporary ideas on women maintained that their role in society was set within their household, and upheld strong views on the expectations on women’s conduct in the private and public domains. Renaissance humanist, artist and architect Leon Battista Alberti reflected contemporary views on women in his influential books “I Libri della Famiglia”, where he described a highly gendered society. 

Lucrezia Panciatichi’s portrait responds to these ideas and ideals (Fig. 3).

Fog. 3 Bronzino, Lucrezia Panciatichi, c. 1541, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. 

The painting was likely commissioned by her husband, Bartolomeo Panciatichi, a diplomat and humanist at the court of Cosimo I that became a member of the Umidi faction within the Accademia Fiorentina, in 1541. Bartolomeo was born in France and had spent many years residing in Lyon prior to his marriage to Lucrezia Pucci thanks to his father’s position as the director of the most important Florentine bank in that city. Bartolomeo Panciatichi acquired his education in France and was said to have Huguenot sympathies during his early years in Lyon. Accused of possessing banned books, he was summoned by the Inquisition and imprisoned in 1551. Later released, he became a senator and the commissioner for the city of Pisa.

In line with contemporary views on women, Bronzino depicts his female sitters as icons of virtue. Both Laura Battiferrri and Lucrezia Panciatichi wear their nuptial ring. Lucrezia is a learned woman, but contrary to Battiferri, she is shown holding a book of prayers. The wealth and social position of the Panciatichi is clearly conveyed in the representation of Lucrezia’s jewellery: a pearl necklace with an elaborate medallion encased with a central ruby. Another necklace in gold chain bears the inscription “Sans fin amour dure” (Love lasts eternally), another indication of the sitter’s primary role as a faithful wife. A belt of agate buttons and golden beads similar to the one worn by Lucrezia in her portrait, was recorded in the inventory of Cosimo I among other items of jewellery. The belt in the Medici inventory was a wedding present for Camilla Martelli’s daughter Virginia. Camilla was Cosimo I’s second wife, a marriage that was celebrated a few years after the death of Eleonora of Toledo. Cosimo and Camilla had a daughter together, Virginia, who went on to marry Duke Cesare d’Este in 1585. This belt is a sophisticated piece of jewellery that could also be worn as a necklace or “collare” and was given as a wedding present from mother to daughter on that special occasion. The similarities in such a personal item of jewellery highlights the close relationship and shared taste that the Panciatichi enjoyed with the Medici family. The bond between Panciatichi and Cosimo I became even more important when the duke supported Panciatichi at the time when his power and prestige was over. It was in fact thanks to Cosimo’s intervention that Panciatichi was released from the clutches of the Inquisition.

Geraldine Johnson observed that by the 16th century, sculptural representation of women that suggested a stronger or prominent role were removed to display a more domesticated and powerless vision. Cosimo I’s cultural policy featured a predominance of “masculine” power, and the imagery that was produced at the time made explicit reference to manly strength, power and superiority with the aim of consolidating the position of Cosimo I as the ruler of the Florentine state, where the Medici family had seen fluctuating fortunes. Undeniably, Cosimo’s rise to power at the age of seventeen, further to the assassination of Alessandro de’ Medici by the hand of his cousin Lorenzaccio, was far from straightforward, and was opposed fervently by some of the traditional Medici supporters. Cosimo was conscious that in order to expand his dominion over the Tuscan region he had to craft his public image swiftly and carefully. This was put into practice through a variety of means, and art offered the perfect agency for the construction of Cosimo’s public persona. Portraiture, sculpture, and coinage with his effigy were an integral part of this masterplan. Portraits of women of the Medici household and their entourage should therefore be considered in this historical context. 

Further Reading:

Plazzotta, Carol, “Bronzino’s Laura”, The Burlington Magazine, 140 (1998), pp. 251-263.

Johnson, Geraldine, “Idol or ideal: The power and potency of female public sculpture” in Picturing women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, ed. G. Johnson and S. Grieco. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Kirkham, Victoria, “Cosimo and Eleonora in Sheperland” in The Cultural Politics of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, ed. K. Eisenbichler. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001 (2nd edit. Routledge 2016). 

Zanrè, Domenico, “Ritual and Parody in Mid-Cinquecento Florence: Cosimo de’ Medici and the Accademia del Piano”, in The Cultural Politics of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, ed. K. Eisenbichler. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001 (2nd edit. Routledge 2016).

A Magically Sweet Christmas in Siena!

Last night we visited Giovanna and Margherita Bartoli, the owners of the Antica Drogheria Manganelli 1879, an historic shop in Siena. We learned about traditional Christmas recipes and products that date from the Middle Ages and that are still part of Italian cuisine today.

Our audience enjoyed learning about the shop, the products and a bit about Siena and its history and traditions. Thank you Giovanna and Margherita for joining us!

You can visit Antica Drogheria Manganelli 1879 here:

You can see the recording of the talk on our YouTube Channel here.

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Our next talk will be on 28th January 2021 when Dr Aaron Thom will talk to us about Artemesia Gentileschi. More details to follow soon.

Divine Ascent

Thank you to Dr Joanne Anderson for her engaging talk on the cult of Mary Magdalen in the Alps during the late medieval period.

You can now watch a recording of the talk on our YouTube Channel.

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Our next talk is on 26th November 2020 by Dr Sandra Toffolo: On the Way to the Holy Land: Venice as point of embarkation for foreign pilgrims in the Renaissance