What is Proto-Renaissance Art?


The Renaissance is a historic period, a cultural movement, a “bridge” between the Middle Ages and Modern History. They say it started in the 14th C and ended in the 17th C.

Everyone agrees that it started in Florence, travelled to the other Italian city-states such as Siena, Venice, Verona, Genoa, Bologna, Milan, and then to Rome. But this is just the Italian Renaissance, we also have the Northern Renaissance, and the English Renaissance, German Renaissance, French Renaissance, Polish Renaissance, Portuguese Renaissance, Spanish Renaissance, and the Renaissance in the Low Countries (and even a Scottish Renaissance).

And of course the Renaissance touched on almost every facet of life - Architecture, Dance, Fine Arts, Literature, Music, Philosophy, Science, Technology, and Warfare.

But my question here is the following.

You go into a museum, and you stand in front of a painting. You like what you see. You read the labels, listen to the museum audioguide, spend time sitting and thinking about what you are looking at. 

But how can you say “That is a Renaissance painting”, “It is typical of Siena”, “It probably dates from the later part of the Renaissance”, “It was painted by Perugino”, “What he was trying to do was ...”, “Look at that interesting symbolism”, “It is typical of a period when ...”, “It is not one of his better ones”, “Perhaps it was painted by his bottega”.

On this series of pages I’m going to try and figure out what makes one Renaissance painting different from another.

Let us start with some basics.

Most experts consider the period 1280 to 1400 as a Proto-Renaissance period in Italy, often called the Trecento. It is Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337) that stands out as the first of the truly great Italian artists to have broken with the prevalent Italo-Byzantine style and “initiated” The Renaissance. Some experts term his style as figurative “realism”. From about 11th C and through to the 13th C Romanesque Art was the dominate style in Europe, although the influence of Byzantine Art in Italy remained strong well into the 14th C. In the rest of Europe Gothic Art emerged from Northern France in the 12th C, and spread throughout Western Europe, but never quite effaced the classical styles in Italy. In the late 14th C International Gothic emerged and continued to evolve through the 15th C (and in Germany into the 16th C with Late Gothic) before being finally subsumed into Renaissance Art.

The Italian Early Renaissance is said to have started in 1401 with the competition to sculpt a set of bronze doors for the Battistero di San Giovanni of Florence Cathedral. This competition was won by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), and later Michelangelo would call the doors the “Gates of Paradise”. The end of the Italian Early Renaissance is usually taken as time when the walls of the Sistine Chapel were painted. This is a fresco cycle depicting the “Life of Christ” and the “Life of Moses”, and was commissioned from Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli. This did not include the altar wall and ceiling which were painted later. 

The High Renaissance is traditionally taken to begin in the 1490’s with the fresco of the Last Super (1494-1499) in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan. This is one of the world’s most famous and most studied works by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). It is considered a fresco, but even at that time Leonardo was able and willing to innovate. He painted on a dry plaster wall, with a white lead undercoat, and a tempera applied on top. This allowed him to slowly develop the painting, and retain a great sense of luminosity.

As we move into the 15th C and 16th C the cultural and artistic movement spread across Europe, and in particular creating the Northern Renaissance (post-1497).

Mannerism emerged from the Italian High Renaissance around 1520, and ended with the appearance of the Baroque style in around 1580. Northern Mannerism continued into the early 17th C.

We are going to first look at what has been called Italo-Byzantine Art. The first question we can ask is about the existence of a unique and different Italo-Byzantine identity. How can we tell the difference between the Italo-Byzantine, Byzantine, and non-Byzantine?

Well we know that in Italy there was a way to dress and trim ones hair in “the Byzantine manner”. Also Italo-Byzantines took first names from Byzantine tradition, e.g. Agnellus, Vitalis, Georgios, Theodotos, Basil, etc. I am told that this was particularly evident in Veneto, where they preferred to be identified with the ancient empire rather than the Lombard “mainland”. It is also true that the ancient Doric dialect of Greek persisted (albeit with some difficulty) in southern Italy through to the 12th C. And we should not forget that well into the 10th C Constantinople provided superior educational opportunities for young Italian scholars (and many returned back to Italy to take up important posts in the church). Even after southern Italy fell under Norman rule in 1071, Italy maintained a strong link with Byzantium through trade. After the sack of Constantinople in 1204 precious objects looted from Byzantium made their way to Italian soil and profoundly influenced the art produced there. Scholars and artists migrated to Italy in search of new patronage. In particular we think of the brightly coloured gold-background panels that could be found everywhere during the 13th C.    

I also just loved the fact that the water buffalo of southern Italy, to which lovers of Italian cuisine owe true Mozzarella cheese, has been attributed to the Byzantium’s presence there.

We must not forget that Byzantium was also a power to be reckoned in the rest of Europe, and the great and powerful enjoyed importing Byzantine luxury goods. Constantinople, the “New Rome”, set the standard of cultural excellence for both the Latin West and the Islamic East. But we should not lose sight if the fact that Byzantine art developed out of the art of the Roman Empire, which itself was profoundly influenced by ancient Greek art. Byzantine art never lost sight of that classical heritage.

We want to talk about art, but it is impossible to do so without introducing from time to time some architecture. Our first example is the Basilica di San Vitale, in Ravenna (once a capital of the Western Roman Empire). Below we have two famous mosaic panels, one of Emperor Justinian I, the other is of Empress Theodora. Both panels date from 574, and both are unsigned (throughout the Middle Ages art was unsigned and the artist was considered a simple craftsman). 

These mosaic masterpieces are perhaps the most famous examples of Byzantine artwork, and at the same time show the way medieval sovereigns’ ulitised Christian artwork to legitimise their “God-granted” right to rule (look at the “blasphemous” halos behind their heads). As with much Byzantine art these panels were crafted to produce an overwhelming effect of opulence. Some experts note Byzantine art was “otherworldly”, formal, profoundly sacred, and the proper attitude of a worshipper was to gaze at the sacred mysteries.

What we see is that the figures have no shadows, faces are stylised and there is a lack of naturalism. There are no bodies beneath the drapery, and it falls in straight lines. The feet do not touch the floor. There is a love of elaborate patterns and repetition, and a disregard for perspective. These are stylistic qualities typical of Byzantine art. Justinian has no background, whereas Theodora is seen waiting outside in a courtyard (showing that her rank was not quite equal to that of her husband). Yet she carries the chalice of Holy Wine, and normally that can only be carried by a priest. Is this the image of the “power behind the throne”?

These two mosaics must also be considered as prime examples of very early Italo-Byzantine art. But they are still unquestionably Byzantine. Yet they are at the same time different from any other mosaic present either in Italy or in Constantinople. We do not know who the artist was. It fact there are subtile style differences that would suggest that there were two different master mosaicists. No kilns have been found in the area surrounding the Church, suggesting that the tesserae were shipped in. It has been suggested that both the master mosaicists were classically training in Byzantium, and that the golden tesserae were probably shipped from Constantinople. The idealised human figures, the flatness of the frontal pose and the lavish use of gold, is typical of Byzantine artistic tradition. Certainly Justinian would have wanted the very best mosaicists to work on his statement of religio-political power. Oddly enough there are no stylistic links with other church mosaics in Italy from the same period (in particular the mastery of the shading on the silk garments). During the latest restoration it became evident that four faces were changed within the first 30 years after the completion of the mosaics. Justinian actually never visited San Vitale, and it is also now known that his face was initially left empty, probably waiting for a portrait to arrive from Constantinople (possibly a portrait which Justinian donated to Hagia Sophia in 532). 

Throughout the 7th C to 9th C Italy (that meant Rome) fell completely under the influence of Byzantine art, and most noticeably on the mosaics of the Basilica di Santa Prassede all’Esquillino, Santa Maria alla Navicella, Sant'Agnese fuori le mura, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Santi Nereo e Achilleo and the San Venanzio chapel of San Giovanni in Laterano. The great dining hall of Pope Leo III in the Palatium Lateranense was also decorated with mosaics. The last great period of Roman mosaic art was the 12th C and early 13th C when Rome developed its own distinctive artistic style, free from the strict rules of eastern tradition and with a more realistic portrayal of figures in the space.

Not forgetting that the architecture of the Byzantine Basilica di San Vitale retained some of the traditions of Roman architecture. Nevertheless we also saw in the 10th C a new architectural style emerge, often called First Romanesque, or Lombard Romanesque. In fact there is no consensus for the beginning of Romanesque architecture (anywhere from the 6th C to the 10th C), but experts agree that this movement developed in the 12th C into the Gothic style. In two words, this was the move from semicircular arches to pointed arches.  

This early Romanesque style decorated the exterior of buildings with bands of ornamental blind arches, but avoided sculptures on façades in favour of interiors profusely painted with frescos. Standing back from these early Romanesque buildings we see massive walls, solid buttresses and piers, stout column, semicircular arches for narrow windows and doors, and portals were generally small, sometimes covered with an open porch and with sculpture and mouldings. You would not see to many vertical mouldings, but spiral ornamentation was appreciated. Examples of this early Romanesque include the cathedrals (Duomo) of Moderna, Piacenza, and Parma. It is in this context that we find for the first time sculptors signing their works, e.g. Wiligelmo in Modena (ca. 1110), and Benedetto Antelami in Parma (ca. 1180).

Romanesque churches had wide expanses of walls, just waiting to be plastered and painted. Wood ceilings and timber beams could be decorated. Stone could be carved. Mosaics could be cover the floors and provide a focus for the apsidal east with the altar. The appearance of crypts, porches, chapter houses, cloisters, and baptisteries increased the number of places able to support architectural embellishment, sculpture and interior decoration.

Early murals in churches often derived from mosaics. Common themes were the Creation, Christ in Majesty (often in a mandorla), the Four Evangelists, the Virgin Mary, and the Last Judgement. Christ in Majesty, according to Byzantine tradition standing triumphant, holds the Gospels in his left hand and has his right hand raised (later “Christ Triumphant” would have both hands raised). This same Byzantine image was also found in Romanesque art, but with time it became a “crowd” scene with archangels, apostles and saints. Below we have three different Majestas Domini (Christ in Majesty).

The first example is a pure 6th C Byzantine Majestas Domini mosaic found in the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. As is usual, it is by an unknown artist. As was common practice at the time Jesus was always young and dressed as a Roman Emperor. There are examples of an older Jesus but always presented as a “man of sorrows”.

The second example, also by unknown artists, is a 9th C Byzantine mosaic in the Cappella di San Zenone in the Basilica di Santa Prassede all’Esquilino, in Rome. Here we still see only the upper body of Jesus, and he is still young and dressed in a courtly manner.

The third example is a 12th C Christ in Majesty from the Chiesa di Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio in Palermo. It is also by an unknown artist, but experts consider that it was executed by master craftsmen from Constantinople who probably also worked in the Cappella Palatina in Sicily, on more than 6,500 m2 of glass mosaics in the Cathedral of Monreale in Sicily (this is the largest cycle of Byzantine mosaics extant in Italy), and in the Duomo di Cefalù, also in Sicily. This time we have a full-length portrait, still young, and still dressed in Imperial robes. Another tell-tail sign of its Byzantine origins is that Greek remains the language of preference.

Turning to the question of identifying Byzantine and Italo-Byzantine art. One way to look at it is simply to recognise that Italo-Byzantine art was that created by Byzantine artists exiled in Italy after the iconoclastic controversies in the East. However in the churches mentioned above there are also mosaics executed by local craftsmen, but they are usually executed in a cruder manner and feature Latin rather than Greek inscriptions. Usually these mosaics are more narrative and illustrative, rather than aiming at the transcendental. Also we can see some secular mosaics of oriental flora and fauna (pure Byzantine secular mosaics no longer exist today). The reality is that after the 4th Crusade and the brutal sacking of Constantinople of 1204 many crusaders returned to Italy with Byzantine treasures. It was perhaps this impulse that finally established the Italo-Byzantine style as a merging of Byzantine themes and figural types, with Hellenistic-Roman illusionism, Gothic fluency of line, and the inevitable regional Italian traditions. In fact Italians called the Italo-Byzantine style the “Maniera Greca”.

Another question concerns the desire of Byzantine iconography to adopt a highly abstract and formalised style, along with an unwillingness to change and evolve. At least in the Orthodox Church they considered the image as sacred, and having existed since the beginning of Christianity. The image itself was not to be worshipped, but it was an aid for education and for meditation. There was no room for personal inspiration. The icon is inspired by God, and the artist’s hand is moved from “above”. As such, through the icon, the believer comes into direct contact with the saint. The Byzantine icon is not a genuine reproduction of reality, it is a spirit, and (after the two iconoclastic periods) has divine powers and is necessary for our salvation.


In any case most experts equate (late) Italo-Byzantine with the Proto-Renaissance (Pre-Renaissance, Late Gothic, or even Late Medieval). So let us now move on and focus on this Proto-Renaissance. The starting point is the use of heavy gilding, brilliant colours, striations to denote the folds in fabrics, shallow space and linear flatness, and segments for the figures’ anatomical details.

Let us start with a Crucifix, the so-called Croce di Mastro Guglielmo or Croce di Sarzana. This is the oldest, painted and dated cross is existence, and it dates from 1138. This “Christus triumphans” still has the basic iconographic characteristics of the Byzantine style. Realism was not important. It was there to support the teachings of the church. Jesus is young, he is alive and his eyes are open, wounds are not bleeding, he does not suffer, etc. But experts have detected a certain “freedom of movement” that no longer respected the rigid Byzantine form. The work is signed by an artist called Guillelmus working in the city (or region) of Lucca. 

The Proto-Renaissance period was characterised by an explosion of styles, schools, experiments and innovations. As well as Siena and Florence, different artistic schools appeared at different times in Pisa, Padua, Mantua, Pistoia, Prato, Teviso, Lombardy, Piemonte, Rimini, Rome, Moderna, Bologna, Ferrara, Verona, Messina, Venice, Arezzo, Lucca,  ...

Experts agree that paintings such as a Crucifixion were often copies drawn from (or at least inspired by) illuminated manuscripts. We know that different styles and innovations rapidly moved between Rome, Perugia, Lucca, Pisa, Florence, etc., and it is presumed that painting styles and techniques travelled equally fast. We will not focus too much on early manuscripts, but it is worth noting that the trend was towards lines that provided clarity of shape, broad fields of dense colour, a certain ornamental efflorescence, tall and graceful figures, and a lack of personal emotion in the faces. The style we see above can be found throughout 12th C Italy, from Assisi to Florence, Pisa, Lucca, ... and so on. This is not to say that everything had to remain the same. There was an exploration of the expressive possibilities of the faces, trying to instill more life into the immobile masks of past styles. Attempts were made to give more bulk to the drapery. Other artists played with highlighting and dense shadows trying to create a more dramatic effect.

The Pisan-Lucchese School existed in the 11th C and 12th C, centred in Voltera. Pisa and Lucca were the two main seats of painting in Italy at that time. The art was mostly anonymous, but was known for its monumentality. The most important type of painting was probably the Crucifixion, of which a number still exist today.

This example, by the so-called Byzantine Master of the Crucifix of Pisa, of a Crucifixion painted on a wood panel in around 1230 has great significance in the history of Italian paintings. The key change is that Christ is suffering, and this “view” quickly replaced the triumphant Christ free from pain with his eyes open and a regal bearing. This innovation  emerged in Byzantine figurative culture towards the end of the 12th C, e.g. Christ’s head now falls to the left, his eyes are closed, and we can see some blood training from a small wound. But we can also still see the traditional Byzantine style, e.g. against a gold background his body is elongated and rigid, there is no stress in his outstretched arms, the skin colour has a greenish tinge, and there is little suggestion of life. The four arms of the cross are decorated with smaller scenes, angels above his head, spectators on his arms, and a soppedaneo (footstool) for his feet.

A detailed analysis of the stylistic evolution of the Crucifixion between the 12th C and early 13th C shows a move from “classical nobility” towards a more complex and life-like evocation of the sacred stories. Faces begin to show expressions, and even emotions. Mary weeps, and her mouth and eyes are distorted in a doleful grimace. Faces, limbs, and hands remain elongated, but there is a sense of volume and mass, and fabrics start to cling to the body.

I also read a rather more philosophical perspective on the artistic evolution of Italy through the Proto-Renaissance. The author equated the development of art with the shift in attitude of people towards religion. The Franciscan Order was founded in 1209, and they promoted the ministering to the poor and sick. They did not try to scare the masses into believing by reminding them of the damnation that awaited them. They replaced punishment and the supernatural by the story of the salvation of man. They valued nature, and art tried to imitate the natural world. Tradition has it that the Florentine painter Giotto di Bondone was the first to break away from Byzantine tradition in favour of a purely naturalistic form of representation. But for the moment let us follow the evolution of the Proto-Renaissance as best we understand it.

Berlinghiero Berlinghieri (active between 1225-1240) was one of the first artists to be known by name. We in fact only know his name from his inscription “Belingerius me pinxit”. Although from Milan, he established a family of painters in Lucca, at that time an independent republic. His sons were Barone Berlinghieri, Bonaventura Berlinghieri, and Marco Belinghieri. The reality is that only two works can be confidently assigned to Berlinghiero, the one below is a Madonna and Child. Painted in 1230’s we see the full force of the Maniera Greca”. This follows a Byzantine type known as Hodegetria (“She who shows the way”) and is typical of the icons that arrived in Italy after the fall of Constantinople in 1204. Jesus is dressed as an ancient philosopher, and holds a scroll. Experts highlight the fact that Berlinghiero brought a gentle flow to this work, highlighting the language of gestures (e.g. tradition has it that the Madonna is pointing to Jesus as the way to salvation).

The sons remained faithful to the “Maniera Greca”, and the most famous of their works is probably an altarpiece dedicated to Francis of Assisi. The reason I have included this here is because there is a nice 6 minute video analysis of this altarpiece that really captures the purpose and nature of painting at that time.

Painting was not the only art waiting for its revolution, sculpture was also ready. Numerous artists were actively pursuing differing styles, e.g. Lanfranco dei Guidi and Guido Bigarelli in Pistoia, and Guidetto da Como in Lucca. But they were all waiting for Niccolò Pisano (ca. 1220-1284), a sculptor who worked in Prato, Lucca, Pisa, Bologna, Siena, Pistoia and Perugia, and whilst known for his classical Roman sculptural style, is now considered to be the founder of modern sculpture. Between 1255 and 1260 he executed a pulpit for the baptistery of Pisa, and signed it “Nicola Pisanus”.

The first thing we have to note is that there is a wonderful mix of pictures on the Internet that mix up Pisano’s pulpits in Pisa, Pistoia, and Siena (possibly because they also mix up father Nicolò and son Giovanni). Then there are the differing interpretations. One expert see a reliance on Byzantine renderings set within trilobed arches and columns resting on lions, which is typically French Gothic. Another sees a synthesis of French Gothic with the classical style of ancient Rome, but one scene might have been based upon a Byzantine ivory. Yet another sees a mix of Gothic and medieval elements, but with an echo back to panels found on Roman sarcophagi. And another just sees a Greco-Roman style. Maybe one expert hit the nail on the head by suggesting that the continuous narrative around the different panels on the pulpit is a common feature in Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance art. This same expert notes that the naturalistic style and flowing robes are reminiscent of a Greek classical style. However the way Jesus and the angel Gabriel are bigger than other mere mortals suggests a Byzantine-Romanesque style. Yet on other panels Jesus is the same size are everyone else, and his importance is defined by his central location and halo, e.g. typically Gothic. The iconography of Pisano’s nativity scene was almost exactly reproduced in a painting by Duccio. 

The son of Niccolò Pisano was Giovanni Pisano (ca. 1250-1315), whom Henry Moore called the “first modern sculptor” with his façade of Siena Cathedral. He was chief architect of Siena cathedral, and it is said that he had a more “lively” style than his father, blending Gothic with reminders of Roman art. Below we have a panel by Niccolò (left) and his son Giovanni (right). It is difficult to obtain high quality pictures of their work, but I think we can see that Giovanni’s style is more animated and dramatic.

The work of Giovanni Pisano on the façade of Siena Cathedral provides an excellent transition to the Sienese School. We tend to read today that the Sienese School rivaled that of Florence between the 13th C and 15th C, and more or less collapsed with its subjugation by Florence. But it may be more true to say that not even Florence was as active and fertile as Siena during the 13th C and 14th C. It is true that the earliest works relied on old Byzantine mannerisms, and later works inclined towards the decorative beauty and elegance of late Gothic art.

Most experts place Guido da Siena (active between 1270-80) as the founder of the Sienese School. However this appear unlikely both stylistically and historically. Guido da Siena painted in the Byzantine style, and his works are the only ones to have survived through to today making him the “first” by default.

The above painting by Guido da Siena is a Virgin and Christ Child Enthroned, dated from 1270’s. Comparing it with the Madonna and Child of Berlinghiero Berlinghieri painted in the 1230’s, we can see some evolution, but the iconography remains firmly rooted in the Byzantine style. 

The true farther of Sienese painting is Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1255-1319). Duccio tried to combine the new approach of Giotto (ca. 1266-1337) whilst keeping the traditions of the Maniera Greca. This is evident in his Maestà altarpiece in Siena (painted 1308-1311). The altarpiece is nearly 4 m long and more than 2 m high, and if anything the back is more impressive than the front. Check out these two short videos describing both the front and back. The front is intended to be and seen by, and impress, the faithful. The back is a narrative intended to be studied by the clergy.


However Duccio’s masterpiece is called the Rucellai Madonna. It is the largest surviving painting from the 13th C (4.5 m by 2.9 m), was probably finished in 1285 or 1286, and now it is considered one of the founding (first) paintings of the Renaissance. It is difficult for us to look back and try to understand the changes seen in this painting. Byzantine two-dimensionality and hard colours have been replaced with a refined and complex choice of colours, the presentation is spatially complex, and there is emotion and a certain intimacy in the face of the Madonna, and her robes are more finally modelled. There are successive layers of detail rendering the whole more soft and delicate. It is said that for the first time the Virgin and Child look like a family. For the first time in history of art the viewer is pulled into the picture of a mother with her son. Check out this 4 minute video description. I have placed the Duccio Madonna (left) next to the Virgin Enthroned with Angels by the Florentine Cimabue (ca. 1240-1302), and completed sometime between 1290 and 1295. For some 500 years the Duccio Madonna was actually attributed to Cimabue. But here we can see the revolution made by Duccio as compared to a contemporary master skilled in the Italo-Byzantine style. Here is a short video (in Italian) on the comparison between Cimabue and Duccio. 

Simone Martini (ca. 1284-1344) was a Duccio follower and worked with him on the Maestà altarpiece. Once Martini had left for Avignon, it was the the Lorenzetti brothers who continued and evolved the style. Duccio had many other followers, who were contemporaries of Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers. For example:

Segna di Buonaventura (active between 1298-1331) had much the same style as Duccio, with gracefully curvilinear forms and a subtle blend of colours.

Niccolò di Segna (active between 1331-1348) was influenced by Duccio and Simone Martini.

Ugolino di Nerio (ca. 1280-1349) although a follower of Duccio was perhaps more inspired by Martini in the use of bright colours. He earned commissions in Florence and is said to have been responsible for spreading the Sienese style.

Barna da Siena (active 1330-1380) was a follower of Martini. Although killed in a fall from some scaffolding he had the most dramatic and vigorous style of the period. It is said that her was the first painter to represent animals correctly.

Lippo Vanni (active between 1344-1375) is best known as a miniature painter, but experts place him firmly as a follower the Lorenzetti brothers. Niccolò di Ser Sozzo (active between 1334-1363) was in collaboration with Luca di Tommè, both followers of Lipp Vanni, and ultimately dependent upon the tradition of the Lorenzetti brothers. 

Jacopo di Mino del Pellicciaio (active between 1362-1389) was a follower of Martini.

Bartolo di Fredi (ca. 1330-1410) worked closely with Andrea Vanni (ca. 1332-1414), and both appeared to have been influenced by Duccio and Martini, but less so by the more concrete figures of the Lorenzetti brothers. The only surviving son of Bartolo di Fredi was the Sienese painter Andrea di Bartolo (ca. 1360-1428) who was father to a family of painters active in the period 1410 to 1480.

Francesco di Vannuccio (ca. 1356-1391) appears to have developed a sense of pattern and decoration reminiscent of Martini.

Taddeo di Bartolo (ca. 1363-1422) is considered to have reflected both Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers in use of elegant, thin figures and flowing lines of drapery. His nephew was Domenico di Bartolo (ca. 1400-1447), also a painter of the Sienese School.

Paolo di Giovanni Fei (ca. 1345-1411) was again influenced by Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers.

Simone Martini (ca. 1284-1344) is thought to have been a pupil of Duccio, but we known little factual detail about his early life. We tend now to look at his style as being International Gothic. He places his characters in bright, spacious areas, using sinuous and sharp lines to given them a certain sense of relief.

Below we have The Annunciation and Two Saints, dated 1333, and being the last painting of Martini before he moved to France. The Papal See was transferred to Avignon, which suddenly became an artistic centre of European renown. The interaction of his style of “aristocratic elegance” with the style of northern artists laid the foundation for the International Gothic style, of which Martini is considered a forerunner. Check out this biography and video.

Abover we have another Maestà, this time of Martini and not Duccio. This is a large fresco (naraly 10 m long by nearly 8 m high), dated to 1315, and also in Siena. This is considered onoe of the most important works of 14th C Italian art. The most obvious innovations concerning the 3-D space. The supporting poles of the canopy are in perspective, and there is a crowd of 30 people rather than people being in parallel rows. The Gothic style is already there, with the bright spacious areas and sinuous and sharp lines. There is a sense of pomp and grandeur, the costumes are finely detailed, the faces all look individual and different, and there is an evident passion for acute and realistic rendering of what we observe.    

The brothers Pietro Lorenzetti (ca. 1280-1348) and Ambrogio Lorenzetti (ca. 1280-1348), may have worked with (or learned from) Duccio and Martini, and are known for introducing naturalism into Sienese art. Pietro is best known for the way he captures emotional interaction. Ambrogio was perhaps the more original of the two. The paintings that somehow display Ambrogio’s skill and his willingness to innovate and be original is a series of frescos called The Allegory of Good and Bad Government (see video presentation). They are to be found in the Sala dei Nove in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena, and they were painted between 1338 and 1339. These frescos are considered revolutionary for the period and are one of the masterpieces of the “Proto-Early” Renaissance. Every little detail was considered, for example Good Government is on the sunny wall, and Bad Government is in the shade (at the time they were actually examples of War and Peace). 

Bad Government is headed by a tyrannical, “devilish-looking” ruler driven by avarice, pride and vain glory (who hover above his head). The result is crumbling city buildings, an infertile countryside, pillaging and killing, and violent acts commented towards women.

Good Government has wisdom sitting above the head of Lady Justice, and a ruler driven by faith, hope and charity (sitting above his head). The results are beautiful buildings, schools and shops, harvesting in the fields, and dancing women.

Another important element is that these frescos were commissioned by a civic group, the city council and not the church. The subject matter is not religious, and the frescos sat in the very room where decisions were made about the future of Siena.

It is difficult today to understand how “being innovative” must have been a challenge in 13th C Italy. We have seen above how Ambrogio Lorenzetti achieved it. But perhaps the “main-stream” line was the slow move to International Gothic. For example Lippo Memmi (ca. 1291-1356) was the foremost follower of Simone Martini (and he was also his brother-in-law), but at the same time he was an artist who’s compositions harked back to Byzantine conventions (static, frontal views), yet with a sense of emotional “soft tranquility”. His compositions are complex, and faces are striking, round with narrow eyes and elongated noses. He is also well known for being one of the first to add ray patterns to halos in gold leaf. Yet in comparison to Ambrogio Lorenzetti he remained almost archaic. Below we have his Virgin of Mercy (ca. 1291), with its gilded background and static frontal view, which remains strongly tied to Byzantine tradition. 

So not everyone in Siena was a follower of Duccio. For example Naddo Ceccarelli (active in 1347) remained a late Italian Gothic style painter, and Bartolomeo Bulgarini (ca. 1300-1378) remained firmly in the Byzantine-esque figuration and gold-leaf tradition (whilst being a contemporary of Martini, and Lorenzetti, and a follower of Duccio).

During the 13th C and 14th C the Sienese School rivaled that of Florence, and the styles were marked different. Florence aimed at realism. The Sienese School had a much more colourful and dream-like quality, with figures appearing very “light”. There was a richness in the detail, especially draperies, which were elegant and highly patterned. The ke words for the Sienese School are sumptuous and ethereal.  

During the 15th C and 16th C Siena will produce only a few painters were willing and able to challenge the conventions of the time.

Jacopo della Quercia (ca. 1374-1438) was a sculptor is said to have been a precursor of Michelangelo (1475-1564). From Siena he worked in Lucca, Pisa, Ferrara, Bologna and Siena. Michelangelo conceded that his Genesis in the Sistine Chapel was based upon the reliefs of Jacopo della Quercia in San Petronio Basilica in Bologna.

Stefano di Giovanni di Consolo (ca. 1392-1451), “Il Sassetta” was known for ability to adopt a decorative Gothic style but to uniquely transform his figures with a natural light which both gives them volume and at the same time places them within an amazingly coherent space.  

Giovanni di Paolo (ca. 1403-1482) painted in the International Gothic style, and he was known for his use of cold harsh colours (presumably because he was a skilled painter of illuminated manuscripts).

Sano di Pietro (1406-1481) was known for his mastery of colour, and robes that appeared to shimmer with intensity.

Francesco di Giorgio e di Lorenzo (1410-1480), “Li Vecchietta”, was a painter, sculptor, goldsmith and architect, and was known for his sense of proportion and grace. He is perhaps best known for his sculpture and castings in bronze.

Ansano di Andrea di Bartolo (1421-1491) was one of the most progressive Sienese painters of his time. But at that time “progressive” had come to mean assimilating the innovation of leading Florentine painters.

Matteo di Giovanni (ca. 1430-1495) was known for his ability to capture anatomically correct bodies and volumetric plasticity. He was also known for introducing into his pictures an additional episode in small background figures, and totally unconnected with the principle story.

Bernardino Fungai (1460-1516) remained quite firmly rooted in the older traditions of Sienese art.

Giacomo Pacchiarotti (1474-1540) was better known as a resistance fighter against Florence, which must say something for quality as a painter. But he said to have studies Raphael and his heads and figures were able to capture the idealised beauty of that great artist. Some of his works have been incorrectly catalogued for Perugino.  

Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (1477-1549), “Il Sodoma” tried to meld the Sienese School with the High Renaissance, although some would say that he was not of the Sienese School because of his time spent with Leonardo da Vinci in Milan. Someone said of him “though unwilling to paint well, he did not know how to paint badly”. Yet everyone agrees that his female faces and heads have been mistaken for those of Leonardo. And like Leonardo he liked to paint backgrounds to include running water, and towers on hills. Raphael is said to have over-painted some of his works in Rome, but he spared the grotesques. 

Baldassare Peruzzi (1481-1536) was a Sienese architect who worked with Bramante, Raphael and Sangallo on the building of the new St. Peter’s. He also designed Villa Farnesina in Rome and built the new fortifications for Siena. Timid and modest, he was despoiled of his property in Rome, and died of poisoning leaving a wife and six children in poverty. Yet later he was recognised as a “various genius” for his collected works and mastery of perspective.

Domenico di Pace Beccafumi (1486-1551) is now considered a Renaissance-Mannerist painter, and one of the last “Greats” of the Sienese School. He tried to retain the sense of miracles in a world dominated by a Renaissance search for reality. It is said that he started life as a shepherd boy designing things on local stones, copied Michelangelo and Rafael in Rome, and became a master in Siena. He acquired the nickname “Mecherino” and was particularly successful in rendering fires and reflections, and other difficult lighting conditions. One expert called him the “Correggio of lower Italy”, but away from Siena he felt that he could not paint successfully.

Andrea del Brescianino and his brother Raffaello del Brescinaino (died 1545) were active in Siena during the period 1507 to 1525. They were said to have been “modernists” to too “dry” for the period.

Bartolomeo Neroni (ca. 1505-1571) painted in the Mannerist style, and is said to have restored the works of past Sienese masters.

Daniele Ricciarelli (ca. 1509-1566) Mannerist painter who studies in Siena, but who is forever associated with Michelangelo. He covered the genitals in the Last Judgement and earned the nickname “Il Braghettone” (the breech maker).

Francesco Vanni (1563-1610) , a Mannerist painter, and in the opinion of many the best of his period, and possibly the last great painter of the Sienese School. It is said that he attached himself to the elegant and florid style of Federico Barocci (ca. 1526-1612) from Urbino. 

Ventura di Archangelo Salimbeni (1568-1613) was what is called a Counter-Maniera or Counter-Mannerism painter, strongly influences by the vaghezza, or the form and appearance of beauty. 

Bernardino Mei (1612-1676) was said to be a fine Baroque painter. 

I should note that these list of painter are at best personal and partial. It is difficult to trace back some names, find references, and identify some characteristic feature that makes a mention worthwhile. 

As we move through time Florence powered forward with a equilibrated, geometric and self-assured style, whilst Sienese painting tried to capture a little bit of an irrational and emotionally unbalanced world. It has been said the Florentine School was philosophical and the Sienese School poetic. Siena aimed a poetic composition, probably because historically Siena and Pisa were home to many more Byzantine (e.g. Greek) painters after 1204 than other city-states in the region. Siena produced more great 13th C artists, but Florence was more fertile for innovation and invention. Why did Siena advance Florence? Possibly because they started their Cathedral building earlier, and because it was more complex to build there were many interruptions. Each interruption gave a new opportunity for architects, sculptors and artists to work and evolve. Also Siena defeated Florence at the Battle of Montaperti in 1260, producing an era of peace and opulence in the city. And then? Some experts just say that a decline was inevitable, given the excellence attained previously. Others point to a trend to an over-heated local marketplace and hurried execution, successful but not progressive. One even suggested that this hurried execution of contracts lead to “servile imitation” of whatever was fashionable. Some note that the plague of 1346-53 might have affected everyone in Italy (and Europe), but smaller cities suffered more. Some tend to point to the over reliance on technique. In the mid-15th C there was trend towards highly detailed and richly decorated painting, and when linked to the increased mobility of artists, lead to a situation where you could no longer discover a paintings origins. Progress was no longer in the hands of Schools, but of a few gifted individuals. Siena no longer produced those individuals. Raphael is a good example of this trend, he was a “nomad”. Despite only living 37 years he trained in Urbino, but then worked in Florence, Perugia and Siena, before moving to Rome and the Vatican.

In the 16th C the trend was to invite artists from other cities to work in Siena. And it worked, from that period the Sienese School began to assume a modern style, with full tone colours and the use of perspective. But the power of the city was limited, and thus its ability to attract and keep the best artists. The best local artists followed the style of Raffaello. In 1555 Siena fell under the hand of Cosimo I, Duke of Florence. And nearly 65% of its inhabitants left the city. 

I have mentioned the rivalry between Siena and Florence, but I actually intend to start the page on the Early Renaissance with a review of the evolution of Florentine painting. For the moment I have thought long and hard about finding a single image that in some way might capture the essence of the Sienese School.

How about this one? It is part of the Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus painted around 1333 by Simone Martini and his brother-in-law Lippo Menni. The colours and elegance makes it a ideal example of Sienese Gothic. It is theatrical, and even has a strip with the spoken word of the angel. The Virgin is surprised and frightened. The gold background confirms the important of tradition, but there is a desire for realism (e.g. the lilies, the olive branch, the angels robes, the half-closed book. Florentine painting would have created a more 3-D view with stronger outlined, less fluid characters. Byzantine tradition would have been much more flat representation, with no emotion, and not details suggesting a real world meeting.

I do not want to jump from Siena on this page to Florence on a next page, since it might incorrectly suggest that the Italian Renaissance can be summarise just with those two city-states. The Venetian School is one that thrived in the 15th C and 16th C with Giorgione (ca. 1477–1510), Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1430–1516), Titian (1489–1576), Tintoretto (1518–1594), and Veronese (1528–1588). For the moment I would just like to mention Paolo Veneziano (ca. 1333-1358) who was the most important Venetian painter of the 14th C. If anything Venice was more inspired by the Byzantine culture than the other major Italian city-states. Veneziano’s work was even more rich and luxurious than those of Tuscany (think more colour, more decoration), and in later life he was a master of both the Byzantine and Gothic styles - each striving for “pure decoration”. Whilst he may have founded the Venetian School, styles change moving into the 15th C and 16th C as Venice became less eastern and Byzantine, and more Italian and European. Below we have a detail taken from Ancona con Madonna col Bambino Benedicente, which I think captures Veneziano hovering between the Byzantine tradition and the emerging Gothic style. 

The other School I would like to mention is that of Rome. Again this School was at it peak during the 15th C and 16th C, when the Papal city was sponsoring Michelangelo and Raphael. But there was a trend during the emergence of a Proto-Renaissance style (or styles), in addition to the Byzantine and Romanesque-Gothic influence, driven by the awareness of ancient statuary. This was most evident in Rome, where there was much attention paid to the empirical observation of nature and its phenomena. There was a desire to imitate its details on pictorial and sculptural surfaces. The Roman version of the Maniera Greca looked more towards the pagan techniques and visual language, resulting in a more realistic and monumentalised art than in the Tuscan region.

Again I am only going to take one artist as representing Rome in those early years of the Proto-Renaissance. This is the mosaicist Pietro Cavallini (ca. 1259-1330), and his The Annunciation, in Santa Maria in Trastevere (dated ca. 1320). For a time Cavallini and Giotto were both supported by the Angevin Kingdom of Naples as a way to elevate the image of their court through the presence and mastery of painters imported from abroad. It is interesting to note that he was lured to Naples with an offer from Charles II, a yearly 30 ounces of gold with a further two ounces to maintain a house. We see here a certain monumentality and yet also some experimentation with light and shade trying to create an “atmosphere” around the moment.  

We leave this Proto-Renaissance with just one reminder. It was a period where artists tried to capture a certain “figurative realism”, paving the way for the Renaissance “anatomist artist” of the 14th C and 15th C.