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14th and 15th Century Italian Art


Theme Essay


‘The Annunciation’


Throughout the 14th and 15th century in Italian art there were common religious themes depicted by the artists. Prominent themes tended to be fixed around Christ and showed stories that had something to do with his life, before, during and after. Each painting was based on a section from the bible. In the 14th century it is the Florentine artist Giotto with his frescoes that adorn the Arena Chapel that narrate important sections of Christ’s life and Duccio with his similar depictions in the Maesta that best show paintings of prominent religious themes by artists at the time. In the 15th century artists such as Piero Della Francesca and Leonardo da Vinci continued these themes, producing paintings that had the same preoccupation with the religious stories of the bible as the artists of the century before.





An important theme which runs through this time period is the story of the Annunciation to Mary, when Mary is visited by the archangel Gabriel, the moment of the conception of Christ, nine months before his birth into the world as depicted by another common theme; the nativity scene. The Annunciation has been painted almost obsessively by a wide range of artists which include Giotto, Duccio, Simone Martini and Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti of the 14th century and Fra Angelico, Dominico Venezaino, Piero Della Francesca, Leonardo Da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli of the 15th. Despite the personal and also evolving style of each painter their Annunciation’s are all similar in their close following of the moment as told in the bible and many elements in the painting are influenced by previous paintings of the Annunciation . Symbolic references are also common in the paintings with many similarities between them, as each artist was interested in portraying the narrative in the most truthfully expressive way possible. However from the 14th century to the 15th the paintings of the Annunciation become much more realistic and believable with the discovery of Linear perspective due to Brunelleschi, and Alberti’s theories becoming widely known and applied by the artists in their own paintings. The prominent artists who painted the Annunciation to Mary are Giotto, Simone Martini, Piero Della Francesca, Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli. Each painter combines their own personal painting style with trends and ideas of the time, making the same basic depiction of the story slightly different in both style and expression.


In the Arena Chapel in Padua is Giotto’s Annunciation. Due to its importance (it is the event to which the chapel is dedicated) it has been placed in the most conspicuous wall surface of the Chapel, below the badly preserved painting of God sitting on his throne amid a throng of angels. The Annunciation takes place in the lower section of the fresco, in the two spandrels flanking the sanctuary arch. The primary figures of the Annunciation; the archangel Gabriel and Mary, have been simply depicted, facing each other on opposite sides of the arch. Each figure kneels within a shrine that has been set at an angle to suggest that it faces the other. Because of this we only see the exteriors and a small part of the interiors of the two structures. The two figures are placed on a stage and this has probably been derived from constructions used in the dramatization of the Annunciation that took place in Padua during the Trecento. Giotto has used the cuspid Gothic arch for the balconies to either side and this links with the rest of his work in the chapel. Throughout Giotto uses the round arch to refer to the old law and the pointed, Gothic arch as a symbol for the New Testament. In the Annunciation we see the introduction of the first Gothic arches in the cycle. Giotto has represented the Annunciation in a new and intimate way for the time period. In the fresco there is both the understanding of religion as well as that of human emotions. The moment in which Mary accepts her responsibility as mother of the Son of God has been particularly emphasized. Like in the bible when she utters ‘Be it done to me according to thy will,” she indicates her resignation by solemnly crossing her hands across her chest and kneeling, in a mimic of the angels pose. The profile figures of Mary and Gabriel have been given an extra-ordinary solidity in line with his tendency for solid monumental figures as derived from the Roman pictorial style. There is realism created by the careful foreshortening of Mary’s arms, and the precision is an anticipation of the technical accomplishments of the 15th century. Giotto has also created the allusion of depth with profile poses, the overlapping of the figures and the architecture and rudimentary oblique perspective of the balcony. The sense of space is further heightened by his attempt at foreshortening the haloes through making them appear as ovals behind Mary and Gabriel’s heads. Giotto has also used light effectively. He has painted a flood of light in clustering rays of a soft-orange pigment that descends on the figure of the virgin and Gabriel. This is suggestive of actual light, as he has refrained from using much gold leaf other than that in the haloes. Because there are no real sources of light in Giotto’s art this is representational of the light of heaven. Giotto’s Annunciation is a magnificent part of the Arena Chapel frescoes and its clear and solid composition, with only the bare necessities of architecture help convey the narrative in a precise and innovative manner.


Simone Martini was another 14th century painter who produced many paintings of religious themes. The most famous of Simone’s surviving works is his Annunciation with Two Saints. It was painted for the Siena Cathedral in 1 and signed jointly with his brother-in-law Lippo Memmi. Memmi is thought to have painted the two saints, that of Saint Arsano � the patron of Siena and Saint Giulitta. Simone’s Annunciation is remarkable in that it is the earliest known example for which the Annunciation is the subject of the entire altarpiece. Like Giotto’s Annunciation the composition is reasonably simple but Simone has decorated his in a much more elaboarte and decorative style, as derived from the Byzantine tradition. His four figures create a carefully balanced composition. Mary has been placed sitting on her throne in a twisted three-quarter pose on one side of the centerline while on the opposite side Gabriel kneels and faces her. Unusual to the other Annunciations Simone has also included two saints and these are placed so they frame the cental figures and each end of the panel, facing outwards to the viewer in a dignified pose. Gold is a prominent feature in this work with the shallow, gold background, Gothic style arches and glittering sunburst shapes incised around the tooled haloes. From Gabriel’s mouth to Mary’s stretch raised biblical words of the beginning of the Annunciation, “Ave gratia plena dominus tecum” which in English is translated as ‘Hail thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee.” As in Giotto’s fresco the heavenly messenger kneels but here the suddenness of his arrival is indicated by his cloak which still appears to float in a breeze. In response the virgin is shrinking backwards in her throne, aligning with the gospel account which states she was disturbed by the appearance and salutation of the angel. The hard crisp lines of Simone’s faces are emphasized in Mary with her suspicion expression, conveyed through her puckered brows and pursed lips. The explosive immediacy of the event is increased by the violence of her movement, the sharp, taut curves of her body contrasting to the more solid and composed form of the angel. Simone has made great use of symbolism in his painting. In the center of the richly veined marble floor sits a golden vase of lilies, deliberately placed as a reference to Mary’s purity. The angel bears an olive branch and wears the olive leaves of the Prince of Peace upon his head. Above the figures and placed between the central arch the dove of the Holy Spirit bursts forth from a group of bodiless angels with crossed wings, serving for both symbolic and decorative purposes. Simone Martini’s Annunciation with Two Saints is elaborately detailed and the lilies, olive leaves, curves of drapery and even the features of Mary and Gabriel display a sharp metallic quality that is also present in his other works such as Saint Louis of Toulouse.


In the 15th century the theme of the Annunciation was continued with vigor by many leading artists. Piero Della Franscesca is one such painter whose Annunciation is both rich with symbolism and also keeps close to the story. It was produced between 1454-58 and is in the lower left of the chancel window in San Franscesco in Arezzo. It is a simple and massive composition with the fresco being effectively quartered by the central column and the classical frieze running through the center, creating a cruciform shape defined by the architecture which is of Albertian design. Mary has been placed in front of a marble portico similar to the marble tabernacles used to hold miraculous images of the Annunciation and to the left is the closed door of the porta clausa which is symbolic of Mary’s virginity. The barred window of the second-storey also refers to this. The virgin, on the right of the composition stands regally and looks down toward the stooped figure of Gabriel, while in the sky above God the Father has appeared, his hands outstretched to send down the dove of the holy spirit (however no evidence of it remains). His gesture is effective in bringing attention to the scene below. As the miracle of the conception takes place within Mary the light from the real window of the chancel has been utilized and the painting placed so the light falls upon her womb and throws the shadow of the Portico upon the porta clausa. Piero’s figures, like in his other paintings, are quite expressionless and though appearing very real lack the same human quality that is particularly expressed in Giotto’s Annunciation and the sense of sudden movement as seen in Simone Martini’s. To portray his narrative he has relied largely on gesture which in many cases is also symbolic. The archangel Gabriel is offering Mary a palm leaf which is a symbol of the paradise lost by Adam and Eve and also her purity which is further emphasised in the veil she wears. With his other hand Gabriel is making the two fingered sign of blessing and this gesture also refers to the Trinity. His gesture is reflected by Mary and this helps unite the two halves of the composition. There is more symbolism in the rope hanging from the bar on the window which refers to Christ’s scourging.


Piero has portrayed Mary as having two roles, as being representative of the church (hence the discrepancy in scale between her and the angel) and that of the bride, which is shown by the delicate veil she wears upon her head. Realism plays a large part in this painting, as Piero was a master at creating space. He has created the impression of recession into space through the columns and roof supports, the receding halo of Mary (and the halo-like cloud above God’s head) and the clouds. Due to Brunelleschi and Alberti’s theories accurate linear perspective has now become possible and Piero uses this in his painting to help add to his depth. His vanishing point is low and it keeps with the direction of the architecture and the thrust of God’s hands.


Piero Della Franscesca’s Annunciation is vividly coloured with rose, blue, white and the rich dark colours of the veined marble and into his composition of three figures, two doors, a column and a window and the miracle of light he has expressed the deepest mysteries of Christianity.


In the late 1470s it was Leonardo da Vinci’s turn to paint the Annunciation, which was commissioned by the monks for the Monastery of Monte Oliveto, outside Florence. He has set the moment of the appearance of Gabriel to Mary to inform her she is the Mother of Christ, in a typical garden of the time. The Virgin is seated on the threshold of a splendid villa with granite walls. The book she has been reading (and which also serves as a reminder of her literacy, indicative of an educated background) rests on a lecturn made from a Roman sepulchral urn which has been delicately rendered. Mary’s features are placid, not disturbed by any trace of emotion and her acknowledgement of the angels message is conveyed through the lifting of her hand in somewhat patrician surprise. Like Piero Della Franscesca’s Annunciation, Leonardo has also narrated his story through gesture and this is shown in Mary’s surprise and the angel’s two-fingered gesture of blessing and offering of a lily. Gabriel kneels before the virgin on a carpet of grass and and flowers, each which have been rendered with Leonardo’s botanical accuracy and sense of rhythmic growth. In the wings of the angel and the drapery of Madonna are two characteristics of Leonardo’s art. The angel’s wings have been studied in detail from those of a bird and are quite different from the conventionally feathered wings which most 15th century painters gave to their angels. Similarly, there is a drawing for the Madonna’s draperies which has obviously been made from an actual piece of cloth. In the 15th century this was a revolutionary proceeding as most painters painted folds in garments from their own imagination. The wings and drapery are evidence that Leonardo was already demonstrating his passion for actuality and the appearance of nature which was to become his principle characteristic.


The figures of Gabriel and Mary are enclosed by a garden wall which is symbolic of Mary’s purity. Over this wall are plants which are also an important part of the narrative as most have symbolic meanings traditional within Christian iconography. The cypress, because it is an evergreen, symblises immortality. The cedar symbolises Christ and is also attributed to the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. The pine is representative of life beyond death. Past this line of trees is a distant port with towers, lighthouses and ships which is similar to the background by Filippino in the Corsini Virgin and child with Angels. Leonardo has made use of an atmospheric veil and this is shown in the blue painted sky which becomes denser as it recedes towards the shimmering mountains. The use of light is always an important element in Leonardo’s paintings and the Annunciation proves no different. The faces of Mary and Gabriel are without shadow, possesing an unearthly softness and light which Leonardo explains in his notebooks, stating they should never be painted in the direct light of the sun, thus avoiding the sharp reflections of shadows which break up the purity of the form. The figures, whose drapery is solid and sculptural, provide a good example of his interest in anatomy and foreshortening. The angel, depicted in profile, kneels on the grass and rests a severely foreshortened left arm across his knee. His right upper arm is also foreshortened. In Mary’s seated pose foreshortening occurs in both upper legs and arms and her folds of drapery and covered feet also contribute. The haloes have also been foreshortened and this has come a long way from Giotto’s oval haloes and Simone Martini’s round disks in their Annunciations. Like Piero Della Francesca, Leonardo has also made use of linear perspective to create a realistic and believable scene and this is particularly shown in the lines of the architecture and receding lecturn.


In the late 15th century Sandro Botticelli produced his own Annunciation, which shows the gathering intensity of his religious fervor. The event is taking place in a simple room that is furnished only by Mary’s lecturn, but the artist has left the door open so we can look through into her enclosed garden. The architecture is more like a draftsman’s rendering than a painting of an actual room and its barrenness helps make the figures and their vivid emotions clearer. Mary’s twisting and bending pose had many similarities to Donatello’s Annunciation. She sways as if caught in a strong breeze and she almost seems to swoon. It is a dramatization of the biblical text which stated only that ‘her heart was disturbed within her’. In his painting Botticelli has gone one step further with expressing her emotional shock and he has showed her eyes as almost closed, her features deadly pale. Gesture has been used to a great effect with the angel kneeling in a profile pose opposite Mary, right hand outstretched and face intent as he relays the new to Mary. Mary’s own gestures mirror that of Gabriel’s and further indicates her surprise at his appearance and news. The drapery in both figures is realistic and seems almost sculptured, similar to that in Leonardos Annunciation but with a greater sense of movement in their sweeping lines. Botticelli is particularly notable for the use of flowing line and it is representative of a new and passionate emotional expression that points toward the Florentine Mannerism of the Cinquecento and even the mysticism of El Greco. His use of strong and clashing colours such as in the red of the angels cloak and the orange floor in comparison to the more sombre greens of the outside world, add vibrancy to the important moment he is depicting. Keeping with the tradition of the painters before him Botticelli has painted the lily of purity in Gabriel’s hand. Behind the lily rises a tree, as if to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah, “A shoot shall grow from Jesse’s rod” and to foretell the Tree of Cross. Like in Leonardo’s Annunciation he has shown Mary’s garden as being enclosed as a symbol of her virginity and placed a book on the lecturn to show her literacy. Sandro Botticelli’s Annunciation is expressive and passionate and is a good summation of the developing style in painting from the 14th and 15th century. Not only is his work realistically painted with a sense of space but also it contains both expression and atmosphere with his beautiful use of flowing line and crisp architecture.


In the 14th and 15th century of the Renaissance Giotto, Simone Martini, Piero Della Fransesca, Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli all painted the religious episode of the Annunciation in amanner which closely followed the story in the bible. The Annunciations of the Renaissance are all rich in symbolism and have common elements throughout creating a link between the paintings of the different artists. Commonly Gabriel is depicted holding a lily and always appears on the left of Mary, either kneeling or half stooped so Mary becomes the dominant feature. Mary is almost always shown with a book as an indication of her literacy and is depicted as being surprised by the angels sudden arrival, in accordance with the biblical story. Generally it is just Mary and Gabriel shown in the painting as they are the basic elements of the narrative but Piero Della Francesca and Simone Martini differ slightly with the inclusion of God the Father and two saints. The space in which the figures are placed is not as important and each painter was able to change the setting to suit what he saw as best in complimenting and adding extra meaning to his narrative, hence the interior space of Sandro Botticelli’s compared to the garden of Leonardo da Vinci’s. However despite the similarities in the narrative and gestures, as time progressed the works became much more expressive and realistic with the accurate construction of space and extensive studies in anatomy, nature and architecture. This change is best shown in the 14th century Annunciation’s by Giotto and Simone Martini which depicts the moment in a much more stylised and simple manner than the more fluent, expressive and realistic Annunciation’s of the 15th century by artists such as Piero Della Fransesca, Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli.





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