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Italian Gothic - Influences

( Originally Published 1921 )



I. Geographical.—Geographical influence in Italy varied considerably in the north, centre, and south of this long, narrow peninsula. North Italy includes the great Lombard plains and the islands of the Venetian Republic, and was brought into intercourse with Germany through Milan by the Brenner Pass across the natural barrier of the Alps ; while the Venetian State on the coast of the Adriatic was, through her overseas trade, in constant contact with Byzantium and the East. Thus seas and mountains, often regarded as nature's barriers, were turned, by an expanding civilisation, into high-roads of art and commerce, especially on that coast " where Venice sat in state, throned on her hundred isles." Central Italy, although dominated by the enduring tradition of Old Rome, yet produced, in the districts to the north and farther from Rome, magnificent Gothic churches of a type peculiar to this district, as at Florence, Siena, and Assisi. South Italy and Sicily, exposed in the past to Greek and Byzantine influences on the east, Roman on the north, and Saracenic on the south, was a veritable battlefield of art, and these conflicting influences produced a peculiar blend of Mediaeval architecture, further emphasised by Norman rule.

II. Geological.—North Italy is especially remarkable for the abundance of clay in the alluvial Lombard plains, from which were made the beautiful red bricks and terra-cotta used for many buildings, both ecclesiastical and secular, such as the Frari Church, Venice, the Certosa, Pavia, and the Ospedale Maggiore, Milan ; while lustrous white and coloured marbles from the mountains to the north were also employed, as at Milan, Genoa, and Verona. Central Italy is characterised by the extensive use of coloured marbles, frequently in zebra stripes or framed panels, which are wrought into the fabric as colour decoration, as at Florence, Siena (p. 513), Orvieto, and Lucca. South Italy and Sicily are so rich in coloured marbles that the term " Sicilian marble " has become a household word, and the architectural decoration of Palermo Cathedral is achieved by the deft mingling of marble in two colours. Thus did the geological formation supply materials for the development of unusually pronounced styles.

III. Climatic.—North Italy has a climate similar to the temperate region of central Europe, and this contributed to the development of those essentially Gothic features, such as large traceried windows, with the consequent necessity for buttresses instead of walls, as seen in Milan Cathedral and to a less extent in the buildings of Padua, Verona, and Venice. In Central and South Italy, the sunny climate and brilliant atmosphere naturally demanded small windows and thick walls to exclude the glare and heat of the sun. The preference, moreover, for opaque wall decoration, whether in mosaic, fresco, or marble, handed down from the ancient Romans through the Romanesque period, counteracted any tendency to supersede opaque walls of stone by transparent walls of glass, and thus there was little chance for the development of window tracery.

IV. Religious.—The power of the Pope, as head of the Western Church, waned with Gregory X (A.D. 1271–76), for succeeding Popes were under the influence of the Kings of France, and for seventy years (A.D. 1307–77), a period known as the " Babylonish captivity," they resided at Avignon, losing authority and influence during their absence from Rome, in which city it is significant that there should be only one Gothic church. After the return of Gregory XI to Rome and his death in A.D. 1378, Western Christendom was plunged by rival Popes into the religious turmoil of the " Great Schism of the West" (A.D. 1378-1417), which was only terminated by the Council of Constance and the accession of Martin V. It is not surprising that this period of confusion was unfavourable to the building of churches in Italy. S. Francis of Assisi (A.D. 1182-I226) founded the order of Franciscans or Grey Friars, which fired the religious imagination of the time and revolutionised religious life ; for, as Dante says, " he rose like a sun and illumined everything with his rays." The movement he had started gained strength, so that by the eighteenth century there was no less than 9,000 convents of this Order in Europe.

V. Social.—Italy had no national unity at this period, but was cut up into principalities and commonwealths, such as the Republics of Venice, Florence, and Genoa, the Duchy of Milan, the Kingdom of Naples, and the Papal States. This absence of national unity is mirrored in the varied architectural treatment in different parts of the peninsula. Political life was full of rivalry and activity, and small wars were of constant occurrence. The erection of the Cathedrals of Siena, Orvieto, Florence, Milan, and Lucca was largely due to the vigorous civic pride of rival cities ; while during the struggles (A.D. 1250–1409) between Popes and Emperors and their respective factions, the Guelphs and Ghibellines, both sides had to reckon with the increasing power of the townsmen who erected those numerous town halls which attest the growth of municipal institutions. The unsettled condition of the times may be gathered not only from the contemporary chronicles of Giovanni Villani, but also from the poet Tasso, who says that the citizens on each holiday blew trumpets and proceeded to sack the neighbouring town. Dante (A.D. 1265–1321) presents a vivid picture of the age in his " Divina Commedia," and this poem, which standardised the Italian language in literature, also coincided with the full development of Italian Gothic architecture.

VI. Historical.—In spite of internal turmoil, Italy led the way in Europe in arts, learning, and commerce, and the revival of learning, known as the Renaissance, took place there nearly a century in advance of northern Europe, and effectually arrested the further evolution of the Gothic style in Italy. The Latin conquest of Constantinople (A.D. 1204) during the fourth crusade, in which the Republic of Venice played such a prominent part, and the subsequent years of the Latin occupation of the city (A.D. 1204-61), were mainly responsible for the immigration, in the thirteenth century, of Graeco-Byzantine artists into Italy. These skilled craftsmen, trained in Classical traditions, settled in Genoa, Venice, Pisa, Florence, Siena, and many another town, and gave an impetus to the creative arts which enriched Italy, and then spread their influence throughout Europe. The rise of Venice was marked by the defeat of the Genoese by Doge Dandolo in A.D. 1352, and of the Turkish fleet in A.D. 1416. These victories fired the Venetians with a desire to make the Doge's Palace a fit symbol of their success, and it was completed when Venice reached the zenith of her power and prosperity.



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