The art of painting in the Santa Croce 1/6

Giotto’s work: the Peruzzi Chapel and the Bardi Chapel 1/2

Click here for an overview of the Santa Croce: architecture, sculpture and painting.

Santa Croce facade
Santa Croce facade Florence

In addition to commissions for the clergy, Giotto also received commissions from private individuals. Right next to the choir are two chapels of the Bardi (adjacent to the choir) and Peruzzi with frescoes by Giotto. There is also an altarpiece in the chapel of Baroncelli in the southern transept. The Web Gallery of Art has good pictures of the Bardi chapel and the Peruzzi chapel and it also contains the schematic of the two fresco cycles.

Giotto’s frescoes in the chapels of the Peruzzi and Bardi families

Santa Croce interior
Floor plan of the church and the Peruzzi Bardi chapels
Santa Croce interior
 
Santa Croce interior Chapels of Bardi and Peruzzi to the right of the main altar two sides of the chapels
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Santa Croce interior Chapels of Bardi and Peruzzi to the right of the main altar Florence

Fresco technique and painting on the wall

In his handbook, ‘Il Libro dell’Arte’, Cennino Cennini explains to the artists how to work on a wall, i.e. in fresco. In chapter LVVII he describes how to apply the first layer of plaster, the arriccio, and …

‘‘If you want to do some work, remember to roughen up the plaster and make it a little greasy. Then, when the plaster is dry, take the charcoal and draw and arrange according to the subject or the figures you have to draw. Take all measurements carefully, first set perpendiculars and then take half of the plane. Then set some perpendiculars and connect them horizontally. […] Then you make the composition of the subjects or figures with charcoal, as I have described.

And always keep your zones to scale, and equal. Then take a small pointed hog bristle brush with a little ochre, without tempera, as thin as water, and trace your figures. Draw them in and shade them like you did when I taught you how to draw. Then take a bundle of feathers and wipe the charcoal from your drawing. Then take a little sinopel [red ochre; named after a city on the Black Sea: Sinopel] without tempera, and with a finely pointed brush you indicate the noses, the eyes, the hair and all the accents and outlines of the figures.

Make sure that the proportions of these figures are correct, because this makes you familiar with the figures and helps you foresee what you will have to paint. Then start by making your ornaments or other things you want to make around it. When you have finished, take some of the lime mortar mentioned above, well prepared with spade and trowel so that it resembles an ointment. Then consider how much work you can do in one day, because you have to finish what you started.’

Cennino Cennini, ‘The handbook of the artist Il Libro dell’Arte’, Contact, Amsterdam/Antwerp 2001 (original edition around 1400) LXVII pages 105-107

This method of painting a fresco presented by Cennini is standard practice and is often described as a buon fresco. The underlayer is applied first, also known as the arriccio, and is around five centimetres thick. Depending on the weather, the drying of this layer takes about three to four months. The composition is then sketched, first with charcoal and finally with red ochre or sinopel. That is why these signatures on the first coat of plaster are called sinopias. At this stage, the drawing is often shown to the client to see if he is satisfied. Changes can easily be made at this stage and a second thin layer of approximately one centimetre is then applied. The lines drawn on the arriccio will be continued on the second wet layer of the half-day period. The size of the intonaco is quite different. It depends on ‘[…] how much work you can do in one day, because whatever you plaster you have to finish.’ ‘And let’s assume that in one day you have to do just one head, that of a saint or a young saint, like that of Our Most Holy Woman.’19

One example of this is seen in the architecture in ‘the Resurrection of Drusiana’ (Peruzzi chapel). Such a day’s work, or giornate, is necessary because the paint has to be applied to the wet intonaco because this is the only way to absorb the pigments in the lime layer. Since the limestone layer dries naturally, you have at best one day to paint it, but often only four or six hours. This isn’t easy at all. If it fails in that time, all you have to do is carve away the intonaco and apply another layer of lime. It is for good reason that there is the expression in Italian: ‘stare fresco.’ Which means as much as being in serious trouble.

Not every pigment can be applied to wet lime. Earthly colours are suitable, but a number of colours, including copper-based pigments, are not at all suitable. Blue always had to be applied dry, a secco. The pigment should then be painted on the dry lime with a medium such as tempera or glue. Such a binder on lime tends to eventually let go, while the pigments (without a line) on the wet lime are anchored deep in the lime layer. Even after a long time, the colours are still very fresh. This is what gave the technique its name: fresco. Gold and silver must also be applied later, so a secco. Nowadays this is clearly visible at the aureoles in the Peruzzi and the Bardi chapels. These are often severely damaged and some are entirely gone.

Birth and naming John detail
after and before the restoration

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Giotto Birth and naming John detail Santa croce

The assignment and the different method: wet in wet (buon fresco) and dry (a secco).

According to art historian Rona Goffen, the commissions for Giotto’s two fresco cycles were probably given simultaneously (in the 1320s) by both families.20 After his return to Florence in 1317 and his departure to Naples in 1328, Giotto had been given commissions left and right. The frescoes for the two adjacent chapels were probably painted one after the other. The cycle about St. Francis in the Bardi chapel is done in the usual way and is done wet in wet, otherwise known as buon fresco. Since the usual method, wet in wet, is not very sensible in the cold months, after his work in the Bardi chapel, Giotto painted the Peruzzi chapel on a dry layer of lime. Giotto opted for this slow but fast method because he needed time.21

Uccello ‘Giotto’ detail ca. 1450 Louvre
Uccello Giotto detail c. 1450 Louvre

Restoration

It is not just the inferior, but also faster technique, a secco, that Giotto used in the Peruzzi chapel, that indicates he was in a hurry. During the major restoration between 1958 and 1961, it appeared that at least five or six pairs of hands had been involved during the painting process. The fresco cycles in both chapels, Bardi and Peruzzi, are severely damaged. The most severely damaged are the frescoes that were painted a secco. In the eighteenth century, fourteenth century art was no longer appreciated, so both chapels were painted over with a white brush. In the nineteenth century, Giotto’s frescoes were rediscovered and brought out again. Between 1958 and 1961 there was a major and drastic restoration.22All later additions were removed, such as the small harp that Salome held in her hands. Nowadays you only see the original paint layer. Original parts that had disappeared were left open during the restoration.

The Peruzzi Chapel

The frescoes in this chapel, the second to the right of the choir adjacent to the Bardi chapel, was the first work Giotto painted in Santa Croce. The wealthy banker, Donato di Arnoldo Peruzzi, left money to his family chapel in his will in 1299. His grandson, Giovanni di Rinieri Peruzzi, is presumed to have commissioned the frescoes. At Web Gallery of Art you can see good pictures of the Peruzzi chapel and you can click here for the schematic of this fresco cycle.

Santa Croce Peruzzi chapel
Peruzzi chapel Giotto Santa Croce

The paintings are in much worse condition than those in the adjacent Bardi Chapel. The colour has largely disappeared. This is in part attributable to the fast and poor method used by Giotto: fresco a secco. As described earlier, painting on a dry plaster layer with pigment and binder will cause major problems later on. The paint is poorly absorbed and easily lets go over time. The later ‘restorations’ also contributed to the decline.23

Peruzzi chapel stories of John the Baptist left wall
 Giotto Peruzzi chapel Stories of John the Baptist left wall Santa Croce
 
Peruzzi chapel stories of John the Baptist left wall Giotto
Giotto Peruzzi chapel stories of John the Baptist left wall

 

Birth of John the Baptist and the naming of the Peruzzi Chapel
Giotto Birth of John the Baptist and the naming of the Peruzzi Chapel Santa Croce

In contrast to the frescoes in the Bardi chapel, the architecture in the Peruzzi chapel has been placed at an angle to the picture plane. Moreover, there is often more than one building painted within one scene. In addition, Giotto also shows several stories in one image, such as the birth of John the Baptist and his naming. The architecture in the Bardi Chapel encloses the viewer much more. In this chapel, the architecture in the pictorial space expands. It’s not so much a decor, but much more a part of the story. This is particularly evident in the Dance of Salome.

The cycle is about John the Baptist (left wall) and John the Evangelist (right wall).24 As far as we know, this was the first time that the lives of these two were depicted in one fresco cycle.25

The painted stories are based on the Legend of Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine. According to this Dominican author from the thirteenth century, John the Evangelist was taken to heaven on the day that John the Baptist was born. In addition, John was the patron saint of the client. John the Baptist was also the patron saint of Florence and the saint of the Franciscans.

The main theme of this cycle is not so much the life of John the Evangelist and John the Baptist, but the second coming of Christ on earth, as the great Judge who casts verdict over man. It was John the Baptist who predicted the coming of Christ and John the Evangelist who prophesied and described the Apocalypse in his Revelations. It is for good reason that Giotto painted the Lamb of God in the middle above the altar and the lancet.

Giotto Peruzzzi chapel Lamb Santa Croce

In addition, the right-hand lunette also depicts John on the island of Patmos, while the Last Judgment is revealed to him. The Apocalypse and the resurrection of man is of course a subject that fits perfectly in a chapel that serves as a family tomb. In addition, the end of the world plays a central role in Franciscan theological views.

Johannes at Patmos
Giotto Peruzzi chapel Johannes at Patmos Santa Croce

Above the entrance arch are eight apostles in hexagons. Inside the vaulted fields are the symbols of the four evangelists. The ornamental bands between the two lower scenes, at both sides, show the faces of six figures wearing contemporary clothing. These are likely members of the Peruzzi family who look at the altar.26

The stories about John the Baptist

The left wall has three painted stories about John the Baptist. In the lunette you can see the Annunciation too Zechariah. This scene seems very commonplace. Gossiping women and some musicians here and there. The way in which these figures move is very recognizable.

Annunciation to Zechariah detail
Giotto detail story about John the Baptist Peruzzi chapel Santa Croce

Zechariah recoils from the angel who brings the cheerful message. The two buildings that are placed diagonally on the image plane divide the story into two parts. The buildings themselves are cut off by a continuous list. This creates the impression that we, the viewer, only see a part of the work and that the work continues behind the frames.

Annunciation to Zechariah
Giotto Annunciation to Zachariah Peruzzi chapel Santa Croce

Under the lunette in the middle you can see the birth of John the Baptist on the right and the naming of John the Baptist on the left. Here Giotto uses architecture to clearly separate and frame the two different moments in the story. While silence and peace reign at birth, this is not the case with Zechariah, who writes the name of his son in a book.

Birth and Naming of John the Baptist
Giotto Birth and Naming of John the Baptist Peruzzi chapel Santa Croce

The Dance of Salome is painted underneath. Here, too, the three different moments in the story are depicted in one frame. Herod’s wife, Herodias, and their daughter Salome have been placed in a separate room. In the middle, Herod sits behind the table and is offered John’s head on a plate.

Herod’s Banquet
Giotto Herod's Banquet Peruzzi chapel Santa Croce

Through an accumulation from bottom to top: from the hand of the executioner, the board with the head and the head of the king Herod, the eye is drawn to this gruesome event. In front of the table a little to the right is Salome. The openwork building is clearly pagan in view of the statues on the roof. Unlike the structure on the opposite wall, the Ascension of John the Evangelist depicts an early Christian church, a basilica. On the right Salome kneels to offer John the Baptist’s head to her mother. On the left is a tower and behind the grille lies the beheaded body of John.

Herod’s Banquet detail
Giotto Herod's Banquet detail Peruzzi chapel Santa Croce

The stories about John the Evangelist

The right wall shows John the Evangelist in the lunette, at the top. He’s on the island of Patmos where he received a vision of the world’s end. Only if you stand outside the chapel itself does the spatial effect of the island in the sea make sense. John is deeply immersed in thought.

John the evangelist after and before the restoration
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Giotto John the evangelist vision detail Peruzzi chapel

This posture of John is strongly reminiscent of Joachim’s dream or the Annunciation, a work that Giotto had painted in Padua in the Scrovegni chapel

Vision of Johannes the evangelist on Patmos
Giotto Vision of Johannes the evangelist on Patmos Peruzzi chapel Santa croce

The vision seems to take place around John’s ear. This is a central composition in which John is depicted in the lower centre of the picture plane. The other figures such as God, the dragon and the angels are around him. This is quite different from the lunette on the opposite wall, where the buildings divide the scene into two parts. The middle fresco shows the resurrection of Drusiana. John brought her to life outside the walls of Ephesus. John, with his followers, extended his arm and Drusiana came to life, their eyes intersect. John’s outstretched right arm is answered by Drusiana by stretching both her arms. She seems to be folding her hands for a prayer of thanks. Unfortunately this is no longer visible as the original paint has disappeared here.

Raising of Drusiana
Giotto Raising of Drusiana by John the Evangelist Peruzzi chapel Santa Croce

What we are now seeing is the plaster of the hole left by the scaffolding pole. These were the only places (fourteen) that did work with wet in wet. The intonaco was only applied after the painting and the removal of the scaffolding.27 Three figures kneel before John, impressed by the miracle that he had just performed with God’s help. In this part, Giotto also uses architecture to underline the story even more.

John revives Drusiana details
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Giotto Raising of Drusiana detail Peruzzi chapel Santa Croce

The eye of the viewer goes from the outstretched hand of John the Evangelist to Drusiana and back again. This is put against the background of a bare wall between the two main figures that is not interrupted by verticals such as towers and buildings. Like the towers and buildings behind them, the groups that are watching seem to be densely packed together.

Raising of Drusiana detail
Giotto Raising of Drusiana by John the Evangelist detail Peruzzi chapel Santa Croce

The world that Giotto paints here has become so large that it can no longer contain all the figures and the top of two of the buildings. This can be seen, for example, in the figures that are partly behind the painted frames. The Assumption of John is painted at the bottom. The Assumption of John the Evangelist is only credible if you stand just outside the chapel.

 Ascension of John the Evangelist
Giotto  Ascension of John the Evangelist Peruzzi chapel Santa Croce

The building is a church with an open grave in the floor. Bystanders shy away, frightened or surprised. In the middle of the churchgoers, the ascension takes place. Christ on a cloud, together with angels, takes John into heaven. John and Christ look each other in the eye. John is lifted by a bundle of golden rays that embrace him. Michelangelo stood in this chapel as a young boy and made a study drawing of this fresco. So perhaps he came up with the idea of Adam’s creation in the Sistine Chapel. The drawing of the young Michelangelo shows that he was mainly interested in the man who leans forward with a surprised look at the empty grave that John left behind. By the way, Bandinelli or one of his assistants also made a drawing of the group of men to the left of the empty grave.

Michelangelo and Giotto
Study drawing on Assumption of John
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Michelangelo Study drawing on Assumption of John


Methodology, execution and quality

As previously mentioned, work proceeded extremely quickly. Giornati, half-days, were redundant, because painting was done on the dry intonaco. In the Peruzzi chapel, paint spatters from the vaults have ended up at the lunettes.28 Usually work was done from top to bottom so that no spatters could get on the underlying parts. Probably because of the time pressure, both the lunettes and the vaults were worked on at the same time. Scaffolding has been placed at five different heights. A large layer of intonaco was first applied in the lunette at the top. After the painting, the scaffolding poles were removed and lowered so much that the upper part could be painted standing on the scaffolding planks. Each side wall is painted in six parts. As usual, perpendiculars were drawn in the plaster mainly horizontally and vertically, but also diagonals for architectural shortening. This can still be seen with the naked eye in some frescoes, such as in the Revival of Drusiana.

Raising of Drusiana detail
Giotto Raising of Drusiana detail buildings Peruzzi chapel Santa croce

On the first layer of plaster, the arriccio, no sketches were found during the restoration. This would not make sense for the method used. However, sketches have been found on the arriccio, possibly by Giotto himself. In these sketches, details can only be seen in a few architectural elements.29

Giotto probably made use of small drawings, which were converted to scale by the executive assistants. Giotto left the execution of the painting itself to his assistants, and was carried out by five or six of his collaborators.30This also explains the strange differences in size of the figures in several scenes. Especially when comparing the two lower paintings, ‘The Ascension of John the Baptist’ and ‘The Feast of Herod,’ it is striking how much the figures differ. In the Ascension all figures are larger than in the Feast of Herod.

Feast of Herod and Ascension of John
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Giotto Feast of Herod Peruzzi chapel Santa Croce

Furthermore, the woman behind the bed in the birth of John the Baptist is very large. The three right-handed figures in the Revival of Drusiana seem much closer than the figures in the Naming of John the Baptist on the opposite wall. The reason for this is that the various assistants have interpreted the scale transfer of the drawings on the wall differently.31

Birth and naming of John the Baptist detail
Giotto Birth and naming of John the Baptist detail Peruzzi chapel

Not only does the execution leave much to be desired, but according to the art historian, Magginus Hayden, so does the dramatic power that is significantly less than we would come to expect of Giotto.32 Giotto was in need of time because of the many commissions, despite his many assistants, pupils and his two studios: one in Florence and the other in Naples. Attention is not always focused on the crucial event, but is diverted to peripheral events or eye-catching details.33 For example, in John the Baptist’s naming, the two alcoves with vases divert the attention of the figures. There is no child in Elisabeth’s bed.

Birth of John and the naming
Giotto Birth of John and the naming detail Peruzzi chapel Santa Croce

The viewer is the one who has to link the two stories. In the Feast of Herod, the man with the violin attracts a lot of attention. On the opposite wall there are two frescoes, ‘The Assumption of John the Baptist’ and ‘The Revival of Drusiana,’ which more resemble a true Giotto: a focus on the central event.

Feast of Herod
Giotto Feast of Herod detail Peruzzi chapel Santa Croce

Nevertheless, the figures on the right soon demand attention, especially because of the buildings behind the city wall. The crippled man on the far left quickly stands out. In the Annunciation to Zechariah, the man with the harp and the figure with the flute on the far left quickly catch the eye. This makes the story a little confusing. The building to the right of the ciborium is also unclear. What is the purpose of this structure, anyway? The wall behind the ciborium lacks any architectural logic. It seems to have been used exclusively to connect and isolate the two main figures, the angel and Zechariah, as the columns do. The violinist, the cripple and the flutist get a lot of attention and this is at the expense of the core of the story. In the Bardi chapel, painted immediately after, there is more unity in the execution of the paintwork. Moreover, in this chapel there is a strong focus on one dramatic event within each narrative scene.

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