Florence day 5 (continuation 7)

The art of painting in the Santa Croce 6/6

Maso di Banco and Taddeo Gaddi in the Chapel Bardi di Vernio

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

This chapel, the fifth to the left of the main altar, shows work by Maso di Banco.72 Maso was an employee of Giotto at his second studio in Naples.

Bardi di Vernio Chapel
Bardi di Vernio Chapel Santa Croce Maso di Banco Taddeo Gaddi Florence

One of the frescoes in the smaller niche above the tomb and the stained-glass windows was made by Taddeo Gaddi. The chapel belongs to the Bardi family. It is unclear which family members are in the two tombs. The frescoes were painted around 1340. Pictures of the fresco cycle are available at Web Gallery of Art and on Wikipedia (Italian). The story about the Pope Sylvester and Emperor Constantine comes from the Legend of Aurea and can be read in English here. See also Laura Gibbs University of Oklahoma. The location of the Bardi di Vernio chapel in the Santa Croce is grey.

Cappella Bardi di Vernio and two tombs 
Maso di Banco and Taddeo Gaddi Cappella Bardi di Vernio Santa Croce Florence

The chapel Bardi di Vernio in the Santa Croce (coloured grey)

Diagram and overview of the fresco cycle:

North side
From top to bottom
 East side (wall with altar and stained glass windows)
From top to bottom
1.  Constantine refuses to take a bath in the blood of innocents
2. Peter and Paul appear to Emperor Constantine
3. Tomb (left) Resurrection and the Last Judgement
4. Tomb (right) burial  
5.  Pope Silvester leaves Rome (badly damaged)
6.  Holy Bishops
7.  Saint Romulus and Saint Zenobius (bottom two)
South side (part)
From top to bottom
8.   Silvester shows Constantine portraits of the apostles
9.   The miracle of the bull
10. The miracle of the dragon


Wall at the altar east side
Cappella Bardi di Vernio Santa Croce east side stained glass windows
Taddeo Gaddi and a detail of the burial
Taddeo Gaddi and a detail of the burial Cappella Bardi di Vernio Santa Croce

The story on the left wall above the tombs and on the right wall revolves around Pope Silvester. A theme that also recurred by anonymous artists in the Silvester chapel in the Santi Quattro Coronati in Rome (click here for this story, but it takes some scrolling). At the top, Constantine can be seen on a throne. He hears what Pope Silvester has to say and is baptized a Christian. Then Saint Helena, Constantine’s mother, brings a dead bull to life. Two stories are depicted in one scene.

Maso di Banco ‘Pope Silvester shows Paul and Peter to Constantine’ south wall
Emperor Constantine is baptized       The miracle of the bull    The bull
Maso di Banco 'Pope Silvester shows Paul and Peter to Constantine' south wall Cappella Bardi di Vernio Santa Croce

Silvester revives the kings who were poisoned by a dragon. After the revival the two kings kneel down in gratitude to the pope. Earlier, Silvester had killed the dragon and closed the mouth of this terrible monster. The dragon’s breath smelled extremely unpleasant. The man on the left at the column protects himself against the stench by squeezing his nose.

Maso di Banco ‘The miracle of the dragon’ large size
Maso di Banco 'The miracle of the dragon' Cappella Bardi di Vernio Santa Croce

The latter, if we are to believe the sources, takes place in the old heart of Rome: the Roman Forum; hence the landscape with the classical ruins. There is almost no shade, so there is a strange almost supernatural atmosphere. The Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico was impressed by this.

Maso di Banco ‘The miracle of the dragon’ detail
Maso di Banco 'The miracle of the dragon' detail Bardi di Vernio Chapel Santa Croce

Although Giotto and Taddeo used antique motifs in their work, they never painted a complete classical world with ruins. Maso was the first painter to do this.

The paintings near the two funerary niches: Maso di Banco and Taddeo Gaddi

Maso di Banco and the  tomb
Maso di Banco 'The tomb' Cappella Bardi di Vernio Santa Croce

The largest niche is painted by Maso di Banco. He made the work in the niche above the tomb before 1341. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, burial chapels of civilians in the churches slowly became commonplace in central Italy. The dead were usually buried under the floor. A niche (avello) with a tomb was less common. They were however already visible on the facade of the Santa Maria Novella.

A novelty is that the artist connects the three-dimensional world of the tomb with the painting above it in the niche. The deceased does not kneel on the lid of the box, but he comes from the tomb. This is unique; the deceased comes from his grave to meet his Creator. Typically, a dead man was always depicted kneeling.73 The painted part above the tomb resembles a vision of the dead man who lies buried. The resurrection is not accompanied by an angel or a patron saint as for example in the Camposanto in Pisa. Only in a pale valley does he pray to the Lord. This is not an apocalypse for all mankind, but a personal judgment. The figure itself was painted in one part of the day. Two angels sound for the day of Judgment. The other angels carry the instruments of passion.

Above the niche on the outside are two Old Testament prophets leaning out of oculi with scrolls in their hands on which grim slogans are written. On the right is a text from Baruch (Deuteronomy): “If you forget the Lord your God, and walk after other gods, worship them and kneel before them – I warn you in advance that you will surely perish. (Baruch 8: 19). On the left is another painful thought: (Jesus Sirach 41:1): “O death, how bitter is the thought of you for a man who is at peace among his possessions”.

The subject of prayer in purgatory is depicted here. This was developed by theologians from the beginning of the trecento who dealt with visions and legends of Gregory. And this saint happens to be depicted on the windows next to Trajan. It was the prayers of Gregory who saved the emperor’s unbaptized soul from hell and purgatory. Besides, the whole idea of purgatory was conceived by Gregory. It was also Gregory who had seen Christ as a man of sorrows, a theme that is depicted on the sarcophagus.

Maso di Banco ‘Resurrection and the Last Judgment’
Maso di Banco 'Resurrection and the Last Judgment' fresco Cappella Bardi di Vernio Santa Croce

The living Christ who triumphs over the dead has exactly the same wounds in the fresco as the sculpted Christ on the tomb. Being bankers, the Bardi’s lived on very high interest rates, not to mention usury rates. Of course, the church didn’t allow this. Was penance in purgatory also what awaited them? It is of course no coincidence that in Padua, Giotto painted Scrovegni, also a money dealer, in the Last Judgment. Enrico Scrovegni is depicted kneeling as he gives the Scrovegni chapel to Mary.

Giotto ‘Scrovegni offers the chapel’.
Giotto 'Scrovegni offers the chapel'. Padua Scrovegni chapel

In the story in the oratorio of the Santi Quattro Coronati in Rome, the theme is the triumph of the church over secular power. Saint Francis stayed above the oratory (with the fresco cycle about Silvester: click here for this story) when he came to Rome to get papal approval for the rules of order. In the Cappella di Bardi di Vernio, however, there is no question of a struggle between two powers: the secular and the spiritual. The link with the Santa Croce is of course that Pope Silvester converted Helena, the mother of Constantine. Helena later discovered the cross of Christ in Jerusalem.

The story of Maso di Banco in the niche with the tombs is very concise. The story is displayed almost iconographically. Is this what Ghiberti meant when, in his ‘I Commentarii’ about Maso di Banco, he remarked that ‘[…] he cleverly shortened his art [abbreviò]’?74

In addition to the very original transition between the stone tomb and the painting above it, the painter also adapted his work beautifully to the surroundings. The latter is characteristic of Maso di Banco. The whole composition, from God the Father to the praying figure that rises from his grave, has the shape of an almond. The form of the Gothic niche is thus repeated in the composition. In the painting this form begins with the head of Christ and the lines converge again at the two slopes of the landscape below the praying man. The mandorla with Christ, the core of the composition, again repeats this almond shape.

The second, significantly smaller niche, was painted by Taddeo. After Maso di Banco had completed his work, Taddeo began work somewhere between 1335 and 1340.75 The intrados surrounding the burial was largely painted a secco. Large parts were later peeled off. Where Gaddi’s paint has disappeared, a new painting emerged. These were not figures, but fictional panels. These kinds of panels do not occur in Gaddi’s work, but can be seen in the rest of the chapel that Maso painted. This may of course indicate that Taddeo partly painted over a work by Maso. The figures (Christ as the man of sorrows and two prophets) above the niche on the front are made by Maso di Banco.76 However, from an iconographic point of view they do belong to the burial of Gaddi. Taddeo’s paintwork has a lot in common with Maso di Banco. The art historian Longhi even speaks of an ‘amiciazia mental’ in reference to Maso’s work.77 This is especially true for the heads of the men in the burial, who look very similar to the heads that Banco painted in the cycle about Silvester. The use of colour, the compact and austere composition can also be found in the burial.

Taddeo Gaddi  and the burial
Taddeo Gaddi fresco 'the burial' Cappella Bardi di Vernio Santa Croce

The spear and sponge at the burial, as well as the passion tools in the adjoining niche, remind us of Christ’s trials. It is clear that Taddeo makes use of Maso’s invention by also letting a figure come out of the tomb, but now a female one. She comes from the lid of the tomb, which unfortunately disappeared.

What can now be seen on the middle panel of the chest is not original, but the result of a somewhat naive restoration.78 The donor came from her grave while above her Christ was placed in his painted grave. The original tomb cover of the stone tomb in the small niche has disappeared. The two tombs store not only the remains of the patrons of this chapel, but also other family members. It was customary, at least in the Santa Croce, to separate man and woman by placing them in separate graves. Does the donor also pray for all the female offspring of her family? Three women have a prominent place in the composition, while John the Baptist is not depicted in his usual fashion.

The tomb puts the styles of Maso di Banco and Taddeo directly next to each other. The figures on the edge are influenced by Maso’s style. In some places, such as the cross, the intonaco has fallen off. This is where a precious blue paint emerged. Moreover, in certain places, where the different giornati come together, the dayparts are very thick. Are these pentimenti (literally to repent, overpainting) or are there two different frescoes, one by Banco and the other by Taddeo? The answer to this question, according to Ladis in his monograph and catalogue raissonné about Taddeo Gaddi, lies hidden behind the burial.79

Maso di Banco large size
Maso di Banco fresco Cappella Bardi di Vernio Santa Croce

Painters such as Taddeo Gaddi and Maso di Banco who trained and worked in Giotto’s studio further developed certain aspects of Giotto’s art, although they were unable to approach the psychological depth of Giotto’s work. Taddeo managed to create an unprecedented depth in his frescoes, more than Giotto had ever done. In addition, he created a wonderful light in a night scene such as in the Annunciation to the Shepherds. Maso di Banco ensured that the painted world closely matches and harmonizes with its surroundings, such as the tomb in the Bardi di Vernio chapel.

Click here for the continuation of day 5