The plague and other horrors and their influence on art in Florence

Florence La Veduta della Catena detail and whole large size
Giovanni Stradano Siege of Florence Sala di Clemente VII Palazzo Vecchio 1558 large size     Video La Veduta della Catena  (5.22 minutes)
Giovanni Stradano 'The Siege of Florence ' San Miniato al Monte

After 1340, disaster struck Florence: bankrupt banks, crop failures and the plague. Around 1339 Florence was a powerful and rich city.80 Currency trading played a major role with banking families such as the Medici, Bardi and the Peruzzi. As is often the case, wealth was a great boost for the arts. The fresco cycles treated here, the first few doors of the Baptistery and the palazzi that were built, had to be paid for by the rich families or guilds. When the English king Edward III annulled his debts to the Bardi and Peruzzi, the English branch of these banks went bankrupt.

Antonio Verico ‘The plague in Florence’ 1348
ntonio Verico 'The plague in Florence' 1348

Panic broke out in Florence. People went on a bank run. In 1334, the Peruzzi and Bardi banks went bankrupt. On top of that, infectious diseases broke out. Probably 1/6 of the population of Florence died. To make matters worse, the harvest failed due to heavy hail storms, which happened twice in a row in 1346 and 1347. Unemployment, poverty and starvation ravaged Florence. In 1348, in addition to all this suffering, there was the one tragedy to trump them all: the Black Death, or the plague. Boccaccio, who was in Florence that year, describes the situation at the beginning of his Decameron as follows:

‘Thirteen hundred and forty-eight years had already passed after the fruitful Incarnation of the Son of God when into the distinguished city of Florence, more noble than any other Italian city, there came the deadly pestilence. […] more by the fear that the decomposing corpses would contaminate them than by any charity they might have felt toward the deceased: either by themselves or with the assistance of porters (when they were available), they would drag the corpse out of the home and place it in front of the doorstep where, usually in the morning, quantities of dead bodies could be seen by any passer-by; then, they were laid out on biers, or for lack of biers, on a plank. […] Nor did a bier carry only one corpse; sometimes it was used for two or three at a time.  More than once, a single bier would serve for a wife and husband, two or three brothers, a father or son, or other relatives, all at the same. And very often it happened that two priests, each with a cross, would be on their way to bury someone, when porters carrying three or four biers would just follow along behind them; and whereas these priests thought they had just one dead man to bury, they had, in fact, six or eight and sometimes more.’

Luigi Sabitelli
Print based on the text of Bocciacco’s Decameron
Luigi Sabitelli The plague

Moreover, the dead were honored with no tears or candles or funeral mourners […]. So many corpses would arrive in front of a church every day and at every hour that the amount of holy ground for burials was certainly insufficient for the ancient custom of giving each body its individual place; when all the graves were full, huge trenches were dug in all of the cemeteries of the churches and into them the new arrivals were dumped by the hundreds; and they were packed in there with dirt, one on top of another, like a ship’s cargo, until the trench was filled.’

Quoted from: Giovanni Boccaccio, ‘Decamerone’, (transl. Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella), New American Library, New York 1982, pp. 6-11.

VideoYoutube The plague in Florence

ALike a raging storm, the plague spread across Europe. Florence had about 115,000 to 120,000 inhabitants before the outbreak of the Black Death in 1348. In the Palazzo Sclafani in Palermo there is another fresco showing Death, on horseback (large size), striking like a whirlwind. Everyone is affected: peasants, high clergy, but also the nobility. In the last quarter of the fourteenth century the population was reduced to 60,000 – 65,000. In 1363, 1374, 1400 and 1417 the plague struck again, albeit not as many victims in those years as in the infamous year 1348. In 1427, Florence had only 40,000 inhabitants.81 According to the chronicler, Giovanni Villani, Florence owed this misery to its greed and usury. It was God’s revenge. Villani describes great processions that lasted three days, begging the Lord for mercy. He himself also participated in one of those processions.  Another chronicler, Marchione di Coppo Stefani (Dutch translation pdf download), mentions that in the year of Christ 1348, 96,000 men, women, children and adults died between March and October.

Flagellants plague 1348  miniature whole        Large size
Flagellants plague 1348  miniature

Sadly, our chronicler died in the year the plague broke out. This period and especially the plague had a profound influence on society, religion and also on art.

The effects of the plague on painting

The reactions to all this misery varied widely: from debauchery to religious fanaticism. The flagellants were very fanatical. They walked side by side in a procession carrying a large cross. The participants were half-naked and beat each other or themselves to blood. Meanwhile the Lord was called and begged for forgiveness. The massive death that could strike anyone at any moment made a deep impression. There was fear. Famous is the fresco, ‘Triumph of Death’, by Francesco Traini (or Buffalmacco) in the Camposanto in Pisa. The hermit, who has nothing to fear given his way of life, points with his hand to a text on the scroll (now disappeared) that reads as follows: ‘We like to be struck by death’. The stench of the corpses in the three coffins is certainly not pleasant. One of the horsemen pinches his nose and his horse anxiously sniffs up the smell of decomposing flesh.

Francesco Traini ‘Triumph of Death’ detail Camposanto Pisa and whole large size
Francesco Traini 'Triumph of Death' detail Camposanto Pisa

This large fresco shows Death, the devil chasing people and even a soul is seized by the devil, hell, and for those who have lived godly there is of course salvation. In the Sante Croce, Andrea Orcagna made a similar fresco of which, unfortunately, little remains. The subjects were: The Triumph of Death, The Last Judgment and Hell.82

Andrea Orcagna ‘Beggars and hell’ remains of the original fresco refectory Santa Croce
Andrea Orcagna 'Beggars and hell' remains of the original fresco refectory Santa Croce

After Giotto’s death in 1337 and certainly after 1340, a new generation of painters arrived in Florence. Painters like Andrea Orcagna, Nardo di Cione, Giovanni da Milano and Giovani del Biondo.

Giovanni da Milano and Giovanni del Biondo

A panel by Biondo, ‘Mary of the Apocalypse with saints’, currently in the Vatican, is completely new to Tuscany. A decomposing corpse with snakes and toads is painted in the predella. Art historian Millard Meiss has written a book about the effect of the Black Death on art. In this book he proves that there has been a substantial change after ‘the year of our Lords thirteen hundred and forty-eight.’83 After the many horrors, a different mentality emerges that is characterised, among other things, by a deep pessimism and the return to a doctrinal faith.

Giovanni del Biondo ‘Virgin of the Apocalypse with Saints and Angels’ Vatican large size
Giovanni del Biondo 'Virgin of the Apocalypse with Saints and Angels' Vatican Museum

Of course, this also had major consequences for the way artists worked. For example, painters adopted a different style from their predecessors, especially from Giotto. In short, this change in style can be described as follows:

The old and the new style in The Coronation of Mary and The Rejection of Joachim’s Sacrifice

  • In painting there is a relapse to the Dugento, to the period prior to Giotto.
  • There is a strict hierarchy. The important things are depicted large and in the middle.
  • The human element is strongly reduced. A process that can be described by the term ‘iconization’. Where Giotto humanized Mary and saints, the opposite can now be seen.
  • The figures in the new style after 1348 are often portrayed frontal or entirely from the side.
  • There are less spatial effects. For example, tiles are often no longer visible on the floor.
  • The expression disappears. This is replaced by an apathetic stare that resembles the ‘byzantine gaze’.

This artistic transformation can be clearly seen in the work of two artists, Giotto (studio) and Jacopo di Cione.  Both have painted a coronation of the Virgin.84 The previously described altarpiece, ‘The Coronation of the Virgin‘, can be found in the Baroncelli Chapel (Santa Croce). Cione’s altarpiece from 1373 is on display in the Accademia in Florence. A comparison between these two panels shows that we are dealing with a different mentality and style. At the beginning of the Trecento, the throne is placed on a floor. The attendees are positioned on both sides of the throne.In Cione’s case, the supernatural character is emphasized more and the human element either fades into the background or disappears.

Giotto ”The Coronation of the Virgin’
1330 large size
  Jacopo di Cione ”The Coronation of the Virgin’ 1373 large size
Giotto ''The Coronation of the Virgin' 1330   Jacopo di Cione ''The Coronation of the Virgin' 1373

Both Mary and God are elevated and tower above all those present. The throne has disappeared and a cloth has taken its place. Mary and God seem to be seated, but it is unclear where and how exactly. In short, the realism of Giotto’s Baroncelli altarpiece has disappeared in Cione’s ‘Coronation of the Virgin’.  Paradoxically as this may sound, Cione’s new style harks back to the last century: the Dugento. Ironically, Giotto’s work announces the century in which the Renaissance begins, the Quattrocento.

The different approaches in ‘The Presentation of Mary’ and ‘The Rejection of Joachim’s Sacrifice’.

Andrea di Orcagna created a relief for the famous altarpiece in the Orsanmichele in 1359, six years before Milano made one. The relief, The Presentation of Mary, has a rather strict hierarchical composition. For the first time the temple is shown frontally. The priest stands with raised hands high in the middle of the picture plane, in line with the young Virgin Mary climbing the imposing staircase. Joseph and Mary are kneeling on both sides next to the stairs at the bottom. No human looks or gestures like in Giotto’s Presentation or that of Taddeo Gaddi are visible. There is no human expression in this relief, not even between the priest and Mary.  Orcagna only shows the divine character of this event.

Andrea di Orcagna ‘Presentation of Mary’  Orsanmichele 1359
Andrea di Orcagna 'Presentation of Mary'  Orsanmichele 1359

The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple is another example that can be seen in the Santa Croce. Both Taddeo Gaddi and Giovanni di Milano painted this subject for chapels in the Santa Croce.85 The young Giotto and Taddeo Gaddi took a completely different approach to this subject. No crowds are depicted in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.

Giotto ‘Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple’ c. 1306 Scrovegni Chapel Padua
Giotto ‘Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple’ c. 1306 Scrovegni Chapel Padua

The priest and Joachim stand face to face when Joachim is expelled from the temple. Next to him is an emptiness, which underlines his mood of disappointment and loneliness. In Taddeo’s version there is a crowd, but the relationship between the priest and Joachim remains the same. Again, the human side of this little drama is shown.

Taddeo Gaddi ‘Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple’ Baroncelli Chapel Santa Croce c. 1340
Taddeo Gaddi 'Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple' detail Baroncelli Chapel Santa Croce c. 1340

This is clearly different from Giovanni da Milano’s ‘Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple’ in 1365. It is clear that the painting on this wall (the lower part was painted by his assistant known as the master of Rinuccini) owes much to Giotto. A glance into the Peruzzi or Bardi chapel immediately reveals this. Their differences lie in the way in which the story is given shape.

Giovanni da Milano ‘Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple’.
Taddeo Gaddi 'Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple' detail Baroncelli Chapel Santa Croce c. 1340

Individual and personal elements are completely eliminated. The priest in this fresco stands high and exactly in the middle of the picture plane. Here the sacrifice is not so much denied by an individual, but by a higher power, which is very different from Giotto or Taddeo.

Giovanni da Milano ‘Expulsion of Joachim from the temple’ c.1365  Rinuccini Chapel Santa Croce large size
Giovanni da Milano 'Expulsion of Joachim from the temple' c.1365  Rinuccini Chapel Santa Croce

The personal element also disappears in the crowd that no longer consists of individuals, but of standard persons.  For example, the women on the right are depicted in a medieval way. The faces overlap each other, the noses ending up exactly at the ears. In this way the ecclesiastical ritual, the sacrifice, is portrayed and not in the human way in which it happened in reality.

Giovanni da Milano ‘Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple’ detail large size
Giovanni da Milano 'Expulsion of Joachim from the temple' detail c.1365  Rinuccini Chapel Santa Croce

The composition is built up of perpendicular movements and axes. Compared to Taddeo Gaddi’s representation, for example, this creates an unnatural and artificial impression. The building resembles the architectural style that Giotto and his followers painted. Yet it also resembles the new style because it is placed frontal to the picture plane with the apse exactly in the middle. This results in a rigid division of space. Another painter, Andrea da Firenze, is also strongly influenced by the new mentality. To see his fresco cycle, however, we must look at the Dominicans’ most important church on the west side of the city.

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