This week's Darwin Featured book is truly incredible, we're all having to keep our hands off of it. We'll hand you over to Diane to tell you all about it...
Published by Scala in 2011, “Italian Gothic Painting” by Marco Gasparini is a sumptuous book that outlines a rich period of Italian art history from the thirteenth to fifteenth century. The art expresses a medieval spirituality through commemorative paintings and frescoes for churches and monasteries, and this book showcases the new iconography of Gothic art, which celebrated the humanity of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints, portraying scenes from their lives with unflinching realism in approach to the body, the setting and the everyday details.
“Italian Gothic Painting” is an absolutely divine beast of a book, in more ways than one. Weighing in at over 3.6kg, it is a veritable visual feast, packed full of powerful full-page images of Gothic Art. It takes us on a golden-infused journey of colour and light from the early thirteenth century paintings of Giotto to the more richly decorated ornate style of the later fifteenth century Italian painters.
It also includes a sizeable illustrated appendix of late or “international Gothic” art in Europe. This reflects the more refined, sophisticated tastes of the fifteenth century aristocratic courts all over Europe, through the increased elegance and sophistication of the compositions and settings.
After the solemn depictions of the medieval Byzantine paintings and mosaics, the early painters of the Gothic era developed a more expressive, realistic portrayal of humanity, putting the emphasis on pathos, which has the impact of eliciting our compassion for humankind. Many of these paintings certainly do move me, with the sorrow, tenderness, beauty and frailty they depict.
I am also seduced by the combination of earthy realism, medieval beliefs, and spirituality...mud on the floor, straggly bulrushes, lined faces, and even pubic hair carefully observed, next to gesticulating angels, demons, dragons and ladders up to a starry heaven, all next to the beautiful soulful faces of the Virgin Mary and the suffering Christ.
It is the combination of colours, the gold ground, and intense pigments however, that really take my breath away.
A detail on page twenty seven, from Pietro Cavallini’s fresco “The Last Judgment,” shows three repeating angels each with different coloured wings in graduated tones; from flesh pinks to venetian reds and deep maroon, from palest lemon to golds and deep ochre, and from pearly grey violet through to bluest black.
The fresco “St Clare and St Elizabeth of Hungary” by Simone Martini, one of the main artists of the Sienese school of painting, along with Duccio, has an intense cobalt/prussian blue-black coloured background, with pale umber and ochre colours, transparent red ochre tones and varying shades of what looks like prussian, or oxide greens. There is a lyrical romanticised refinement to this fresco, which typifies Martini’s work, and which I find utterly beautiful.
The natural world is also very prominent in much Gothic art, and being a complete nature lover, I have been marvelling over the beauty and detail of the different birds, roses, vines and trees, as well as the deer, hares, horses, and undulating landscapes.
Some of the later courtly paintings are packed full of outdoor human activity with titles like “Month of October and January,” “Love scene,”and “The Fountain of Youth” and are brimming with fascinating detail, and pictorial storytelling.
In “The Fountain of Youth” elderly and ill-looking people can be seen stripping off and being helped into a contained fountain and pool, where they become so rejuvenated that they all start hugging and kissing each other in their underpants, then jump out with all their youth, freshness and vitality restored. Oh, for it to be that easy. You could pour over these pages for ages.
Gothic art, however, is above all “a manifestation of deep, medieval spirituality” and this book is a truly glorious celebration of the spirituality of that time, and of the beauty, imagination and beliefs embedded within that.
“Italian Gothic Painting” is £119 and is available online, or if you’d like to save the postage and packing fee, and you’re feeling strong, you can visit us and buy it direct from the Darwin Rare Books room, and carry it home yourself.
By Diane Newland