Let’s talk about the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels in Florence’s Santa Croce Basilica! Each of these chapels belonged to two of Europe’s wealthiest families, who held this title until King Edward III, in 1345, refused to pay them off the enormous debt he’d accumulated during the Hundred Years’ War. These incredibly wealthy families were able to pay highly-esteemed artists such as Giotto to decorate their chapels, him being at the peak of his career: during this time, his work was sought out by a number of rich, demanding landowners, who greatly admired his art..! The murals he painted used an ‘a secco’ technique, which involved using pigment mixed with a binder to paint directly onto dry plaster.
The chapel owned by the Bardi family was dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi. Giotto paid homage to the saint’s life through the six murals painted onto the chapel walls. These depict the Apparition at Arles, the Confirmation of the Franciscan Rule, the Death and Ascension of Saint Francis, the Renunciation of Worldly Goods, the Stigmatisation of Saint Francis, the Trial by Fire, and the Vision of the Ascension of Saint Francis. Phew!
During the 18th Century, these murals were whitewashed and compromised: this is what makes them look ‘bleached’. The 13th-century altarpiece at the very center of the chapel, which portrays Saint Francis and moments from his life, was painted by Jacopo ‘Coppo’ di Marcovaldo. This altarpiece, dating back to the second half of the thirteenth century, compared to Giotto's paintings, only confirms the latter’s incredible modernity..! Giotto is widely considered to be the father of modern Western painting: a spark which would ignite the Renaissance movement only a century later..!
The first thing to note in this Coppo di Marcovaldo’s altarpiece is a total lack of depth and perspective. Where Saint Francis preaches to the birds, the animals seem almost to be piling up on top of each other, rather than being foreshortened to make the piece more realistic..! During the High Middle Ages, humans (or divine, religious characters depicted as humans) were never painted in a lifelike way. Instead, they were portrayed more in an abstract, symbolic, somehow ‘childlike’ way. Did this mean that artists at this time lacked skill? Of course not! The reason for this symbolic depiction of humanity was that realism was considered to be blasphemous. Religious figures were not supposed to ‘come alive’ within a painting, as an artist could never create life – that would mean he was replacing God.
According to Cennino Cennini, Giotto “turned the art of painting from Greek into Latin, and rendered it modern.” Here, ‘Greek art’ should be read as ‘Byzantine’, which actually differed greatly from Classical art. Byzantine art portrayed the things that we can’t see: intangible places, such as Heaven, and other spiritual ideas..! During the High Middle Ages the previous specific interest in depth and naturalism in Greco-Roman art had been replaced by symbolism and abstract art.
It has been recorded that Giotto visited Rome when he was young, admiring the Classical art there, in its concreteness and realism. This was incredibly far-removed from the Byzantine conventions that Coppo still used in his painting.
Our quote from Cennini really comes to life within the Bardi Chapel, which was painted between 1317 and 1328. The friars in the Apparition at Arles and the Death and Ascension of Saint Francis display a wide range of feelings and emotions – something that had never been seen before..! A lively scene of medieval life is portrayed in The Renunciation of Worldly Goods, where Saint Francis strips himself of his expensive clothing in the street like a madman. Nearby, a group of boys throw stones at him: this violence among teenagers is well-documented in this era..! Because young boys were considered pure, innocent, and sacred, the local communities allowed them to punish their enemies: there are even reports of usurers being lynched, or the bodies of executed convicts being torn to shreds..!
The Peruzzi Chapel, on the other hand, is decorated with scenes from the lives of Saint John the Evangelist and Saint John the Baptist (to the right and left, respectively). The names of these stories are: John the Evangelist on Patmos, the Resurrection of Drusiana, the Ascension, the Annunciation to Zacharias, the Birth and Naming of the Baptist, and the Feast of Herod. The art is impressive, with some of the depicted buildings foreshortened in such a bold, oblique way that they almost seem to invade the space inside the chapel. The characters in these artworks resemble senators, and are dressed in noble ancient Roman clothing. Undoubtedly inspired by the reliefs of ancient Roman sarcophagi, the characters also boast strong, majestic bodies; this would entice the likes of Masaccio and Michelangelo Buonarroti to study them later on..!
The art displayed within the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels in Florence represents a great historical shift. In a time when art was such an intrinsic part of the city's culture, these chapels and their artworks act almost as a timeline of medieval life. Make sure that, on your next visit to Florence, you stop off at the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels to admire their frescoes and murals. Book a tour with me, and discover the hidden heart of the city!