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

After 1340, disaster struck Florence: bankrupt banks, crop failures and the plague. Around 1339 Florence was a powerful and rich city. 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. Panic broke out in Florence. People went on a bank run. In 1334, the Peruzzi and Bardi banks went bankrupt.

Florence La Veduta della Catena
Giovanni Stradano Siege of Florence Sala di Clemente VII Palazzo Vecchio 1558      

Giovanni Stradano' Siege of Florence' Palazzo Vecchio

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:

Andrea del Castagno ‘Giovanni Boccaccio’
Luigi Sabatelli ‘The plague of Florence in 1348, as described in Boccaccio’s Decameron
I declare, then, that the years following the fruitful Incarnation of the Son of God had reached the number of one thousand three hundred and forty-eight when a deadly plague entered the renowned city of Florence, surpassing all others in Italy in beauty. […] more out of fear that the decay of the deceased bodies might endanger the living than from any compassion for the departed. Specifically, individuals, either with their own hands or with the help of certain bearers when available, brought the bodies of the deceased out of their homes and placed them in front of their doors. Especially in the morning, passersby would encounter countless corpses. They then procured stretchers, and in the absence of those, they placed the bodies on some makeshift surface. It was not uncommon for one stretcher to bear two or three bodies, and this occurrence was not isolated; indeed, many instances could be observed in which the deceased included a husband and wife, two or three brothers, a father and son, or similar relationships. Frequently, when two priests with a single cross were proceeding for a burial, three or four stretchers carried by bearers would position themselves behind them. The priests, thinking they had only one deceased person to bury, found themselves with six, eight, and sometimes even more. Consequently, the deceased were not honored with any tears, candles, or funeral processions […] The consecrated ground proved inadequate for the burial of the vast multitude of aforementioned corpses. They were brought daily and almost hourly in crowds to every church, especially if there was an attempt to allocate each individual their own place according to ancient customs. Consequently, extensive trenches were dug throughout the churchyards, after every other space was filled, where those who came afterward were laid by the hundred. They were piled up in layers, akin to goods loaded onto a ship, and covered with a small amount of earth until the trench reached its top.” Cited from: Giovanni Boccaccio, ‘Decamerone’ c. 1348, Gutenberg. Translated in modern English by ChatGPT

Andrea del Castagno 'Giovanni Boccaccio'
Pierart dou Tielt ‘illustrating the Tractatus quartus bu’ Gilles li Muisit c. 1353 detail

Pierart dou Tielt ‘illustrating the Tractatus quartus bu’ Gilles li Muisit c. 1353

Like 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 striking like a whirlwind (Wikipedia). 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. According to the chronicler, Giovanni Villani, Florence owed this misery to its greed and usury. It was God’s revenge. Villani describes great processions (Carl von Marr ‘Flagellants; MOWA) that lasted three days, begging the Lord for mercy. He himself also participated in one of those processions.  Another chronicler, Marchione di Coppo Stefani, mentions that in the year of Christ 1348, 96,000 men, women, children and adults died between March and October. 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.

Composanto in Pisa

Composanto in Pisa
photo: Bernd Thaller

Buffalmacco Death       The smell of Death      The Hermit

Buffalmacco ‘Triumph of Death’ detail: Coffins
photos: Sailko

Famous is the fresco, ‘Triumph of Death’, Buffalmacco (Wikipedia) 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. 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. 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.

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.

Buffalmacco ‘Triumph of Death’ detail: onlookers and coffins
photo: Sailko

Andrea Orcagna ‘Triumph of Death’       In situ

Andrea Orcagna 'Triumph of Death'  detail

Giovanni del Biondo and Giovanni da Milano  

Giovanni del Biondo, ‘Mary of the Apocalypse with saints’
Web Gallery of Art

Giovanni del Biondo, ‘Mary of the Apocalypse with saints’ c. 1391

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 or plague 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.’ 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.

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 during and after the plague 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’.
Jacopo di Cione 'Cornation of the Virgin'

Jacopo di Cione ‘Cornation of the Virgin’ 1373
Giotto (workshop) ‘Cornation of Christ’ 1328 -1335

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. 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.

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 ‘Presentation of Mary’  Orsanmichele 1359

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
Giotto 'Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple' detail
photo presentation: José Luiz

Giotto ‘Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple’ 1303 – 1305
Giotto ‘Presentation of Mary’ 1303 – 1305

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

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’ c. 1365  Rinuccini Chapel

Giovanni da Milano ‘Expulsion of Joachim from the temple’ Rinuccini Chapel

Givanni da Milano’s Standard persons

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.

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.

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.

Giovanni da Milano ‘Expulsion of Joachim from the temple’ detail

Continuation Florence day 5: Andrea da Firenze (di Bonaiuto) and the Spanish Chapel I