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The art of telling a story:

The evolution of narrative techniques in Italian fresco painting of pre-renaissance period

The development of religious narrative in Italian fresco painting in the 14-15th centuries can be seen from the examples of the works of Andrea da Bonaiuto, Masaccio, and Paolo Uccello. Each generation builds up on the previous experience and tries to bring in innovations. One of the most noticeable trends is that with time the paintings tend to become more realistic. The artist’s skill and the quality of the painting become more important as a means of expressing religious message.  The medieval frescoes, such as the Altarpieces of Cimabue and Duccio, usually presented Biblical stories as a series of separate narrative scenes united under a common theme in one frame, either on the “apron” or underneath and around the center image. Later on successive events appear in a unified space. Among other means of achieving resemblance to real life artists discover and begin to use the laws of perspective, light and shadow, study of human anatomy. The human figure, facial expressions, gestures become more diverse and realistic reflecting the historical development as people themselves gain more importance in the world.

Triumph of the Church (1366-68) is a fresco, painted by Andrea da Bonaiuto in the Spanish Chapel of the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella. It represents the synopsis of the structure of the world and the place of church as viewed by the Dominican Order. The order is known for their scholars, preachers, and inquisition. The desire for logical structure and order can be seen in the very layout of the fresco. The subject of the picture is quite unusual and very broad. In the Triumph of the Church the entire chapel wall serves as a unified monolithic space for depicting both the world of the living and Heaven.  The desire for integration of both worlds –temporal and eternal – might be influenced by the work of Thomas Aquinas, who attempted to synthesize the ideas of faith and reason, which are represented by the heavenly and earthly spheres, in a unified and harmonized picture of the world. Nevertheless, we can see that strict hierarchy dominates the fresco, just as in the minds of the people the world is regulated by strict dogmatic doctrines.

The lower part of the fresco is dedicated to the life on earth, the top depicts Heaven, and the middle section shows the deeds of the Dominican Order, suggesting its function as the link between the earth and heaven. There is also hierarchy within each level. For example, on the ground the Pope is depicted in the center in front of the Cathedral along with the Emperor, cardinals, and bishops seated in the same row. Standing below on Pope’s right are other higher clerics; monks and nuns are kneeling in the row below. On Pope’s left are secular people, starting from nobles and down to beggars. Dante and Petrarch are supposed to be among them. Further to the right and separated from the main conglomeration are the Dominican Monks, teaching and preaching to the people. One of them is Thomas Aquinas, holding a book and converting the heretics, and the other is Peter Martyr. On the middle level we find allegories of entertainment and pleasure, dancing and playing musical instruments, and Dominican monks, who bless the righteous and lead them by the hand to the gates of Heaven. Inside the gates are saints, prophets, and church fathers, also arranged in rows according to their rank. On the highest level and dominating the picture is an enormous figure of Christ, holding a book in one hand and the key to Heaven in the other. Christ is encircled in a red halo and surrounded by the Angels and Cherubs. Mary is on His right, wearing all white and twice as tall as the angels. Christ is floating above his throne, on which lies the Lamb of God. On either side of the throne are a lion, a unicorn, a falcon, and an angel, which are the symbols of the four evangelists.


Although it is a magnificent artwork, Ecclesia is more of an old-style conventional fresco. The trees, landscape, and even the Duomo are flat and unrealistic. The size of the figures is chosen according to their importance, they are stiff and static. Most faces are painted either in three-quarters and directed towards God or directly facing the audience. They all seem preoccupied with their own business and very distant from the viewer. There are many symbols, such as black and white dogs, which represent the Dominican monks shepherding people and attacking the wolves of heresy. Nevertheless, it serves the purpose and is appropriate for the time: knowing that the Chapel would attract many people, the fresco targets the entire community and reminds them that salvation can be obtained through church and, in particular, through the Dominican Order. It is not surprising that the painter is more preoccupied with depicting the dogmas rather then providing realistic details. In addition, at the time there were not many technical devices available for the artist.  


Masaccio’s frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel are immediately distinguishable from the ones by Masolino and Lippi because of Masaccio’s bold and expressive style. His brilliant use of space, composition and perspective single out his works from the other ones. In Tribute Money (c. 1425) one of the most striking differences is the highly realistic depiction of landscape. Masaccio not only follows the rules of linear perspective, which have explored by the earlier painters, he also applies the principle that is called aerial perspective, which is used to create the illusion of depth and distance, especially in landscape painting. The result is a stunning panorama of the mountains surrounding Florence, which serve as the setting for a Biblical scene. Evidently, the piece was commissioned to him by the current authorities of the city in view of contemporary events and was to serve an important social purpose. At that time a new tax was placed on the residents of Firenze. To justify the new burden, it was necessary to refer back to Bible, as a set of laws that the people of that time were most fearful to break.


This is why Masaccio places Christ, St. Peter, and other apostles on the banks of Arno. The artist decides to dislocate them both in time and place to create a more relatable image. It is in a sense a fable, an allegory that imposes a message of contemporary importance significant through the authoritative figure of the Christ as the ultimate law-giver. In this fresco the division of space is very arbitrary, the figures all occupy the same small area and the episodes are happening at the same time: as Jesus is talking to the Roman tax-gatherer, St. Peter is seen catching a fish in that waters of Arno. Thus Masaccio sacrifices the historical accuracy to wholeness of the picture. The figures of the scene strike the viewer as very dramatic and expressive. However, none of them is directly interacting with the viewer, as is in the case of iconic images, which seem to speak to the viewer through their penetrating eyes. This creates an illusion of watching a spectacle without being directly involved in the scene. Nonetheless, it is an intimate experience because the viewer can identify himself with the crowd witnessing Christ give His moral lesson.


The composition of the fresco helps to unfold the story. The main protagonist is Christ - hence Masaccio positions him in the center, right under the vanishing point of the picture.  Composition is not the only thing that helps to single him out. There are two trees positioned on either side of Christ’s body right above, also drawing attention to the central character. St. Peter and the Roman tax collector are shown right next to Christ as direct participants of the narrative. However, the tax collector is depicted from behind, the same direction that the viewer would be standing; he is half in the shadow, which diminishes his importance, but his figure expresses movement directed towards Christ, who seems to be illuminated, and thus we look back to see what He has to say. Christ’s face is painted in three-quarters: he seems to be addressing St. Peter, who is on his left, but also the viewer. Christ’s hand is pointing in the same direction, implying that he is ordering Peter, but also redirecting out attention to the next episode. St. Peter parallels this gesture. This has both psychological significance and dynamic function of directing the narrative. His gesture and facial expression are meant to show doubt, as if he was asking: “Do you really want me to do this?” But encouraged by the double command, we look in the direction indicated. There we see Peter again, but now he is kneeling on the bank of the Arno and opening the mouth of the fish.

However, there is not much to look at in that episode, besides the beautifully painted mountains in the background, so our attention returns to the central figure of Christ and his apostles. The apostles all have nimbi, as is canonized by the rules of religious depiction. But they are not like golden plates floating behind their heads; they seem to illuminate the faces of the saints. This small detail is not apparent but rather creates a psychological effect. The viewer cannot understand why, but he feels that there is something special about these figures, something that separates them from regular people, such as the Roman soldier, whose dark hair and face are in the shadow, but his right shoulder and arm catch the light. Again, the shadow and light play helps direct our attention to where the soldier’s arm is pointing. There, in the right corner we see him and Peter standing against the light background of a building, the color and geometrical shape of which create a frame for the next episode. St. Peter gives the tax collector his money and thus fulfills what Christ had asked him in the first episode. The transaction taking place might have been left unnoticed because of the weight of the central scene, but Masaccio places a white building behind the two actors whose figures stand clear against it. There is also a pole right underneath the giving and receiving hands, which highlights the act. The pole is one of the few props that Masaccio uses in his fresco. The other one is the cane that the Roman tax collector is holding a in his hand in this episode, but there is no apparent explanation for this element.


There is a very clear and well-organized representation of events in Tribute Money compated to the Ecclesia which is full of symbolism. The story flows like a film, rather then a set of separated pictures. Masaccio’s skill breathes life into this otherwise unexciting and rare Biblical episode. In terms of analysis it is the most interesting work out of all three.  

In contrast to Andrea da Bonaiuto’s static and icon-like fresco, Paolo Uccello’s Flood (c. 1447-48) is much more complex and modern. It almost looks like one of the monumental works of the 20th century and the robust figures remind of social realism. Again, the author is struggling with the necessity to bring several separated in time episodes in one picture. He also has to deal with a limited amount of space and an unconventional rounded shape of the walls of the cloister. Uccello resolves these problems successfully and creates a very powerful and moving artwork.


Uccello was one of the first artists to fully realize the principles described in Alberti’s treatise On Painting. The highlight of this work is sharp and exaggerated perspective, which creates a dramatic effect and draws the viewer into the picture. The size of the human figures is decreasing dramatically with distance, which allows the artist to place many people into his painting while not disturbing the overall perception of depth and the epic nature of the scene. The background looks very apocalyptic, with a lightening cutting the skyline in half. The fresco, especially the left half, is overcrowded with contorted figures, producing a sense of chaos and disaster. The center of gravity in the figures is sometimes off, creating an illusion of movement. The body shapes are diverse and anatomical.

The right half, which shows the waters subsiding after the flood, on the other hand, is much less crowded. There is a harmonic man figure in the foreground, peaceful and still, illuminated from the front by an unidentified source of light. The folds of drapery are undisturbed by movement or wind. He is shown with its arm raised, as though blessing the rebirth of the world. Unlike Noah, who is climbing out of the ark behind the man, this figure seems detached and out of context, but there must be significance for this alien personage in papal clothing. Some critics suggest that in this figure the painter wanted to represent the power and will of God embodied in the Pope. From a modern point of view, I would say he represents Hope. 


The color scheme of Uccello’s fresco is limited. The main colors he uses are brick-red, dark blue, black, and pale grey - very much appropriate for a catastrophic mood. He also tries to utilize shadows: even though they are uncertain in relationship to the source and the strength of light from the distant lightening, it is a progressive innovation. His usage of space deserves praise because he is not trying to fit the scene in the semicircular area of the cloister wall, but in a sense extends the narrative inwards and beyond the picture, relying on the viewer’s imagination to fill in the rest of the story. If he tried to fit the entire ark in the picture, he would have to paint all figures extremely small or diminish the size of the ark, which would have destroyed the dramatic effect of the depicted story. Instead, he uses it to his advantage, as if the rounded frame was the borderline of the spectator’s vision, allowing him to feel very close to the depicted events, almost as though he is about to step into the picture.


The tree frescoes demonstrate the development of the art of narrative in painting starting from the middle of the 14th century and to the middle of the 15th century. The work of Andrea da Bonaiuto still shows considerable amount of traits intrinsic to the medieval icons and frescoes, in the sense that most figures are static, the positioning of the figures relies on hierarchy, the narrative is ambiguous with a lot of symbolism, and the principles of linear perspective are not observed. In Uccello’s Flood, on the other hand, perspective plays an important role in the progression of the narrative and in giving it a psychological dimension. It is much more interactive: In his work the progression of the events must be read from left to right and the storyline is fairly simple. Masaccio uses more intricate means of separating the episodes, such as grouping the characters according to their role (Christ with his apostles, St. Peters alone and with the tax collector) and providing different background (mountains and river vs. white building). The overall level of his skill allows him to create a very realistic representation of a Biblical episode. He brings many innovations into his fresco, such as aerial perspective, color, and light.  Finally, Uccello as the later of the tree artist utilizes all of the previously discovered technical tricks, such as linear perspective, shadow and light, the knowledge of human body and creates a very powerful and moving image.

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