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Medieval engineers wanted to build higher and bigger. The fundamental
problem lay in calculating load distribution. It was not enough to heap
heavy stone blocks one on top of the others, so new forms of vaulting
were developed. They opened up whole new architectural panoramas. The
first Gothic structures were the might churches built in France and
later elsewhere in northern Europe. The use of flying buttressed and
further technical innovations accelerated the process of daring change.
The one element most Gothic churches have in common is their great
height. Soaring structures, it was felt, would lift mortal eyes to the
heavens and at the same time remind people of their smallness compared
with the greatness of God.
These complex structures were perfected using pillars, columns,
arches and vaulting of various kinds to support high ceilings. Rather
than relying on the solidity of mass and building thick, heavy walls,
priority was give to a clear light pouring through tall pointed windows.
The whole was topped off by an almost obsessive desire to decorate.
Gothic churches are bedecked with pinnacles, statues, gargoyles and all
sorts of baubles. In Italy, however, where architecture remained heavily
influenced by the cleaner, more simple line of the building of
classical antiquity, the fiddly decoration, pointed arches and vaults of
Gothic architecture never flourished in the way they did north of the
The most outstanding early Gothic church in Italy is the Basilica di
San Francesco in Assisi, begun in the mod-13th century, which combines a
heavily vaulted, dark and mysterious lower church with a light-filled
The Franciscan order, responsible for the construction of the
cathedral in Assisi, competed with the rival Dominicans not only in
theological matters but also in the building of churches. It was common
for both orders to raise vast Gothic churches on the outskirts of
medieval cities, such as Santa Maria Novella (Dominicans) and Santa
Croce (Franciscans) in Florence.
That pair is mirrored in Venice by Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
(Franciscans) and SS Giovanni e Paolo (Dominicans). The two pairs tell
us much about the development of Gothic in Italy. In all cases the
buildings are epic in proportion but comparatively unadorned (there are
none of the spires and gargoyles that adorn the Gothic cathedrals of
France). Regional differences were pronounced. While the Venetians
favoured a sober brick exterior, the Tuscans opted for stone and marble
Among the great Italian cathedrals are some outstanding examples of
Gothic architecture. Florence's magnificent marble clad cathedral
competes with those of Siena and Orvieto in splendour. Siena's started
in 1196, is arguably one of the most splendid Gothic cathedrals ever
built. Milan's cathedral is a late-Gothic fantasy and one of the few in
all of Italy to imitate the style favoured north of the Alps, Built
using a light-coloured marble and rather squat by northern European
standards, it is nevertheless a sumptuous forest of spires, statues and
reliefs- not a square centimetre has been left bare.
public buildings and private mansions weree also raised in the Gothic
style (although fewer examples remain). In these cases builders did not
necessarily aim to reach great heights but the same techniques allowed
them to create structures of great elegance. With the growth of trade
and city government, town halls were built, such as the Palazzo Vecchio
in Florence (built 1298-1310) and the imposing Palazzo Pubblico in Siena
(built 1298-1310) and the imposing Palazzo Pubbico in Siena (built
1298-c.1326), and many patrician families built impressive Gothic
The Gothic style in Italy lingered longest in Venice. A fine example
is the Palazzo Ducale (Doges' Palace) built in the 14th and early 15th
centuries, which combines Gothic and Islamic styles in its facade. The
elegant Ca' d'Oro (Golden House; built 1420-34) on the Grand Canal was
freely based on the Palazzo Ducale).
These great buildings had to be decorated and the use of frescoes,
panel paintings and sculpture all flourished under the influence of the
new architectural style. Painting was infused with more colour and
expression than before, the figures depicted acquired greater fluidity
and humanity. Artists still relied above all on commissions from the
Church and hence religious themes remained at the core of Italian
artistic production, Nevertheless, depictions of kings and other
personalities. as well earthly events, represent a significant breach in
the age's artistic repertoire.
One of the most interesting centres of Gothic painting was Siena. The
only artist there to hold a candle to Giotto was Duccio di Buoninsegna
(c.1255-1318). Although still much attached to the Byzantine school
(iconographic and laden with gold), he mixed it in with Gothic ideas and
introduced a hitherto rare degree of expressiveness. A variety of his
works can be seen in Siena's cathedral and Florence's Uffizi Gallery
Duccio's star pupil was Simone Martini (c.1284-1344). Perhaps his most
celebrated work is Annunciazione (Annunciation),
done for the cathedral in Siena but now hanging in the Uffizi.
Other artists of note in Siena included the brothers Pietro
(c.1290-c.1348) and Ambrogio Lorenzetti (died 1348). Both worked in
Siena and elsewhere Pietro was particularly active in Assisi. Ambrogio's
best known work is the startling Effetti
del Buon e del Cattivo Governo (Allegories
of Good and Bad Government) in Siena's Palazzo Pubblico.
Florentine Cimabue (c.1240-1302) had more experimental tendencies and
his use of rounded, modelled forms in his frescoes in the Basilica di
San Francesco in Assisi (painted 1228-53) were a foretaste of what as to
come with the Renaissance.
Giovanni Pisano (1250-1314), Nicolo's son, was an innovative
sculptor, His statues for the facade of the cathedral in Siena broke
away from the static figures of Romanesque sculpture used for similar
purposed elsewhere. Posed in dramatic ways, they were placed high up on
the facade and were designed to be viewed from a distance.