Mine is Bigger than Yours! An Acute Case of Cathedral Envy in Medieval Siena

October 18th, 2018
Author: Rocky Ruggiero, Ph.D.

In 1226, the great medieval city-state of Siena commissioned the construction of a new cathedral atop the highest of the city’s 3 hills. (see below)

Siena Cathedral, 1226

Following a longstanding Tuscan tradition (see Pisa, Lucca, San Gimignano, etc.), the new church was dedicated to Santa Maria dell’Assunta (St. Mary of the Assumption). Seventy years later, the church was nearing completion as work began on the façade of the building under the direction of the great Gothic sculptor Giovanni Pisano. (see below)

Siena Cathedral, 1226. By Globus.tut.by – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61234556

Churches are normally built back to front, or altar to façade, because they typically take so long to complete (see Florence cathedral – 172yrs.; St. Peter’s – 121yrs.). Once the altar area was completed, masses could be celebrated while the rest of the church was still under construction. Thereby, if Pisano was made capomaestro della facciata, or “head master of the facade” in 1295, it is reasonable to conclude that construction was nearing an end.

After successfully seeing the construction of the cathedral through to completion, the Opera, or “building committee” now turned its attention to realizing another key component of a cathedral complex – the baptistery. Since Early-Christian times, baptisteries were usually located in front of a cathedral. (see below)

Pisa Baptistery and Cathedral, 1152 and 1063. By Massimo Catarinella – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3635665

But in Siena, this solution was not possible due to the presence of a 13th-century hospital called Santa Maria della Scala and a portion of Europe’s most important pilgrimage road called the Via Francigena, both of which were located directly in front of the new cathedral. (see below)

Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, 13th century, Siena. By Sailko – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29268101

Millions of pilgrims passed through Siena each year on this medieval “Route 66” traveling from San Gimignano to Montalcino and towards their ultimate destination which was Rome. Full pilgrimage to Rome brought with it plenary indulgence, or full elimination of one’s purgatory time. Indulgence was the prime mover behind pilgrimage, and revenue was the prime mover behind indulgence. Revenue not only for Rome, but for all those cities fortunate enough to be located along the yellow brick road that lead to the eternal city.

As pilgrims passed by and marveled at the brand-new cathedral of Siena, they would be pleasantly surprised to discover that there was a “Motel 6” (see Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala) directly across the street where they could enjoy inexpensive lodging, food and medical care. Pilgrimage was indeed the ancestor of tourism.

Since the Opera could not build its baptistery in front of the cathedral, they decided to build it behind and below the church. Such a disposition also brought with it a new plan where the entire cathedral would be extended eastward atop the new baptistery that was carved out of the sandstone hill. A new eastern façade was also commissioned, although never completed. (see below)

Siena Baptistery, 1316-1325. By gaspa – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6859751

Siena cathedral was extended from its original 71m/233ft. length to 81m/266ft. with the addition of a new choir above the baptistery. But why the need to enlarge the brand-new church? Because 62km north of Siena, the construction of a new cathedral was just beginning in the rival city of Florence.

Morever, one of the earliest surviving documents concerning the construction of Florence Cathedral clearly states that the plan was “to build the largest cathedral in all of Tuscany”. Florence had taken aim at its two main rival cities of Pisa and Siena and was planning to supersize both of their cathedrals (for the historical antipathy between Tuscan cities, see past blog better a death in the family than a pisan architect on your doorstep). News of this plan must have reached Florence’s rival cities, and Siena was therefore taking preemptive competitive measures by enlarging its own cathedral. A 71m cathedral was already a significant scale for a medieval Italian cathedral. Surely 81m would more than suffice to compete with whatever Florence was planning. I mean, really, just how large could Florence Cathedral be….

When the Siena Baptistery was completed in 1321, a group of local experts headed by the famed sculptor Lorenzo Maitani (see façade sculpture of Orvieto cathedral) was asked to assess the structural condition of the building. Maitani and his crew assured the Opera that the baptistery could sustain the weight of the overlying choir but suggested that the Opera not limit itself to a mere 10m addition.

Instead, they suggested that the Opera should build something more ambitious and appropriate for a city as noble as Siena. They suggested the construction of a Duomo Nuovo or a “new cathedral”!

The Opera’s response was predictable – NO WAY. They had just spent the last century and incalculable funds completing the present cathedral. Why would they possibly want to undertake a similar enterprise all over again, and on a larger scale to boot!!!! And so the proposal was given no further thought….

Then 17 years later in 1339, the Opera did an about face. The then-extant bell tower was demolished and the foundation stone for the Duomo Nuovo was laid! The only explanation for such an impetuous decision was that Siena now had a much-more-precise idea of the actual scale of the cathedral being built in Florence. And that scale was derived from the size of the bell tower in Florence begun 2 years earlier by Giotto. (see below) In other words, if the mere bell tower was going to be that big (92m tall), then just how large was the darn cathedral going to be!!!

Florence Cathedral Bell Tower, Giotto, 1334. By Dora Dragoni, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56862154

The “old” cathedral had been incorporated as the transept and choir of the new southward-extending nave, side aisles and south-facing façade (Facciatone). (see below)

Duomo Nuovo, 1356

Within 9 years, the Duomo Nuovo was nearly completed. A new façade, the interior revetment and decoration were all completed. The nave and side aisles were not only completed, but partially vaulted as well, and vaulting is usually realized in the last stages of construction. (see below)

Duomo Nuovo, Siena. Di Miguel Hermoso Cuesta – Opera propria, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45047977

But a minor catastrophe called the “Black Death” brought the whole project to a screeching halt! To put it simply, the Sienese (like the rest of Europe) were too busy dying to build. While 1/3 of Europe’s population fell victim to the “mother of all plagues”, Siena’s fatality rate was closer to 50%. An urban population of 60,000 souls fell to 30,000. But the most frightening statistic is that the population of Siena today (in 2018) is 60,000! It has taken the city seven centuries to get it demographic levels back to those previous to the Black Death…

When the dust finally began to settle after this apocalyptic epidemic, Siena turned its attention once again to finalizing its gigantic new cathedral. But structural difficulties lead to the Opera inviting a group of Florentine architects to come and assess the project. Why the Sienese would invite Florentine architects can only be explained by the obvious scarcity of architects in general.

And what advice would Florentine architects give to a Sienese Opera about to finalize the construction of the largest church in the Christian world – FORGET ABOUT IT!

The Florentines, led by an architect named Francesco Talenti, claimed that the Duomo Nuovo was both a structural, and therefore, economic, disaster waiting to happen. They advised abandoning the project and, at most, enlarging the original 13th-century cathedral. Now, the Sienese were not the gullible. They deliberated for a full 2 years, but ultimately took the Florentine advice and began to tear down the vaults and other parts of the new cathedral.

Had the Duomo Nuovo been completed, it would have measured 140m/460ft. in length, making it by far the largest church in Christendom. Instead, after abandoning and demolishing much of the building, it stands today as an architectural carcass (not to mention historically-significant parking lot) in the center of Siena. (see below)

Duomo Nuovo, Siena. Di MarkusMark – Opera propria, Pubblico dominio, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7123994

But the story does not end here… After successfully convincing the Sienese to abandon their project, Francesco Talenti returned to Florence and was offered the head architect position of the cathedral bell tower (a coincidence I’m sure). He completed the project in just 2 years. Several years later, he was made capomaestro of the entire cathedral. His most influential decision was to enlarge Florence cathedral from its original Arnolfian scale to its present length of 152m/499ft., making it by far the world’s largest Christian church. But more importantly, he gave Florence a 12m cushion in size, so that had the Sienese decided to carry out their Duomo Nuovo (which they still could, considering how much of it still stands) Florence cathedral would still be larger. This of course proves once again that the most important rule in architecture is that MINE IS BIGGER THAN YOURS!! (see below)

Florence Cathedral, Arnolfo Di Cambio, 1296


Better a Death in the Family than a Pisan (Architect) on Your Doorstep!

September 21st, 2018
Author: Rocky Ruggiero, Ph.D.

The Lucchesi (see people from the Tuscan town of Lucca) claim authorship of the above proverb, except for the architect part, as they were constantly at war with the Pisans. The Livornesi (see people from the Tuscan coastal city of Livorno) also claim authorship as their Pisan lords would go door to door in Livorno collecting taxes. Florentines (I think you get it) instead claim authorship because they simply do not like the Pisans.

Whatever the origin or reason, there is clearly quite a bit of antipathy directed at Pisa from all sides! In fact, Pisa is part of two significant Tuscan “hate triangles” – Florence hates Pisa and Siena; Pisa, in turn, hates Lucca and Livorno. That’s a lot of hate! Moreover, the Pisan response to the Lucchese/Livornese/Florentine proverb is “Che Dio ti accontenta!” – “may God grant your wish”, in other words, “may someone in your family die!”

Most of these cities still hate each other today, although they no longer remember why. It is very common to see the words Pisa Merda – “Pisa S**t” written on street and bathroom walls, on traffic signs, in soccer stadiums, even tattooed onto various body parts throughout Tuscany (see below).



Florentines take particular pride in telling the world how bad Pisa is by writing Pisa Merda as they travel throughout the world, and there have been sightings on the Great Wall of China (see below) and at the top of Machu Picchu!!!!! (see https://pisamerda.wordpress.com/top-10/) Lucky that we have not sent Florentines to the moon…



This public smearing (pun intended) of Pisa is as much a process of self-aggrandizement as it is of externalized animosity. In other words, if they look bad, we look better. And in Italy, this phenomenon of excessive zeal or loyalty to one’s city is called campanilismo – literally, “bell towerism”. The cathedral bell tower of each city serves as a symbol of nationalistic pride, much as a flag, or symbol or logo might today for a nation or professional sports franchise.

So how exactly must a Pisan feel knowing that their cathedral bell tower is what I like to call the greatest architectural disaster since Babylon! (see image above)

The “Leaning Tower of Pisa” is nothing more than the cathedral bell tower of Pisa. (see below) It stands 56m tall and is presently 3.9m out of plumb. Consider that Florence cathedral bell tower is 92m tall and perfectly straight, but no one seems to care about Florence cathedral bell tower! I believe that had Giotto, who was the original architect in Florence, known that 4 million people/year would visit Pisa simply to see its crooked bell tower he may have incorporated a bit of a slant as well!

By Florian Hirzinger – http://www.fh-ap.com – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39171135

Fortunately for him, we do not know the name of the original architect of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The foundation stone was laid for the tower on August 9, 1173, and two major mistakes were immediately made. The first was that the tower would be built on an insufficient foundation of less than 3m of dry masonry. The second mistake was that the architect was about to load 10kg/cm2 of masonry on to swampish alluvial soil that allows for 1kg/cm2. To use a sophisticated analogy, try to imagine driving a wooden stake into mud…. Work on the tower stopped after 10 years and at the height of the 3rd ring of arcades because the entire structure had sunk 30-40cm into the ground and leaned about 5cm out of plumb.

By Alkarex Malin äger – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36259

One would imagine that Pisan authorities might reassess the whole project after watching their tower sink a foot and half in the ground and start to lean… but no sir, they kept at it.

Ninety-two years later work would resume. Three more arcade stories were added, with the south-side, or side-of-the-lean, columns made a full 2 inches taller than their counterparts on the other side. The hope was that the distortion would at least correct the lean visually. But as more weight was loaded, the greater the lean became, reaching almost a full 1m out of plumb… and then work stopped again for the next 60 years.

In 1350, they simply added the belfry and called it a day, not realizing that the lean of the tower would increase by an average of 1.2mm/year…. By 1992, the lean had surpassed the 5m mark and the critical point where structural stress put the entire tower at risk. 600 tons of lead weights were immediately placed on the north side of the tower to prevent the lean from progressing further. (see below) Steel cable girdles were placed around the central cylinder of the tower and anchored to an emergency “catch” system should the tower in fact cede.

By Rolf Gebhardt, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5021233

Authorities scrambled to find a less visually invasive solution than the massive pile of lead ingots. Drilling began under the tower on its north side and 60m3 of earth were slowly removed from below the tower. This process gradually created the space necessary for the tower to slowly lean back on itself and recover a full 50cm, equaling its lean three centuries ago in the 18th century.

This last intervention was completed in 2001 and proved to be highly successful. Incredibly, to celebrate, Pisan authorities decided to allow tourists to start climbing the tower again for the meager cost of EUR 15,00/person (see below). Now, although a few hundred tourists/day may not represent a threat to the structural conservation of the tower, millions of climbers per year for the past 17 years definitely will…

By Lonewolf1976, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leaning_tower_staircase_6th_floor.jpg

Maybe the Lucchesi, Livornesi and especially Florentines had it right after all….


Sometimes Dead Men Should Just Stay Dead (and Why I am still talking about the G-man)

August 24th, 2018
Author: Rocky Ruggiero, Ph.D.

In our last installment of “Why it’s not the size of the rod that matters” we learned that “magic” rods are more effective than big ones…

That said, the middle tier of frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel depicts scenes from the childhood and mission of JC (see “Son of God”).

Here the G-Man continues his extraordinary cinematic parade of human caricatures, psychological and gender profiling, and just-plain-funny-visual social commentary.

In the Nativity (below), I find myself realizing once again, that the older I get, the more I appreciate his art. Notice how the post-partum BVM is still up and active as she adjusts the larvae-like BJC in his crib; while down below poor Joseph has lost the battle to fatigue and is conked out. And although I may sound critical or accusatory, I too almost immediately succumbed to sleep after the births of both our children, even though it was my wife who should have been the exhausted one!

Birth of Jesus - Capella dei Scrovegni - Padua 2016.jpg

“Nativity”, Giotto, 1303, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

In the Flight into Egypt (below), Giotto depicts perhaps the happiest donkey in the history of art, which is understandable considering its load! The side-saddle position of the BVM is absolutely charming.

Flight into Egypt - Capella dei Scrovegni - Padua 2016.jpg

“Flight into Egypt”, Giotto, 1303, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

Yet, it is Giotto’s exceptional rendering of motion that is the most palpable aspect of the painting, particularly in an early 14th-century world where static icons still dominated the visual arts. A left-to-right motion that is achieved through the strict-right-side-profile positioning of the figures, the sloping-fish-fin-type hill in the background, and if you’re still not getting it, the traffic-cop angel in the upper right who seems to gesture “keep it moving people, keep it moving”!
But the most profound aspect of the painting is how Joseph’s robe on the far right and the last figure on the far left disappear beyond the border of the painting, insinuating a continuous space beyond the picture frame and as if we were seeing the figures in a clearing. Giotto is suggesting that the painting is not a finite thing, nor a single moment in time, but instead part of a larger time/space continuum; and that if we just keep looking, all the figures would gradually disappear out of frame stage right…


Giotto di Bondone - No. 24 Scenes from the Life of Christ - 8. Marriage at Cana - WGA09202.jpg

“Wedding Feast at Cana”, Giotto, 1303, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

In a later scene, Giotto depicts JC’s first public miracle at the Wedding Feast at Cana (above). The story is worth revisiting. While JC and the BVM were at a wedding celebration, the worst imaginable thing occurs – the hosts run out of wine! Having heard this story so many times, the gravity of the disaster is somewhat watered down (pun intended) to modern ears. In order to allow my undergrads to truly grasp the meaning of this story, I ask them what they did at the last collegiate party they attended where there was no longer any beer. The unanimous response – “we left”! In fact, I think just about anyone (yours truly included) would leave a dry wedding. So, Mary turns to JC, who she knows is “special”, and asks if there was something he could possibly do to help the embarrassed hosts. JC responds in a solemn tone, “Woman… my time has not yet come”, meaning that he and GTF (see “God the Father”) had a preordained plan of when JC would go public with his miraculous powers – and this was not the moment! So, Mary turns to her son again and repeats more sternly “DO YOU THINK THAT YOU CAN DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS?”; to which JC responds, “ok” and performs his greatest party trick, as water is turned into wine. The moral of the story – OBEY YOUR MOTHER!! That even JC was willing to break with divine protocol in order to make mamma happy!
In his painting of the subject, Giotto’s inserts an absolutely hilarious caricature in the person of the large, jolly fellow dressed in orange to the far right of the scene (below). What else could he be if not the winetaster (see sommelier), as his large bulbous belly is juxtaposed against the large bulbous amphora – both of which are effective containers of wine! I like to call him the Norm Peterson (see 1980s Boston-based-Emmy-award-winning sit-com) of medieval art. It has, in fact, been proposed that this figure is actually a self-portrait of the G-Man. We will probably never know for sure, but for some reason, I could indeed accept that it is. This looks like a fun guy with whom to hang out, which is how I have always imagined Giotto.

“Wine Taster”, Giotto, 1303, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

In his Raising of Lazarus (see title image), Giotto joins the ranks of only a handful of artists (see T.S Elliot) in achieving that most sophisticated of sensory effects, known as interchangeability of the senses. That is, evoking one sense using another – a smell through a visual image, a tactile sensation through a sound, a visual image through a taste…

According to the Gospel of John, a good friend of JC named Lazarus had died. After four days, JC went to the place where he was entombed and asked for the tombstone to be moved and the tomb opened. I believe that it was here that the exclamation “Jesus Christ” came into existence. The person next to JC said “Jesus Christ!… He’s been in there for four days!” … and history was made.

The figures to the right of the tomb cover their faces with their robes in anticipation of the putrefied stench emanating from a person who has been dead for four days (below). In the 14th century, that smell would have been a very familiar to everyone, as it is even today in many parts of Italy. I have uneasy childhood memories of visiting my family in southern Italy and frequenting wakes in the homes of the deceased, which were usually held only hours after their deaths. Funerals were usually held the following day, as loved ones raced against the clock of organic decomposition.
By simply showing figures covering their noses, Giotto triggers a familiar albeit ghastly olfactory sensation that would have his audience cringing and their stomachs turning!!

The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (below) kicks off the last series of scenes in the chapel, which depict the Passion of Jesus Christ. In the painting, it looks as if JC went back to the same rental donkey company that his parents used in the earlier Flight into Egypt scene (see reusing same donkey cartoon). It also worth noting that in Italy olive branches paradoxically substitute palm branches on Palm Sunday (see the olive trees in the background).

Giotto di Bondone - No. 26 Scenes from the Life of Christ - 10. Entry into Jerusalem - WGA09206.jpg

“Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem”, Giotto, 1303, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

But the most stunning and “was-Giotto-an-alien-someone-call-the-History-Channel” aspect of the painting is the composition of the three figures in the lower right-hand corner (below). Three separate figures performing the single and sequential action of disrobing from top to bottom in order to lay its/their cloak before the Christ.

The arrangement of these three figures is the earliest attempt at animation that I know of in the history of Western art! To quote a line from the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding – “While your ancestors were living in trees, mine were writing philosophy”. Well, while the rest of art world was trying to figure out the basics of naturalism, Giotto was actually flirting with animation!!!

Moreover, Giotto was also imbuing his art with a timeless pathos which few artists in history have ever equaled.

His Kiss of Judas (below) is the stuff of iconic legend, and in this author’s modest opinion, the most powerful scene in the history of art.

Giotto di Bondone - No. 31 Scenes from the Life of Christ - 15. The Arrest of Christ (Kiss of Judas) - WGA09216.jpg

“Kiss of Judas”, Giotto, 1303, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

The surreal silence of dead-of-night Gethsemane has been violated by a human tsunami. The offensive sound of the scene is palpable as a hoard of high priests, soldiers and, of course, traitors sound their horns, rattle their lanterns, shout and jeer. It is like a scene in modern movie theaters where the sound is intentionally turned to uncomfortably high levels in order to increase dramatic effect.

But if Giotto’s movie were up on the big screen, the way I imagine it is that he would zoom in on Jesus and Judas and completely drop the sound. (below) The visual background chaos would continue but would lose both its sound and significance as the viewer becomes lost in the impassive stare of the Christ looking down into the eyes of this imperfect and greedy little being who would betray all that is good and beautiful for thirty pieces of silver.

The first time that I saw this painting back in 1996, I knew I had seen that same kind of intense gaze before… and then it dawned on me (SEE BELOW!!!)

“I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart…” Godfather II

Now, me telling you that Francis Ford Coppola was inspired by Giotto in composing this historic scene is probably hyperbole, but that fact that I can successfully compare an early 14th-century painting to a 20th-century film is absurd. But there it is for all to see.

And that, my friends, is why the G-Man sits atop my Olympus of artists…

Why It’s not the Size of the Rod that Matters (and Why I can’t stop Talking about Giotto)

July 19th, 2018
Author: Rocky Ruggiero, Ph.D.

While having dinner the other night with a friend who is also in the “business” (by which I mean art history of course), I told him that I just couldn’t stop blogging about Giotto and the Scrovegni Chapel. His sympathetic response was that mine was an obvious dilemma as “there is so much to say about Giotto and the chapel!”.

In reality, it’s not that there is so much that I have to say, as it is how much Giotto actually did!!! He is the artist; I am the critic. But unlike most critics, I do not project the frustration caused by my own artistic impotence upon those with talent. Instead, I try as best I can to fittingly extol them and to share their genius with the world (see blog – What does Michelangelo have to do with me?).

So, let’s see how far I get before I think that you will stop reading…. and I come to grips with the fact that I will probably have to write at least another blog about the G-Man (see Giotto) in order to get it all in (poor me).

The great ones do indeed make it look simple. Thereby, if the beguiling simplicity of Giotto’s art is the meter by which to measure his greatness, he might just possibly be the most innovative painter in history.

In the highest tier of frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel, Giotto depicts scenes from the life of the BVM as recounted in the 13th-century The Golden Legend written by an Italian named Jacobus de Voragine. The story recounts how the BVM’s eventual parents, Joachim and Anne, were well advanced in age and childless (see O.T./Abraham and Sarah).

The fresco cycle of the Scrovegni Chapel is the world’s first-ever motion picture, and like every great movie, it begins in dramatic fashion!

“Expulsion of Joachim”, Giotto, 1303, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

The opening subject is the Expulsion of Joachim (above). One immediately recognizes Joachim’s advanced age by his full head of white hair (see “keep it simple”). After years of faithfully offering sacrifices to God, the high priest finally pulls Joachim aside and says basta (see “enough”), informing Joachim that his childless state was obviously indicative of God’s indifference to his pleas. The priest then proceeds to expel Joachim from the temple. The theatrical gestures and expressions of the characters immediately set the tone of the scene, and I can almost hear the sad, wailing cello music in the background as poor Joachim clutches his sacrificial lamb like a teddy bear (see silent movie). And to really add salt to the wound, Giotto adds a “life’s not fair” juxtaposition. While old man Joachim is being expelled, a young man (see full head of brown hair) is being blessed within the temple walls, probably after informing the priest that his wife was expecting!

“Joachim Going out into the Wilderness”, Giotto, 1303, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

In the next scene, a dejected Joachim goes out into the wilderness (above). His emotional state is clearly discernable (see “down in the dumps”) through his hanging head and the most primal and instinctive of gestures when we are under stress or duress – clasping one’s mid-section. Not to mention that he is clearly oblivious to the celebratory yelping of Fido as his gaze goes right past the dog. But how do we know that Joachim is not always melancholic? By that most timeless of expressions in the eyes of the inside figure of the pair who greet Joachim, who “shoots a look” at the other as if to say, “Oh, boy. What’s up with him?”

Now, if I am the director of this movie, a caption would appear at the bottom of the scene that reads,


and we would cut to the next scene – the Annunciation to St. Anne (below). Suddenly, we are reminded of the other protagonist of the story – St. Anne – who is at home doing what all virtuous women do while their husbands are away – that is, spinning yarn (see don’t look at me, I’m just telling the story). And while the angel is inside announcing to Anne that she is with child, the female figure in white to the left of the door, who is also apparently virtuous as she too spins yarn, stops mid gesture and her eyes turn to her left as she eavesdrops on the conversation.

Annunciation to St. Anne, Giotto, 1303, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

So more than just telling the story of the BVM, Giotto goes to the trouble of socio-psychological commentary on human nature – i.e., BOY ARE HUMAN BEINGS NOSY!!!!

Now, for the next few scenes – the Dream of Joachim, the Meeting at the Golden Gate, the Birth of the Virgin, and the Presentation of the Virgin – see my last blog “Dante and Giotto’s Ugly Children” 

The next three scenes instead represent my absolute favorite sequence of paintings in the history of art (see, “the best part of the movie”).

The BVM grew up to be so beautiful and virtuous that all the respectable “unmarried men of the house of David” desired her hand in marriage. But just which one was deserving of her? God informed the temple priests that all potential suitors should present themselves at temple with a rod (see phallic symbol). These rods would be collected and blessed, and whichever rod distinguished itself from the others, the respective bearer would win the hand of the BVM in marriage. One man was particularly fond of the BVM but thought that he was unworthy of such a young maiden because of his advanced age – see Joseph – and was unsure whether or not to present his rod. Giotto begins the visual sequence with the Presentation of the Rods (below).

“Presentation of the Rods”, 1303, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

We can clearly identify the younger men by their dark hair, while the haloed Joseph on far left has the George-Clooney salt-and-pepper look instead.

The next scene instead depicts the Watching of the Rods (below), in which, essentially, nothing happens. So why would Giotto waste precious wall space on “nothing”? He did so in order to create suspense.

Believe me when I tell you that no other 14th- century painter was concerning himself with suspense!!! Most of them were still simply struggling to make people look like people in their paintings!!

“Watching of the Rods”, 1303, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

The final scene – the Marriage of the Virgin Mary (below) – depicts the dramatic finale of the story. In the end, Joseph did not present his rod. He instead remained at the back of the temple with his rod in hand, when it suddenly burst forth into bloom as a lily grew out of it and a dove descended upon it. And so, Joseph was clearly the man designated by God to be the husband of the BVM. Notice how the other suitors react. The one to the left of Joseph in blue is angrily crying foul. It looks like he might want to take a closer look at Joseph’s magic rod… The figure to the left of him in orange is actually breaking his rod – and you can interpret that however you like.

“Marriage of the Virgin”, Giotto, 1303, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

The nuance of this particular legend was by no means lost on its contemporary audience. In Taddeo Gaddi’s (see Giotto’s student and godson) later rendering of the same subject, arguably the most humorous figure in the history of art appears (below). In the lower left-hand corner of the scene, a young man dressed in a yellow robe walks with nothing less than a sapling on his right shoulder (see detail below). Clearly, the moral to take away from this painting is that it is not the size of the rod that counts, it’s the magical powers….

Stay tuned for more Giotto in my next blog about cinematic themes in the “Life and Passion Christ” in the Scrovegni Chapel!!!

“Marriage of the Virgin”, Taddeo Gaddi, 1330, Baroncelli Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence, Italy

Dante and Giotto’s Ugly Children

July 5th, 2018
Author: Rocky Ruggiero, Ph.D.

After Dante was exiled from Florence in 1302, one of the cities that he visited was Padua. His good friend Giotto was busy painting the walls of my favorite decorative space in the world – the Scrovegni Chapel.

“Scrovegni Chapel”, Giotto, 1303-1305, Padua, Italy

In addition to being the first painter to successfully reintroduce naturalism into medieval painting (see last blog “Giotto and the return to naturalism”), Giotto was also allegedly a rather virile man, having possibly fathered as many as 8 children.

One day, while Dante was hanging around the chapel watching his friend paint, he asked Giotto why his painted figures were all so beautiful, while his children were all so ugly. Giotto’s quick response was that he painted his figures by day… and made his children by night!!!!

Now, if a buddy and I were throwing back a couple of beers on a Friday night, this type of talk could at the least be tolerated. But one does not expect Dante Alighieri (who was no real looker himself, see above) and Giotto di Bondone, two of the greatest artists that our species has ever produced, to be slinging “tavern talk” back and forth. Regardless of whether the exchange ever actually took place, the meaning of the anecdote is clear – that this type of “regular guy” or popularist philosophy is clearly reflected in the art of both men.

Dante revolutionized medieval literature by writing his great epic trilogy, the Divine Comedy, in the vernacular – or the language spoken by the ordinary people of a particular region, which in the case of Dante, was Tuscany.

Most people misinterpret this fact as meaning that more people could therefore read the Divine Comedy. This was, in fact, not the case as the literacy rate of Medieval Europe remained staggeringly low. But it did mean that more people could understand the Divine Comedy at a time when nearly everything was written in Latin. If the literate 3 or 4 out of every 10 people read to the illiterate remainder in Latin, it would make no difference as the remainder did not comprehend Latin either. But if they were read to in the Tuscan vernacular, then they could understand, and suddenly literature no longer belonged exclusively to the clerical caste.

And as Dante did in literature, so too did Giotto in the visual arts, as he made biblical stories seem human by introducing what I call the “Visual Vernacular”.

“Meeting at the Golden Gate”, Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

In his Meeting at the Golden Gate, Giotto has Saints Joachim and Anne, parents of the BVM (see Blessed Virgin Mary), celebrate the news of Anne’s pregnancy by hugging and kissing. This might seem like rather predictable reaction to the modern viewer, but not so in the medieval world. In fact, years later, Giotto’s pupil and godson, Taddeo Gaddi, painted the same scene in Florence. But before painting the two saints engaged in a hug and a kiss, he asked the archbishop of Florence for permission. And that permission was denied!

The thought of saints kissing was considered indecent. So instead of doing what would be most natural for any couple upon discovering that after long years of waiting, their life-long dream of having a child had come true, Gaddi’s saints celebrate by rubbing forearms and bumping halos! (see below)

“Meeting at the Golden Gate”, Taddeo Gaddi, 1333, Baroncelli Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence

So why was Giotto able to get away with it? To start with, he was not the type of personality to ask permission first. But I also believe that it was because Giotto’s story of the BVM was such a human one, that viewers may have forgotten that the characters were actually holy.

“Birth of the BVM”, Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

I also find that the older I get, the more I appreciate Giotto. In his Birth of the Virgin Mary, notice how the elderly St. Anne reaches enthusiastically towards her larvae-looking newborn daughter. A detail that is not lost on any husband, including myself. After having twice witnessed my wife go through hours of excruciating labor, which, I am convinced, would kill any man, I also saw all the pain and fatigue magically disappear as our children were respectively put into her arms.

At the bottom of the painting, we see a midwife clearing out the gunk from the BVM’s nostrils. The importance of such a detail should not be overlooked.

This is the birth of the BVM that we are talking about. One imagines that she flew out of Anne’s womb with full superpowers at the ready!

Instead, Giotto gives us just an ordinary birth, the details of which, if he had indeed fathered 8 times, would have been familiar to him. This includes the exchange in the doorway to the left where the girl outside seems to be asking the midwife inside that eternal question – boy or girl!

And lastly, in his Presentation of the Virgin, instead of showing a confident and assertive miniature woman strutting up the temple stairs as if they were a catwalk (as most artists before him did), Giotto instead shows us a timid and unsure adolescent whose reassuring mamma nudges her up those scary steps.

Terrifying memories of my own first days at kindergarten come flooding back, as I seem to recall the use of a crowbar to detach me from my mother’s legs…

And again, I find myself forgetting that Giotto’s paintings are actually about gods and saints, who seem to be just as imperfect as you and me. As a good friend of mine once said, you only have to be human to appreciate Giotto…


Giotto and the Return to Naturalism

June 8th, 2018
Author: Rocky Ruggiero, Ph.D.


“Ognissanti Madonna”, Giotto, 1310, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

In my last blog (HOW A LITTLE MAN CHANGED THE WORLD: ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI), I discussed how St. Francis of Assisi was responsible for changing world perception in medieval Europe and paving the way for an eventual revolution in the arts. Therefore, if it was not social or religious tradition that was hindering visual artists from representing the world more faithfully and accurately, what was it?

It was a technical limitation. To put it simply, that after 700 years of alien madonnas and man-children in art, artists had forgotten how to make things look real!

The analogy that I use to illustrate this point with my students is the recent move to eliminate cursive handwriting from elementary school curricula. The results of which I experience first-hand as my six-year-old son can neither write nor read in cursive. Clearly, if we stop doing something, it does not take very long before we forget how, in fact, to do it.

It was clearly a matter of supply and demand, and in the Byzantine world, there was little demand for naturalism.

Byzantine-style “Madonna and Child”, Unknown Artist, c. 1250, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The philosophy of Byzantine art was that if the BVM, as I like to call her (see Blessed Virgin Mary), appeared as a regular woman, her importance might not be properly impressed upon viewers. But if the BVM resembled E.T. (see “call home”), then it would be easier for the faithful to accept her as a goddess. A formula that has been employed since the dawn of visual imagery – that the less natural something looks, the more supernaturally it is perceived.

Baby Jesus was actually the more difficult of the two to resolve, as Catholics maintain that Jesus is God. The thought that Jesus/God was born the way we all were – see “the diaper thing”, see “the spitting up on oneself thing”, see (my personal favorite) “the potty-training thing” – was thought to be completely inappropriate.

And so Byzantine artists adhered to the homuncular theological belief that maintains that Jesus was born a perfect-little adult; essentially implying that from the moment of birth, Jesus Christ could drive a car, he could watch R-rated movies and that he could consume alcohol…

Such a theory might seem foolish to us in the 21st century, but it was a very effective way to render Christian subject matter more divine in the Middle Ages.

That is, of course, until artists like Giotto appeared. In his Ognissanti Madonna, painted in 1310 and located in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Giotto began to effectively reintroduce naturalism, by simply using nature as both his model and inspiration.

In his painting of Mary, Giotto clearly shapes Mary’s legs under her dark drapery, suggesting that there is a human form under the drapery. Usually, Mary appeared like a paper cut-out doll, where body and drapery were one and the same.

Detail from “Ognissanti Madonna”

More importantly, Mary’s breasts are modeled as well and push up against her tunic, so that more than just a human form, it is a female form that Giotto is depicting.

For the first time in seven centuries, Mary’s femininity has been restored!

Notice also the physical contact between “mommy” and “junior”. In most Madonna and Child images of the time, Mary simply points at Jesus as she does in Cimabue’s (see Giotto’s teacher) version of the subject, like some sort of blinking neon arrow rhythmically reminding us to “Pay attention to him, pay attention to him…” (see “Eat at Joe’s…)

“Madonna and Child”, Cimabue, 1285, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Instead, in Giotto’s painting, Mary holds Jesus’ right leg with her right hand, and wraps her left around his waist. If you look carefully, you can see the tips of fingers under Jesus’ left arm. In one painting, Mary comes across as a human, as a woman, and as a mamma! It was very simply a revolution in the history of art.

Of course, the baby is by no means to most babyish-looking baby you have ever seen (see goatee!). But there are some important infantile characteristics in the child, such as the overall proportions, the general pudginess, and, perhaps most importantly, the rolls of baby fat at the neck and wrists of the child. Having simply figured out how to render the illusion of baby fat at the beginning of the 14th century is in and of itself a revolution!

Clearly Giotto’s is not anatomical painting, but it was the foundation upon which the next five centuries of Western painting would be based.

Stay tuned for my next blog where we shall discuss how Giotto so effectively applied naturalism to his narrative paintings, and how he earned my nickname “The Alfred Hitchcock of the 14th century”!


How a Little Man Changed the World: St. Francis of Assisi

May 17th, 2018
Author: Rocky Ruggiero, Ph.D.

Whenever I am standing in front of Giotto’s Madonna and Child (1310 CE) in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy and discussing the naturalistic innovations introduced by the artist, I ask my students why it took so long for Medieval painters to reacquire the ability to depict subject matter in a realistic manner. The logical answer that I usually get is that artists were afraid of being punished by the church. That depicting Christian subjects as mundane and human might somehow be seen as blasphemous in a still-very-Byzantine world where Madonna’s usually looked like aliens and Baby Jesus regularly appeared with a receding hairline and five o’clock shadow.

As clear-cut an explanation as this may seem, I remind everyone that by the time we see changes take place in art, it usually means that they have already taken place in society. That the socio-philosophical game-changer of the medieval world was not an artist, but a spoiled-rich-kid from Assisi named Giovanni di Piero Bernardone, who had been nicknamed “Francesco” by his dad in honor of the lucrative business dealings he had had with textile merchants from France, known as the franceschi. After living the first have of his life in the proverbial “Fastlane” – fast cars, fast women – this second-most-penitent of penitent saints (see Mary Magdalene) had a life-altering conversion involving a talking crucifix (i.e. Jesus) in a dilapidated chapel outside of Assisi that told him to “rebuild his house which had fallen into ruin”. From that point on, Francis, the Catholic Church and the world would never be the same.

In addition to establishing one of the most important Catholic orders in history for both frati (brothers) and soure (sisters), upon whom he imposed the same vow of poverty he himself had taken; actively and passionately preaching the message of the gospels throughout the world; succoring the poor, hungry and sick – particularly lepers (see Jesus); and inventing the Christian tradition of the Christmas creche, Francis also managed to change the world. The greatest revolutionary in Western civilization since Jesus Christ (as I like to call him) suddenly began to offer an alternative existential reality to Medieval Christians – one in which the natural world was a direct reflection of the goodness of God. Since the fall of the Roman Empire (476 CE), the Catholic (or Latin Christian as it was called) Church had preached and enforced a transcendental world view. One in which anything that was not God – or otherworldly – was evil. This included the natural world around us that was considered material and therefore nothing more than distraction and temptation luring souls off the path of righteousness and salvation.

Francis instead claimed that the natural world was given to us as a gift from God, and was therefore not only good, but imbued with God himself. Nature should not be shunned and ignored, but celebrated and revered. And moreover, human beings were not here to dominate and control nature (see Genesis 1:26), but to live with it in harmony. Man was no more important than the ant and no less than the elephant. Francis did not use the word “ecosystem”, but had the word existed in the 13th century, he would have. And even as malaria and tuberculosis caught up with him late in his life and robbed him of his sight, Francis began to ecstatically sing the praises of nature in verse in his famous “Canticle of the Sun”. The sun and fire became his brothers, the moon and water his sisters (see 1960’s commune…). Diving into frozen lakes and rolling around in thorn bushes brought not pain, but instead pleasure afforded by nature, according to Francis (see “either you’re holy or you’re crazy…).

Not surprisingly, within a half century of his death in 1226, artists like Cimabue, Dante and Giotto appeared, and each reflected the little giant’s philosophy in his respective art. Cimabue, the first artist to begin to attempt to break from the abstraction of Byzantine art, painted what is still today the earliest-known portrait of the saint in the lower basilica of Assisi (see above). Dante, who was the first author to publish in the vernacular (see The Divine Comedy), described St. Francis as rising like the sun out of Assisi, in a world that was otherwise black and gloomy, in Canto XI of his Paradiso. And, of course Giotto, who was a lay member of the Franciscan Order, who best embraced the saint’s message in what I like to call his “visual vernacular” style of painting, where saints look and act a hell of a lot like regular people and their world looks pretty much like our own. And even a much more contemporary saint has kept Francis’ legacy alive when Saint JPII made St. Francis of Assisi the Patron Saint of Ecology in 1979 (see “climate change doesn’t exist…”, help us St. Francis!!!)

…But I digress… so if it wasn’t fear of punishment by the church, why did it take so long for artists to figure out how to make things look like they do in the natural world?
Stay tuned for my next blog and find out!!!
I’m sure the suspense is killing you…


Loving Michelangelo to Death

April 27th, 2018
Author: Rocky Ruggiero, Ph.D.

I think few people today remember how radically different the Sistine Chapel ceiling looked before its restoration in the 1980s. I do. I remember seeing the dark, grimy pre-restoration ceiling when I was about 8 years old, and then the chromatically-miraculous cleaned ceiling in 1993. In fact, I try to make it a point to remind those who I bring to the chapel how lucky they are to be able to see the ceiling the same way Michelangelo did before his death in 1564 and the first application of varnish was applied to the ceiling shortly thereafter. But I also point out that as obfuscating as that dark varnish was, it encapsulated the ceiling and protected it from centuries of candle soot and pollution. Now that that varnish is gone, what is left to protect Michelangelo’s sublime frescoes?

In 2010, the then director of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, ominously warned that there were too many visitors to the Sistine Chapel. Four years later, he went on to “hope” that the annual number of visitors to the chapel would not exceed 6 million, which is what he described as the “sold out” parameter for the logistical capacity of the museums. But then, in 2016, there were, in fact, more than 6 million visitors; while in 2017, under the direction of the first-ever-female director of the museums Barbara Jatta, an average of 27,000 people per day visited the chapel during peak tourist season, which, in the case of the Sistine Chapel, seems to be all year round. It is kind of alarming though when the director of a museum claims that there are too many people visiting his/her museum, but then does nothing about it. The reason, one would imagine, is the revenue created by such staggering numbers when the cost of admission to the museums (including reservation fee) is EUR 21,00/person.

So, who cares how many people enter the Sistine Chapel? Well, we all should, and a lot! What most people don’t realize is that we ourselves are the biggest threat to works of art. A single person produces 17ml of moisture and 350,00 Joules of body heat per hour (roughly the same amount of heat as a 100W light bulb). Now multiply those figures by the 27k people walking through the Sistine Chapel daily, and what you have is an enormous microclimate bomb that stresses and deteriorates the very plaster frescoes that make the chapel so famous. Not to mention the fact that we are also carrying atmospheric pollutants, pollens, and other harmful substances on our clothing, skin and hair, which we then release into the chapel and which also contribute to the degeneration of the paintings. I am not a restorer, but I do know enough of them to know that with the present volume of visitors, there might not be anything left to visit in a not too distant future.

The Vatican has taken some important conservatory steps. In 2014, the Sistine Chapel received a new LED lighting and climate control system. Yet, these are a far cry from the precautions taken elsewhere for important works in relatively small buildings. In Milan, no more than 25 visitors every 15 minutes pass through a series of hermetically sealed doors that maintain constant temperature and humidity in order to view Leonardo’s Last Supper. In Padua, visitors to the climate-controlled Scrovegni Chapel are limited to 25 every 20 minutes and watch a video in a large deionization chamber while walking on a special carpet that cleans their shoes as they pass through sealed doors that finally lead them into the chapel. Such precautions might seem extreme but may very well become the norm in world where we are literally loving our art to death!

Photograph: EPA

Florence Cathedral and the Beauty of Boredom

April 3rd, 2018
Author: Rocky Ruggiero, Ph.D.

The cathedral of Florence (1296-1468CE) is not only the defining architectural monument of the city, it is also one of the few that has free admission. Combined with the breathtaking quantity of white, green and pink marble decorations on the exterior of the church, it is not surprising that each day long lines form to visit the interior of this great building. But upon finally entering the church, most visitors are disappointed. The rather austere brown and white interior, although enormous in scale, contrasts strikingly with the highly decorative exterior. Expressions such as “That’s it…”, or adjectives such as “somber”, “sober”, “sparse” or even “boring” are those most often used to describe the ascetic interior. Often times, people even ask “Is it finished?”, hoping to find some rationalization for their disillusionment. Yet, if a visitor was to look deeper and beyond simple superficial ornamentation, he/she would discover that boredom can be both beautiful and profound.

More than an unsuccessful Gothic-style church, Santa Maria del Fiore (which is the cathedral’s proper name) should be described as a proto-Renaissance church as regards its interior design. In Florence cathedral, architecture is both function and decoration. Francesco Talenti, who was the architect of the cathedral interior, was, what we call in the business, “an architect’s architect”. He believed that if the interior walls were covered with painting or sculpture decoration, that one would no longer admire the “dignity of the wall”, but what is on that wall instead. Not only does this resulting bi-chrome brownstone/stucco pattern foreshadow Brunelleschi’s grey stone/stucco interiors at his great basilicas of San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito, but so too does Florence cathedral’s use of a proportional scheme. The central nave bays of the cathedral are perfect squares with 17.15m sides, while the side-aisle bays are rectangles, which areas are half of the nave squares. While technically pointed – and therefore Gothic in style – the nave arches have such wide bases that they seem to be tending towards semi-circular – and therefore Renaissance – in shape. Such un-acute arches defeat any structural advantage inherent in pointed arches. What’s the point of building pointed arches with such large bases? In other words, it’s pointless to build pointed arches in such a way (bad puns intended!)

Moreover, the general lack of decoration in the nave allows the visitor to move unhindered and undistracted – a sort of architectural metaphor for the terrestrial journey of life – towards the great octagonal crossing space below Brunelleschi’s majestic dome. Upon arriving, the visitor has entered into the main liturgical space of the church, with the high altar located at the very center of the crossing space and surrounded by an octagonal marble choir. And if the nave of the church symbolizes the journey of life, then the crossing space represents the spiritual destination – heaven/chi/nirvana/bliss – however one wishes to define it. This heaven is represented not only architecturally in the form of the dome, but pictorially in the great amount of decoration below it. From Della Robbia’s glazed terracotta reliefs above the sacristy doors, to the celebrity-designed stained-glass windows by the likes of Uccello, Donatello, and Ghiberti, and culminating in Vasari and Zuccari’s nearly 35,000ft2 of fresco decoration representing the “Last Judgement” that adorns the interior surface of the dome, one nearly forgets that the space that led them to this point was almost entirely void of decoration, and that sometimes, “boring” can be beautiful…


Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer at the Met

January 18th, 2018
Author: Rocky Ruggiero, Ph.D.

If you have not had a chance to visit the exhibit on Michelangelo’s drawings at the Metropolitan Museum Fifth Avenue, New York, I would highly recommend doing so before the show’s closing on February 12, 2018. Over eight years, the curator of the exhibit, Carmen Bambach, has achieved the impossible in bringing together 133 of Michelangelo’s drawings. The opportunity to view and enjoy so many drawings in a single venue is perhaps more rare than most celestial phenomenon. Moreover, the chronological arrangement of the drawings allows the visitor to explore the great artist’s personal and professional life in a unique way.

From his early days as an apprentice to Domenico Ghirlandaio, to his learning from and self-measuring against the great masters of the early Renaissance such as Giotto and Masaccio, to his artistic apotheosis with works such as the St. Peter’s Pietà, the David, and the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, the drawings are not only beautiful, but also biographical. Moreover, those drawings displayed in the exhibit associated with specific works of art allow us a “behind-the-scenes” look into the conceptual process of artistic creation. In the case of certain preparatory drawings for the Sistine Chapel, it literally feels like you are looking over the Michelangelo’s shoulder as he dreamed up his majestic compositions.

I not only had the great privilege of visiting the show several times on my own, but also the honor of receiving permission to lecture on the exhibit to several of our academic tour groups. (For more information and upcoming events in the US, see https://rockyruggiero.com/events/)

Although a majority of the drawings in the exhibit come from the collections of the Uffizi Gallery and the Casa Buonarroti Museum in Florence, Italy, they are very rarely displayed in their native city. Only the Casa Buonarroti consistently displays Michelangelo’s drawings, albeit only six at a time, and in constant rotation for reasons of conservation. While scholars such as myself are granted special permission to view drawings in these collections upon request, they are generally kept out of the public eye due to the damage caused to the delicate and often fragile drawings by continual exposure to light. So while students and tourists can enjoy the paintings, sculptures and buildings of the Renaissance in Italy, Renaissance drawings remain a forbidden fruit.

This Italian reality only adds to the special importance of the drawings exhibition at the Met. That such a great quantity of extraordinarily high-quality drawings by an artist of the caliber of the “Divine Michelangelo” is on display for an exceptional three-month period is perhaps a nearly once-in-a-lifetime experience.

See them now, because you may never see them again…