The Gothic Architecture in Italy (I)

Italy never lost its classical traditions; during the darkest centuries of the Middle Ages the forms of Roman art were latent waiting for the right moment to come to life again. However, in Italy there were important areas where Gothic styles penetrated. Given the great variety of Italian art schools, we will start in the north-eastern part of the peninsula, in Venice, to continue through Lombardy down to Tuscany, and finally descending to southern Italy.

Top and bottom left: The Doge’s Palace in Venice, established in 1340. This palace was the residence of the Doge of Venice, the supreme authority of the former Republic of Venice. Right: The Porta della Carta of the Doge’s Palace, built between 1438–1442 by Giovanni and Bartolomeo Bon, this gate served as the ceremonial entrance to the building. I’s name probably derives either from the fact that this was the area where public scribes set up their desks, or from the nearby location of the cartabum, the archives of state documents.

In Venice, the most notable monument of this period is the Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale), built next to the Saint Mark’s basilica. It was in this Palace that the Seat of the government of the Republic was centered since ancient times. Back in the IX century, the Doge Angelo Participazio built the first palace which burned down later in 996, after this fire the building was rebuilt by Pietro I Orseolo. After a second fire in the XII century, the building was again rebuilt, but it did not acquire its present appearance, especially its exterior, until the restorations directed by the Venetian masters of the XIV century. The construction lasted several generations; different names of architects who directed the works appeared in official registers so different parts of the monument are attributed to different architects. The Doge’s Palace has a cubic shape, is like a large block of marble that appears beautifully golden under the sun rays. The ground and main floors have a gallery or porch with beautiful arcades; in the third and fourth floors, the smooth wall has only large windows spaced along the facade and is decorated with red and white marble panels. There is no building that resembles the Palazzo Ducale in Venice; everything in it is wonderfully arranged: the relationship with the general atmosphere of the city, its connection with the church of Saint Mark with the famous Porta della Carta (or Gate of the Letter), its patios and rear facade from the Renaissance.

From the Middle Ages remain several private palaces of Venice, which repeated the layout of multi-storey facades of the Byzantine palaces although using Gothic forms, such as those palaces of Contarini, Giustiniani, Pisani, Dandolo and Foscari, the Cà d’Oro , and many of the city’s churches, some built with brick in the style of those of Lombardy, like the churches of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari and that of San Giovanni e Paolo.

Other palaces in Venice. Left: View of the famous staircase of the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo, XV century. Top right: The Palazzo Giustinian overlooking the Grand Canal next to Ca’ Foscari. It is among the best examples of the late Venetian Gothic (late XVth century). Bottom right: The Palazzo Pisani Moretta also along the Grand Canal (second half of the XVth century)..
More gothic palaces of Venice. Top left: The Palazzo Dandolo, now Hotel Danieli, built at the end of the 14th century by one of the Dandolo families. Top right: The Ca’ Foscari, the palace of the Foscari family, built for the doge Francesco Foscari in 1453. It is now the main seat of Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Bottom: The Ca’ d’Oro (or Palazzo Santa Sofia), it’s one of the older palaces in the city, it is known as Ca’ d’Oro (“golden house”) due to the gilt and polychrome external decorations which once adorned its walls. It was built between 1428 and 1430 for the Contarini family.
Top: The east front of the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari with its bell tower (Venice). One of the greatest churches in the city, it was built in the XV century. Its campanile, is the second tallest in the city after that of San Marco. Bottom: The Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo also in Venice. After the XVth century the funeral services of all of Venice’s doges were held here and twenty-five doges are buried in this church.

In Lombardy, the most important Gothic building is the cathedral of Milan. Its construction began under the Duke Juan Caleazzo Visconti, and the first director apparently was a certain Simon of Orsénigo. For some time the architects in chief were French, such as Buenaventura de Paris, who was the ingegniere of the cathedral in 1388, and above all Germans such as Henri de Ensingen and Henri de Gmünden who were in charge of the work towards the end of the XIV century. Then Italians took over the construction, led by Felipe de Organi, but the whole building was very Gothic in style and quite German in many details. The cathedral of Milan has five longitudinal naves and three in the transept. The interior produces a strange effect, because although its naves have different heights, all have the same width. On the crossing rises a tall lantern resembling a tower with spears and superimposed pinnacles; the buttresses are crowned by high pinnacles topped by sculptures representing saints. The mass of Milan’s cathedral is so colossal and has so much personality, that it doesn’t resemble any other cathedral in Europe. During the night or seen from afar is when it impresses the most when the monotonous forms of its buttresses can’t be well appreciated and only the white mountain of carved marble is distinguished.

Exterior view of the massive Milan Cathedral (Milan, Italy) dedicated to St Mary of the Nativity. The Gothic cathedral took nearly six centuries to complete (the groundbreaking was in 1386). It is the largest church in Italy and the fifth largest in the world.
Interior view of the central nave of the Milan cathedral.

This enormous monument didn’t make school in Lombardy as the empire of the Visconti, the Milanese ducal family, didn’t last either. The Visconti were succeeded by the Sforza, a younger dinasty, and who accepted without hesitation the forms of the Renaissance. The Certosa di Pavia, between Milan and Puja begun by the Visconti in 1473 and concluded in the time of the Sforza, already has a marked Renaissance character.

In the north of Lombardy, particularly in the lakes’ region, Gothic forms barely penetrated due to the deep influence of the Lombard Cosmati masters. The Cathedral of Como is an example of these hybrid monuments, where there are elements of the Renaissance when Romanesque forms were still in use.

The facade of the Certosa di Pavia, a monastery in the Province of Pavia, Lombardy, northern Italy. Built between 1396-1495, it is one of the largest monasteries in Italy. Certosa is the Italian name for a house of the cloistered monastic order of Carthusians founded by St. Bruno in 1044. The Certosa complex is renowned for the exuberance of its architecture, in both the Gothic and Renaissance styles.
The Como Cathedral (Lombardy, Italy). It is dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and begun in 1396.

The same happened in Piamonte, both in the rural churches and in several castles preserved from these times, especially in the region of Monferrato. It is curious, for example, that in Turin, the capital, there isn’t a single Gothic monument. Also interesting was the repeated use of mural polychromy in the brick constructions not only in the interior but also in the exterior of buildings which were entirely covered with drawings, squares, reticulates and fringes, framing pious scenes and the figures of Saints. Worth mentioning are the mausoleums with the equestrian statue of the deceased representing those great adventurers and captains of Milan and Verona. The monument of Barnabò Visconti, now preserved in Castello Sforzesco in Milan, has the marble urn supported by columns and the huge equestrian figure placed on the casket, next to his sculpture are two allegorical figures that represent his main qualities: Justice and Strength. The mausoleums of the Scala family, lords of Verona, were more complicated; three of them were placed in the corner of a small square and surrounded by a beautiful iron fence. The first of these mausoleums was dedicated to the founder of the house, called by the nickname of Great Can or Cangrande: on top of a simple monument rises the equestrian statue of the fearful captain, as if he was ready to continue his warlike achievements. His successors had more complicated tombs, with a triple overlap of pinnacles and the military effigy, also on horseback, dominating the whole monument.

Some of the most important Italian Gothic funerary monuments. Left: The funerary monument of Bernabò Visconti (Castello Sforzesco, Milan), with an equestrian statue, was made in 1363 and includes sculptures by Bonino da Campione. Top right: A view of the Scaliger Tombs, a group of five Gothic funerary monuments in Verona, Italy, celebrating the Scaliger family, who ruled in Verona from the 13th to the late 14th century. They are regarded as one of the most outstanding examples of Gothic art. Bottom right: The equestrian statue of Cangrande, originally placed on the summit of the baldachin of its tomb, it is now replaced by a copy (the original is kept in the museum of Castelvecchio in Verona).

In Tuscany, the Cistercian monks of San Galgano directed between 1196 and 1215 the construction of the cathedral of Siena. If it weren’t by official documents, this would be hard to believe because, despite its Gothic structure, the cathedral of Siena, covered with mosaics and decorated by the most renowned sculptors of the time such as Giovanni Pisano and his disciples, at first sight seems a monument of local art with no influence whatsoever of the Cistercian styles. Its exterior doesn’t have the buttresses typical of Gothic churches; its facades are adorned with strips of local marble of different colors. The same marble strips decorate the interior. On the crossing has a dome built in the middle of the XIII century, and all the naves are covered with ribbed vaults all with sumptuous mosaics and marbles. In the cathedral of Siena the structural parts were built in the semi-gothic Cistercian style, while its decoration was done by lay local artists. Later, the main façade was covered with precious mosaics in which the Italian painters of the early Renaissance imposed wonderful colors; however, the physical structure of the building is Gothic.

The Siena Cathedral (Siena, Italy), dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. The lantern atop the dome was added by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It was completed in 1348.
Top: Interior of the Siena cathedral. Bottom: The Orvieto Cathedral (Orvieto, Umbria, central Italy). The cathedral’s facade contains elements designed from the 14th to the 20th century, with a large rose window, golden mosaics and three huge bronze doors, while inside resides two frescoed chapels decorated by some of the best Italian painters of the period with images of the Judgment Day. It was completed in 1591.

The cathedral of Orvieto repeated the arrangement of the layout of the cathedral of Siena. Also in this cathedral, its magnificent facade covered in mosaics doesn’t allow to focus the attention in the constructive parts of the monument. The architects who learned from the Cistercian school propagated through Lazio and Tuscany the designs of the pointed arch and the ribbed vault. In Pisa, the cemetery (Camposanto Monumentale), begun in 1278 by Giovanni di Simone, has the cloister’s arches with Gothic fretwork. The small church of Santa Maria della Spina in Pisa was conceived as a graceful reliquary located on the parapet of the Arno river next to a bridge, and is a curious example of how Gothic art was interpreted in Tuscany in 1325. In Florence, The Orsanmichele, the famous chapel of the wool merchants’ guild built in the XIV century, has a cubic shape with Gothic windows and vaults.

View of the Gothic arcades and central courtyard of the Camposanto Monumentale (Pisa, Italy).
The church of Santa Maria della Spina (Pisa). Erected around 1230 in the Pisan Gothic style, the name of della Spina (“of the thorn”) derives from the presence of a thorn, putatively part of the crown of thorns placed on Christ during his Passion and Crucifixion. The relic was brought to this church in 1333.
The Orsanmichele (or “Kitchen Garden of St. Michael”), a church in Florence. Left: exterior view of the building, the church was originally built as a grain market in 1337, and between 1380 and 1404 it was converted into a church used as the chapel of Florence’s powerful craft and trade guilds. On the ground floor of the building are the 13th-century arches that originally formed the loggia of the grain market. Right: Interior of the Orsanmichele chapel.

The propagation of the Gothic style in Italy during the XIII century was favored by the foundation of the religious mendicant orders of the Franciscan and Dominican. Both orders were approved by the Apostolic See at the height of Gothic France. Saint Francis spoke French and it is supposed that when he was young composed in French his youth songs. Santo Domingo spent most of his life in the south of France while the intense participation of Dominicans in scholasticism also attracted its clergy to Paris. Both Franciscans and Dominicans sent their best novices to the University of Paris. The Italian cities welcomed with great enthusiasm the new religious orders, which had the habit of building their monasteries within the city walls. Franciscans and Dominicans, instead of retreating to deserted places to raise their souls in solitude and hard work, were determined to keep in touch with the bourgeois, in order to reaffirm them in the advantages of the Christian life. That is why in all important towns convents of mendicant friars were built: both preachers and Franciscans.

The Franciscans had their main sanctuary in Assisi, where Saint Francis’ was laid to rest, and the church of St. Francis is in fact one of the most curious Gothic monuments in Italy. To build it was necessary to raise some robust buttresses directly on the plain, where the garbage dump used to be located. As proof of humility, Francis had wanted to be buried there, but his fellow monks wished for the founder a great temple-sepulcher, and in order to satisfy both desires, a huge substructure was built in the landfill. Above is a crypt that occupies the whole floor plan of the temple, and above it rises a simple church with one nave with crossing and apse. The nave’s vaults are counteracted by cylindrical axes, like solid towers, similar to those of the French cathedral of Albi. It seems that the church of St. Francis was directed by two Italian masters; however, it was an international enterprise for which money was collected throughout Christendom, and this assumption gives the explanation of why Gothic style, the artistic style then in vogue throughout Europe, prevailed in the monument.

The Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi (Assisi, Umbria, central Italy). The basilica is one of the most important places of Christian pilgrimage in Italy. The basilica, begun in 1228, comprises two churches known as the Upper Church and the Lower Church, and a crypt where the remains of the saint are interred. The interior of the Upper Church is an important early example of the Gothic style in Italy. It was consecrated in 1253.

Dominicans, on the other hand, buried their holy founder in Bologna, in a convent church that unfortunately was radically transformed during the XVIII century. Also in Bologna, the cathedral dedicated to San Petronio is in Gothic style before this saint’s tomb was moved to a church dedicated to him and which appears very reformed nowadays. This church was projected to be much larger than it is today. It was originally designed as a vast church with three naves, lateral chapels and a transept with three naves which was begun but never completed.

Top: interior of the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi decorated with frescoes by numerous late medieval painters from the Roman and Tuscan schools (Cimabue, Giotto, Simone Martini, Pietro Lorenzetti and possibly Pietro Cavallini). The variety and quality of the frescoes gives the basilica a unique importance in demonstrating the development of Italian art of this period. Bottom: The Basilica of San Petronio, begun in 1390 (Bologna, northern Italy). It is the largest (Gothic or otherwise) church built in bricks of the world.