1. Out of the Ashes

The Rise of the Italian Communes and Florence in the Age of Dante


 Renaissance Italy grew out of tumultuous times, like a mythical  phoenix rising out of the ashes.



This image conveys the vitality in the early Italian communes that emerged in the 11th and 12th centuries, “out of the ashes” of the Roman Empire:


francis detail large
Master of the St. Francis Cycle, St Francis Renounces His Worldly Possessions, detail




In the chaotic years after the fall of Rome, people sought protection in the Christian community.


Catacomb of Comodilla 4th centuryARTSTOR_103_41822000577278

Catacomb of Comodilla, ceiling fresco Rome, 4th century CE

Then Europe was united briefly under a Frankish king


Charlemagne reliquary bust black

Reliquary bust of Charlemagne


Charlemagne ruled over an immense swathe of Europe,


Charlemagne Map


modeling himself on the Roman emperors.

Marcus aurelius and Charlemagne

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, c. 165 CE /Carolingian Emperor (Charlemagne ?) 9th cent CE


There was a brief, vivid flowering of learning and the arts during the Carolingian Era

St. Matthew, Coronation Gospel   ca. 800-810 CE

Charlemagne coronation gospels

Under Charlemagne, coins were minted again



Charlemagne coin LESSING_ART_10311441644

A solidus coin, 768-814 CE

Soon after Charlemagne’s death, however, his empire fragmented and Europe once more fell prey to invasions, this time from Magyars, Arabs, and Vikings.


viking ship


In the centuries that followed, throughout Europe in most places people sought the protection of powerful lords, served by knights who fought for them.


This complex system of obligations has come to be known as “feudalism.”


Limbourg Brothers, Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de BerryOctober, detail

On the Italian Peninsula, the situation was different. There were many vibrant little towns in Italy



Biccherna, Siena


where trade flourished.



Domenico Lenzi Libro del Biadaiolo  (Book of The Grain Merchant)

Within these towns, citizens formed communes, which owed allegiance to the Emperor, as well as the Pope and the local bishop.

Bishop Anagni ARTSTOR_103_41822000578920

Anagni Cathedral, Consecration of the Church, c.1255




Tensions created from the time of the Investiture Conflict persisted…


Henry IV Mathilda of Tuscany

Emperor Henry IV humbles himself before Pope Gregory at Canossa. On the right is Countess Matilda of Tuscany, who supported the Pope.




In 1167 most northern Italian cities joined the Lombard League.


Lombard league




Together they opposed the Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa.



Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa and his sons, Welf Chronicle





And they defeated Barbarossa at the Battle of Legnano  in 1176


frederick barbarossa_alexander_III2
Spinello Aretino, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa submits to the authority of Pope Alexander III, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena

With this act, the Italian city-states essentially won their autonomy from the Empire and the self-governing communes of central and northern Italy flourished…




The image at the beginning of this chapter is a detail taken from a fresco of the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Here is an image of that entire fresco:



In this scene Francis’s father reacts angrily as he watches his son give away all his belongings, stripping naked in the public piazza.





It  is one of the frescoes in the Upper Church of the Basilica in Assisi

It was painted by a contemporary of Giotto and is sometimes attributed to him, as he painted many of the frescoes in Assisi. But which ones? This is hotly debated among Giotto scholars.


Even when they find a painting signed by Giotto himself attribution can be controversial…

For instance here is the Bologna Polyptych, actually signed “Opus Magistri Iocti de Florentia” and yet many do not want to believe such an inferior work could be by the hand of the master.






Below is Giotto’s Ognissanti Madonna – an undisputed masterpiece – whether painted by Giotto or by someone else of the same name.

Giotto ognissanti





To understand what a revolution in painting Giotto represented it is useful to compare his work with that of his great predecessor, Cimabue.


Cima and Giotto

Cimabue Madonna in Majesty c.1285, detail                  Giotto Ognissanti Madonna c.1310











The Death of St. Francis in the Bardi Chapel in Santa Croce in Florence, though badly damaged, is one of Giotto’s most moving works.




Despite the painter’s expressiveness and naturalism, Giotto in some ways is very Medieval. His use of perspective in The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple, for example, is rather confusing.


Here is a link to an excellent essay on Giotto’s use of perspective:


Giotto’s nightmarish vision of the afterlife from The Last Judgment fresco in the Arena Chapel in Padua eerily reminds us of scenes from Dante’s Inferno.



Though moneylenders were normally included among the damned, Enrico Scrovegni, Giotto’s patron seems to have found a sure way into Heaven.


Scrovegni, a banker (read: “usurer”) is portrayed donating this church, thereby cleansing his sins.

“Follow the money” is an important phrase to remember with the Renaissance. Here is a picture of what Scrovegni and others were after, the gold florin:



Immense fortunes were made through money changing



This rotund man painted by Giotto, also in the Arena Chapel, reflects the image of the prosperous, self-satisfied merchant class of his day:



Built in 1255, the Bargello was the seat of Florentine government in Giotto and Dante’s time.


The Palazzo dei Priori (now called the Palazzo Vecchio) became the new City Hall in the 14th century – it is still the City Hall of Florence today







Here is the Campanile (Bell Tower) designed by Giotto that stands beside the Cathedral of Florence:

Campanile di Giotto



In the previous century many powerful private Florentine citizens had towers built on their homes; there were over 150 of them.

towers of florence

Amidei Tower          Mannelli Tower       Baldovinetti Tower


Symbols of pride and the arrogance of the magnate class, the towers of the Tuscan town of Monteriggioni  were an inspiration for Dante’s description of the Giants in the Inferno:



“…as, on its round wall, Monteriggioni is crowned with towers, so there towered above the bank that runs around the pit, with half their bulk, the terrifying giants…” Dante Inferno XXXI 40-45



To get some idea of what Florence looked like before the tops of its towers were lopped off, here is a photo of the Tuscan town of San Gimignano as it appears today, with its medieval towers intact.


San Gimignano2

Though these measures did not entirely eliminate factional strife they did tend to limit excessive violence in the cities


Workshop of Pacino di Bonaguida, Ricoverino de’ Cerchi’s nose is severed  ( 1 May 1300) Giovanni Villani Cronica Bib. Vat. Chigi L.VIII. 296



This fresco painted in 1342 in the Bigallo in Florence, gives an idea of what a crowded, bustling place Florence was during the first half of the 14th century:





Around the same time of Dante and Giotto, a naturalistic school of sculpture was developing in Pisa.



Nicola Pisano’s 1260 Adoration of the Magi, a detail of the pulpit in the Baptistry in Pisa:


Pisano would have been familiar with works of ancient Roman sculpture such as this sculpted relief in the Camposanto in Pisa:








His son Giovanni continued in Andrea’s naturalistic style:


 Giovanni Pisano, Madonna of the Conversation c.1280



Pisano Massacre pistoia

Giovanni Pisano, Massacre of the Innocents, c. 1301 Church of Sant’Andrea, Pistoia









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