The gothic era opens a new chapter in the history of art, one which marks the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and the of secular painting.
In contrast to the Middle Ages, whose imagery remained rooted exclusively in the realms of the hereafter, the artists of the Gothic era drew their inspiration from life itself and in so doing found a new truth. Their discovery of a new, physical world simultaneously led them to a more joyful vision of reality which placed greater emphasis upon feeling.
With the development of court society and the rise of civic culture, the Gothic style blossomed. Art was infused with a new sophistication and elegance. Loving attention to detail, animated use of line, a luminous palette and a refined technique were typical features of the new style which would quickly take Europe by storm.
Gothic art reached its high point in the frescos and panel paintings of Giotto, Duccio, the Lorenzetti brothers, Simone Martini and Fra Angelico in Florence and Siena, in the exquisite illuminations executed by the Limburg brothers and other manuscripts artists in France and the Netherlands, in the panels produced by Bohemian painters at the Prague court, and in the “soft” style of the North German masters and the graceful works of Stefan Lochner. Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), a Florentine painter from the school of Michelangelo (1475-1564), was the first historiography as a whole. Writing in his Lives of the Artists, first Published in 1550, Vasari pays tribute to Giotto (c. 1266- 1337) as the artist who initiated the rebirth in art. Vasari’s words are no less valid today, and it is with Giotto, indeed, that we shall open our own discussion of the Gothic age. Two things should thereby be borne in mind, however. Giotto’s innovations were limited solely to painting, and do not apply to sculpture or architecture.
Secondly, the great Sienese painters must also be ranked alongside Giotto at the forefront of this new development.
By a rebirth of art, Vasari did not mean a return to perfect mastery of artistic means and flawless imitation of nature as in the art of Ancient Greece and Rome. In the case of the Gothic era, we can speak of a rebirth neither of the art of classical antiquity nor even of painting. It is true that, in the works of classical art known to us today, we could recognize much that would later prove characteristic of the 14th and 15th century: the study of nature, and in particular the structure and movements of the human body, for example, together with the depiction of landscape and space, and a differentiated use of colour. The 13th century, however, had no first-hand knowledge of the painting of antiquity; such works were known only from historical writings.
Artists did, however, have access to the mosaics and faded frescos of Rome’s basilicas from early Christian times. Indeed, painters in Rome in the 13th century who were engaged on the restoration of these wall paintings- today entirely lost- appear to have drawn from the inspiration for their own work. The heritage of classical antiquity was also handed down in manuscript illumination, although it only started to filter through to contemporary illustrators in the 15th century. For earlier artists, however, such classical sources might simply not have existed.
The fresco technique: The word fresco (it. “fresh”) is derived from the technique of applying paint to plaster that is still damp, as opposed to painting on a dry ground (a sesco), a technique which was common in the northern countries. Frescos were painted in sections corresponding to a day’s work, usually from top to bottom. The artist was required to work fast if the painting was not to perish. Only the preparatory work was free from time pressure. A monochrome sketch (sinopia) of the composition was drawn onto the raw plaster ground; if necessary, a second could be outlined on a new layer of plaster. These underlying sketches were gradually covered as the fresco was executed. Such sketches are frequently reveled when frescos are removed today for conservation reasons. A final layer of plaster was then applied to the section to be painted that day, and the main elements of the composition were once more scored or lightly painted onto its surface. Artists needed a trained hand since it was virtually impossible to make corrections. Only blue and the finer details of ornamentation and gilding were added later.