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The Great Age of Fresco Painting

Updated on April 1, 2013
Giotto's Kiss of Judas.
Giotto's Kiss of Judas. | Source

The use of fresco in Europe declined during the Dark Ages but reappeared in Italy in the late 13th century, with the work of Cimabue and Giotto, and continued throughout the Renaissance. The 14th and 15th centuries, when many great fresco cycles (groups treating the same themes) were painted, represent the golden age of true fresco.

Giotto's frescoes at Assisi, Padua, and Florence—in the late 13th and early 14th centuries—initiated the great tradition of Florentine painting. It was brilliantly carried on through the 14th century by Taddeo Gaddi and his son Agnolo Gaddi, Orcagna (Andrea di Cione) and his brother Nardo di Cione, and Andrea da Firenze.

The Sienese school of the same century was represented by Simone Martini, who did cycles in Assisi, and by Pietro Lorenzetti, who painted in Arezzo, Assisi, and Siena, and his brother Ambrogio Lorenzetti, who worked in Siena and throughout Tuscany. The great 14th-century cycles in northern Italy included works by Altichiero in Padua and by Vitale da Bologna in Bologna.

Brancacci Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence.
Brancacci Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. | Source

In the late 14th and early 15th centuries, Masolino and Masaccio collaborated on the fresco cycles decorating the Brancacci Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. Works of the 15th century are numerous. Fra Angelico's frescoes include the Crucifixion and Annunciation in the Convent of San Marco in Florence. Fresco cycles were produced by Fra Filippo Lippi for the Cathedral of Prato and by Piero della Francesca for the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo. Benozzo Gozzoli's frescoes, including the Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem in the Medici-Riccardi Palace in Florence, are among the most attractive cycles of the century. Domenico Ghirlandaio is represented by frescoes in the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence and in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican in Rome. Sandro Botticelli and Cosimo Rosselli also produced fresco cycles for the Sistine Chapel, as did Michelangelo.

Perhaps the most famous of all frescoes are those depicting scenes from Genesis that Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the early 16th century. About the same time Raphael executed the well-known Stanze series of frescoes in the apartments of Pope Julius II in the Vatican. By the end of the Renaissance, fresco painting had declined in Italy, and most of the great works were done in the developing technique of oil.


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