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Art in Italy After the Black Death

Updated on November 17, 2014

In 1348, the civilians of Italy were faced with a frightening epidemic known as the Black Death. The entire country was affected by this plague and no doctor could provide a remedy or give an answer as to why this was happening. Many families felt helpless while they watched their loved ones die daily, as there was no escape from this awful plague.

Some 60 percent of the population of Tuscany died, including as many as 40,000 citizens of Florence.[1] But the Black Death not only destroyed lives, it shattered the entire society of the Italian peninsula. While the population diminished, people began to fear God and as their humanity endured changes, their government drastically altered.

The shifting culture took a toll on artworks produced, as artists failed to move forward creatively. Nonetheless, post-plague Italian art tells a story of the emotional state of its people and of a country trying to put itself back together.

Artists at this time were tremendously affected by the wreckage of the plague, and as a result their art reflected such turmoil. Compositions were crowded and depicted figures took on a more wooden, Byzantine style. The overall characteristics of the arranged figures were menacing, uneasy, and sometimes violent.[2]

In 1951, American art historian Millard Meiss argued in his classic work Painting in Florence and Sienna after the Black Death that the devastation of plague caused a regression in artistic style and content. In the work of Andre di Cione‘s, Strozzi Altarpiece, Meiss saw a return to the more conservative two-dimensional space and hierarchical composition that had characterized dugento painting. He also believed that the iconography reflected the desperation and panic resulting from the plague.[3]


Strozzi Altarpiece by Andre di Cione

These changes in artistic techniques were an emotional response to the damage of the Black Plague, but the Italian civilians were experiencing post-plague life differently. Two types of psychological responses were evident: either a ‘seize the day’ mentality or an attitude of penance, accompanied by fear and panic.[4]

It was a common belief that, like the Biblical flood, the Black Death was caused by the moral corruption of man and the ensuing wrath of God. It is reflected in several novel scenes of the Last Judgment painted in the wake of the epidemic.[5]

While most felt that God was punishing them and no amount of prayer could save them from what would happen next, it was believed that the end of the world was near. Many lost their faith that God would save their homeland, so they focused on the salvation of their soul. Churches and other religious institutions quickly caught on to these evolving feelings of the public and used it to their benefit.

Those in positions of power within a church paid artists to create symbolic, Christian images as decoration for their walls and altars. Thus, another significant effect the Black Death had on art; it encouraged the commissioning of devotional images and stimulated religious bequests.[6]

An example of such artistic commissions can be seen in the chapter house of Santa Maria Novella by the artist, Andrea Bonaiuto. His art not only exemplifies the motivations of the church, but it also showcases the stylistic changes of art after the Black Death. Three of the walls are devoted to scenes glorifying the Dominican Order. Of these the most impressive is the Way of Salvation and the Dominican Order as a Saver of Souls.

The heretic organization of the fresco in levels of increasing divinity reflects Dominican orthodoxy and, at the same time, is consistent with the view of regression following the plague. Its message-namely, that the Dominican Order is the route to salvation-both projects an image of Dominican zeal in converting heretics and also conforms to the notion of renewed anxiety about the fate of one’s soul.[7]

Each church not only used these types of artworks as a way to advertise their religious organization, but they filled the churches with scenes of the Second Coming of Christ with the intent of bringing in more attendants as the fear that the world was ending rose. While churches may have been successfully reorganizing themselves after the plague, the rest of civilization was falling apart.

Way of Salvation by Andrea Bonaiuto

Unrest and social tension were among the social consequences of the epidemic. The most vivid fourteenth-century descriptions of the plague are found in Boccaccio’s first book of Decameron. He wrote that the laws of society had broken down as hundreds of people died daily.[8]

Matteo Villani, a chronicler in Florence during the Renaissance, comments that men thought that, through the death of so many people, there would be an abundance of all produce of the land; yet, on the contrary, everything came to unwonted scarcity. Most commodities were more costly, by twice or more, than before the plague. And the price of labor, and the products of every trade and craft, rose in disorderly fashion beyond the double.[9]

As the economy fell apart, so did the government. Riots and wars broke out, as anarchy became the new way of life for Florentines. Those that entered positions of authority in an attempt to bring peace and order to Italy, lacked knowledge in leadership skills.

In those days the administration and government of the city of Florence had passed in part-and not a small part-to the people newly arrived from the territory of Florence who had little experience in civic affairs, and to people from more distant lands who settled in the city. Many of those who were becoming government officials were inexperienced and money hungry.[10]

As survivors of the plague watched more than half their people die, they now had to witness the struggles of a changing economy that was being corrupt by an immoral government.


Altarpiece of the Baptist by Giovanni del Biondo

Consequently, capitalism became the new economic system of Italy after the Black Death, which did not make very many Italian citizens happy, including artists. With these new developments in the Italian government, a new theme in art works emerged; conservatism and morality.

A painting such as Giovanni del Biondo’s Altarpiece of the Baptist, shows St. John the Evangelist trampling on Avarice, Pride, and Vainglory. This may thus have struck and an immediate response because of its older symbolic pattern and the austere frontality of its chief figure. The panel was widely approved for its subject too, particularly the representation of the conquest of avarice.

At this time avarice was associated with the unlimited desire for profit accumulation that had already become characteristic of early capitalism.[11] The painting is consistent with the artistic relapses following the Black Death. St. John and the rest of the figures are stiff and of a Byzantine quality, along with the obvious presence of violence, as many felt angry towards this new way of life.

Another artist, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, also conveys the ideals of conservatism in his fresco work titled, Allegory of Bad Government. Located in the Sala della Nove of the Palazzo Publico, it would be seen as a replica of the new political philosophy taking over Italy.

Flying over the battlements of the unjustly governed city at the far left and gazing at the destroyed landscape is Fear, brandishing a sword with an inscription that reads: Because each seeks only his own good, in this city, Justice is subjected to Tyranny; wherefore, along this road nobody passes without fearing for his life, since there are robberies inside and outside the city gates.[12]

Tyranny is seated on a throne with the vices of Avarice, Pride, and Vainglory circling around his head. This fresco is extremely brutal and evoked a strong emotional response in the Italian community. It carries a warning that the desire for wealth would bring trouble, and may ultimately destroy the entire city.

Such pieces of art were intended to be noticed by those in political power and everyone in the public in hopes of change. But alas, those who were acquiring money and success after losing everything to the plague ignored these works.

Allegory of Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti

In the end, Italy not only had to endure losing the majority of their population from the Black Death, they had to deal with rebuilding their lives as their country reconstructed itself. Artwork experienced a weakening in artistic growth, most likely because many were depressed from the devastation of the plague.

Some paintings or frescos illustrated figures partaking in violence with menacing faces, as Italian civilians were angry with the modification in their government. Those that survived and had no answer as to why their loved ones died, felt God was the only one to blame. Artists created powerful works of redemption and penance, as commissioned by churches, that demonstrated stylistic changes of rigid figures and two-dimensionality that were typically seen in prior Byzantine art and dugento paintings.

The Black Death not only affected the lives of the civilians, but it had an enormous impact on the economy and government of Italy. Between 1350 and 1400, the population continued to depress and Italian cities were much smaller than their modern counterparts.[13]

As a result, art experienced an overwhelming effect as artists regressed in their method and style of painting. Post-plague art demonstrated the feelings of Italians at that time and told a story of a country struggling to pick itself back up after a deadly epidemic.


Works Cited

[1] Laurie Adams, Italian Renaissance Art (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001) 51

[2] Death of Self (1998-2007): online, Internet, 16 March 2011. Available: http://www.deardeath.com/art_and_death.htm

[3-4] Laurie Adams, Italian Renaissance Art (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001) 50

[5] Millard Meiss, Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978) 75-76

[6] Helen Gardner and Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: The Western Perspective (Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010) 380

[7-8] Laurie Adams, Italian Renaissance Art (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001) 51

[9] Millard Meiss, Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978) 67

[10] Millard Meiss, Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978) 69-70

[11] Millard Meiss, Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978) 71-72

[12] Laurie Adams, Italian Renaissance Art (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001) 49

[13] The Italian Renaissance: Chapter Summary (Pearson Education Inc, 1995-2010) online, Internet, 16 March 2011. Available: http://wps.ablongman.com/long_kishlansky_cw_5/4/1051/269070.cw/index.htm

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    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 24 months ago from Essex, UK

      A very interesting review of how art may reflect or comment on changes in society, and how institutions - business, political and most of all the church - may have influenced art either for their own ends or to act as a 'social conscience'. Clearly understanding the society of the time helps one to understand the art - and vice versa. Thanks, Alun