Category Archives: fresco



I: Filippino Lippi

On the advice of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Cardinal Oliviere Carafa commissioned Filippino Lippi to decorate the chapel he had endowed in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the Dominican convent in Rome. The three walls and vaults were painted in fresco over the years 1489/91.

The altarpiece depicts two separate actions: on the left, following iconographic convention the angel of the annunciation approaches from the left, about to speak, while the dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit descends from above. On the right side of the same chamber, St Thomas Aquinas stands next to Cardinal Carafa, who kneels in prayer. In between the angel and Carafa, the Virgin is shown rising from her chair, her attention divided between not one, but two unexpected visitors. The angelic doctor seems to have chosen an inopportune moment, causing his client, the donor, to interrupt the annunciation.

Being obliged to show the donor present at the Annunciation without appearing to hinder it, turned a standardized image type into a compositional problem. Filippino resolved that problem visually by posing the Virgin in a manner that implies a sequence of events. Her body is oriented towards the donor, whom she was about to receive, when Gabriel arrived. His arrival obliges her to turn her head to the left. Her raised hand reads as an acknowledgement of both visitors. Instead of showing the donor intruding on the mystery of the incarnation, the picture shows the presentation of the Cardinal by St Thomas being interrupted by the arrival of Gabriel, after which the miraculous event will unfold, one imagines, without interruption, while saint and cardinal piously observe from the sidelines.

The solution is a marvel of pictorial tact and effciency and one the painter almost certainly arrived at himself in response to a problem the patron had not foreseen.


SPÄTBAROCK IN SÜDDEUTSCHLAND IV: The Treppenhaus of the Würzburg Residenz

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In his first year as Court architect and engineer, Johann Balthasar Neumann was charged with designing and building a new Residenz, in Würzburg, from the ground up, for the Prince-Bishops of Schönbrunn. As Neumann was often called away to other projects, his plans were carried out mostly by architects favored by the Prince-Bishop’s uncle and brother, including Lucas von Hildebrandt, Maximilian von Welsch and Germain Boffrand. The stone and masonry exterior was completed in 1744; the interior of the 300-room palace was finished in 1770. After Neumann’s death in 1753, Hildebrandt, Welsch and Boffrand each took full credit for the Residenz’s design in its entirety.

Neumann oversaw the building and decoration of the most important spaces in the Residenz, the suite of formal and ceremonial rooms and antechambers through which visitors passed on their way from the carriage entrance on the ground level to the Kaisersaal on the upper, where the Prince-Bishop would receive them. The centerpiece of this progression is the Treppenhaus, built in 1737. The grand, indoor staircase is the cold-climate equivalent of the double-ramp stairways seen on the exteriors of Italian villas.

Neumann had to get guests up one floor in a manner befitting their rank, without taxing them physically, and while preparing them, step-by-step, as it were, for the magnificence of the Prince-Bishop. Neumann devised a scheme whereby the two stages of the stair, which reverses direction at midpoint, forms a cantilever, allowing the huge mass of stone to be carried on think columns, giving the impression it floats on the air. In Rococo Bavaria, one did not climb or mount the stair, one ascended, drifting upwards towards the vast pastel empyrean above.

The entire span of the Treppenhaus (18m x 30m) is covered by a vast vault composed of rubble and concrete that has no supports other the the walls it rides on. Neumann’s critics warned of collapse; the vault is not only still intact today
, it survived direct hits during the Allied bombing of Würzburg on 16 May 1945, which largely destroyed the old city and much of the Residenz. Neumann made use the vault’s weight, the downward thrust of which clamps the cantilever in place at both ends. By engaging the staircase to the wall the staircase acts as a strainer arch would, countering the tendency of the walls to buckle under the load of the vault. It is a mutually-reinforcing structural solution of great elegance.

A second Treppenhaus of equal dimensions was planned for the other side of the Kaisersaal, but was never begun.

The Treppenhaus vault was frescoed by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in 1752-53. Measuring 670m², it is the largest painting in the world painted by the highest-paid artist of the 18th century ( Tiepolo was paid 15,000 gulden, for his work at the Residenz, over 13 times the annual salary Neumann drew from his court  appointment). The fresco represents an allegory of the the world, represented by the four continents no less, paying  tribute to the Brince-Bishop. The fresco includes a portrait of Neumann, dressed in his Officer’s uniform, seated on a canon. A trompe l’oeil dog sniffs at his outstretched hand. Canon and dog must have been inside jokes between the painter and architect. Balthasar Neumann died in Würzburg just as Tiepolo was finishing the fresco, in the late summer of 1753.



Cappadocia is situated on the Anatolian plain in what now eastern Turkey. The region is well-known for its bizarre topographical formations created by water erosion of the soft volcanic stone, called tufa. Like the Roman catacombs, the tufa is very easy to carve, thus giving the region its second claim to fame: troglodytes. Early Christians fleeing Roman persecution exploited the softness of the stone, at first digging out simple warrens of interconnected hideouts and after the establishment of Christianity, corridors, houses, markets and places of worship, and finally whole cities, some descending 8 stories beneath ground level.

The images here show two churches in Goreme, the largest city in Cappadocia. They both are designed according to the standard church plan of the middle Byzantine period: an equilateral cross inscribed in a square surmounted by a circular dome; one entered the church from the narthex, a transverse vaulted area preceding the nave. The vaults and domes were either decorated in mosaic or with wall paintings, the iconography of which was dictated by the liturgical calendar. The Cappadocian churches (and monasteries) follow this formula, with some local deviations.

What is unusual about these structures is not so much their design, but their method of construction: unlike a free-standing building, where pre-cut or pre-formed elements such as bricks, masonry, columns, and capitals are assembled, the Cappadocian churches are created, like sculpture, by a subtractive process of removing the amount of tufa equivalent to the desired volume of the church, or more accurately, the church space. Features like blind arcades, columns and capitals are not cut and fit into place — they are continuous with the vaults and domes, with no breaks in the living stone at any point. The columns are not decorative—the support not only the weight of the vaults and domes, but the entire mountain above, and one imagines that the number of load-bearing supports required was often discovered when too few columns were left in place, causing the cave to collapse in on itself, which meant finding a new location and starting all over again. Given this danger, the churches spaces in the Cappadocian caves range from intimate to small —the largest nave is only 25’ 22’ long.

Twenty-five years ago, Cappadocia was a remote site, visited only by adventurous archaeologists and architectural historians, driving Land Rovers and equipped with flashlights. Now, the region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in the wake of that designation, which was intended to preserve the cave cities, came developers who promptly carved luxury hotels with swimming pools, malls, restaurants, and parking structures into the tufa and on the surface, roadways, which brought cars and exhaust, which now threaten the region’s fragile eco-system. Like the caves at Lascaux and the Roman catacombs, the number of breathing, perspiring tourists in the cave churches caused the humidity to spike, which makes the tufa erode and the wall paintings to flake. Lascaux is now closed permanently to visitors, as are the frescoed areas of the catacombs, so if you want to see Goreme, you may wish to book your seats now.


It was standard practice in the trecento artist’s workshop for the master to paint the important figures (or at least their faces), while studio assistants filled the peripheral and marginal areas—pinnacles, spandrels, borders, soffits, etc with a large cast of saints, angels, and prophets. While these figures are usually identifiable by attribute or inscription, they tend to be generic in physiognomy and appearance, and were not meant to draw the viewer’s attention away from the principal images.

The startling exception to this rule is the work of Simone Martini (c. 1284 -1344), many of whose secondary and marginal characters are individuated as fully as the protagonists. The range of facial expressions, moods, postures, and degree of personalization is astonishing, given the fact that it has no immediate narrative context. The subtlety, imagination and attention invested in these figures is such that it is hard to imagine Simone himself was not responsible for their execution, just as Orson Welles often directed insignificant reaction and establishing shots himself, normally left to the second unit director.

Saints usually look benign or blandly joyful. Simone Martini’s heavenly host suggests, however, that beatification is not without its trials and annoyances. From the Angel of the Annunciation, Gabriel, who comes crashing into the Virgin’s bedroom, impatiently pointing upwards and frowning at her reluctance to become the Mother of God, to the weary and bored John the Baptist wishing he hadn’t worn sandals to the Maestà; from to the glaring St Martin of Tours who is about to fling the cardinal and donor of the chapel over his shoulder for some unmentioned lapse in protocol to the angry St Joseph chiding the sulking Christ, never have the the saints or the Holy Family seemed so irritable, truculent, disdainful, bored, embarrassed, sarcastic or angry. Everyone is on the verge in Simone’s world.


The pilgrimage church at Wies owes its creation to a miracle. After a weepy, neglected, carved effigy of the scourged Christ began restoring sight and curing illnesses in 1738, a pilgrimage grew up almost overnight, flooding the tiny Bavarian village in the Oberammergau with tourists. By 1745, the Premonstratensian monks of Steingaden, who owned the site, undertook to replace the small wooden chapel housing the miraculous image with more dignified structure capable of accommodating the numerous visitors flocking to Wies. To that end, in 1745, they hired renowned architect to Dominikus Zimmermann (1685 -1766) to design and direct the construction of a new church.

VERY FEW CHURCHES were built de novo in the early modern period. Most ecclesiastical architectural commissions involved restoring, rebuilding, refurbishing and/or re-decorating pre-existing churches. The forms and fabrics of many of those venerable buildings had historic and symbolic connotations, which had to be recapitulated, preserved or at least noted in the new work Given these usual constraints on the design process, one can imagine Zimmermann’s reaction to being handed a blank slate by a wealthy patron. Seizing the opportunity, he designed an entirely modern building, every cubic inch of which was harmonized and coordinated to create a unified setting sufficiently glorious for the spectacle of divine intervention in the profane world that the miraculous image effected.

Wies gave Zimmermann the chance to refine and develop the pilgrimage church solution he had created at Steinhausen in the late 1720s. Both have ovular central plans with timber domes supported by a ring of free standing composite supports, a typology with early Christian origins. At Wies, an elongated, tunnel-like choir with a two-story gallery projects from the east end, focusing attention on the miraculous image preserved on the high altar. The interior is indirectly illuminated by a multiplicity of pculi, hidden and visible.

Dominikus entrusted his brother, Johann Baptist Zimmermann, with the painting of the central domed ceiling, as he had at Steinhausen. The fresco unusually depicts the Last Judgement—Wies’ dedication to an obscure object with no pictorial tradition, necessitated iconographical innovation. At the center of the composition appears the rainbow upon which Christ sits in judgement, as specified in the Book of Revelation. Johann Baptist used the it as visual metaphor for the church decoration as a whole: it is composed of vibrant, soft colors; it is shaped like an arch, a visual shorthand for architecture; it is at once symmetrical and asymmetrical; and it literally bridges the architectural and pictorial realms of the building, therefore symbolically bridging the sacred and the profane worlds, just as relics and miraculous objects do.

Although he worked as an altar builder and marbler for the first 20 years of his career, and referred to himself in an inscription inside the Wieskirche as baumeister, by 1745 Zimmermann was primarily sought out for his skills as a master stuccateur. Polychromed stuccowork as a medium falls somewhere between fresco and sculpture—3D painting if you will—and Zimmermann uses stucco as a transition from the highly sculptural architectural and painted portions of the interior. Like wall frescoes, it is an medium with an exacting schedule—the stuccateur lays on a much wet plaster as he can shape and paint in the brief period before it dries and hardens. Once hard, the colors and forms bind permanently to the plaster and cannot be changed or altered without chipping it all out and beginning anew. Both fresco and stucco are performances that demands physical agility and a quick, sure touch.
Zimmermann clearly felt the building of the church to be a life-defining experience. After the nine years on the site overseeing the construction, and carrying out the extensive stucco work himself, upon its completion in 1753, he permanently relocated to Steingaden, spending the remaining decade of his life in close proximity to his masterpiece at Wies.


Anachronistic and teleological notions about one-point perspective and its relationship to optical reality or the observation of space have led to a mass denigration of earlier pictorial strategies for rendering volumes, situating them, and specifying their relationships to each other. However, if one has spent any time in a medieval hill-top commune, such as Siena, San Gimingnano, Volterra, Assisi or Cortona, one knows that the enchanting jumble of sweet and savory-colored buildings, tiled rooves, jagged walls, myriad towers, gothic windows, crenellations, and empty loggie seen everywhere in trecento painting, correspond rather accurately to one’s visual experience urban architecture and topography in such places.

To put it more plainly, Siena looks like Ambriogio Lorenzetti’s Good Goverment in the City and the 14thc. renderings of the built environment are, on balance, fairly accurate. One couldn’t extrapolate a groundplan of the structures seen in any of these images, the way one can with Piero’s Flagellation, but then again they were never intended to have a cartological application. A similar case can be made for the representation of the contado—the rural or uncultivated topography landscape beyond the city walls.

The Best-Dressed List: Fashions and Fabrics in the Art of Simone Martini

SIMONE MARTINI was the pre-eminent painter of luxury garments, fashion design and textiles in late medieval Italy. His was born around 1284 in Siena, a major European textile-production center, and he concluded his career as the court artist to the papal curia at Avignon, where his duties included designing costumes and decorative textiles, as well as painting and interior decoration. Sienese silk textiles—damasks, brocades and lampas weave—of the trecento were highly prized for their intricate patterns and depth of color (see the following post for examples). Inevitably, Sienese painters became skilled not only in the representation of patterned textiles, but, beginning with Duccio, in the representation of patterned fabrics draped over the human body. This involved painting both intricate designs as well as the breaks in those patterns occluded by folds or interrupted by seams and hemlines. The latter ability in turn could only be achieved by the artist hiring models and studying tailored clothing. As Hayden Maginnis’s description (below) of the representation of the plaid cape worn by Gabriel in the Annunciation makes clear, Simone had first-hand knowledge of expensive, often intricate, sewn garments and how they moved when worn. Simone would have taken the time to inform himself about such matters because his clients, included members of the extended French royal family, including the King of Naples, Robert of Anjou, and King Ladislaw and Queen Elizabeth of Hungary, and other high-profile dignitaries like the pope and the poet Petrarch, all of whom used costume as an index of their social rank, wealth and taste for for whom extravagance and opulence were not only appropriate, but expected. Due to political alliances within Italy, Siena fell from prominence in the 15th century and the specialization in luxury fabrics passed to Florentine artists such as Benozzo Gozzoli, Fra Angelico and Botticelli.