Proto-Renaissance in Italy (1200–1400)

First Things First...

In an Art History survey, the Proto-Renaissance in Italy is often a quick stop on the road towards the stylistic innovations rapidly developed after 1400. Although this progressive narrative is almost unavoidable, some modern and contemporary examples such as the Beethoven Frieze by Gustav Klimt (1902), Lawdy Mama by Barkley Hendricks (1969), The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili (1996), or the Gold Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol (1962) can open up a discussion of why certain visual features such as gold backgrounds and the stylization of forms might have been used instead of the naturalism we see develop in the quattrocento. While the theme of the early development of naturalism will be important to understand the changes we see from Cimabue to Giotto, this introduction can help challenge the equation between innovation, skill, and naturalism.

While the primary theme for the lecture will be the transition away from the Italo-Byzantine style and the development of naturalism, culminating with Giotto, this lecture will also look to the drastic influence of patronage. The fact that Giotto created the much more “medieval” Ognissanti Madonna Enthroned around the same time as the more “progressive” fresco cycle of the Arena Chapel reveals that patronage had a large impact on the style and requirements for artworks at the time. While Giotto’s Ognissanti Madonna still shows a naturalistic development from that of Cimabue, the golden background and the centered, divine, enthroned Madonna and Child reveal that artworks commissioned for large cathedrals had more standardized restrictions for public altarpieces, as opposed to the looser and more personalized needs of a private patron like Enrico Scrovengi for a private family chapel.

A secondary theme that can be explored during this lecture is the renewed focus on the individual artist. During the Renaissance, artists began to be considered as creative geniuses, defined by their innovative and unique stylistic approaches. Duccio’s Maestà Altarpiece for the Siena Cathedral, for example, was celebrated by the entire city, with a huge procession with all of the important religious figures of the town carrying the altarpiece from his studio to the cathedral where it was installed. Duccio was even allowed to place an inscription on the front of the altarpiece reading “Holy Mother of God, be the cause of peace for Siena and of life for Duccio, because he painted you thus.” (Kleiner, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 14th ed., 411). This veneration of the individual artist can be contrasted to earlier art historical periods.

Background Readings

Cimabue, Madonna Enthroned with Angels and Prophets, ca. 1280-90.

The Metropolitan Museum’s Heilbrunn Timeline has a nice overview of the period that can be reviewed here, as well as a short reading on Sienese painting.

There are also several relevant Met publications including: Keith Christiansen’s “Fourteenth-Century Italian Altarpieces,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 40, No. 1, Fourteenth-Century Italian Altarpieces (Summer, 1982), 1, 14–56, and Christiansen’s “Duccio and the Origins of Western Painting,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 66, No. 1, Duccio and the Origins of Western Painting (Summer, 2008), 1, 6–61.

Smarthistory also has a full section on the Proto-Renaissance, focusing on the art of Florence and Siena, including an excellent video comparison of Cimabue’s Santa Trinita Madonna, c. 1280–90, with Giotto’s Ognissanti Madonna Enthroned c. 1305–10.

Giorgio Vasari’s canonical The Lives of the Artists provides biographies for Cimabue, Giotto and Duccio.

For general reference see Frederick Hartt’s History of Italian Renaissance Art, Smart, Alastair Smart’s The Dawn of Italian Painting, 1250-1400, or John White’s Art and Architecture in Italy, 1250–1400. 3rd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).

Joel Brink’s article “Measure and Proportion in the Monumental Gabled Altarpieces of Duccio, Cimabue, and Giotto,” is useful for a more detailed discussion of Proto-Renaissance altarpiece painting, Canadian Art Review, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1977), 69-77.

Content Suggestions

The suggested timeframe of 1200–1400 roughly stems from the Italo-Byzantine period in the Late Medieval period to the cusp of the Renaissance. The material included focuses exclusively on Italy, centered on artistic developments in the rivaling schools of painting in the city-states of Florence and Siena. The term Proto-Renaissance implies that this period is a precursor or foundational to what is considered the main time period of the Italian Renaissance that spanned roughly between 1400–1600.

In an hour and fifteen minutes, you should be able to cover the following:

  • Bonaventura Berlinghieri, Saint Francis Altarpiece, c. 1235 (Italo-Byzantine)
  • Cimabue, Madonna Enthroned with Angels and Prophets, c. 1280–90
  • Duccio, Maestà Altarpiece, Siena Cathedral, c. 1308–11
  • Giotto, Madonna Enthroned from the Church of Ognissanti, Florence, Italy, c. 1305–10
  • Giotto, interior frescoes of the Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy, c. 1305–6
  • Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi, Annunciation, Siena Cathedral, 1333
  • Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government in the City and in the Country, Sala della Pace, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, Italy, 1338–9


Altarpiece: a panel that is painted or sculpted representing a religious subject that is placed above and behind an altar in a church. Two panels = diptych; three panels = triptych; multiple panels = polyptych.

Chiaroscuro: literally translated as “light-dark.” The use of light and dark to produce three-dimensional modeling.

Foreshortening: the use of perspective to show the extension of an object back into space.

Fresco: Italian for “fresh.” A mural-painting technique involving the application of permanent lime-proof pigments, diluted in water, on freshly laid lime plaster. (Buon fresco involves the application of pigment on several layers of wet plaster, while fresco secco refers to the painting directly on dried lime plaster.).

Gilding: very thin bounded gold leaf applied with glue to a surface. Emphasizes the spiritual and heavenly subject matter of religious works.

Giornata (pl. giornate): meaning “day” in Italian, the section of plaster that a fresco painter expects to complete in one session, to keep the plaster from drying before pigment can be added.

Italo-Byzantine Style (the maniera greca) : the use of the Byzantine style in Italy, especially prevalent after the fall of Constantinople in 1204, which led to the migration of Byzantine artists to Italy.

Maestà: the scene of the Virgin Mary (Madonna) seated on a throne holding the infant Jesus in her lap, often flanked by angels, saints or prophets. Literally translated, “majesty.”

Tempera: a paint made of pigment mixed with egg yolk, glue or casein.


Much of the remaining art we have from the Middle Ages is in the form of altarpieces or parts of altarpieces that decorated the apse of churches where the main services were performed. Altarpieces would also be found in the chapels in the apses around the church. We now mainly see famous altarpieces in museums, and often that does not allow us to see how they would have functioned. In addition, many panels in museums were part of much larger altarpieces, and are so decontextualized, and were often painted on the back, something not all museum displays allow you to see. (For more on altarpieces, see:

The predominance of altarpieces as primary artistic products of the Medieval period began in the thirteenth century, when the ritual of the Mass was moved in front of the altar. The priest would stand with his back to the congregation—leaving the altar table open for large-scale religious imagery. The increasing number of altarpieces resulted from the growth of the cities in Western Europe. At the same time there was a growth of the institutionalized church in cities, as well as an increasingly wealthy patrons of the arts, who often commissioned altarpieces for private chapels (Hartt 32–3). The typical materials used to create altarpieces throughout the Italian Renaissance were tempera paint on wood panel with gold leaf, until the introduction of oil paints from the Netherlands in the mid- to late fifteenth century.

Bonaventura Berlinghieri’s Saint Francis Altarpiece (tempera on wood with gold leaf, 5’ x 3’ x 6’, c. 1235) exemplifies the Italo-Byzantine style, also known as the maniera greca or the Greek style, which dominated the art of the late Medieval Period in Italy. Until the late eleventh century, southern Italy occupied the western border of the vast Byzantine Empire. Even after this area fell under Norman rule in about 1071, Italy maintained a strong link with Byzantium through trade. In this style of art then, we can see the links between the two cultures. In this example, the central subject of St. Francis is identified by his clothing (typical of the Franciscan monastic order he has a clerical robe tied at the waist with a rope), as well as by the marks on his hands and feet that indicate his receiving of the stigmata (marks corresponding to the wounds of Jesus Christ that are associated with his revelations about the passion of Christ, essentially a mark of divine insight or of God’s blessing).

St. Francis is shown in a manner similar to Byzantine icons, which coupled with the marks of the stigmata, express the common belief that St. Francis was a second Christ. The scenes on the side show St. Francis and his miracle cures, further tying him to the healing powers of Christ (Kleiner 405). Byzantine examples such as the Mosaic of Justinian from San Vitale, Ravenna (c. 547) or the Crucifixion from the Church of the Dormition, Daphni, Greece (c. 1090–1100) offer two possible comparisons to discuss the application of the Byzantine style to altarpiece panel painting. Berlinghiero’s Madonna and Child (tempera on wood, gold ground, 31 5/8 x 21 1/8 in, c. 1228–30) is another clear example of the Italo-Byzantine style that can lead to more direct comparisons with Proto-Renaissance altarpieces by Cimabue, Duccio, and Giotto, given that it also shows a maestà.

It is not until the end of the thirteenth century in Italy that artists began to (re)explore the physical realities of the figure in space. The Florentine artist Cimabue (Cenni di Pepo), the teacher of Giotto di Bondone, is often credited as one of the first artists to move away from the Italo-Byzantine style towards a greater naturalism, a trend exemplified by his Madonna Enthroned with Angels and Prophets (tempera and gold leaf on wood, 12’ 7” x 7’ 4”, c. 1280–90). In this example, there are four prophets who can be seen in the bottom of the painting, identified by the scrolls that they hold. Although there are many similarities to Italo-Byzantine precedents that can be discussed, here Cimabue has developed a new sense of the body as three dimensional, sitting more naturalistically in space.

The architecture of the throne introduces a sense of depth, and demonstrates an early attempt at perspective. The perspective is far from perfect, however, as the top half of the throne appears frontal, while the bottom arches appear to tilt upwards, leaving a largely ambiguous sense of space. The overlapping of the angels, and the prophets sitting within the architecture of the throne, also hint at a sense of depth. This painting was originally created as a monumental altarpiece and is over twelve feet tall, marking a new standard for painting (Stokstad, Art History, 4th ed., vol. 1, 535).

Duccio di Buoninsegna was another key figure in the development of naturalism during the Proto-Renaissance, working in the competing city-state of Siena. His Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints (c. 1308–11) was the central panel of his Maestà Altarpiece, commissioned for the Siena Cathedral. The four patron saints of Siena can be seen kneeling in the foreground. The altarpiece was later dismantled, and now can only be seen in fragments. Like in Cimabue’s maestà, Duccio’s painting evidences a more careful modeling of bodies, which can be seen protruding from beneath their garments. He also used the throne to create a more realistic sense of architectural space, however, his true innovation can be found in his break from the traditional frontality of poses, instead favoring graceful and individual poses distinctive to each figure.

This variation of poses, the exemplary fluidity of drapery, and the jewel-like colors, have come to define the Sienese style of painting. The back of the Maestà featured images from the life of Christ and his Passion, including the Raising of Lazarus (17 1/8” x 18 1/4”). The Raising of Lazarus was likely the final scene in the cycle, representing the proof of Christ’s divinity as he raised Lazarus from the dead, prefiguring his own resurrection. The scene is notable again for its use of dynamic drapery, poses, and three-dimensionality of the figures, as well as for its more naturalistic setting. (See SmartHistory’s video on the back of the Maestà).

Despite the remarkable achievements of Cimabue and Duccio, Giotto di Bondone, a student of Cimabue, is often considered the first Renaissance artist. Although still working within the boundaries of traditional altarpieces, Giotto’s masterful Madonna Enthroned from the Church of Ognissanti, Florence (tempera and gold leaf on wood, 10’ 8” x 6’ 8”, c. 1305–10), shows the figure of the Virgin with a new weight and naturalism that had not yet been seen, revealing the shape of her breasts under the white drapery of her garment. She is shown in a more naturalistic pose, holding the leg of the baby Jesus who appears to sits on her lap, an effect not fully achieved in Cimabue’s altarpiece. The figures that surround the Virgin show an equal concern for depicting three-dimensional forms, modeling them out of light and shadow. Giotto also uses foreshortening, evident in the angels in the front, creating a more realistic sense of their bodies in space.

Created slightly earlier, the frescoes from the Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua (c. 1305–6), demonstrate the extent of Giotto’s innovative style, perhaps having greater freedom for experimentation with the private commission, as opposed to the restrictions of a church altarpiece. The frescoes cover the interior of the private chapel commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni. The chapel and its frescoes were meant to help earn him a place in heaven, but also to specifically atone for his family’s sins having practiced usury, or money lending, which is considered a sin. Several of the fresco scenes speak directly to this concern, such as the scene of Judas receiving money for his betrayal of Christ.

Scrovegni is also seen in the Last Judgment fresco, giving a symbolic model of the Arena Chapel to the Virgin Mary, the Virgin of Charity, and the Virgin Annunciate to illustrate his piety in creating the chapel.

The barrel-vaulted room of the Arena Chapel is covered with individual scenes, with decorative trompe-l’oeil frames painted around each panel. Although working around the same time as Duccio, the Arena Chapel frescoes present a much different approach to the human figure and space. Most notably, the golden background of the scenes has been eliminated in favor of outdoor vignettes and carefully crafted architectural settings, which allow for a more illusionistic sense of space. There is a notable weight to each of the figures developed through the use of chiaroscuro. Giotto again utilizes the technique of foreshortening to create a sense of bodies in space, for example, as seen with the flying angels in the Lamentation. Giotto’s frescoes also emphasize the humanism and emotions of his subjects in a wholly new way, showing a greater desire to represent the natural, earthly world, and the experience of humans within it. For more on the Arena Chapel see SmartHistory’s four videos on the topic.

Although Giotto pioneered many of the illusionistic techniques that would come to define the innovations of the Renaissance, religious commissions still continued to rely upon older, more medieval traditions. Duccio’s student, Simone Martini, achieved great success, proving the continued demand for more traditional altarpieces, while also testifying to the appeal of the elegant Sienese style, and Martini’s own unique treatment of figuration. The Annunciation (1333) was created with his follower Simone Martini for the altar of Sant’Ansano, also in the Cathedral of Siena. The words of the Angel Gabriel are incised into the gold-leafed background, Ave gratia plena dominus tecum, Luke 1:28: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” (translation from Stokstad, Vol. 1, 545). While more traditional, the graceful altarpiece is notable for its lyrical use of line and color, and for its narrative theatricality.

While religious commissions often remained bound to tradition, growing civic patronage continued to foster experiments with technique and introduced a demand for new, secular images. Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s allegorical fresco cycle, the Effects of Good Government in the City and in the Country, for example, was commissioned by the Sienese government for the Sala della Pace in the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, where the nine rulers of the city met. The frescoes served to remind the rulers to serve the citizens justly, depicting the juxtaposed effects of good and bad governance on the city and the country. The Good Government fresco is lead by the figure of Justice, guided by Wisdom who hovers overhead, while the Bad Government is led by a demonic tyrant surrounded by vices, instead of the virtues that flank Justice. At the bottom of the Bad Government image, Justice appears bound and defeated.

The effects of good government upon the city and the country are illustrated in the panoramic images of the Peaceful City and the Peaceful Country. On the left side of the fresco wall, the Peaceful City exemplifies the stability and wealth allowed by good governance. While highly naturalistic in many respects, the fresco uses shifting viewpoints to show a wealth of activity in the city. The human figures are depicted unnaturally large, similarly emphasizing the variety of daily activities that support the happy and prosperous urban culture. To the right of the city walls, the Peaceful Country is shown, similarly glorifying the bounty and harmony allowed by good governance.

The countryside is not only highly naturalistic, showing an idyllic Sienese landscape, it is also one of the first and the most ambitious landscape paintings created during the Medieval period. In the top left of the landscape, the allegorical figure of Security hovers in the sky, holding a scroll inviting visitors to enter without fear. Below, leaving the city, are figures of the aristocracy going on a hunt. The countryside is shown in different seasons, with a range of agricultural activities depicted, from preparing the fields to collecting the harvest.

Shortly after the completion of the Palazzo Pubblico frescoes in 1348, the Black Plague, also known as the Black Death, struck Italy. The disease wiped out nearly half the population, essentially ending the period of the Proto-Renaissance. Years of devastation also led to change, however, with new social and economic structures emerging in the aftermath of the plague that would provide the basis for the rapid developments of the Renaissance in Italy after 1400.

At the End of Class..

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government in the City and in the Country, Sala della Pace, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, Italy, 1338–9.

The end of class is a good time to summarize some of the developments of the period, in preparation for discussions of the Renaissance. The increasing focus on human emotion and activity evidenced by both the Arena Chapel frescoes and those of Lorenzetti is another major shift that is prescient of Renaissance humanism. In the Renassiance, artists show an increasing focus on human experience and emotion, and later towards more secular visions of human experience.

For a final in class assignment, ask students to compare a Proto-Renaissance maesta to Raphael’s Madonna with the Christ Child and Saint John the Baptist (1506). Many of the images from this lecture, including Lorenzetti’s Peaceful City and the architecture from Cimabue’s Maestà might be good starting points to talk about perspective, thinking about why our eyes read the space in the still imperfect images as “wrong,” revealing how our eyes have been conditioned to read illusionistic perspective developed in the Renaissance as more “correct” and skillful.

Jennifer Sarathy (author) is a PhD Candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Amy Raffel (editor) is a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. She has a Master’s degree in Contemporary Art history from the Institute of Fine Arts (NYU) and has taught Introduction to Modern Art as a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Lehman College since 2010. Currently, Amy is a genome contributor for Artsy and editor and contributor of Art History Teaching Resources.