Joe Kenelm discusses two frescoes in Santa Maria Novella, Florence: ‘the truest pieces of Giotto’s work in the world’.
At a recent exhibition in Two Temple Place marking the 200th anniversary of John Ruskin’s birth, a letter from his wife Effie Gray described how: ‘Nothing interrupts him…He is seen either with a black cloth over his head taking daguerreotypes or climbing about the capitals covered with dust, or else with cobwebs just as if he had just arrived from taking a voyage with the old woman on her broomstick.’
Effie’s wry observation is suggestive of the art critic’s restless, unrelenting determination for knowledge. In Mornings in Florence, Ruskin’s guidebook to the city, he instructs the best way of seeing Santa Maria Novella: ‘Well, now you must ask for the Sacristan, who is civil and nice enough, and get him to let you into the green cloister, and then go into the less cloister opening out of it on the right, as you go down the steps; and you must ask for the tomb of the Marcheza Stiozzi Ridolfi.’ These are unscrupulous directions; it seems unlikely Ruskin would have felt sheepish when it came to scaling Venetian architecture. I also suspect this intrepid attitude would have been met with a fair share of Sacristans less than ‘civil and nice enough’. In any case, his next comments showcase his totalising impulse: ‘In the recess being the Marcheza’s tomb…you will see two small frescoes…And you are never likely to see a more true piece of Giotto’s work in the world.’
The attribution of these frescoes in the Cloister of the Dead to Giotto, as intriguing as it is uncompromising, warrants further consideration.
For evidence, Ruskin draws upon the honesty of one of the frescoes, the Birth of the Virgin. The nurse, proud, stern; the attendant laying a gentle hand on the baby’s brow; the mother, St Anne, reclined, exhausted, as the midwife and another servant discuss her wellbeing; a single visitor, passing through the door: ‘That’, remarks Ruskin, ‘is all.’ The scene stands in sharp contrast to Ghirlandaio’s famous representation a stone’s throw away, behind the alter of the church. In Ghirlandaio’s Birth, complex relief work lines the walls, bright gold ornament frames the depiction, a sumptuous crowd of visitors stand on ceremony, St Anne is composed and alert. In the cloister fresco, ‘There’s one thing you can see’, writes Ruskin, ‘which you didn’t in Ghirlandaio’s fresco, unless you were very clever and looked hard for it — the Baby!’
This representation bears striking resemblance to the Birth of the Virgin Giotto painted as part of his astonishing fresco cycle in the Capella degli Scrovegni, Padua. Like the depiction in the cloister, the room in the picture is narrow, and divided into exterior and interior. Above, Giotto shows St Anne reaching for her new-born child. It is a suggestive moment to depict — the new mother is vulnerable, suspended in tender anticipation. At the door, an attendant takes possession of a parcel: in lieu, perhaps, of the mother, who is in no state to receive guests. Below, a servant cradles the child, lightly touching her cheek; while another busies herself with her household duties. Giotto exalts every incident of human nature. He makes the divine clear to daily life.
The two depictions bear striking resemblances: humility and humanity; as well as the solid, three-dimensionality of their respective spaces. In the Cloister of the Dead, the nearby depiction of the Nativity by Orcagna and his workshop unconvincingly jostles the stable, angles, shepherd, and a distant plateau. Painted shortly after Giotto’s death, this Nativity emphasises the remarkably credible space of the Birth of the Virgin. The Strozzi Chapel, immediately above the cloister, contains the masterpiece of Nardo di Cione (the generally-recognised artist of the frescoes). These monumental depictions of the Last Judgement stack interminable rows of figures, in an abstracted world of divine glory. It is a startling transition from St Anne’s bedchamber. Conversely, Giotto’s staggered arrangement of angels in his Last Judgement retains a sense of earth-bound physicality. Giotto’s apprehensible perspective grounds the intensely spiritual, in quotidian palpability.
150 years later, Ruskin’s attribution has, rather disappointingly, been all-but discredited. The Cloister of the Dead, once thought to have been constructed in the late 13th century, is now largely agreed to have been rebuilt in the years following a flood in 1333. A testament of its patron Uliviero dei Carbon shows that in 1337 a new structure was planned in the cloister, while a document in the convent’s collection records the treasurer receiving payment for work on the chapel in 1341. This timeline is irreconcilable with Giotto painting the frescoes. These sources do seem to refer specifically to the Chapel of St Anthony (immediately adjacent to the frescoes in question) and therefore do not preclude the possibility that elements of the original cemetery survived the flood. Hope (undeniably slight) adheres in equal measure to Lorenzo Ghiberti’s catalogue of Giotto’s work, the foundation of our knowledge of the painter’s work in Florence. Ghiberti precedes his list of Giotto’s works in Santa Maria Novella with a tantalisingly ambiguous statement: ‘ancora vi sono molte altre cose’ (there are still many other things). Ghiberti is grammatically indeterminate: other works of Giotto in the precincts of the church? Or others across Italy, not catalogued?
Other factors besides point to Nardo di Cione as the artist almost-certainly responsible for the frescoes. But more certain still — and more important — is the beauty of these frescoes, their peculiar tenderness, and the wonderful fact that, faded, damaged, some 700 years old, they have endured. The cloister narrowly avoided destruction to make room for a new railway station forecourt in the mid-19th century, survived the suppression of the Convent and alterations made to the cloister twenty years later, and withstood the catastrophic flood of 1966. After a restoration program began in 2011, the Cloister of the Dead has only recently reopened to the public.
On a sharp December morning, the medieval cemetery is flooded with sunlight. The vaulting dances overheard: a deep blue ceiling studded with bright stars, the patterns light and intricate. A large crowd stands before Ghirlandaio’s frescos; the Cloister of the Dead is quiet. Ruskin’s certainty in the frescoes may be misplaced — but it seems a shame that he is not more widely heeded. For if the present-day Sacristan might not be so civil and nice if he found visitors climbing about the capitals of Santa Maria, at least the implacable curiosity that Ruskin so prized should endure, two hundred years on.