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What the Frescoes Said

When Lina Bolzoni chose the title The Web of Images for her book (in Italian, La Rete delle Immagini), she was thinking all the time of another Web, the one that has been changing our way of responding to the world. The connection she makes to our own age is subtle, however: as its primary purpose, The Web of Images traces the ways in which the medieval equivalent of mass media conditioned Italian society in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, especially through public painting and public preaching. She focuses much of the book on Pisa, where she lives today, surrounded by powerful works of medieval art that once, as she shows, would have brought to mind an equally powerful complement of words.

One of these works of art very nearly died in the twentieth century: the magnificent frescoes of the Camposanto, or monumental cemetery, of Pisa. Begun in 1278 as part of the glorious complex that also includes the Cathedral and the Leaning Tower, the Camposanto’s gleaming white marble has proclaimed Pisa’s wealth and taste for more than seven centuries, and for several of those centuries, the city’s independence. The Pisans who built the Camposanto belonged to a maritime republic with outposts in Constantinople, Greece, and North Africa. As merchants, they knew the meaning of risk, and of fortune; hence, at the height of their patriotic pride they thought it best to remind themselves of their vulnerability (in fact, as Bolzoni notes, the city suffered a significant military defeat by the Genoese in 1284, apparently enough to jolt the Pisans into some prudent soul-searching as their Camposanto began to soar).

The commission for the frescoes of the Camposanto (circa 1330–1340) went to a painter named Buonamico Buffalmacco, whose fame as an artist has been greatly eclipsed now by his fame as a prankster. Buffalmacco, as a good Tuscan, excelled in the practical jokes that Tuscans call beffe; so much so that Giovanni Boccaccio recounted several of them in his Decameron, including the story of how Buffalmacco managed to convince his friend Calandrino that he was no longer himself. It is surprising, then, to see the refinement with which this eminent jokester painted his elegant lords and ladies, combining the sinuous grace favored by the painters of neighboring Siena with the more chunky, monumental style that Giotto had recently brought to Florentine art.

For the Camposanto’s solemn setting Buffalmacco toned down his facetious side. Instead, he peopled the cemetery’s interior wall with images of Death on the rampage, a huge scythe in her bony hand (the word for death is feminine in both Latin and Italian), moving in on a band of beautiful youths and maidens who are only engrossed in their pet hawks and lapdogs and each other. Behind and beneath her, Death has already mowed down a multitude: old, young, men, women, children, rich, poor, a monk and a bishop, with relentless impartiality—the graveyard, after all, was the one place in Pisa where no one could fool himself about the Grim Reaper. In 1348, as if to reinforce the frescoes’ message, the Black Death took away a third of Pisa’s population, and then in 1944, an Allied air raid turned Buffalmacco’s painted apocalypse into a real one. The plaster of the Camposanto frescoes sits on a backing of reeds, and when a splinter from a firebomb landed on the building’s roof in July of that year it melted the leaden roof tiles, turned wooden beams into torches, and set the reeds on fire. Death’s broad scythe met a new cohort of destroyers.

Ironically, as Bolzoni notes, well-meaning restorers brought on a second wave of destruction. Buffalmacco had framed his frescoes within written panels, and scrolls of speech unfurl from figures’ mouths like the balloons in modern-day comic strips, but so dazzling were his pictures that no one thought to save their labels as they picked through the rubble of the Camposanto to retrieve bits of the painted wall. We have only black-and-white photographs to remind us how the paintings looked when they were whole and eloquent, and manuscripts to remind us of their texts. Bolzoni’s first chapter tries to restore their ability to speak.

They speak, she argues, in the language of the Dominican friars who dominated Pisan spiritual life in those years, providing the city with most of its bishops as well as preachers and teachers. In the early fourteenth century, the Dominicans were still a relatively new order, but a powerful one. Their founder, Domingo de Guzmán, originally from Castille, had gathered his first followers to fight against heresy in southern France, with a combination of rigorous training in theology and equally rigorous training in public preaching—they were to sway the faithful by the soundness of their doctrine and the persuasiveness of their speech. Nicknamed “hounds of God” (Domini canes), the Dominicans soon reached commanding positions in two new institutions developed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: the university and the inquisition. It is not surprising, then, to find that they were an authoritative presence in a fourteenth-century university town like Pisa.

The Dominicans taught each other in Latin, the precise, ponderous Latin we know as Scholastic, a Latin that pinned down every nuance of theology within a huge system, from the creation of the world to human conception (which was not, according to the Dominican Thomas Aquinas, the moment when a fetus took on its soul—that came months later) to marriage, death, and the afterlife. There were answers for the most peculiar questions, some of them, like “What happens when a mouse eats the Host?,” answerable only by an inscrutable “God knows”—Deus scit. Most Dominicans knew better than to try this talk on their neighbors; it was hard to understand, esoteric, and boring to the uninitiated: Pisa’s businessmen, many with offices in Spain and Algeria, had their minds full enough with exchange rates and the price of commodities without taking in fourteen points about the meaning of the word “proceeds” in the Nicene Creed.

So the Dominicans used vernacular language, and, as Bolzoni shows at length, they used pictures, not only the magnificent paintings that decorated their churches and convents, but also the pictures that listeners were asked to conjure up in their minds. Their aim was not simply to move congrega-tions during a sermon, but to teach, to make the sermon memorable. The more vivid the images, the more musical the words, the more likely that their underlying message would also stay fixed in place long after the sermon was over.

Buonamico Buffalmacco’s frescoes for the Camposanto in Pisa show what happened when the local Dominicans’ preaching filtered through the minds of their public, including not only Buffalmacco himself but also, significantly, the Pisans who had awarded him the commission to decorate their cemetery. The texts accompanying the Camposanto frescoes, in one of the city’s most public spaces, were composed in vernacular verse; apparently, these paintings once sang with rhyme as loudly as Dante’s Divine Comedy. One vivid vignette in Buffalmacco’s Triumph of Death shows a band of nobles on horseback pausing before a set of three open coffins, each containing a decomposing corpse: we can see the painter’s sense of humor at work in the alert tracking postures of the patricians’ dogs, hot on the trail of carrion, and in the lordly youth who pinches his nose shut at the stench. The corpses, undaunted, retort:

You who regard me with so fixed a stare,

Behold how loathsome I am in your sight,

You may now be a handsome youth, and bright,

But think, before Death gets you in her snare.


You’d best recall that I was just like you;

The world’s our friend for such a fleeting space,

Soon you’ll be at this very point and place.1

Contemporary Dominican sermons, as Bolzoni shows, used the same kinds of rhymes, and suggested the same kinds of imagery: Death sweeping down on the unsuspecting, the torments of Hell, the joys of Heaven. Buffalmacco’s frescoes were striking, even novel, for their quality and for their effective combination of verbal and visual imagery, but at the same time they would have reminded the Pisans who came to the Camposanto of things that they had already seen, heard, and imagined. Standing in a place where death met life, they might be especially prone to reflect upon—and to improve—their own spiritual health.

The basic purpose of a sermon was to connect some passage of the Bible to daily life, in an age when the Bible’s entire text was inaccessible to most of the faithful, who heard it only in Latin, and were not allowed to read it on their own. Medieval preachers evoked the visual imagery of the Bible: trees, towers, cherubim and seraphim, donkeys and dragons, and used these images, with great ingenuity, as frames for storing information like elements of the catechism or advice for moral living, exhorting their listeners to do the same. They knew that their audiences could take in prodigious amounts of data without writing anything down; when paper and parchment were rare and expensive, memory served. The marvelous red dragon reproduced on the cover of The Web of Images carries labels just like Buffalmacco’s frescoes, but here, rather than a memento mori, the dragon, with its seven heads, cries out the name of each of the seven deadly sins while combining them all in one scarlet monster—Satan.

Images like these provided remarkably versatile filing systems. The branches of the illustrated Tree of Life could carry the seven virtues, or the sorrows of the Virgin, or the sufferings of Christ, at the same time connecting them all to a greater theme, represented by the tree itself: its reach from earthbound roots to its crown might embody, for example, the human soul’s ascent from mortality to immortality. (Nor was this way of thinking restricted to Christianity: at the same time Jewish mystics were teaching that each of the ten branches of the Hebrew Tree of Life contained one of the sephiroth, or emanations of God, while the Tree itself stretched from Earth back to Heaven in the opposite direction.) Bolzoni gives a colorful range of other examples of how visual imagery could be connected with virtues and sinfulness: for example a knight armed with the seven virtues, each carefully labeled, lays siege to a tower of vice, and by toppling the tower that is composed of all seven sins, he topples Sin itself. Alternatively, the virtues feather the wings of a cherub, allowing it to flutter contentedly around the Throne of God.

These towers and trees and cherubs often appear in small scale in manuscripts, but one of the most magnificent of these complex labeled images is huge, and public: a set of frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti known now as the Allegories of Good and Bad Government. The paintings still survive today in the city hall of Siena, another Tuscan city that, like Pisa, reached its peak of magnificence in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Rather than government per se, Lorenzetti’s real point of contrast is the difference between war and peace: war, his paintings show, is at the root of all bad government. In the fresco of Good Government, a sultry Peace leans back on her throne, her voluptuous shape showing clearly through her diaphanous white dress, her hair bleached blond like that of the real Sienese women in her day (they were renowned as the most beautiful women in Italy). On the wall directly opposite, Bad Government holds Peace by that same shock of blond hair, a miserable prisoner.

Exceptionally, Lorenzetti makes the delights of the good life look much more interesting than the torments of iniquity; for other painters, as in Buffalmacco’s glimpses of Heaven and Hell––and Dante’s, for that matter—Hell has the perverse advantage. Not so in Siena. Lorenzetti’s bustling shops, circle dances, construction sites, farmers, pet monkey, and acrobatic cat have all the incidental detail that usually gives Hell the visual advantage over Heaven’s orderly—and supremely monotonous—legions. Furthermore, Good Government’s ideal Siena looks just like the actual Siena outside this frescoed room (even today); its destruction under Bad Government is painful to see, rather than perversely engaging, because the mayhem so obviously involves a real place, and hence our real selves.

Siena also created the final strand in Bolzoni’s web: the little man who in many ways epitomized the medieval preaching tradition, the fifteenth-century Franciscan preacher Bernardino degli Albizzeschi, far better known as Bernardino of Siena. With his friar’s robe, gaunt cheeks, toothless frown, and the wooden panel he carried everywhere—a schematic name of Jesus set within a radiant circle—Bernardino is one of the easiest saints to pick out in an Italian Renaissance painting. And he is a Renaissance man, however little he resembles one, trained in Latin literature as thoroughly as any Florentine humanist. That learning shows through on occasion in the transcripts of his public sermons, despite the fact that, like the Dominicans of Pisa a century before, he tried to strip his oratory to its essentials, using humble images drawn from the lives of his listeners rather than learned allusions: Hell in Bernardino’s sermons is la casa calda—the hot house.

Bernardino’s sermons were public events; a handful of paintings show him preaching to huge crowds in Siena’s Piazza del Campo, and we know what he said because everywhere he went he inspired hearers to take down his words as fast as they could. He was obviously the best show in town, an uninhibited performer with a gift for mimicking animal noises, trumpet blasts, and human eccentricities as well as explaining theology. And yet, despite his simplified language, Bernardino knew how Cicero had ordered a speech, and how Cicero’s contemporaries had advised delivering one; if he departed from their love of ornamental flourishes, he stayed true to their basic good sense: clear arguments, clear delivery, suspense, and variety.

His most masterful use of suspense may have been the time he announced to the citizens of Siena, in 1427, that he had a relic: not some saint’s bone, or the Virgin’s sleeve—this time he had a relic straight from Jesus Christ, and there was enough for everyone to have a bit of it. We can still feel the crowd’s excitement as the little preacher whips them into a frenzy of eagerness (he knew exactly how to play on his merchant community’s love of possessions), and we hear their collective snort when he finally declares: “It’s the Gospel!” “Oh, oh, oh, oh!” he cries back at them; we know because the weaver who transcribed these sermons has recorded Bernardino’s interjections as carefully as the rest: not only strings of “Oh”s but also “Doh!” “Ooh!” and, frequently, “A casa!” “Back home!” when the preacher has gone off on a tangent.

Bernardino, a keen raconteur, was continually going off on tangents, but he always knew exactly the point at which he had left “home”; his “house” was as well ordered as any Pisan Scholastic’s. Equally remarkable, though, is the mental agility he expected from his audience: men and women from every level of society, many of them illiterate. In Bolzoni’s view, the painted and verbal imagery that surrounded these people acted as ready support for memories that were better trained than ours in any case. (Appointment books did not exist, let alone palm pilots.) As he launches into his dazzling sermon of August 15, 1427, Bernardino tells his Sienese listeners that they are about to learn twelve things about the Virgin Mary. When he says “learn” he means for his hearers to do more than listen to his list of the Virgin’s twelve qualities: he wants them to commit each one to memory forever, so that they can model their own lives on hers. His only concession to his public is the advice to “take [the twelve] in groups of four.” Not surprisingly, perhaps, the first quality he mentions is the Virgin’s intelligence. Because August 15 was the feast of her assumption into Heaven, he follows with a marvelous description of her rising up from the city of Siena, hovering over his congregation before she rises again to a realm beyond the firmament.

Bernardino played his own vivid verbal pictures against actual painted images in the cities where he preached, like the huge, gold-backed Assumption of the Virgin that Simone Martini had painted on Siena’s northern gate, the Porta di Camollia, in the thirteenth century (when Bernardino referred to it, it had been recently restored (1415) by the painter Benedetto di Bindo, and it has been heavily restored again several times since). His own verbal picture of Mary’s assumption into heaven suddenly becomes concrete when he advises his hearers to think about Simone’s painting:

All of the Angels stand around her, all of the Archangels, all of the Thrones, all of the Dominions, all of the Virtues, all of the Powers, all of the Principalities, all of the Cherubim, all of the Seraphim, all of the apostles, patriarchs, prophets, virgins, martyrs; all of them stand in a circle around her rejoicing, singing, dancing, as you see painted above the Gate of Camollia, thus doing honour to Mary together with the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

Bernardino’s sermons owe their effectiveness not only to their visual richness but also to their humor, and to their emotional charge. For a fifteenth-century Christian, Christ and the Virgin Mary were real people who intervened in their own lives and whose lives in the Holy Land they recounted with a freedom that went well beyond the Gospel’s spare accounts—Bernardino declared that the Gospels had been written so tersely in order to stimulate Christian imaginations. His account of Mary’s conversation with the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation is bitingly funny; it comes on August 15, 1427, directly after he has asked his hearers to contemplate Mary’s intelligence. Gabriel, he insists, is just a courier who has no idea what his message to the Virgin actually means; when Mary replies to him with a question, “How can this be?,” it is all too subtle for Gabriel’s angelic brain to grasp.

Contemporary painted Annunciations were terribly formal, but Bernardino has placed the equivalent of a comic-book question mark above the angel’s head, as the Virgin confounds the beautiful, dumb blond creature who has just flown into her life with his extraordinary news. The interlude, for all its solemnity, has something of the flavor of a Tuscan prank, and—more to the point—it is unlikely that attentive listeners to that sermon ever forgot, afterward, that Mary was smart. They only had to think about poor Gabriel, and smile.

But Bernardino could also conjure up tragedy in words. When Jesus was arrested, he surmises, in his Good Friday sermon of 1425:

It may be imagined that at least John went to Bethany to the house of Mary Magdalene and of Martha, where his mother the Virgin Mary was staying, to announce to them, weeping continually, that Jesus had been taken. Upon hearing this dreadful news, they too wept and were full of tribulation. Reflect upon and contemplate, devoted soul, the pain they must have suffered.

As Bolzoni notes, the effects of this emotional involvement could be violent. On occasion, Bernardino’s sermons inspired bonfires of vanities, and they also inspired the persecution of witches, sodomites, and usurious Jews. The beguiling homespun charm of his sermons can sometimes give off an odor of brimstone:

Stripped of his clothes, [Christ] was tied naked to a column, and they flagellated him everywhere. That flesh so pure, so gentle, so beautiful, was reduced to such a state that there was not an inch of his body that was not livid and covered with wounds. And the flesh turned red, and swelled up, and blood flowed everywhere. Think and contemplate on how much pain, how much suffering was inflicted on that precious body by those savage dogs.

Almost exactly a century later, at the University of Paris, the former Basque mercenary named Ignatius Loyola would pour the same kind of imaginative force and extravagant emotion into the Spiritual Exercises of his new religious order, the Society of Jesus. In many ways, however, the Spiritual Exercises could fit right back into the Camposanto of Pisa, where Buffalmacco’s fresco of sinners in Hell—unfortunately destroyed in 1944—showed a horde of devils busily tormenting sinners—including an antipope—in la casa calda:

This is a meditation on hell. It contains a preparatory prayer, two preludes, five points, and a colloquy.

Preparatory Prayer: This prayer will be as usual.

First prelude: This is the representation of place. Here it will be to see in imagination the length, breadth, and depth of Hell.

Second prelude: I will ask for what I desire. Here it will be to ask for a deep awareness of the pain suffered by the damned, so that if I should forget the love of the Eternal Lord, at least the fear of punishment will help me to avoid falling into sin.

First point: To see in imagination the great fires, and the souls enveloped, as it were, in bodies of fire.

Second point: To hear the wailing, the screaming, cries, and blasphemies against Christ our Lord and all His saints.

Third point: To smell the smoke, the brimstone, the corruption, and rottenness.

Fourth point: To taste bitter things, as tears, sadness, and remorse of conscience.

Fifth point: With the sense of touch to feel how the flames surround and burn souls.

Colloquy: Enter into a colloquy with Christ our Lord. Recall to mind the souls in hell…. Conclude with an “Our Father.”2

This, then, was where medieval preaching ended up, long after the end of the Middle Ages: all five senses were engaged in imagining celestial extremes of pleasure and pain, mental images so vivid that they can be heard, tasted, smelled, and touched, as well as seen with the mind’s eye. It sounds positively cinematic, which is why Lina Bolzoni’s title The Web of Images, with its reminders of another Web, gently prods us to wonder how much our “new” image-laden culture is also connecting us back to some much older habits of human thought.3

  1. 1

    The Web of Images, p. 39 n. 81; my translation. The translation in the book itself, by Carole Preston and Lisa Chien, is excellent, but this poem, in a footnote, has been rendered in prose—whereas in the present context preserving the verse form is important.

  2. 2

    Ignatius Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, translated by Anthony Mottola (Doubleday, 1964), pp. 59–60.

  3. 3

    This same point, that modern image-based culture shares crucial qualities with medieval culture, has been made by Mario Carpo, Architecture in the Age of Printing: Orality, Writing, Typography, and Printed Images in the History of Architectural Theory, translated by Sarah Benson (MIT Press, 2001).

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