Fresco painting was the main means of visual communication available to Italian painters from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. Vasari describes the technique of fresco as “more virile and long-lasting than any other form of painting,” and as requiring greater resolution and confidence of touch. Frescoes were thought out slowly, but they were executed sectionally, with great speed, in what are called giornate (days), that is, in periods in which the smooth layer of plaster—the intonaco—of the area to be painted remained damp enough to absorb paint. They were the result of cogitation, but of cogitation that had, once a final solution was arrived at, to be transferred speedily on to the wall.

In monographs about Italian artists published early in this century frescoes were treated pari passu with panel paintings, as images not as things made. But especially since 1945 a great body of study has been devoted to them, and hundreds of frescoes have been stripped off the wall and transferred to some form of stable backing. A transferred fresco is a diminished fresco, and this policy may have been overradical, but it was implemented with great courage, and as a result an immense number of the drawn or painted sinopie, or sketches that lie under the paint surface, have been revealed.

With secondary artists the sinopie are often the botched jobs one would expect. But with great painters key aspects of their creative procedure have been revealed. We know how, at Assisi, Simone Martini drew out the fresco of Saint Martin and the Beggar, and what changes he introduced at quite a late stage in its design. We know, from the sinopie at Prato, that Uccello cannot have painted the chapel in the cathedral with which he is so often credited, and that Castagno’s original design for his fresco of Saint Jerome in the Annunziata in Florence was very different from the fresco that he carried out.

When the new Uffizi comes into being, it is to be hoped that both transferred frescoes and sinopie will be shown there. That paragon of intelligence and taste, the Museo delle Sinopie at Pisa, where the sinopie of the lost frescoes in the Camposanto are shown alongside reproductions of the frescoes, and the Pinacoteca Nazionale at Bologna, where the frescoes and sinopie of Jacopo da Bologna from Mezzaralte are shown together in adjacent rooms, are pointers to what can be done.

The challenge of the fresco, by virtue of its scale and durability, elicited from almost every artist his best work. It did so with Gentile da Fabriano, whose marvelous Madonna in the cathedral at Orvieto was cleaned recently with spectacular results; with Filippo Lippi in the choir of Prato Cathedral; with Botticelli, whose Annunciation from San Martino alla Scala in Florence is perhaps his strongest, most resilient painting; with Uccello, whose brutal Flood in Santa Maria Novella in Florence would have been unthinkable in any other medium than fresco; with Pisanello, who has been revealed in the recovered frescoes in the Ducal Palace at Mantua, as a descriptive artist of exceptional accomplishment.

The time is past when old-fashioned scholars could claim that the cell frescoes at San Marco were all by Fra Angelico. Seventeen years of dedicated work by one restorer have made this view untenable. In Rome the Carafa Chapel of Filippino Lippi is a blaze of color; at Parma the cleaning of the two cupolas has made it necessary to reassess Correggio; and at Piacenza, thanks to the recent cleaning, one can see for the first time why, for a brief period, Titian blanched before the threat of competition from the painter Pordenone.

Not all frescoes are true frescoes. After the color had been absorbed into the damp intonaco, paint could be added after the surface dried. Whereas true fresco is a durable technique, painting a secco is impermanent, and in cases where it was used extensively and has been effaced the image that is before us and the image that the painter intended us to see may not fully correspond. A case in which this has occurred is Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto at Monterchi, which has in the past been subject to qualitative judgments that make insufficient allowance for its physical state. In this case, however, infrared reflectography has made it possible to reconstruct precisely where the secco painting was, and so to reestablish the original quality and appearance of the fresco. Applied to Piero della Francesca’s frescoes at Arezzo, this type of analysis has also yielded new and exciting results.

But how, one is justified in asking, does the way in which we look at frescoes now differ from the way in which they were intended to be seen? For us most fresco cycles are a sequence of isolated scenes. We see them in this way because, strip cartoons apart, we are unused to the practice of sequential narrative, and our antecedent knowledge of them is gained from photographs. But to a semiliterate public their appeal was that of continuity. The part was less important than the whole, and the whole might assume many different forms. It could be loosely planned, like the frescoes ascribed to Barna at San Gimignano, or it could be a synthesis arrived at by a powerful organizing mind, like that of Giotto in the Arena Chapel in Padua, which brooked no inattention and which created its effect through the consistency and strength and logic of the entire scheme. People in the fourteenth century listened to frescoes, whereas we only look at them.


Dr. Lavin’s book deals with narrative in fresco painting. It is concerned with categorizing frescoes rather than explaining them, and it offers a record of what, for her, were two discoveries. The first arises from the repetition of narrative patterns, or schemata, in fresco decoration, and the second from the use to which the patterns were put. She identifies and names, not always euphoniously, eight prime categories. The first is the Double Parallel, in which the narrative runs horizontally in two strips in opposite directions on each church wall, one moving from the entrance toward the apse and the other from the apse toward the entrance. This is a valid decorative category, which occurs in Santa Maria Maggiore and other Roman basilicas. The second is the Wraparound, in which the narrative runs from apse to entrance on both walls. In a third category, the Apse pattern, superimposed narrative tiers extend from the side walls across the altar wall. In the fourth, the Boustrophedon, narrative moves crosswise from lunette to lunette on the lateral walls and the lower frescoes on each side are also linked. The Boustrophedon starts at the top and goes down to the bottom, whereas the Linear Boustrophedon starts at the bottom and goes up to the top. (The word “boustrophedon,” we are told by the author, describes the “back-and-forth movement literally, meaning ‘turning like an ox in plow.’ It is borrowed from epigraphy….”) There are three further categories, the Cat’s Cradle Horizontal, the Cat’s Cradle Vertical, and the Straight-Line Vertical.

Whatever the merits of this breakdown, it does not make for easy reading. In the Spanish Chapel in Santa Maria Novella “the disposition is relatively complex, the Wraparound used at Avignon being abandoned for the ideologically richer Boustrophedon,” and at San Gimignano the frescoes in the nave form “one of the clearest, most deliberate monumental Boustrophedons ever created.”

For Lavin these categories are purposive, not casual. “Although they have remained all but unnoticed in modern times, their ubiquity indicates that the patterns were probably common knowledge, perhaps even part of the professional training of artists.” If the patterns were, in this sense, ubiquitous, one might expect some written reference to them, but written reference to patterns, whether in fresco or other artistic media, “seems to be entirely lacking.”

I find this chain of ideas difficult to credit. There were indeed conventions in Florentine fresco decoration, but they arose from the architectural constraints imposed on artists by the Gothic chapels in which they were obliged to work. At the extreme end of the fifteenth century, in Filippino Lippi’s Strozzi Chapel, the ratio between the large wall frescoes and the much smaller lunettes was determined by the thirteenth-century architecture of the chapel. Similarly in the Sassetti Chapel in Santa Trinita the antecedent architecture formed a basis for the planning of Ghirlandaio’s frescoes. The professional training of painters may have included mensuration, but it can hardly have covered real or imaginary pattern categories.

Lavin’s second discovery occurred when her observations on pattern were computerized as part of a largescale database. “Perhaps more important,” she explains, “than the discovery of the patterns was the realization that they were not random plot manipulations for the sake of design, nor were they methodological aids to visual storytelling. Rather narrative units were used as expressive components in patterns developed to broadcast messages of greater than narrational value.” They were controlled by the principle of disposition,

a term I appropriate from the field of rhetoric. Originally it indicated how the learner should organize the parts of a forensic speech…. I have adopted the term disposition because I believe the arrangement of elements in a narrative cycle serves a similar persuasive purpose.

But disposition, in its nonrhetorical, common or garden sense, is a term that is universally applied to the siting of frescoes on a wall, and from the time that frescoes were first studied it has been recognized that their placement on the wall and the relation of one scene to another were often so conceived as to invest the cycle with an interpretative or expository character. It has, for example, been shown, in an excellent article by Charles Mitchell,1 that the triple grouping of the scenes from the life of Saint Francis in each bay at Assisi “reflects the essentially triadic ductus of St. Bonaventure’s own mode of thinking (in the Itinerarium mentis in Deum), so that without this logic in mind the real meaning of the stories escapes us.”


Admittedly, there are certain later fresco cycles which can only have been based upon a detailed written program that determined the nature and sequence of the scenes. One of the most obvious is the Quattrocento decoration of the Sistine Chapel, where the narrative frescoes are set, as in a basilica, on a single level along the walls. The frescoes start (or originally started) from each side of the altar, with scenes from the life of Christ on one side linked by labels to scenes from the life of Moses opposite. But generally the approach of patrons and painters to large-scale fresco narratives was freer and less schematic, and the works that resulted can be understood only through study of their individual context.

Lavin has a sharp nose for discrepancies between the fresco cycle and the written text. In Simone Martini’s Saint Martin Chapel in the Lower Church at Assisi strict narrative sequence is violated. “Following the medieval protocol,” says Lavin,

the narrative starts at the apse end of the right wall…. The second scene, Martin Dividing His Cloak at Amiens, is on the lower tier of the left wall at the entrance end. This position means that the narrative has moved diagonally across the chapel from the back to the front….The pattern of the narrative thus described is two intersecting diagonals: back right to left front, and back left to right front. I call this pattern a “Cat’s Cradle.”

One may call the pattern anything one chooses, provided it is recognized that the frescoes created the pattern, not the pattern the frescoes. In the best book ever written about frescoes, Eve Borsook’s excellent Mural Painters of Tuscany,2 there is a first-rate account of the disposition of the frescoes in the St. Martin Chapel and their iconography, beside which Lavin’s survey seems loosely argued and imprecise.

One of the most elaborate chapters in the book deals with the frescoes of the Legend of the Cross by Agnolo Gaddi in the choir of Santa Croce in Florence. It makes the valid point that the four tiers of frescoes on the right wall contain scenes related to the feast of the Invention of the Cross and that those on the left wall relate to the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, and gives an animated account of the thrusts, counterthrusts, and countercounterthrusts within each fresco. It continues:

We can describe the surface tempo of the walls thus: on the right, centered, left to right, left to right, right to left (or hold, out, out, in); on the left it runs centered, right to left, left to right, left to right (or hold, out, in, in). These internal rhythms… raise to a new level of empathic experience the deeply liturgical message of the story…. For this reason I designate the cycle as being disposed in matching Straight-Line Verticals and evoking what I shall call the “Festival Mode.”

I have borrowed the adjective “festival” from Byzantine art and religion….

Elsewhere it is explained that this expression is used when “the disposition of a cycle emphasizes the liturgical feast associated with the characters in a story more than it stresses the story itself.” No less puzzling is a sketchy account of the frescoes of scenes from the life of the Virgin in the chapels of the Palazzo Pubblico at Siena and the Palazzo Trinci at Foligno. “Nowhere,” writes Lavin, “is the public function of religious narrative clearer than in these chapels within civic buildings. The theological message of eternal survival and salvation made explicit within the domain of government confirms the definition of the state as the institutional remedy for original sin.” Would that original sin could be cured so easily.

Lavin’s prime interest is in the fifteenth century. But the great Quattrocento fresco cycles resulted from deviance not orthodoxy. Each is sui generis, and before it can be discussed in general terms the problems of its character, purpose, and construction have to be thought out afresh. The draw-back of the present book is not that Lavin’s approach is overradical, but that it is not nearly radical enough. A key case is the Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. Since cleaning it has become one big question mark. Its frescoes were the first and for upward of a quarter of a century remained the only realistic paintings in Florence. The reason for this is that they were commissioned by the great reforming order of the early fifteenth century, the Carmelites. Belligerent supporters at the Council of Constance of Pope Martin V and the principle of papal supremacy, the Carmelites had a vested interest in presenting the life of Saint Peter in terms which left no doubt that the scenes shown had really occurred.

In modern monographs the layout of the frescoes is still ascribed to Masolino and Masaccio, but both artists, as we know from their earlier and later works, painted in a less progressive fashion before work started in the Carmine, and reverted to a less progressive style when work there came to an end. Masaccio was a godlike painter, but nothing that he painted before or after suggests that he had the capacity for planning the totality of the Brancacci frescoes. The figures and lighting (as has often been observed) proceed from careful study of classical Roman fresco painting, and the spongelike trees over the wall in the Raising of the Son of Theophilus employ a classical pictorial technique. The Expulsion from Paradise contains the first great classical nudes of the Renaissance, and many of the heads in the Tribute Money are adapted from classical busts.

Manifestly, we are in the presence of a designing mind, and the mind must have been that of Brunelleschi, who is represented in the Chairing of Saint Peter and who was responsible for the painted pilasters that frame the frescoes and the painted architrave that separates them, for the urban buildings in the lower frescoes on the altar wall, and for the roof under which Saint Peter is chaired at Antioch. It is in the light of all this that the genesis of the frescoes as narrative has to be discussed. For Lavin “the current disposition of the lower tiers follows the innovation of Agnolo Gaddi in Santa Croce,” and the point of visual focus was a Crucifixion of Saint Peter under the window. The first statement is untrue, and the second is untrue as well. The fresco under the window is so badly damaged that its subject is illegible.

In Florence in the middle of the 1430s style underwent a change. After the return of Cosimo de’ Medici in 1434 and the arrival of the papal court of Eugenius IV, what had previously been a Brunelleschi-dominated world was transformed by the impact of Alberti. In Lavin’s book Alberti’s name is mentioned only on three occasions, and then parenthetically, yet of his style-forming influence there can be no doubt. Nowhere is it more evident than at Arezzo in Piero della Francesca’s Legend of the Cross. The Arezzo frescoes occupy a central place in Lavin’s book. Her first concern is with the distribution of the scenes, but it is hard to discuss their distribution without some notion of when and how the choir was decorated. Like most students of Piero she starts with the one certain fact, that the commission for the frescoes was allotted in 1447 to a stick-in-the-mud artist, Bicci di Lorenzo, who painted the ceiling. “In 1452,” she tells us, “he died. Presumably Piero took over sometime after that.” But did the commissioning body really tolerate a five-year delay in the continuance of work pending Bicci di Lorenzo’s death? What must have happened is that Bicci di Lorenzo in 1448 returned to Florence (perhaps because his work was thought oldfashioned or unsatisfactory), and that almost at once Piero della Francesca started to paint the frescoes. The visual evidence argues strongly in favor of this view.

Though the frescoes on the lateral walls are paired, the Return of the Cross to Jerusalem opposite the Death of Adam, the Empress Helena opposite the Queen of Sheba, and the Victory of Heraclius opposite the Victory of Constantine, each pair is stylistically very different. Those on the right wall are some of the most subtly constructed scenes of the whole fifteenth century, whereas the frescoes opposite are less sophisticated, so much so that some critics have presumed largescale intervention by assistants. The only workable explanation is that the frescoes on the lateral walls were executed in two separate campaigns, one after 1448 and the other in the middle of the 1450s. The decisive proof of this is the only exactly datable fresco by Piero that survives, Sigismondo Malatesta Kneeling before Saint Sigismund in the Tempio Malatestiano at Rimini, which dates from 1450–1451. Not only is the Albertian structure of the Rimini fresco immensely more accomplished than that of the frescoes on the left wall at Arezzo, but it embodies the principles that were developed in the great frescoes on the wall opposite.

Lavin’s description starts conventionally with the first scene of the story, the Death of Adam. But narrative beginnings and pictorial beginnings do not necessarily coincide. Michelangelo painted the narrative scenes on the Sistine ceiling backwards, that is antichronologically, and Piero della Francesca did precisely the same thing. Obliged for practical reasons to start the painting of each wall at the top, he began with the rather insecure Return of the Cross to Jerusalem; continued in the second register with the constricted scenes of the Recovery and Proof of the Cross; and ended with the confused melee of figures in the Defeat of Chosroes. It was natural that priority should be given to these scenes, since they embrace the liturgical feasts of the Finding and Exaltation of the Cross. Once they were done Piero packed his bags and left for Ferrara and Rimini, where Alberti was the presiding deity.

Whether the program of the frescoes on the right hand and altar walls was changed or adjusted after Piero’s return to Arezzo is something we shall never know. But the advance recorded in them, in visual coherence, in the assimilation of antiquity, and in the parsing of the figures, is immense. In the lowest register the Dream of Constantine and Constantine’s Victory over Maxentius have no precedent in earlier Tuscan frescoed Legends of the Cross, and it has been repeatedly suggested that their inclusion at Arezzo was in some way related to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Beside the altar the conventional Dream of Heraclius is replaced by the Dream of Constantine. Piero was described by Berenson as an ineloquent painter, and it is very easy to impose a subjective personal meaning on the figures in his frescoes. For Lavin the dreaming emperor

reclines at the foot of the tent pole like the symbolic dead Adam, who often lies at the foot of the cross. On the platform of his bed a body servant, resting head on hand, looks out at us with an air of melancholy mourning. Superseding the narrative, these elements make the message clear: as in a revelation we witness the death of paganism on the eve of Christian victory and the coming of the new age.

The intrusion of this death concept is gratuitous, and seems to result from a misreading of the image.

Lavin gives a serious and impressive account of the Death of Adam and the Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, but regards the two scenes in the upper register beside the altar of the burial and recovery of the wood of the cross as “comic relief.” Anything, of course, is possible. Piero may, under his impassive mask, have possessed a sense of humor and chosen to project it prominently on the wall. But it is easier to read the figures as proof of the difficulty experienced by an idealist painter in portraying active large-scale figures from daily life.

In an interesting paragraph in her introduction Lavin writes: “I had only to remember that Piero would have seen, for example, the mosaics and frescoes still extant in the Early Christian basilicas when he worked in Rome in 1458–59.” In the text this search for parallels has been abandoned, and we are told instead that Piero

has followed the principles laid down by Horace in his Ars Poetica and has consciously translated them into visual form in order to paint a narrative in epic mode….

I assert that Piero had already moved toward this goal in visual terms. To achieve these ends content as well as form had to be reshaped: all editorializing episodes were removed, and only proofs of the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice were shown.

The criteria of patterning and disposition in this case offer no help. There is the inevitable Boustrophedon, the order of the scenes on the altar wall is a Cat’s Cradle constructed of intersecting diagonals, and the “general arrangement of the facing walls…is what I have called the Up-Down Down-Up pattern, first found in the apse of the Arena Chapel.”

With private chapels (this term is misleading: they were public chapels privately endowed) it is vital to establish the nature of the decorative program and the exact subjects of the scenes that are portrayed. A prime case is the Sassetti Chapel of Domenico Ghirlandaio in Santa Trinita in Florence. Thanks in great part to Aby Warburg, we know more about Francesco Sassetti than almost any other patron in the last quarter of the fifteenth century. We know what he looked like from portraits of him and his wife, Nera Corsi, in the Sassetti Chapel, from a bust by Verrocchio in the Bargello, and from a ruined official painting of him in his role as banker, now in New York. His professional career, at Lyons and Geneva, has been studied in depth, as has his palatial villa at Montughi on what is now the Via Bolognese. We know about his children; there were quite a number of them, but the son that he preferred, Teodoro, died at Geneva when he was eighteen. His Christian name was later transferred to Sassetti’s youngest son. Sassetti had a strong Franciscan bias, which caused him to break with the Dominicans at Santa Maria Novella and establish his own funerary chapel in Santa Trinita.

Despite all this, Lavin’s account of the chapel is strangely askew. It starts with a sensible account of the scene of Augustus and the Sibyl over the entrance, the apex of which is the Observant monogram of San Bernardino, not the usual Virgin and Child, and goes on to the scene of Saint Francis renouncing his patrimony at the top of the left wall. In the background is a view of Geneva showing the oratory Sassetti built there on an island or peninsula in the Rhone. For Lavin, however, the cityscape “is connected to Teodoro” and so is the main scene, an “explicitly cruel interpretation of the event” (the father of Saint Francis holds a whip) which “may indicate Sassetti’s guilt at having somehow helped to bring about his son’s death.” With an artist as clinically objective as Ghirlandaio, this psychoanalytical reading seems more than a little out of place.

In the two frescoes on the altar wall the topography is Florentine. For Lavin this is explained by the belief of the chronicler Villani that Christian Florence was constructed in the image of early Christian Rome. But the upper fresco, of the Confirmation of the Franciscan Rule, was originally, as we know from a drawing in Berlin, to have had no topographical background, though it included in the foreground the portraits we see in the foreground today. The fresco from the first had a social connotation and it seems that at a second stage it was decided to extrapolate the realism of the foreground figures into a background of the Piazza della Signoria. The lower fresco on the altar wall has as its background the Piazza Santa Trinita in Florence. It is explained by Warburg as a Roman miracle of Saint Francis, but is described by Vasari as the resuscitation of a child of the Florentine Spini family, whose palace is depicted in the fresco. For Lavin, who suffers from Teodoritis, it has the “deeper implication” of depicting “the rebirth of a son, with pointed significance for Sassetti.” The subject of the fresco, whether Florentine or Roman, is resuscitation, not rebirth. Did Ghirlandaio and Sassetti, one wonders, sitting side by side over the plans for the frescoes, really envisage their “interlocking patterns” as “an ideological grid that clarifies the ulterior argument: as Francis is the new representative of Christ on earth, so the individual’s experience is interlocked with his devotional paradigm”?

Trouble of somewhat the same kind occurs with Lavin’s account of Pinturicchio’s frescoes of scenes from the life of San Bernardino in Rome in Santa Maria in Aracoeli. The donor was Umbrian, a member of the Bufalini family, on behalf of whom the saint had personally intervened with the ruling Baglioni in Perugia. Pinturicchio is not an easy painter to get on terms with. Shallow and psycholgisch dumm, he was nonetheless a decorator of great accomplishment, and the Bufalini Chapel reveals both aspects of his personality. The story starts with a lunette on the left wall showing the boy San Bernardino in a woody retreat outside the Porta Tufi deciding which religious order he should join. There is an excellent description of it by Julia Cartwright:

The painter has represented this episode exactly. The young man is seen with his face half hidden by his long fair hair and a loose white mantle covering his limbs, reading a red and gold book attentively. He stands in a grove of trees where hyacinth, anemones and primroses grow on a rocky bank and a rabbit browses the grass by a running stream, while in the background are the bare red hills of the country round Siena. A crowd of old contemporaries and friends have followed beyond the city gates and follow him with mingled feelings…. One richly clad youth in red doublet and blue hose points out the Saint to an old man with a contemptuous gesture.3

But for Lavin the significance of the scene is very different. In one of the four or five sermons of San Bernardino that deal with sodomy, the saint records an occasion from his own experience when a homosexual Sienese of good family made a pass at him which he resisted with his fists. The event took place in the Campo in Siena not far from the Fonte Gaia. For Lavin it is this that is represented in the fresco, and the protagonist is an elegant youth seen from behind (a type that recurs in countless Umbrian paintings) accompanied by the symbol of concupiscence, a fig tree. This would be an odd subject for illustration in a chapel, and one is tempted to dismiss the explanation as less plausible than out-of-date Julia Cartwright’s.

The central difficulty is that of historicity. No one working and writing on art history in the late twentieth century can be blamed for having a late-twentieth-century mind. We cannot escape from the present, but we should resist the temptation to impose the present on the past. In art history a sense of probability is the equivalent of a sense of balance in daily life. Without it no art historian can survive. Sense of probablity in turn is a product of mimesis, the ability to reproduce instinctively the thought processes and the responses of some period in the past. This was recognized with special clarity by Rudolf Wittkower, who wrote with great intelligence about Bernini and Borromini in valid historical terms. This gift is lacking in the present book. Confront Lavin with the artists about whom she writes, and they would be at loggerheads at once. It is not simply that her volume is outrageously pretentious; it is that it is wrong. Irrespective of the merits of her pattern categories, of what use is it to categorize frescoes? I am afraid the answer is, “None at all.”

The book goes on to discuss Signorelli, Sarto, and Pontormo, and descends, bumpily, to computerland, with an account of the database constructed for fresco analysis and the software that has been employed. It is far from clear what computers have contributed to the present book.

The statistical implications…remain largely unexploited at this point. In discovering the patterns of disposition while preparing the material for entry into a database, and in recognizing their historical importance, I essentially put aside working with the database as a statistical tool. That challenge still lies ahead.

But another challenge lies ahead as well, to recognize honestly what we do not know—how the Brancacci Chapel came into being, who masterminded the frescoes at Arezzo—and to find, through prosaic, historical research, some means of filling in the gaps.

This Issue

May 16, 1991