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…

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