THE CRUCIBLE - Near and Middle East: the blend of different populations, cultures and art, before Alexander the Great

The beginning of agriculture gave birth to civilization in the way we conceive it. Its cradle was Mesopotamia, "the land between the rivers” where the most (ancient cities of the world have been found. The region was inhabited and cultivated as far as 6000 years BCE - before the Egyptians began cultivating the Nile Valley. But the specific character of the territory (between the Caucasus, the | Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Asian Deserts and the Indian Ocean) resides in the number of the populations that settled there developing different skills and | systems of thought; farmers, shepherds, warriors successively gave their imprint to an everchanging reality. This process started in 4000 BCE with the Sumerians; and for 3000 years the region was the melting pot of the ancient world, until the different cultures were unified by the Persians. The conquest of the Orient by Alexander the Great broke the patterns of a crystallized culture, and the ground was ready for the development of the Western World.

In the 4th millennium BCE the Sumerians founded the cities of Uruk and Susa. The cuneiform writing was invented, a body of laws was studied, and the political system of city-states was organized. The king was the High Priest: the city belonged to God, and only under his guidance could the State prosper. The first Ziggurats were built: they were pyramids with staircases leading to the sanctuary on the top. They were made of bricks: sacred mountains, symbols of the forces of the earth, and of the communication between Man and Divinity. This structure became an archetype of a culture that throughout its development preserved the religious imprint the Sumerians had given to the ants, and to the community. Between 3000 and 2340 BCE the Temple was the heart of the city; surrounded by offices, warehouses and shops. The statues show the dignitaries in a stately attitude with their eyes wide open. The technique of tarsia was widely used, with inlays of different materials such as lapis-lazuli and mother of-pearl.

In 2340 BCE a Semitic population, the Akkadians, led by King Sargon, defeated the Sumerians and unified Mesopotamia. Trades developed, and the arts took advantage of a period of exceptional prosperity. The religious feelings decreased, replaced by the worship of the King himself. The bas-reliefs represent more the victories of the king and less the acts of God, like in the Stelae of Naram-Sin. In 2125 BCE a crisis of the Akkadians allowed a comeback of the Sumerians, and the cities of Ur and Lagash controlled the region. Gudea, the King of Lagash and a mythical example of wise administration, has been portrayed in a great number of statues, sculpted in diorite. These statues combine a synthetic conception of the human form with a renewed interest in the religious meaning of life. The later period is characterized by rivalries between the city-states and a smaller number of art works survived, although we know that the royal palace of the city of Mari was unsurpassed for the grandeur of the wall decorations. The palace was destroyed by Hammurabi, King of Babylonia, and that put an end to the Neo-Sumerian Age. The Kingdom of Babylonia brought a further codification of the laws and centralized the administration. The character of the new sculpture is | less defined. Opposite styles were often in conflict. Between 1760 and 1100 BCE mass migrations and ethnical troubles fragmented the continuity of the local traditions. However, an interesting new technique appears for the first time - bas-reliefs are made of bricks and integrated into the outside walls of the temples. While the Babylonians were conquering Mesopotamia, an Indo-European | population, the Hittite, entered the territory of today’s Turkey through the Caucasus. They conquered the Anatolian plateau, reached the Mediterranean, defeated the Egyptians and for a while occupied their land. In 1600 BCE King | unified the different tribes and made Hattusas the capital of the new empire. It lasted until 1180 BCE, when the invasion of the "Peoples of the Sea” changed again the political structure of the region.

Hittite art is known mostly for the huge bas-reliefs cut directly in the mountain slopes, and for its architecture. The lower part of the buildings was made of slabs of stone, and the top of rows of wood and bricks. Sculpture was conceived in function of architecture, and the city walls exploited fully the characteristics of the rocks they were built upon. The entrance gate was framed by two towers, a structure that will be widely used later. In Yazilikaya a canyon is sculpted with the bas-reliefs of a procession of gods and was the main sanctuary of the kingdom. The main monuments belong to a period between 1400 and 1180 BCE. The Iron Age started in Anatolia with the invasion of the "Peoples of the Sea” and its consequence in the arts is the prevalence of Assyrian elements over the Hittite. At the same time another invasion from the North brings the Phrygians into Anatolia. The capital of the new empire is Gordion. Some Greek elements appear for the first time, combined with oriental motifs (8th century BCE). Typical of the Phrygians are the tumulus and the cliff tombs.

In South Mesopotamia the Babylonians had developed an extremely wealthy class of merchants and landowners. The Akkadian language replaced the Sumerian, from then on used exclusively by the Clergy (the Chaldeans). In 1530 BCE the Urrites conquered Babylonia, and a period of instability followed. Meanwhile on the mountains north of Mesopotamia a powerful state has been created by the Assyrians, who were trading with the Indo-Europeans, importing metal and horses. The Assyrians were continually at war with the Babylonians and the Elamites; in 1200 BCE they invaded Babylonia but shortly after the Cassites replaced them, to be themselves defeated by the Elamites.

Assyria was a warrior state, and the tributes from the conquered towns were the main support of the economy. Under King Assumasipal (884 BCE) the territory was gradually expanded; Babylonia became the Holy City, and the conquerors adopted its religion.

King Tiglatpileser took a further step towards the concept of Universal Empire by putting under control the rebellious aristocrats and by inaugurating a policy of annexation rather than exploitation. Under Sargon II the empire included Israel, Phoenicia, Cyprus, Babylonia and Syria; the language was Aramaic; the religion Chaldean. But new upheavals and coalitions changed the scenery again; in 669 BCE while King Assurbanipal was fighting the Egyptians, in the north there were rebellions and new invasions. The Scythians defeated the Medians in Anatolia, and the Cimmerians Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. In 625 BCE Nabopolassar, King of the Peoples of the Sea, established a new Babylonian kingdom and with the help of the Medians destroyed Nineveh (612 BCE). However, the Neo-Babylonians did not last: in 550 BCE Cyrus, King of the Persians, unified under his command the Lydians and the Medians and occupied Asia Minor, Palestine, Syria, Arabia, and Babylonia; in 539 BCE the Persian Empire was born. Cyrus established a climate of religious and ethnic tolerance that reached the goal of a real unification in such a tormented part of the world; the various elements were blended into a whole common experience. The same unifying force worked in the Arts. With the early Assyrians, until 1000 BCE, while the objects of cult were stereotyped, the secular ones were more original and interesting. The seals reveal an extraordinary invention of forms; they stress the beauty of animal life, and show an analytical approach to reality. After 1000 BCE the great cycle of bas-reliefs brings the technique and the vision of the artists to their best achievements - the walls of the palaces. The reliefs show the kings, the wars, the hunting scenes. There is a new spatial concept and a new iconography: jinn under the shape of winged bulls with human heads guard the gates. The highest moment of the new vision is to be found in the bas-reliefs of the Assurbanipal Palace, in Nineveh (lion hunting scenes). The brief period of the Neo-Babylonians is marked by a continuation of the Assyrian style, with an accentuated taste for polychromy; the Gate of Ishtar was covered with enamel tiles. The gigantic Ziggurat of Babylonia - the Babel Tower - belongs to this period.

The art of the Persians revolved around the image of the King and the celebration of his activities. The synthesis of the precedent styles allowed the creation of original and coherent monuments. An inscription in the royal palace in Susa reminds us how an heterogeneous group of craftsmen found a common language, in architecture and plastic arts. The platform on which the palace is built, the walls, the monumental staircase, the triple series of doors to the throne are typical of the royal palaces throughout the Empire. The basic element is the column. and as one proceeds towards the interior of the building their number increases. In the capital under Darius. 5th century BCE. the frontal view of the palace is enhanced by the longitudinal axis of the construction: and the of doors and walls underline its meaning as a symbol of power and regality. The political and artistical achievements of the Near East have thus reached their balance. The tremendous power of the Achaemenids Dynasty seems to have no boundaries. when the King of Kings, Xerxes, starts the war against the Greeks: but under the littering surface the elements of disintegration start to ferment. until the lightning invasion of Alexander the Great put an end to a whole period of history and culture - and started another.

THE AESTHETICS OF RUINS - Silent cities from the past

Ruins of the places that have been powerful and wealthy: hidden by the growing vines, surrounded by swamps, buried in sand, the overwhelming silence being interrupted by the song of a bird, the whisper of the wind. It takes some effort to imagine them at the time of their splendor, fill their streets with the activities of everyday life, the royal palaces with kings and high priests and courtesans.

What strikes us is their appearance as it is, today, where the monuments represent how transitory is the modification that man can operate on nature. The fragments of buildings show the combinations between the surviving structures, half hidden by bushes and trees. Sun, rain, wind constantly transform the existing reality; the immobility of the landscape is a slow-motion image of Time in its process of leveling the work of man to the original status of Water and Earth.

The romantic interest in the ruins as such is rather recent, and has coincided with the development of landscape painting in the 18th century, the establishment of collections and museums that stimulated the search for ancient pieces. The consequent enthusiasm for archeology contributed greatly to the rediscovery of nature. The places of silence that are the landmarks of the great cultures at the origin of our own exert a strange fascination on us: their historical and social meaning provide a powerful counterpoint to what we see, and the impact has a peculiar character, partially emotional, partially cultural.


Excavated by Schliemann in 1870. He found the site following Homer’s description in the Iliad. At a depth of 30 feet he discovered a treasury of gold objects - corresponding to the second settlement of Troy, which he assumed to be Priamo’s. In 1882 nine different layers were found; but the place seems to have been repopulated more that 30 times, between 3000 BCE (Troy I) and the time of the Romans (Troy IX). The layer corresponding to the Iliad description is the VI, (1800-1275 BCE). (Although even this city has been destroyed, as the II, by an earthquake - signs of war destruction appearing in the VII layer). The war of Troy dates from 1270 BCE.


Excavated by Schliemann in 1876 following the description given by Pausanias of the Tombs of Atreus, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Actually, the golden masks and jewelry found in the "Treasury of Atreus" correspond to a period 300 years older than the Trojan War. The Mycenean period spans from 1600 BCE to 1200 BCE (after the early migration of Indo-European tribes - Achaeans). Characterized by city-fortresses; craftsmen and peasants. Important number of slaves. Absolute authority of the princes-warriors. Tumulus graves with cupolas - (Atreus: 40" diameter). End of the Myceneans, destruction of their fortresses by the Dorians (1200 BCE) descending south under the pressure of the Illyrians, and using a new fighting technique: warriors on horseback with iron weapons against the Myceneans on chariots and bronze weapons.


Crete Excavated by Arthur Evans in 1900 - extensive restoration. The Minoan palace (1500 BCE). The Cretan civilization from 2600 BCE to 1425 BCE (conquest by the Myceneans). Total control of the sea and of the trade-routes (cities without walls; around 2000 BCE there are 90 such cities in Crete). The Talent is the trade coin in the Mediterranean. Monopoly of bronze (copper-tin alloy). Great building and manufacturing skills (Daedalus - the Labyrinth). Pictographic writing: Linear B. Early pottery in geometrical style; later stylized images of fishes and birds. Religion: Mother goddesses, whose rituals were performed in the open air; their symbols were snakes and wild animals; male god, represented under the shape of a bull - the Minotaur; the King, Minos, is the high priest of the cult, and a god himself. No interest in the after death.
Apparently the end of the Cretan power was caused by a gigantic earthquake that changed the equilibrium of power in the ancient world.



Excavated by the Germans in 1880, the digging still continues. Of little importance in the Archaic period, wall fortified acropolis at the time of Xenophon’s Expedition of the Ten Thousand (400 BCE). Independent dynasty
founded by Philetairos. The most brilliant center of the Hellenistic era for 150 years. Extended its influence for a while until the Marmara Sea. Most building was done under Eumenes II (197-159 BCE). The strongest of the independent
states thanks to its alliance with the Romans. Rich important library. Differently from elsewhere, even the religious buildings had more secular implications - by the prevailing importance of cultural over religious activities.


A sea harbor in antiquity, and now 5 miles away from the water, because of the silting of the Meander River. One of the twelve cities of the Ionian League of Asia Minor. It developed at the same time as Pergamos. The great archeological findings are scattered around the various museums of London, Paris, Berlin and Istanbul.


On the other bank of the Meander River, Mileto became the most powerful city of the Ionian sphere of influence in the 6th century BCE. The prosperity was due to agriculture and sea trade. Occupied by the Lydians in the 5th century BCE, it was destroyed by the Persians in 494 BCE. The reconstruction began with Alexander and reached a new prosperity under the Romans, 2nd century CE. The seat of the first philosophy school (Talete, Anassimandro, Anassimene)


The capital of the Pontic Kingdom, founded in the III century BCE by a Greek adventurer, Mithridates, who conquered with a few followers the fortress of Amaseia. The dynasty he founded was the last in the region to surrender to the Romans, first to Lucullus, then to Julius Caesar in 47 BCE. Strabo, who was born in Amasya and was the best-known geographer of antiquity, described the royal tombs on the cliffs on the other side of the Iris River.


Capital of Macedonia at Philip’s time, under the name of Aigai. Excavated in 1977 by the Greek archeologist Manoli Andronicos. The magnificent finds in the tombs of the royal family of Macedonia, most probably including the one of
Philip II, are displayed in the new museum of Thessaloniki.


The Lycians, or Lycians, and the Carians were indigenous pre-Greek civilizations of west central Anatolia. The language belongs to the Indo-European group, and represents the old pre-Hittite settling. Carian has not yet been
deciphered, although the alphabet is similar to Lycian. The origin of the Carians is still mysterious and the shape of their sarcophagi is different from the others in the Mediterranean culture.

The Lycians were mentioned by the Egyptians and Hittites under the name of Lukky in the latter part of the 2nd millennium BCE. According to Herodotus they came from Crete, under the leadership of Sarpedon, brother of Minos. The first archeological sites are from the 7th century BCE. They were the only ones to remain independent until the Persian domination (545 BCE).


The Carian city of Caunos was built on a cliff overlooking the valley that was a harbor in classic times and now silted in by the river.


Each Lycian city was built in a place of special natural charm. In Fethiye the rock-cut tombs in form of a Greek temple, on a cliff overlooking the sea; in the Kekova inlets, where the bradyseism has brought the sarcophagi to below sea level. Myra is one of the earliest Lycian cities. A roman amphitheater is built near the cliff tombs, typical of the Lycian and Carian world.


The mystery of this civilization is felt at its most in the capital, Xanthos, one of the most impressive sites in Asia Minor. The name which means yellow in Greek came from the river, that loaded with fertile soil caused the final silting. At the time of the Persian invasions the Xanthians enclosed the women and children and wealth in the Acropolis and set it on fire. All the men died fighting. Only 80 families, absent from the valley at that time, survived. The ruins were investigated by the British in 1838, and all the bas-reliefs were sent to London. They are now exhibited in the Lycian Room of the British Museum.


(Near Ioannina, Epirus). The most ancient oracle in continental Greece; also, one of the very few dedicated to Zeus, the god of divination being Apollon.

The best-known sanctuary of the ancient times dedicated to Apollon who was worshipped here under the aspect of God of Divination. The earliest settlement goes back to the 14th century BCE. A coalition of states of central Greece would protect Delphi from its enemies and guaranteed its neutrality. The oracles accumulated a great wealth through the donations of the various cities. The rituals of the oracle remained unchanged until Hadrian’s time.

The island of the Sun; birthplace of Apollon and Artemis, children of Jupiter and Leto (Letoon). In classical times it was forbidden to give birth or die on the island. The most famous sanctuary of the antiquity with Delphi. It had the political control of the Attic-Delian League. Center of trade until the 1st century CE, was then pillaged by Mithridates. Of religious influence until the 8th century CE. The sculptures of the Lions date from the 7th century BCE.

The sanctuary of Letoon, mother of Apollon and Artemis – 8th century BCE.

The Ionian sanctuary of Apollon, at the estuary of the Meander River. The oracle precedes the construction of the temple; this one was destroyed by Darius, reconstructed by Alexander the Great. The Sybil prophesied by the sacred spring, after fasting for several days. The prophecies would be transcribed by another priest. The temple measured 380 feet by 340 feet and was surrounded by one hundred columns.



Ephesus, founded in the 10th century BCE, was a city of great power and wealth. The trade was favored by the harbor and the river, but the constant silting-in put an end to the prosperity of the town, one of the richest of antiquity. In the 6th century it passed under the influence of the Lydians. After Alexander’s death it was rebuilt by Lysimachus on today’s site. Under Pergamos and Roman rule after 190 BCE. The greatest wealth was reached under Emperor Augustus (23 BCE-14 CE) and lasted through the Justinian Era (527 - 565 BCE). One of the centers of growth of Christianity, after a strong resistance of the city against the new religion. Most of the ruins are of the period of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE). The Artemission was built in 570 BCE during the period of the highest power of this Ionian city on an area sacred to the mother-goddess Kybele by a committee of architects from Samos and Crete (foundations on swampy grounds). Considered one of the seven wonders of antiquity, it measured 350 feet in length and was the largest building made entirely in marble. The temple was set on fire by Erostratos, an unknown man in search of immortal fame.

One of the largest granaries of the eastern Mediterranean, the construction was completed under Hadrian’s, and the structures are very well preserved, in a solitary landscape of swamps and marshes.

Dedicated to the cult of Aphrodite, assimilated in an earlier period to Ishtar-Astarte-Kybele-Artemis: a nature mother-goddess and symbol of life and fertility. This Carian city had large quarries of blue-grey marble, and in Hellenistic and Roman times it became the major center for the production of statues, mostly imitations of Greek originals, that were shipped all over the Mediterranean. Many signatures of Aphrodisian artists are found on statues,
fragments, reliefs in Rome. Shrines going back to the 7th century BCE, most of the buildings are of the time of Emperor Hadrian.

It is the Turkish word for "Cotton Castle". A natural limestone waterfall was the site of a Greek-Roman settlement, Hierapolis, with a theater, huge public buildings and a large necropolis on top of the hill.

One of the most picturesque ancient remains in Turkey, it was a very rich city starting from the 6th century BCE, when founded by the Rhodians. It had three harbors; the climate and the ease of life made it famous throughout the ancient world; visited by Alexander the Great and Emperor Hadrian.

From 3000 to 4000 feet above sea level, on top of cliffs and ravines, was considered unconquerable by the ancients, including Alexander the Great. For a while under the influence of the King of Pergamon, the Termessians, of Pamphilian origin, became “friends and allies” of the Romans and were granted by them the right to write their own laws.

Founded by emigrants from Argos, it was one of the centers of the Ionian influence in Pamphylia. The greatest development was reached after the annexation by the Romans, II-III centuries CE.

There is no evidence of any settlements in the area before the Romans. Probably founded by colonists from Argos, it was the only city besides Side to mint its own silver coins in the 5th century. Conquered by Alexander in 330 BCE it came under the roman influence in 190 BCE. The Roman Theatre is the best preserved of antiquity (Built by Zeno, under Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 CE).


Founded by emigrants from western Anatolia in the 7th century BCE, prosperity came in the 2nd century BCE thanks to the protection of the Romans. Its museum has the best collection of Hellenistic-roman statuary of the region.


A priest-state; it was the best-preserved temple of Zeus in Asia Minor, at the end of an unfrequented road. Beautiful columns were cut from one piece of granite. Today it is a beautiful and isolated place where remains of aqueducts and roman walls are to be found half hidden by lush vegetation.

THE MYSTERY OF THE BEYOND - Egyptians and Etruscans in front of Death

Showing images of the Egyptian Kingdom together with those of the Etruscan Federate Cities should not be interpreted as an attempt to compare the two civilizations; they are far too different in importance and meaning. We shall only consider the different approach that two cultures may have in dealing with life after death and exorcising the fear of disappearing forever.

The 4000 years of recorded Egyptian history show a way to deal with it that lasted unchanged through time; a precise, intricate set of ceremonies and magical spells guiding the daily life, where religion played the most important role. The Pharaoh did not represent God, he was God; his marriage to his sister was the double on Earth of the marriage of the Gods Osiris and Isis in the Sky. The dynasties themselves were the image of Eternity; the periodical floods of the Nile were the Cosmic Clock beating the time of Life and Death, flowing into one another in a continuous process of resurrection. An end to this could not be imagined - a history of 4000 years, twice as long as ours, is a guarantee that nothing will ever change. The pyramids and the mummies embodied this very idea of continuity. The body had to be fit for Eternity. Hierarchy was respected; the embalmers used techniques that were more and more refined, according to the social status of the Dead. The process of mummification was accompanied by special rituals of magic spells. The priests were the depositaries of the rules and the interpreters of the written documents. Hieroglyphs themselves were thought to be alive, and precautions were taken so that characters representing birds, for instance, would not fly away from the text, breaking its enchanting powers. It is the knowledge of Magics that protected everybody from the power of enemies. The myth of Osiris and Isis can give an idea of the Egyptian thought on matters of life and death. This divine couple, brother-sister and husband-wife, had its negative counterpart in Seth and Nephthys, also their brother and sister and also married. Osiris had introduced agriculture to Egypt. The jealous Seth closed him in a chest, poured molten lead in it and threw it in the waters of the Nile. A storm brought the chest to the island of Byblos, where a gigantic Sycamore tree grew around it, and was later incorporated in the building of the palace for the King. The desperate Isis in search of her husband’s body finally recovered it and brought it back to Egypt for burial. But Seth stole it again, cut it in fourteen pieces and scattered it throughout Egypt. Isis found all the parts, excepting the phallus, that was eaten by a fish; then the goddess, transformed into a bird, brought Osiris back to life by saying magical words. This tale, so loaded with symbols, contains the Egyptian ideas on life and the world; the fight between Good and Evil finds its powerful representation through poetry, myth and philosophy. It is a basic meditation of Man upon himself, crystallized and ritualized by thousands of years revolving around the same belief; and at the same time, it is an allegory of the struggle between Upper and Lower Egypt, ending with the unification of the Kingdom.

The life of the Etruscans as a cultural and political unity lasted no more than 500 years; sailors, miners, merchants and craftsmen, their trades brought them in continuous contact with other people. We do not know their origin or their language (only some official documents and lists of names have been deciphered), and nothing that resembles a literary work of some importance has been found. Yet their way to consider life in a non-ritualized way, their early
feeling towards the beauty and enjoyment of it reflects their main belief: the Gods shall punish who does not appreciate and honor the gifts of life. So the after death becomes the physical continuation of life and its enjoyment. The tombs are the place of feasts and banquets representing a rich society enjoying its wealth. The walls are painted with scenes where no mythological subjects are represented, creating an atmosphere of real life for the dead. Dances, games, hunting contribute the relaxed exuberance of a realistic representation.

Looking at the Etruscan frescoes and the changes in the styles of their art, we can feel a curiosity and a positive unrest that is to become typical of modern man. One can feel that this art represents just a moment of an evolution in the history of a group of men who will come out later with other ideas and achievements. The Romans feared the disrupting power of the hedonistic Etruscan culture; themselves a colony of the Etruscans in their early history, fought to erase their influence from Italy, and went on to spread their sense of Law and Order throughout the known world. Something, however, of the Etruscan spirit survived, and when the Roman structure of roads and urban organization and trades fell apart, the Tuscans were ready to react to the new ideas by putting at work again their creative imagination.


3000-2778 BCE
Thinite Period – 1st, 2nd Dynasty
(first architectural buildings - ivory statuettes) 2778-2155 BCE

2778-2155 BCE
Old Kingdom – 3rd, 4th Dynasty
(Capital at Memphis - Mastabas - pyramid of Zoser - Snofru - Cheops - Chephren - Mycerinus; realistic style)
Cretan civilization - Evolution of sculpture from Cycladic forms - pottery

2155-2060 BCE
First Intermediate Period – 7th-10th Dynasty
(Troubled period)

2060-1785 BCE
Middle Kingdom – 11th, 12th Dynasty
(Capital at Thebes - Sesostris temple - Karnak - Sphinx of Amenhemet III)

1785-1554 BCE
Second Intermediate Period – 13th-17th Dynasty
(Disorder - Hyksos invasion)
Cretan civilization - King Minos - Knossos palace

1554-1080 BCE
New Kingdom – 18th-20th Dynasty
(Capital at Thebes - votive and funerary temples: Amon-Luxor; Amon-Karnak; Abu-Simbel. Statues of Pharaohs: Nefertiti - Tutankhamun - frescoes in the tombs)
Greek civilization - the Myceneans: Argos, Tiryns, Mycenae

1080-332 BCE
Late Period – 21st-31st Dynasty
(946-332 BCE - foreign invasions, Libyan, Ethiopian, Persian)

800 BCE
Beginning of the Etruscan Civilization; Greek colonization in Sicily and Southern Italy; Exploitation of rich coastal mines by the Etruscans; maritime trade; Inhumation Tombs in Caere - oriental influence - Bucchero black ceramics
- imports from Greece - funerary sculpture - mastering of bronze and terracotta techniques - wall paintings

600 BCE
Widest geographical expansion - defeat by the Syracusans in 474 BCE - Greek influence - decline, doubt, anguish - sculptures of infernal monsters - realistic portraiture

500-200 BCE
Conquest and assimilation by the Romans - bronzes with engraved decorations - quick drawing on metal; mirrors, "cists", Hellenistic funerary urns.

THE ART OF FEAR - Exorcising the Kingdom of Darkness

The fear of the unknown, the ghosts of the unconscious, the malignant power of nature on one side; on the other side the search for a superior ideal harmony unifying the apparent contradictions of life: Mankind has always been torn between these opposed feelings, acting and believing accordingly in shaping its environment. The projection of fears and desires gave birth to religions; consequently, art gave visual form to the internal awe, or the search of harmony led the artist to create images of beauty, as mirrors of the balance of nature.

In one circumstance reality was elaborated according to the combined fears of the artist and of the worshipper; in the other the search for inner serenity transcended the burdens of everyday life in favor of the representation of ideal beauty as the perfect example of Divine Balance. Two ways to conceive life and to question oneself on the superior meaning of religion and art.

Maybe no cultural group felt so deeply the terror of being confronted with the hostile-benevolent forces of nature as the Aztecs have. Their religion was conceived as a temporary one, their gods bound to defeat and destruction. The final victory belonged to the ancient Earth gods who would destroy the God of the Sun, and mankind with him. The forces of the Underground were to swallow everything, to establish forever the Kingdom of Darkness. Hence man had to support his gods and maintain their strength by feeding them human blood, the sacred fluid, the seat of life and courage. The human sacrifice exorcises the frightful powers of Life and Death: the Great Mother, the Goddess Coatlicue, must be beheaded to give birth to her Son, Huitzilopochtli. She has a skirt of snakes, a necklace of human hands and hearts. Like the goddess Kali in India, she is Life and she is Death.

The tribes of New Zealand, New Guinea, and Africa exorcised their fears with masks. Elaborate ceremonies and symbols surrounded the actions in which some men of the tribe (unknown to the others) would perform the enchantments to keep away the evil spirits from the life of the community. Their malevolent acts would be neutralized by the power acquired by the man through the Mask, that transformed him temporarily into a God as strong as his opponent. With feather and straw, wood and weeds and earth colors, the sculptor-magician was asked to imprison the very essence of Life in the object he created.

Of a totally different nature was the mystical crisis of fear that swept Europe at the end of the IX century AD. The belief that the year one thousand would announce the end of the world provoked a collective hysteria, with hundreds of men and women going from village to village flagellating themselves, and giving the darkest representations of the horrors of Afterlife, the coming of the Antichrist, and the advent of the Apocalypse. The visual baggage of craftsmen and artists was thus enriched with new iconographic materials of folkloristic origin - a naive, scary imagery portraying the physical punishment inflicted on the sinners by the demons in Hell, and the torturing of the martyrs by the pagans. Fear was used for elaborating a didactic material to scare the faithful into a more rigorous application of religious rules. The anecdote replaced the analytical search of formal expression. The demons made their triumphal comeback by occupying the roofs of the gothic cathedrals and watching the sinners down below - and the portals were protected by lions of stone. But the inheritance of the classical world made it so that the representations of fear passed through the screen of rationality, and the way of creating the image does not seem to participate to the horrors of the scene, but to provide instead a documentation of it. The attributes of the pagan gods that were considered more sinful by the Christian morality were passed on to the Devil and his court of witches; his ancient form of dethroned Angel was forgotten in favor of a Pan-like figure, a tempting malignant Satyr, the grotesque embodiment of filth and lust. Fear starts to be more rational, it becomes an element of life, rather than the unconscious determining factor.

At the beginning of the Renaissance only the lower classes were left to "believe in the Devil". The interest of the intellectuals was shifting from theology to philosophy, from alchemy to science. The Devil was left in the hands of the villagers, the witches in those of the Inquisition, and exploitation of fear under its debased form of superstition in those of the leading power. The decadence of the Demonic Forces had begun: fear and anxiety started to nourish themselves on more real problems - starvation, crisis, wars, destructions. The triumphalist idea of progress through the Industrial Revolution gave way soon enough to doubt and anguish. Art started representing itself, questioning human destiny. Through Art men found a new sense of Piety - for Man as the victim, and for Man as the cause of fear. Self-search had begun. Both Surrealism and Expressionism show this double face: the first upsetting the subject, the second dramatizing the form of the traditional object. They provide yet another embodiment of the question to be asked about the human condition - the dividing line between self-awareness and the awesome vacuum of Eternity and Infinity.

THE ART OF HARMONY - Body as Idea of Perfection

Beautiful and Good: for the ancient Greeks they were two complementary aspects of reality. The perfection of the body was not complete if the mind was not the mirror of its beauty; Spiritual was made visible by Form: the closest material representation of the world of pure Ideas. The platonic philosophy was based on the notion of the pre-existence of the immutable matrix of all things, and that the outside world showed only the confused shadows of reality. This concept had a great influence on the development of Greek aesthetics. The study of the human body was developed to the extreme, to achieve the ideal representation of Harmony and Beauty.

The classical Gods were not divinities of fear; the Greeks did not know the Original Sin. Balance and Harmony were the goals; Art provided a way to get closer to the unchangeable perfection of the world of Ideas. This progress from analysis to synthesis, towards the idealization of form is the mark of classical art, that avoids the excesses of romanticism, that hints without stressing; and the human form becomes the center of the universe, as the fundamental element of comparison and measure of all things.

The ideal forms set by the Greeks were the example to be studied and followed throughout the development of Western Art; the Renaissance artists dreamed to get close to the perfection of their predecessors; the forms created around the 5th century BCE became the objects to study and analyze after the Middle Ages, when a new moment of balance between culture and prosperity was reached in Renaissance Italy. Classicism as representation of equilibrium; concentration on the refinement of form. Rhythm, grace, measure; every element finding its ideal, mathematical shape and position in space, no one element surpassing another: everything contributing to the immutable harmony of the Whole, a mirror to the perfection of the Universe.

The Greek Gods personified the main passions of a mind that was turning away from the darkness of anxiety and doubt toward the radiating power of Light and Knowledge: Jupiter-Zeus, Power and Justice; Apollon, the Sun, Knowledge and arts; Venus-Aphrodite, Love and Beauty; Mercury-Hermes, Skill; Mars-Ares, War; Juno, the home; Poseidon-Neptune, Sea and Water. A long time after their religion died these Gods and their fables nourished the fantasy of the artists, and their symbology was used again and again as a stimulus for creation, until at the end they became the characters of a theatrical scene where Gods and the Goddesses were used as the pretext to portray the gallant life of the Court or to show the Favorite of the king under the flattering form of the Goddess of Love.

A wonderful example of the Greek conception of the body as the greatest form of harmony can be found in the pediments and metopes of the Temple of Zeus in Olympia where the Olympic Games were held. These games were considered so important that even wars would stop during the time of this great celebration of physical life. Perfection and struggle would assure final triumph. The bodies of the athletes in their fight for victory were the representation of victory itself.

A chariot is sculpted in the pediment of the temple and was finished in 457 BCE. A mythic race between the son of Poseidon, Pelops, and King Oenomaus: frozen forever at the moment in which the race is about to start, everyone standing in this attitude of waiting in the expectation of who will be the winner. On the other pediment another myth is sculpted: the battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs. These Centaurs (men from the waist up and horses from the waist down) tried to abduct the women of their hosts, the Lapiths. The ensuing battle is shown with the God Apollon surrounded by the fighting bodies. Here we find the archetype elements of Greek statuary; its sense of Balance, its sense of Beauty.

Even in the more folkloristic forms, like the terracotta statuettes from Tanagra, the sense of rhythm of everyday life is evident. The workshop was active from 330 to 200 BCE, creating a striking multitude of little figures: women and children with various dresses and attitudes. Each one was made out of one or two molds and (something unusual in the ancient world) were not used for some form of cult. They were used mostly for decoration and they portray so vividly the charming atmosphere that the Greeks liked to create around themselves.


Aphrodite-Venus, the goddess of Love and Fertility

In classical art, the very symbol of feminine beauty. Very often represented with a mirror, a dove, or bathing. The Renaissance paintings of Venus are often a pretext to portray the mistress of the artist or of his patron. The poses were formalized: the standing Venus came directly from antiquity, like the "Venus Pudica” similar to Botticelli’s "Birth of Venus". The lying down pose originated in Venice with Giorgione and has been used by many artists ever since.

The symbolic idea of a double identity of the goddess, representing spiritual and physical love, was derived by the Florentine humanists of the 15th century from Plato’s "Symposium". They were the Celestial Venus that symbolized love aroused by contemplation of the eternal and divine, and the Earthly Venus represented by the material beauty and the procreative principle. The heavenly one was represented naked, sometimes holding a vase burning the flame of Divine Love; nakedness signified purity and innocence - dresses and jewels being symbols of earthly vanities. The toilet of Venus became also a favorite theme of the late 15th century in Florence and Venice where she reclines on a couch while Cupid and the Three Graces hold a mirror for her.

The Three Graces

The attendants of Venus, they were the personification of the threefold aspect of generosity - the giving, receiving and returning of gifts - their attributes were the Rose, the Myrtle and the Apple. They were grouped so that the outside figures face the observer, and the one in the middle faces away. Some humanists of the 15th century saw them as the symbol of Beauty, Desire, Fulfillment, others as Chastity, Beauty and Love.

Danae, Europa, and Leda.

Danae’s father, the King of Argos, was told by an oracle that he would be killed by his daughter’s son: and he therefore shut her in a bronze tower. But Jupiter reached her under the form of a shower of gold; the offspring was Perseus, who accidentally killed his grandfather with a discus. The theme was a favorite one in the Renaissance and a vehicle for the representation of the nude. Often her attendant, an old woman, is shown holding an apron to catch the gold; Cupid may also be present. In the Middle Ages Danae was taken as a symbol of Chastity and regarded as a prefiguration of the Annunciation.

Europa was a daughter of the King of Tire; Jupiter under the shape of a white bull abducted her while she was playing by the seashore with her friends. He took her across the sea to the island of Crete, where, resuming his shape, he seduced her. A favorite theme in Renaissance as the symbol of fusion between man and nature. The Medieval "Moralized Ovid", interpreting classical myths in terms of the Christian allegory, saw Jupiter as Christ, carrying a Soul to Heaven. Ovid was a Roman poet, who’s "Metamorphosis" is a long poem on Greek mythology.

Leda, wife of a Spartan King, was loved by Jupiter who took this time the form of a swan in order to be able to lay with her. As a result of the union she laid eggs that gave birth to the Divine Twins Castor and Pollux; to Helen, the cause of the Trojan War, and to Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife and murderess.


The relationship between man and its surroundings sets a pattern that identifies a particular culture in time and space. His concept of the world is expressed by religion; art gives a visual form to his thoughts and becomes a new object that stimulates knowledge and imagination in the following generations. Art pieces become to them as real as the trees and the rocks and the clouds that had contributed to their creation. Thus, art creates art, providing us with re-elaborated reality that provoke new imagery and new achievements.

Water, stones and trees: the forms of nature, always present in the Japanese mind, permeate their art and their original animistic religion, Shintoism. Everything in nature has a soul, and the souls are gods, the Kami. The body is the mirror of the spirit, and the care given to it purities both from dirt and sin. The height of the mountains symbolizes the elevation of the mind over the brutality of matter. This theology unifies man, nature and God.

Buddhist temples show how wood, a natural material, can be used with the greatest respect for its intrinsic characteristics. The structure of the temple is elastic, as the material dictates; the walls are simply space dividers, and do not contribute to the statics of the buildings. The beams cross one another like in a growing tree. Looking at the roof of a pagoda (pagoda means Buddha's grave) is like looking at a wood, all the apparent intricacies correspond to an organic rationality. Some of the most interesting buildings are in Nara, the first imperial capital of Japan and the center of Buddhism in the sixth century, when the Chinese monk Ganjin organized the first monasteries. The Toshodaiji temple was built in 760 CE, and the balance between the work of man and the surrounding nature is obtained through a wonderful synthesis of restraint and imagination.

The Jakushiji pagodas were built between 680 and 697 CE; one survived the destructions of civil wars in 1528; the other was rebuilt after that time.

In the Todaiji temple built under the Emperor Shomu in 745 AD the largest wooden statue in the world, a gold-plated Buddha, stands 70 feet high It symbolizes the truth; but even there the accumulation of wealth brought corruption and wars, until the final decay in 1200. Afterwards, civil wars and political unrest set the scenery for the next historical act.

Whereas the Japanese embodied the idea of eternity in temples that look forever young by replacing the parts as they get old, the Greeks expressed their idea of eternity through the durability of stone. They too started by using trees to build their temples, then retained only the static quality instead of the elasticity. Weight keeps the structure together; later the stone gives a majestic display of its earthly quality - the mineral growth echoes the geometrical harmonies of the mind. Verticals and horizontals scan the rhythm of vision.

The Doric temple, the oldest of Greek architecture, represents one of the purest attempts to embody an abstract concept. The Greek religion personified light, air, sun - worshipping the elements that made life possible on earth. Their sense of guilt was so low that punishment after death was reserved only for some exceptional sins against men and gods. The temple is the place of worship of a God created in Man’s image. A great variety of rhythms is obtained using only predetermined shapes: Column, Lintel, Pediment. Proportions connect the whole building to the minor details. The intercolumn space defines the form, the entrapped voids become as active as the full elements; the apparently straight lines of the plan are the arc of an enormous circle; the columns are swollen at two thirds of their height to express the weight they carry; the echinus, the round cushion-like shape between the column and the lintel, seems compressed by the load; the comer columns are thicker, to compensate for the intense glare. The location is chosen according to tradition, or to the indications of an oracle (the two very often coincide). The orientation is usually East-West; at the Equinox the sun rays illuminate through the open gates the inner altar. And yet if we look at two Doric temples, they are different and alike - like two different persons are.

One of the best examples of Doric order is in Paestum, a Greek colony in Italy. It was constructed in the 6th century BCE. The columns are short, strong and tapered; the echinus is flattened to underline the massive weight it supports; the whole shape conveys an image of power. The god inhabiting this place is the expression of the natural forces; his power and majesty are represented by the immutable stone, indifferent to the seasonal changes of the surroundings.

The Parthenon was designed by the architect Callicrates at the very height of Athens’ prosperity, under Pericles. The facade has eight columns, the side seventeen (a geometrical-mystical rule of the double plus one); the interspaces are more pronounced, abacus and echinus reduced, the columns more elongated than in the archaic model. Other orders had appeared in the meantime. The use of the Doric was an intellectual recovery of the past, but the spirit was new. The change in proportions conveys a different feeling of harmony and grace that lightens the majesty of the tradition. The Erechtheus, a masterpiece of the Ionian order, was built at the same time; in the Parthenon Phidias was sculpting the frieze and the gigantic statue of Athena; the wealth of the citizens, the earthly goods that had been acquired had to be mirrored by the images of their gods.

Stone, Column and Lintel are the protagonists of Greek architecture. The Greeks ignored the arch, the basic element of roman architecture. The use of bricks and the elaboration of new techniques allowed the Romans to build in sizes and shapes never attempted before; the distance between pillars was increased and the relative lightness permitted the construction of enormous curved surfaces. The arch and the keystone were used in all the buildings of the empire. The arch led to the barrel- vault and to the cross-vault, and finally to the dome, the ideal way to cover large spaces but also the esoteric representation of the sky and infinity. To the Romans it was an expression of strength, weight; their cupolas evolve on circular shapes, they are not yet domes in the structural sense. These originated from the intersection of a circular shape sitting on top of a square one, the archetypal form being Saint Sophia, in Constantinople.

For the new great monotheistic religions this was the ideal form to represent the ascent of the soul to heaven. Down to earth, the maze of columns represents the complicated path of man through life; the space is subdivided into segments of light and darkness, in an infinite variety of forms. As the eyes rise the elements converge into more measurable quantities, the geometrical order becomes more discernable; from here originate the four pendentives on which the circular unity of the dome rests. This is the ascent of the soul from the contradictions of life to the eternal spheres of the skies, identified with God himself. And whereas the dome in the Western tradition remains a precise shape of geometry, holding in itself the concept of a measurable space, in the Islam it acquires a more transcendent quality. The dome as the sky is stressed by the abstract decoration.

Saint Sophia was built by the Emperor Justinian, in 537 AD. The plan is central; the dome is inscribed in a square and is supported by four pillars connected by arches. Two half cupolas on the side contribute to the structural balance. Everything converges to create a feeling of vast space; the massive pillars and their lateral buttresses are counterbalanced by the windows; the impression is at the same time of weight and lightness. Walls and pendentives are lined with marble, but the mosaics decorating the vaults have been lost. The older dome had a less pronounced sweep; the present one, more concave, was rebuilt in 557 CE, and set the model for the future cupolas.

The structure of the "Blue Mosque", although 1000 years younger, still shows the influence of Saint Sophia. Constructed under Sultan Ahmed II in 1615 by Sadafkar Mehmet Agha, the mosque is a splendid example of a perfect fusion between tradition and new requirements. The plan is hexagonal; the cupola is embroidered with eighteen windows and surrounded by four half domes. The four minarets contribute to the feeling of levity, enhanced inside by the tile decoration that cast a surreal bluish light on the believers below.

Stemming from the same source, the big domes of the Christian churches became the expression of a very different spatial concept, as the classical world was being transformed by a set of values that give birth to the new culture, born from the ashes of the Greek-Roman heritage.

THE ROADS AND THE LAW - The Romans shaping the Western World

Rome is two thousand seven hundred and forty years old. An exceptional destiny for an ancient city: most of the great capitals of the past have not survived. The cultures that the Romans unified provide the foundation of modem culture. And yet, in spite of the poetical descriptions of the ancient writers, the place where the city was founded was not extraordinary. True, the Tiber river allowed easy transportation to the inland, but there were no great valleys, and the region had frequent earthquakes. The fusion with the local populations gave the Romans the control of the roads; from then on the fight for supremacy with the Etruscans and the Greeks was unavoidable. A strong, aristocratic class took over, overthrowing the monarchy of Etruscan origin; a sound political and administrative system was worked out, that guaranteed the balance between the contrasting forces in the city. After the unification of Italy in the third century, Rome became the model of state organization. The Senate, representing the nobility (the patricians), delegated the powers of government to two consuls, elected for one year; the quaestores were in charge of finance and municipal police; the praetores enforced the laws promulgated by the Senate. The tribunes, representatives of the lower class, had the right of veto.

The basic unit of the population was the family, under the full authority of the "Pater Familias". Common ancestors grouped them in "Gens". Under the protection of this structure were the "Clientes", loyal to the families that protected them and assured the privileges of their rank.

The "Lararium" was the shrine where the ancestors were worshipped: this was the one Roman cult not derived from other traditions. Very early the Greek gods were "translated" into Roman ones; every new religion was easily adopted.

Commercial interests were at the origin of the deadly fight with the Carthaginians for the conquest of the Mediterranean. These, of Phoenician origin, were the only obstacle to the expansion of Rome, being the great traders in full control of the sea routes. The war continued for a hundred years, and Rome almost lost it; but at the end Carthage was destroyed, and no real obstacle was left to the unification of the known world under the leadership of the Romans.

A clever system of alliances was organized, local administrations were protected, peace was granted; but in this process the parsimonious habits of the early Romans gave way to great public and private expenses. When Caesar, the conqueror of Gallia, was murdered, the end of the Republic was near. The emperors who followed transformed a city of wood into a city of marble: the centralized commerce from the provinces poured rivers of gold into the roman treasury. The public works were transforming the Mediterranean: the road system was equaled only at the end of the nineteenth century; water was supplied by aqueducts to the main cities. When, at the apogee of the Roman expansion, the Emperor Hadrian travelled through the provinces of the Empire, every city had a life of its own and trades were flourishing under the "Pax Romana“. During five hundred years the exchanges between Capital and Provinces brought a progressive unification that gave birth to a specifically Roman Art.

In a realistic society as the roman, the prevailing aspect of the art was practicality. Only the technical achievements were beneficial to the community. The Roman was above all a builder. Architecture, where Beauty is a manifestation of the Useful, is the keystone of their artistic culture.

The original form of the temple, of Etruscan-Greek origin, undergoes some basic transformations. The Ionian and Corinthian orders merge in one style, the Composite. The walls of the inner enclosure are not separated from the columns, as in Greece, but they become part of the wall, enlarging the inner space. The buildings are articulated around the Forum, the center of political and economic life. City planning is the tool of harmonic development. The monuments are frontal, oriented towards the street, or the square. They are built on pedestals, to stress the separation from the outside. The first period of Roman architecture is marked by a splendid achievement: the Pantheon. The fusion of the rectangular facade with a circular plan reverses the aesthetical approach of the Greeks. The technical perfection of the construction opens the way to a different set of proportions: the inner space is activated by a series of curves, motivated by the statics of the building and deriving their beauty from the precise logic of their structure. The dome is sitting on a cylindrical drum, and seems to get lighter as it approaches its circular opening; the five concentrical rows of lacunars contribute to this feeling. Height and diameter are the same: only one of a great number of symmetrical measurements to be found throughout the structure.

The Basilica was a multi-purpose secular building; its plan, divided into separate aisles by colonnades, became the typical one of the Christian churches. The Massenzio Basilica had barrel vaults around the central nave, covered by enormous cross-vaults. The masterful use of masonry permitted to cover spaces of gigantic dimensions, such as the halls of the thermae, where a central heating system provided hot water and steam to the baths and swimming pools. Also the materials changed from stone to bricks. The floors of the Colosseum are supported by arches of the three different architectonical orders: Doric on the floor level, then Ionian, and finally Corinthian.

Arch, the basic element of the roman building, becomes a monument by itself, to honor the emperor returning from victorious wars. The huge columns, the Antonina and Traiana, perform the same role: the long spiral strip illustrates the moments of the campaign, in a succession of expressionistic images. This link between architecture and sculpture exemplifies the realistic quality of the latter. The idealization of Greek statuary gives way to an acute study of the subject, and the portrait represents the original contribution of the Romans to figurative art. It digs deeply into the psyche of the individual, and the faces are animated by the inner emotions. Following the Etruscan tradition, only the head and bust are portrayed; the pupils and iris are engraved on the surface of the eye, and the artist underlines the expression, to reproduce reality as faithfully as possible - an effort to stress the human quality versus the transcendent one. Even the more idealized statues of the emperors pay a tribute to this approach; their relation to the architectural space is evident, as they depend on this one as a part of a whole. The expressionistic forms of the late sarcophagi open the way to further developments of the sculptural vision. They are the main link with the sculpture of the Middle Ages, providing the models for the decoration of the paleo Christian churches, and evolving later into the great cycles of Romanesque sculpture.

Although examples of Greek painting no longer exist, it is most likely that the Romans were strongly influenced by the Hellenistic originals. The destruction of the town of Pompei by lava and ashes after the eruption of the Vesuvius in 79 CE preserved a great number of murals, giving extensive information on styles and techniques used. Furthermore an impressive number of mosaic pavements and walls have been preserved to document in detail how two-dimensional decoration was integrated in the architectural context. The rendering of realistic detail, combined with the feeling of space, differentiate the Romans from the Greeks. The care given to the representation of landscape goes together with a bold use of the brushstroke to capture the light; whereas the human figures, although strongly designed, are keyed to one dominating color to set the mood for the whole represented scenery. An architectonic painting, including perspectives and illusionary representation of buildings within the buildings, frames another painting; the figures in the foreground create a particular illusion of depth - a form of composition widely copied to decorate the palaces of Renaissance Italy. In the later period the "Paintings within the Paintings” display a freer use of the brush; the figures are not drawn, but shaped by a brushstroke very similar to the one of the impressionists.

Perspective and color create an illusionary space for the murals; details and color contrast are enhanced in the big mosaic pavements by the simplification of forms due to the media involved. The choice of colors is limited by the marble tesserae, and the planes of light are often underlined by strong contours. In the third and fourth centuries the favorite themes are hunting scenes, navigation, daily life, gladiator fights rendered in a strong expressionistic manner. The pavements of dining rooms are decorated with still lifes, animals, leftovers of the meal, creating striking effects of trompe l’oeil. The durability of the mosaic made this technique prevail over the fresco. The following centuries saw the mosaics flood the walls of the Christian churches in Rome and Byzantium with color and light. But by then the gigantic empire started to collapse under its own weight, the pressure of barbaric hordes and the loss of the values that had given the Romans the possibility of shaping the western world.

MOSAICS IN THE WESTERN WORLD - The transformation of the Wall

We find the first traces of mosaics in the 3000 BCE Sumerian town of Uruk, where long terracotta cones were inlaid in the walls. The glazed ends created a geometrical pattern and the hollow cones contributed to keep the walls lighter. But the first real mosaics are found in pavements of pebbles imbedded in mortar and arranged in decorative designs (Olynthus, 348 BCE). The technique evolved with the use of colored stones, especially marble, cut in little squares, that the Romans used for their pavement decoration; and in the Middle Ages with the use of glass, melted in the shape of pancakes and cut in small pieces.

The extensive use of mosaics for the decoration of floors and walls started in republican Rome around the 2nd century BCE. Afterwards important workshops were developed in Pergamos and Alexandria; in three hundred years the technique was known all over the Roman Empire.

Many ancient mosaics come from Pompei. Here the schools begin to differentiate themselves; some use black and white figure-ground patterns; others represent animals and vegetables on the pavement - sometimes even the leftovers of a banquet. Some guilds of artists specialize in mosaics for walls and vaults. The waterproof medium helps the diffusion of the technique.

The transition period at the end of the Roman Empire sees a great expansion of the use of mosaics, and the bright glass tesserae become more frequent than the marble ones. The plaster bed carrying the mosaics is made of three coatings: the first is a mixture of lime, brick powder and chopped straw anchored to the wall; the second has finer grain and carries the sketch (sinopia); the third, smooth and prepared in small pieces, imbedded the tesserae set at different angles, to control the refraction of the light.

The development of the glass mosaics came to Rome from the north. The white background was replaced by blue, then gold. The imagery was still realistic, although replacing the pagan symbols with Christian ones. In the Basilicas the apse was reserved to the Christ (in the oriental versions Christ is at the center of the cupola). Often the apse was decorated with a motif of a canopy (symbolizing Heaven). The triumphal arch carried the images of the Apostles, and on the pendentives four animals represented the Evangelists.

As the influence of Byzantium increases, travelling artists appear in larger number. The mosaics in Ravenna, capital of the Roman-Barbarian state (Theodoric) are Byzantine, as most of the great mosaic cycles from the IV to the VII century. The fusion of Roman and Oriental styles (St. Placidia, St. Apollinare Nuovo) has been achieved. The introduction of secular pageantry (in honor of Emperor Justinian, 4th century CE, St. Vitale) adds a new element to an already rich iconography. From now on it is Byzantium to continue the tradition of the mosaic art until the XIV century; in western Europe a shift in taste caused by the diffusion of the Romanesque style brings a temporary refusal of chromatic surfaces favoring the development of sculptural expression. Therefore it is from Byzantium that the great mosaic masters come to decorate San Marco (Venice) or Monreale (Sicily, XII century); works that show how in the later period mosaic artists are influenced by the reborn schools of painting.

The travelling artists spread the influence of byzantine art to Russia and to orthodox-influenced regions of the Mediterranean. The iconographic material is kept in manuals, such as the manual of Mount Athos, together with technical instructions; the artist and the guilds have their own collection of motifs dealing with various situations and shapes, to be used according to the local needs.

Our approach, after this brief introduction, is to look at the mosaics from different angles; how realism is replaced by expressionism and symbolism; how they are influenced by changes in architecture, painting and cultures; and we shall focus on their use of color , from our contemporary point of view.


2nd-1st century BCE
Republican Rome: End of the Punic wars, gradual penetration in Greece.
Accumulation of wealth in an affluent middle class. China: the Han Dynasty.

1st-2nd century CE
Roman Empire: Hadrian. Long peaceful period. The Edictus Perpetuus guarantees the application of the Roman Law in all the territory.
The Alexandrian sailors explore the west coasts of Africa. Persia: the Sassanian Dynasty. The Mayan Calendar. Chiapas Culture, Pacific coast of Mexico.

4th-6th century CE
Invasions: Alaric, the Visigoths; Attila, the Huns; Theodoric, the Ostrogoths.
Roman Empire ends with Romulus Augustus.
Ravenna, the capital of the new Barbaro-Roman-Christian kingdom.
Byzantium, the capital of the Roman Empire of the Orient.
The Celts in Britain.
Emperor Justinian puts together the body of the Roman Law.
Arabia: Birth of Mohammed. India: Gupta Empire. Japan: Buddhist temples
Bolivia: Culture of Tiahuanaco.
Mexico: Zapotec Culture. Astronomical observatory of Monte Alban.


Some Christian symbols are derived from earlier rituals, and their meaning adapted to the themes of the new religion. The fish is the most important and the oldest: the Greek spelling was interpreted as the initials of the name of Christ (ichtus = Jesus Christos Theos); Christ the Fisherman pulling out the true believers from the Sea of wrong beliefs. Also the tradition of John the Baptist is related to this. The symbol of the rooster was meant to scare away the Devil. The palm tree means eternal life. The peacock is the symbol of reincarnation for the Christians; but the peacock was a cult bird for both Romans and Greeks, as its meat was believed to prevent deterioration. The pine tree had to do with fertility, its branches were thought to be curative and used to help growth. The bull was a sacred symbol from the Prehistoric times used by the Hittites, Babylonians and Cretans. The rabbit was associated with evil by the Christians; its meat was eaten as an aphrodisiac. The church took a double standard in dealing with rabbits: while banning its meat in the 7th century CE, it included it in the Easter ritual celebration, preserving the legend of the egg-distributing Easter Bunny (again an ancient symbol of fertility). The dove became a symbol of family love, chastity and peace. The dove and the pigeon in Christian iconography represent the souls of martyrs and saints. The dove was also the bride of Christ, as the image of the congregation of the church. The fountains, always a symbol of life, became the image of spiritual and eternal life.


"Aut lux hic nata est, aut capta hic libera regnat” (Either the Light was born here, or here it has been captured and reigns in freedom).
5th century CE inscription over the entrance of the Mosaic Chapel, Archbishop Palace, Ravenna, Italy.

"Figures move, and come and go to the hazards of the wandering rays of the Sun, and all the surface moves like the waves of the Sea.”
6th century CE, Venanzio Fortunato, poet, living in Poitiers, France and writing about the Galla Placidia mosaics.

"The painter first puts down the ordinary colors, then those of greater beauty, and the gold; therefore to judge on his skill one must not consider his work while in progress, but only when it is completed.”
6th century CE, Pope Gregory the Great, 540-604 CE.

"The beauty that from the soul passes to the hands of the artist comes from that Beauty that stays over the soul.”
5th century CE, Saint Augustin, 354-430 CE.

"One is at the same time seized by beatitude and stupor. All appears in a state of commotion, and the sacred place seems to rotate, because the variety of the representation induces the spectator to perceive the movements and the forms in such a manner, that the imagination transforms them in personal emotion."
9th century, Patriarch Fotius, Constantinople, describing a Byzantine church.

"Here the Gods themselves desire to be similar to their statues. These gods were worshipped for the artistry of their creators more than for their own divinity."
9th century, Ildebert de Lavardin, visiting the antiquities of Rome.

"Why in our cloisters, under the eyes of our monks, all these horrible shapes of deformed beauty and yet beautiful deformity? Why these abominable monkeys, ferocious lions, monstrous centaurs; and you see bodies with many heads, heads with many bodies; bulls with snake’s tails, fishes with bull’s heads. Such a variety of forms induces to look at the marble instead of reading the books, and to wonder on these matters rather than to meditate on God’s Commandments.”
12th century, Saint Bernard, about the Romanesque figures and gargoyles sculpted in the churches.

THE NEW SOURCES - Transformations and Continuity

The weakening of the roman structures and the possibility of infiltrating through its frontiers started a period of transformations that ended with the birth of new identities on the ashes of the classical world. The so called "Barbarians" had for ages provided the bulk of manpower for the roman legions guarding the frontiers of the Empire, and gradually even the command had passed in the hands of Romanized barbarians. But the pressure of eastern tribes forced entire populations to seek shelter in the south and in the west, entering the Empire peacefully, or by force. The main point of pressure was on the Danube River, where the Visigoths, of Scandinavian origins, had been residing for centuries. The mass migration took place when the Visigoths themselves were repeatedly attacked by the Huns, coming from Central Asia. The Byzantines diverted them towards the western provinces, and France, Spain and Italy were repeatedly invaded by successive populations, whose need for better conditions of life was combined with awe and respect for the Roman image, to the point that the ambition of their leaders was to be crowned Emperor of the Romans. The successive invasions, after the first moments of pillages and destructions, absorbed the law and administration of the Romans, whose structures the Church had inherited, together with the prestige that the strength of the armies could not grant anymore. The barbarian “hero-warrior”, fascinated by the mystical-magical appeal of religion was ready to accept its structures. When the Visigoths finally settled in Spain, the Francs in France, and the Lombards in Northern Italy, a process of transformation began, establishing the elements or a new culture. But everywhere the artifacts of Roman craft were present; from architecture to sculpture and painting. It is interesting to see how some iconographic models found their way to the north and became part of the visual synthesis that took place under Charlemagne. Long before the Roman colonization northern Europe had been gradually invaded by the Celts, a population that had moved west in the 10th-11th century BC from the planes of Hungary. Early settlements have been found in Hallstatt (Austria) and la Tène (Switzerland), where large burial fields witness the prosperity the Celts had reached in this period. They were burying their dead in their war chariots, with their favorite slaves (sacrificed for the occasion), food, and jewelry. They provided a great market for Greek exports of manufactured goods, and especially wine, which they drank in great amounts. The establishment of trade routes between Northern Europe and the South goes back to the time of the Hittites, when metal and salt were imported from the North. The tin-copper alloy was at the base of the technological progress that marked the Bronze Age; and Iron technology came from the North. The Scythians, who occupied the more eastern regions, were known and respected through classical times for their horse-riding war techniques and their skill in casting all sorts of metals. Through them the Celts came in contact with visual forms of Mesopotamian origin; and their interpretation in metal led to stylizations due to the inherent qualities of the different materials. The usually small size of the votive statuettes favored serpentine forms, where few details would underline the expressive means; golden jewelry as a sign of wealth and power reached very refined levels representing animals, where abstraction and expression are perfectly balanced; later on the style of the Scythians was affected by the influence of more realistic patterns of Hellenistic origin, spreading the knowledge of some figurative elements that would not otherwise have found a way to the northern countries.

In the regions occupied by the Celts the taste for abstraction, and typical spiral decorative patterns was never lost even after the La Tène and Hallstatt settlements, when the Celts expanded towards France after a period of economic crisis. Commerce had shifted to the south, as Etruscans and Greeks opened new markets in the Mediterranean. The contact was reestablished with the Greek colony of Massilia (Marseille) that favored the trade with the Rhone Valley, as the Celts moved east from the Swiss lake’s region.

The prosperous moment for the north (the Loire Valley, the Parisian region and Brittany) came when the Etruscans, after their fleet was destroyed by the Carthaginians, opened new routes through the Pass, in the Alps, bypassing Massilia and contacting directly the Celts of the North.

Known then under the common name of Gauls, these populations never reached a real unity until the Roman conquest; the new Gallo-roman structure has left some works, where Celtic stylization combined with roman realism gave birth to a popular art that set the visual background for Romanesque art, after Charlemagne.

The labyrinthic designs of jewelry so dear to the barbarians found a new impulse in the provinces that the Romans never conquered, due to the difficulties of crossing the stormy Irish Sea.

When England was abandoned by the Romans and the land was occupied by Angles, Saxons, and later Vikings, the Celts of Ireland, Wales and Brittany integrated their magic folklore with the Christian influence. This had reached North through the migrating monks. The monastic movement originated in Anatolia in the early centuries CE - and there the monastery life had been codified by its founder, Basil the Great, bishop of Cesarea (Kayseri) in 370 CE. While the Church was split by all sort of heresies following the theological disputes so dear to the byzantine mind, the monasteries identified the pure Christian doctrine with retirement from active life in favor of meditation and ascetism. From here solitary monks moved, following the great floods of populations, catechizing and converting. They came in contact with more eastern systems of thought; some underwent Buddhist influences; and spreading from the Black Sea and the Caspian regions they reached Hungary, Poland, Northern Germany, England and Ireland. Their message was modified by the encounters with the official Church, as the Orthodox and the Romans were discussing and reforming the religious thought, according to political influences, power, natural elaboration, in the various Councils, setting the dogmas of the new theology. The Anatolian highlands, that had seen the birth of monastic life, became the refuge of other religious communities - when Byzantium, under the leadership of Emperor Leo III, started reorganizing its military power. The clash with the Church and the monasteries, who were among the richest landowners, was inevitable. The Iconoclastic movement (destruction of imagery representing God, or men) has to be seen in this light. One of the instruments of influence that monasteries used was the d splay of miracle-making icons; the pagan traditions had found a continuity. The cult of saints and relics increased their influence and wealth. The iconoclastic laws put a temporary end to the big mosaic schools; the persecutions against the losing party pushed some monks to take refuge in Cappadocia. The stone-cut chapels have been frescoed at that time, continuing the tradition of representing the image of men and God.

At the same time, as the Barbarians of the North (Goths, Francs) were transforming Gaules, Germany, Rome itself; the Arabs and the Vandals were taking possession of Africa, and together with the Turco-Mongols occupied the Sassanian Empire, that had reorganized the Persian world, out of the Roman influence. Here the Seljuk dynasties of Turkish origin found the models that permitted the transformation of byzantine architecture into Islamic; and in the constructions that the Seljuks scattered through Turkey we find some forms that influenced Romanesque western architecture, as the Italian merchants of the sea Republics came in contact with the new masters of Eastern Mediterranean. The Seljuk Turks occupied Asia Minor from the Byzantines in the 10th century BCE; they sheltered intellectuals and artists banned from Byzantium and created a culture where visual arts, literature and science were harmoniously combined, and that was going to have an extraordinary influence on the European Crusaders, when they came in contact with the refined Islam world, who had somehow granted the continuity with the ancient one.

At this time the Seljuk had reorganized the caravan routes with the Orient. Caravanserais were built to provide shelter to the travelers; Medrese, koranic schools, were opened in all the important cities under Seljuk influence; irrigation systems were created, the study of sciences, astronomy, mathematics, literature was promoted by the new princes - and the Byzantine Empire would have ended much earlier if the Seljuk themselves had not been defeated by the Ottomans, also Turkish by origin but with a different development in their itinerary towards the eastern shores of the Mediterranean where they finally settled, after founding and destroying kingdoms, in their migration from the Mongolian steppes. But the Empire of the Orient still survived, and to the West it meant the highlight of civilization: Byzantium - Constantinople was simply called "The City" - its splendor was renowned in all the known world.

Only after Charlemagne the Occident began to regain its importance and became the focal point where the new energies completed the transformation of the ancient world into a new one.

POPE AND EMPEROR: THE ROMANESQUE WORLD - Castles, Abbeys, Villages - Cities, Merchants, Universities

"One Thousand - and no more One Thousand..." The terrifying prophecy was haunting the impoverished populations of Europe towards the end of the 10th century, convinced as they were of the imminent final catastrophe.

However, the first dawn of the year One Thousand was not followed by the end of the world. The western world found a renewed interest in secular activities, in spite of the disorders that followed the decay of the central power.

Charlemagne had organized a pyramidal structure of government where knights and bishops depended from the Emperor; his successors were not able to control the counts and the marquis, and the vassals were more and more independent. The German part of the Holy Roman Empire had been able to hold together more than the French, but the fight against the Papacy engaged the Emperors in frequent wars in Northern Italy, where the first City-States were challenging their authority. With the end of the Mediterranean trades the economy of feudal Europe relied on agriculture. The unit: "Lord-castle-village-fields" was a self-supporting one. The great monastic orders, especially in France, were reclaiming more and more land. The forests gave way to labored fields. Cluny, a Benedictine monastery in Burgundy, France, controlled 1450 houses plus their land; the Cluniac were famous for their farming and inventiveness as much as for their liturgy and architecture. Abbeys and monasteries were built like castles; the roman models of fortified villages had evolved, as the buildings moved to the safer hilltops; the architecture of the castle is typical of this period.

In Northern Italy several towns studied a new form of self-government, independent from the Emperor; by playing on the contrast between the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope they gained more political and economic space, fostering the interests of a growing merchant class. An aggressive bourgeoisie prepared the tools for trade, economics and financing as we know them today.

The study of classical philosophy and literature was revived in the Abbeys, when Christianity, after winning the battle against the pagan world, started rediscovering the culture of the past. The monks began to transcribe the Greek and Latin codexes. It was an elitary movement, and the Abbeys became the centers of refined learning - even if such studies were meant as a demonstration of the truth of Catholicism, and a preparation to the advent of Christ.

With the development of the cities more centers of culture developed around the universities. The "Chierici Vagantes", traveling students, spread the new ideas. The Church was shaken from the inside in a struggle against corruption. Revolutionary movements gave birth to the Franciscan order, who represented at its beginning an effort to moralize society and promote a simpler way of life. The Crusades, with their mixture of religious enthusiasm and practical interests, reopened Europe to the oriental influence. The direct contact with the Islamic culture brought sweeping changes to the crystallized world of Chivalry. The Italian Republics of Venice and Genoa, who supplied the fleet to the armies, regained full control of the trade routes, establishing a network of counters taking care of the imports and exports in every seaport of the Mediterranean.

Such were the transformations that Europe underwent between 800 and 1200; its culture had a universal character that was never reached afterwards. It is against this background that the Romanesque style was born, and immediately adopted everywhere; and the French monk Raoul Glaber, from the Cluny Abbey, could write in the year 1003: "So, three years from 1000, the world started again to build basilicas - especially in Italy and Gaul. Even where these exist in great number the Christians are building more beautiful ones. It seems that the land is getting rid of the rags, to be clad with the whiteness of the Cathedrals.”

The International Romanesque probably originated in Lombardy in 800. From there the style spread to France, Germany, Catalonia; the Normans introduced it to England. The typical monument of Romanesque art is the Cathedral. Roman techniques were used by the architects to develop this extraordinary building, the center of the community, dominating its life, even physically. Looking at a Middle Age village from a distance one can see the imposing body of the church rising above the houses. The early Christian basilicas were not meeting anymore the needs of the community that had been growing considerably. Apses were added, the naves became larger, and often two more aisles surrounded the nave.

The roman barrel and groin vaults were adopted for the covering, as they were the ideal roof for larger spaces. At the beginning they were used for the aisles, as the nave had a wooden ceiling under a pitched roof, like in the original basilicas. Fear of fire made the builders extend the groin vaults to the central part. To overcome the technical problems related to the larger size and different heights of the central vaults, they were reinforced with ribs. Scaffoldings were used in the construction, topped by formed mounds of earth in the shape of the groin vault. The arch and the vault represented at the time of the Romans a sign of triumph; so the structural needs were matched by the symbolic ones.

The prosperity of the cities financed the experimenting architects; new plans where developed in the north, near the textile centers of Arras, Gent, Bruges. Surplus money was used to build churches; the loot taken by the Pisans when they defeated the Arab navy in 1062 was used to build the Cathedral, the Baptistry and the Leaning Tower. Every Italian town had a cathedral as an offering to God. Traditional symbols dictated the shape of a cathedral, and they shared some technical characters: the massive walls predominating over the openings; the three-element facade; the compartmented barrel-vaults (so that the scaffolding could be used again - an early example of modular construction); small vaults surrounded the larger ones, to counteract the thrust of the central weight. The aesthetics were determined by the structure: the curved surfaces transmitted the weight of the higher part to the pillars. According to this principle the ceiling could be made of stones that redistributed the stress from above to the lower ones. The body of the building absorbed the stress of its own weight.

Many regional variations derive from this basic structure; to the typical hut-shaped Lombard-Romanesque facade the French monk-architects add two bell-towers, and the apses are often more than one, for liturgical reasons; the main body of the German church is closed between two symmetrical systems of apses and double choirs; the plans show varied geometrical shapes, more towers are added to create a great visual variety. In Italy there is a tendency to separate into different buildings the various religious activities: church, convent, bell tower and baptistry are separated into different bodies. The facade is decorated by rhythmic motifs of loggias, and the entrance is underlined by an archway. The intersection of nave and aisles is shown from the outside as part of the façade design. A dominating feature is the rose-window, to give light to the interior.

Romanesque sculpture is strictly subordinated to the architectural needs, and integrated totally in the building. Its place is in the arches, capitals, frames, pulpits. The doorway is a peculiar creation of the Romanesque art. It is usually rectangular, topped by a semicircle; the rectangle can be divided by a central, sculpted column or it can be simply closed by a massive wooden or bronze door. The portal is splayed, consisting of successive smaller arches, like a shortened perspective, and decorated with leaves and monsters, surrounded by reliefs of everyday scenes. It is a strange characteristic of the Romanesque artists to show side by side sculptures of the Zodiac signs, of the Arts, of the daily chores next to nightmaresque visions of demons, gargoyles, dragons. But the Romanesque imagination follows the two parallel visions of myth and reality. The monsters originate from ancient totems, pagan rituals that have lost their original meaning, and have found a new life as symbols in the new theology. One of the recurring themes was the crouching lion devouring a man, usually as a base of the columns in the portals; this image can be traced back to the Assyro-Babylonians and to the northern Celtic cultures. The ancient meaning was the celebration of a heroic death. In the sacred representations of the Middle Ages, the entrance of Hell was shown as the mouth of a lion; the devils were monsters with wolf-heads and snake-bodies. The monks suggesting the subjects to the sculptors must have been influenced by the animalistic imagery of Celtic origin. The oriental influence can be found in other symbols; the Cherubs, from the Assyrian jinnee; St. Mark as a flying bull from the stone gatekeepers of the Babylonian temples.

The realistic bas-reliefs instead show a direct relationship to the folk art of the late Romans. From these the artists derived their taste for the architectural subdivision of space, the solemn posture of the bodies, the revision of proportions, with the heads, hands, feet larger than reality. A synthetic vision of the masses, stressing strength and expression. A dramatic aura circulates among the stone compositions; and yet one can never forget the austere beauty created by the unity of the formal vision. The Romanesque sculptor adheres totally to the realities of everyday life: the sacred drama takes a human dimension without losing its tragic grandeur. We are far from the Byzantine elegance of the mosaics; a world made of light and shadows is carved on frames and bas-reliefs, embodying the dreams and fears of man in realistic, tangible images, and juxtaposing them to a simple, strong portrayal of the fatigues of life.

FROM HARMONY TO BLACK DEATH 1250-1350 - Siena and Florence

By the beginning of the 13th century the artists and craftsmen of medieval Italy had at their disposal a full array of visual motifs coming from the past that had been reintroduced with a new meaning into the iconography of the time.

The renewed interest in classical sculpture; the stylization and color of the Byzantine; the illuminated codexes; the gothic courtly grace and horrifying bestiaries: everything had a share of an imagery constituting the raw material for the burgeoning pictorial movements.

The City-state had ousted the feudal structure from northern and central Italy. The new bourgeoisie was establishing a structure of connected interests, drawing its power from the creation of the modem bank system, and the total control over the manufacturing process, financing, importing and exporting. Commercial counters were opened everywhere in Europe, taking care of the international loans and concentrating in their hands the silk and wool industries.

The boom in population, lasting to 1300, created more demand for agricultural goods and increased the investments in land, after the dissolution of the feudal estates. The rural areas provided the labor for the urban textile industry, and the immigration from the countryside continued to occupy the available urban space. During the 13th and the 14th centuries the new wealth that had risen to power through the aggressive and imaginative promotion of trade turned itself into a new nobility that controlled the government and the decisional power. That put an end to the social mobility, in a structure that for about fifty years perfectioned the various elements of its equilibrium. The agricultural and industrial techniques reached a level surpassed only in the 18th century; the financing system had been using already for a long time bills of exchange, deposit banking, double-entry book-keeping and every possible structure of business partnership.

Taking Florence as an example, between 1260 and 1330 its population increased from 40,000 to 90,000 inhabitants. The rich were 6,000; the students 10,000. There were 80 banks, 30 hospitals, 300 industries. (Paris at the time had about 140,000 inhabitants, only 15,000 of which over taxable level.). At the same time the artists created the modes of vision that reflected the new relationship between man and nature. Then, suddenly ten years of unending catastrophes put an end to an order that seemed to be there to last forever.

In 1342 the king of England, Edward III, did not return the loan of 1,365,000 florins he had used to finance the Hundred Years War against France. His creditors, the Bardi and the Peruzzi from Florence, had to close their banks, the most important ones in Europe. The panic-stricken Florentines withdrew their money from the credit institutions, starting a chain reaction of bankruptcies. In 1346 the worst harvest in years brought the rural populations to starvation. The year after terrible hailstorms destroyed the crop. Finally, in 1348, the Plague, that recurrently had appeared in the west, was brought in again by the Mongols besieging a Genoese trading station in the Black Sea. The disease was spread through Europe by the returning Genoese galleys. Bubonic Plague had hit Europe before, but never had reached such a catastrophic proportion.

They called it the Black Death - because of the black stains covering the dead bodies. It reached Italy in June; by September, when the epidemics ended, of 50,000 inhabitants in Siena only 15,000 were left; and the population of Florence passed from 95,000 to 4,000.

During the depression that followed, the fear of God's punishment haunted the survivors. Fanatics went from town to town flagellating themselves. In the churches the invitations to repent brought in large donations from people in quest of eternal pardon; the repressions of upheavals became harsher and power concentrated in fewer hands. In the arts, the new period manifested itself as a comeback of older styles that put aside the recent formal discoveries. Fifty years had to pass, before the new ways came back to life.

A hundred years before, the Sienese and Florentine schools, sprouting from the same root, had taken very soon two different directions. In Siena, the static, hieratic appearance of Christ and the Saints gave way to freely flowing lines separating the different fields of color. The latter assumed an abstract yet symbolic role, defining a concept of space supporting the mystical quality of the image by denying its bodily reality. The activity of the line controlled the harmony of the composition and stressed the rhythm of its melody.

Observation of reality influenced the background scenes, representing daily life with charm and a fresh feeling for anecdote; the conception of the central figure instead echoed transcendent values, its beauty deriving from their beauty. Meanwhile the Florentines were experimenting with forms derived from the perception of the volumes of the human body. The sculptural quality of their figures was getting farther away from Gothic elegance, to assert a post-Romanesque image of men as a measure of tangible space.

Even in Giotto, where the fusion between religiousness and humanity reaches its highest expression, everything is centered on the presence of man; landscape is almost eliminated in his favor, architecture gives a measure of his presence in space. He becomes the center of the universe - the Renaissance Man.

After the Black Death, the search for new forms was temporarily interrupted. Sienese imagination and fantastic re-creation of the world never recovered from the blow - and neither did Siena; and the Florentine vision, created by men for men, had to wait for Masaccio to progress further. Florence was again prosperous by then and artists and philosophers were reshaping the world - in man’s image.


The revolution in painting revolved around the development of two techniques: Egg Tempera, and Affresco (Fresco).

Tempera was made by grinding pigments and mixing them with egg yolk that acted as a binder. The wood was prepared with various layers of gesso finished to a very smooth polish. The gilded areas were prepared with Bolo di Venezia, a special red earth color on which the gold leaf was applied with egg white. The draperies were painted in a medium tone, and the highlights and the shadows were added with a fine hatchwork. Flesh areas came in last, and were underpainted with green earth mixed with lead white, then finished with warm tones in the light areas. The green would show in the middle tones, the shadows being reinforced with darker colors. Golden lines were often added.

The Fresco guaranteed the best preservation of the work in time, and lent itself beautifully to the new concepts of space so intimately related to the huge visual formulations. The technique originated in Rome, and the artists themselves took care of the preparation of the wall. First a coarse plaster, called "arriccio” was spread on the wall, then a charcoal sketch was made directly on it, and corrected with a thin brush, dipped in light ochre. The general drawing was finished with "sinopia”, a red color that gave the name to the whole preparation. The part of the composition that the artist intended to finish in a day’s work was then covered with thin, smooth plaster to be painted immediately, with pigments mixed with lime water. These would be absorbed by the wet plaster becoming part of it when the calcium hydrate, reacting with the carbon dioxide from the air, would harden into insoluble calcium carbonate. By examining closely the frescoes one can follow the daily progression of the work, by examining the joints in the plaster that show the place where painting was resumed the following day.

MAN AS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE - The Age of Lorenzo il Magnifico

"The Soul, in making the material world visible, acts so in remembrance of its divinity. The realm of senses is fundamentally good, because it enables us to receive beauty. Is there a music lover who, knowing the intelligible relationship of harmony, does not experience emotion in hearing a chord? Is there a mathematician who, knowing the rules of proportion and order, is not pleased in seeing them realized? Here is a painting: It is not perceived in the same way if we look at it just through our eyes, as if we recognize in it the materialized image of a purely intellectual pre-existence; what amazement when we suddenly remember true From what Beauty must this beauty proceed!"
The man who wrote these words is a roman philosopher, Plotinus, living in the 2nd century CE. His philosophical vision proceeded from Plato’s duality and from Pitagora’s view of the mystics of Numbers.

Twelve hundred years later Plotinus’ Neoplatonism became the fundamental structure of thought influencing the intellectual circles of Renaissance Italy. The political scene of the Quattrocento was very different from the one of the previous centuries. The republican city-states had given way to the power of single families; the exterior signs of wealth, though, did not correspond anymore to the basic vitality that had been at its origin. Soon the political pressure of France and Spain put an end to the equilibrium created and protected by Lorenzo dei Medici for more than twenty years. It is more around the courts and palaces of the lords than in the monasteries that Art is given its more secular shape. The intellectual movements, coming out of the middle ages, reflect the diminished authority of the Church and the increasing authority of Science.

The co-existence of mathematical speculations and technological advancements with new ethical systems and imaginative evolution of the economy contribute to explain the sudden birth of a style that integrates completely into the new relationship between Man and the Universe; in a few years the work of the various artists converge to create a system of conventions and signs that is used in one of the most remarkable figurative modes of history, that during four centuries determined internationally the very notion of figuration.

The first great painter after the post-Giotto temporary involution was Masaccio. His spatial concept, both historical and dramatic, adheres fully to the architectural volumes, that Brunelleschi had so entirely related to the human module. Their moral grandeur was revealed by the reality of their being. Late-Gothic is resolved in a spatial cube, where light is neither violent nor breaking the unity of color. The composition reveals its underlying geometrical structure, becoming part of the expression of the whole.

Fra Angelico, too, conceives Art as knowledge; for him space is geometrical form; and if Divine Light fills the space, Geometry is the form of light that vibrates and is made visible by color. So, color is not anymore the tricky appearance hiding the substance of things, but identifies itself with light and becomes the very substance of space. Whereas Gentile da Fabriano and Masolino da Panicale dream of a secretive beauty hidden in the brute matter, that only a subtle mind can Fra Angelico thinks that beauty is open to the clear mind. His mystical values become images while Paolo Uccello is shaping his scientific vision of perspective; where perspective renders reality according to optical laws, but also accents the space within the painting, and the colors relate more to the quality of the representation than to the subject being represented. Differing from the religious approach of Angelico, the care for details of Paolo Uccello is similar to the Cubists, with their images all the more true as they are less probable. He had seen Piero della Francesca when he painted the "Battaglie”; perspective in Piero is rigorous, but it inserts in the composition a classical sense of monumentality. In Paolo, the perspective of the battles is a projection on a plane; and on it the geometry of horses and men decomposes itself in abstract geometry, the color is kept within precise hard edges.

A further integration of the opposite poles of vision is operated by Piero della Francesca. The identity between Idea and Appearance is reached. Everything that is seen "is", "exists", be it Man, Landscape, Tree; no different degree of importance or emotional impact is attributed to different modes of being. It is a calm approach to total vision; space is fully revealed in the objects, every object is the form of Space; the same density is outside and inside the bodies. His supreme convergence between Experience and Idea, and Idea and Form, is the basis for the classical universality of Raffaello and Bramante.

In Florence the influence of Piero is not immediately felt, and the painters proceed from Angelico, through Lippi and Ghirlandaio, in combining an elegant naturalism with a refined language accessible to the bourgeoisie of the time.

Closer to the groups more directly connected with Neoplatonic philosophy is Botticelli, who became the mystic of ideal beauty as ethical finality of the process of knowledge. A pupil of Lippi and Verrocchio, Botticelli closes the doors of the Florentine 15th century, with a work pervaded by melancholy, vaguely combining expectation of the future with regret of the past. Neoplatonism influences his representation of nature as the Idea of Nature, of beauty as the Idea of Beauty. The conceptual meanings of his work was clear to his philosopher friends; and the work itself shows that the system of signs is not there to frame and define reality, but to overcome it. All the factors of positive knowledge accumulated by the Florentine school culminating in the grandiose theoretical constructions of Piero are disregarded: light as physical reality, perspective as spatial structure, value of mass and volume. The fluid rhythm of the lines and the cadenza of the parallels counterpoint the linearity of trees in the "Primavera", as the delicate shadings of color in the figures are opposed to the dark values and sharp edges of the background.

But soon all this world of thoughts, ideas, creations is to come to an end. With the death of Lorenzo il Magnifico the delicate balance that for years had brought peace and prosperity to the land was broken, and Papacy, Venice and Milan started fighting again for their opposite interests. The carefree atmosphere of Florence was stigmatized in the whipping speeches of Savonarola, the victim later of the ones who had followed him at the beginning. It is in an upset world that Raffaello, Michelangelo and Leonardo work at their visual concepts of Man and Universe, to close an era, to open a new one.

THE BRUSHSTROKE - Voyage of Painting towards self-awareness

Until the 20th century, artists generally used brushes to create shapes on various surfaces that represented the final result of their work. The brushstroke was their real signature, the embodiment of a gesture that becomes drawing, color and movement at the same time.

But from the 14th century on the tactile evidence of the surface is disregarded in favor of the illusion of space. A window is opened, through which an ideal stage is set for the performance; the surface of the painting is a diaphragm separating the real world from the fictitious one, and any sign to identify its existence would deny the illusion of space. The work of the brush tends to disappear; the textures are indeed different from one another, but they hide carefully the movement and the shape of the tool that originated them.

A great step in hiding the real surface to the advantage of the imaginary one was taken when the technique of oil painting was generally adopted, after Van Eyck experimented with the oils and varnishes that made it possible. Longtime kept as a-secret in the different ateliers, it had originated as a need to protect the work from the damp climate of northern Europe, where the tempera technique suffered badly and had to be protected by varnish. The new system of glazing with the pigments mixed with oil and varnish allowed the artist to suppress the hatching lines used in tempera to blend the shadows with the lights. Now, the gessoed wooden panel would be primed with a coat of oil, then the modeling of the bodies and faces would be completed in diluted black or sepia on the white ground, and the solid colors of the clothing painted with a thicker impasto. Final shades would be added by diluting the pigments in the medium, glazing them over the tone to be modified. Accents would then be added in the highlights and the shadows. The effects of this technique can be noticed in the Flemish school, where the light areas are less thick, and shadows, clothing and landscape are rendered by a richer coating of paint. Final varnishing was not as important, because the varnish was mixed with the linseed oil. Van Eyck had developed a formula of dissolving amber in oil and he was using it as the basic medium. The preparation of the varnish requested the use of high temperatures; even today it is not well understood how he proceeded. A clear varnish was used for the colder colors, whose hue would otherwise be changed by the veil of amber. Each color area was filled individually, and its boundaries respected. The technique was imported in Italy by Antonello da Messina, a Sicilian painter living in Venice who learned about it in the Flanders and at the court of the King of Naples, where he worked for a while in the company of Flemish painters.

As more artists started experimenting with oil and the possibility of blending colors in a softer way, new approaches were found. The shadows were laid first, with a thin, diluted color; then a semi-opaque impasto was used to fill in the middle tones, usually colder than the shadow area; then the lights would be painted on top with thicker paint and the edges blended in the previous layer (a technique called scumbling). Finally, glazing unified the general color tonality. The surface texture was reversed, with the shadows thinner than the lights.

And then the brushstroke reappeared, not anymore a thin line to create an illusion, but as a bold way to reinvent the form. The adoption of canvas in place of wood accelerated the process. Titian was the first to use the possibilities offered by the new surface, and his search brought him to break more and more the form into the rhythms and shapes of its basic component: the brushstroke. The new way to conceive painting is evident in the details of his and Tintoretto’s big compositions, where the motion of the brush becomes a shape on the canvas, that has the same importance as the illusory image it contributes to build. The surface is powerfully marked by the flashing signs that run across it in counterpoint with the subject, adding a new element to the visual tale. Separated from the context, the brushstroke acquires a vitality of its own.

This new way of constructing the image provided the aesthetical grammar to the new schools of painting, that followed the centers of power and economics as they moved away from Italy. It is significant that El Greco realized his mystical dreams in Spain, combining the spirit of byzantine icons with the sensuality of the Venetian color, that he absorbed at the school of Titian and Tintoretto. Through him the new aesthetics reached Madrid; and the lesson of Titian contributed to the great renewal that through Velasquez reached Holland. From there, the Dutch with Rembrandt and Franz Hals gave an even greater freedom to the gesture of the brush, in a further step to make it more independent from the shape of the represented object. Men, draperies, jewels, landscapes, still lives carry the sign of a painting that is discovering itself as the final essence, more than representing the rich merchant, the landscape, or the historical event. The world is reconstructed in different systems of signs giving origin to new representations and combinations. The tools are ready for the Impressionists to capture the fugitive instant of light, the passing emotion, and with separate brushstrokes carrying their independent bits of colors and light, to build up the image of the atomic fragments of reality in time.

VENICE AND THE VENETIANS - A City as a Work of Art

Venice, 1500: the “Serenissima” at the peak of its power, was admired everywhere as the perfect example of planned balance between state and wealth, and for the solidity of its institutions. And yet the first signs of the grandiose decadence that destroyed its empire in the following three hundred years were beginning to be noticeable. The sources of power were disappearing one by one in the fights with the Turks, the Spaniards, the Church, the change in political balance and the discovery of new routes to the Orient; but at the same time a grandiose transformation in the arts was taking place that changed the western vision in painting, music, and lifestyle; the artistic apotheosis seemed to acquire a new energy as the living body of the almighty republic was beginning to show its age. The images of the Venetian Grandeur were recorded on the walls of its palaces, and the new music was played everywhere - in the mansions of the rich as in the numerous public theaters. The society of wealthy merchants, slowly withdrawing from their eastern possessions under the pressure of the Ottoman Empire, started investing in the mainland. By the end of 1500 every patrician family had its villa in the region between Padova, Verona and Vicenza; the big cycles of frescoes that were painted on their walls became the counterpart to the splendid decorations of the churches in the city. The discovery of tonal color, the breaking down of the surface into the brushstroke were the tools of a painterly transfiguration of the subject matter, absorbing the forms of the Mannerism School from Rome and Central Italy and transporting them on a sort of magical theater stage, where a feeling of metaphysical surrealism were dramatically forecasting the impending crisis. But the real subject was more and more painting itself, as well as music was more and more its own representation; the glory of Venice was there, but Art was altogether the most glorious. When Tiepolo painted his big cycle in the Villa Valmarana the might of Venice was extinguished; the heirs of the powerful past were hiding their heads under their carnival masks in a last attempt to forget reality; but the "calli" and the "rio" resounding with the music of Vivaldi and Locatelli were soon to be invaded by the troops of Napoleon, who put an end to the nine hundred years of life of the oldest European state.


When the Fraternity of San Rocco announced a competition for painting a series of canvases about the life of the Saint, Tintoretto surprised the judging commission by providing ¢ huge finished painting instead of a sketch; and by offering and dedicating it to the Saint "for a received grace”, burned all the chances of the other candidates. He was well known in Venice for his skill in getting the most interesting projects, and this created a lot of hostility among the other painters; nevertheless his personality included such diverse elements that his contemporaries were liking and disliking him at the same time. Yet forcing the hand of the patrons gave him the possibility of creating a great visual poem, where a medieval visionary spirituality is melted by a feverish creativity of a fantastic space. Comparing for instance the rutilating falling bodies of Michelangelo’s Final Judgment and Tintoretto’s twisted human forms in his hallucinating skies gives the measure of the two different spaces: Michelangelo compact-compressed, and Tintoretto a multiple spatiality conveying a feeling of sweeping whirlpool. The big Crucifixion in San Rocco (1565) marks the passage between his earlier and later vision of space: here the ambient-space, no matter how vast, is still limited; the composition is centered on the Cross, the innumerous episodes originating from it. Nothing supernatural has yet happened, the emotional strength derives from the plastic livid light. In the Ascension (painted between 1583 aid 1587) the visual revolution is completed. A mysterious light illuminates the Archangel’s wings, another reversed one strikes irrationally the figure of the Christ, the elements of the composition are kept together in spite, and because of, the discrepancies between naturalism and abstraction, luminous effect and the graphic, nervous design of the brushstroke. As of his themes, we can notice how his subjects are related to the poor, disinherited people he knew and frequented. Thus he creates a gigantic "Bible of the Poor" that Sartre interpreted as a "cryptic sense of Protestantism, vaccinating the capitalistic Italian city-states from “Lutheranism”.

Titian acknowledged the sense of the world crisis only in his latest years, and privately, in works that never left his studio; the intuition of the obscure forces that were tormenting the individuals and the society are by Tintoretto awarely and powerfully expressed in this space that reveals "an absurd, risky world, where anything can happen, even the death of Venice" (J.-P. Sartre).


The transformation of a closed space into an open one, by the invention of a series of painted landscapes and architectures mixing with the true structures, and introducing for the first time such a feeling of light, was conceived by Paolo Veronese when he was thirty years old. Whoever enters the Villa for the first time is stricken right away by this feeling: no barriers between the world of men and the Gods, no matter if Christians or Pagans; everything is resolved in a bath of luminous formal integrity, where color and light are emphasized in a peerless polyphony.

Palladio, the greatest architect of its time, designed the Villa Maser for a rich venetian of the highest cultural level, Daniele Barbaro, who suggested do Veronese the various allegorical subjects decorating the sequel of rooms: the Barbaro family appearing in the square big hall, protected by Divine Wisdom; and followed by the of Strength and Faith - proceeding then in the halls of Spiritual Harmony, between Pleasure and Love. From there on, the long living room crossing the whole villa brings to a series of rooms and halls of Gods, from Venus to Bacchus and the Olympians; in a maze of painted doors, vineyards, loggias, valleys, landscapes extending the true ones on the outside; silver clouds, porches with luminous skies - all painted first-hand, without preparatory sketches on the fresh stucco, in a creating frenzy of a single man. It seems, in fact, that Veronese was practically working without help; and the marriage of fiction and real volumes is such, that one does hardly realizes the beginning and the end of either one.

Palladio, in his Architectural Treaty, informs us on the villa itself: built at the beginning of 1560 for the wealthy merchants and aristocrats, Daniele and Marcantonio Barbaro, was conceived as a structure to be in total harmony with the surrounding landscape of small lakes, fisheries, vineyards, hunting grounds. Daniele Barbaro was a famous scholar, connected with the greatest writers and philosophers of his time. Marcantonio was the ambassador to France and Turkey who discussed the peace treaty in Istanbul after the battle of Lepanto.


Near Vicenza, the villa was built in 1669 by Antonio Muttoni. When the Valmarana family bought it, the decoration project was taken by Tiepolo in 1757, to become the example for the 18th century palaces, especially in Austria. Elaborating the light-hearted themes coming from France in terms of a European culture that was now taking over the Italian predominance in music and art, Gian Battista Tiepolo, overcoming the influence that Piazzetta had on his work, inserts his forms in a bath of light where the allegorical symbols convey so fully the spirit of the times.

Tiepolo was working with the help of his son, Domenico, who painted himself some of the frescoes, and of Gerolamo Mengozzi-Colonna, who was in charge of the perspective structuring of the compositions. These illustrated the themes of the famous poems - Homer and Virgil, Tasso and Ariosto. The world of the Italian Opera seems to be very near; but the painting structure transcends the illustrative subject matter, in a dialectic juxtaposition of color and design, inventing a sort of luminous vibration that is very different from the unified solar matter of Paolo Veronese. The oneiric atmosphere carries on a luscious feeling of pageantry and wealth that gives the full measure of a society dancing blindfolded on the edge of the precipice, soon to swallow an era of carefree wealth, masterfully portrayed in this final image of the Venetian Carnival.

THE BAROQUE SPIRIT - A culture, a Style and a frame of mind

When we talk about Baroque it is difficult to separate the two meanings of the word: one describes a style and one refers to a state of mind. The origin itself of the word "baroque" comes from jewelry: the Portuguese "Barrueco” was used all over Europe for an irregularly shaped pearl; the meaning was then extended to anything non-conforming, bizarre, out of proportion or altogether non-definable by normal aesthetical canons The 19th century Larousse Encyclopedia, after the meaning of the word, adds "Has a special reference to architecture - Baroque style departs from the accepted rules of Renaissance Classicism, seeks what is irregular and ill-shaped, and striking by its strangeness. Baroque started in 16th century Italy and later spread to other countries.”

A basic contradiction stands at the core of the new style as it develops: the result of the Counter-Reformation bending the papacy towards an intransigent outlook on anything "heretic" (including new science and philosophy) with more power given to the Inquisition, and protecting a new wave of bigotry. This had a strong influence on the choice of the subject matter - Saints and Divinity are represented in their human suffering aspect, no more in the triumphant joyous mode. From now on when painters dealt with religious matters, they became very cautious (at least for fifty years) and the clergy wanted painting to become a tool of indoctrination, accessible to the poor. Veronese was put under trial for the profanity of his composition in the "Supper in the house of Levi", and he had to excuse painters as fools, concerned only with the study of form.

On the other hand, life in the courts of the princes was more and more luxurious. The ongoing repression of free thought did not affect the sumptuous life style because the political survival of the newly established principates was now assured by France or Spain, and later by Austria; construction and decoration of palaces offered to the artist the freedom of form and the possibility to embody the most daring fantasies that the contrivances of the religious limitation could not offer them anymore. A consequence of the obligation of displaying the sorrows of life and pain on earth was the vivid, realistic portrayal of life in the lower classes; Caravaggio’s subjects are chosen from the street, the harsh, realistic light that hits them is not anymore the caressing one of the earlier, more balanced times; but as he opens the way to the world of darkness, sculptors and architects and those painters of a more secular tradition are inventing a new space that more than ever before, and more than ever after, represent an attempt towards "Total Art". Here lays the tremendous interest and novelty of the Baroque: Architecture is sculptural, painting is architectural, sculpture is painterly, music is representing the world of order that the other arts have traded against dynamics. The study of the curved surfaces replaces the rigor of straight planes; theatrical scenographic visions seem to mock mathematical perspective, exaggeration and passion open the way to expression; the action of nature, the visual effects of its force transforms shapes and movements in sculpture and palaces; the study of the hollow spaces, the relationships between convex and concave - the shell is shelter, dome, inside outside - develop all the characteristics peculiar to the living, organic forms; the facades convulsely alternate full and empty spaces, shadows invade the deep niches like humid caverns, the sense of landscape is present everywhere; the shape of the bodies is now determined by the wind forever blowing on them, twisting their clothes into transforming shapes of stormy clouds, the flying instant being forever frozen in marble. No more are we living in a rarefied, intellectual atmosphere, where men represent the measure of all things: the way is open to continuous transformation, to the unfinished creation, to the new poetics of the open work of art. A new era has begun, and at the same time a cycle has been completed, where a visual revolution has melted together, for a while, most of the elements constituting art.

At the same time, as a document and a witness of the movement, a new city is born: Rome in its actual shape, through a city planning fostered by the Popes Sixtus V, Urban VIII and Alexander VII. Two artists have been embodying this visual transformation, that marks the way out from the obtuse rigor of Counter-Reformation. One was recognized and celebrated by his contemporaries as the great genius of the century: Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), architect, sculptor, painter, playwright and stage designer. His leading idea is that whatever is conceived by imagination must be immediately transformed, and totally, into reality. This is the role of technique as a creating tool; and Bernini, even more than for the vast and new formal inventions, is historically great for his firm belief that technique can realize whatever one thinks or desires. To him the Church represented the technical instrument of salvation, the State the technical instrument of happiness; but to teach and embody dreams, to overpass the contingent limits and make visible an invisible reality, there is the technique of Art. All of the work of Bernini tends to invent, in Rome, an imaginary city that becomes a reality.

Again, to this optimistic vision Baroque opposes the anxiety of an altogether different reality; the doubt that even imagination is deceit - that the justification of technique must be of a different kind. The haste to achieve, typical of Bernini, barely veils the fear of the opposite reality, as passionate love for life often hides the fear of death.

Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) is a totally different man. Obsessed all his life by a constant fight with Bernini, Borromini creates the visual counterpart to the universal invention of Bernini. Borromini’s creations are tortured, unsatisfied with the results: if Bernini is convinced of having the gift of revelation, Borromini is questioning, praying, doubting whether Illumination will ever come. All his work has been created on the edge of doubt and self-questioning: and in a final crisis of doubt he will end up committing suicide.

The problem of Bernini: Art as self-realizing imagination overlaps reality, end substitutes it. And what is imagination: knowing or being? revelation or search? self-satisfactory or endlessly transcending it? - was expressed by Borromini in nearly hermetic symbols: the spaces are compressed, he avoids masses, sharpens the profiles, reverses perspective using it to reduce, rather than enhance, distances. Admiring Michelangelo, he praises him more for his spiritual torment than for his work. The theme of a spiral space is used to pass from the multiple to the unified, in an ascetic effort forever opposite to his rival’s great spatial expansion. And yet in his limited space, rotatory rhythms, sharply interrupted patterns, he is able, also, to create the feeling of infinity.


The official birthdate of Surrealism is 1924, when a French poet, Andre Breton, published the "Premier Manifeste du Surrealisme”. He described the movement as one that would give Art a new freedom, capable of exploring the mind in depth as Freud was doing with h s new psychology. Breton asserted the necessity of expressing the subconscious freely against the contrivances of logical behavior, exploring different techniques of automatic writing and painting, so to let the reality of dreams take over, and become more real than real (sur-real).

But long before the portrayal of the subconscious was institutionalized, some painters had documented the creative imagination of their dreams, and the magic transfiguration of an object into another. Yet very rarely this conscious flight into the visionary absorbs | the total activity of the artist. We are going to examine two of them, as an example of an individual position in a culture of different general trend: Hieronymus Bosch and Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

Bosch, born in Holland in 1453, was actually rediscovered by the Surrealists, and his work underwent all sorts of interpretations - most of them stressing the demonic trend, the bizarre portrayal of vices, the sado-masochistic morality of the imagery. A traditional rendering matched the exuberant imagination, filling with anecdotes every empty space in the canvas. But the articulation of dream is such, that when everything is unexpected, the surprise is over, and a new set of rules is established where it is normal to be out of normality. So Bosch carries on with extreme coherence the development of his imagery. The portrayal of the follies of the world is matched by its dream counterparts. Man-birds, animal-machines, mice-soldiers take part in a countryside kermess within the geometrical patterns of a ballet; marvels produce other marvels in a constant flow of new inventions; and yet one does not feel to be witnessing an unreasonable extravaganza. The chosen frame of mind creates a coherent ensemble, the chosen guideline transforms Magics into Norm (being there to underline the laws of an unusual universe). Nothing is totally fantastic if it does not create a break within its own structure; and the world of Bosch is the consequent, methodical application of a system that does not leave anything out of the new system.

With Arcimboldo we are in a very different world from the one of Hieronymus; the atmosphere of Holland where Erasmus was writing The Praise of Folly is far away. Born in Milan from an aristocratic family in 1527, Giuseppe Arcimboldo studied and worked under the influence of Leonardo’s school; and the early vision of drawings of gargoyles and monsters, where flora and fauna intermixed to create human faces, triggered his imagination to the point that Adolfo Venturi says of him: "of the great Leonardo’s students, none could match this later disciple’s ability to grasp and render the motion of the molecules, the internal structure of the animal form. Indeed, the hand of Leonardo seems to have guided Arcimboldo."

The beginning of his career was marked by luck: in 1562 he was invited by Ferdinand I, King of Bohemia and brother of Charles V, to become the official portraitist of the royal family. From then on he lived between the courts of Vienna and Prague. Nothing remains of his portraits of the Hapsburgs; whereas his role in enriching the famous Wunderkammer, where Maximilian Il and Rudolf II kept their collections of art and curiosities certainly played a role in his artistic choice. The collection included magic objects from all over the world, Indian miniatures, cameos, "objets trouves" made of pebbles and shells. He was also the "Master of Court Festivals and Masquerades”. Europe was going through a period of economic and political difficulties, and festivals provided a welcome diversion from the daily worries. But what is peculiar to Arcimboldo’s art is that it transcends its sources. The raw matter is elaborated in such a way as to become a new image of the world. The curiosity of the elements is by-passed by the unity of the vision.

It is not so easy to quickly classify Arcimboldo as a folkloristic odd figure of art history. An encyclopedic man, he was interested in the corresponding elements of painting and music: his "Harpsichord of Colors", a machine he designed, proves the aim to "link up the optical and acoustical numbers according to the Pythagorean theories that were enjoying renewed favor among sound theoreticians and all who pursued the new musical (Lionello Levi, only part of his varied interests and achievements, yet they are by all means the bearers of a revelation; and this is, after all, the role of Art. Finally, to define the Art’s role of transforming the raw matter of the experience into the spirituality of vision, we can use the s of Leonardo in his "Treaty of Painting": "And do not despise my advice, and remember to stop and consider the stains on a wall, or the ashes in the fire, or the clouds, or the mud; in these objects, and other similar ones, if you will look deeply at them, you will find admirable inventions, that awake the soul of the painter to create compositions of men and animals and battles, and compositions of villages and monstrosities such as devils and monsters: because a truly clear mind knows how to find the ideas for new inventions out of the confusion of things."