Giotto, Masaccio and others: fresco cycles in Florence
The frescoes depicting religious stories in medieval churches were defined as the Biblia pauperum, the poor person’s Bible, because of the scope they offered for teaching stories concerning God and the saints to a largely illiterate population. But apart from their functional didactic value, they were also one of the areas in which the finest artists of the past, including the likes of Giotto, Masaccio and Michelangelo, tested their skills.
Two of Florence’s most well-known fresco cycles are to be found in the Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels in Santa Croce. They were painted by Giotto and his workshop and depict scenes from the Life of Saint Francis (Bardi Chapel) and the Lives of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist (Peruzzi Chapel). The church also houses some other very interesting cycles: the Legend of the True Cross in the sanctuary is by Agnolo Gaddi, as are the scenes from the Lives of Saints Antony Abbot, John the Baptist and John the Evangelist in the Castellani Chapel.
The stories told on the walls generally concern the saint to which the church is dedicated, the religious order of the church or the families who were patrons of the chapels (in which case the name of the chosen saint often coincided with that of the patron). And so, for instance, the frescoes in Santa Croce depict scenes from the Life of Saint Francis, the frescoes by Andrea del Bonaiuto (c.1367–69) in the Spanish Chapel in Santa Maria Novella develop the theme of the struggle of the Dominicans against Christian heresy, while the chapel of the family of Filippo Strozzi in the same church was frescoed by Filippino Lippi with scenes from the Life of Saint Philip (1494–1502).
However, the frescoes are not just interesting for their themes: they are often set in the city of the time, and show the buildings, clothes and furniture of the age, offering what amounts to a kind of postcard of the past. This is the case of Ghirlandaio’s frescoes (1485–90) in the Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella, where one can admire the fine clothes of the noblewomen portrayed and the interiors of luxurious 15th-century homes.
But the fresco cycles are above all a testing ground for the representation of figures in space and the application of perspective. This problem, which Giotto tackled by developing a kind of empirical perspective, was solved by Masaccio in his cycle in the Brancacci Chapel in the Chiesa del Carmine (1424–28), and with such authoritativeness that it was studied by later artists, first and foremost Michelangelo.
From Apt - Agenzia per il Turismo di Firenze (Florence Official Tourist Office)