Cathedral Baptistery



The entire space within the baptistery is given over to rich frescoes inspired by the History of Human Salvation. This cycle is the masterpiece of Giusto de’ Menabuoi, and within the works covered by the nomination it shows further developments in the use of perspective to create the illusion of three- dimensional space: the division between architecture, painting and sculpture is undercut, so that the space occupied by the viewer is the same as that within which the narrative unfolds. Every single inch of the wall surface is decorated and, when necessary, the scene depicted does not come to an end at the edge of the wall itself but carries on over a portion of pilaster or overflows onto the wall which is at right angles to it. Thus, the frescoes cover architectural spaces that are not usually occupied by such decoration – for example, the intrados of arches – and by unfolding over different walls they heighten the illusion that pictorial and real space are one.

Painted cornices of faux marble partially subdivide the episodes of biblical history, which themselves are depicted in deeply complex spaces. As far as the scenes from the Old Testament are concerned, one might draw some parallels with the mosaics in St. Mark’s in Venice, various illuminated codices and, obviously, the Scrovegni Chapel cycle (component part 1). Moving to the New Testament, it is clear that the Baptism of Christ draws upon the depiction of that scene in the Scrovegni Chapel, but with a new sense of temporal continuity: the episode is linked with the following scene of St. John the Baptist Preaching. Giusto de’ Menabuoi explores the problems posed by rendering space, volume, form and light. Continuing the work initiated by Giotto, he uses perspectiva naturalis in constructing his scenes, distributing – rather than bunching together – the solidly-modelled figures. The artist also demonstrates an interest in cartography, topography and, above all, mathematics and geometry.

There is constant attention to the relation between the pictorial space and the actual architectural features of the interior. Look, for example, at the cornices: where the artist wishes to emphasize the space that opens up within a wall, he makes refined use of colour and perspective to achieve such an effect. The trompe-l’oeil effects clearly echo those achieved in the small choir balconies in the Scrovegni Chapel (component part 1); this can be seen, for example, in the spaces containing the Evangelists, who are depicted from below in foreshortening that highlights the depth of the space they are supposed to occupy.

The artist’s handling of light is particularly interesting, with slight shadings of colour being used masterfully to render the passage from shadow to areas that are directly illuminated. The overall attention to such ‘scientific’ aspects of painting is rather unusual for the day and is probably due to the fact that Menabuoi maintained the contacts between artists and university figures that had begun with Giotto and then also played a part in the work on the Cortellieri Chapel; his depiction of the human body is only one of the features which reveals Giusto de’ Menabuoi’s scientific interests, with the artist using essential, almost geometric, forms that serve to simplify his figures. Overall, the most striking feature of his work is its effective synthesis of form and colour. To see the quality of what his painting achieves here, one only needs look at the elegance with which he depicts the gowns and headgear of his female figures.

The cycle was commissioned by a woman – Fina Buzzaccarini, wife of Francesco ‘Il Vecchio’ da Carrara – who is also the most highly-ranking patron of any of the frescoes cycles covered by the nomination. This courtly female patronage is perhaps reflected in the careful rendition of feelings and expressive gestures in images which nevertheless maintain their celebratory tone. These scenes of sacred history are again given a contemporary setting, with Menabuoi even depicting figures belonging to the Carraresi court. One of these latter is the poet Francesco Petrarch, but particular attention is focused on the portraits of the women of that court: Sister Anna Buzzaccarini, Fina’s sister, is depicted in The Naming of John the Baptist, whilst Fina and her three daughters are present at the scene of The Birth of John the Baptist. She also figures in John the Baptist Commending Fina Buzzaccarini to the Mother of God, a scene painted within the Gothic arch that once surmounted the tomb of the aristocratic couple.

The entire iconographic programme of this cycle must have been drawn up for the artist by an expert theologian close to the patron. It comprises a Paradise (in the cupola), Scenes from the Book of Genesis, complete with seventeen biblical quotations in Latin (around the drum of the cupola); Scenes from the Lives of John the Baptist, the Virgin and Christ (around the walls) and Scenes from the Apocalypse, numbered from 1 to 43 (in the small presbytery).