Click on photos to enlarge.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Coppo di Marcovaldo

The Last Judgment, 1265-70, Coppo di Marcovaldo, Florence,
the central figure gracing the dome of the San Giovanni Baptistery.
Very often when students today begin to studying art, they start with the notion (consciously or unconsciously) that the Italian Renaissance was where and when Western art began. There was even a time, when the British Pre-Raphaelites also considered the Renaissance to be where Western art ended as well (at least in their own narrow minds). Some art students are vaguely aware of Egyptian, Greek and Roman art but those eras are so long ago they tend to get locked in the back of their minds, shrouded in a foggy mist. For all intents and purposes, they consider Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael to be the first "real" artists in the history of art. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The Italian Renaissance did not simply "bloom" from nothing. Thus, those who teach high school art and college Art History 102 find themselves having to "flesh out" this all-important period with names such as Duccio, Cimabue, and Giotto. However, even that stellar cast is insufficient to explain fully the rise of the Italian Renaissance. We need to add the name, Coppo di Marcovaldo.
Crucifix in the Cathedral of Pistoia, 1274, Coppo di Marcovaldo.

If the name, Coppo di Marcovaldo, left you scratching your head and muttering, "Who?" That's to be expected. Few art history texts (and their profs) do much more than mention his name (if that). However, if the other three call up the same reaction, then by all means click on each name above and do your homework. Although Coppo was a contemporary of some these early painting masters, he was too obscure at the time to have been their instructor. He was, however, likely more than a mere acquaintance. Though his surviving works are few, there is little doubt he was a significant influence on all three.
Madonna del Bordone, ca. 1261, Coppo di Marcovaldo,
St. Maria dei Servi, Siena,  (central Italy).

Painting in Italy at the start of the 13th-century had two strains. The first was a long, evolutionary, medieval style having its roots in classical Roman antiquity. The second influence, was Byzantine, primarily in the form of mosaics, also an outgrowth of Roman antiquity but of the Eastern branch of the divided empire. By around 1250 or 1260, Byzantine mosaics were starting to spread to Italy, and more importantly, to influence painters. One of them, probably the most important of them all, was Coppo di Marcovaldo. Art historians consider him to be the first Italian painter to "marry" these two styles into a consistent style of his own, best exemplified in his Madonna del Bordone (above), ca. 1261.

Florence's San Giovanni Baptistery is located directly across the plaza from the Florence Cathedral (the Duomo). Built between 1059 and 1128,
it predates its "parent" structure by several hundred years.
If Coppo di Marcovaldo's significance rested only on a relative minor Madonna and child, or even his contribution to the Italian Renaissance painting style, he would likely deserve his place in relative obscurity. And though his firmly attributed works number less than a half-dozen, the reason we are so adamant in placing this man at the forefront of Early Renaissance painting stems from a work virtually every Florentine artist during, and long after, Coppo's fifty-one-year lifetime could not help but be influenced by--the glorious gold leaf mosaics of his Last Judgment, which dominating the dome (top) capping the San Giovanni Baptistery in Florence (above). This building, it would not be to grand to say, has long been considered the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance.

Plan of the mosaic dome : 1. Last Judgement (three sections by Coppo).  2. the lantern. 3. Choirs of Angels. 4. Stories from the Book of Genesis. 5. Stories of Joseph. 6. Stories of Mary and Christ. 7. Stories of St. John the Baptist.
Of course, the Florentine Baptistery is far better known for it three sets of cast bronze doors than its mosaic dome. The first set of doors, dating from 1329, were designed by Andrea Pisano. The second and third sets were designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti in 1401 and 1425. The eight-sided, ribbed dome was, by then, already famous, having been started about 1225 and completed sometime near the middle of the 14th-century. Coppo is credited with the three ribbed sections of the dome over the high altar.

Christ enthroned. Though a mosaic, there are many painterly
qualities to the gold leaf tiles (paint applied over the gold leaf.
This mosaic cycle depicts the Last Judgement with a gigantic, majestic Christ flanked by the Angels of Judgement on each side. The rewards of the saved leaving their tombs in joy are seen at Christ's right hand, while the punishments of the damned are depicted quite graphically at Christ's left hand. This last part is particularly famous as evil-doers are burnt by fire, roasted on spits, crushed with stones, bitten by snakes, gnawed, and chewed by hideous beasts (below).

One hell of a painting--Christianity rooted in fear.
Medieval Byzantine mosaics flavored
with Italian Renaissance painting.



  1. Once again, mind-expanding and historically interesting. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for you art appreciation.