Dante’s icons

Mar 10, 2021 | Art-Test News, Exhibitions, Publications, Studies and Projects

Almost 720 years ago, March 10, 1302, “Alighieri Dante is convicted of bartering, fraud, falsehood, wilful misconduct, malice, unfair extortion practices, illicit proceeds, pederasty, and is sentenced to a fine of 5000 florins, perpetual disqualification from public office , perpetual exile (in absentia), and if he is taken, burned at the stake, so that he dies “(Book of the nail – State Archives of Florence)

The accusations were spurious, it was a political revenge, but Dante was still condemned along with four others, all in default.

And from that moment on, he never saw his homeland again.

But how was the Florence he was leaving?

“The city Dante lived in was full of construction sites, where the municipality and the Church were spending a lot, and giving work to crowds of workers, to create the Florence that we know, and that Dante, (…), never saw completed: from 1279 the construction site of Santa Maria Novella was open, from 1284 that of the Badia, from 1295 that of Santa Croce, from 1296 that of Santa Maria del Fiore, from 1299 that of Palazzo Vecchio. Like London or New York today, Florence pulsed with life and money, and changed face without regret or concern for the past “, writes Alessandro Barbero in” Dante “(Ed. Laterza, 2020)

But which artworks, of those that remained till today, did he manage to see?

Surely Cimabue‘s Crucifix, made between 1280 and 1285 for Santa Croce in Florence, and also that by Giotto – the artist was practically the same age of Dante – painted between 1285 and 1290 for Santa Maria Novella.

As Alessandro Barbero has often recalled, the Middle Ages, the times in which Dante lived, was certainly not a dark and barbaric era. Even in painting, as we know, these were revolutionary and positive years.

The Byzantine dogma of the icons that substantiate the divinity and have a precise place in the iconostasis, the area intended for the liturgy, was subverted.

The icons, probably because they were initially treated as relics in the West, and therefore worthy of a place on the altar, were no longer forced into the iconostasis’s space and could therefore take on any shape and size, offering much more freedom to artists.

Freedom of expression and recognition of social status that allow Giotto to invent a new language and the art to go from having to imitate jewellery to be considered precious, to enchanting for its ability to represent real life.

It is a fascinating journey that we discussed at the 2015 “Paths to Europe” Conference in Brussels and that you can find in the database of the works of the Pinacoteca di Siena, which documents this extraordinary moment, which now, also thanks to the undisputed communication skills of Barbero, is rediscovered.

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