1200s were “interesting times” in Italy (as the Chinese
say when they want to curse an age). Frederick II of Hohenstaufen,
the greatest anti-papal emperor in the history of the Holy
Roman Empire was dead and his kingdom of Sicily had been
taken over by the Angevin
French with the spiritual, financial and armed support of
the Papacy in Rome. Things were looking up for the Eternal
City as various important families jockeyed to get
relatives elected Pope and to build churches and
commission artists to decorate them.
rather suddenly, it all changed: Pope Boniface VIII died
in 1303 (and promptly went to Hell, according to Dante)
and subsequent familial infighting in Rome led Clement V
(born in France and Pope from 1305-1314) to move the Holy
See to Avignon, where it stayed for 75 years.
If you were a Roman artist trying to make a living from decorating churches in Rome after 1305, you would have noticed that commissions were drying up, which is not a bad reason to leave Rome for somewhere else, which is what Pietro Cavallini (c. 1250-c.1330) did in 1308 when he moved to Naples. We have scant details about his life, but at least we know that he was a painter and mosaic designer regarded today as one of the founders of the medieval school called “Roman naturalism.” Though Giotto is still considered the great master of the early Renaissance, Cavallini’s position has gained considerably since the rediscovery of some of his works, such as the fresco of The Last Judgment in Santa Cecilia in Rome in 1900. In any event, in an age when artists seldom signed their works, he is apparently the first medieval artist who was identified in the sense that artists were later identified (“Ah, yes," we say, "Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.” And so you can say “Ah, yes. Cavallini’s Last Judgment in the Santa Cecilia.” Before Cavallini, apparently you said, “Ah, yes. That’s nice. Who’s it by, and why should I care?”)
thing to emerge (from studying who got what commissions in
Rome in the late 1200s and early 1300s) was that Cavallini
was not particularly well regarded by his contemporaries.
He was out of step with the reigning archaism of religious
art in Rome at the time —that is, the tendency to
reproduce the Byzantine style of early Christian art.
Cavallini abandoned that style and replaced it with
solidity; his life-likeness and three-dimensionality (at
times, almost bulky like a piece of sculpture) —marks of
“naturalism”— were out of step with his times. He did not
get as many commissions as he deserved, and that, together
with general dearth of commissions in Rome combined to
make him leave Rome for the Angevin court of Naples just
as the throne of Naples passed to Robert the Wise, a great
patron of the arts remembered by both Petrarch and
Boccaccio as a man of culture and a generous patron of the
arts. It was a time when major religious buildings in
Naples such as the church of San
Domenico Maggiore and Donnaregina (new) were
still being built and when even the Duomo, itself, was just a few
years old and still being decorated. Naples was a fertile
and welcoming place for artists such as Cavallini.
are three extant documents in the Naples archives that
speak of commissions and payments in favor of "magister Petrus Cavallinus
de Roma pictor " in 1308 and 1309. Although there
is some difficulty in properly attributing art to specific
artists from that period, there is no doubt that Cavallini
worked during his ten-year sojourn in Naples. Reliably
attributed to him are the frescoes in the Brancaccio
chapel in the church of S.
Domenico Maggiore, dated to 1308. These
frescoes, restored in 1960, had partially faded but are
now visible. They are The
History of Saints Andrew and John, on the back
wall; The Martyrdom of
St. John the Evangelist as well as a Crucifixion, on the
left wall; Stories of
Mary Magdalene as well as a Noli me tangere, on
the right wall. Still in the church of San Domenico
Maggiore, in the fourth chapel on the right, there is a
fragment of Cavallini's rendition of the father of
Christian monasticism, Anthony the Abbot.
In the church of S. Maria Donnaregina, Cavallini also
worked on the decorations of the nave, the triumphal arch
and the Loffredo chapel, completed in 1317 and 1318,
although it is difficult to attribute these items with
precision. Some murals in San Lorenzo Maggiore in Naples
may also be by Cavallini.
Some items in the Naples Duomo are attributed to Cavallini: the recently discovered frescoes in the Tocco chapel and a rendition of St. Asprenas, both of which are stylistically similar to Cavallini's work in the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere in Rome. Also, in the "church within a church" in the Duomo —that is, Santa Restituta— there is a fragment of The Last Judgment as well as a rendition of St. Nicolas in the Minutolo chapel. There are a few other "iffy" attributions to Cavallini in Naples, such as the portrait of Umberto d'Ormont now in the Archbishops' residence across from the church of Donna Regina. Other, more difficult attributions in the Campania region of Italy include frescoes in the apse of the church of S. Salvatore a Capua; some frescoes in the church of S. Angelo d'Alife in Caserta; the Dormitio Virginis in the church of Santa Maria a Piazza ad Aversa in the province of Caserta; and the giant St. Christopher in the 13th-century chapel of the convent of Santa Chiara Vecchia in Nola, near Naples. Cavallini returned to Rome and was again working there by 1321.
reputation at his death had increased steadily, and he was
given the honor of a burial in San Paolo fuori le Mura in Rome.
Interestingly, his reputation went into decline after
Giorgio Vasari’s Le
Vite delle più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed
architettori (Lives of the Most Excellent
Painters, Sculptors, and Architects) was published in
1550.*note (Vasari was notoriously
biased in favor of Florentine art; he explained away the
Roman Cavallini as one of Giotto’s pupils. That is almost
certainly not the case, and many critics, if anything, now
turn it around and say that Cavallini influenced Giotto.
Indeed, it has even been put forth that the frescoes in
Assisi in the cycle of the Life of Francis might be by Cavallini,
although some say it was Giotto and yet others say that
the creator was an anonymous Master of Assisi.* Me? I
don’t know.) The discovery of Cavallini’s Last Judgment in the
Santa Cecilia church in Rome in 1900 started the current
*note: Giorgio Vasari
(1511–1574) was a painter, architect, and art
historian. In the field of biographies of artists, he
was the benchmark; everyone strove to be "another
For an account of an amusing episode in the normally
yawnful annals of art criticism involving one of these
would-be Vasaris " see this link to "The Art of Faking Art History".
Hetherington. Grove Art Online, entry “Pietro
-Paul Hetherington. “Pietro Cavallini, Artistic Style and Patronage in Medieval Rome” in The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 114, No. 826, Jan. 1972, pp. 4-10.
*I am indebted to
both Prof. Barbara Saromines-Ganne of the University of
Hawaii and Laura Papallo of Hartford, Connecticut for
insight and information about Cavallini, especially
about the debate over the Assisi frescoes.