Saturday, 30 April 2016

Fount of Knowledge.

In the previous post I mentioned admiring the Fontana Maggiore, a medieval sculptural ensemble in Perugia's Piazza Grande. This is a bit of an understatement. Really it should be as famous as the Parthenon sculptures or the Sistine Chapel, not particularly because of the quality of the work - though it is superb - but because it represents a moment when humanity took a step towards a more enlightened and less superstitious world view. It's 1278, in Western Europe; there are two powerful forces, the church and papacy, and the temporal power of the feudal system based on unquestioning obligation - peasant to lord, lord to duke, duke to king, king to pope - who is God's right hand man on Earth. It's a deeply conservative system where thought and individual action are strictly controlled and limited. If you look at a Last Judgement scene depicted on a Romanesque or Gothic cathedral what you see represented is a terrifying Theocracy - think Saudi Arabia without proper drains.

The only courts in Europe with a more liberal and tolerant culture were the Islamic caliphate in Andalusia and the Norman kingdom of Sicily. Here study of classical texts in mathematics, medicine and philosophy flourished and began to spread north, not because the feudal system weakened, but because a third influential vested interest began to emerge. Increased trade led to the development of mercantile cities, and with them new secular institutions such as guilds, burghers and charitable confraternities, each keen to assert their status by commissioning building projects, utilising recently rediscovered classical knowledge in mathematics and science - Everything I have just said is writ clear in the Fontana Maggiore if you care to look.

The fountain, positioned between the Duomo and the City Hall - but paid for by the civic authorities - a key moment.
The new public fountain was commissioned by the civic authorities in 1275 to celebrate the completion of a new five mile long aqueduct to supply water to Perugia's expanding population - urban development and civic power leads to the application of science - eg. advanced hydrology. The renowned Pisan sculptors, Nicola and Giovanni Pisano were commissioned to decorate the fountain - mercantile wealth leads to cultural interchange. The resultant relief sculptures, completed in 1278, are testament to a pivotal moment in the history of Humanism. 

The depiction of the founding of Rome might be regarded as  a deliberate provocation on the part of the civic authorities to the predominance of the church.
The monument consists of two polygonal drums, one above the other. Each plane is decorated with relief sculpture in a naturalistic style typical of the Pisano. Panels on upper drum depict ecclesiastical authority.

The top drum re-iterates ecclesiastical orthodoxy - King David, I presume...

The lower drum celebrates the temporal, the secular and the earthly.

Labours of the seasons linked to signs of the zodiac - typical of contemporary manuscript iconography.
The naturalistic relief style - revolutionary!
The panels representing harvest remind me of Classical iconography associated with Demeter.


Today the fountain is topped by figure of a nymph pouring water from an amphora. This is a later addition. Originally the monument was crowned by bronze cast griffons, the mythical beasts are one of Perugia's heraldic symbols.

The nymph on the top is a later addition.
My favourite panel depicts Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It's not just the anatomical accuracy and verisimilitude which is so impressive, but the scene is realised with a psychological acumen not seen for 800 years in Roman sculpture. What makes the Pisano such pioneers is the mix of naturalism, classical influences and humanism not achieved again for another 150 years. The work here prefigures early Renaissance sculptors such as Donatello. 

How did the Pisano acquire their understanding of Roman relief sculpture?
I hope I can convince you that Perugia's fountain really does deserve to be considered one of the most significant works in European art. The really good news is that in three important respects it exceeds works such as the Parthenon sculptures or the Sistine chapel. Firstly you don't have pay to look at it; secondly, there is no queue; and finally it is surrounded by chocolate shops. It is this latter quantity that launches the Fontana Maggiore into a league that neither Phidias nor Michelangelo could ever match.

High art and chocolate shops, an irresistible combination.

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