The Meiss Thesis And Its Reception

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In 1951 art historian Millard Meiss published a groundbreaking study of the Black Death and its impact on artistic style and content in the Italian cities of Florence and Siena. As Meiss saw it, the horrors of the pestilence shocked patrons of religious paintings into abandoning a halfcentury of artistic development in favor of an older and perhaps more reverent and spiritually effective style. Pre-1348 painters such as the Florentine Giotto and Siena's Lorenzetti brothers had created both religious and secular art that depicted humanity in natural rather than supernatural or spiritual terms. They portrayed human emotions such as fear, anger, and sorrow and set their stories in pictorial spaces that were meant to mimic the physical world. They treated humanity with optimism, finding it to be morally good and worthy of careful observation; they found the environment to be "orderly, substantial, extended, traversable."7 Their patrons loved their work because they shared the artists' optimism and positive outlook on humanity.

As Meiss saw it, patrons and artists believed that God rebuked this orderly world and its good people through the punishment of pestilence. Human arrogance and pride may have been the very sins targeted by the divine arrows. Post-Plague art was now meant "to magnify the realm of the divine while reducing that of the human." The miraculous and mysterious replaced the natural, familiar, and human. Guilt-ridden merchants and bankers expressed their newfound penitence in paintings that glorified the divine and properly humbled humanity. For Meiss this art was "more religious in a traditional sense, more ecclesiastical, and more akin to the art of an earlier time."8 New elites who emerged from or immigrated into urban society joined the old elites in preferring art of an older fashion: their tastes had not been formed in the stylish big city, but in cultural backwaters. In Meiss' view, the Black Death retarded the artistic evolution toward Renaissance-style realism and humanism for several decades. His is a bold thesis that seems to make clear linkages between societal change and anxiety and artistic style and content.

While praising Meiss's scholarly contribution overall, critics have undermined his big picture by attacking it in detail. Several specific paintings on which he relied, including the famous "Triumph of Death" mural in the Camposanto in Pisa, have been proven to predate the Black Death. Such revision is important for showing that certain morbid artistic themes that Meiss thought were prompted by the Black Death actually predated the pestilence.

A post-1348 Florentine panel painting called the "Strozzi Altarpiece" provided Meiss with the perfect example of a powerful divine image that supported his claim of a reversion to older style and content supposedly typical of the "sober post-plague culture." Against a gold background a rigidly seated Christ stares statically out at the viewer while handing the keys of Heaven to St. Peter on one side and a book representing correct doctrine to St. Thomas Aquinas—the Dominican theologian—on the other. The Virgin Mary presents Thomas to her Son and a frontally staring John the Baptist stands behind Peter, while four other standing saints fill out the wings. Art historian Bruce Cole emphasizes the connection of the altarpiece to the chapel in which it still hangs. He relates the somber tone to the Strozzi family burial chamber beneath the chapel rather than the Black Death more broadly, and the style to that of a Last Judgment depicted on the chapel's wall. The theme and specific saints were actually chosen not by the "guilt-ridden" banker Tommaso Strozzi who paid for it, but by the Dominican friar and scholar Piero Strozzi, who ran Santa Maria Novella, in whose church the chapel and painting are located. Another art historian, Diana Norman, demonstrates that the work combines qualities that are both naturalistic (treatment of clothing) and spiritualized (the staring, unapproachable Christ figure). For her, if one considers Cole's points, the painting fits in perfectly with works immediately preceding it and does not reflect any major changes claimed by Meiss. A third critic, Louise Marshall, finds nothing neurotic or fearful in depicting the formal, unapproachable Christ. She notes in the work "hierarchical relationships of mutual obligation between worshipper and image." She sees here embodied the idea that Christ is distant but can be approached, and interprets this, as she does other works, as proactive: people are taking steps toward lessening God's anger and regaining the proper, humble but positive relationship with him.9

Despite criticisms of specific cases, Meiss' observation that art changed stylistically because of the Black Death has been supported in part by art historian Henk Van Os. Van Os, however, discredits the idea that any change was due to cultural gloominess or a shift in spirit. Rather, Van Os believes it stemmed from the demographic fact that many key artists and patrons died. In hard-hit Siena large workshops in which artistic training took place collapsed as masters such as the Lor-enzettis died suddenly. New partnerships formed among artists, changing creative relationships. Also, the Sienese government—a major patron— changed radically in the mid-1350s, ending an era of great public com missions that helped shape artistic taste. Suddenly wealthy "new men" (novi homines) entered public life, bringing with them simpler and more traditional artistic tastes. According to Van Os, it was for these reasons, rather than any new religious spirit, that Sienese painting became less sophisticated and more rustic. Picking up Van Os' theme, art historian Judith Steinhoff argues that surviving Sienese painters actually reshuffled themselves quite consciously into new partnerships. The sudden deaths of artistic leaders and the decline in new commissions and income— prices for works fell 50 percent—resulted in artists combining their styles, talents, and even tools on what few new projects there were. The "previous norms of stylistic unity" fell away as individuals' styles intermingled and affected one another. Steinhoff agrees with Van Os that art patronage by less sophisticated "new men" fostered the creation of less sophisticated art, but she thinks that these patrons ignored style rather than reshaped it.10

As Steinhoff points out, this Sienese trend of collaboration ended after the second outbreak of pestilence in 1363, largely because the art market revived. Historian Samuel Cohn has done much to demonstrate that a real shift in cultural values and artistic expression occurred after this second outbreak, when people realized that the great menace could return. Meiss had claimed that the "denial of the values of individuality" was reflected in post-Plague art, but Cohn finds no such denial in the culture. Italians developed a great concern with being remembered that expressed itself in chapel-building, art patronage, and gift-giving. They had witnessed the mass graves swallow hundreds who left not a trace behind; they had watched as entire families died off. During their lifetimes, and especially in their last wills, people of means associated their wealth and names with religious and charitable donations and the foundation of hospitals and orphanages. Their names, coats of arms, and images suddenly appeared on religious artworks of all kinds: paintings, vessels and vestments for Mass, candlesticks, banners, windows, and altar cloths. Identification of oneself with the church or saints ensured not only spiritual benefits, but also the earthly benefits of being remembered and hopefully prayed for. Cohn found that after 1363, Italian wills became much more specific in detailing how money was to be spent on forms of commemoration: instead of lots of small bequests to churches or monasteries or the poor, the wills now often contained directions for large building projects or works of art. Not every person could afford to commission a painting, but Cohn found that butchers, cobblers, bakers, blacksmiths, and even a gardener could.11

Florentine merchant Francesco Datini fit this pattern perfectly. His father's will of 1348 scattered bequests across every religious establishment in Prato (see Document 7). Francesco's will, however, specified in great detail how his enormous wealth was to be used to create a well-appointed foundation named for him to support the same town's orphans. Shortly after Francesco's death in 1410 his wife had huge frescoes of him performing charitable activities painted on the outside of their grand palazzo in Prato, near Florence.12 The outlines can still be seen. This concern for commemoration of the individual person in the face of the Plague led directly to the humanistic concern for artistic realism that will be the hallmark of Renaissance art of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Meiss' thesis may have its flaws, but its bold assertions have drawn scholars to confront them creatively and thus reshape our view of the Plague's effects along more accurate—and perhaps even more interesting—lines.

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