Cover image for Painted Palaces: The Rise of Secular Art in Early Renaissance Italy By Anne Dunlop

Painted Palaces

The Rise of Secular Art in Early Renaissance Italy

Anne Dunlop


$109.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03408-9

340 pages
8.5" × 10"
161 color/41 b&w illustrations

Painted Palaces

The Rise of Secular Art in Early Renaissance Italy

Anne Dunlop

“Anne Dunlop’s Painted Palaces is a fascinating assessment of the little-known secular wall paintings that ornamented elite palaces in northern Italy from about 1250 to 1450. . . . Perhaps the attention generated by Dunlop’s groundbreaking book will result in professional photographic campaigns so that these painted palaces can take their deserved place in the canon of monuments for teaching and research.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
The emergence of the modern Western artwork is sometimes cast as a slow process of secularization, with the devotional charge of images giving way in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to a focus on the beauty and innovation of the artwork itself. Our understanding of art in this pivotal age is badly distorted, focused almost exclusively on religious and civic images. Even many Renaissance specialists believe that little secular painting survives from before the late fifteenth century, and its appearance becomes a further argument for the secularizing of art.

This book asks how history changes when a longer record of secular art is explored. It is the first study, in any language, of the decoration of Italian palaces and homes between 1300 and the mid-Quattrocento, and it argues that early secular painting was crucial to the development of modern ideas of art. Of the cycles discussed, some have been studied and published, but most are essentially unknown. A first aim is to enrich our understanding of the early Renaissance by introducing a whole corpus of secular painting that has been too long overlooked. Yet Painted Palaces is not a study of iconography. In examining the prehistory of painted rooms like Mantegna’s Camera Picta, the larger goal is to rethink the history of early Renaissance art.

“Anne Dunlop’s Painted Palaces is a fascinating assessment of the little-known secular wall paintings that ornamented elite palaces in northern Italy from about 1250 to 1450. . . . Perhaps the attention generated by Dunlop’s groundbreaking book will result in professional photographic campaigns so that these painted palaces can take their deserved place in the canon of monuments for teaching and research.”
“Anne Dunlop’s Painted Palaces provides an excellent overview of elite schemes of decoration in domestic interiors during the early Renaissance. For this, we can be very grateful, and the book fills an important lacuna in early Renaissance studies.”
Painted Palaces deserves special praise for the incentives it provides for further research. As one reads, one constantly wants to know more. It should be required reading for any serious student of the Renaissance, not least because it challenges the long-held narrative about the rise of secular art.”

Anne Dunlop is Associate Professor of History of Art and Renaissance Studies at Yale University. She is the co-editor of Art and the Augustinian Order in Early Renaissance Italy (2007).


List of Illustrations



1. “Una chasa grande, dipinta”: Palazzo Datini in Prato

2. Art, Artifice, and the Rise of the Vernacular

3. Allegory: Painted Rooms and Permeability

4. “A Certain Inborn Suffering”

5. History, Portraits, and Painting

An Epilogue: Mantegna and Mantua





la decorazione profana è un luogo non molto frequentato dalla critica . . . un labirinto non facilmente percorribile, in quanto ha motivazioni estremamente mutevoli e spesso difficili da interpretare. . . . ogni ciclo ci rinvia ad una biblioteca, ad un modo di leggere (e prima, di essere stati educati), ad una finalità sociale. Sembra essere un’opera d’arte: è in realtà, anzitutto, un fotogramma della storia della mentalità.

—Eugenio Battisti

In the castle of La Manta in Piemonte there is a painted Fountain of Love. A varied procession of cardinals and emperors, peasants and queens, travels to its waters. One old woman pushes an even older man in a wheelbarrow; she has stopped to drink from a bottle and he threatens her with a stick. They exchange insults in dialect rendered in black script against the white ground. At the edges of the fountain, grotesque seniors are scrambling over one another in their haste to join the fun. The fountain itself is an elegant gothic creation, its presiding god a small statue of Love with bow and arrow aimed at the basins of water below, where young men and women are kissing and fondling one another with broad smiles on their faces. Most are naked, though some of the ladies have retained their headdresses and the gentlemen their little briefs. To the right of the fountain, the newly young and beautiful leave in a second procession. A couple are still kissing, while at the top of the scene a man, still notably old, tries to pull a woman into a grove of trees in the background. His proposals and her protests are also written out on the wall.

Opposite this painted fountain , nine male and nine female figures stand in the elegant clothes of the early fifteenth century. They are pictured in a flowered meadow framed by slender trees, with coats of arms hanging in the branches or shown nearby. The men are famous warriors, each identified by a short rhymed verse in French below the flowered ground. Most are still familiar: the pagan heroes Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar, the Jewish heroes Joshua, King David, and Judas Maccabaeus, and the Christian King Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon, hero of the First Crusade (figs. 5, 6). The women are more obscure, and mostly Amazons and pagan queens: Delphile, Sinope, Hippolyta, Semiramis, Ethiopia, Lampedo, Tamyris, Theuca, and Penthesilea, the last now a fragment truncated at the waist. The unknown artist has carefully insisted that the elegant warriors and the greedy lovers are contiguous: across the large fireplace at the center of the short wall, the small trees that frame the heroes and heroines continue into the foliage of the fountain scene, and so does the horizon line of the meadow. The room is undocumented, but dated to about 1416–20.

This was the single large reception hall of the Quattrocento palace, and its open eroticism may seem bizarre in a ceremonial room that also holds a painted crucifix with saints in a niche between Penthesilea and the beginning of the fountain procession (fig. 12). The eighteen standing figures look more like fashion plates than warrior heroes and heroines. Even by the standards of the early Quattrocento, their clothing is extraordinarily elaborate. Each costume varies in color and cut from those closest to it, and they were carefully created: restorations in the 1980s revealed that the red hose of Judas Maccabaeus have three separate red pigments to build their tone, with a further layer of partial white glaze; King Arthur is in azurite, a blue derived from copper, over charcoal black for stability and depth. Along the length of the wall, these intense colors were punctuated by areas of armor, now lost, rendered with pastiglia covered in silvered tin and in gold leaf. Burnished and probably also glazed with colored oils, these metal leafs created areas of glittering and flashing surface reflecting the light and movement of the real bodies in the room. The play between real and fictive space seems to be pursued almost as an end in itself here: the heroes and heroines stand between small trees, and therefore notionally outside the room, but their white background is also the real whitewashed plaster painting surface of the actual wall. In all their shiny finery they hover as if against a screen, almost life-sized and just out of reach, and as if to belabor the point, both Alexander the Great and Semiramis have an orb of rule that floats against the background, apparently suspended by nothing but the awareness that painting has its own logic and rules. The artist seems to be teasing us, just as the figures in the fountain tease one another. Compared to the stoic moral examples of Quattrocento chapels or city-state reception rooms, the great hall at La Manta is a foreign world.

It is the goal of this book to explore the role of secular wall paintings like those at La Manta in the development of Renaissance art. The paintings discussed are drawn from the decoration of Italian palaces and homes between about 1300 and the mid-Quattrocento; some, like La Manta, have been studied and published, but most are essentially unknown. Almost all are anonymous, like La Manta, undocumented, undated, and located well outside the usual centers of Renaissance art. So a first aim of this book is to enrich our understanding of the early Renaissance in general by introducing a whole corpus of secular painting that has been too long overlooked. Yet in examining the prehistory of painting like Mantegna’s Camera Picta (figs. 196–99, and the last cycle to be discussed), the larger goal is to rethink the relations of early Renaissance art to its later history. The emergence of the artwork as an idea is sometimes cast as a slow process of secularization, yet to date our study of its early history has been overwhelmingly focused on religious and civic images, where the problems of “likeness” or “presence,” to take Hans Belting’s terms, seem distant from the fondling lovers and fictive games of La Manta’s painted room. It is my premise that we have been ignoring a crucial area of artistic experimentation, when many of the problem of early-modern art were first set out and explored, and we need to ask how this history changes when a longer record of secular art remains a basic and open issue in Western art why there was such a marked visual shift in Italy around 1300, and here too early secular painting can offer a different light. I hope to show that the painting of palace rooms, conceived as total fictive environments, allowed some of the first sustained thinking about the basic paradox of painting in its modern Western form: the tension between convincing imitation and the necessary falseness of art. These commissions also helped to codify an idea of the artwork that would remain in place into the modern world.

To speak of “secular” or “domestic” frescoes might seem to create a division between sacred and secular art, or private and public space, that did not exist in the period itself. The category here is large defined against our usual ideas of sacred or civic images rather than as a Renaissance category per se. I will be referring to large-scale paintings of secular rather than sacred subjects in primarily residential rather than devotional or civic spaces. The chronological framework is also in part pragmatic, moving from the earliest extant examples of the mid-thirteenth century until the mid-Quattrocento, when the first explicit codifications of art itself began to emerge. The history of domestic decoration is of course much longer. The palaces of Crete and the villas of Rome are still famous; Clement of Alexandria recorded pictures of the loves of Venus in pagan bedrooms, intended to whet the appetite, and some of the extraordinary paintings of Roman homes have come down to us. We have records of painted rooms in thirteenth-century France and England, and there are surviving fragments from thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Catalonia with subjects from military victories to fabulous monsters. But it is in Italy from the later thirteenth century that significant numbers of frescoes survive, in settings from relatively humble private palaces to the great princely estates, and the corpus is expanding every year as new fresco cycles are found under whitewash or behind false walls.

The idea that palace decoration made a specific contribution to the Renaissance is in fact as old as the first dedicated modern article on the subject, Julius von Schlosser’s 1895 study of court art. Schlosser began from the lost fresco cycles of the della Scala palace in Verona. He argued that such works gave European art a new interest in the earthly rather than the divine: the objects and images produced at the secular courts stressed the detailed imitation of everyday life, which would in turn spur the Renaissance interest in an art of observable reality rather than of symbol. More recently, Andrew Martindale suggested that secular decoration was an early and partial form of art for art’s sake: the relatively open artistic brief of palace commissions allowed artistic experimentation and innovation. Yet these painted rooms have little place in our current visual history. There is a single book in Italian, Eugenio Battisti’s Cicli pittorici, storie profane, from which the epigraph to this chapter was taken; it looks at selected rooms from the late Duecento to Futurism. In English, only C. Jean Campbell’s groundbreaking work on the frescoes of San Gimignano examines a surviving secular cycle before Pisanello’s work at Mantua. A classic study like Pietro Toesca’s monumental Trecento mentions secular painting only in passing, and the only painted room shown, at the former Visconti castle of Angera, is included in the section on architecture. Secular art was discussed briefly by Frederick Antal, but mostly through miniature and furniture painting; John White’s Art and Architecture in Italy, 1250–1400 has no examples of large-scale domestic painting, and even the more recent and inclusive Art in Renaissance Italy, by John Paoletti and Gary Radke, has only four secular cycles from the period before the 1430s, two of them lost. In recent years Italian scholars, especially Enrico Castelnuovo, have been working to publish early secular material and this book could not have been written without his work, as its bibliography attests. But most authors continue to treat early secular painting in passing, either as iconographic problems or as mirrors of social history and habitus. Even Battisti ultimately reverts to social history, as the epigraph reveals: such painting seems to be art, but is ultimately a “fotogramma,” that is, an image created by placing objects directly against a chemically treated photosensitive ground. The forms and outlines are transferred to it by exposure to light. The implication is thus of passive reproduction rather than active creation, of the passage from life to reproduction with minimal intervention of art or agency. The works are modern acheiropoieta, images not made by human hands, and their aesthetic qualities finally redundant.

What will be stressed here is precisely the emergence of a new aesthetic category, first crystallized in Trecento discussions around vernacular poetry, always potentially a figure for painting and vice versa. The most influential writers in these debates, Dante, Boccaccio, and especially Petrarch and his circle, were also early commentators on painting, including in its secular forms. These early-humanist writers adopted classical categories as appropriate subject matter—exemplary figures, scenes of love, and tales of history and war. These will in turn shape three of the five chapters of this book. But their debates also encouraged a particularly self-conscious engagement with imitation, the necessary and pleasurable falseness of art, as the veil of truth. In the wake of poststructuralism, it is a kind of definition of the artwork that it makes visible the conditions and the limits of its own possibility, and it has also been suggested, by Sven Sandström among others, that all wall painting ends up engaging with relations of real and fictive space. For Sandström, again among others, the increasing sophistication of this engagement is a main development of the High Renaissance: it is the sign of the emerging idea of the modern artwork itself. Yet the longer history of secular painting suggests the sophistication of the Cinquecento was by no means new, and paintings like those at La Manta depend on a model of art that shaped later thinking and we have been slow to recognize: such rooms were simultaneously external examples to be self-consciously imitated and the already-incorporated projections of the viewer’s own mind.

To make this argument, I have organized the book thematically. Because my goal is to explore the development of large-scale painting, I offer only a limited discussion of other objects and artforms, including the sometimes-related imagery of cassoni, textiles, and small-scale sculpture. The discussion will also occasionally blur categories usually kept separate, including, for instance, placing the French-bedecked frescoes at La Manta or the amusements of Flemish gardens alongside Dante, Petrarch, and even Alberti. It will be clear that in the early Renaissance these circles were not so separate. The court elites of Italy, and of Europe more generally, formed a small and incestuous world around the paintings and writings I will discuss. To offer one chain of examples: Ricciarda da Saluzzo, daughter of the lord of La Manta, became the third wife of Niccolò d’Este, ruler of Ferrara, under whom a Camera di Ercole was painted, discussed in Chapter 2. Niccolò’s first wife, Gigliola da Carrara, was the daughter of the ruler of Padua and Niccolò’s childhood tutor Donato degli Albanzani, friend and follower of Petrarch, who wrote a version of the story of Patient Griselda, notionally an ancestor of Ricciarda da Saluzzo. And the state of Saluzzo was closely tied to the French royal court.

The first chapter is a practical one, intended to establish the basic issues and conditions of palace decoration. It is focused on the 1391 commissions of Francesco Datini, better known as the “Merchant of Prato.” The paintings are unique among surviving examples because they have associated documentation. In this single case, we have information about the artists, when they worked, and what they painted; we know what materials were used, how they have changed over time, and how long it took to do the job. Sadly, we also learn what might go wrong. Beyond this, however, the Datini commissions suggest how paintings might be used to create imagined spaces and associations within the lived space of the home, making them a useful introduction to palace painting more generally.

With this framework in place, the book moves to broader issues and themes. The second chapter begins from the elaborate visual fiction of the Camera di Ercole of the Palazzo Paradiso in Ferrara, done at the end of the Trecento, where scenes of Hercules’ adventures have been set in a painted architecture with elegant courtiers looking on. The tension between the illusion created and the awareness of the painter’s artifice is pervasive in secular frescoes, and in the early Renaissance more generally. It is explored here in painting and in other artforms, including sculpture and even automata. I will argue that imitation acquired a new urgency around 1300: in the debates about the status of vernacular poetry that defined early humanist culture, the “veil” of imitation became the very sign of art, and Trecento elites were primed to focus on this aspect of a work. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the Room of the Arts and Planets in the Palazzo Trinci at Foligno where the theoretical linking of painting and poetry has been given a striking and concrete form.

As vernacular poetry was defined, three types of subject matter were sanctioned for it, corresponding roughly to allegory, stories of love, and history painting. The categories were not new, but their extension to a recognizably secular realm was crucial. The next three chapters take each of these forms in turn. The first looks at allegory, particularly in the Palazzo Del Sale of about 1360 in Ferrara, where the artists have carefully quoted famous early images, most notably Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescoes. Borrowed from religious exegesis and Latinate culture, allegory emerged in the early Renaissance as the basic model for interpreting both poetry and painting; the fiction of the poem or image veiled a deeper truth, and demanded that the reader or viewer actively construct the links between appearance and meaning. The frescoes at Ferrara seem to comment on this doubled status of images. An important theme of this chapter is the role of memory in this work: I will argue that these painted rooms were also understood as projections of their patron-viewers’ minds.

The fourth chapter, on images of love, is an exploration of the Camera d’Amore at Sabbionara d’Avio, north of Verona, done about 1340, and of the frescoes at La Manta. Scenes of love are among the most widespread secular images. Love was a preeminent subject for poetry, and love and art were analogous, depending on the viewer’s permeability to the world through the eye. Yet in the early Renaissance this permeability became troubling across a range of disciplines. One account of the rise of the modern subject—the civilizing process in Norbert Elias’s terms—is a history of the closing down of the orifices of the body in the public sphere. Elias traced the shifts in manners that set barriers at the points where the body was permeable to the world; Mikhail Bakhtin traced the preeminence of those same openings in the grotesque body of carnival and humor. In the public sphere, tears alone are an acceptable body fluid. But in the early Renaissance the eyes were still as much orifice as orb, and theorists from Petrarch to Alberti seem to have worried about the lover or viewer’s permeability to the world. One aspect of Renaissance art theory can be seen as an attempt to close off and protect the viewer from the image outside.

The final chapter examines an aspect of what would later be called history painting, where contemporary history and past narratives are merged. It focuses on cycles of family history, and on paintings of the antique past where the contemporary patron has been included. The discussion begins with the celebration of the deeds of Ottone Visconti at the fortress of Angera, and the oddly archaic images of the so-called Casa delle Guardie at Sabbionara, which apparently show events from recent political history. The longest discussion looks at the uneasy engagement with the classical past in Foligno’s Palazzo Trinci, where both the donor portrait and antique objects have literally been inserted into a larger history.

In the guise of a conclusion, the book ends with a short epilogue on Mantegna’s famous painted room at Mantua. Placed in the longer history from which it emerged, it strikingly embraces the experiments in painting and palace decoration of the previous two hundred years.

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