The Campo Santo, in Cathedral Square, Pisa, is one of the most important buildings in the history of taste and collecting. Amongst the frescoes covering the walls are “Stories of the Old Testament” by the quattrocento painter Bennozo Gozzoli.
Fate has not been kind to Gozzoli: his works have been assaulted by damp, wartime bombing and fire; his reputation has been continually eroded by art historians like Crowe and Cavalcaselle and Berenson. Here's one of Gozzoli's damaged frescoes- "Drunkenness of Noah".
Yet in the early 19th century, Gozzoli’s frescoes were considered significant enough for the curator at Campo Santo, Carlo Lasinio, to engrave them. Appointed to this post in 1807, Lasinio lost no time in making prints of the wall paintings there, presumably with a view to preserving them since they may not even have been in robust condition in the first decade of the nineteenth-century.
Interestingly, as the curator of the current exhibition on Pre-Raphaelite drawing points out, Ruskin was far from impressed with Lasinio’s prints; to summarise Ruskin, Lasinio’s prints lacked beauty, power of expression and reduced all artists to a monotonous placement of figure, with no regard for the distinctions between different artists, e.g. Giotto and Gozzoli. Two years before his attack on Lasinio’s prints, Ruskin had actually been at the Campo Santo where he took the opportunity to make drawings of the frescoes there. As he observed with no little sadness, “these wonderful monuments are rotting every day.” A number of his drawings were on view in another exhibition recently, and one of these is an interesting object for study. This is a pen drawing over pencil; its subject is “Abraham parting from the Angels”, taken from Gozzoli’s fresco.
The drawing is all line, hardly any tonality at all, certainly no attempt to make the line tonal. To my eye, it seems as if Ruskin is trying to project these figures stylistically back into the trecento, an odd approach because Gozzoli’s frescoes at Campo Santo date from the 15th century. The draughtsman has treated aspects of the figures in an archaic manner; the eyes seem to me to be too gothic for Gozzoli, his figures are more natural than this. There’s neither grace nor beauty in this drawing, qualities that are discernible in Gozzoli. It’s interesting that Ruskin doesn’t make these figures beautiful, unless you equate the gothic with beauty, which this writer doesn’t. Dare I say it? In some ways, Lasinio’s prints may be truer to the frescoes than Ruskin’s drawings. Ruskin is far too idiosyncratic to get an objective view of how he saw stylistic development in Italian painting.
Never mind distinguishing Giotto from Gozzoli. Ruskin seems to be blending the two artists together. He also made drawings after what he thought were frescoes by Giotto, but were in fact by his pupil or follower, Taddeo Gaddi. One of these was a drawing after a scene with Job and his friends, all but obliterated when Ruskin saw it: “Giotto’s Job is all gone-two of his Friends’ faces and some servants are all that can be made out.” Here's Lasinio's print of the "Job", more legible when the curator reproduced it.
Ruskin drew the right hand side of this; Job in his misery was invisible to the Englishman. This sheet is just pencil on paper, in the same uncompromising linear style as the Gozzoli sheet, although the outlines are difficult to see because presumably Ruskin wanted to convey the fragile condition of the frescoes in 1845.
Other painters had made the same mistake as Ruskin. For example, the Scottish artist David Wilkie had made an excursion to Campo Santo in 1824 and much admired the frescoes, thinking some of them were by Giotto. Wilkie even demanded to know why the Royal Academy couldn’t have copies made of the Campo Santo frescoes. Here’s what the Campo Santo would have looked like in his day.
However, it would be left to a truly remarkable woman connoisseur, Lady Callcott, to revive awaken interest in Giotto. She would visit Giotto’s real paintings at the Arena Chapel, Padua and write a monograph on them. Here’s one of her drawings from her Descriptions, Giotto via Flaxman, to my eye.
The influence of the Arena Chapel and Giotto is another story, but the most momentous chapter in the Campo Santo’s story had yet to be told: its influence on Holman-Hunt, Rossetti and other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who would study Lasinio’s prints after early renaissance art in order to create a graphic style, a subject I shall return to after re-visiting the exhibition and reading the book that accompanies it, just arrived!
I learnt a lot about Campo Santo from Francis Haskell’s indispensable Wrightsman lectures, published as Rediscoveries in Art.