These paintings from the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries—what is referred to as the Early Italian Renaissance—are traditionally called “gold grounds” because of the gold applied broadly to their surfaces, the precious metal signaling the divine realm of the Christian figures and stories, distinct from the everyday, earthly world that their viewers inhabit. The paintings are all fragments, in a sense: originally components of larger altarpiece complexes installed in churches and chapels, they brought honor to their altars through their decoration and precious materials. Giving visual form to sacred figures and stories from the Bible, the paintings aided worshippers in their devotion, including the many people who could not, in this period, read.
The cracks in the gold surfaces reveal a reddish color underneath. This is bole, a type of finely ground clay that was laid down on the panel as a base for the gold, which was applied in leaves—that is, gold pounded into extremely thin sheets. In the early Renaissance, gold could come to the Italian peninsula from as far away as Africa, across the Sahara, and, then as now, gold was an extremely expensive material. Ultramarine, the deep blue pigment often used to paint the clothing of the Virgin Mary, was also extremely precious, made from finely ground lapis lazuli that had been imported from Afghanistan. In the paintings by Paolo Veneziano and Gentile da Fabriano, the representation of sumptuous woven textiles as clothing and cloths of honor bear witness to the impact on Italian art of precious textiles imported from the east, through trade routes to Persia (today’s Iran), China, and elsewhere.
Toward the end of the fifteenth century, Italian artists would come to replace their gold backgrounds with more naturalistic blue skies. The legacy of paintings in this room by Cimabue, Duccio, Piero della Francesca, and others can be seen in the intensely naturalistic blue sky of Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert, just a few galleries away, in which the natural, earthly world could also be home to the divine.