First Landscape in Western Art
There are different opinions among the scholars about which painting represents the first true landscape in Western art. True landscape means a picture featuring the landscape as the principal subject, not just an element complementary to the representation of human figures. The Chinese art, reflecting the Buddhist pantheism, has produced works of pure landscapes already in the XI and XII centuries. In western art, the Christian religion places the man and the man’s action at the centre of his interest. We do not find examples of pure landscapes until the 1400s, with the drawings of Leonardo and Dürer. However, to find a significant work, not a sketch, we must wait until the first decade of 1500. This work is the very famous Tempest, by Giorgione, dated between 1500 and 1510. The painting contains two human figures in the foreground (a soldier and a woman nursing a baby) but their presence is overcome by the spectacle of the nature. A lightning illuminates the sky and the palaces in the background and brings the nature to the attention of the spectator with a strength that had never been seen before. However, the interpretation of the scene is uncertain and the scholars are still debating about this, so there is not unanimous consent (but on which subject there is unanimous consent in art?) that this can really be considered the first landscape in the history of art.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Landscapes
Ambrogio Lorenzetti is a painter active in Siena in the first half of XIV century. He goes especially famous for the Allegory of Good and Bad Government in the Town Hall of Siena. The frescoes cover three walls of the Sala dei Nove (the Salon of Nine: the room where the nine citizens governing the city had their meetings). I find that the civic sense emanating from these frescoes is moving. The Tuscans in XIV century had an exact idea of what the government means and the effects it has on the city. In the part of the fresco that represents the effect of the good government on the city, Lorenzetti has produced an urban landscape, expanding the experience of Giotto in the frescoes of St Francis, dated about 40 years before. He has used the perspective in a way to render the whole city as a set of buildings harmoniously arranged in more layers. On another wall of the room Lorenzetti has depicted the effect of the good government in the country. He has depicted the hills around Siena neatly tended by the men’s work. It is a landscape, but the nature appears under the full control of the man, subjected, as the city, to the effects of his government. While in the painting by Giorgione, 170 years after, the nature is completely freed from the man.
Two other paintings attributed to Lorenzetti and conserved at the Siena’s Pinacotheque, attest the original interest of this artist for the relationship between the man and the nature. In the City by the Sea, another urban landscape, the man is present only through the ordered set of buildings inside the walls that compose a typical Tuscan city (probably Talamone) of the period, with the fortified Town Hall in a dominant position, the church and the several towers to spot the enemies. The human signs are less evident in the other landscape, known as Castle by a Lake. The castle is half hidden by the cliff in the foreground, only a boat on the lake shore and the cultivated fields testify the active presence of the man.. These paintings can rightly aspire to the title of “first landscape in western art”, a century and a half before the drawings by Leonardo and Dürer and the Tempest by Giorgione.
The Naturalism of Giotto
Along the Medieval period, the representation of the landscape had been obscured by the religious sentiment. This sentiment had forced to see every particular of the terrain existence subordinated to the ultra-terrain life. The objects and the elements of the nature had lost their natural consistency to become symbols of the spiritual life, so they were depicted with a scarce attention and stylized. A new attention towards the rendering of the natural world begins with the works of Giotto, at the root of the multi-secular period that Vasari has globally called Renaissance. Giotto uses the landscape to set the environment where he inserts the religious stories. The details are realistic and a first rudimental perspective is used to make the representation more natural. We can find examples of this new naturalist rendering of the landscape in the frescoes of the St. Francis church in Assisi. In St. Francis Giving His Mantle, Giotto sets the scene on a background that describes the territory where the Saint has lived: the walls of Assisi on the left and a monastery on the right side, perched on the rugged hills of that territory. In the Homage of a Simple Man, probably a work of the Giotto’s pupils, the background faithfully reproduces the square in Assisi, with the Town Hall and the temple of Minerva.
Guidoriccio by Simone Martini
Contemporary to Giotto, Simone Martini, from Siena, was one of the very few artists able to compete for fame with the Master of Florence. He is attributed, with some dispute, a large fresco in the Siena’s Town Hall (Palazzo Pubblico) showing an episode of the fierce rivalry between the Tuscan cities during the Middle Age. The leader of the Siena troops, Guidoriccio da Fogliano, is going to the attack of the Montemassi Castle in Maremma. Representing this scene, Simone had to face a couple of problems at least. First, he had to give the right emphasis to the captain: he was a mercenary, but nevertheless he was embodying the power of the city of Siena. Then, he had to make recognizable the places where the war happened. Simone paints a big warrior on horseback and poses him in profile at the centre of the scene. He is the only man in the painting, silhouetted against a fabulous and realistic landscape at the same time, featuring the camp and the contended castles, with a non realistic perspective where Guidoriccio in the foreground and the castles in the background, far from the observer, are rendered with the same precision. Simone uses a unique tonality, the typical colour of the hills around Siena, for the castles, the territory and the mantles covering the horse and Guidoriccio.
The Perspective, Piero della Francesca and Leonardo da Vinci
The great innovation of the XV century is the discovery of the perspective. Thanks to the works of Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti, the artists can know and experience the rules and the techniques which allow a more exact representation of the landscape. Piero della Francesca (1416 – 1492) was a mathematician as well as a painter. He sets his paintings with a geometrical order and uses rigorously the rules that he has later codified in his book De Prospectiva Pingendi. Piero adopts the perspective to represent the endless landscapes that are on the background of the Double Portrait of the Dukes of Urbino. In the landscape on the background of the Baptism of Christ, the details are rendered with a high precision. The row of trees which begins in the very foreground gives an exact idea of the distance and the proportions between the persons and the objects. The colour of the sky vanishes near the horizon to suggest the distance and the depth.
Leonardo theorizes the “aerial perspective” in his writings. He observes that farther away objects appear to vanish to the human eye by the effect of the atmosphere. He uses this technique, the famous “sfumato”, in an early work such as the Annunciation, to render the distance of the mountains in the background. We find the same technique in the very much debated landscape behind Mona Lisa.
A Standard City
In this urban landscape, attributed, among the others, to Piero delle Francesca, the perspective is used to render the rationality of the ideal city, based upon a perfect proportion between the square, the buildings and the streets. The figure of the man is absent from the painting, but the project of the city is strictly under the human control and represents the greatest capacity of the man (according to the humanist thought): the ability to think in mathematical terms.
The Aerial Perspective of Leonardo
The shade of the mountains in the background gives the idea of their distance. The territory represented by Leonardo in this early painting is not been individuated with certainty, but many particulars belong to the Valle dell'Arno.
The Venetian School
In Veneto, Giorgione and Titian, more interested in colouring than in drawing, assimilate and develop the technique of “sfumato” firstly used by Leonardo. They give life to the “tonalism”, the “trademark” of the Venetian School, that very synthetically can be described as a way to outline the contours of the objects using colours of different tonalities. Their works are preceded by artists such as Mantegna and, even more, by his brother in law Giovanni Bellini. The Agony in the Garden is a subject treated by both the artists more or less in the same years (1457 - 1459). In both paintings the landscape has a relevant role and occupies a large part of the canvas. We note the finely rendered details in the work by Mantegna: the fruit tree in the foreground that repeats the movement of the Lord kneeling to pray, the brook and the bushes on the hillside. The city on the top of the hill is a Jerusalem with monuments that may recall the ancient Roma. Bellini’s landscape is more scabrous. The trees are leafless, there is not vegetation, the dominant tone is brown and not green, there are not signs of ancient monuments in the cities on the hills. Bellini has created a psychological landscape of exceptional modernity that outlines the sentiment of sadness in Christ.
Giorgione and Titian
The interest of Giorgione for the nature is evident in the enigmatic landscape depicted in the Tempest. In one of his last works (maybe completed by Titian), Giorgione inserts a nude sleeping Venus in a landscape, merging together the beauty of the nature and that of the woman. Titian retakes the figure of this Venus in his famous Venus of Urbino, but he transports the woman on a bed inside the room of a palace and accentuates the sensuality of the scene. The Pastoral Concert (1510) is another work that may have been initiated by Giorgione and completed by Titian. Here, as in the Sleeping Venus, the landscape may not be considered secondary with respect to the human figures. The four characters in the foreground represent the arts (the poetry and the music), but a third element, the nature that surrounds the figures, seems to take part in the concert. We may note, in passing, the realism of the tussocks of the grass where the flute player is sitting. More than three centuries later, this harmony between man and nature has inspired the Luncheon on the Grass, by Edouard Manet. Maybe also the Sacred and Profane Love (1514), by Titian shares some elements with this work. However, in this canvas the landscape is modelled by the two women in the foreground and follows, we might say, the same scheme: a fortified house on the side of the dressed woman, a “nude” lake on the side of the naked woman.
The Evolution of Landscape in Art (with Music by Vivaldi)
Towards the Absolute Landscape
In the XVI century the process of releasing the landscape from the human figures goes on. Niccolò dell’Abate (a. 1510 – 1571), an artist active in North of Italy (Emilia) and at the court of Fontainbleu after 1550, expert in the decoration of the palaces, has given a gorgeous view in the canvas depicting the death of Eurydice. Despite the theme of the work is taken from the classic mythology, the interest for the told episodes is clearly overwhelmed by the representation of the landscape, a view of a marine coast (maybe the Brittany coast) where the areal perspective embraces the ominous dark clouds and the mountains in the distance. At the beginning of the new century, Annibale Carracci, the artist who opens the doors to the Baroque era with Caravaggio, takes another step forward giving the landscape its autonomous role. The Flight to Egypt is a successful example of a complete equilibrium between the elements of the nature, the architecture of the castle, the human figures and the animals that cohabit in the serene scene of the canvas, which might represent the country around Rome in an autumn afternoon. It is because of this sense of harmony that many scholars put this work at the origin of the great landscape painting that will develop during the XVII and XVIII centuries. So after the boards by Lorenzetti, after the Tempest by Giorgione, we have found, at the very beginning of 1600s, another authoritative candidate to the coveted role of “first landscape in western art”.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2015 Massimo Viola
Robert Levine from Brookline, Massachusetts on July 14, 2017:
Good article, Massimo. I think Taoism's reverence for nature also influenced landscape painting in China.