The Tuscany of Dante's day was not only a centre of poetic experimentation. It was also home to striking new developments in the visual arts.
Both in painting and sculpture these developments are characterised by a new kind of realism and detailed attention to the human figure. The particularly significant aspect of this new kind of realism is the way in which painters such as Giotto focus on and portray gestures and expressions so as to capture individual personality and identity. For this reason, the realism of Dante's Commedia has often been compared to that of the painting and sculpture of his day.
It is in the work of Tuscan artists of Dante's day that art historians find a new beginning in Western art which was to lead to the art of the Renaissance and beyond. Giotto is generally regarded as the most innovative and important. Dante knew him personally and the two probably met in Padua while Giotto was working at a cycle of frescoes in the Scrovegni chapel (1304-08). These frescoes depict scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and Christ, and offer one of the most powerful examples of how religious imagination was taking pictorial form in Dante's day. See for example Giotto's "Lamentation" scene in the Scrovegni Chapel, which shows in a powerful way the emotions of those around Christ following the Crucifixion.
Another significant work of art that will allow glimpses into the social and cultural reality of Dante's day is the cycle of frescoes painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall) in Siena (1337-39) (they can be viewed at the Web Gallery of Art here). These frescoes are meant to depict the effects that good and bad government may have on the city of Siena. More broadly, they offer a rare insight into the life and ideals of a mediaeval commune and, as such, can help you become familiar with the civic reality Dante would have lived in.
Online lectures: two lectures, by Matthew Treherne (University of Leeds), on key artistic figures in Dante's Italy, are available to view. A lecture on "Giotto di Bondone and Florentine Narrative Painting"
is available here (streamed file); a lecture on "Duccio and the Flowering of Sienese Art" is available here (streamed file).
© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson