Guariento takes the great leap from Giotto

No other Venetian artist of the Trecento combines the Byzantine tradition with the Gothic style while anticipating early Renaissance like Guariento di Arpo. Guariento worked in Padua where the influence of Giotto reigned supreme. Like Giotto, he endows his figures with rare naturalism. His ability to convey human emotion shines through his Gothic figures and gold-leaf backgrounds. And into all this he also integrates the volumetric and spatial developments of Florentine painting of the earliest Renaissance.

While artists of the period tended to paint static, idealised figures, Guariento’s innovative style combined life-like compositions with a novel, dramatic approach to narrative. Even as his linear technique, limpid colouring and extensive gilding continued to conform to the Byzantine tradition and the Gothic style, Guariento’s attempts at portraying human movement, both physical and emotional, are a decisive step beyond the Byzantine and Gothic manner that had hitherto prevailed in Venice and the Veneto.

An example of this is Guariento’s Madonna and Child, my favourite, which now hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The composition, with the Madonna displaying her swaddled child to the viewer, has a devotional impact much imitated by the likes of Lorenzo Veneziano. The gold-leaf background emphasises the spiritual dimension of the picture and the Latin inscription: “Blessed be the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and the name of his glorious Virgin Mother” is a most suitable caption for it.

As a leading painter in Padua, part of Venice’s possessions on the Italian mainland, Guariento was invited to paint a large fresco of Paradise in the Doge’s Palace, the most prominent civic building in Venice. The fresco was badly damaged in the Great Fire in 1577 and then covered by another Paradise by Tintoretto. The Guariento Room now gives a faint idea of what must have been a sumptuous work, glittering with colour and gilding. Sadly, the heat of the fire reduced its fragments to a near monochrome.

Further afield, in Padua itself, Guariento created his most enigmatic work. To decorate the private chapel of the ruling Carraresi family, now part of Padua’s Eremitani Museum, Guariento painted nine choirs of angels, following the hierarchy of angels by early Christian theologian Dionysius the Areopagite: seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, principalities, powers, virtues, archangels and angels. The majestic ceiling fresco speaks both to the execution of God’s plans and Guariento’s artistic skill.