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Travel and Landscape Painting
People today love to travel. We drive clear across the country on dual ribbons of concrete with motor homes at speeds in excess of 70 mph.; and we think nothing of hopping only slightly larger winged craft to do the same at speeds nearly ten times that. We travel for business, for pleasure, or sometimes for no good reason at all. And if we worry about our safety and well-being in doing so, we hide it with jokes about the pilot napping while a flight attendant flies the plane. A thousand years ago, for the most part, only two types of people travelled--merchants, and pilgrims. Most walked. Only those going "first class" had horses, while those travelling in wagons would have been the equivalent of owning a private jet today. And it was dangerous. They travelled in groups to ward off robbers and cope with natural difficulties. Artists, being merchants of beauty, were among those quite likely to travel from time to time. And if you were a prominent artist such as Giotto, Verrocchio, or Leonardo, there was no need to recruit like-minded travellers in forming a caravan, your own workshop of apprentices and assistants was enough of a retinue to insure a safe passage.

Travel is said to be a broadening experience and it may well have served to inspire artists of the thirteenth and fourteenth century to a new type of painting, that being the landscape. Though it would be several hundred years before any serious efforts were made by the Dutch to paint landscapes for their own sake, it was during this period that an attention to the passing countryside began to creep into the backgrounds of master painters in their renderings of religious, architectural, or portrait subjects. The Sienese artist, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, was one of the first to incorporate the many sights he encountered in his frequent travels into his paintings. They range from cultivated hills and meadows, to farmhouses, to small towns, to large, medieval, walled cities. The works were somewhat idealised, the proportions slightly suspect, and the perspective often tortured, but his efforts, and those of other Sienese artists he inspired, leave us with some feeling for what the land and travelling over it must have been like.

Lorenzetti's landscape efforts can be seen in his painting, The effects of Good Government in town and country. Painted around 1338, some might even call it the world's first landscape painting, although it was really more allegory than landscape. And even before that, Giotto often incorporated landscape backgrounds into his frescos when he felt the need, such as his 1290-95 St. Francis giving his cloak to a poor knight. And in 1302, his Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), a fresco painting located in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, his garden in which Mary Magdalene first encounters the risen Christ, while not depicted in anything approaching a realistic manner, does manage to convey an amazing amount of detail including recognisable renderings of celery, parsley, and fennel. One has to wonder if the gradual increase in ease and frequency of travel, and the gradual emergence of landscape painting during the same period, were merely coincidental or if there may have been a cause and effect relationship instead. I wonder if landscape painters today travel more than other artists?

Contributed by Lane, Jim
18 March 1999


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