In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Italian Mural Decoration

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks and Primary Sources
  • Journals
  • Archives, Bibliographies, and Reproductions
  • Historiography
  • Jewish: Late Antique and Medieval
  • Late Antique and Early Christian, c. 200–700
  • Secular Mural Decoration

Medieval Studies Italian Mural Decoration
Alison Locke Perchuk
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0166


Religious and secular structures of the Middle Ages were decorated in a range of ways: sculptures in relief or in the round; textiles hung from walls or colonnades or draped over objects; marble paneling and pavement; furnishings of wood or stone; manuscripts; objects in metal, jewels, ivory, or wood; painted wooden panels; and large-scale mural decoration, whether created in paint or mosaic. This article concerns only the last: imagery placed on a natural or manmade mural surface and executed through the application either of pigment dissolved or suspended in a liquid medium or of small pieces of stone, tile, or glass (tessera, pl. tesserae). Continuities in style, content, placement, patronage, and function of paintings and mosaics have led scholars to study the two mediums together under the rubric of mural decoration. Mural decoration has formed part of the artistic life of the Italian peninsula and islands since Antiquity; this article will consider paintings and mosaics created between the late Antique advent of Christian and Jewish art, c. 200 CE, and the end of the Middle Ages, understood here as c. 1400. Italian monuments may contain single images or extensive ensembles encompassing narrative cycles, non-narrative images, icons, symbols, and/or ornamental elements. The adjective “Italian” properly refers to the modern nation-state of Italy; its relevance for the Middle Ages is debatable. This article focuses on regions that roughly correspond to modern Italy, and some entries challenge these geographic parameters. Because the internal divisions of modern Italy determine the organization of governmental archives and of much Italian research, scholars will find it essential to know a monument’s specific region (regione) and province (provincia, indicated with a two-letter abbreviation). The study of Italian mural decoration has historically emphasized the city of Rome and the regioni of Lombardy (Lombardia), Umbria, and Tuscany (Toscana), though such monuments as Aquileia Cathedral (UD), San Vincenzo al Volturno (IS), and Sant’Angelo in Formis (CE) also attract significant attention. Local studies, typically organized by town (comune) or province and almost invariably written in Italian, are often the only sources for lesser-known districts and monuments. This article is organized into two sections. The first, beginning with General Overviews, offers an orientation to resources; the second, beginning with Historiography, presents issues and methods within the field, first as a brief survey and then in relation to significant monuments of medieval Italian mural decoration, ordered temporally. Researchers with a specific interest in mosaic decoration should also consult the forthcoming related entry, Italian Mosaics.

General Overviews

The broadest survey of medieval Italian mural decoration remains the multivolume series La Pittura in Italia, which considers wall painting and mosaic within a wider discussion of painting across mediums. Bertelli 1994 addresses the Middle Ages, c. 500–1200, while Castelnuovo 1985 examines the 13th and 14th centuries (duecento or dugento, trecento). A book-length overview in English is lacking, although the Grove Dictionary of Art (Silberberg-Peirce, et al. 1998–) and other encyclopedias offer limited introductions. Lavin 1990 analyzes more than 200 Italian mural programs in a study of narrative organization, though the resulting publication emphasizes the Trecento and later. As is the case with many subfields within medieval art history, most surveys of medieval Italian monumental decoration are focused chronologically (Demus 1970); some also consider only painting or mosaic (Poeschke 2010). Another important contribution is the multivolume series dedicated to the mural decoration of medieval Rome (Andaloro 2006–). A consideration of mural decoration within its architectural contexts is provided by the Italian-language series Patrimonio Artistico Italiano, the series’ organization by chronological period and regioni follows standard academic practice but can fragment medieval zones of artistic production.

  • Andaloro, Maria. La pittura medievale a Roma, 312–1431. Corpus e Atlante. Milan: Jaca, 2006–.

    Invaluable scholarly resource cataloging almost every known fresco and mosaic in Rome. For each monument, this book presents the state of the question, the author’s own evaluation, bibliography, and high-quality photography. Volumes published to date cover c. 312–468, 1050–1198, and the 13th century. In Italian.

  • Bertelli, Carlo, ed. La pittura in Italia: L’altomedioevo. Milan: Electa, 1994.

    Two-part survey positioning wall paintings and mosaics of the 6th through 12th centuries in a wider artistic context. Introductory essays organized by regione are followed by thematic articles on such topics as the links between Italian and Byzantine painting and Rome’s influence within Italian painting. In Italian.

  • Castelnuovo, Enrico, ed. La pittura in Italia: Le origini. Milan: Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura, 1985.

    Tellingly, “origins” refers to the 13th and 14th centuries. Chapters organized geographically by regione and by century. Coverage blends monumental painting with panel painting, manuscripts, and in some cases textiles and furnishings. In Italian.

  • Demus, Otto. Romanesque Mural Painting. Translated by Mary Whittall. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1970.

    Translation of Romanische Wandmalerei (1968). Essential point of departure for study of frescoes and mosaics c. 1000–1250. Pan-European discussion of general themes, functions, and styles followed by study of select monuments, organized by country. Discussion of specific monuments often superseded.

  • Lavin, Marilyn Aronberg. The Place of Narrative: Mural Decoration in Italian Churches, 431–1600. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

    Influential analysis of the disposition of narrative scenes within Italy’s medieval and Renaissance churches. Establishes organizational typology and connects organization to viewing positions and functions. Focuses on better preserved cycles and the Renaissance.

  • Patrimonio Artistico Italiano series. Milan: Jaca, 2001–.

    Series dedicated to architecture and architectural decoration including minor monuments, organized by regione and time period. Maps, plans, color photographs, up-to-date bibliography; useful guide for research and site visits. In Italian.

  • Poeschke, Joachim. Italian Mosaics, 300–1300. Translated by Russell Stockman. New York: Abbeville, 2010.

    English translation of Mosaiken in Italien 300–1300 (2009). Introduction chronicling history of mosaics in Italy followed by concise overviews of nineteen well-known mosaic programs from Florence, Ravenna, Rome, Sicily, and Venice. For a general audience. Extensive, high-quality color photography and includes bibliography.

  • Silberberg-Peirce, Susan, Mario D’Onofrio, Lynda Stephens, et al. “Italy.” Grove Dictionary of Art. Edited by Jane Shoaf Turner. 1998–.

    Section 3.2 covers Italian painting, c. 300–1400, in all mediums including monumental mural decoration. Identifies major monuments and emphasizes stylistic evolution. Bibliography is out of date, however.

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