The fragmented cycle of frescoes adorning the so-called Giottesque Chapel in the basilica of San Giovanni Evangelista in Ravenna was commissioned in 1380 by the rich Ravenna’s doctor and notary Maestro Ghirardo de Massa, known through the local historical sources. We still read in part the dedicatory inscription in Latin with the date “MCCCLXXX” placed below the Virgin with Child and the kneeling donators towards a patchy Crucifixion decorating the back wall. The client is portrayed in doctoral dress with his family. The chapel is also known with the name of Lamberto da Polenta, the nobleman from Ravenna who, in his will dating 18 June 1316, left a sum for works to be carried out in the Placidian basilica. The Giottesque Chapel was built alongside the northern nave of the church. From the outside we can see exposed bricks, characterized by terracotta rings that frame two pointed arch windows, the last ones illuminate the interior space surmounted by a ribbed cross vault. In this way the chapel faithfully reflects, in the linear structure and in the sober appearance, the Po Valley Gothic language that spread to other ecclesiastical complexes in Ravenna during the period of the Da Polenta lordship¹.

Curious news and the discovery of the frescoes
The biographer of the artists and sixteenth-century painter Giorgio Vasari attributed the interesting frescoes in this chapel to the paintbrush of the Florentine Giotto who “…went to Ravenna, and in San Giovanni Evangelista he made a chapel in fresco, very appreciated…”². From this historical opinion formulated by Vasari on these frescoes, the chapel gained the rather suggestive adjective of Giottesque for the city’s historiography. Actually, after the transformations suffered by the basilica of San Giovanni Evangelista in the Baroque period (18th century), only the paintings on the vault were visible, restored by the intention of the superintendent of the Monuments of Ravenna Ambrogio Annoni on the occasion of Dante’s sixth centenary in 1921³. In 1930, during renovations undertaken by the Superintendence of Fine Arts of Bologna, the director of the Ravenna Excavations and Monuments Office Renato Bartoccini also discovered the frescoes behind the altar, covered by an ancon and the respective altarpiece depicting the Blessed Arcangelo Canetoli to whom the chapel was dedicated in the eighteenth century. Later the frescoes were restored by the distinguished architect and painter Giuseppe Rivani from Bologna, in collaboration with the decorator Agostino Mazzanti . The art historian Luisa Faenzi contextualized the frescoes to the Rimini painter Giovanni Baronzio, so the scholar definitively discredited the authoritative, but now out of date, Vasari news. Unfortunately the Giottesque chapel was not spared by the aerial bombings that hit the basilica of San Giovanni Evangelista in a disastrous way during the Second World War: the partial collapse of the vault caused the loss of most of the frescoes.

Doctors and Evangelists
Great iconological importance for the frescoes of the vault divided by cosmatesque ribs where the Doctors of the Church read and the Evangelists write accompanied by their symbols within radiated clypeii at the corners of the ribs: St. John with St. Ambrose, St. Augustine with St. Matthew, St. Jerome with St. Luke and finally St. Gregory Magnus with St. Marcus. Despite the heavy repainting carried out by the Paduan painter Francesco Zannoni in the years 1777-1778 and the fragmentary pieces due to the disasters of the last world war, we can still admire the escriptive vivacity of the painter who wisely represented each saint seated on a desk as a lector in a medieval university study. Under the platform the open boxes containing large volumes. Among them, a scroll showing the name in Latin of each sacred person appears.

From the “neo-Giottesque” Ravenna to the sunset of the Middle Ages
The Crucifixion in the background wall has been ascribed by the most recent art critic to the Bolognese school of Jacopo Avanzi (last quarter of the 14th century), which can be found in the neo-Gothic square of Maddalena. The saint, dressed in a purplish-red robe and with blond hair, is represented crying while, kneeling, embraces the cross. The female figure is captured by the painter with sculptural vigor and acute sense of space with a nimbus in relief terracotta, reminiscent of Giotto’s lesson. To confirm the attribution, we can notice the Romagna activity of Jacopo Avanzi for the Malatesta lordship of Rimini in the same years, occurred in a period prior to his stay in Padua . While the iconographic and compositional solutions, adopted in the vault with the pairing Doctors of the Church and Evangelists, had already been tested by Pietro da Rimini in the first half of the fourteenth century in the frescoes from the church of Santa Chiara (Ravenna, National Museum). “Neo-Giottesque” painters, such as Jacopo Avanzi, were therefore also inspired by Rimini models. The masters of this school were the first popularizers of Giotto’s art in Romagna¹. The art historian Alberto Martini states that the Giottesque Chapel in San Giovanni Evangelista, after having been begun in the Crucifixion of solid plastic structure by a painter of Rimini culture in the years 1330-1340, with that “… rigorous simplification of the plans…”, was then taken up by a similar craftsman and finished by a frescante in the vault. The latter painter is “…of a culture undoubtedly touched by Northern Giottism, especially from Padua and Verona..”¹¹. Indeed, the cycle of San Giovanni Evangelista is influenced by the crowded scenic layout that the Venetian painter Altichiero di Zevio had successfully experimented in the similar Crucifixion in the chapel of San Giacomo al Santo in Padua (1376-1379), working together with Jacopo Avanzi¹². What can still be read of the original aspect of the vault in Ravenna, especially in the figure of St. John the Evangelist¹³, shows a culture that is certainly no more Rimini-school, but still late Gothic. It is recognized even more incisively by the luxuriant and exquisite border of vegetal decorations that frame the four sails¹. In fact, stylistic affinities can be seen with the flamboyant currents of Ferrara of the early fifteenth century¹. On these dates also in Ravenna we are already at the sunset of the Middle Ages.

Filippo Trerè

Opera di Religione

della Diocesi di Ravenna


[i] P. Novara, Ravenna medievale. Chiese e altri edifici di culto. Note di storia e archeologia, Venezia 2016, pp. 70, 101; F. Trerè, Galla Placidia nell’immaginario medievale

[ii] G. Vasari, Le vite de’ più eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori italiani, da Cimabue insino a’ tempi nostri. Nell’edizione per i tipi di Lorenzo Torrentino – Firenze 1550,  a cura di L. Bellosi, A. Rossi, presentazione di G. Previtali, Torino 1986 par. 146.

[iii] C. Ricci, Guida di Ravenna, VI ed., Bologna 1923 (rist. anastast., Ravenna 2005), p. 109.

[iv] F. Lollini, Sulla decorazione pittorica di Sant’Antonio di Padova a Bologna. Giuseppe Rivani, Antonio Maria Nardi e Igino Benvenuto Supino, in “Carrobbio”, 37 (2011), pp. 155-170 (particolarm. p. 158).

[v] L. Faenzi, Affreschi in S. Giovanni Evangelista, in “Felix Ravenna”, II, 2 (1931), pp. 121-136.

[vi] L. Scevola, La basilica di S. Giovanni Evangelista a Ravenna, in “Felix Ravenna”  LXXXVII, serie 3 (1963), pp. 5 – 107 (particolarm. pp. 54-60); C. Fiori, E. Tozzola, San Giovanni Evangelista a Ravenna. Storia di una chiesa, di mosaici perduti e di mosaici ritrovati, Ravenna 2014, pp. 98, 112-113.

[vii] Faenzi, op. cit., p. 126; G. Montanari, Santa Chiara: storia ed iconologia, in A. Emiliani, G. Montanari, P. G. Pasini, Gli affreschi trecenteschi da Santa Chiara in Ravenna, Ravenna 1995, pp. 13-42 (particolarm. pp. 32-40).

[viii] D. Benati, Bologna e altri centri dell’Emilia, in Pittura murale in Italia. Dal tardo Duecento ai primi del Quattrocento, a cura di M. Gregori, Bergamo 1995, p. 118; C. Muscolino, Gli affreschi di Jacopo Avanzi: un ciclo eroico per Malatesta Ungaro, in La Rocca e il sigillo ritrovato. Ultimi restauri e scoperte a Montefiore Conca, a cura di V. Piazza, C. Muscolino, Santarcangelo 2009, pp. 117-153.

[ix] Montanari, op. cit., pp. 33-37; F. Trerè, La cultura vitalesca tra Forlì e Ravenna: parallelismi e differenze, in D. Leoni, Frammenti nella storia. Riflessioni sulla pittura ad affresco del XIV secolo conservata a Forlì, Santa Rufina di Cittaducale 2007, p. 217, nota 22; L. Martini, Affreschi riminesi del Trecento. La chiesa di San Domenico e la cappella trecentesca di San Giovanni Evangelista, in Nel nome di Giotto. La pittura trecentesca a Ravenna. Immagini perdute, salvate, rivelate, a cura di G. Morelli, Ravenna 2012, pp. 160-161; C. Fabbri, Gli eterni affetti. Il sentimento dipinto tra Bisanzio e Ravenna, Ravenna 2016, pp. 78, 124, fig. 29;

[x] F. Lollini, Sofisticata devozione. Il secondo Trecento: gli eredi di Vitale e il neogiottismo, in Da Bononia a Bologna 189 a. C. – 2011. Percorsi d’eccellenza nell’arte bolognese, a cura di G. Pellinghelli del Monticello, Torino 2012, pp. 58-62 (particolarm. p. 60).

[xi] A. Martini, Appunti sulla Ravenna riminese, in “Arte antica e moderna” 7 (1959), pp. 310 – 322 (particolarm. pp. 318-319); F. Trerè, “Quei pittori riminesi così maledettamente complicati”: Alberto Martini e gli studi sulla pittura del trecento a Ravenna, in “Ravenna. Studi e Ricerche” XXIV (2017), pp. 99-135 (particolarm. pp. 121-122).

[xii] G. L. Mellini, Altichiero al SantoJacopo Avanzi a Padova, in Giotto e il suo tempo, a cura di V. Sgarbi, catalogo della mostra, Milano 2000, pp. 205-219; D. Banzato, L’impronta di Giotto e lo sviluppo della pittura del Trecento a Padova, in Giotto e il Trecento. ‘Il più Sovrano Maestro stato in dipintura’, a cura di A. Tomei, catalogo della mostra, Milano 2009, pp. 151-154.

[xiii] Faenzi, op. cit., cit., p. 126.

[xiv] M. Faietti, La pittura del Trecento a Ravenna, in Storia di Ravenna. Dal Mille alla fine della Signoria polentana, III, a cura di A. Vasina, Venezia 1993, pp. 672-674 e tavv. XXXVI-XXXVIII.

[xv] C. Volpe, La pittura riminese del Trecento, Milano 1965, pp. 54, 61, nota 88; D. Benati, Maestro ferrarese ca. 1390, in La Pinacoteca Nazionale di Ferrara. Catalogo generale, a cura di J. Bentini, Bologna 1992, pp. 13-17.