The idea that images have an incommensurable sort of power as a universal and immediate means of communication is a thread that crosses the entirety of human history. More often than not, images have been considered a vital instrument of agency, a vehicle to inspire, instruct, reveal and convince. Their instant effectiveness comes from the fact that, differently from words, they present reality – or the perception and distortion of it – in a way that everyone can receive, comprehend, and eventually memorize, trespassing every border of language, origin, cultural background and time. Their power is such that they can become a substitute for reality, assuming an identity of their own, and, becoming, as W.J.T. Mitchell says, “an actor on the historical stage, a presence or character endowed with legendary status, a history that parallels and participates in the stories we tell ourselves […]”(Mitchell, 9). Due to this peculiar capacity of action and influence, images can be agents of chaos, both in creation and destruction, and take a decidedly crucial role in society.
During the 13th century, in a specific area of Italy, this particular disruptive and persuasive power of images gave birth to an artistic phenomenon called Pittura Infamante, a defamatory form of painting intrinsically connected to the political, jurisdictional and social life of the time.
When convicted criminals could not be caught, put to trial and eventually publicly executed, local official authorities of these established urban centers had to find an alternative to the customary practical punishment. They ordered that the accused be painted in a very explicitly recognizable fashion on the walls of the main public spaces in the city, for their acts to be acknowledged and their names to be tarnished as vehemently and unanimously as possible. These images were often accompanied by the indication of the subject's first name and an expository description of their ignominious actions.
The window of time and space this artistic practice occupies is not easily defined, as to be expected, given the always blurry lines of art movements and socio-political systems. However, in its specific characteristics of being a public, secular and official addendum to a criminal sentence, the Pittura Infamante can be ascribed to several comuni of the central-northern area of Italy, especially Bologna and Firenze (Ortalli, 20). The timeframe of its existence opens around half of the 13th century and goes on, although waning in intensity, until the first half of the 16th century. The ephemeral and impermanent nature of an artistic technique that used public external walls as its main canvas inevitably leads to almost no tangible traces of these paintings. Most of the information retained about this practice has been gathered from written records and descriptions of the time.
The most notorious surviving examples of this artistic trend are a series of preparatory sketches, mainly from Andrea del Sarto, and the frescoes of the main room of the Palazzo del Broletto in Brescia. On the walls of this room, there is a depiction of a procession of tormented knights connected by a long iron chain, most possibly guilty of having betrayed their own city. It is to be noted, however, that although the bags around the subjects' necks, as a symbol of fraud and thievery, are a clear characteristic of derogatory painting, there was most certainly a definite difference between the rigid and composed stylistic language chosen for the internal walls of an official palace and the less subtle and far more dynamic representation reserved for the external facades of public buildings.
The distinction between the two artistic registers also entailed the choice of subjects, as only well-known high-rank members of society were to appear on the inside depictions, in contrast to the entirely unbiased choice of characters to be painted on external walls. Furthermore, while the inscription that accompanied the paintings on the internal walls was in Latin, it was in common vulgar language on the external facades of buildings, to be comprehensible to a wider number of people. The text in vulgar eventually became an intrinsic part of the painting, as the inscriptions slowly turned to be in a rhyming formula so that they could be more easily memorized by the people (Ortalli, 59).
The exact location of the defamatory paintings was a pivotal choice and entirely dependent on the urban structure of the city: the walls overlooking the main roads and squares, important communal meeting points or crucial crossroads (Ortalli, 36-37). The work needed to be seen as frequently as possible by as many people as possible. The forthright relation between formal capital punishment and society’s involvement and perception was a stronghold of the medieval and renaissance justice systems, as proved by the frequent public setting of sentences of every degree, from death executions to the corbellatura, a typical form of punishment during which the accused was put in a basket and repeatedly submerged in the river. The specific act of destroying the convicted’s dignity, exposing them to public derision, stripping them of their social status and involving the audience’s attention and presence to the whole process was called pena d’infamia (Ortalli, 9-10).
Equally present at the time was the idea of images to be utilized with a propagandistic, didactic and demonstrative intent on spectators of every rank and social standing, most especially in the religious field. The Church often used majestic artistic endeavors to epically narrate crucial biblical stories, from the myth of Creation to the focal episodes of Christ’s life. These works intended to captivate and inform a predominantly illiterate public of the so-considered evangelical message, in the most immediate and inspirational way possible. These teachings also included a fair amount of warning about the consequences of not following the pious and faithful path, as shown by the many extremely detailed depictions of Hell and the brutal way punishment for sinners would be carried out in the afterlife.
The Pittura Infamante was born in a time of notable structural changes in the social and political architecture of most Italian communities and cities, and it somehow merged both of these components and enforced the concept of infamia as the embodiment of the ultimate punishment. The idea of infamy and public disgrace was an established cornerstone of the general mindset of the time, and even though the notion of honor and duty differed depending on the social rank and position of the person involved, breaking certain rules almost always led to the dire consequence of being stigmatized by one’s entire community.
Betrayal, disobedience, political assassination, common murder, assault, illegal trading, bankruptcy, fraud, corruption and forgery were all considered severe enough crimes for the perpetrator to be depicted in the wall of shame, at this rate more practical than metaphorical. But the most drastic and unforgivable crime of all was undoubtedly treachery. Traitors, as in citizens who turned their back on their own government, and therefore, by societal standards, betrayed the trust put in them by the entire urban community, were the main focus of derogatory paintings (Ortalli, 30-31). They were depicted hanging upside down, held on a rope by a single foot, not haphazardly in the same way sinners in the darkest craters of Hell were presented in religious portrayals, as, for example, in Giotto's masterful frescoes in the Cappella degli Scrovegni, in Padova.
This particular contempt for the act of treachery is emblematic of the Pittura Infamante. As popular and crowd-pleasing as it might have appeared, it was merely another weapon in the hands of higher institutional powers, wielded with a subtle false pretence of following the people’s will. The idea of punishing someone who betrayed their own place of belonging appeased the general public because it was based on a tangible, diffused and convincing idea of communal identity, an unwritten rule of fealty and trust that every member of medieval and renaissance hierarchy could understand and fully align themselves with. The use of images, in addition, was a way of making every citizen feel included in the process of deciding the punishment of those who didn’t abide by the shared rules of morality. In truth, for as much as these ideas were deeply imbued in societal standards, the party who most needed this specific form of betrayal both publicly and heavily punished was the government itself. This form of punishment didn’t affect the object of the defamation at all, as most of the time the reason they were depicted was because they had been able to run away and therefore could not be tortured, executed and stripped of all their possessions. Instead, their derogatory portrayal was mostly a cautionary tale for the people who did see the painting and found themselves in the position to witness the abysmally devastating effect of such defamation.
This tradition was merciless and socially leveling. It brought down everyone: old noble families and people with newly-acquired titles, high-rank merchants, just as much as public administrators, teachers, accountants, notorious criminals and well-known military officials.
Although it was legal and an official part of the community’s jurisdictional framework, the Pittura Infamante was tied so tightly to the idea of shame and disgrace that the painters hired to draw these pictures often worked in secret, hiding their true identity. For most of them, it was a somehow inconsequential line of work since, for what has been gathered by comparing their names to criminal records of the time, they were primarily low-rank, unknown artists and already deeply entangled in a felonious lifestyle. Some names, however, were widely known, like Andrea del Castagno, Sandro Botticelli and Andrea del Sarto. The latter, scared of the consequences of painting defamatory pictures of several hanged officials in 1530, worked, allegedly, only at night, hidden in a secluded space and under the pseudonym of Bernardo da Buda. (Ortalli, 84)
The Pittura Infamante was a relatively short-lived practice. Because of its deeply rooted connection to society’s rules, it eventually slowly faded due to the inevitable evolving of ethos and mentality. As centuries go on, there are fewer and fewer written proofs of its use, until by the end of the 16th century, where its banishment is mentioned in official town books. By that time, however, the practice had already extinguished its purpose, as the changes in societal structures eventually led authorities to believe that publicly displaying the contemptible behavior of certain citizens brought shame to the community as a whole, more than it did the single outlaw. (Ortalli, 154)
Even though its presence was not massive in terms of width in time and space, the Pittura Infamante still is, aside from being an interesting way to better understand societal norms of the 13th and 14th century, a great archetypical testament to the clamor and impact images can have on every facet of life. It is clear that, despite being decidedly less horrifying in both violence and cruelty than the brutal punishments the public of the time was used to, it was so stirring because no other sentence was as resounding, explicit and long-lasting in its effective disparaging condemnation.
Mitchell, W.J.T. (2013) Iconology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ortalli, G. (2015). La Pittura Infamante. Secoli XIII – XVI. Rome: Viella s.r.l.
Vasari, G. (1538). Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori (Kindle version).
Retrieved from Amazon.it
Del Sarto, Andrea. Preparatory sketches of a hanged man, 1529-30. Chalk on paper. https://bit.ly/3DeSFFd
Del Sarto, Andrea. Preparatory sketches of hanged men, 1529-30. Chalk on paper. https://bit.ly/3qF9DHz
Giotto, Detail of Giudizio universale, 1306. Cycle of frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua. https://bit.ly/36oS0Fb
Unknown, Detail of the Sala del Broletto, 1280. Frescoes in Palazzo del Broletto, Brescia.