Imagine yourself in the midst of a medieval tournament. Think about it – the glint of metallic weapons and the shimmer of polished armor; the thud of a lance hitting its target and the shrill clang of metal swords meeting metal cuirasses; the sting of sweat and dust in your eyes and maybe even the metallic tang of blood in your mouth. Battle-hardened warriors clash around you with heart-stopping yells and then, for a moment, silence sets in as the melee or joust ends, only to be ripped apart by the raucous roars of the crowds in the stands.
This moment, these sensations, are what Pisanello offers to us for our viewing pleasure in one of three frescoes designed and only partially completed for the Gonzaga family in their Ducal Palace in Mantua. Done between 1447-48, these frescoes illustrate one tale from the larger saga of the deeds King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. Pisanello’s work focuses on a tournament, a love affair, and a quest, each of which forms one third of the tale of the Knight Bohort.
This fresco is a powerful example of the kinds of art that Northern Italian courts commissioned and displayed in their palaces. Pisanello was, at the time, one of the artists most associated with the production of the visual culture of aristocratic Italian courts, and this fresco goes a long way to showing why.
Images of knights clamoring to survive a melee on horseback fill the space of the fresco. While the faces of the warriors (and the ladies watching the scene) have been covered in fresco, the armor of the men and the gowns of the women remain in their sinopie (underdrawing) form, revealing to us the planning stage of the fresco. However, the combination of painted faces and fluidly drawn armor and bodies against the slick black background of the fresco creates an arresting image of the violence inherent in a chivalric tournament. Ultimately, though the fresco itself is damaged and the people depicted have long since passed (if they ever existed at all), this work is a testament to the immediacy of Italian Renaissance frescoes – even when they are more “decorative” than “real.”