The Old Masters

Giotto di Bondone

Florence, Italy


Painter 1270 – 1337

Giotto di Bondone (c. 1270 – January 8, 1337), known mononymously as Giotto and latinised as Giottus, was an Italian painter and architect from Florence during the Late Middle Ages. He worked during the "Gothic or Proto-Renaissance" period.

Giotto's contemporary, the banker and chronicler Giovanni Villani, wrote that Giotto was "the most sovereign master of painting in his time, who drew all his figures and their postures according to nature" and of his publicly recognized "talent and excellence".

In his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Giorgio Vasari described Giotto as making a decisive break with the prevalent Byzantine style and as initiating "the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years".

Giotto's masterwork is the decoration of the Scrovegni Chapel, in Padua, also known as the Arena Chapel, which was completed around 1305. The fresco cycle depicts the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Christ. It is regarded as one of the supreme masterpieces of the Early Renaissance.

That Giotto painted the Arena Chapel and that he was chosen by the Commune of Florence in 1334 to design the new campanile (bell tower) of the Florence Cathedral are among the few certainties about his life. Almost every other aspect of it is subject to controversy: his birth date, his birth place, his appearance, his apprenticeship, the order in which he created his works, whether or not he painted the famous frescoes in the Upper Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi and his burial place.

Biography

Tradition holds that Giotto was born in a farmhouse, perhaps at Colle di Romagnano or Romignano. Since 1850, a tower house in nearby Colle Vespignano has borne a plaque claiming the honor of his birthplace, an assertion that is commercially publicized. However, recent research has suggested that he was actually born in Florence, the son of a blacksmith. His father's name was Bondone, and he is described in surviving public records as "a person of good standing". Most authors accept that Giotto was his real name, but it is likely to have been an abbreviation of Ambrogio (Ambrogiotto) or Angelo (Angelotto).

The year of his birth is calculated from the fact that Antonio Pucci, the town crier of Florence, wrote a poem in Giotto's honour in which it is stated that he was 70 at the time of his death. However, the word "seventy" fits into the rhyme of the poem better than any longer and more complex age so it is possible that Pucci used artistic license.

Vasari states that Giotto was a shepherd boy, a merry and intelligent child who was loved by all who knew him. The great Florentine painter Cimabue discovered Giotto drawing pictures of his sheep on a rock. They were so lifelike that Cimabue approached Giotto and asked if he could take him on as an apprentice. Cimabue was one of the two most highly renowned painters of Tuscany, the other being Duccio, who worked mainly in Siena.

Vasari recounts a number of such stories about Giotto's skill as a young artist. He tells of one occasion when Cimabue was absent from the workshop, and Giotto painted a remarkably-lifelike fly on a face in a painting of Cimabue. When Cimabue returned, he tried several times to brush the fly off.

Vasari also relates that when the Pope sent a messenger to Giotto, asking him to send a drawing to demonstrate his skill, Giotto drew a red circle so perfect that it seemed as though it was drawn using a pair of compasses and instructed the messenger to send it to the Pope. The messenger departed ill pleased, believing that he had been made a fool of. The messenger brought other artists' drawings back to the Pope in addition to Giotto's. When the messenger related how he had made the circle without moving his arm and without the aid of compasses the Pope and his courtiers were amazed at how Giotto's skill greatly surpassed all of his contemporaries.

Many scholars today are uncertain about Giotto's training and consider Vasari's account that he was Cimabue's pupil as legend; they cite earlier sources that suggest that Giotto was not Cimabue's pupil.

About 1290, Giotto married Ciuta (Ricevuta), the daughter of Lapo del Pela of Florence. The marriage produced four daughters and four sons, one of whom became a painter. By 1301, Giotto owned a house in Florence, and when he was not traveling, he would return there and live in comfort with his family.

 
From Rome, Cimabue went to Assisi to paint several large frescoes at the new Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, and it is possible but not certain that Giotto went with him. The attribution of the fresco cycle of the Life of St. Francis in the Upper Church has been one of the most disputed in art history. The documents of the Franciscan Friars that relate to artistic commissions during this period were destroyed by Napoleon's troops, who stabled horses in the Upper Church of the Basilica so scholars have debated over the attribution to Giotto. In the absence of documentary evidence to the contrary, it has been convenient to ascribe every fresco in the Upper Church that was not obviously by Cimabue to Giotto, whose prestige has overshadowed that of almost every contemporary.

An early biographical source, Riccobaldo Ferrarese, mentions that Giotto painted at Assisi but does not specify the St Francis Cycle: "What kind of art [Giotto] made is testified to by works done by him in the Franciscan churches at Assisi, Rimini, Padua..." Since the idea was put forward by the German art historian, Friedrich Rintelen in 1912, many scholars have expressed doubt that Giotto was the author of the Upper Church frescoes.

Without documentation, arguments on the attribution have relied upon connoisseurship, a notoriously-unreliable "science"; but technical examinations and comparisons of the workshop painting processes at Assisi and Padua in 2002 have provided strong evidence that Giotto did not paint the St. Francis Cycle. There are many differences between the Francis Cycle and the Arena Chapel frescoes that are difficult to account for by the stylistic development of an individual artist. It is now generally accepted that four different hands are identifiable and that they came from Rome. If this is the case, Giotto's frescoes at Padua owe much to the naturalism of the painters.

The authorship of a large number of panel paintings ascribed to Giotto by Vasari, among others, is as broadly disputed as the Assisi frescoes. According to Vasari, Giotto's earliest works were for the Dominicans at Santa Maria Novella. They include a fresco of The Annunciation and the enormous suspended Crucifix, which is about 5 metres (16 feet) high. It has been dated to about 1290 and is thought to be contemporary with the Assisi frescoes. Earlier attributed works are the San Giorgio alla Costa Madonna and Child, now in the Diocesan Museum of Santo Stefano al Ponte, Florence, and the signed panel of the Stigmata of St. Francis housed in the Louvre.

In 1287, at the age of about 20, Giotto married Ricevuta di Lapo del Pela, known as "Ciuta". The couple had numerous children (perhaps as many as eight), one of whom, Francesco, became a painter. Giotto worked in Rome in 1297–1300, but few traces of his presence there remain today.

The Basilica of St. John Lateran houses a small portion of a fresco cycle, painted for the Jubilee of 1300 called by Boniface VIII. In this period Giotto also painted the Badia Polyptych, now in the Uffizi, Florence.

Giotto's fame as a painter spread. He was called to work in Padua and also in Rimini, where there remains only a Crucifix painted before 1309 and conserved in the Church of St. Francis.[5] It influenced the rise of the Riminese school of Giovanni and Pietro da Rimini. According to documents of 1301 and 1304, Giotto by this time possessed large estates in Florence, and it is probable that he was already leading a large workshop and receiving commissions from throughout Italy.

Around 1305, Giotto executed his most influential work, the interior frescoes of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Enrico degli Scrovegni commissioned the chapel to serve as a family worship and burial space.

The theme is Salvation, and there is an emphasis on the Virgin Mary, as the chapel is dedicated to the Annunciation and to the Virgin of Charity. As was common in the decoration of the medieval period in Italy, the west wall is dominated by the Last Judgement. On either side of the chancel are complementary paintings of the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, depicting the Annunciation. The scene is incorporated into the cycles of The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary and The Life of Christ. Giotto's inspiration for The Life of the Virgin cycle was probably taken from The Golden Legend by Jacopo da Voragine ans The Life of Christ draws upon the Meditations on the Life of Christ. The frescoes are more than mere illustrations of familiar texts, however, and scholars have found numerous sources for Giotto's interpretations of sacred stories.

The cycle is divided into 37 scenes, arranged around the lateral walls in three tiers, starting in the upper register with the story of St. Joachim and St. Anne, the parents of the Virgin, and continuing with her story. The life of Jesus occupies two registers. The Last Judgment fills the entire pictorial space of the counter-façade.

The top right tier deals with the lives of Mary's parents, the left with her early life and the middle tier with the early life and miracles of Christ.

The bottom tier on both sides is concerned with the Passions of Christ. He is depicted mainly in profile, as was the custom historically to depict persons of importance. His eyes point continuously to the right, perhaps to guide the viewer onwards in the episodes. The kiss of Judas near the end of the sequence signals the close of this left-to-right procession.

Below the narrative scenes in color, Giotto also painted the allegories of seven Virtues and their counterparts in monochrome gray. The monochrome frescoes appear as marble statues. Furthermore, the allegories of Justice and Injustice in the middle of the sequence oppose two specific types of government: peace leading to a festival of Love and tyranny resulting in wartime rape.

Much of the blue in the fresco has been worn away by time. The expense of the ultramarine blue pigment used made Enrico degli Scrovegni order that it should be painted on top of the already-dry fresco (secco fresco) to preserve its brilliance. That is why it has disintegrated faster than the other colours, which have been fastened within the plaster of the fresco. An example of the decay can clearly be seen on the robe of Christ, as he sits on the donkey.

Between the scenes are quatrefoil paintings of Old Testament scenes, like Jonah and the Whale that allegorically correspond and perhaps foretell the life of Christ.

While Cimabue painted in a manner that is clearly medieval, having aspects of both the Byzantine and the Gothic, Giotto's style drew on the solid and classicizing sculpture of Arnolfo di Cambio. Unlike those by Cimabue and Duccio, Giotto's figures are not stylized or elongated and do not follow the Byzantine models of his contemporaries. They are solidly three-dimensional, have faces and gestures that are based on close observation and are clothed, not in swirling formalized drapery, but in garments that hang naturally and have form and weight. He also took bold steps in foreshortening and with having characters face inwards, with their backs towards the observer creating the illusion of space.

The figures occupy compressed settings with naturalistic elements, often using forced perspective devices so that they resemble stage sets. This similarity is increased by Giotto's careful arrangement of the figures in such a way that the viewer appears to have a particular place and even an involvement in many of the scenes. That can be seen most markedly in the arrangement of the figures in the Mocking of Christ and Lamentation in which the viewer is bidden by the composition that Giotto has created to become mocker in one and mourner in the other.

Famous narratives in the series include the Adoration of the Magi, in which a comet-like Star of Bethlehem streaks across the sky. Giotto is thought to have been inspired by the 1301 appearance of Halley's comet, which led to the name Giotto being given to a 1986 space probe to the comet.

Giotto's depiction of the human face and emotion sets his work apart from that of his contemporaries. When the disgraced Joachim returns sadly to the hillside, the two young shepherds look sideways at each other. The soldier who drags a baby from its screaming mother in the Massacre of the Innocents does so with his head hunched into his shoulders and a look of shame on his face. The people on the road to Egypt gossip about Mary and Joseph as they go. Of Giotto's realism, the 19th-century English critic John Ruskin said, "He painted the Madonna and St. Joseph and the Christ, yes, by all means... but essentially Mamma, Papa and Baby".

Besides his pivotal contribution to the development of a new realistic visual language, Giotto might have been also responsible for the reintroduction of true fresco technique to Western art. The technological development allowed the creation of more-durable murals with unprecedented colors and brilliance.

Sources

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giotto

Smarthistory Channel (Youtube): https://youtu.be/47QgqdeSi0U