Giotto di Bondone (1266/7 – January 8, 1337), better known simply as Giotto, was an Italian painter and architect from Florence in the late Middle Ages. He is generally considered the first in a line of great artists who contributed to the Italian Renaissance.
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 he was given a salary by the Comune of Florence in virtue of his talent and excellence.”
The late-16th century biographer Giorgio Vasari describes 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, completed around 1305. This 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 Comune of Florence in 1334 to design the new campanile (bell tower) of the Florence Cathedral are among the few certainties of his biography. Almost every other aspect of it is subject to controversy: his birthdate, his birthplace, his appearance, his apprenticeship, the order in which he created his works, whether or not he painted the famous frescoes at Assisi, and his burial place.
It has been traditional to hold that Giotto was born in a hilltop farmhouse, perhaps at Colle di Romagnano or Romignano; since 1850 a tower house in nearby Colle Vespignano, a hamlet 35 kilometres north of Florence, has borne a plaque claiming the honour of his birthplace, an assertion commercially publicized. Very recent research, however, has suggested that he was actually born in Florence, the son of a blacksmith. His father’s name was Bondone, described in surviving public records as “a person of good standing”. Most authors accept that Giotto was his real name, but it may 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 would have a longer and more complex age, so it is possible that Pucci used artistic license.
In his Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari relates 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 Bondone and asked if he could take the boy 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. He writes that when Cimabue was absent from the workshop, his young apprentice painted such a lifelike fly on the face of the painting that Cimabue was working on, that he tried several times to brush it 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, in red paint, a circle so perfect that it seemed as though it was drawn using a compass and instructed the messenger to give that to the Pope.
Many scholars today are uncertain about Giotto’s training, and consider that Vasari’s story that he was Cimabue’s pupil is legendary, citing early sources which suggest that Giotto was not Cimabue’s pupil. Giotto’s art shares many qualities with Roman paintings of the later 13th century. Cimabue may have been working in Rome in this period, and there was an active local school of fresco painters, of whom the most famous was Pietro Cavallini. The famous Florentine sculptor and architect, Arnolfo di Cambio, was then also working in Rome.
From Rome, Cimabue went to Assisi to paint several large frescoes at the newly built 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 hotly 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, and scholars have been divided over whether or not Giotto was responsible for the Francis Cycle. 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. Some of the earliest remaining biographical sources, such as Ghiberti and Riccobaldo Ferrarese, suggest that the fresco cycle of the life of St Francis in the Upper Church was his earliest autonomous work. However, since the idea was put forward by the German art historian, Friedrich Rintelen in 1912,many scholars have expressed doubt that Giotto was in fact the author of the Upper Church frescoes. Without documentation, arguments on the attribution have relied upon connoisseurship, a notoriously unreliable “science.”
However, 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 seems quite possible that several hands painted the Assisi frescoes, and that the artists were probably from Rome. If this is the case, then Giotto’s frescoes at Padua owe much to the naturalism of these painters.
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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. These include a fresco of the Annunciation and the enormous suspended Crucifix, which is about 5 metres high. It has been dated around 1290 and is therefore contemporary with the Assisi frescoes. Other early 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, once in San Francesco at Pisa, today 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 he 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 today only a Crucifix remains in the Church of St. Francis, painted before 1309. This work 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 painted decoration of the interior of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Enrico degli Scrovegni commissioned the chapel to serve as a family worship and burial space, even though his parish church was nearby; its construction caused some consternation among the clerics at the Eremitani church next door. It has also been speculated that Enrico commissioned the chapel as a penitence for his sin of usury (i.e. charging interest for lending money), which at the time was considered unjust. In fact, Dante himself accused Enrico’s father of it and condemned him in his Divine Comedy. The presence of Enrico near the center of The Final Judgement, handing the Arena Chapel to the Three Marys, on the virtuous side of the judgement and not with the other usurers (shown hanging by the strings of their money bags on the opposite side) may also be seen as proof of his repentance. This chapel is externally a very plain building of pink brick which was constructed next to an older palace that Scrovegni was restoring for himself. The palace, now gone, and the chapel were on the site of a Roman arena, for which reason it is commonly known as the Arena Chapel.
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 is 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. This scene is incorporated into the cycles of The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary and The Life of Christ. The source for The Life of the Virgin is the Golden Legend of Jacopo da Voragine while The Life of Christ draws upon the Meditations on the Life of Christ by the Pseudo-Bonaventura. The frescoes are more than mere illustrations of familiar texts, however, and scholars have found numerous sources for Giotto’s interpretations of sacred stories.
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The cycle is divided into 37 scenes, arranged around the lateral walls in three tiers, starting in the upper register with the story of Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Virgin and continuing with the story of Mary. The life of Jesus occupies two registers. The Last Judgment fills the entire pictorial space of the counter-façade.
The top right hand tier deals with the lives of Mary’s parents, the left of her early life and the middle tier deals 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 is customary, historically, when depicting 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.
Much of the blue in the fresco has been worn away by time. This is because Enrico degli Scrovegni ordered that, because of the expense of the pigment ultramarine blue used, it should be painted on top of the already dry fresco stucco fresco to preserve its brilliance. For this reason it has disintegrated faster than the other colors which have been fastened within the plaster of the fresco. An example of this 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 draws 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 set Byzantine models. 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 character face inwards, with their backs towards the observer creating the illusion of space. however, the Medieval tradition of only representing a few faces is continued in Giotto’s representation of the apostles in the Lamentations seen. Those whose faces can be seen show incredible emotion but the others are refused to the form of a group of background halos. What he did achieve was, regardless, remarkable. Although aspects of this trend in painting had already appeared in Rome in the work of Pietro Cavallini and at Assisi, Giotto took it so much further that he earned the reputation for setting a new standard for representational painting.
The heavily sculptural 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. This dramatic immediacy was a new feature, which is also seen to some extent in the Upper Church at Assisi.
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. Another famous scene is the Lamentation, in which Giotto adapted the traditional Byzantine iconography of the scene to create an emotional representation that draws the viewer into the sacred narrative.
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.”
Among those frescoes in Padua which have been lost are those in the Basilica of. St. Anthony and the Palazzo della Ragione, which are however from a later sojourn in Padua.
Numerous painters from northern Italy were influenced by Giotto’s work in Padua including Guariento, Giusto de’ Menabuoi, Jacopo Avanzi, and Altichiero.
From 1306 to 1311 Giotto was in Assisi, where he painted frescoes in the transept area of the Lower Church, including The Life of Christ, Franciscan Allegories and the Maddalena Chapel, drawing on stories from the Golden Legend and including the portrait of bishop Teobaldo Pontano who commissioned the work. Several assistants are mentioned, including one Palerino di Guido. However, the style demonstrates developments from Giotto’s work at Padua.
In 1311 Giotto returned to Florence. A document from 1313 about his furniture there shows that he had spent a period in Rome some time before. It is now thought that he produced the design for the famous Navicella mosaic for the courtyard of the Old St. Peter’s Basilica in 1310, commissioned by Cardinal Giacomo or Jacopo Stefaneschi and now lost to the Renaissance church, except for some fragments and a Baroque reconstruction. According to the cardinal’s necrology he also at least designed the Stefaneschi Triptych, a double-sided altarpiece for St. Peter’s, now in the Vatican Pinacoteca. But the style seems unlikely for either Giotto or his normal Florentine assistants, so he may have had his design executed by an ad hoc workshop of Romans.
In Florence, where documents from 1314–1327 attest to his financial activities, Giotto painted an altarpiece known as the Ognissanti Madonna and now in the Uffizi where it is exhibited beside Cimabue’s Santa Trinita Madonna and Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna. The Ognissanti altarpiece is the only panel painting by Giotto that has been universally accepted by scholars, and this despite the fact that it is undocumented. It was painted for the church of the Ognissanti (all saints) in Florence, which was built by an obscure religious order known as the Humiliati. It is a large painting (325 x 204 cm), and scholars are divided on whether it was made for the main altar of the church, where it would have been viewed primarily by the brothers of the order or for the choir screen, where it would have been more easily seen by a lay audience.
At this time he also painted the Dormition of the Virgin, now in the Berlin Gemäldegalerie and the Crucifix in the Church of Ognissanti.
According to Lorenzo Ghiberti, Giotto painted chapels for four different Florentine families in the church of Santa Croce, although he does not identify which chapels they were. It is only with Vasari that the four chapels are identified: the Bardi Chapel (Life of St. Francis), the Peruzzi Chapel (Life of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, perhaps including a polyptych of Madonna with Saints now in the Museum of Art of Raleigh, North Carolina) and the lost Giugni Chapel (Stories of the Apostles) and the Tosinghi Spinelli Chapel (Stories of the Holy Virgin). As with almost everything in Giotto’s career, the dates of the fresco decorations that survive in Santa Croce are disputed. The Bardi Chapel, immediately to the right of the main chapel of the church, was painted in true fresco, and to some scholars the simplicity of its settings seems relatively close to those of Padua, while the Peruzzi Chapel’s more complex settings suggest a later date. The Peruzzi Chapel is adjacent to the Bardi Chapel and was largely painted a secco. This technique, quicker but less durable than true fresco, has resulted in a fresco decoration that survives in a seriously deteriorated condition. Scholars who date this cycle earlier in Giotto’s career see the growing interest in architectural expansion that it displays as close to the developments of the giottesque frescoes in the Lower Church at Assisi, while the Bardi frescoes have a new softness of color that indicates the artist going in a different direction, probably under the influence of Sienese art, and so must be a later development.
The Peruzzi Chapel pairs three frescoes from the life of St. John the Baptist (The Annunciation of John’s Birth to his father Zacharias; The Birth and Naming of John; The Feast of Herod) on the left wall with three scenes from the life of St. John the Evangelist (The Visions of John on Ephesus; The Raising of Drusiana; The Ascension of John) on the right wall. The choice of scenes has been related to both the patrons and the Franciscans.Because of the serious condition of the frescoes, it is difficult to discuss Giotto’s style in the chapel, although the frescoes show signs of his typical interest in controlled naturalism and psychological penetration. The Peruzzi Chapel was especially renowned during Renaissance times. Giotto’s compositions influenced Masaccio’s Brancacci Chapels, and Michelangelo is known to have studied the frescoes.
The Bardi Chapel depicts the life of St. Francis, following a similar iconography to the frescoes in the Upper Church at Assisi, dating from 20–30 years earlier. A comparison makes apparent the greater attention given by Giotto to expression in the human figures and the simpler, better-integrated architectural forms. Giotto represents only 7 scenes from the saint’s life here, and the narrative is arranged somewhat unusually. The story starts on the upper left wall with St. Francis Renounces his Father. It continues across the chapel to the upper right wall with the Approval of the Franciscan Rule, moves down the right wall to the Trial by Fire, across the chapel again to the left wall for the Appearance at Arles, down the left wall to the Death of St. Francis, and across once more to the posthumous Visions of Fra Agostino and the Bishop of Assisi. The Stigmatization of St. Francis, which chronologically belongs between the Appearance at Arles and the Death, is located outside the chapel, above the entrance arch. This arrangement encourages viewers to link scenes together: to pair frescoes across the chapel space or relate triads of frescoes along each wall. These linkings suggest meaningful symbolic relationships between different events in St. Francis’s life.
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In 1320 Giotto finished the Stefaneschi Triptych, now in the Vatican Museum, for Cardinal Giacomo (or Jacopo) Gaetano Stefaneschi, who also commissioned him to decorate the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica with a cycle of frescoes that were destroyed during the 16th century renovation. According to Vasari, Giotto remained in Rome for six years, subsequently receiving numerous commissions in Italy and in the Papal seat at Avignon, though some of these works are now recognized to be by other artists.
In 1328 the altarpiece of the Baroncelli Chapel in Santa Croce, Florence was completed. This work, previously ascribed to Giotto, is now believed to be mostly a work by assistants, including Taddeo Gaddi who later frescoed the chapel). Giotto was called by King Robert of Anjou to Naples where he remained with a group of pupils until 1333. Few of Giotto’s Neapolitan works have survived: a fragment of a fresco portraying the Lamentation of Christ in the church of Santa Chiara, and the Illustrious Men painted on the windows of the Santa Barbara Chapel of Castel Nuovo (which are usually attributed to his pupils). In 1332 King Robert named him “first court painter” with a yearly pension.
After Naples Giotto stayed for a while in Bologna, where he painted a Polyptych for the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and, according to the sources, a lost decoration for the Chapel in the Cardinal Legate’s Castle.
In 1334 Giotto was appointed chief architect to Florence Cathedral, of which the Campanile (founded by him on July 18, 1334) bears his name, but was not completed to his design.
Before 1337 he was in Milan with Azzone Visconti, though no trace of works by him remain in the city. His last known work (with assistants’ help) is the decoration of Podestà Chapel in the Bargello, Florence.
In his final years Giotto had become friends with Boccaccio and Sacchetti, who featured him in their stories. In The Divine Comedy, Dante acknowledged the greatness of his living contemporary through the words of a painter in Purgatorio (XI, 94–96): “Cimabue believed that he held the field/In painting, and now Giotto has the cry,/ So the fame of the former is obscure.”
Giotto died in January 1337. According to Vasari, Giotto was buried in Santa Maria del Fiore, the Cathedral of Florence, on the left of the entrance and with the spot marked by a white marble plaque. According to other sources, he was buried in the Church of Santa Reparata. These apparently contradictory reports are explained by the fact that the remains of Santa Reparata lie directly beneath the Cathedral and the church continued in use while the construction of the cathedral was proceeding in the early 14th century.
During an excavation in the 1970s bones were discovered beneath the paving of Santa Reparata at a spot close to the location given by Vasari, but unmarked on either level. Forensic examination of the bones by anthropologist Francesco Mallegni and a team of experts in 2000 brought to light some facts that seemed to confirm that they were those of a painter, particularly the range of chemicals, including arsenic and lead, both commonly found in paint, that the bones had absorbed.
The bones were those of a very short man, of little over four feet tall, who may have suffered from a form of congenital dwarfism. This supports a tradition at the Church of Santa Croce that a dwarf who appears in one of the frescoes is a self-portrait of Giotto. On the other hand, a man wearing a white hat who appears in the Last Judgement at Padua is also said to be a portrait of Giotto. The appearance of this man conflicts with the image in Santa Croce.
Vasari, drawing on a description by Boccaccio, who was a friend of Giotto, says of him that “there was no uglier man in the city of Florence” and indicates that his children were also plain in appearance. There is a story that Dante visited Giotto while he was painting the Scrovegni Chapel and, seeing the artist’s children underfoot asked how a man who painted such beautiful pictures could create such plain children, to which Giotto, who according to Vasari was always a wit, replied “I made them in the dark.”
Forensic reconstruction of the skeleton at Santa Reperata showed a short man with a very large head, a large hooked nose and one eye more prominent than the other. The bones of the neck indicated that the man spent a lot of time with his head tilted backwards. The front teeth were worn in a way consistent with frequently holding a brush between the teeth. The man was about 70 at the time of death.
While the Italian researchers were convinced that the body belonged to Giotto and it was reburied with honour near the grave of Brunelleschi, others have been highly skeptical.
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