Giotto c. 1267 – January 8, 1337
Giotto di Bondone was born in the little village of Colle, Commune of Vespignano, in the beautiful valley of the Mugello, about twenty miles north of Florence.
There is no certain knowledge of Giotto’s early years, nor of his traditional apprenticeship under Cimabue, and his life can be read mainly in his works. In 1298 he seems to have been working in Rome, at the mosaic of the Navicella. He was probably in Rome in 1300, the year of the Jubilee proclaimed by Boniface VIII.
According to a contemporary chronicler, he worked in the Church of St. Francesco at Assisi before 1312, where he created the three great cycles beginning with the series in the Upper Church. This is confirmed one hundred years later by Ghiberti in his Commentaries, who also mentions Giotto's works at Padua and Rimini. And Vasari is mentioning that Giotto was called at Assisi by Fra Giovanni di Muro, who became leader of the Franciscan Order in 1296.
Staatliche Museen, Berlin
There is evidence for his presence in Padua when Dante visited the city in 1306 and the painter entertained the poet at his house. There are indications of his artistic work at Rimini at about this time, although only works having the character of his school suggest his presence there. In 1327 he was in Florence, probably at work in Santa Croce. And in 1330 he was the honored guest of King Robert at Naples, who entrusted Giotto with important commissions, now unfortunately destroyed.
In 1334, he returned to Florence, where he was appointed chief superintendent of the cathedral of the city, which was left unfinished by Arnolfo. The artist was both the architect and sculptor of that great architectural achievement (unfinished at his death in 1337), which is the famous Campanile of Florence, named in his honor the “Giotto's Tower.”
Giotto di Bondone made a decisive break with the crude traditional Byzantine style, and according to Vasari, he brought to life the great art of painting. He may be considered the first modern painter, as he introduced the technique of drawing accurately from life, which, in his time, had been neglected for so many years. The figures in his paintings, with their realistic faces and gestures, are proof of his close study of nature.
Unlike Cimabue and Duccio, Giotto's figures are not stylized or elongated and are not based on Byzantine models. They are solidly three-dimensional, have faces and gestures that are based on close observation of real life. They are clothed in garments that hang naturally and have form and weight, as opposed to swirling formalized drapery.
The tradition is that Giotto owed his training to the school of Florence, especially to Cimabue. Some critics believe that his achievements were due to the influence of Roman masters, probably at Assisi, or even to a possible training in the Roman school.
Indeed, it is very likely that Giotto learned his craft from the artists of Rome, the city which was always recognized for its sound tradition inspired by the classics. But it is impossible to think that Cimabue’s paintings had no spiritual influence on him, whether Giotto actually worked under him or not.
In form, Giotto was inspired by the classical Roman tradition and he did not used Cimabue's old fashioned design. But the really new impetus resided in a movement greater than the ecclesiastical ideals of Roman patrons, that is, in the humanism which was shown in the growth of the Franciscan religious movement. Arnolfo, the great contemporary architect of Florence, may have contributed something to his architectural skills. There was also a possible influence from the sculptor Giovanni Pisano, Nicola's son.
St. Francis frescoes at Assisi and the Arena Chapel (Scrovegni)
Giotto’s paintings in the Upper Church at Assisi and the works in the Arena Chapel at Padua are the milestones of his art. They help us to identify the three main periods of his artistic development.
The first, belonging almost certainly to the 13th century, and showing dependence upon an earlier style, is typically represented by the St. Francis frescoes series at Assisi.
The second period is that of his early maturity: the Series of Scenes from the Life of the Virgin and of Christ which forms the decoration of the Scrovegni or Arena Chapel at Padua. These are his best preserved paintings and the most eager and ambitious. Giotto’s “Lamentation” is proof that nowhere does his artistic innovation appear so marvelous as here.
Finally, the third is represented by the works of his later years in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence, in which his thought and style reach their highest point of serene power and beauty.
Giotto’s panel paintings
Unfortunately, few of his panel paintings remained. The beautiful Crucifix in the sacristy of the Arena Chapel is an unmistakable production of Giotto’s brush. It is the most exquisitely finished of all his panel works.
Dated 1310, not far from the Padua period, is the large painting of the Madonna Enthroned, representing the Virgin and Child surrounded by Saints and Angels, now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The panel was originally in the church of Ognissanti, thus the painting is also known as Ognissanti Madonna.
The work offers an exceptional opportunity to compare Giotto’s art with the creations of his contemporaries and predecessors, and to notice the great differences between the old approach and his innovative artistic spirit. It may be that it was painted by the master as a special challenge to the Florence painters. Although it seems executed along the lines of an older school conventional composition, the artist has thrown into this great Madonna painting all the force and power of his new ideals.
Giotto changed the structure and form of the Florentine school of painting, by modifying the existing traditions. His art is a logical development of the realistic tendencies of Tuscan provincial art, which culminated in the works of Cimabue. Yet his temperament is classic, and this is shown not so much by classical motives as by the repose and dignity of his perception on life. So evenly balanced, indeed, are his qualities that in the end we come to see how his greatness lies in proportion, and judgment.
Giotto di Bondone, the late Gothic Italian master was, no doubt about it, the precursor of the great art revival movement which was the Renaissance.