Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1265 – 1337)
Painter and Architect
Few artists in the history of Western Civilization have received as much attention and adulation as Giotto di Bondone, a leading practitioner of a kind of pictorial representation that critics since the time of Giorgio Vasari have credited with initiating a New Style of Art that we now associate with the period we call the “Renaissance.” Legends surrounding his genius cropped up during his lifetime, and the productivity of his large and active workshop – which extended from the university town of Padua in Northeast Italy all the way down to Naples in the southeast – both inspired generations of imitators and fooled the eyes of generations of critics that followed: as a result, the number of paintings ascribed to his hand is probably much larger than the actual number of images for which he was truly responsible.
His origins, like those of most of his peers, can only be guessed at. Giotto appears to have been born in or around the year 1267, and he was certainly a contemporary of the famed poet, Dante Alighieri (who mentions him by name in Purgatorio XI: 91-96), the Sienese master Duccio di Buoninsegna, and the painter Cimabue, who Lorenzo Ghiberti and then Vasari claimed was his master. These two artists, Cimabue and Giotto, were linked together at the height of the latter’s career. As early as 1315, Dante celebrated them in a rather backwards way by using them as examples of the fleetingness of fame, when he famously wrote:
O, empty glory of the powers of humans!
How briefly does green endure upon the peak –
Unless an age of dullness follows it.
In painting, Cimabue thought he held
The field, but now it’s Giotto they acclaim –
The former only keeps a shadowed fame.
The connection between Cimabue and Giotto was underscored in Ghiberti’s Commentarii of about 1450, in which the oft-repeated legend of the older artist’s discovery of the child prodigy – drawing a picture of a sheep on a rock – was first articulated. This initial comment on Giotto’s interest in using nature as a guide became the signature theme in Ghiberti’s biography of the painter. Wrote Ghiberti,
“Giotto was an enormously important figure in the field of painting. He brought forth to prominence the new art, abandoning the clumsiness of the Greeks. He made towering works of greatness, especially in the city of Florence (and in many other places) and collected disciples who were, in every way, the equal of the ancients. Indeed, one sees in Giotto’s art works that his followers could not better. He elevated nature in art, and with it a certain gentility, without ignoring proper proportions and measures. He was extremely skilled in all the arts, was an inventor and discoverer of many theories which had been buried for almost 600 years. When nature wanted to concede something, it conceded without a single complaint.”
Embedded in his lengthier biography of Giotto is Vasari’s terse remark that Giotto, “freed himself from the rude manner of the Greeks and brought back to life the true art of painting.”
These legends and tropes do little to secure for us an authentic understanding of Giotto’s origins and early works. Some have connected him to the motherhouse of the Franciscan Order in Assisi and have argued that he was the sole creator of a series of frescoes (produced in the 1290s) in the upper basilica that illustrate scenes from the life of the thirteenth-century saint who started the order. Indeed, a document from the church of S. Francesco ambiguously places him there sometime before 1310, although it is unclear whether Giotto was then actively painting in the upper basilica or in the lower one directly beneath it. While most Anglo-American scholars reject the attribution of the St. Francis cycle to Giotto, believing them instead to have been painted either the so-called St. Cecilia Master or by Roman artists at the behest of the papacy (and Giotto’s work to have been confined to a single chapel in the lower basilica), the possibility of his activity in upper church of Assisi is still celebrated by Italian scholars – and by the friars who still live and work in the cloister there.
By 1300 he appears to have been in Rome, where Giotto is said to have produced for Pope Boniface VIII a massive mosaic dedicated to the Navicella that graced the façade of Old St. Peter’s basilica until its destruction in the early sixteenth century. As is the case with Giotto’s other works from this early moment in his career, the Roman project is not documented.
The first time Giotto’s name appears in a written record comes in 1305, when the painter was mentioned working for Enrico Scrovegni in the Paduan chapel that bears the banker’s name. Responsible for both the architectural design of that private oratory and the frescoes painted within it, Giotto efficiently completed this project in roughly two years. The so-called Arena Chapel was dedicated on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1306, and the doors of the space were opened to the public annually on that date to commemorate his achievement. Among those who almost surely saw and marveled at the paintings Giotto produced there was the Florentine exile Dante Alighieri, by then a resident of Padua on the verge of penning one of the most influential works of literature in all of human history. Dante’s conception of Hell in the Inferno (initiated around 1307) seems to rely quite heavily on the zones of the damned and the grouping of punishments that appear in the imagined cauldron of Giotto’s Last Judgment and the damaged souls inside it that the artist painted only a few months before Dante began writing his verses.
Giotto then made his way to Assisi, where he oversaw frescoes in the lower basilica of S. Francesco before finally making his way back to Florence – a city he had assiduously avoided for most of the duration of the quasi-civil war there that lasted for nearly all of the first decade of the fourteenth century. By 1312 he had finished an impressive crucifix for the Dominicans at S. Maria Novella that served as a model for younger artists producing similar paintings for the remainder of the Trecento. In 1317, he began a lengthy project to fresco the walls of the Bardi Chapel along the right transept of the Franciscan church of S. Croce, with scenes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Just before leaving for Naples in 1328, where Giotto worked for five years as the court artist of Robert of Anjou, his workshop completed frescoes that illustrated the miracles of St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Baptist in the Peruzzi Chapel, adjacent to the aforementioned Bardi Chapel. The altarpiece of the Coronation of the Virgin was probably completed at roughly the same time, that is sometime around 1328, and has much in common with the hotly contested double-sided altarpiece that Cardinal Jacopo Stefaneschi commissioned from Giotto and placed in the canon’s choir of Old St. Peter’s basilica in Rome either in 1300 or in 1329. Take your pick.
Giotto’s work in Naples comes down to us only in the form of notices and vague archival references. The elderly artist, then in his sixties, may have painted some works for the Angevin king there, but whatever he completed was ruined by a series of earthquakes that had, by the end of the eighteenth century, utterly leveled almost the entire medieval city (and most of the artistic works that once shined inside it).
By 1333 Giotto was back in Florence, now feted as the official City Artist despite his advanced age. Indeed, the artist seems to have received his appointment from the city at precisely the moment of his retirement. Giotto managed to set down designs for the Campanile that stands next to the cathedral’s façade, but those designs were so poorly executed that the project was halted and re-configured out of fear that Giotto’s building would completely collapse. Other than the Campanile project, Giotto pursued practically no other commissions during this final stage of his career, and it may well be that his post a City Artist was actually an administrative post (or, just as likely, merely an honorific title), and that his real job was to delegate (or even sub-contract) important commissions to younger artists like Bernardo Daddi and Andrea Pisano.
Yet Giotto’s legacy cannot be exaggerated. His approach to naturalistic figures and believable narratives catapulted Florentine art from the stodgy and predictable effigies painted by thirteenth-century artisans, deeply wedded to elongated and stylized Byzantine traditions, to a vibrant and animated visual environment that valued energy, emotional content, and gestural drama. His conveyance of mystical sublimity in The Stigmatization of St. Francis at the top of the Bardi Chapel, for example, succeeds due to the recognizable anatomical form that emerges from underneath Francis’ garment and the unrelenting facial expression of the elderly friar confronting his God. The emotionally fraught image of Francis’s followers who mourn his death in the Burial of St. Francis inside the chapel counters this image by placing around the dead saint a collection of tormented men, each one lost in his own psychological state of grief and each one contributing to the broader emotional environment created by this Greek Chorus of unified anguish, all of which has been depicted through the furrowed brows and downturned lips and thrusting hands of otherwise anonymous clerics. No one had ever seen paintings quite like this before, and their impact was immediate and pervasive, as evidenced by the legion of imitators who strove to echo his new approach to pictorial naturalism.
Giotto’s innovative spirit captured the imagination of writers during and after his lifetime. Boccaccio famously cast Giotto in a number of his tales in the Decameron from ca. 1351, making the painter out to be a sage judge of character. Francesco Sacchetti’s Trecento Novelle from the 1390s expanded on this literary trope by ascribing to Giotto a certain wit and wisdom that put the craftsman on par with Florence’s greatest minds. And Vasari’s sixteenth-century story of “Giotto’s O,” a play on Pliny the Elder’s tales (concerning the Greek painters Apelles, Parahaxios, and Protogenes) in which the artist drew a perfect circle – free hand – before an uncomprehending papal lackey, came to be seen by modern painters (like Rembrandt van Rijn) as the perfect allegory of artistic dexterity. To this day, Giotto receives a kind of adulation among Italian art lovers as a groundbreaker among groundbreakers, the first of the painterly Evangelists who, along with Masaccio, Leonardo, and Michelangelo, proselytized a new approach to the visual arts.
Importantly, some of Giotto’s stylistic and intellectual innovations were disseminated even before his death. His talented workshop almost certainly included Taddeo Gaddi and Maso di Banco, two of the most gifted painters of the fourteenth century who gained their independence and produced important works of their own as soon as Giotto left for Naples in 1328. In fact, many of the figures and scenes credited to Giotto’s hand in the 1310s and ‘20s were, in all probability, actually executed by these great masters-in-training, thanks to the tradition of workshop production that dictated a delegation of productivity among assistants on the scaffold. But even painters who did train directly with Giotto looked to his art for inspiration. Pacino di Buonaguida and Bernardo Daddi, excellent painters in their own right, quoted the details of Giotto’s passages with frequency and skill, even though they appear to have come from different pictorial traditions. Even after the passing of the Black Death in 1348 – that watershed event that, at least chronologically (if not psychologically), divides the late Middle Ages from the early Modern period – Giotto’s compositions, figures, gestures, and narrative solutions still held sway among painters like Andrea Orcagna and Nardo di Cione, Niccolò di Pietro Gerini, and even Lorenzo Monaco into the fifteenth century. Only with the advent of Masaccio, the first painter of the Quattrocento to truly understand Giotto and his approach to naturalistic representation, did artists begin to build upon the traditions he had founded in the early Trecento.
Barasch, Moshe. Giotto and the Language of Gesture (Cambridge University Press: New York and London, 1987).
Bellosi, Luciano. Giotto Complete Works (Scala: Riverside, 1992).
Land, Norman. “GIOTTO’S ELOQUENCE.” Source: Notes in the History of Art 23, no. 3 (2004): 15-19.
Stubblebine, James H. Giotto: The Arena Chapel Frescoes. (W.W. Norton: New York, 1969).
Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Artists, trans. George Bull (Penguin Classics: New York, 1965).