Italian Proto-Renaissance Painter
Summary of Giotto
Giotto is one of the most important artists in the development of Western art. Pre-empting by a century many of the preoccupations and concerns of the Italian High Renaissance, his paintings ushered in a new era in painting that brought together religious antiquity and the developing idea of Renaissance Humanism. Indeed, his influence on European art was such that many historians believe it was not matched until Michelangelo took over his mantle some two centuries on.
Giotto is best known for the way he explored the possibilities of perspective and pictorial space, and in so doing, he brought a new sense of realism to his religious parables. His interest in humanism saw him explore the tension between biblical iconography and the everyday existence of lay worshippers; bringing them closer to God by making art more relevant to their lived experience. His figures were thus infused with an emotional quality not seen before in high art, while his architectural settings were rendered according to the optical laws of proportion and perspective.
- Revered as one of the first of the great Italian masters, Giotto brought a new sense of humanity and style to the traditions of medieval art. Following his intervention, "flat" Christian paintings came to be seen by progressive painters as inanimate and lacking in human feeling.
- Giotto's "new realism" emphasized its humanity through his attention to fine detail. His figures were rendered, in three-dimensional space, through motions and gestures and on fine costume and furnishings details. Though they were devoted to Christ, his human figures form the centre of his narratives.
- Giotto was widely celebrated in his own lifetime. This was due largely to the famous Italian poet Dante who proclaimed him the most important Italian artist, placing him above even Cimabue (originally Giotto's master) who was till then considered the great genius of 14th century Italian painting.
- Giotto was an admired architect. He worked in Florence as master builder for Opera del Duomo, erecting the first part of the Gothic (designed as much for decoration as function) Bell Tower which was duly named in his honor - Giotto's Bell Tower. The tower is widely considered to be the most beautiful campanile in Italy.
Progression of Art
Isaac Blessing Jacob
Historians have grappled with the problem of exactly what Giotto painted while at Assisi, though there is general consensus that he was responsible for this and other important frescos. Isaac Blessing Jacob, one of Giotto's earliest extant works, forms part of a fresco cycle in the Upper Church of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Sitting along the top half of the church's walls, the frescoes portray narratives from the Old Testament that were key bases for beliefs of the Franciscan monastic order. Here, the elderly Isaac is shown blessing his younger son, Jacob, as Jacob offers him food while Isaac's wife, Rebekah, watches.
This fresco reveals early versions of Giotto's technical innovations in painting: that of rendering believable space between human figures. Although Giotto creates an artificial scene by cutting away two of the walls, he also transforms the moment of Isaac blessing Jacob into an everyday event. Using axial perspective, a technique in which lines recede parallel to each other and into the distance, Giotto places the three figures here in an interior that has spatial depth; we can see, for instance, how the foot of the bed recedes. While artists had employed the technique of axial perspective since antiquity, Giotto combines it with numerous details of casual daily life to make the interior more approachable. A curtain hangs across the back of the room to evoke a private space, and the sheets over Isaac's feet are rumpled as if he has just sat up. Isaac, Jacob and Rebekah too seem more like actual human bodies. Not only do sheets and clothes drape over their forms to suggest human anatomy from shoulders to feet, but their faces have distinct contours. Isaac's face is angular and lined around his nose like the face of an older man, and Jacob's face has fuller cheeks with little suggestion of bone structure like that of a youth. In addition, Jacob's steady, concentrated gaze at Isaac complements Isaac's pensive, sideways gaze. Such humanist innovations brought a new psychological dimension to proceedings.
Giotto's more realistic depiction of human figures and their spatial relations had a marked influence on later artists, including the early 15th-century Fra Angelico and Masaccio. When painting The Expulsion of Adam and Eve in his fresco cycle for the Brancacci Chapel (c. 1425, S. Maria del Carmine, Florence), Masaccio echoed Giotto's perspectival rendering of architectural elements and evocation of emotional response (Adam and Eve bend over awkwardly with shame and grief as they walk past an arch receding into the distance). Giotto's fresco thus highlights shifts in European painting techniques that would become key for Renaissance artists and subsequent generations.
Egg tempera fresco - Basilica of St Francis, Assisi
Nineteen feet high, and forming part of a choir screen, this depiction of the Crucifixion reveals Giotto's rethinking of established modes of religious representation. Earlier Byzantine artists had usually depicted the Crucifixion with a "Triumphant Christ" who stands erect and seems to look proudly out from the cross. Here, however, Giotto focuses on the pathos of the scene and thus encourages the viewer to empathize with Christ's suffering. Unusually detailed anatomical depiction of Christ's body suggests how it hangs heavily from the cross, as might an actual human body. The muscles in Christ's arms appear painfully stretched because of their sharp delineation while his stomach sags uncomfortably towards his feet. His head bows to imbue the scene with the melancholy of emotional suffering. Worshippers are invited to participate in this scene - which depicts the Virgin and St. John at the end of each arm looking inward at Christ's suffering. Since Giotto adjusted his Crucifixion to the viewers' point of view (they sit or stand underneath the suspended crucifix) the proportions of Christ's body bring added emotional gravitas when seen from below.
This humanistic depiction of Christ on the cross became the preferred mode of representing the Crucifixion for later artists. For instance, with his Holy Trinity (c. 1425-27) fresco inside S. Maria Novella in Florence, Masaccio echoes Giotto's depiction of the realistic suffering and bodily weight of Christ. Christ's body again hangs heavily from distended muscular arms, and the invitation to worshipper participation has become even more overt as a worshipper in the painting looks directly out to our space.
Tempera and gold on wood panel - Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence
Celebration of Christmas at Greccio
This work, also located in the Upper Church at Assisi, uses perspective to depict a religious space normally inaccessible to lay worshippers. A scene from Giotto's fresco cycle narrating the life of St Francis, this painting displays the saint creating the first Nativity scene, now familiar in the celebration of Christmas across the Christian world; we see St. Francis laying Christ in a manger. Giotto shows St. Francis clearly behind the choir screen that usually divided the church into space for lay worshippers and space for religious figures, such as the Franciscan monks. Not only are the white panels of the choir screen visible but Giotto further emphasizes the unusual setting through his use of perspective to create a definable space in front of the viewer. We can see how the floor is tipped upward, the pulpit recedes away from us, and the structure at the left is shown at a raking diagonal. In addition, there is space behind the choir screen since women step across its threshold and the crucifix leans backwards at a reclining angle.
Beyond its artistic innovations, as the art historian Jacqueline E. Jung has observed, Giotto's fresco offers unusual insight into the complexity of social interactions within a medieval church. To the right and left of St. Francis, well-dressed (and so wealthy) individuals in flowing and colorful robes surround four Franciscan monks in brown robes. Since the monks stand behind the well-dressed individuals with their mouths open, the scene appears to offer lay worshippers instruction in the religious event before them; they are not only allowed behind the choir screen, but they can learn by looking at St. Francis and listening to the monks. Women too are permitted to enter this area, as they stand at the threshold of the choir screen; however, they occupy a more ambiguous position: at once marginally placed on the threshold and centrally placed laterally in the choir screen. This fresco thus offers evidence of artistic innovation to art historians, and also to social historians pointing to distinctions in gendered interactions along with the approaches to the secular and divine at the time.
Egg tempera fresco - Basilica of St Francis, Assisi
The Last Judgement
In the early years of the 1300s, the wealthy money-lender Enrico Scrovegni built a private chapel in the city of Padua, and employed Giotto to devise a decorative scheme for the entire interior. The result was a mature masterpiece with a cohesive overall identity and a new approach to spatiality in painting. As the art historian Anne Mueller van der Haegen puts it, Giotto "portrays image, figures and space in relation to the picture surface in a new form." The Last Judgement painted on one wall of the chapel is particularly noteworthy in this regard.
In this fresco, Giotto helps to forge a connection between the viewer and the divine events depicted by playing with the tropes of real and illusionistic space. In an unprecedented way, Giotto breaks down the boundaries between the painted space of the scene and the physical architecture of the chapel. For example, the angels at the top of the painting are shown peeling back the painted firmament in order to reveal the gates of heaven, while more angels peer around the frame of the real window. Creating even more of an illusionist quality, the robes of the priest kneeling in the foreground are painted to appear as if they are actually hanging over the frame of the door below.
Giotto also emphasizes the connection between this world and the next by making the unusual move of including a portrait of his patron, Enrico Scrovegni, holding a model of his chapel and offering it to the enthroned Christ. While Giotto probably did this at his patron's request, it was unusual because Scrovegni was still alive at the time. By placing him on the side of the blessed, Giotto indicates Scrovegni's piety; this is in stark contrast to the poet Dante (then a resident of Padua) who had condemned Scrovegni to Hell in his Divine Comedy.
The Scrovegni Chapel would prove to be of great significance to later artists, including the modernist artists working in London at the start of the 20th century. For example, Roger Fry writes in an article about Giotto that the achievement of the Scrovegni Chapel frescoes "is an entirely original discovery of new possibilities in the relation of forms to one another."
Egg tempera fresco - Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
Giotto's Lamentation of the Death of Christ (a popular narrative for 14th century religious paintings) is the most famous of his frescoes for the Arena Chapel in Padua. Considered a bone-fide masterpiece of proto-renaissance painting, Giotto's frescoes revealed a ground-breaking style of naturalism, overturning the flat, two-dimensional, conventions of medieval painting. The Arena (or Scrovegni) Chapel murals consist of 39 consecutive scenes depicting events in the life of the Virgin Mary and events in the life of Christ. The overarching theme is one of redemption and this probably reflected a desire for the Scrovegni family, who grew rich on moneylending, to appease their conscience and redress their sins.
In Giotto's Lamentation, Christ has been lifted down from the cross and his lifeless body is attended to by haloed relatives and disciples. Mary, the focus of the picture, cradles her son's head while Mary Magdalene mourns at Christ's feet. John the Evangelist, meanwhile, opens his arms wide in a gesture that connotes devastation and sympathy for Christ's suffering. Giotto renders the mourners' emotions through the fine detail in their hands and feet, and in their bowed heads and open mouths that appear to quiver in grief. Not only does Giotto bring his human figures to life, his mise-en-scène lends the image a greater sense of spatial realism too. For instance, the foreshortened figures of the grieving angels, and the diagonal lines of the mountain ridge, bring a sense of deep-space to the composition.
The combination of naturalized human figures and three dimensional "depth" effectively signalled the demise (amongst progressives at least) of the flat, largely symbolic, Byzantine style in art. Giotto's approach provided inspiration for the Florentine Renaissance and, more widely, Renaissance art throughout Europe. For his part, Giotto's style carried his faith in the message of St. Francis of Assisi which espoused a new sense of religious freedom whereby the mortal would be transformed into a better (higher) being through the touch of the divine.
Fresco - Arena Chapel, Padua
The innovations made by Giotto in this large-scale painting of the Madonna and Child are made particularly apparent through comparing the work with treatments of the same subject by Giotto's slightly older contemporaries Duccio and Cimabue, which hang near the work in the Uffizi Gallery. Giotto's version of the scene, painted 20-30 years after those of his his peers, stands out because of his masterful use of architectural perspective to represent the throne, and the suggestion of a pictorial space that more closely resembles reality, in which the attendant figures, while smaller than the Madonna, otherwise obey the spatial rules of the painted scene.
The Madonna and Child's raised position within the picture is symbolic of their spiritual elevation, but it is made realistic by the depiction of a throne with steps leading up to it; they are not left floating in mid-air as in previous treatments of the same subject. Through this device, the Christ child's hand, raised in blessing, becomes the focus-point of the painting, where most of the lines of perspective come together. Moreover, the gazes of the surrounding figures are directed at the holy pair, encouraging the viewer to send their gaze in the same direction and to share in the depicted act of adoration.
The painting is also notable for the clear sense of anatomical realism with which the figures are depicted. In previous eras, the anatomy of the figures beneath their clothes was generally not closely attended to, where Giotto takes care to suggest the human fleshliness of the Virgin and the baby Jesus. This is particularly highlighted through the subtle representation of Mary's knee and breasts through the fabric of her clothes, as well as the baby's body in its translucent robe.
Giotto's depiction of the Virgin and Child as a human mother and child, as well as divine beings, was an important influence for later Renaissance artists, especially figures such as Filippo Lippi, tutor to Botticelli, whose images of the Madonna and Child develop the human element of the scene, eventually reducing the figures' gold halos to simple symbolic rings.
The 20th-century sculptor Henry Moore was also impressed by what he felt were the sculptural qualities of Giotto's figures, describing Giotto's paintings as "the finest sculpture I met in Italy." He later made several mother and child sculptures, and they show a clear line of influence from Giotto's Madonna and Child.
Tempera and gold on panel - The Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Design sketch for the Campanile
The bell tower of Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence Cathedral) was begun by Giotto in 1334, taken on following his death (in 1337) by Andrea Pisano, and completed in 1359 by Francesco Talenti, who added the large windows on the upper levels. This sketch, which is attributed to Giotto, depicts the artist's original design for the bell tower (campanile). From the beginning of his career, Giotto's paintings have incorporated architectural structures and buildings, so it was perhaps inevitable that at some point in his later career he would turn to architectural design directly. Giotto's design was completed with a remit to complement the polychromy of the cathedral as a whole (according to Arnolfo di Cambio's design). Though it is problematic to attribute sole authorship to the "Giotto Tower" (given his untimely death) it is accepted that he was directly responsible for the tower's bottom third. Indeed, on the strength of his contribution to the cathedral's design, Giotto joined Brunelleschi (designer of the cathedral's dome) and Alberti (author of the first printed book on architecture "De re aedificatoria", 1450) as one of the founding fathers of Renaissance architecture.
Giotto's sketch is for an ornate building in the Gothic style that accords with the imagined buildings of his earlier paintings. His lower section includes colored marble - white, green, pink and red predominantly - organized in geometric patterns. His design is complemented with a series of sculptural reliefs, designed by Giotto and executed by Pisano and other Florentine masters (including Donatello and Luca Della Robbia). Taken as a whole, the relief cycle represents a celebration of knowledge and thinking and charts the development of civilization through a series of panels. Collectively the reliefs (relievos) convey the idea that exploration, and learning through technology and theology, had made mankind worthy (potentially) of divine redemption.
The practices of science and technology are represented through allegorical depictions of astronomy, architecture, weaving, navigation and mathematics. These panels sit alongside representations of biblical and classical figures, while the panel representing medicine depicts the consulting room of a doctor in the act of observing urine contained in the glass receptacles (matula) against the light, the goal being to symbolize the link between observed analysis and diagnosis (indeed, the matula was taken up as an emblem by practicing physicians). The Bell Tower upper panels meanwhile are dedicated to astronomy. The relief on the south side (pointing towards via de' Calzaiuoli) shows the "inventor" of astronomy, Gionitus, in search of celestial bodies using astronomical instruments, while the west side celebrates the celestial bodies of medieval astronomy.
The tower has attracted much praise through the ages from writers and artists. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow addresses it in his poem "Giotto's Tower":
In the old Tuscan town stands Giotto's tower,
The lily of Florence blossoming in stone, -
A vision, a delight, and a desire, -
The builder's perfect and centennial flower,
That in the night of ages bloomed alone,
But wanting still the glory of the spire.
Ink on parchment - Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence
Biography of Giotto
Very little is known about the biographical details of Giotto di Bondone's life. He is thought to have been the son of a peasant, born in the Mugello, a mountainous area to the north of Florence, which was also the home country of the Medici family who would later rise to power in the city. Giotto's birthplace has been attributed to a house in the small village of Vicchio and the date of his birth given as 1277 by the writer and artist Giorgio Vasari in his influential 1550 text The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. However, other sources suggest he was born in 1267, which seems more likely judging by the maturity of some of his early works.
Early Training and Work
The accomplished sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti (whose achievements in early Renaissance sculpture were indebted to Giotto) recounts a legendary story in his 1452 written work Commentaries on the Tuscan Artists of the Trecento. He tells how the young Giotto was tending sheep as a child and drew one of them from life on a stone slab. The foremost painter of the day, Cimabue, came across the boy's sketch and was so impressed that he immediately took the young Giotto on as an apprentice.
Whatever the true beginnings of their professional relationship, it seems likely that Giotto was apprenticed to Cimabue, probably from the age of around 10, where he learned the art of painting. It is thought that Giotto travelled to Rome with the older artist before accompanying him to Assisi, where Cimabue had been commissioned to decorate the lower of the two churches recently built on top of each other to commemorate St Francis.
Sometime around 1290, Giotto married a Florentine woman called Ricevuta di Lapo del Pela - better known as "Ciuta"- with whom he had a number of children. (There is a quite probably baseless story that someone once asked Giotto how he could create such beautiful paintings but produce such ugly children, to which he replied that he made his children in the dark.) Around the same time as his marriage to Ciuta, Cimabue left Assisi for another commission and Giotto took over his work and was approached to create a fresco cycle for the top half of the walls in the upper church. Although Cimabue was Giotto's teacher, the pupil soon usurped his master, and his skill was recognized in his lifetime by contemporaries such as the poet Dante Alighieri, who wrote in his Divine Comedy: "Oh empty glory of human powers ... In painting Cimabue thought to hold the field, and now Giotto has the cry, so that the other's fame is diminished."
Between around 1290 and 1295 Giotto undertook his first major work in Assisi, in which he made a number of significant pictorial advances. His work was a success, and he was commissioned to create a further cycle of frescoes for the church. After a relatively prolonged stay in Assisi, Giotto began a period of frequent travel among the city states of Italy; a pattern that would characterize his whole career. Giotto set up workshops in a number of different locations where his style was emulated and where many of his assistants went on to strike out with their own careers.
At the turn of the century Giotto traveled to Florence, Rimini and possibly Rome. He then spent around three years in Padua working on one of his most complete and best-known works in the Arena Chapel. During his stay in Padua, Giotto may have met the poet Dante, who had been exiled there from Florence. In the decade between 1305 and 1315, Giotto seems to have travelled a number of times between Florence and Rome. He worked on commissions for some of the most important churches, including St Peter's in Rome (the church that preceded the current Basilica) where he was commissioned by the Roman Cardinal Jacopo Stefaneschi to create two works: Giotto's only known mosaic work (c.1310) and a large polyptych altarpiece (c.1313).
In the early 1300s the seat of the papacy was not in Rome but in Avignon, France. The cardinals of Rome were fighting for the papacy to be returned to their city and duly commissioned Giotto to produce works, including a mosaic for the façade of the old St. Peter's Basilica (of which only fragments remain), Rome's most significant papal church. Cardinal Stefaneschi expressed his confidence that the Pope would eventually return and set about elevating the spiritual importance of his Roman seat. It is thought therefore that Stefaneschi commissioned Giotto - who was by now a painter of considerable professional renown - as part of his political strategy.
During this period, Giotto also received important commissions for the church of Santa Croce in Florence. Somewhere around 1313, meanwhile, he worked on a chapel dedicated to the Peruzzi's, a rich and influential family of bankers, in which he created two fresco cycles depicting John the Evangelist and John the Baptist. The member of the Peruzzi family who commissioned the work was named "Giovanni" or "John", and the frescoes would appear to be intended to forge a link between the family, the city of Florence and the patron saints that they worshipped.
The Peruzzi Chapel was much admired by Renaissance painters. Indeed, Michelangelo is known to have studied the frescoes which exemplified Giotto's skill in chiaroscuro and his ability to accurately represent perspective in the ancient buildings. It is known too that Giotto's compositions later influenced Masaccio's work on Cappella Brancacci. According to surviving financial records, somewhere between 1314-27, Giotto also painted the famous altarpiece the Ognissanti Madonna, now housed in the Uffizi (where it is on display next Cimabue's Santa Trinita Madonna and Duccio's Rucellai Madonna). Though Giotto settled for a time in Florence, it is known that he returned to Assisi between 1316-1320 where he worked on the decoration of the lower church (left unfinished by his old master Cimabue). Returning to Rome in 1320, Giotto completed the Stefaneschi Triptych (now housed in the Vatican Museum) for Cardinal Jacopo, who also commissioned him to decorate St. Peter's apse (the frescoes were destroyed during the 16th century renovation).
In 1328 Giotto was summoned by Robert of Anjou, the King of Naples, to his court. It is possible that he was recommended to Robert of Anjou by the Bardi family, for whom he had recently completed a series of frescoes for the family chapel in the church of Santa Croce. In Naples, meanwhile, Giotto became a court painter, which meant that he gave up the more precarious itinerant lifestyle that had so far characterized his career. He was given a salary and a stipend for materials and assistance, and in 1330 Robert of Anjou named him "familiaris", meaning that he had become part of the royal household. Regrettably, almost nothing of his work from this period survives. A fragment of a fresco portraying the Lamentation of Christ in the church of Santa Chiara bears his mark, as does the group of Illustrious Men that adorn the windows of the Santa Barbara Chapel of Castel Nuovo, though historians usually attribute these works to pupils of Giotto.
After his time in Naples, Giotto stayed briefly in Bologna where he painted a Polyptych for the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and, it is thought, a lost decoration for the Chapel in the Cardinal Legate's Castle. In 1334, Giotto returned once more to Florence. Here, he was appointed 'capomaestro' or Master of Municipal Construction Works and head of the Cathedral Mason's Guild. He oversaw artworks for the construction of Florence's cathedral, while his own contribution was a design for a bell tower (though only the lower part was built to his stipulations). The new church, work on which commenced at the end of the 13th century, was modelled on the 7th century church of Santa Reparata, and would not be completed for another 200 years. As a mark of the esteem in which he was held, Giotto was buried in the Santa Reparata at the expense of the city following his death on 8th January 1337.
The Legacy of Giotto
Giotto's influence over the development of the Italian Renaissance and, consequently, over much of the history of European art, is significant. Recognized in his own time as a master by poets and thinkers such as Dante and Boccaccio, Giotto's developments of pictorial space and a quest for an unprecedented degree of realism would inspire the early instigators of the Renaissance in Florence. In particular, his influence can be seen in the sculptural revolution instigated by figures such as Lorenzo Ghiberti and Donatello in the first decade of the 1400s, while his artistic inheritance can also be recognized in the paintings of the young Masaccio forward of 1420.
Giotto's influence comes particularly from his incipient steps towards Renaissance Humanism, a school of thought that would be essential to the development of Renaissance art. Humanism involved looking to the world of antiquity for learning and pictorial techniques. In Giotto's work, this can be seen in his interest in depicting human emotions and in his modeling of the human figure, and in his ability to break down the distance between biblical characters and human viewers. Humanism can also be found in Giotto's interest in architecture, proportion, perspective and even engineering. These were also significant elements of later developments in Renaissance humanist thought and art, in which human beings became central to artistic endeavor and the realistic depiction of figures and emotion became paramount.
It is notable that there was a significant gap between the early groundbreaking work of Giotto around 1300 and the major revolution in art that began around a century later. This is probably because the years in between Giotto's death and the beginning of the 15th century were marked by plague and economic downturn. The plague epidemic of 1348 took the lives of a huge proportion of the inhabitants of Florence, as well as of cities such as Siena, which before this point had a burgeoning artistic movement and style of its own, but from which it never recovered. It was not until the relative stability and prosperity of Florence at the beginning of the 1400s that Giotto's achievements could be fully admired and built upon.
Giotto's influence continued to be recognized by later artists, and his work saw a resurgence of interest among modernists working in the first half of the 20th century, including figures such as Henry Moore and Roger Fry.