Notebook, 1993-


See more of Giotto's narrative paintings, including The Stories of Mary,The Stories of Christ, The Stoies of Saint Francis at the Vatican Collection

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Giotto di Bondone


Florentine painter and architect. Giotto is regarded as the founder of the central tradition of Western painting because his work broke free from the stylizations of Byzantine art, introducing new ideals of naturalism and creating a convincing sense of pictorial space. His momentous achievement was recognized by his contemporaries (Dante praised him in a famous passage of The Divine Comedy , where he said he had surpassed his master Cimabue), and in about 1400 Cennino Cennini wrote 'Giotto translated the art of painting from Greek to Latin.' In spite of his fame and the demand for his services--he worked for Old St Peter's in Rome and as court painter to Robert of Anjou (King of Naples, 1309-43)--no surviving painting is documented as being by him. His work, indeed, poses some formidable problems of attribution, but it is universally agreed that the fresco cycle in the Arena Chapel at Padua is by Giotto, and it forms the starting-point for any consideration of his work. The Arena Chapel (so-called because it occupies the site of a Roman arena) was built by Enrico Scrovegni in expiration for the sins of his father, a notorious usurer mentioned by Dante. It was begun in 1303 and Giotto's frescos are usually dated c. 1305-6. They run right round the interior of the building; the west wall is covered with a Last Judgment , there is an Annunciation over the chancel arch, and the main wall areas have three tiers of scenes representing scenes from the life of the Virgin and her parents, St. Anne and St. Joachim, and events from the Passion of Christ. Below these scenes are figures personifying Virtues and Vices, painted to simulate stone reliefs--the first grisailles. The figures in the main narrative scenes are about half life-size, but in reproduction they usually look bigger because Giotto's conception is so grand and powerful. His figures have a completely new sense of three-dimensionality and physical presence, and in portraying the sacred events he creates a feeling of moral weight rather than divine splendour. He seems to base the representations upon personal experience, and no artist has surpassed his ability to go straight to the heart of a story and express its essence with gestures and expressions of unerring conviction.

The other major fresco cycle associated with Giotto's name is that on the Life of St. Francis in the Upper Church of S. Francesco at Assisi. Whether Giotto painted this is not only the central problem facing scholars of his work but also one of the most controversial issues in the history of art. It is virtually beyond question that Giotto did at some time work at Assisi, and the St. Francis Frescos are clearly the work of an artist of great stature (their intimate and humane portrayals have done much to determine posterity's mental image of the saint). Nevertheless, the stylistic differences between these works and the Arena Chapel frescos seem to many critics so pronounced that they cannot accept a common authorship. Attempts to attribute other frescos at Assisi to Giotto have met with no less controversy (see also Master of The St. Francis Cycle and Master of St. Cecilia). There is a fair measure of agreement about the frescos associated with Giotto in Sta Croce in Florence. He probably painted in four chapels there, and work survives in the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels, probably dating from the 1320s. The frescos are in very uneven condition (they were whitewashed in the 18th cent.), but some of those in the Bardi Chapel on the life of St. Francis remain deeply impressive. Nothing survives of Giotto's work done for Robert of Anjou in Naples, and the huge mosaic of the Ship of the Church (the Navicella ) that he designed for Old St. Peter's in Rome has been so thoroughly atlered that it tells us nothing about his style. In Rome he would have seen the work of Pietro Cavallini, which was as important an influence on him as that of his master Cimabue.

Several panel paintings bear Giotto's signature, notably the Stefaneschi Altarpiece (Vatican), done for Cardinal Stefaneschi, who also commissioned the Navicella , but it is generally agreed that the signature is a trademark showing that the works came from Giotto's shop rather than an indication of his personal workmanship. On the other hand, the Ognissanti Madonna (Uffizi, Florence, c.1305-10) is neither signed nor firmly documented, but is a work of such grandeur and humanity that it is universally accepted as Giotto's. Among the other panels attributed to him, the finest is the Crucifix in Sta Maria Novella, Florence. On account of his great fame as a painter, Giotto was appointed architect to Florence Cathedral in 1334; he began the celebrated campanile, but his design was altered after his death. In the generation after his death he had an overwhelming influence on Florentine painting; it declined with the growth of International Gothic, but his work was later an inspiration to Masaccio, and even to Michelangelo. These two giants were his true spiritual heirs. Boccaccio (1313-75) and Sacchetti (c. 1330-1400) in their stories make Giotto good-natured, witty, and shrewd--a great man and the greatest painter since antiquity.

Giottesques. A term applied to the 14th cent. followers of Giotto. The best-known of the 'Giotteschi' are the Florentines Taddeo Gaddi, Maso di Banco, Bernardo Daddi, and to a lesser extent the Master of St. Cecilia. They borrowed Giotto's block-like figures and his roomy settings, and like him they studied human action and expression. Giotto's most loyal follower was Maso. He gave only the essential and maintained Giotto's high seriousness; but after him Giotto's almost stark simplicity had no other heirs.

[Chilvers, Ian, Harold Osborne, and Dennis Farr, eds. Oxford Dictionary Of Art. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.]



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