1902 Encyclopedia > Giotto

Giotto
(also known as: Giotto di Bondone)
Italian painter
(1266/7-1337)




GIOTTO (1276-1336), relatively to his age one of the greatest and most complete of artists, fills in the history of Italian painting a place analogous to that which seems to have been filled in the history of Greek painting by Polygnotus. That is to say, he lived at a time when the resources of his art were still in their infancy, but considering the limits of those resources, his achievements were the highest possible. At the close of the Middle Age, he laid the foundations upon which all the progress of the Renaissance was afterwards securely based. In the days of Giotto, the knowledge possessed by painters of the human frame and its structure rested only upon general observation, and not upon any minute, prolonged, or scientific study ; while to facts other than those of humanity their observation had never been closely directed. Of linear perspective they possessed few ideas, and those elementary and empirical, and scarcely any ideas at all of aerial perspective or the conduct of light and shade. As far as painting could ever be carried under these conditions, so far it was carried by Giotto. In its choice of subjects, his art is entirely subservient to the religious spirit of his age. Even in its mode of conceiving and arranging those subjects, it is in part still trammelled by the rules and consecrated traditions of the past. Thus it is as far from being a perfectly free as from being a perfectly accomplished form of art. Many of those truths of nature to which the painters of succeeding generations learnt to give accurate and complete expression, Giotto was only able to express by way of imperfect symbol and suggestion. But in spite of these limitations and shortcomings, and although he has often to be content with expressing truths of space and form conventionally or inadequately, and truths of structure and action approximately, and truths of light and shadow not at all, yet among the elements over which he has control he maintains so just a balance that his work produces in the spectator less sense of imperfection than that of many later and more accomplished masters. He is one of the least one-sided of artists, and his art, it has been justly said, resumes and concentrates all the attainments of his time not less truly than all the attainments of the crowning age of Italian art are resumed and concentrated in Raphael. In some particulars the painting of Giotto was never surpassed,—in the judicious division of the field and massing and scattering of groups,—in the union of dignity in the types with appropriateness in the occupations of the personages,—in strength and directness of intellectual grasp and dramatic motive,—in the combination of perfect gravity with perfect frankness in conception, and of a noble severity in design with a great charm of harmony and purity in colour. The earlier Byzantine and Roman workers in mosaic had bequeathed to him the high abstract qualities of their practice, their balance, their impressiveness, their grand instinct of decoration; but while they had compassed these qualities at an entire sacrifice of life and animation, it is the glory of Giotto to have been the first among his countrymen to breathe life into art, and to have quickened its stately rigidity with the fire of natural incident and emotion. It was this conquest, this touch of the magician, this striking of the sympathetic notes of life and reality, that chiefly gave Giotto his immense reputation among his contemporaries, and made him the fit exponent of the vivid, penetrating, and practical genius of emancipated Florence. , His is one of the few names in history which, having become great while its bearer lived, has sustained no loss of greatness through subsequent generations.

No two men were ever more unlike than the rustic Giotto and the patrician Dante ; but among the high places of history, their figures stand side by side on a common eminence. They were contemporaries, Dante being the elder of the two by eleven years, and friends, or, at the least, acquaintances. The poetry of Dante, reporting concerning things unseen with a definiteness not less than that of actual vision, served in many ways, until the days of Michelangelo, not only as an inspiration but as a law to the religious art of Italy. This inspiring and legislating authority of the sacred poet was exercised first of all upon Giotto,—partly, it appears, by means of personal intercourse between the two men. On the other hand, Giotto is celebrated in Dante's verse as the foremost painter of the new age, Nor is this the only tribute to his pre-eminence which we find in contemporary, or almost contemporary, literature. He is from the first a kind of popular hero. He is celebrated by the poet Petrarch and by the historian Villani. He is made the subject of tales and anecdotes by Boccaccio and by Franco Sacchetti. From these notices, as well as from Vasari, we gain a distinct picture of the man, as one whose nature was in keeping with his peasant origin; whose sturdy frame and plain features corresponded to a character rather distinguished for shrewd and genial strength than for sublimer or more ascetic qualities; a master craftsman, to whose strong combining and inventing powers nothing came amiss; conscious of his own deserts, never at a loss either in the things of his art or in the things of life, and equally ready and efficient whether he has to design the scheme of some great spiritual allegory in colour or imperishable monument in stone, or whether he has to show his wit in the encounter of practical jest and repartee. From his own hand we have a contribution to literature which helps to substantiate this conception of his character. A large part of Giotto's fame as a painter was won in the service of the Franciscans, and in the pictorial celebration of the life and ordinances of their founder. As is well known, it was a part of the ordinances of Francis that his disciples should follow his own example in worshipping and being wedded to poverty,—poverty idealized and personified as a spiritual bride and mistress. Giotto, having on the commission of the order given the noblest pictorial embodiment to this and other aspects of the Franciscan doctrine, presently wrote an ode in which his own views on poverty are expressed; and in this he shows that, if on the one hand his genius was at the service of the ideals of his time, and his imagination open to their significance, on the other hand his judgment was very shrewdly aware of their practical dangers and exaggerations, Giotto di Bondone (a name, as it happens, also borne in the same generation by a distinguished citizen of Siena) was the son of a poor peasant of Vespignano. He was born in 1276, and drew, we are told, by natural instinct with whatever materials he could lay his hands on. He was ten years old when Cimabue, as the story goes, found him by the wayside, drawing a sheep with a piece of charcoal upon a stone or tile. The master, then at the height of his fame, took the peasant boy, with the glad _ consent of his father, to Florence to be his pupil. Of his early career after this we know no more until we find him at work as the foremost among many scholars employed under Cimabue at the interior decorations of the great memorial church of St Francis at Assisi. This church consists of two structures, one superimposed on the other; it is of the upper and not of the lower church that wo speak at present. On the walls of this, a great series of frescos, now more than half obliterated, was painted by the primi-tive masters of the Tuscan school, including some of older and some of younger standing than Cimabue. The series is in three tiers, the uppermost tier containing scenes from the Old Testament; the next, scenes from the New ; the lowest, scenes from the life of St Francis. It is in this last tier than we can discern with certainty the hand of the youthful Giotto. The extent of his participation has been much debated. According to the more probable opinion, it can be traced even in the earlier scenes of the history; but it is in the later scenes only that the hand and promise of the master, the presence of a new and vital spirit, reveal themselves with fulness. Some interval (but the chronology of Giotto's career is at all points obscure) would seem to have elapsed between the execution of these frescos and of others, better known than these, which adorn the lower story of the same structure. In four lunette-shaped spaces in the vaulting of this lower church, Giotto has painted four vast compositions, of which the scheme was dictated to him, no doubt, by some pious and learned mouthpiece of the wishes of the order. One of these exhibits the mystical wedding of Francis with Poverty; a second is an allegory of Chastity; a third of Obedience; a fourth shows the saint glorified in heaven among the angels. To describe and explain these famous compositions would be beyond our scope. The ideas they embody cannot but seem strained and cold when we express them in modern language. Strained and cold, indeed, the ideas would have been in any other age of the world ; but we must remember that the religious temperament of that age in Italy gave even to pedantry the colours of passion, and an ardent and solemn reality to the most far-drawn fantasies of devotion. And however cool the private judgment of Giotto in such matters may have been, it is not his private judgment which speaks to us from the painted allegories of Assisi; it is the sincere imagination of the men among whom he lived; it is the ardour and solemnity of the devotional spirit of his race. In one of the transepts of the same lower church there are frescos of the Passion of Christ, and others of the life of St Francis, which modern authorities hold against ancient, most likely with justice, to be also from the hand of Giotto.





Assuming that the later work of the master at Assisi belongs to the year 1296 or thereabouts, we have good evidence that two years afterwards he was working at Rome for the Cardinal Stefaneschi, nephew of Pope Boniface VIII. The remains of his industry in this employment may be seen in a mosaic of the Navicella, or Christ saving St Peter from the waves, now preserved in the portico of St Peter's at Rome, and in three panels, kept in the sacristy of the canons of the same church, which originally formed part of a ciborium. It is also recorded that Giotto adorned certain MSS. with miniatures for this patron; and in truth there exists in public libraries a very rare class of MSS., in which the miniatures bear the marks, if scarcely of the hand, at any rate of the immediate influence of Giotto. Lastly, a discoloured fragment of a fresco of the church of St John Lateran shows the figure of Pope Boniface VIII. announcing from a balcony the opening of the famous Jubilee of the year 1300. Soon after this, Giotto was once more in his native city. Recent research has again thrown in doubt the relative shares of the mastei and of his pupils in the decorations of the chapel, called by Ghiberti the chapel of the Magdalene, in the Bargello or palace of the Podestà at Florence. These were painted to celebrate the pacification between the Black and White parties in the state, effected by the Cardinal d'Acquasparta as delegate of the Pope in 1302, and consisted of a series of Scripture scenes, besides great compositions of Hell and Paradise. It is in the Paradise that the painter has introduced those groups, typical of pacified Florence, in which occur the portraits of Dante, Brunetto Latini, and Corso Donato, and which, amid the emotion of all who care for art or history, were recovered in 1841 from the white-wash that had overlain them.

The whole central period of Giotto's life, from about 1305 to about 1334, is divided between periods of residence at Florence and expeditions, of which we can in very rare instances trace the date or sequence, undertaken in consequence of commissions received from other cities of the peninsula. He was as much or more of a traveller as was Van Eyck a century later; and his travels exercised as much or more of the same fertilizing and stimulating influence on art in Italy as did those of the great Fleming in the north-west of Europe. The familiar story of the Ó belongs to a journey to France, which was projected by Giotto but never undertaken. Pope Benedict XL, the successor of Boniface VIII., sent a messenger to bring him proofs of the painter's powers. Giotto would give the messenger no other sample of his talent than an O drawn with a free sweep of the brush from the elbow ; but the pope was satisfied, and engaged Giotto at a great salary to go and adorn with frescos the papal residence at Avignon. Benedict, however, dying at this time (1305), nothing came of this commission ; and the Italian 14th century frescos, of which remains are still to be seen at Avignon, have been proved to be the work, not, as was long supposed, of Giotto, but of the Sienese master Simone Martini, called Simone Menimi. Another certain date in Giotto's career belongs to the close of the period we have defined. In 1328 he had painted in the palace of the Signoria at Florence a portrait (now lost) of Charles of Calabria kneeling before the Virgin. Two years later he was invited by the father of this prince, King Robert of Naples, to come and work for him in that city. Some frescos in the chapel of the Incoronata had been long erroneously supposed, on the authority of Petrarch, to represent a part at any rate of the industry of Giotto during the three years which he spent at Naples. It is the merit of Messrs Crowe and Cavalcaselle, while conclusively setting aside this tradition, to have called attention to a real and very noble work of the master existing in a hall which formerly belonged to the convent of Sta. Chiara in that city. This is a fresco celebrating the charity of the Franciscan order under the figure of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, with the personages of St Francis and St Clare kneeling on either hand.
Between these two dates (1305 and 1330), Giotto is said to have resided and left great works at Padua, Ferrara, Urbino, Ravenna, Rimini, Faenza, Lucca, and other cities ; and in several of these paintings are still shown which bear his name with more or less of plausibility. But among them it is at Padua only that his authentic and mature powers can really be studied, and that in perhaps the greatest and most complete series of creations of all that he has left. These are the frescos with which he decorated the chapel built in honour of the Virgin of the Annunciation by a rich citizen of the town, Enrico Scrovegni, and called sometimes the chapel of the Arena, because it is on the site of an ancient amphitheatre. Since it is recorded that Dante was Giotto's guest at Padua, and since we know that it was in 1306 that he came from Bologna to that city, we may conclude that to the same year, 1306, belongs the beginning of Giotto's great undertaking in the Arena chapel. The scheme includes a Saviour in Glory ove» the altar, a Last Judgment over the entrance door, and on either side a series of subjects from the Old and New Testaments and the apocryphal Life of Christ, painted in three tiers, and lowest of all, a fourth tier with emblematic Virtues and Vices in monochrome, the Virtues being on the side of the chapel which is next the incidents of redemption in the entrance fresco of the Last Judgment, the Vices on that side which is next the incidents of perdition, There is no other single building, or single series of representations, in which the highest powers of the Italian mind and hand at the beginning of the 14th century may be so well studied as here. In the same city, the great Franciscan church of St Antonio contains also the remains of works by the master. And it was still for the same order, in their renowned church of Santa Croce, that Giotto executed most of the paintings which mark the periods of his residence in Florence. Besides a vast altar-piece or panel for the Baroncelli chapel, he decorated with frescos the walls of a number of private chapels in this church. The Baroncelli altar-piece still exists; the only chapels of which the frescos have been uncovered are those of the Bardi and Peruzzi. Nor are these the only walls in Florence which to this day bear record of the powers of Giotto— without taking into account many that are attributed to him, but are really by the hand of pupils like Taddeo Gaddi or Puccio Capanna, or of weaker followers like Giottino, Giovanni da Milano, or Agnolo Gaddi.

Meantime, Giotto had been advancing, not only in fame, but in years and in prosperity. He was married young, and had, so far as is recorded, three sons, Francesco, Niccola, and Donato, and three daughters, Bice, Caterina, and Lucia. He had added by successive purchases to the plot of land inherited from his father at Vespignano. His fellow-citizens of all occupations and degrees delighted to honour him. And now, in his fifty-eighth year, on his return from Naples by way of Gaeta, he received the final and official testimony to the esteem in which he was held at Florence. By a solemn decree of the Priori (April 12, 1334), he was appointed master of the works of the cathedral of Sta. Reparata (subsequently and better known as Sta. Maria del Fiore), and architect of the city walls and of the towns within her territory. Dying in 1336, he only enjoyed these dignities for two years. But in the course of these two years he had found time not only to make an excursion to Milan, on the invitation of Azzo Visconti and with the sanction of his own Government, but to plan and in part to superintend the execution of two monuments of architecture, of which the one remaining is among the most exquisite in design and richest in decoration that were ever conceived by man. These were, the west front of the cathedral, and its detached campanile or bell tower. The cathedral front was barbarously stripped of its enrichments in a later age, and stood naked until the other day, when the city of Florence undertook to restore it in a modern imitation. The campanile remains, except for inconsiderable repairs, as it was left by the pupils of Giotto after their master's death; and in the consummate dignity as well as consummate delicacy of its design, in its fair proportions and in the opulent but lucid invention and apportionment of its details, in the thoughtfulness and pregnant simplicity of its sculptured histories, it is the most fitting crown and monument of a strong and memorable career.

A complete bibliography of the earlier as well as the more recent authorities on Giotto would here be out of place. The main materials and references will be found in the following :—Vasari, ed. Lemonnier, vol. i. pp. 309 sqq.; Crowe and Cavaleaselle, Hist, of
Painting in Italy, vol. i. chaps. 8 to 11; Ernst Forster, Geschichte cler Italienischen Kunst, vol. ii. pp. 211 sqq., and E. Dobbert in article "Giotto" inDohme's Kunst unciKunsller, vol. iii. (S. C.)






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