Giotto di Bondone’s exact birthdate is unknown. It has traditionally been put as 1267 based upon documentary evidence of some early biographers about his age at the time of his death in 1337. We don’t know if this is accurate, but it is generally accepted as his date of birth. Even his place of birth has been subject to controversy. Tradition holds that Giotto was born in a farmhouse, perhaps at Colle di Romagnano or Romignano. Since 1850, a tower house in Colle Vespignano (about 22 miles north of Florence) has borne a plaque claiming the honor of his birthplace, an assertion that is commercially publicized by the town to draw tourism. Recent documentary research, however, has discovered that he was actually born in Florence. His father, Bondone, was a blacksmith; we have no information about who his mother was or where her family came from.
The lack of accurate information continues into Giotto’s childhood and early artistic training. In his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (initially published in 1550), Giorgio Vasari states that in his youth, Giotto was a shepherd boy, a happy and brilliant youngster who was adored by everyone who encountered him. Cimabue, the most famous Florentine artist of the 13th Century, came upon Giotto sketching drawings of his flock on a rock. Cimabue was so impressed with his skill at the lifelike drawings that he asked Giotto if he might bring him on as an assistant. Many scholars today consider this story apocryphal.
Vasari relates several other accounts of the young painter Giotto’s talent. One such tale he tells is when Cimabue was not in his studio, and Giotto put a stunningly realistic fly on the forehead in a picture of Cimabue. When Cimabue arrived, he attempted to flick the fly away many times. Today, many contemporary scholarly experts are skeptical of this story as well since the story parallels the classical anecdote by Pliny, the Elder, about Zeuxis painting grapes that were so lifelike that birds tried to peck at them.
Another story Vasari relates about Giotto’s skill as an artist: when Pope Benedict XI sent out an envoy to Giotto and asked him to produce a picture to illustrate his expertise, the painter drew a red circle so flawless that it appeared to be done with a pair of compasses and told the envoy to submit it to the Pope. The messenger was dissatisfied and left, feeling he had just been made a complete fool of. Along with Giotto’s red circle, the courier returned to the Pope with paintings by other artists. When the messenger described how Giotto had completed the circle without lifting his arm or using compasses, the Pope and his attendants were astounded that Giotto’s talent was far beyond that of his contemporaries.
Giotto has always been assumed to have been the pupil of Cimabue; two independent traditions, each differing on particular circumstances, assert this, and it is probably correct. Furthermore, Cimabue’s style was, in certain respects, so similar to Giotto’s in intention that a connection between the two artists seems inescapable. Cimabue was the most outstanding painter in Italy at the end of the 13th Century; he tried, as no artist had before him, to break through, with the power of reality and imaginative force, the stylized forms of medieval art. He did not fully succeed, but it seems almost certain that Giotto began his remarkable development with Cimabue, both inspired by his drawing strength and his ability to incorporate dramatic tension into his works. Giotto quickly surpassed Cimabue’s skill, and his talent was acknowledged during his lifetime by contemporaries such as the poet Dante Alighieri, who wrote, “Oh, the vain pride of human talents! Cimabue expected to retain the field, but now Giotto has the voice, and the other’s glory is lessened.” (Purgatorio, Canto XI, 94–96).
Giotto’s new style had other qualities that were even more significant for the later development of Italian Renaissance painting. His art was more emotional and naturalistic than the earlier medieval style. It was a true revival of ancient classical ideals and an expression in the art of the new humanity, or humanism, reinforced by the teachings of the new preaching orders founded in the early 13th Century, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. The friars of these two orders sought to make Christ more accessible to the uneducated and illiterate by emphasizing His humanity rather than His divinity. In Giotto’s artworks, human beings are the exclusive subject matter, and they are depicted acting with dedicated passion their parts in the great Christian drama of sacrifice and redemption.
The effect of this doctrine was to replace the lyrical poetry of medieval art with the vernacular prose of Giotto’s newly emerging realism. If the urge toward greater realism needed further support, it was also found in the artifacts of classical antiquity—the buildings and the statues of ancient Rome. In classical Roman art, Giotto and other artists of the early 14th Century discovered monumentality and, once again, realism. Giotto’s art brought all these trends to their culmination: he was at once a superb decorator, a creator of monumental and heroic types, and a profound storyteller whose work expressed genuine human emotions.
Giotto is said to have traveled to Rome with his teacher; then Cimabue went to Assisi, where he was one of the artists appointed to adorn the Basilica of San Francesco, which had just been erected to celebrate St Francis. Cimabue was to paint numerous large murals for the new Basilica. It is conceivable that Giotto accompanied him. Whether Giotto was involved in painting the mural cycle of St. Francis’ life in the Higher Church has become one of the most contentious issues in art history.
Church of San Francesco in Assisi and Scholarly Controversy
There is no consensus on what constitutes Giotto’s early work. Scholars are divided, and the debate is vigorous over what Giotto may have painted before he executed the frescoes in the Scrovegni (aka Arena) Chapel in Padua, which we know to be his work. The principal questions are: did Giotto actually go to Assisi, and, if so, what did he paint there?
Soon after the canonization of St. Francis by Pope Gregory IX on July 16, 1228, the Basilica of San Francesco was begun in Assisi. Built on the side of a hill, it is divided into two levels: the Upper Church, with a lofty vaulted single aisle and simple transept and apse, and the Lower Church, with a low vaulted ceiling. By the last quarter of the 13th Century, the building had been completed enough for painters to work in the Upper Church. The most renowned artists in Italy, including Cimabue, were called to Assisi.
The walls along the nave are divided horizontally into two registers: stories from the Old and New Testaments decorating the upper register and the tale of St. Francis illustrating the lower register. The St. Francis cycle is painted in the manner of Giotto, and so soon after the frescoes were finished, chroniclers attributed the work on the cycle to Giotto. The numerous Giotto-esque paintings in the Lower Church can be dated after Giotto’s murals in the Scrovegni (aka Arena) Chapel in Padua, which is after about 1305, and so cannot be considered early works of Giotto. Very few critics consider any of the Giotto-esque paintings in the Lower Church as authentic works by Giotto. Technical examinations and comparisons of the workshop painting processes at Assisi and Padua have provided strong evidence that Giotto did not paint the St. Francis Cycle. There are so many differences between the frescoes in both chapels that are difficult to account for within the stylistic development of one individual artist, especially in so short a period between the two projects. (It is now generally accepted that four different artists are identifiable in the Assisi St. Francis frescoes and all came from Rome).
In 1287, at the age of 20, Giotto married Ricevuta di Lapo del Pela (known as “Ciuta”), who was the daughter of Lapo del Pela of Florence. The marriage was a happy one; eventually, the marriage would produce four daughters and four sons, one of whom, Francesco, became an artist like his father.
During this period, Giotto also did the Crucifix in Santa Maria Novella and the Madonna in San Giorgio e Massimiliano dello Spirito Santo (Saint George and Maximilian of the Holy Spirit), two churches in Florence. These works can be identified as by Giotto because they are mentioned as such in very early, reliable sources. Thus, they can highlight Giotto’s early style before 1300.
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Giotto worked in Rome from 1297 to 1300. Three principal works in Rome are attributed to him. They are the great mosaic of the Navicella (Little Bark or Boat) that was located over the entrance to Old St. Peter’s; the altarpiece painted for Cardinal Stefaneschi; and the fresco fragment of Boniface VIII Proclaiming the Jubilee of 1300, painted for the Jubilee in the Archbasilica San Giovanni in Laterano (St. John Lateran).
The Navicella mosaic was commissioned in 1298 by Cardinal Jacopo Stefaneschi, canon of St. Peter’s, whose donor portrait was to the right of Christ’s feet. Giotto’s mosaic belonged to the various preparations of Old St. Peter’s for the holy year in 1300. Giotto would have produced drawings for the specialist mosaic workers to recreate on the wall; if he had any further involvement as the work was created is unknown.
The mosaic depicted Christ walking on the water from Matthew 14:24–32, the only one of the three gospel accounts where St. Peter is summoned to join him. Christ calls Peter to leave the boat and walk on the water during a storm. According to Vasari, the figure of a man fishing from the shore in the lower left corner was considered a self-portrait of Giotto. The composition was dominated by the fishing boat with its large sail, representing a metaphor for the “Ship of the Church”, whose “captain” on earth were Saint Peter and his successors as Pope. It was commissioned at a challenging time for the Papacy, which was unable even to control the gangster-like nobility of Rome and had left the city, but the image promised that both church and Papacy were, with the help of Christ, “unsinkable.” Of the eleven figures still in the boat, it has been suggested that the one holding the tiller is (anachronistically in terms of the Gospels) Saint Paul. In the sky, two nearly naked classical-style “wind god” figures blow through horns or funnels, one from each side, below pairs of haloed male figures.
In 1301-02 Giotto was back in Florence, where he painted the Badia Polyptych (the Abbey Polyptych) for the high altar in the Church of Badia Fiorentina (Florentine Abbey Church). The painting is tempera on wood with gold leaf and consists of 5 framed paintings with a triangular cusp above each. The picture is made up of the busts of the Virgin Mary in the center and, from the left, Saints Nicholas of Bari, John the Evangelist, Peter, and Benedict, identified by their names below each picture and their traditional symbols that are included in the picture of each. In the painting, Giotto has extensively used chiaroscuro to give realistic details and highlights to the rich garments and the crosier of St. Nicholas, the gesture of the Child grasping at his mother’s neckline, and the stole of St. Peter.
Also, according to reliable documents of 1301 and 1304, Giotto by this time possessed large estates in Florence, and, probably, he was already leading a large workshop and receiving commissions from throughout Italy. So, his fame as an artist grew, and he was in demand.
Paduan period and the Scrovegni Chapel
As we have seen, there is no generally agreed picture of Giotto’s early development. However, when we turn to the fresco cycle in the chapel in Padua known as the Scrovegni, or Arena, Chapel, we know that this is Giotto’s style at its most mature. The chapel’s name derives from the fact that it was built on the site of an ancient Roman amphitheater. Enrico degli Scrovegni commissioned the chapel to serve as a family worship and burial space and as a backdrop for an annual mystery play. He was the son of a notorious usurer whom Dante placed in the seventh level of the Inferno (Canto XVII, 43-78). It is said that Enrico wished to show his repentance for his father’s actions and also to offset the negativity of Dante’s portrayal.
The Chapel is a modest single-aisle, barrel-vaulted structure with a semicircular apse. It is adjacent to the Augustinian monastery, the Monastero degli Eremitani (Monastery of the Hermits). Construction began in 1303, and it was consecrated on March 25, 1305. The frescoes were completed sometime before 1309; they are generally dated c. 1305–06, but even with several assistants, it must have taken Giotto at least two years to complete such a large cycle.
The theme of the decorations is Salvation, and there is an emphasis on the Virgin Mary since the chapel is dedicated to the Annunciation and to the Virgin of Charity. The entire interior is frescoed from the vaults down the sidewalls and across the triumphal arch and entrance wall, with a total of 37 individual scenes. The narrative scenes relate some aspects of the lives of Joachim and Ann (the parents of Mary), the life of the Virgin Mary, and the life and Passion of Christ, concluding with Pentecost. Giotto’s inspiration for The Life of the Virgin cycle was probably taken from The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, and The Life of Christ draws upon Meditations on the Life of Christ (a popular late-Medieval text of debatable authorship) as well as the Bible. However, the frescoes are more than mere illustrations of familiar texts, and scholars have found numerous sources for Giotto’s interpretations of the sacred stories.
The narrative frescoes are arranged in three registers along the sides of the chapel. Also on the sidewalls is a fourth register below the narrative scenes. Here, Giotto has depicted monochrome personifications of the Virtues and the Vices, painted as though they were bits of sculpture set in illusional niches. Across the top of the triumphal arch over the sanctuary is a painting of God dispatching Gabriel to Mary. Below this are complementary paintings of the angel Gabriel on one side of the arch and the Virgin Mary on the other side, depicting the Annunciation. Just below Gabriel is a painting of The Pact of Judas; and below Mary receiving Gabriel’s message is a painting of The Visitation with Elizabeth.
The chapel vault is painted blue with golden stars and includes a series of medallions of the Madonna, Christ the Redeemer, and various prophets. As was common in church decoration of medieval Italy, the west wall above the entrance is dominated by the Last Judgement. (Scrovegni is shown among the blessed in the Last Judgement, offering a model of the chapel to Mary. Giotto is picturing his patron as being saved because of this great project).
Giotto’s style in the Arena Chapel is simple and direct. The narrative scenes are dominated by figures that move along the foreground plane before bits of landscape or architecture. The backgrounds serve to establish the setting without attempting to be accurate in scale or overly elaborate in detail. The setting of the elements are arranged to frame and augment the figure groups.
Unlike figures by Cimabue, Giotto’s figures are not stylized or elongated and do not follow Byzantine/Medieval models. Giotto makes his characters appear like real individuals; they are solidly three-dimensional, have faces and gestures that are based on close observation, and are clothed, not in swirling formalized drapery, but in garments that hang naturally and have form and weight. They move across the wall with a measured, slow pace that suggests solemnity and dignity. The figures, kept to a minimum, are modeled with simple highlights and shadows that emphasize their fullness.
To create the illusion of space, Giotto took bold steps in foreshortening and having characters face inwards, with their backs towards the observer. The figures occupy compressed settings with naturalistic elements; he often used forced perspective devices so that the frescoes resemble stage sets. This similarity is increased by his careful arrangement of the figures so that the viewer appears to have a particular place and even involvement in many of the scenes. This can be seen especially in the arrangement of the figures in the Mocking of Christ fresco and the Lamentation fresco; the composition invites the viewer to become a mocker in one and a mourner in the other.
Giotto expressed the drama of the unfolding religious story with understatement and simplicity, which heightens rather than diminishes the drama. Where other artists might have had the figures gesticulate and grimace, Giotto has them merely turn their wrists or shift their glance. His depiction of the human face and the emotion generated by the face also sets his work apart from that of his contemporaries. In the scene showing Joachim walking among his flocks after his rejection from the temple, Giotto suggests Joachim’s overwhelming disappointment and sadness by a simple nod of his head and by the wrapping of his hands within his cloak. The two young shepherds in the scene share a sideways look at each other, showing that they understand the feelings of Joachim. The soldier who drags a baby from its screaming mother in the Massacre of the Innocents does so with his head hunched into his shoulders and a look of shame on his face. The people on the road to Egypt appear to gossip about Mary and Joseph as they go by. In the Betrayal of Christ, the glance between Christ and Judas as Judas kisses Him is far more dramatic than all the waving torches and spears of the arresting soldiers in the background. It is through these under-statements in gesture and facial expression that Giotto makes the lives of the characters depicted in the frescoes understandable and human by expressing them in comprehensible terms for the viewer, many of whom at the time were illiterate.
Strong undulating rhythms are created by the contour of the architecture and landscape, leading the viewer’s eye with an almost irresistible strength across the walls. Giotto’s use of color in the Arena Chapel frescoes was descriptive. He took care to be consistent; that is, the costumes of the various people remained the same whenever they appeared in the panels. The sky in each panel is painted a deep blue; this provides an excellent foil for the figures and settings. The blue sky provides a unifying element, which is saved from monotony by the richly colored geometric fillets that divide the narrative scenes. The blue can also be read as the picture plane, thus pushing the figures forward so that they seem to swell off the surface of the wall itself and bring the actors of the religious drama into the three-dimensional, corporeal, real world of the viewer. (An interesting fact tying our contemporary world to that of the early 14th Century: one of the famous frescoes in the series is the Adoration of the Magi, in which a comet-like Star of Bethlehem streaks across the sky. Giotto is thought to have been inspired by the 1301 appearance of Halley’s Comet, which led to the European Space Agency’s 1986 space probe Giotto being named after him).
Giotto’s frescoes in Padua are the most extensive and best-preserved example of his mature style. Some other works from roughly the same period have survived. One important one is the large Madonna Enthroned, painted in 1310, shortly after the frescoes in Padua for the Church of Ognissanti (Church of All Saints) in Florence, and is universally accepted as an authentic work by Giotto. It pictures the Madonna and Child seated on a canopied Gothic throne encircled by saints and angels. The Madonna looks directly at the viewer with an unflinching gaze; the Child, who has an incongruously mature expression on his face, raises his hand in benediction. Giotto’s style here focuses on establishing full bulky forms in a believable space. The sense of real space is emphasized by the perspective in depicting the throne and the overlapping rows of saints beside the Madonna.
Giotto painted another major fresco cycle in the Peruzzi Chapel in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, the largest Franciscan church in the world. These frescoes, which probably date around 1320, relate to the lives of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. The Chapel is a Gothic chapel with a vaulted ceiling; it is open on the side toward the nave with windows on the wall behind the altar. The frescoes are in three registers along the sides, with the topmost scene set within a lunette (i.e., a crescent or half-moon). Since Giotto painted them in fresco secco (tempered pigments on dry plaster), they did not survive for an extended period of time. (Recent restorations have removed most of the over-painting so that the frescoes are now more or less pristine, though they are faint.)
Giotto pairs three frescoes from the life of St. John the Baptist (The Annunciation of John’s Birth to his father Zacharias; The Birth and Naming of John; and The Feast of Herod) on the left wall with three scenes from the life of St. John the Evangelist (The Visions of John on Ephesus; The Raising of Drusiana; and The Ascension of John) on the right wall. The frescoes showed Giotto’s typical interest in controlled naturalism and psychological penetration. (The Peruzzi Chapel was especially renowned and had great influence on artists during the Renaissance. Giotto’s compositions influenced Masaccio’s frescoes at the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, and Michelangelo is also known to have studied them).
In these frescoes, Giotto went beyond his designs for the Arena Chapel regarding spatial organization. The figures in the Peruzzi Chapel move about in realistic architectural settings; they are usually drawn at a slight angle to the picture plane to emphasize their recession into space. As in the Arena Chapel, Giotto used backgrounds to frame figure groups. In the Raising of Drusiana, for example, the city walls and the clustered city towers call attention to the figures arranged before them.
The figures have the same simple fullness and restrained dignity of Giotto’s earlier figure types, but they are somewhat taller and more slender. Giotto continued his use of understatement to heighten the drama. In the Feast of Herod, for example, in contrast to the festiveness of the scene, Giotto increases the brutality of the events through the gestures, culminating in the encounter between Herod and the henchman, who hands him the severed head as if it were a dish for the meal. Even though the surface of the faces is badly damaged today, this moment of horror and outrage is still clear: plates, hands, dishes and the head form an alarmingly brutal unity over which soldier and king look at one another. Giotto shows Salome beckoning to the servant carrying the tray with the head of the Baptist rather than dancing. She seems eager to present the grisly prize to her mother.
The Peruzzi Chapel frescoes reveal Giotto’s growth as an artist. They are far more complex in design and composition than those in Padua, yet they retain a sense of clarity and simplicity like the Padua frescoes.
The Bardi Chapel frescoes (1325-1328) depict the life of St. Francis. They are in much better condition than the Peruzzi Chapel works since they were executed in true fresco rather than fresco secco. A comparison between the two sets of frescoes shows the greater attention that Giotto gave to expression in the human figures and the simpler, better-integrated architectural forms. Giotto represents only seven scenes from the saint’s life, and the narrative is arranged somewhat unusually. The story starts on the upper left wall with St. Francis Renounces his Father. It continues across the chapel to the upper right wall with the Approval of the Franciscan Rule, moves down the right wall to St Francis before the Sultan or The Trial by Fire, across the chapel again to the left wall for the Appearance at Arles, down the left wall to the Death of St. Francis, and across once more to the posthumous Visions of the Ascension of St Francis by Fra Agostino and the Bishop of Assisi. The Stigmatization of St. Francis, which chronologically belongs between the Appearance at Arles and the Death, is located outside the chapel, above the entrance arch. The arrangement encourages viewers to link scenes together: to pair frescoes across the chapel space or relate triads of frescoes along each wall. The linkages suggest meaningful symbolic relationships between different events in St. Francis’s life.
Naples and the last Florentine period
Around January 1330, Giotto was called by King Robert of Anjou to Naples where he remained with a group of pupils until 1333. All the works he executed there have been lost. However, traces of his style may be distinguished in two works usually attributed to his students: a fragment of a fresco portraying the Lamentation of Christ in the church of Santa Chiara, and the Illustrious Men that is painted on the windows of the Santa Barbara Chapel of Castel Nuovo. In 1332, King Robert named him the “first court painter”, providing him with a yearly pension.
After Naples, Giotto stayed for a while in Bologna, where he painted a Polyptych for the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli and, according to some sources, a lost decoration for the Chapel in the Cardinal Legate’s Castle. On April 12, 1334, he was appointed capomastro, or surveyor, of the Duomo in Florence and architect to the city. This was a tribute to his great fame as a painter and not on account of any special architectural knowledge he possessed. On July 19 of that year he began the campanile, or bell tower, of the Duomo (called Giotto’s Campanile), though only the two lowest stories were completed by the time of his death in 1337. The Ponte alla Carraia in Florence (1334-1337) may also have been designed by Giotto in his role as city architect, but it was so extensively modified from his drawings that it is impossible to verify he is the one who had designed it.
Giotto di Bondone died in Florence on January 8, 1337 at the age of 69 or 70.
Even during his lifetime, Giotto was credited with innovations that created a new style in Italian art. He is mentioned in the works of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio as a figure of the highest importance to the development of art in Florence and other parts of Italy. In the 15th Century Lorenzo Ghiberti, the Florentine sculptor, enhanced Giotto’s reputation further in his writings, and in the 16th, Giorgio Vasari stated a version of the Giotto legend that would persist for centuries. Vasari admired Giotto for his life-like painting style, for abandoning the traditions of Gothic stylization, and for his rise from humble beginnings to a position of eminence among all European artists. In truth, however, not every feature of this “Giotto legend” was accurate, nor can every feature—such as his humble birth—be verified by documentary sources. Like many figures of the 14th Century, many aspects of Giotto’s life are shrouded in mystery. In modern times, too, the artist’s style has been re-interpreted and Giotto has been seen less as a figure of the early Renaissance than of the late Gothic. Perhaps, he could be called a proto-Renaissance figure since he did alter the course of art from what it had been before him. Giotto’s revolutionary introduction of a greater naturalism into his works continues to be seen as one element of his work that 15th Century artists like Masaccio and the great Renaissance masters of the 16th Century (Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael) would build upon.
Adapted by James J. Boitano, PhD from:
Dainelli, Valentina. Giotto, Apprentice and Master. Discover Tuscany</br/>
Meyer, Isabella. Giotto di Bondone – The Life and Art of Giotto the Renaissance Painter. Art in Context website, Aug. 1, 2023</br/>
Murray, Peter J. Giotto. Encyclopedia Britannica website, Sep. 30, 2023</br/>
Stubblebine, James (ed). Giotto: The Arena Chapel Frescoes. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1969</br/>
Vasari, Giorgio, translated by A.P. Hinds. The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (4 vols).
London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd. (Everyman Library), 1963, (originally published in 1550)</br/>