Monday, November 19, 2012

Giotto: Trecento Master

Giotto di Bondone

There is a story about Giotto that was told by another artist, Cimabue. Cimabue was walking through the countryside to visit the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. He saw a young boy drawing his sheep flock with a stone in the sand. Cimabue said, “This boy will be a Prodigy,” and then asked Giotto’s parents if Giotto could become his apprentice. That is the beginning of Giotto's career as the inventor of realism and detail in painting.

Giotto, born 1267 – January 8, 1337 is an Italian painter and architect from Florence in the late Middle Ages. He is said to be the founder of the Italian Renaissance. He brought his own sense of what he thought a painting should look by rejecting the Italo-Byzantine form of stylized painting and brought a sense of realism and naturalism to his work. The late-16th century biographer Giorgio Vasari describes Giotto as making a decisive break with the prevalent Byzantine style and as initiating "the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years. Not only was he noted for his realistic human figures but he brought a new vision to perspective. His knowledge of painting influenced those High Renaissance painters that came after him like Michelangelo and Raphael. Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists, trans. George Bull, Penguin Classics, (1965)

Giotto is known for his clear, simple solutions to the basic problems of the representation of space and of the volume, structure, and solidity of 3-dimensional forms, and above all the human figure. He was also a genius at getting to the heart of whatever episode from sacred history he was representing,  finding the compositional means to express its innermost spiritual meaning and its psychological effects in terms of simple areas of paint. 

After leaving his home to go work as an apprentice for Cimabue he went on to become of the most famous painters of Tuscany. Cimabue was one of the first Italian painters to make a make from the Italo-Byzantine style but he still relied on some Byzantine models. While Giotto brought his sense of realism to a work, Cimabue clearly painted in a style that is clearly Medieval with stylized elongated figures. Giotto worked on Cimabue’s paintings while Cimabue was absent from the studio. Giotto had extraordinary skill and rendered his subjects with lifelike precision. While working on one of Cimabue’s paintings he painted a fly on one of the faces with such a realistic representation that Cimabue tried brushing it off.

You can see the differences in the two works below. The one on the left was done by Cimabue. It has the gold background typical for Byzantine works, elongated figures on a flat plane with little dimension to them. On the right is Giotto's work, Ognissanti Madaonnawhere he has created a feeling of depth, the figures occupy a deeper space as compared to Cimabue's work. Even the Madonna's throne recedes in depth.

Maesta. 1280-1285, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

There is a lot of disagreement about Giotto’s life. Many speculated on his place of birth, his appearance and there are arguments about what he did and did not paint. One of these arguments surrounds the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi. Cimabue was commissioned to paint many of the large frescoes at this newly built basilica and it is said that Giotto accompanied him. The attribution of the fresco cycle of the Life of St. Francis in the Upper Church is a hotly debated topic among art historians.

From Wikipedia:
“From Rome, Cimabue went to Assisi to paint several large frescoes at the newly-built Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, and it is possible, but not certain, that Giotto went with him. The attribution of the fresco cycle of the Life of St. Francis in the Upper Church has been one of the most hotly disputed in art history. The documents of the Franciscan Friars that relate to artistic commissions during this period were destroyed by Napoleon's troops, who stabled horses in the Upper Church of the Basilica, and scholars have been divided over whether or not Giotto was responsible for the Francis Cycle. In the absence of documentary evidence to the contrary, it has been convenient to ascribe every fresco in the Upper Church that was not obviously by Cimabue to Giotto, whose prestige has overshadowed that of almost every contemporary. Some of the earliest remaining biographical sources, such as Ghiberti and Riccobaldo Ferrarese, suggest that the fresco cycle of the life of St Francis in the Upper Church was his earliest autonomous work. However, since the idea was put forward by the German art historian, Friedrich Rintelen in 1912, many scholars have expressed doubt that Giotto was in fact the author of the Upper Church frescoes. Without documentation, arguments on the attribution have relied upon connoisseurship, a notoriously unreliable "science."However, technical examinations and comparisons of the workshop painting processes at Assisi and Padua in 2002 have provided strong evidence that Giotto did not paint the St. Francis Cycle. There are many differences between the Francis Cycle and the Arena Chapel frescoes that are difficult to account for by the stylistic development of an individual artist. It seems quite possible that several hands painted the Assisi frescoes, and that the artists were probably from Rome. If this is the case, then Giotto's frescoes at Padua owe much to the naturalism of these painters.”

Detail from a fresco at the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi that is said to be done be Giotto. Click on the image for more information about this work.

More information about this at Cimabue and Giotto Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists

Around 1305 Giotto completed what is considered to be the masterpiece of Early Renaissance, Scrovegni Chapel also known as the Arena Chapel in Padua, This cycle’s theme is Salvation with emphasis on the life of the Virgin and the life of Christ. This cycle was commissioned by Enrico degli Scrovegni. The chapel is dedicated to the Annunciation. The theme is Salvation, and there is an emphasis on the Virgin Mary, as the chapel is dedicated to the Annunciation and to the Virgin of Charity. As is common in the decoration of the medieval period in Italy, the west wall is dominated by the Last Judgement. On either side of the chancel are complementary paintings of the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, depicting the Annunciation. This scene is incorporated into the cycles of The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary and The Life of Christ. The source for The Life of the Virgin is the Golden Legend of Jacopo da Voragine while The Life of Christ draws upon the Meditations on the Life of Christ by the Pseudo-Bonaventura. Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona, The Usurer's Heart: Giotto, Enrico Scrovegni, and the Arena Chapel in Padua, University Park, 2008; Laura Jacobus,Giotto and the Arena Chapel: Art, Architecture and Experience, London, 2008; Andrew Ladis, Giotto's O: Narrative, Figuration, and Pictorial Ingenuity in the Arena Chapel, University Park, 2009
The cycle is divided into 37 scenes, arranged around the lateral walls in 3 tiers, starting in the upper register with the story of Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Virgin and continuing with the story of Mary. The life of Jesus occupies two registers. The Last Judgment fills the entire pictorial space of the counter-façade.

Detail: Last Judgment
Giotto paid a great deal of attention to detail and his figures draw on classical sculpture. Unlike Cimabue Giotto reject styling figures and rejected the elongation of the figure as byzantine models often did. His figures are solid, have three-dimensional qualities and gestures that are taken from observation. The clothing is not formalized but have dimension and weight. With these frescoes, Giotto gained a reputation for setting a new realistic standard in painting.

Along with attaining fame as a painter, Giotto was also commissioned as an architect. In 1334 he was as given a major architectural commission as the architect of the new campanile (bell tower) of the Florence Cathedral. This bell tower is a free-standing structure that is part of other buildings that make up Florence Cathedral on the Piazza del Duomo in Florence, This masterpiece of Gothic Architecture was designed entirely by Giotto and is encrusted with polychrome marble and sculptural decoration.
Giotto’s life and work is argued among scholars with many is disagreeing on his birthdate, birthplace, his apprenticeship, the order in which he created his works, and whether or not he painted the famous frescoes at Assisi, (see above) and his burial place. Two things about his life that are agreed upon: his Scrovegni Chapel frescoes and his design for the campinale of the Florence Cathedral.

Giotto died in January 1337. According to Vasari,Giotto was buried in Santa Maria del Fiore, the Cathedral of Florence, on the left of the entrance and with the spot marked by a white marble plaque. According to other sources, he was buried in the Church of Santa Reparata. These apparently contradictory reports are explained by the fact that the remains of Santa Reparata lie directly beneath the Cathedral and the church continued in use while the construction of the cathedral was proceeding in the early 14th century.
During an excavation in the 1970s bones were discovered beneath the paving of Santa Reparata at a spot close to the location given by Vasari, but unmarked on either level. Forensic examination of the bones by anthropologist Francesco Mallegni and a team of experts in 2000 brought to light some facts that seemed to confirm that they were those of a painter, particularly the range of chemicals, including arsenic and lead, both commonly found in paint, that the bones had absorbed.
The bones were those of a very short man, of little over four feet tall, who may have suffered from a form of congenital dwarfism. This supports a tradition at the Church of Santa Croce that a dwarf who appears in one of the frescoes is a self-portrait of Giotto. On the other hand, a man wearing a white hat who appears in the Last Judgement at Padua is also said to be a portrait of Giotto. The appearance of this man conflicts with the image in Santa Croce.
Vasari, drawing on a description by Boccaccio, who was a friend of Giotto, says of him that "there was no uglier man in the city of Florence" and indicates that his children were also plain in appearance. There is a story that Dante visited Giotto while he was painting the Scrovegni Chapel and, seeing the artist's children underfoot asked how a man who painted such beautiful pictures could create such plain children, to which Giotto, who according to Vasari was always a wit, replied "I made them in the dark."
Forensic reconstruction of the skeleton at Santa Reperata showed a short man with a very large head, a large hooked nose and one eye more prominent than the other. The bones of the neck indicated that the man spent a lot of time with his head tilted backwards. The front teeth were worn in a way consistent with frequently holding a brush between the teeth. The man was about 70 at the time of death.
While the Italian researchers were convinced that the body belonged to Giotto and it was reburied with honor near the grave of Brunelleschi, others have been highly skeptical. (Wikipedia article).

Peruzzi Altarpiece, about 1309–15, Giotto di Bondone and His Workshop.
Tempera and gilded gesso on poplar 
panel, 41 5/8 x 98 1/2 in. (105.7 x 250.2 cm).
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, 
Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, GL.60.17.7Click on image for more information

More information on Giotto here at the Athenaeum

At Duke University

Click on images below for more information about the exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum

Left: The Virgin and Child with Saints and Allegorical Figures, about 1315–20, Giotto di Bondone (Italian, about 1267–1337). Tempera and gold leaf on panel. Private Collection. Courtesy of Wildenstein & Co., Inc., New York. Right: The Crucifixion, about 1315-20, Giotto di Bondone. Tempera and gold leaf on panel. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg, photo M. Bertola

Some books at the Central Library's Art Division about Giotto
Click on image to connect with the library catalog

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