1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Giotto

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GIOTTO [Giotto di Bondone[1]] (1267?–1337), Italian painter, was born at Vespignano in the Mugello, a few miles north of Florence, according to one account in 1276, and according to another, which from the few known circumstances of his life seems more likely to be correct, in 1266 or 1267. His father was a landowner at Colle in the commune of Vespignano, described in a contemporary document as vir praeclarus, but by biographers both early and late as a poor peasant; probably therefore a peasant proprietor of no large possessions but of reputable stock and descent. It is impossible to tell whether there is any truth in the legend of Giotto’s boyhood which relates how he first showed his disposition for art, and attracted the attention of Cimabue, by being found drawing one of his father’s sheep with a sharp stone on the face of a smooth stone or slate. With his father’s consent, the story goes on, Cimabue carried off the boy to be his apprentice, and it was under Cimabue’s tuition that Giotto took his first steps in the art of which he was afterwards to be the great emancipator and renovator. The place where these early steps can still, according to tradition, be traced, is in the first and second, reckoning downwards, of the three courses of frescoes which adorn the walls of the nave in the Upper Church of St Francis at Assisi. These frescoes represent subjects of the Old and New Testament, and great labour, too probably futile, has been spent in trying to pick out those in which the youthful handiwork of Giotto can be discerned, as it is imagined, among that of Cimabue and his other pupils. But the truth is that the figure of Cimabue himself, in spite of Dante’s testimony to his having been the foremost painter of Italy until Giotto arose, has under the search-light of modern criticism melted into almost mythical vagueness. His accepted position as Giotto’s instructor and the pioneer of reform in his art has been attacked from several sides as a mere invention of Florentine writers for the glorification of their own city. One group of critics maintain that the real advance in Tuscan painting before Giotto was the work of the Sienese school and not of the Florentine. Another group contend that the best painting done in Italy down to the last decade of the 13th century was not done by Tuscan hands at all, but by Roman craftsmen trained in the inherited principles of Italo-Byzantine decoration in mosaic and fresco, and that from such Roman craftsmen alone could Giotto have learnt anything worth his learning. The debate thus opened is far from closed, and considering how scanty, ambiguous and often defaced are the materials existing for discussion, it is perhaps never likely to be closed. But there is no debate as to the general nature of the reform effected by the genius of Giotto himself. He was the great humanizer of painting; it is his glory to have been the first among his countrymen to breathe life into wall-pictures and altar-pieces, and to quicken the dead conventionalism of inherited practice with the fire of natural action and natural feeling. Upon yet another point there is no question; and that is that the reform thus effected by Giotto in painting had been anticipated in the sister art of sculpture by nearly a whole generation. About the middle of the 13th century Nicola Pisano had renewed that art, first by strict imitation of classical models, and later by infusing into his work a fresh spirit of nature and humanity, perhaps partly caught from the Gothic schools of France. His son Giovanni had carried the same re-vitalising of sculpture a great deal further; and hence to some critics it would seem that the real inspirer and precursor of Giotto was Giovanni Pisano the sculptor, and not any painter or wall-decorator, whether of Florence, Siena or Rome.

In this division of opinion it is safer to regard the revival of painting in Giotto’s hands simply as part of the general awakening of the time, and to remember that, as of all Italian communities Florence was the keenest in every form of activity both intellectual and practical, so it was natural that a son of Florence should be the chief agent in such an awakening. And in considering his career the question of his possible participation in the primitive frescoes of the upper courses at Assisi is best left out of account, the more so because of the deplorable condition in which they now exist. But with reference to the lowest course of paintings on the same walls, those illustrating the life of St Francis according to the narrative of St Bonaventura, no one has any doubt, at least in regard to nineteen or twenty of the twenty-eight subjects which compose the series, that Giotto himself was their designer and chief executant. In these, sadly as they too have suffered from time and wholesale repair, there can nevertheless be discerned the unmistakable spirit of the young Florentine master as we know him in his other works—his shrewd realistic and dramatic vigour, the deep sincerity and humanity of feeling which he knows how to express in every gesture of his figures without breaking up the harmony of their grouping or the grandeur of their linear design, qualities inherited from the earlier schools of impressive but lifeless hieratic decoration. The “Renunciation of the Saint by his Father,” the “Pope’s Dream of the Saint upholding the tottering Church,” the “Saint before the Sultan,” the “Miracle of the Spring of Water,” the “Death of the Nobleman of Celano,” the “Saint preaching before Pope Honorius”—these are some of the most noted and best preserved examples of the painter’s power in this series. Where doubt begins again is as to the relations of date and sequence which the series bears to other works by the master executed at Assisi and at Rome in the same early period of his career, that is, probably between 1295 and 1300. Giotto’s remaining undisputed works at Assisi are the four celebrated allegorical compositions in honour of St Francis in the vaulting of the Lower Church,—the “Marriage of St Francis to Poverty,” the “Allegory of Chastity,” the “Allegory of Obedience” and the “Vision of St Francis in Glory.” These works are scarcely at all retouched, and relatively little dimmed by time; they are of a singular beauty, at once severe and tender, both in colour and design; the compositions, especially the first three, fitted with admirable art into the cramped spaces of the vaulting, the subjects, no doubt in the main dictated to the artist by his Franciscan employers, treated in no cold or mechanical spirit but with a full measure of vital humanity and original feeling. Had the career and influence of St Francis had no other of their vast and far-reaching effects in the world than that of inspiring these noble works of art, they would still have been entitled to no small gratitude from mankind. Other works at Assisi which most modern critics, but not all, attribute to Giotto himself are three miracles of St Francis and portions of a group of frescoes illustrating the history of Mary Magdalene, both in the Lower Church; and again, in one of the transepts of the same Lower Church, a series of ten frescoes of the Life of the Virgin and Christ, concluding with the Crucifixion. It is to be remarked as to this transept series that several of the frescoes present not only the same subjects, but with a certain degree of variation the same compositions, as are found in the master’s great series executed in the Arena chapel at Padua in the fullness of his powers about 1306; and that the versions in the Assisi transept show a relatively greater degree of technical accomplishment than the Paduan versions, with a more attractive charm and more abundance of accessory ornament, but a proportionately less degree of that simple grandeur in composition and direct strength of human motive which are the special notes of Giotto’s style. Therefore a minority of critics refuse to accept the modern attribution of this transept series to Giotto himself, and see in it later work by an accomplished pupil softening and refining upon his master’s original creations at Padua. Others, insisting that these unquestionably beautiful works must be by the hand of Giotto and none but Giotto, maintain that in comparison with the Paduan examples they illustrate a gradual progress, which can be traced in other of his extant works, from the relatively ornate and soft to the austerely grand and simple. This argument is enforced by comparison with early work of the master’s at Rome as to the date of which we have positive evidence. In 1298 Giotto completed for Cardinal Stefaneschi for the price of 2200 gold ducats a mosaic of Christ saving St Peter from the waves (the celebrated “Navicella”); this is still to be seen, but in a completely restored and transformed state, in the vestibule of St Peter’s. For the same patron he executed, probably just before the “Navicella,” an elaborate ciborium or altar-piece for the high altar of St Peter’s, for which he received 800 ducats. It represents on the principal face a colossal Christ enthroned with adoring angels beside him and a kneeling donor at his feet, and the martyrdoms of St Peter and St Paul on separate panels to right and left; on the reverse is St Peter attended by St George and other saints, receiving from the donor a model of his gift, with stately full-length figures of two apostles to right and two to left, besides various accessory scenes and figures in the predellas and the margins. The separated parts of this altar-piece are still to be seen, in a quite genuine though somewhat tarnished condition, in the sacristy of St Peter’s. A third work by the master at Rome is a repainted fragment at the Lateran of a fresco of Pope Boniface VIII. proclaiming the jubilee of 1300. The “Navicella” and the Lateran fragment are too much ruined to argue from; but the ciborium panels, it is contended, combine with the aspects of majesty and strength a quality of ornate charm and suavity such as is remarked in the transept frescoes of Assisi. The sequence proposed for these several works is accordingly, first the St Peter’s ciborium, next the allegories in the vaulting of the Lower Church, next the three frescoes of St Francis’ miracles in the north transept, next the St Francis series in the Upper Church; and last, perhaps after an interval and with the help of pupils, the scenes from the life of Mary Magdalene in her chapel in the Lower Church. This involves a complete reversal of the prevailing view, which regards the unequal and sometimes clumsy compositions of this St Francis series as the earliest independent work of the master. It must be admitted that there is something paradoxical in the idea of a progress from the manner of the Lower Church transept series of the life of Christ to the much ruder manner of the Upper Church series of St Francis.

A kindred obscurity and little less conflict of opinion await the inquirer at almost all stages of Giotto’s career. In 1841 there were partially recovered from the whitewash that had overlain them a series of frescoes executed in the chapel of the Magdalene, in the Bargello or Palace of the Podestà at Florence, to celebrate (as was supposed) a pacification between the Black and White parties in the state effected by the Cardinal d’Acquasparta as delegate of the pope in 1302. In them are depicted a series of Bible scenes, besides great compositions of Hell and Paradise, and in the Paradise are introduced portraits of Dante, Brunetto Latini and Corso Donato. These recovered fragments, freely “restored” as soon as they were disclosed, were acclaimed as the work of Giotto and long held in especial regard for the sake of the portrait of Dante. Latterly it has been shown that if Giotto ever executed them at all, which is doubtful, it must have been at a later date than the supposed pacification, and that they must have suffered grievous injury in the fire which destroyed a great part of the building in 1332, and been afterwards repainted by some well-trained follower of the school. To about 1302 or 1303 would belong, if there is truth in it, the familiar story of Giotto’s O. Pope Benedict XI., the successor of Boniface VIII., sent, as the tale runs, a messenger to bring him proofs of the painter’s powers. Giotto would give 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 him at a great salary to go and adorn with frescoes the papal residence at Avignon. Benedict, however, dying at this time (1305), nothing came of this commission; and the remains of Italian 14th-century frescoes still to be seen at Avignon are now recognized as the work, not, as was long supposed, of Giotto, but of the Sienese Simone Martini and his school.

At this point in Giotto’s life we come to the greatest by far of his undestroyed and undisputed enterprises, and one which can with some certainty be dated. This is the series of frescoes with which he decorated the entire internal walls of the chapel built at Padua in honour of the Virgin of the Annunciation by a rich citizen of the town, Enrico Scrovegni, perhaps in order to atone for the sins of his father, a notorious usurer whom Dante places in the seventh circle of hell. The building is on the site of an ancient amphitheatre, and is therefore generally called the chapel of the Arena. Since it is recorded that Dante was Giotto’s guest at Padua, and since we know that it was in 1306 that the poet 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 over the altar, a Last Judgment, full of various and impressive incident, occupying the whole of the entrance wall, with a series of subjects from the Old and New Testament and the apocryphal Life of Christ painted in three tiers on either side wall, and lowest of all a fourth tier with emblematic Virtues and Vices in monochrome; the Virtues being on the side of the chapel next the incidents of redemption in the entrance fresco of the Last Judgment, the Vices on the side next the incidents of perdition. A not improbable tradition asserts that Giotto was helped by Dante in the choice and disposition of the subjects. The frescoes, though not free from injury and retouching, are upon the whole in good condition, and nowhere else can the highest powers of the Italian mind and hand at the beginning of the 14th century be so well studied as here. At the close of the middle ages we find Giotto laying the foundation upon which all the progress of the Renaissance was afterwards securely based. In his day the knowledge possessed by painters of the human frame and its structure rested only upon general observation and not upon detailed or scientific study; while to facts other than those of humanity their observation had never been closely directed. Of linear perspective they possessed but elementary and empirical ideas, and their endeavours to express aerial perspective and deal with the problems of light and shade were rare and partial. As far as painting could possibly be carried under these conditions, 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. Many of those truths of nature to which the painters of succeeding generations learned to give accurate and complete expression, Giotto was only able to express by way of imperfect symbol and suggestion. But among the elements of art 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. In some particulars his mature painting, as we see it in the Arena chapel, has never been surpassed—in mastery of concise and expressive generalized line and of inventive and harmonious decorative tint; in the judicious division of the field and massing and scattering of groups; in the combination of high gravity with complete frankness in conception, and the union of noble dignity in the types with direct and vital truth in the gestures of the personages.

The frescoes of the Arena chapel must have been a labour of years, and of the date of their termination we have no proof. Of many other works said to have been executed by Giotto at Padua, all that remains consists of some scarce recognizable traces in the chapter-house of the great Franciscan church of St Antonio. For twenty years or more we lose all authentic data as to Giotto’s doings and movements. Vasari, indeed, sends him on a giddy but in the main evidently fabulous round of travels, including a sojourn in France, which it is certain he never made. Besides Padua, he is said to have resided and left great works at Ferrara, Ravenna, Urbino, Rimini, Faenza, Lucca and other cities; in some of them paintings of his school are still shown, but nothing which can fairly be claimed to be by his hand. It is recorded also that he was much employed in his native city of Florence; but the vandalism of later generations has effaced nearly all that he did there. Among works whitewashed over by posterity were the frescoes with which he covered no less than five chapels in the church of Santa Croce. Two of these, the chapels of the Bardi and the Peruzzi families, were scraped in the early part of the 19th century, and very important remains were uncovered and immediately subjected to a process of restoration which has robbed them of half their authenticity. But through the ruins of time we can trace in some of these Santa Croce frescoes all the qualities of Giotto’s work at an even higher and more mature development than in the best examples at Assisi or Padua. The frescoes of the Bardi chapel tell again the story of St Francis, to which so much of his best power had already been devoted; those of the Peruzzi chapel deal with the lives of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist. Such scenes as the Funeral of St Francis, the Dance of Herodias’s Daughter, and the Resurrection of St John the Evangelist, which have to some extent escaped the disfigurements of the restorer, are among acknowledged classics of the world’s art. The only clues to the dates of any of these works are to be found in the facts that among the figures in the Bardi chapel occurs that of St Louis of Toulouse, who was not canonized till 1317, therefore the painting must be subsequent to that year, and that the “Dance of Salome” must have been painted before 1331, when it was copied by the Lorenzetti at Siena. The only other extant works of Giotto at Florence are a fine “Crucifix,” not undisputed, at San Marco, and the majestic but somewhat heavy altar-piece of the Madonna, probably an early work, which is placed in the Academy beside a more primitive Madonna supposed to be the work of Cimabue.

Towards the end of Giotto’s life we escape again from confused legend, and from the tantalizing record of works which have not survived for us to verify, into the region of authentic document and fact. It appears that Giotto had come under the notice of Duke Charles of Calabria, son of King Robert of Naples, during the visits of the duke to Florence which took place between 1326 and 1328, in which year he died. Soon afterwards Giotto must have gone to King Robert’s court at Naples, where he was enrolled as an honoured guest and member of the household by a royal decree dated the 20th of January 1330. Another document shows him to have been still at Naples two years later. Tradition says much about the friendship of the king for the painter and the freedom of speech and jest allowed him; much also of the works he carried out at Naples in the Castel Nuovo, the Castel dell’ Uovo, and the church and convent of Sta Chiara. Not a trace of these works remains; and others which later criticism have claimed for him in a hall which formerly belonged to the convent of Sta Chiara have been proved not to be his.

Meantime Giotto had been advancing, not only in years and worldly fame, but 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 sixty-eighth year (if we accept the birth-date 1266/7), 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 on the 12th of April 1334, he was appointed master of the works of the cathedral of Sta Reparata (later and better known as Sta Maria del Fiore) and official architect of the city walls and the towns within her territory. What training as a practical architect his earlier career had afforded him we do not know, but his interest in the art from the beginning is made clear by the carefully studied architectural backgrounds of many of his frescoes. Dying on the 8th of January 1336 (old style 1337), Giotto only enjoyed his new dignities for two years. But in the course of them 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 two great architectural works at Florence and superintend the beginning of their execution, namely the west front of the cathedral and its detached campanile or bell-tower. The unfinished enrichments of the cathedral front were stripped away in a later age. The foundation-stone of the Campanile was laid with solemn ceremony in the presence of a great concourse of magistrates and people on the 18th of July 1334. Its lower courses seem to have been completed from Giotto’s design, and the first course of its sculptured ornaments (the famous series of primitive Arts and Industries) actually by his own hand, before his death. It is not clear what modifications of his design were made by Andrea Pisano, who was appointed to succeed him, or again by Francesco Talenti, to whom the work was next entrusted; but the incomparable structure as we now see it stands justly in the world’s esteem as the most fitting monument to the genius who first conceived and directed it.

The art of painting, as re-created by Giotto, was carried on throughout Italy by his pupils and successors with little change or development for nearly a hundred years, until a new impulse was given to art by the combined influences of naturalism and classicism in the hands of men like Donatello and Masaccio. Most of the anecdotes related of the master are probably inaccurate in detail, but the general character both as artist and man which tradition has agreed in giving him can never be assailed. He was 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 country 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 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 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 shrewdly and humorously awake to their practical dangers and exaggerations.

Authorities.—Ghiberti, Commentari; Vasari, Le Vite, vol. i.; Crowe-Cavalcaselle, History of Painting in Italy, ed. Langton Douglas (1903); H. Thode, Giotto (1899); M. G. Zimmermann, Giotto und die Kunst Italiens im Mittelalter (1899); B. Berenson, Florentine Painters of the Renaissance; F. Mason Perkin, Giotto (in “Great Masters” series) (1902); Basil de Sélincourt, Giotto (1905). (S. C.) 

  1. Not to be confused with Giotto di Buondone, a contemporary citizen and politician of Siena.