Giotto di Bondone, a Florentine painter, and founder of the Italian School of painting, b. most probably, in 1266 (not 1276), in the village of Vespignano near Florence, in the valley of the Mugello; d. at Milan, January 8, 1337. Very little is known of his early history. Vasari relates that Cimabue, rambling one day in the neighborhood of Colle, saw a young shepherd lad drawing one of his sheep on a piece of smooth slate with a pointed stone, and that Cimabue thereupon took the lad with him and instructed him. The story is a pretty bit of fancy. There is no reason for believing that Giotto was ever a shepherd. It is possible that his father was a peasant; if so, he was in easy circumstances and certainly a freeholder. A document dated 1320 styles him vir praeclarus; such an epithet would not be applied to a man in straitened circumstances. As a matter of fact nothing is known of Giotto until he was thirty years old. This unfortunate gap in his personal history robs us of a story which would be of intense interest as showing the growth of his genius, and reduces us to the merest conjectures. However, without in any way detracting from Giotto’s preeminence in Italian art, it is impossible to accord him that quasi-miraculous, providential importance that Florentine nationalism soon raised to a kind of dogma in the history of art. According to Vasari he arose in a barbarous age and straightway revealed a fully developed art to a wondering world. This is not credible. The thirteenth century, the century of the great cathedrals and of the French school of carving whose numerous pupils were met with in all parts of Christendom, cannot be called a barbarous age. In Italy itself a widespread renaissance was taking place. At Naples and at Rome the admirable school of the marmorarii of which the Cosmati are the most illustrious, recalled to life much antique beauty of form. The mosaic-workers, with Jacopo Torriti and the artists who created the marvels of the Baptistery of Florence, likewise the painters, with Pietro Cavallini whose fresco cycles in Santa Maria in Trastevere (Rome) exhibit all Giotto’s breadth of form, are satisfactory proof of an earlier renewal of artistic spirit and power. The “Rucellai Madonna” by Duccio dates from 1285. Twenty years earlier, perhaps the very year of Giotto’s birth, Nicole Pisano had completed the pulpit in the Baptistery of Pisa. That of Siena followed in 1272. The lovely fountain at Perugia dates from 1278. Then came the works of Giovanni Pisano, whose sympathetic genius is in more than one way akin to that of Giotto. Amid this rich and wondrous development of art the young master grew up. Though he was by no means its creator, it certainly reached in him its highest expression.
As an artist Giotto is a true son of St. Francis. It is at Assisi that he is first found, in that very basilica which was the cradle of Italian painting, and which still enshrines the most perfect records of its early history. There every master of note in the peninsula might have been seen at work. Giunta of Pisa was decorating the lower church, while Cavallini or one of his pupils was painting scenes from the Old Testament in the upper church. Cimabue was at the same time ornamenting the choir and the transept. It was doubtless in the train (brigata) of Cimabue that Giotto came to Assisi in 1294, and that he became acquainted with the works of the marmorarii, whose style so influenced his own. In 1296 Cimabue set out for Rome, whereupon Giovanni da Muro, General of the Francis-cans (1296-1304), entrusted to Giotto the execution of the wonderful story of St. Francis which the painter accomplished in the famous twenty-eight scenes of the upper church. This is at once the source of Giotto’s glory and the earliest example of the Italian School. In these scenes Giotto followed St. Bonaventure’s life of St. Francis officially approved by the chapter of 1263 as the only official text. The first twenty-one frescoes are entirely by Giotto’s hand; the remaining seven were finished from his designs by his. pupils. All have suffered greatly from the humidity and from restorations. They are, nevertheless, incomparable monuments of art, and in many ways the very greatest for the history of modern painting. The intense impression created by St. Francis, the historical nearness of his truly evangelical personality, and his likeness to Jesus Christ borne out by the miracle of the stigmata, thenceforth influenced art to an incalculable degree. For the first time in centuries painters, until then limited to the repetition of consecrated themes, to an unvarying reproduction of hieratic patterns, were free to improvise and create. Painting was no longer an echo of tradition, but rose at once to all the dignity of invention. In the portrayal of the wonderful life-story of St. Francis, to his own age a real image of Jesus Christ, current events and the everyday life of the period were seized on and appropriated. Art no longer worked on conventional models, abstract and ideal; its models were to be the realities of nature, which the humblest intelligence is capable of appreciating. Representation of real life was to become the object of all painting. Henceforth there must always be a likeness between the painting and the object painted. The true portrait of St. Francis had to be given to the public, which must see his actions and the place where he lived, must also grasp all local peculiarities of topography, people, dress, and architecture. This principle of actuality and reality underlay the artistic revolution initiated by Giotto. Since the days of the catacombs nothing so important had occurred in the history of painting.
The germ of all this was to be found in the very earliest portrait of St. Francis, e.g. that of the “Sagro Speco” at Subiaco and in those of the lower church at Assisi and the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where the figure of the saint is inset between two rows of small panel-pictures descriptive of events in his life. To enlarge these vignettes into frescoes and thereby tell the story of Francis in heroic outlines was equivalent to equating the power of artistic expression and the new vastness of the pictorial framework; this prompted, in consequence, a background over-flowing, so to speak, with contemporary life. This much Giotto undertook to do, and his success was marvelous. One is astounded at the multitude of things he suddenly brings within the domain of painting. Such an invasion of realism is not met with again till the seventeenth century, when Rubens gives us its counterpart in his life of Marie de’ Medici. All Italy is there; cities and their environs, the walls of Arezzo, the temple of Minerva and the church of San Damiano at Assisi, the graceful interior of the Greccio church, the landscapes of Alvernia and Subasio, rural scenes like St. Francis’s sermon to the birds, domestic interiors as in the “Death of the Lord of Celano”, scenes from ecclesiastical life, e.g. chapter meetings and choir services. Every type of existence is laid under tribute: monks, peasants, townfolk, burghers, popes, bishops; singers by the roadside, men at drink, at feasts, and funerals. No peculiarity of place, condition, costume, or person, escapes the far-sweeping eye of the painter. He has put into his paintings every phase of life, and it is all so genuine and accurate, so true to reality that in his work, after five centuries, the Italian trecento still lives for us, despite the deplorable state of the frescoes, the defects of his perspective, and the childlike archaism of certain technical formulae. No painter has ever surpassed Giotto in this power of gathering details from real life, and of surrounding the commonplace with an artistic halo. Herein also lies the power of all literary creators of life, from Dante in his “Divina Commedia” to Balzac in the “Comedie Humaine”. The genius of Giotto was brought into further prominence by the works he executed at Rome, whither he was called in 1298 by Cardinal Stefaneschi. It may be noted at once that the “Navicella”, i.e. the famous mosaic that adorns the vestibule of St. Peter’s, was done in collaboration with Cavallini; moreover, the original has long since disappeared beneath successive restorations. A fourteenth-century copy may be seen in the Spanish Chapel at Florence.
The frescoes from the life of Christ, which Giotto executed for St. Peter’s, were destroyed in the time of Nicholas V, when the choir of old St. Peter’s was being remodeled. His Roman masterpieces, however, were the three frescoes ordered by Boniface VIII for the loggia or balcony of the Lateran to commemorate the famous jubilee of 1300. They represented the baptism of Constantine, the erection of the Lateran Basilica, and the proclamation of the jubilee. The first and second have perished, and only a fragment of the third remains, inset in the eighteenth century in one of the great pillars of the basilica, where it is yet visible. The pope stands between two acolytes, in the act of giving his blessing. The loss of this fresco is somewhat compensated for by a seventeenth-century sketch (in the Ambrosian Library at Milan) which restores the ensemble of the original scene. It was a magnificent representation of an actual spectacle, a vast historical panorama of which the painter must have been an eyewitness, an immense portrait gallery facade of the Lateran, the showing the pope, the cardinals, the army, and the Roman people; all this on the occasion of a momentous event in the history of Christendom. From Rome Giotto returned to Florence, perhaps in 1301, and painted the “Last Judgment” in the chapel of the Podesta. This fresco is in a way a political manifesto, being a kind of idealized grouping of all classes of Florentine society, somewhat after the manner of Dante’s great poem. Therein can be recognized Dante himself, Brunetto Latini, Corso Donati, Cardinal d’Acquasparta, and Charles of Valois. The “Life of Mary Magdalen“, which completed the chapel decorations, is now so faded and discolored as to be beyond recognition. In 1306, Giotto was called to Padua to paint the Capella dell’ Arena, built by Enrico Scrovegni in expiation of the crimes of his father, the famous usurer Reginaldo. On the lateral walls the artist treated in thirty-six frescoes scenes from the life of Christ and of the Blessed Virgin. Beneath these scenes he placed fourteen small cameo figures, allegories of the vices and virtues; on the end wall above the scene of the Annunciation, he painted a “Last Judgment”. With this work a new epoch opens in the career of Giotto. It is the first of those vast complete series; or great decorative poems, conceived by him with systematic thoroughness, and meant to develop fully a single great idea. It is truly a living organism, at once pictorial and theological, such as is met with later in the Spanish Chapel, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and in the Camera della Segnatura. This introduction of allegory, on an elevated and magnificent scale, is his new master-concept. His work is henceforth dominated by an attempt to bring out the moral meaning and by unity of purpose. The historical element, of course, still held the place of honor; it had not varied for centuries, had been the same since the mosaics of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo at Ravenna and Santa Maria Maggiore at Rome. Giotto, indeed, continued to use the earlier conceptions, but could not fail to imbue with his own wonderful realism the traditional treatment of these sacred scenes. There is, perhaps, no pictorial type more striking than Giotto’s Judas in the scene of the kiss. Circumstances here forced the artist’s genius into a new path. Since his imagination had not in these sacred scenes the freest play, he turned to the perfection of artistic style; consequently the Padua frescoes are a new phase in his realization of the beautiful. In the mind of Giotto life now appears as conditioned by art. This preoccupation with the artistic presentation of things is striking at Padua from the earlier scenes, those depicting the story of St. Joachim and the marriage of the Blessed Virgin, where there are charming pastorals rarely equaled, such as “Joachim among the shepherds”, the “Meeting at the Golden Gate”. One scene in particular, the marriage cortege of the Blessed Virgin, is introduced merely that the artist may develop a beautiful plastic theme, a frieze of white-veiled girls, quite like the procession of Greek maidens in the Panathenaean festivals. Ghiberti mentions other paintings made by Giotto for the Friars Minor at Padua. However, the most perfect examples of the master’s maturer skill are his frescoes at Assisi, between 1310 and 1320, in the lower church of the famous basilica of St. Francis. He began in the right transept with the addition of two miracles of the saint as a kind of appendix or supplement to the “Life” which he had painted twenty years earlier in the upper church. Facing these he painted nine frescoes of the Holy Childhood, a replica of the Padua frescoes but superior for delicacy and charm. In his quality of historian Giotto never rose above this work, the most exquisite of all his narrative frescoes. His crowning work, however, in this period, was the decoration of the roof-groining over the high altar. In it he sets forth the “Triumph of St. Francis”, together with the triumphs of the virtues which were the foundation of the order: poverty, chastity, obedience. This is the earliest example of those trionf, which from the Campo Santo at Pisa to Mantegna and Titian are a favorite theme of Italian art. It is moreover the earliest masterpiece of monumental art. The earlier “Psychomachia” of the poet Prudentius, so often treated by French sculptors and outlined by Giotto himself in the aforesaid tiny allegories of the Capella dell’ Arena, takes on here a larger development. We seem to hear, as it were, an orchestration of incomparably greater variety and significance. The intimate meaning of life and thought, the power of plastic art, and the genius of beautiful symbols; the majesty of harmonious order, the beauty of the types, personificiations, and persons; the wondrous blending of fact and fancy; the perfect preservation of the original colors, all combine to make this magnificently planned ensemble one of the immortal works of painting. It seems to breathe the puissant moral ideas of the Middle Ages, while one of its lovely figures, the well-known Lady Poverty, suggests from afar all the mystic and quaintly modern poetry of Botticellis “Primavera”.
The closing years of Giottos life (1320-27) were spent at Florence. His work at this period in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine and the palace of the Podesta, where he painted an allegory of Good Government (a theme of Ambrogio Lorenzetti at Siena in 1337), has almost entirely perished. Of all his work in the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels in the Franciscan church of Santa Croce there survive but some remnants. The Bardi chapel contains in six scenes a new life of St. Francis, besides four figures of the greater Franciscan saints: St. Clare, St. Elizabeth, St. Louis IX, King of France, and St. Louis of Toulouse. (St. Louis of Toulouse was canonized in 1317; the decoration of the chapel must, therefore, be of later date.) The Peruzzi chapel contains six scenes from the lives of St. Paul and St. John the Evangelist. These frescoes were whitewashed over in the eighteenth century, were discovered in 1840, and have suffered much in the course of restoration. In this final evolution of his art, Giotto, now a master and sure of his own powers, seems to lean towards the abstract in the treatment of his subjects. He appears to subordinate all to the rhythm of the composition. An almost excessive desire for balance and symmetry gives to these later works an aspect of stiffness, somewhat the impression of bas-reliefs. They seem somewhat cold and academic. And yet they reveal incomparable beauty and figures of genuine sculpturesque perfection. In the “Resurrection of St. Paul” the group of the Disciples leaning over the empty sepulchre, though two centuries earlier than Raphael, is almost the same as the group of young geometricians in the latter’s “School of Athens”.
There is no evidence that Giotto ever visited Ferrara, Ravenna, or any of the other places where frescoes are attributed to him. King Robert of Anjou induced him to visit Naples in 1330, and he remained there three years, but left no trace of his influence on the local school. As for the pretended journey to Avignon and his death there, it is well known to be a fiction. Simone di Martino is the true author of the admirable frescoes in the papal palace at Avignon. In his later years Giotto, recognized as chief among Italian artists, was more or less capomaestro or Master of the Works for all public constructions in Florence. We are told that he aided in designing the Porta San Giovanni of the Baptistery, the work of Andrea Pisano (1330). It is certain that he drew the plans for the Campanile in 1334. Perhaps the designs for the fifty-eight bas-reliefs by Andrea are partly his, recalling as they do in more than one particular the “Virtues and Vices” at Padua. There are very few of Giotto’s panels, properly so-called. One large “Madonna di Maesta” in the Accademia at Florence is interesting when compared with that of Duccio. A triptych of the “Life of St. Peter” painted in 1298 for Cardinal Stefaneschi is preserved in the sacristy of the canons at St. Peter’s. Finally, his “St. Francis receiving the Stigmata”, at the Louvre, is a youthful resume of the noble frescoes at Assisi.
No painter ever made such an impression on his age as Giotto. All fourteenth-century art betrays his influence. No school was ever so numerous nor so homogenous as the Giotteschi. Taddeo and Agnolo Gaddi, Orcagna, Spinello, and others, it is true, are weak enough imitators of their master. Indeed, outside of Florence there is no originality save at Siena where Simone di Martino and the Lorenzetti worked, and later at Padua in the days of Jacopo Avanzo and Altiechieri. The triumph of Giotto, and the thorough manner in which his successors imitated him, proved how fully he embodied the national genius. In painting he invented that dolce stil nuovo, that vulgare eloquium which Dante created in the realm of poetry. He is truly the founder of the art of painting in Italy.
He was not handsome, says Petrarch, who was his friend, as was also Dante, whose portrait he so often painted. Nor must it be imagined that this great painter of St. Francis was either a mystic or an ascetic. He loved life too well for that. He has left us in a canzone, mediocre enough as poetry, a satire on “Holy Poverty” and the excesses of the “Fraticelli“, the radicals among the Franciscans of that time. Moreover, the Florentine novelists, Boccaccio and Sacchetti, tell many anecdotes of him in which he figures as a bon-vivant, jovial, good-natured, with a sense of humor and a pardonable eccentricity. He may have been wealthy, as he worked diligently and charged good prices for his work. He married Cinta di Lapo del Pela by whom he had eight children. The eldest, Francesco, registered in 1341 as a member of the guild of painters at Florence.