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Giotto Di Bondone

Giotto di Bondone was born at Vespignano, near Florence, in 1276. He died at Florence on January 8, 1337. The son of a peasant, he became the pupil of Cimabue, then later, the head at Florence of a celebrated school of painters. His works include twenty-eight frescoes in the aisle of the upper church of S. Francis d’Assisi, under those by Cimabue; the frescoes on the ceilings of the lower church of S.

Francesco d’Assisi, and an altarpiece (according to Vasari the most completely executed of all his works); thirty-eight frescoes in the Capella dell’Arena at Padua; the frescoes of four chapels in Santa Croce, Florence, two of which have been destroyed; and a very small number of genuine panel-pictures. The extant public record of Giotto’s life is sparse but never-the-less telling. It reveals a personality whose range of interests and abilities is startling. It charts the course of a man who successfully moved and operated in the widely divergent worlds of business, theology and art.

The public record also describes a man who, in a time when political overtones colored all aspects of society, not only survived but flourished. Was he therefore, as some have claimed, a voice of his time or was he, as others argue, a divinely inspired prophet of the future? A prophet is usually understood to be one who stands outside of society calling attention in a loud and often strident voice to that which is amiss in the culture, yet the record shows Giotto to be a man who was accepted by his peers, befriended by the elite, honored for his achievements and rewarded financially for his accomplishments.

While there is no denying that Giotto’s art was profoundly influenced by the Franciscan movement with its emphasis on “recognizing the human in Christ and the divine in man,” (Ferguson, 300) the records which give us glimpses into Giotto’s personal life, show that the Franciscan call to poverty was not one that he lived out in his life. Lest this definition of a prophet relegate Giotto by default to the category of a man of his time, from the critical perspective, it would be a mistake to anchor Giotto in either of these categories for what we know of him breaks the hard, brittle molds.

Giotto di Bondone is an enigma, a contradiction dispelling the mythical stereotypes. Often called the father of Western painting, Giotto created a great revolution in painting. Although he remained faithful to some principles of his tradition, his source of style is most likely from the Roman school of painting which is characterized by a great interest in the sculptural rendering of form (Horst de la Croix and Tansey, 537). For instance, Giotto’s Paduan frescoes contained several characteristics new to that period.

First, the beginning of spatial perspective provided a shallow space where figures could be placed to the front, middle or rear realistically. Secondly, figures were drawn with three divisional qualities of roundness and weight. Third, there was an overall surface pattern which emphasized the main features of the action, such as the direction of movement of figures against a partially realistic landscape. Finally, there was a continued awareness of the allegorical, symbolic or figural significance of the subjects of the painting (Holms, 210).

Traditionally, medieval art was an art of copyists, “of the transcription of traditional picture cycles into a more or less individual idiom” (Gombrich, 150); however, in all styles the artist has to rely on a vocabulary of forms, and that it is the knowledge of this vocabulary rather than a knowledge of things that distinguishes the skilled from the unskilled artist…. What is more, it remains important that there exists a natural pull toward the schematic which artists such as Giotto…

succeeded in overcoming” (Gombrich, 293). In Italy, the new developments in art have been traced to panel-paintings and to the frescoes and other such monumental forms of art: If the most decisive moment in the history of Western painting had to be pinpointed to one day and one place, it could be the day in Padua more than six and a half centuries ago when Giotto rinsed out his brushes and took a last look around at the cycle of frescoes he had just completed for a chapel….

In the lower section of the fresco on the chapel’s entrance wall, where the Last Judgement is pictured, Giotto makes clear that the building is a placative gift (Canaday, 6). In Giotto’s fresco cycles framed scenes are linked much as Dante joined the cantos in his epic poem, the “Divina Comedia. ” Also, the narrative style demanded a convincing setting and Giotto’s perspective represented a method of depicting a scene from a certain vantage point.

The narrative style was developed by the fourteenth century artist in order to depict a greater naturalness and intensified dramatic expression in his painting and to bring the heavenly subjects within the realm of understandable human feeling (Canaday, 5). The best early example of this style is Giotto’s fresco paintings in the Arena Chapel in Padua where the individual scenes on the chapel walls provide a “majestic progression of the story from one section to the next… with each incident conceived in its own emotional air just as a unit in a… symphony” (Canaday, 6).

The story is told with technical realism, tenderness and a passion that involves the viewers as vicarious participants. The human drama which has been elevated to a noble scale, “purifies us through pity, if not through terror” (Canaday, 12). Because of this, Giotto is called the first Renaissance artist in that he humanized the narration of the Christian story and in doing so, opened a tradition of reference to nature. As a great artist also in the classical tradition, he “ennobled man in his physical being as a vessel of the intellect and the spirit” (Canaday, 12).

Giotto’s “The Epiphany” (see Fig. 1), a tempera panel on wood with gold ground, is described by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as being a part of a series of scenes from the life of Christ of which six other scenes are known: The Presentation in the Temple (Gardner Museum, Boston), The Last Supper, The Crucifixion, Christ in Limbo (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), The Entombment (Villa I Tatti, Florence) and The Pentecost (National Gallery, London). The Metropolitan goes on to state that:

In the distinctly described space and the free movement of the figures these scenes relate closely to Giotto’s frescoes in the Petruzzi Chapel in Santa Croce, which are usually dated about 1320. The appearance of Saint Francis with two donors in the Crucifixion has led to the suggestion that the panels come from one of four altarpieces by Giotto recorded in the Franciscan church of Santa Croce, but conformation for this is lacking. In the book, The Renaissance in Italy and Spain,. museum curators go on to say that “The Epiphany” combines a depiction of the Adoration of the Magi with one of the Annunciation of the Shepherds.

The kneeling magus is the focus of the composition. He has removed his crown and kneels to the left of the infant quite set apart from his fellow travelers who form a single compositional unit on the right. The glances and gestures of other figures who form a semi-circle around the magus and Christ are all directed at this action. Behind the principle scene, isolated against gold background, two Shepherds respond with awe to the announcement of divine birth (The Renaissance in Italy and Spain, 17). This picture… belongs to a series of seven panels…

which seems to have been painted around 1320 when Giotto was at the height of his powers and enjoyed an unparalleled reputation throughout Italy. The panel is characterized by a clear organization of space—the hill is divided into a series of plateaus and the stable is viewed as though seen from slightly to the right of center—and a concern for simplified shapes that sets it apart from the majority of works produced in the fourteenth century. No less innovative is the manner in which the eldest magus doffs his crown, kneels down, and impetuously lifts the Christ Child from the manger (Curatorial Staff, 112).

In “The Epiphany” two magi are standing to the right at the bottom of the panel and the third, at the bottom center, is kneeling and lifting the Infant from His cradle. Joseph stands to the left (facing) with three goats at his feet in front of him. He is holding the kneeling magus’ gift. The Madonna lies on a long reddish color cushion which extends horizontally across the picture plane. She is directly above the Infant and her body show both weight and roundness in her elongated, downward curving form.

She is reclining within a simple wooden manger and to her upper left, silhouetted against the gold sky, are two shepherds, both simply dressed. One shepherd looks skyward at the rejoicing angels and their bodies, if connected, would form a linear arch that bends upward. To the far left, an angel appears from behind the roof of the manger, his body partly hidden. All figures form a circle around Christ. In addition, the movement of the figures to the left of the composition form two half circles which curve downward, focusing on the Child.

The figures on the left, from the two angels to Joseph and the kneeling magus, form a plane which points directly to the magus holding the Infant. Another compositional factor is provided with a series of triangular forms, the most obvious of which are in the upper framework of the manger. This triangulation is balanced on the right with an inverted, larger triangle formed by the heads of two magi at the bottom and an angel at the top. The movement throughout this panel is complex and subtle with clearly defined, elegant figures that interact without the benefit of either sound or motion.

The subject of “The Epiphany” is realistic and the figures are concerned as sympathetic spectators watching the reception of the Child. Even the animals look at and form a circle around the Infant; all, that is, except one who turns his head to look at Joseph. The figures show warmth; their action is natural and relaxed. Gestures are self-contained. The Child is wrapped in white – bound, inactive, but alert. Although attentive, the figures are silent with all painted in profile except the Infant, Madonna and one magus. The communication between the figures is that they are focused on the infant.

Hands which are clasped, holding gifts or raised skyward reflect a potential activity. The colors are deep blue, red, green, pink and gold, with the shepherds painted as humble people in various earth tones around the spectrum of dark brown. Highlights are painted in orange and cream with the deepest shadow and brightest highlights in the angels’ wings, hands, necks, and faces looking towards the heavens. The sense of perspective is provided with generous incidents of overlapping of figures, animals, landscape and structure. The manger recedes into a narrow plane.

The viewer is brought into the center of the action, and the placement of figures from top to bottom indicate that those at the top are further away from the viewer than those directly at the bottom of the panel. BIBLIOGRAPHY Andrew Ladis, “The Legend of Giotto’s Wit and the Arena Chapel,” The Art Bulletin Volume LXVIII, no. 4 (December 1986): 581-596. Canaday, John. Late Gothic to Renaissance Painters. New York: W. W. Norton, 1969 Horst de la Croix and Richard G. Tansey, Gardner’s Art through the Ages, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Wallace K. Ferguson, The Renaissance in Historical Thought, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Co. , 1948 Holms, George. Florence, Rome and the Origins of the Renaissance. Oxford, Great Britain: Clarendon Press, 1988. E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, Bollingen Series XXXV, Princeton, N. J. : Princeton University Press, 1956 The Renaissance in Italy and Spain, with an Introduction by Frederick Hartt, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987 Curatorial Staff, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1983

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