Giotto di Bondone (c. 1267–1337),
was a Florentine painter and architect. Outstanding as a painter, sculptor,
Giotto was recognized as the first genius of art in the Italian Renaissance.
Giotto lived and worked at a time when people's minds and talents were first
being freed from the shackles of medieval restraint. He dealt largely in the
traditional religious subjects, but he gave these subjects an earthly,
full-blooded life and force.
The artist's full name was Giotto di Bondone. He was born about 1266 in
the village of Vespignano, near Florence. His father was a small landed
farmer. Giorgio Vasari, one of Giotto's first biographers, tells how Cimabue,
a well-known Florentine painter, discovered Giotto's talents. Cimabue
supposedly saw the 12-year-old boy sketching one of his father's sheep on a
flat rock and was so impressed with his talent that he persuaded the father
to let Giotto become his pupil. Another story is that Giotto, while
apprenticed to a wool merchant in Florence, frequented Cimabue's studio so
much that he was finally allowed to study painting.
The earliest of Giotto's known works is a series of frescoes (paintings on
fresh, still wet plaster) on the life of St. Francis in the church at Assisi.
Each fresco depicts an incident; the human and animal figures are realistic
and the scenes expressive of the gentle spirit of this patron saint of
animals. In about 1305 and 1306 Giotto painted a notable series of 38
frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua. The frescoes illustrate the lives of
Jesus Christ and of the Virgin Mary. Over the archway of the choir is a scene
of the Court of Heaven, and a Last Judgment scene faces it on the entrance
wall. The compositions are simple, the backgrounds are subordinated, and the
faces are studies in emotional expression.
Vasari tells the story of how Pope Boniface VIII sent a messenger to
Giotto with a request for samples of his work. Giotto dipped his brush in red
and with one continuous stroke painted a perfect circle. He then assured the
messenger that the worth of this sample would be recognized. When the pope
saw it, he “instantly perceived that Giotto surpassed all other painters
of his time.”
In Rome, Naples, and Florence, Giotto executed commissions from princes
and high churchmen. In the Bargello, or Palace of the Podesta (now a museum),
in Florence is a series of his Biblical scenes. Among the bystanders in the
paintings is a portrait of his friend the poet Dante. The Church of Santa
Croce is adorned by Giotto murals depicting the life of St. Francis.
In 1334 the city of Florence honored Giotto with the title of Magnus
Magister (Great Master) and appointed him city architect and superintendent
of public works. In this capacity he designed the famous campanile (bell
tower). He died in 1337, before the work was finished.
Giotto was short and homely, and he was a great wit and practical joker.
He was married and left six children at his death. Unlike many of his fellow
artists, he saved his money and was accounted a rich man. He was on familiar
terms with the pope, and King Robert of Naples called him a good friend.
In common with other artists of his day, Giotto lacked the technical
knowledge of anatomy and perspective that later painters learned. Yet what he
possessed was infinitely greater than the technical skill of the artists who
followed him. He had a grasp of human emotion and of what was significant in
human life. In concentrating on these essentials he created compelling
pictures of people under stress, of people caught up in crises and
soul-searching decisions. Modern artists often seek inspiration from Giotto.
In him they find a direct approach to human experience that remains valid for
The image accompanying this article is a photo of the statue representing
Giotto, outside the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.