Giotto di Bondone

Giotto di Bondone (better known as just Giotto, 1267 - January 8, 1337) was an Italian painter and architect. He is generally considered the first in a line of great artists who contributed to and developed the Italian Renaissance.

Giotto was born in poverty in the countryside near Florence, the son of Bondone, a peasant, and was himself a shepherd. Most authors believe that Giotto was directly his real name, and not an abbreviation of Ambrogio (Ambrogiotto) or Angelo (Angelotto).

The legend says (as reported by Giorgio Vasari in his biographies, derived from Ghiberti's Commentari) that at the age of 11, while attending the sheep, he used to draw on the rocks with chalk. Cimabue saw him drawing a sheep, so natural and so perfect that he immediately asked his father if he could bring Giotto with him to let him study art, and Giotto's career would have started in Cimabue's bottega. Another story by Vasari has Giotto as an apprentice painting a fly on the nose of a figure so life like Cimabue made numerous attempts to brush the fly away.

His art was extremely innovative, and is commonly considered as a precursor of that evolution which was to lead, shortly after, to the explosion of the Italian Rinascimento. He stands as the key link between the Byzantine art of the late middle ages, and the more realistic and humanistic art which flowered in the Renaissance. The flat, symbolic figures grouped in decorative space gave way to the modelled, individualized figures interacting in perspectival space. He managed to adopt the visual language of the sculptors — by lending his figures volume and weight. Compare his Madonna to that of his teacher Cimabue, and you see why his contemporaries considered Giotto's paintings miracles of naturalism.

Giotto's counterpart in the rival city of Siena, the great Duccio, imbued his delicate compositions with deep emotionalism. But Giotto stands alone as the great initiator of three dimensional space in European painting.

Madonna In Glory, Tempera on Panel, 1305-10
Cimabue, The Madonna in Majesty (Maesta), 1285-86He treated the religious themes that dominated medieval art with a new spirit, rendering them with a clear freshness and an unexpected liveliness, and many critics talk about a "human emotion" as the most peculiar feature of his works.

He received commissions for many works throughout Italy, and became a good friend of the king of Naples, as well as of Dante Alighieri. Boccaccio cited him in his Decameron.

According to one story, Pope Benedict XII wanted to employ Giotto, and sent an emissary to visit the artist. The messenger asked Giotto for a drawing he could submit to the pope, to prove the artist's worth. Giotto smiled and took a sheet of paper, dipped his brush in red paint, closed his arm to his side, and with one twist of his wrist he drew a perfect circle freehand. Giotto handed this drawing to the messenger, who stared back in disbelief. "Is this the only drawing I'm to have?" asked the messenger. Giotto answered, "It's more than enough. Send it along and you'll see whether it's understood."

Giotto's earliest credited major work is the fresco cycle depicting the life of St. Francis in the Upper Church of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi though there are some disputes of authorship. The cycle shows the influence on Giotto of Roman Art as well as his attempt to assimilate the prevalent fashion for French Gothic types. According to Vasari Giotto's depiction of St. Francis caused some controversy due to its sculptural nature making the Saint to much of the world. The Crucifixion in Santa Maria Novella in Florence is one of the major early works and clearly distinguishes Giotto's treatment of the subject from that of Cimabue and Duccio.

Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, painted 1305.Giotto's master work is the Arena Chapel cycle of the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padua depicting the life of the Virgin and the passion of Christ completed around 1305. The scheme has 100 major scenes with the heavily sculptural figures set in compressed but naturalistic settings often using forced perspective devices. Giotto's major innovation was to conceive of a painted architectural framework or grisallies using trompe-l'oeil effects that directly influenced Masaccio and in turn Michelangelo in his scheme for the Sistine Chapel. Famous panels in the series include the Adoration of the Magi in which a comet like Star of Bethlehem streaks across the sky and the Flight from Egypt in which Giotto broke many traditions for the depiction of the scene. The scenes from the Passion were much admired by artists of the Renaissance for there concentrated emotional and dramatic force, especially the "Lamentation over the Dead Christ", and studies of the sequence by Michelangelo exist. The "Ognissanti Madonna" now in the Uffizi and the sole surviving major panel work by the artist also dates from this period.

At the request of the Pope, Giotto spent ten years in Rome and then was employed by the King of Naples but little work remains from this period. After 1320 Giotto returned to Florence where he completed two fresco cycles and a number of altar pieces for the Church of Santa Croce. Both of the fresco groups were badly damaged though show that in later years Giotto's style had become more ornate perhaps as a response to the emerging International Gothic. In 1334 Giotto was appointed chief architect to Florence Cathedral of which the Campanile bears his name but was not completed to his design. In his final years Giotto became friends with Boccaccio and Sacchetti who feature him in their stories. Giotto died while working on a "Last Judgement" for the Bargello Chapel in Florence including a portrait of Dante.