The Florentine painter, architect, and sculptor Giotto (ca. 1267-1337) evolved a revolutionary new style and was the greatest and most influential Italian painter before the Renaissance.

An outline of the life of Giotto may be deduced from documents and literary sources. At the time of his death in 1337 he was said to be 70 years old. Traditionally his birthplace is given as Colle di Vespignano in Mugello, though some scholars now believe that he was a native of Florence. According to a legend recorded by Lorenzo Ghiberti in his Commentaries (ca. 1450), the painter Cimabue discovered Giotto. The account states that while traveling in the countryside Cimabue came upon a shepherd drawing with chalk on a flat stone. Cimabue was so impressed that he offered to take the shepherd, Giotto, to Florence and train him in the artist's craft.

Giotto married in 1290; his wife bore him four sons and four daughters. Pope Boniface VIII called him to Rome in 1300. Between 1302 and 1306 Giotto was in Padua, painting the Arena Chapel frescoes. In 1327 he was enrolled in the painters' guild in Florence. Between 1328 and 1333 he was in Naples, working for Robert of Anjou. On April 12, 1334, Giotto was appointed capomastro of the Cathedral of Florence and city architect. In 1335-1336 he was called to Milan to serve Duke Azzone Visconti. He died on Jan. 8, 1337, in Florence.


His Background

Stylistic trends at the beginning of the 14th century aimed at greater realism. The abstraction and poetic beauty of the Italo-Byzantine style had reached a culmination in the paintings executed by Cimabue in Florence and Duccio in Siena. Artists after them abandoned the Italo-Byzantine style for the aristocratic elegance and decorativeness of the Gothic style, which originated in France. This style had other qualities that were even more significant for the development of Italian painting. It was more emotional and markedly more naturalistic than the Italo-Byzantine style. Both of these qualities were reinforced by the teachings of the preaching orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, who sought to make Christ more accessible to the uneducated and illiterate by emphasizing his humanity rather than his divinity. The effect of this doctrine was to replace the lyrical poetry of medieval art with the vernacular prose of the newly emerging realism of the 14th century. If the urge toward greater realism needed further support, it was found in the artifacts of classical antiquity—the buildings and statues of ancient Rome. In Roman art early-14th-century artists discovered monumentality and, again, realism. Giotto's art brought these trends to their culmination: he was at once a superb decorator, a creator of monumental and heroic types, and a profound storyteller, whose work expressed genuine human emotions.


S. Francesco, Assisi

There is no consensus on what constitutes Giotto's early work. Scholars are divided, and the debate is vigorous over what Giotto may have painted before he executed the frescoes in the Arena Chapel. The principal question is, what did Giotto paint in Assisi?

Soon after the canonization of St. Francis (1228) the church of S. Francesco in Assisi was begun. Built on the side of a hill, it is divided into two levels: the Upper Church, with a lofty vaulted single aisle and simple transept and apse, and the Lower Church, with a low vaulted ceiling. By the last quarter of the century the building was complete enough for painters to work in the Upper Church. The most renowned artists in Italy were called to Assisi.

The walls along the nave are divided horizontally into two registers, stories from the Old and New Testaments decorating the upper register and the story of St. Francis decorating the lower register. The St. Francis cycle is painted in a Giottesque manner and was attributed traditionally to Giotto. In 1312 the chronicler Riccobaldi Ferrariensis observed that Giotto had painted in the Franciscan church in Assisi. Later Ghiberti in his Commentaries observed that Giotto had painted nearly all of the lower part of the church. This remark could mean that Giotto painted all of the Lower Church or all of the lower register in the Upper Church, that is, the story of St. Francis. The numerous Giottesque paintings in the Lower Church can be dated after Giotto's murals in Padua, that is, after about 1305, and are not to be considered early works. Few critics, in fact, consider any of the Giottesque painting in the Lower Church as authentic work by Giotto.

The story of St. Francis must date before 1307 and probably dates in the 1290s. If these are the works referred to by Ghiberti, they would be among the earliest extant examples of Giotto's art. In the second edition of his Lives (1568) Giorgio Vasari specifically attributed the St. Francis cycle to Giotto. This viewpoint became the traditional one and was not questioned until the 20th century, though some critics noted discrepancies between the frescoes in Assisi and those in Padua.

In 1912 F. Rintelen declared that Giotto did not paint the story of St. Francis. Critics quickly polarized into Giotto and non-Giotto camps, and the debate began. Those who attributed the works to Giotto cited their obvious Giottesque character and the centuries-old tradition that associated them with the artist. The non-Giotto critics listed numerous stylistic discrepancies between the St. Francis cycle and the Arena Chapel frescoes, which, they declared, were too fundamental to be explained by the time span that separated them. Most of the non-Giotto critics looked to the scenes depicting the Old and New Testaments for evidence of Giotto's hand, though most of these scenes are in poor condition, making stylistic judgments difficult.

The story of St. Francis has been subjected to close physical examination, including an elaborate analysis of the fresco method employed. Similar analyses continue on those frescoes universally accepted as by Giotto. A comparison with some of the Arena Chapel frescoes revealed differences in the fresco method employed in Assisi and in Padua, which would seem to support the non-Giotto viewpoint, although it is too sketchy to be conclusive.

Among those who attribute the St. Francis cycle to Giotto, there is general agreement that St. Francis Honored by a Simpleton and the scenes on the left wall in the bay nearest the crossing are not by Giotto but by his contemporary, the St. Cecilia Master. There is, furthermore, general agreement that Giotto's role in the St. Francis cycle was that of a master supervising a large shop of assistants. This may explain some of the stylistic discrepancies noted by the non-Giotto critics. Among the other paintings in S. Francesco commonly associated with Giotto's name are the story of Isaac, the story of Joseph, the Lamentation over Christ, the Resurrection, and the Church Doctors in the vaults of the first bay.

Giotto went to Rome in 1300, and scholars include the fresco fragment in St. John Lateran among his early works. In poor condition and extensively restored, it depicts Pope Boniface VIII announcing the Jubilee Year. A panel painting, the Stigmata of St. Francis (Louvre, Paris), is signed with Giotto's name, though few now accept it as an authentic work. The Madonna Enthroned in S. Giorgio alla Costa, Florence, in poor condition, is widely but not universally given to Giotto. Vasari mentioned a panel by Giotto in that church, and this picture is usually thought to be the one Vasari knew. The painted cross in S. Maria Novella, Florence, is the finest of the early Giotto panel paintings to have survived. As with all the early works, there is no universal agreement on its authenticity. The scholars who accept it as a work by Giotto date it before 1300. A polyptych, the Madonna with Saints, from the Badia (Uffizi, Florence) was mentioned by Ghiberti as a work by Giotto. Most critics accept Ghiberti's statement and attribute it to Giotto.


Arena Chapel

All attributions to Giotto must be compared with the fresco cycle (1302-1306) he painted in the Arena Chapel, Padua, for Enrico Scrovegni. These works, universally accepted as Giotto's, are in good condition with little over-painting.

The Arena Chapel is a modest single-aisle, barrel-vaulted structure, with a semicircular apse. The entire interior is frescoed from the vaults down the sidewalls and across the triumphal arch and entrance wall. The narrative scenes relate the life of the Virgin and the life and Passion of Christ in a total of 37 individual scenes. They are arranged in three registers along the sides, with the Annunciation and two episodes from the Passion continuing across the triumphal arch. On the entrance wall is the Last Judgment; Scrovegni is depicted among the blessed, presenting a model of the chapel to the Virgin. On the sidewalls in a fourth register below the narrative scenes are painted allegorical representations, the Virtues and Vices, as though they were bits of sculpture set in illusionistically rendered niches. The vault is painted blue with golden stars and includes a series of medallions of the Madonna, the Redeemer, and various prophets.

Giotto's style in the Arena Chapel is simple and direct. The narrative scenes are dominated by figures which move along the foreground plane before bits of landscape or architecture. The backgrounds serve to establish the setting without attempting to be accurate in scale or overly elaborate in detail. The elements of the setting are usually arranged to frame and augment the figure groups. Strong undulating rhythms are created by the contour of the architecture and landscape, leading the beholder's eye with an almost irresistible strength across the walls. The sky, painted a deep blue, provides an excellent foil for the figures and settings. The blue of the sky can be read as the picture plane, thus pushing the figures forward so that they seem to swell off the surface of the wall itself and bring the actors of the religious drama into the three-dimensional, corporeal world.

Giotto's figures have a sense of corporeality that is overwhelming. Swathed in great folds of drapery, their silhouettes are seldom broken by extraneous elements. They move across the wall with a measured slow pace that by itself suggests solemnity and dignity. The figures, which are kept to a minimum, are modeled with simple highlights and shadows that emphasize their fullness.

Giotto expressed the drama of the unfolding religious story with understatement and simplicity which heightens rather than diminishes the drama. Where other artists might have had the figures gesticulate and grimace, Giotto has them merely turn their wrist or shift their glance. In the scene showing Joachim, the father of Mary, walking among his flocks after his rejection from the temple, Giotto suggests Joachim's overwhelming disappointment and dejection by a simple nod of Joachim's head and by the wrapping of his hands within his cloak. Similarly, in the Betrayal of Christ, the glance that passes between Christ and Judas as Judas kisses him is far more dramatic than all the waving torches and spears of the arresting soldiers. Through such under-statement Giotto makes the life of Christ understandable and human by expressing it in comprehensible terms.

Another device Giotto used frequently was to paint some figures viewed from behind. We seem to be witnessing an event as part of a crowd, the crowd in the painting. We are forced to look over someone's shoulder to see what is happening, as in the Lamentation over Christ, where a large portion of Christ's body is obscured by a figure in the foreground.

Giotto's use of color in the Arena Chapel frescoes was descriptive. He took care to be consistent, that is, the costumes of the various people remained the same whenever they appeared; but he seemed to ignore the expressive potential of color that Duccio exploited so well in his Maestà (1311). The blue sky that fills a great portion of many scenes provides a unifying element, which is saved from monotony by the richly colored geometric fillets that divide the narrative scenes.


Other Mature Works

Giotto's frescoes in Padua are the most extensive and best-preserved example of his mature style. Some other works from roughly the same period have survived. The large Madonna Enthroned, painted shortly after the frescoes in Padua for the Church of Ognissanti, Florence (Uffizi), is universally accepted as an authentic work by Giotto. Restoration of the painting, after it had been damaged by a bomb explosion at the Uffizi museum in 1992, provided further evidence that it was indeed Giotto's work. Some scholars date it before the Arena Chapel frescoes and others as late as 1310. It shows the Madonna and Child seated on a canopied Gothic throne encircled by saints and angels. The Madonna looks directly at the beholder with an unflinching gaze; the Child, who has an incongruously mature expression on his face, raises his hand in benediction. All traces of the Italo-Byzantine style have disappeared. Giotto's style is austere, focusing on the establishment of full bulky forms in a believable space. The sense of space is emphasized by the perspective rendering of the throne and the overlapping rows of saints beside the Madonna.

About 1310 Giotto designed a mosaic showing the calling of St. Peter for old St. Peter's in Rome. The mosaic, called the Navicella, was completely reworked when the new St. Peter's was built in the 16th century. A pair of mosaic medallions depicting angels may have been made by Giotto at this same time.

Giotto painted a number of works between 1310 and 1320. Among them is a painted cross made for the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini, now partially dismembered. Somewhat later Giotto made another painted cross in Padua, which is entirely intact. A low horizontal gabled altarpiece in Berlin, the Dormition of the Virgin (ca. 1320), is probably a workshop piece.


Peruzzi Chapel

Giotto painted another major fresco cycle in the Peruzzi Chapel in Sta Croce, Florence. These frescoes, which probably date about 1320, relate the lives of John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. A tall Gothic chapel with a vaulted ceiling, it is open on the side toward the nave with windows on the wall behind the altar. The frescoes are in three registers along the sides with the topmost scene set within a lunette. They are in bad condition, having been painted in fresco secco, or tempered pigments on dry plaster. Recent restorations have removed most of the over-painting so that the frescoes are now more or less pristine, though faint.

In these frescoes Giotto went beyond his designs for the Arena Chapel in terms of spatial organization. The figures in the Peruzzi Chapel move about in realistic architectural settings; they are usually drawn at a slight angle to the picture plane to emphasize their recession into space. As in the Arena Chapel, Giotto continued to use backgrounds to frame figure groups. In the Raising of Drusiana, for instance, the city walls and the clustered city towers call attention to the figures arranged before them.

The figures have the same simple fullness and restrained dignity of Giotto's earlier figure types, but they are somewhat taller and more slender. Giotto continued his use of understatement to heighten the drama. In the Feast of Herod, for example, Giotto shows Salome beckoning to the servant carrying the charger with the head of the Baptist rather than dancing. She seems eager to present to her mother the grisly prize. The Peruzzi Chapel frescoes reveal Giotto's growth as an artist. They are far more complex in design and composition than those in Padua, yet they retain a sense of clarity and simplicity.

Bardi Chapel

Giotto also decorated the Bardi Chapel, adjacent to the Peruzzi Chapel in Sta Croce and similar in format. The frescoes depict the story of St. Francis in six scenes with a seventh, the Stigmata, painted on the wall above the entrance to the chapel. They are in much better condition than the Peruzzi Chapel works, having been executed in true fresco rather than fresco secco. These paintings invite comparison with those of the same subject in Assisi. Indeed, critics who attribute the Assisi story of St. Francis to Giotto often cite the Bardi Chapel frescoes as evidence that Giotto was the author of both. In the scene Francis Renouncing His Patrimony the similarities are striking, but in the other scenes they are less so. One critic has suggested that Giotto was not the artist of the Bardi Chapel frescoes, a theory that has attracted little support.

Architecture and Sculpture

In 1334 Giotto became capomastro of the Cathedral in Florence and chief architect to the city. The design for the Cathedral campanile is usually attributed to Giotto, though only the two lowest stories were completed by the time of his death in 1337. The Ponte alla Carraia in Florence (1334-1337) may have been designed by Giotto in his role as city architect, but it has been so extensively modified that it is impossible to verify this theory. The two lowest stories of the Cathedral campanile include a series of reliefs on all four sides. Most of these reliefs are now thought to have been carved by Andrea Pisano.

Further Reading on Giotto

The literature on Giotto is extensive. For a complete bibliography up to 1937 see Roberto Salvini, Giotto-Bibliografia (1938), in Italian. Giovanni Previtale's monograph, Giotto e la sua bottega (1907), also in Italian, is well organized and has exceptionally fine color and black-and-white reproductions and a good bibliography. Cesare Gnudi's monograph, in English, Giotto (1958), is considered the standard modern work. For good discussions of Giotto's style see Bernhard Berenson, The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance (1896; rev. ed. 1909), and Evelyn Sandberg Vavala's Uffizi Studies: The Development of the Florentine School of Painting (1948) and Studies in the Florentine Churches, vol. 1 (1959). Some of the arguments against Giotto's authorship of the St. Francis cycle in Assisi are given in Millard Meiss, Giotto and Assisi (1960). For an analysis of the fresco method used in Assisi see Millard Meiss and Leonetto Tintori, The Painting of the Life of St. Francis in Assisi, with Notes on the Arena Chapel (1962).