Giotto di Bondone

The leading Florentine painter of his generation, Giotto di Bondone, b. c.1267, d. Jan. 8, 1337, created a revolution in painting that set Italian Renaissance art on the course it would follow for centuries. Giotto broke free of the flat, ethereal Byzantine manner of his Italian predecessors by painting convincing human figures with the semblance of weighty pieces of sculpture placed within a convincing illusion of space. Giotto dramatized religious narratives with a keen comprehension of human behavior in a way that later artists seldom equaled or surpassed.

Little of Giotto's career has been documented. A late tradition claims that he was trained by his most famous Florentine predecessor, CIMABUE. As noted in Dante's Purgatorio in the early 14th century, Giotto's reputation soon surpassed Cimabue's. It is possible that more fundamental influences on Giotto's style were the works of Pietro CAVALLINI in Rome and the sculptures of Nicola and Giovanni PISANO.

Giotto's relationship with the Master of the St. Francis cycle and the Isaac Master, who painted frescoes in the church of San Francesco in Assisi, has aroused considerable debate among specialists. Despite some similarities in style, most critics no longer believe that Giotto and either of these Masters are the same person. In Giotto's lifetime his most famous work was the mosaic Navicella (c.1300; Saint Peter's, Rome), which is now all but destroyed.

Giotto's major extant work and the touchstone of his artistic personality is found in Padua, where he frescoed (c.1305) almost the entire inner surface of the Arena Chapel for the wealthy Enrico Scrovegni. At the bottom of a depiction of the Last Judgment covering the entrance wall, Scrovegni is shown presenting the chapel, in the form of a model, to the Virgin. On the other walls, three ranges of paintings narrate the life of the Virgin and of Christ. In each incident Giotto, like a skilled stage director, arranges his "actors" across the surface of each scene and within a shallow stagelike space so that the drama attains a climactic visual focus. In the well-known scene of the Lamentation, somber, blocklike figures surround the body of Christ within the space while all glances and gestures and even the diagonal line of the hill draw our eyes to Mary's embrace of her dead son.

Giotto's works in Florence include the Ognissanti Madonna (c.1310; Uffizi), a large wooden panel painting. In the 1320s he also painted frescoes in the chapels of the Bardi and Peruzzi families in the church of Santa Croce. These later frescoes have a broader format than his earlier Paduan paintings.

Giotto's fame also led to work for the king of Naples between 1328 and 1334; nothing remains of his work there. In 1334 he was made director of public works for Florence and designed the cathedral's bell tower (campanile). Giotto influenced almost all Florentine painters in the first half of the 14th century. MASACCIO in the early 15th and MICHELANGELO in the early 16th century are the true heirs to his style of weighty figures and dramatic narration.

Bibliography: Barasch, Moshe, Giotto and the Language of Gesture (1987); Bellosi, L., Giotto: Complete Works, rev. ed. (1982); Cole, Bruce, Giotto and Florentine Painting: 1280-1375 (1976); Eimerl, Sarel, The World of Giotto (1967); Guillaud, Jacqueline and Maurice, Giotto (1987); Schneider, Laurie, ed., Giotto in Perspective (1974); Smart, Alastair, The Assisi Problem and the Art of Giotto (1971); Smart, Alastair, The Assisi Problem and the Art of Giotto (1971; repr. 1983). Stubblebine, James, ed., Giotto.

-Thomas Buser, "Giotto" Software Toolworks Multimedia Encyclopedia, 1992