Italian Proto-Renaissance Painter
Progression of Art
Isaac Blessing Jacob
Historians have grappled with the problem of exactly what Giotto painted while at Assisi, though there is general consensus that he was responsible for this and other important frescos. Isaac Blessing Jacob, one of Giotto's earliest extant works, forms part of a fresco cycle in the Upper Church of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Sitting along the top half of the church's walls, the frescoes portray narratives from the Old Testament that were key bases for beliefs of the Franciscan monastic order. Here, the elderly Isaac is shown blessing his younger son, Jacob, as Jacob offers him food while Isaac's wife, Rebekah, watches.
This fresco reveals early versions of Giotto's technical innovations in painting: that of rendering believable space between human figures. Although Giotto creates an artificial scene by cutting away two of the walls, he also transforms the moment of Isaac blessing Jacob into an everyday event. Using axial perspective, a technique in which lines recede parallel to each other and into the distance, Giotto places the three figures here in an interior that has spatial depth; we can see, for instance, how the foot of the bed recedes. While artists had employed the technique of axial perspective since antiquity, Giotto combines it with numerous details of casual daily life to make the interior more approachable. A curtain hangs across the back of the room to evoke a private space, and the sheets over Isaac's feet are rumpled as if he has just sat up. Isaac, Jacob and Rebekah too seem more like actual human bodies. Not only do sheets and clothes drape over their forms to suggest human anatomy from shoulders to feet, but their faces have distinct contours. Isaac's face is angular and lined around his nose like the face of an older man, and Jacob's face has fuller cheeks with little suggestion of bone structure like that of a youth. In addition, Jacob's steady, concentrated gaze at Isaac complements Isaac's pensive, sideways gaze. Such humanist innovations brought a new psychological dimension to proceedings.
Giotto's more realistic depiction of human figures and their spatial relations had a marked influence on later artists, including the early 15th-century Fra Angelico and Masaccio. When painting The Expulsion of Adam and Eve in his fresco cycle for the Brancacci Chapel (c. 1425, S. Maria del Carmine, Florence), Masaccio echoed Giotto's perspectival rendering of architectural elements and evocation of emotional response (Adam and Eve bend over awkwardly with shame and grief as they walk past an arch receding into the distance). Giotto's fresco thus highlights shifts in European painting techniques that would become key for Renaissance artists and subsequent generations.
Egg tempera fresco - Basilica of St Francis, Assisi
Nineteen feet high, and forming part of a choir screen, this depiction of the Crucifixion reveals Giotto's rethinking of established modes of religious representation. Earlier Byzantine artists had usually depicted the Crucifixion with a "Triumphant Christ" who stands erect and seems to look proudly out from the cross. Here, however, Giotto focuses on the pathos of the scene and thus encourages the viewer to empathize with Christ's suffering. Unusually detailed anatomical depiction of Christ's body suggests how it hangs heavily from the cross, as might an actual human body. The muscles in Christ's arms appear painfully stretched because of their sharp delineation while his stomach sags uncomfortably towards his feet. His head bows to imbue the scene with the melancholy of emotional suffering. Worshippers are invited to participate in this scene - which depicts the Virgin and St. John at the end of each arm looking inward at Christ's suffering. Since Giotto adjusted his Crucifixion to the viewers' point of view (they sit or stand underneath the suspended crucifix) the proportions of Christ's body bring added emotional gravitas when seen from below.
This humanistic depiction of Christ on the cross became the preferred mode of representing the Crucifixion for later artists. For instance, with his Holy Trinity (c. 1425-27) fresco inside S. Maria Novella in Florence, Masaccio echoes Giotto's depiction of the realistic suffering and bodily weight of Christ. Christ's body again hangs heavily from distended muscular arms, and the invitation to worshipper participation has become even more overt as a worshipper in the painting looks directly out to our space.
Tempera and gold on wood panel - Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence
Celebration of Christmas at Greccio
This work, also located in the Upper Church at Assisi, uses perspective to depict a religious space normally inaccessible to lay worshippers. A scene from Giotto's fresco cycle narrating the life of St Francis, this painting displays the saint creating the first Nativity scene, now familiar in the celebration of Christmas across the Christian world; we see St. Francis laying Christ in a manger. Giotto shows St. Francis clearly behind the choir screen that usually divided the church into space for lay worshippers and space for religious figures, such as the Franciscan monks. Not only are the white panels of the choir screen visible but Giotto further emphasizes the unusual setting through his use of perspective to create a definable space in front of the viewer. We can see how the floor is tipped upward, the pulpit recedes away from us, and the structure at the left is shown at a raking diagonal. In addition, there is space behind the choir screen since women step across its threshold and the crucifix leans backwards at a reclining angle.
Beyond its artistic innovations, as the art historian Jacqueline E. Jung has observed, Giotto's fresco offers unusual insight into the complexity of social interactions within a medieval church. To the right and left of St. Francis, well-dressed (and so wealthy) individuals in flowing and colorful robes surround four Franciscan monks in brown robes. Since the monks stand behind the well-dressed individuals with their mouths open, the scene appears to offer lay worshippers instruction in the religious event before them; they are not only allowed behind the choir screen, but they can learn by looking at St. Francis and listening to the monks. Women too are permitted to enter this area, as they stand at the threshold of the choir screen; however, they occupy a more ambiguous position: at once marginally placed on the threshold and centrally placed laterally in the choir screen. This fresco thus offers evidence of artistic innovation to art historians, and also to social historians pointing to distinctions in gendered interactions along with the approaches to the secular and divine at the time.
Egg tempera fresco - Basilica of St Francis, Assisi
The Last Judgement
In the early years of the 1300s, the wealthy money-lender Enrico Scrovegni built a private chapel in the city of Padua, and employed Giotto to devise a decorative scheme for the entire interior. The result was a mature masterpiece with a cohesive overall identity and a new approach to spatiality in painting. As the art historian Anne Mueller van der Haegen puts it, Giotto "portrays image, figures and space in relation to the picture surface in a new form." The Last Judgement painted on one wall of the chapel is particularly noteworthy in this regard.
In this fresco, Giotto helps to forge a connection between the viewer and the divine events depicted by playing with the tropes of real and illusionistic space. In an unprecedented way, Giotto breaks down the boundaries between the painted space of the scene and the physical architecture of the chapel. For example, the angels at the top of the painting are shown peeling back the painted firmament in order to reveal the gates of heaven, while more angels peer around the frame of the real window. Creating even more of an illusionist quality, the robes of the priest kneeling in the foreground are painted to appear as if they are actually hanging over the frame of the door below.
Giotto also emphasizes the connection between this world and the next by making the unusual move of including a portrait of his patron, Enrico Scrovegni, holding a model of his chapel and offering it to the enthroned Christ. While Giotto probably did this at his patron's request, it was unusual because Scrovegni was still alive at the time. By placing him on the side of the blessed, Giotto indicates Scrovegni's piety; this is in stark contrast to the poet Dante (then a resident of Padua) who had condemned Scrovegni to Hell in his Divine Comedy.
The Scrovegni Chapel would prove to be of great significance to later artists, including the modernist artists working in London at the start of the 20th century. For example, Roger Fry writes in an article about Giotto that the achievement of the Scrovegni Chapel frescoes "is an entirely original discovery of new possibilities in the relation of forms to one another."
Egg tempera fresco - Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
Giotto's Lamentation of the Death of Christ (a popular narrative for 14th century religious paintings) is the most famous of his frescoes for the Arena Chapel in Padua. Considered a bone-fide masterpiece of proto-renaissance painting, Giotto's frescoes revealed a ground-breaking style of naturalism, overturning the flat, two-dimensional, conventions of medieval painting. The Arena (or Scrovegni) Chapel murals consist of 39 consecutive scenes depicting events in the life of the Virgin Mary and events in the life of Christ. The overarching theme is one of redemption and this probably reflected a desire for the Scrovegni family, who grew rich on moneylending, to appease their conscience and redress their sins.
In Giotto's Lamentation, Christ has been lifted down from the cross and his lifeless body is attended to by haloed relatives and disciples. Mary, the focus of the picture, cradles her son's head while Mary Magdalene mourns at Christ's feet. John the Evangelist, meanwhile, opens his arms wide in a gesture that connotes devastation and sympathy for Christ's suffering. Giotto renders the mourners' emotions through the fine detail in their hands and feet, and in their bowed heads and open mouths that appear to quiver in grief. Not only does Giotto bring his human figures to life, his mise-en-scène lends the image a greater sense of spatial realism too. For instance, the foreshortened figures of the grieving angels, and the diagonal lines of the mountain ridge, bring a sense of deep-space to the composition.
The combination of naturalized human figures and three dimensional "depth" effectively signalled the demise (amongst progressives at least) of the flat, largely symbolic, Byzantine style in art. Giotto's approach provided inspiration for the Florentine Renaissance and, more widely, Renaissance art throughout Europe. For his part, Giotto's style carried his faith in the message of St. Francis of Assisi which espoused a new sense of religious freedom whereby the mortal would be transformed into a better (higher) being through the touch of the divine.
Fresco - Arena Chapel, Padua
The innovations made by Giotto in this large-scale painting of the Madonna and Child are made particularly apparent through comparing the work with treatments of the same subject by Giotto's slightly older contemporaries Duccio and Cimabue, which hang near the work in the Uffizi Gallery. Giotto's version of the scene, painted 20-30 years after those of his his peers, stands out because of his masterful use of architectural perspective to represent the throne, and the suggestion of a pictorial space that more closely resembles reality, in which the attendant figures, while smaller than the Madonna, otherwise obey the spatial rules of the painted scene.
The Madonna and Child's raised position within the picture is symbolic of their spiritual elevation, but it is made realistic by the depiction of a throne with steps leading up to it; they are not left floating in mid-air as in previous treatments of the same subject. Through this device, the Christ child's hand, raised in blessing, becomes the focus-point of the painting, where most of the lines of perspective come together. Moreover, the gazes of the surrounding figures are directed at the holy pair, encouraging the viewer to send their gaze in the same direction and to share in the depicted act of adoration.
The painting is also notable for the clear sense of anatomical realism with which the figures are depicted. In previous eras, the anatomy of the figures beneath their clothes was generally not closely attended to, where Giotto takes care to suggest the human fleshliness of the Virgin and the baby Jesus. This is particularly highlighted through the subtle representation of Mary's knee and breasts through the fabric of her clothes, as well as the baby's body in its translucent robe.
Giotto's depiction of the Virgin and Child as a human mother and child, as well as divine beings, was an important influence for later Renaissance artists, especially figures such as Filippo Lippi, tutor to Botticelli, whose images of the Madonna and Child develop the human element of the scene, eventually reducing the figures' gold halos to simple symbolic rings.
The 20th-century sculptor Henry Moore was also impressed by what he felt were the sculptural qualities of Giotto's figures, describing Giotto's paintings as "the finest sculpture I met in Italy." He later made several mother and child sculptures, and they show a clear line of influence from Giotto's Madonna and Child.
Tempera and gold on panel - Uffizi, Florence
Design sketch for the Campanile
The bell tower of Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence Cathedral) was begun by Giotto in 1334, taken on following his death (in 1337) by Andrea Pisano, and completed in 1359 by Francesco Talenti, who added the large windows on the upper levels. This sketch, which is attributed to Giotto, depicts the artist's original design for the bell tower (campanile). From the beginning of his career, Giotto's paintings have incorporated architectural structures and buildings, so it was perhaps inevitable that at some point in his later career he would turn to architectural design directly. Giotto's design was completed with a remit to complement the polychromy of the cathedral as a whole (according to Arnolfo di Cambio's design). Though it is problematic to attribute sole authorship to the "Giotto Tower" (given his untimely death) it is accepted that he was directly responsible for the tower's bottom third. Indeed, on the strength of his contribution to the cathedral's design, Giotto joined Brunelleschi (designer of the cathedral's dome) and Alberti (author of the first printed book on architecture "De re aedificatoria", 1450) as one of the founding fathers of Renaissance architecture.
Giotto's sketch is for an ornate building in the Gothic style that accords with the imagined buildings of his earlier paintings. His lower section includes colored marble - white, green, pink and red predominantly - organized in geometric patterns. His design is complemented with a series of sculptural reliefs, designed by Giotto and executed by Pisano and other Florentine masters (including Donatello and Luca Della Robbia). Taken as a whole, the relief cycle represents a celebration of knowledge and thinking and charts the development of civilization through a series of panels. Collectively the reliefs (relievos) convey the idea that exploration, and learning through technology and theology, had made mankind worthy (potentially) of divine redemption.
The practices of science and technology are represented through allegorical depictions of astronomy, architecture, weaving, navigation and mathematics. These panels sit alongside representations of biblical and classical figures, while the panel representing medicine depicts the consulting room of a doctor in the act of observing urine contained in the glass receptacles (matula) against the light, the goal being to symbolize the link between observed analysis and diagnosis (indeed, the matula was taken up as an emblem by practicing physicians). The Bell Tower upper panels meanwhile are dedicated to astronomy. The relief on the south side (pointing towards via de' Calzaiuoli) shows the "inventor" of astronomy, Gionitus, in search of celestial bodies using astronomical instruments, while the west side celebrates the celestial bodies of medieval astronomy.
The tower has attracted much praise through the ages from writers and artists. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow addresses it in his poem "Giotto's Tower":
In the old Tuscan town stands Giotto's tower,
The lily of Florence blossoming in stone, -
A vision, a delight, and a desire, -
The builder's perfect and centennial flower,
That in the night of ages bloomed alone,
But wanting still the glory of the spire.
Ink on parchment - Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence