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Giotto - Biography and Legacy

Italian Proto-Renaissance Painter

Giotto Photo
Movement: Early Renaissance

Born: c.1267 - Florence, Italy

Died: 1337 - Florence, Italy

Biography

Childhood

The house in Vicchio, now a museum dedicated to his art, is thought to be Giotto's childhood home

Very little is known about the biographical details of Giotto di Bondone's life. He is thought to have been the son of a peasant, born in the Mugello, a mountainous area to the north of Florence, which was also the home country of the Medici family who would later rise to power in the city. Giotto's birthplace has been attributed to a house in the small village of Vicchio and the date of his birth given as 1277 by the writer and artist Giorgio Vasari in his influential 1550 text The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. However, other sources suggest he was born in 1267, which seems more likely judging by the maturity of some of his early works.

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Early Training and Work

The accomplished sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti (whose achievements in early Renaissance sculpture were indebted to Giotto) recounts a legendary story in his 1452 written work Commentaries on the Tuscan Artists of the Trecento. He tells how the young Giotto was tending sheep as a child and drew one of them from life on a stone slab. The foremost painter of the day, Cimabue, came across the boy's sketch and was so impressed that he immediately took the young Giotto on as an apprentice.

Exterior of the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi

Whatever the true beginnings of their professional relationship, it seems likely that Giotto was apprenticed to Cimabue, probably from the age of around 10, where he learned the art of painting. It is thought that Giotto travelled to Rome with the older artist before accompanying him to Assisi, where Cimabue had been commissioned to decorate the lower of the two churches recently built on top of each other to commemorate St Francis.

Sometime around 1290, Giotto married a Florentine woman called Ricevuta di Lapo del Pela - better known as "Ciuta"- with whom he had a number of children. (There is a quite probably baseless story that someone once asked Giotto how he could create such beautiful paintings but produce such ugly children, to which he replied that he made his children in the dark.) Around the same time as his marriage to Ciuta, Cimabue left Assisi for another commission and Giotto took over his work and was approached to create a fresco cycle for the top half of the walls in the upper church. Although Cimabue was Giotto's teacher, the pupil soon usurped his master, and his skill was recognized in his lifetime by contemporaries such as the poet Dante Alighieri, who wrote in his Divine Comedy: "Oh empty glory of human powers ... In painting Cimabue thought to hold the field, and now Giotto has the cry, so that the other's fame is diminished."

Mature Period

Between around 1290 and 1295 Giotto undertook his first major work in Assisi, in which he made a number of significant pictorial advances. His work was a success, and he was commissioned to create a further cycle of frescoes for the church. After a relatively prolonged stay in Assisi, Giotto began a period of frequent travel among the city states of Italy; a pattern that would characterize his whole career. Giotto set up workshops in a number of different locations where his style was emulated and where many of his assistants went on to strike out with their own careers.

A depiction of the poet Dante from a fresco inside the cathedral of Florence

At the turn of the century Giotto traveled to Florence, Rimini and possibly Rome. He then spent around three years in Padua working on one of his most complete and best-known works in the Arena Chapel. During his stay in Padua, Giotto may have met the poet Dante, who had been exiled there from Florence. In the decade between 1305 and 1315, Giotto seems to have travelled a number of times between Florence and Rome. He worked on commissions for some of the most important churches, including St Peter's in Rome (the church that preceded the current Basilica) where he was commissioned by the Roman Cardinal Jacopo Stefaneschi to create two works: Giotto's only known mosaic work (c.1310) and a large polyptych altarpiece (c.1313).

In the early 1300s the seat of the papacy was not in Rome but in Avignon, France. The cardinals of Rome were fighting for the papacy to be returned to their city and duly commissioned Giotto to produce works, including a mosaic for the fa├žade of the old St. Peter's Basilica (of which only fragments remain), Rome's most significant papal church. Cardinal Stefaneschi expressed his confidence that the Pope would eventually return and set about elevating the spiritual importance of his Roman seat. It is thought therefore that Stefaneschi commissioned Giotto - who was by now a painter of considerable professional renown - as part of his political strategy.

During this period, Giotto also received important commissions for the church of Santa Croce in Florence. Somewhere around 1313, meanwhile, he worked on a chapel dedicated to the Peruzzi's, a rich and influential family of bankers, in which he created two fresco cycles depicting John the Evangelist and John the Baptist. The member of the Peruzzi family who commissioned the work was named "Giovanni" or "John", and the frescoes would appear to be intended to forge a link between the family, the city of Florence and the patron saints that they worshipped.

The Peruzzi Chapel was much admired by Renaissance painters. Indeed, Michelangelo is known to have studied the frescoes which exemplified Giotto's skill in chiaroscuro and his ability to accurately represent perspective in the ancient buildings. It is known too that Giotto's compositions later influenced Masaccio's work on Cappella Brancacci. According to surviving financial records, somewhere between 1314-27, Giotto also painted the famous altarpiece the Ognissanti Madonna, now housed in the Uffizi (where it is on display next Cimabue's Santa Trinita Madonna and Duccio's Rucellai Madonna). Though Giotto settled for a time in Florence, it is known that he returned to Assisi between 1316-1320 where he worked on the decoration of the lower church (left unfinished by his old master Cimabue). Returning to Rome in 1320, Giotto completed the Stefaneschi Triptych (now housed in the Vatican Museum) for Cardinal Jacopo, who also commissioned him to decorate St. Peter's apse (the frescoes were destroyed during the 16th century renovation).

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Late Period

In 1328 Giotto was summoned by Robert of Anjou, the King of Naples, to his court. It is possible that he was recommended to Robert of Anjou by the Bardi family, for whom he had recently completed a series of frescoes for the family chapel in the church of Santa Croce. In Naples, meanwhile, Giotto became a court painter, which meant that he gave up the more precarious itinerant lifestyle that had so far characterized his career. He was given a salary and a stipend for materials and assistance, and in 1330 Robert of Anjou named him "familiaris", meaning that he had become part of the royal household. Regrettably, almost nothing of his work from this period survives. A fragment of a fresco portraying the Lamentation of Christ in the church of Santa Chiara bears his mark, as does the group of Illustrious Men that adorn the windows of the Santa Barbara Chapel of Castel Nuovo, though historians usually attribute these works to pupils of Giotto.

A posthumous portrait of Giotto completed in 1450 by the Florentine painter Paolo Uccello

After his time in Naples, Giotto stayed briefly in Bologna where he painted a Polyptych for the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and, it is thought, a lost decoration for the Chapel in the Cardinal Legate's Castle. In 1334, Giotto returned once more to Florence. Here, he was appointed 'capomaestro' or Master of Municipal Construction Works and head of the Cathedral Mason's Guild. He oversaw artworks for the construction of Florence's cathedral, while his own contribution was a design for a bell tower (though only the lower part was built to his stipulations). The new church, work on which commenced at the end of the 13th century, was modelled on the 7th century church of Santa Reparata, and would not be completed for another 200 years. As a mark of the esteem in which he was held, Giotto was buried in the Santa Reparata at the expense of the city following his death on 8th January 1337.

Legacy

Giotto's influence over the development of the Italian Renaissance and, consequently, over much of the history of European art, is significant. Recognized in his own time as a master by poets and thinkers such as Dante and Boccaccio, Giotto's developments of pictorial space and a quest for an unprecedented degree of realism would inspire the early instigators of the Renaissance in Florence. In particular, his influence can be seen in the sculptural revolution instigated by figures such as Lorenzo Ghiberti and Donatello in the first decade of the 1400s, while his artistic inheritance can also be recognized in the paintings of the young Masaccio forward of 1420.

Giotto's influence comes particularly from his incipient steps towards Renaissance Humanism, a school of thought that would be essential to the development of Renaissance art. Humanism involved looking to the world of antiquity for learning and pictorial techniques. In Giotto's work, this can be seen in his interest in depicting human emotions and in his modeling of the human figure, and in his ability to break down the distance between biblical characters and human viewers. Humanism can also be found in Giotto's interest in architecture, proportion, perspective and even engineering. These were also significant elements of later developments in Renaissance humanist thought and art, in which human beings became central to artistic endeavor and the realistic depiction of figures and emotion became paramount.

It is notable that there was a significant gap between the early groundbreaking work of Giotto around 1300 and the major revolution in art that began around a century later. This is probably because the years in between Giotto's death and the beginning of the 15th century were marked by plague and economic downturn. The plague epidemic of 1348 took the lives of a huge proportion of the inhabitants of Florence, as well as of cities such as Siena, which before this point had a burgeoning artistic movement and style of its own, but from which it never recovered. It was not until the relative stability and prosperity of Florence at the beginning of the 1400s that Giotto's achievements could be fully admired and built upon.

Giotto's influence continued to be recognized by later artists, and his work saw a resurgence of interest among modernists working in the first half of the 20th century, including figures such as Henry Moore and Roger Fry.

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Quotes

There was nothing in nature that Giotto "could not depict with his stylus, pen or brush so close to the original that it had the appearance, not of a reproduction, but of the thing itself, often causing people's eyes to be deceived and to mistake the picture for the real thing."
Boccaccio in Decameron
"The most sovereign master of painting in his time, who drew all his figures and their postures according to nature."
Giotto's contemporary, the banker and chronicler Giovanni Villani
"It is said that when Giotto was only a boy with Cimabue, he once painted a fly on the nose of a face that Cimabue had drawn, so naturally that the master returning to his work tried more than once to drive it away with his hand, thinking it was real. And I might tell you of many other jests played by Giotto, but of this enough."
Giorgio Vasari
"Giotto is for me the summit of my desires, but the route which leads towards an equivalent, in our epoch, is too long, too difficult for a single lifetime."
Henri Matisse Signature

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