Artist Spotlight: Giotto
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week’s post is going to focus on one of the most important figures in the history of art: Giotto di Bodone. His work and techniques helped to usher in the Renaissance, while still including traditions from the past. To showcase this concept, this post will examine three of his major works and how it impacted the development of art history.
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly due the time period, there are few sources concerning Giotto’s life. He was born in either 1267 or 1276. These ten years make a big difference in the analysis of his works. If it is the latter date, then he was a prodigy due to his young age when his works start to appear in the historical record. There is also a debate about the location of Giotto’s birth. For centuries, Colle di Romagnano has claimed the honor. In fact, there is even a building designated as his birthplace. But, recent scholarship seems to suggest that he was actually born in Florence.
Around 1290, Giotto married a woman named Ricevuta di Lapo del Pela. Together, they had eight children, 4 daughters and 4 sons. One of those sons would follow in his father’s footsteps to become an artist, but little else is known about his family. Giotto di Bondone died on January 8, 1337. Most sources agree that he was buried in the Florence Cathedral. This is partially due to the fact that he worked on the project, but also because he was one of the most beloved citizens of this art orientated city.
Fascinatingly, excavations in the 1970’s revealed a male skeleton near where records showed that Giotto had been buried. Forensic anthropologists were brought in and said that there was evidence in his bones that he was a painter. Not only were there traces of arsenic and lead in the bone material, but his neck showed evidence of being constantly bent down and his teeth were worn down as if he held a brush. These details make experts almost positive that this skeleton belonged to Giotto. It was moved to be placed next to another famous Florentine, Filippo Bruneleschi.
St. Francis and Stigmata
The life of St. Francis is the topic that Giotto painted the most works about. This particular painting shows the saint receiving the stigmata (the wounds that Christ endured during the Crucifixion) from an angel. St. Francis was praying for guidance on Mount Alverno when this event occurred and this literally marked him as blessed. At the bottom of the work, there are three major scenes from his life: The Dream of Pope Innocent III, The Approval of the Franciscan Rule, and St Francis Feeding the Birds. According to Girgio Vasari, it once hung in the Pisa Cathedral. But, thanks to Napoleon's looting campaign, it now hangs in the Louvre.
Giotto painted this work between 1295-1300. At this point, it was clear that Byzantine/Gothic art was on the way out and the Renaissance was on the horizon. This painting is a great example of how we can see this transition. The golden background and slightly flat figures are hallmarks of the Byzantine style. However, the expressive emotions, landscape details, and the attempt at three dimensionality are clearly attempts at the new Renaissance ideals.
About a decade after the previous piece, Giotto painted the Ognissanti Madonna. This painting is perhaps the most important of his career as it is considered to be the “first” painting of the Renaissance. In fact, it hangs in the Uffizi, a shrine to the great names of the Italian Renaissance! The Ognissanti Madonna is a fairly traditional icon. It shows the Virgin Mary and the Christ child seated on a grand throne. They are surrounded by a choir of angels and a group of Old Testament prophets. It has a similar composition to the Madonna and Child Enthroned by Giotto’s teacher, Cimabue. Giotto just took things a few steps closer to the Renaissance ideals.
The viewer can see this in the symmetrical composition, the three dimensionality and weight of Mary and Jesus’ body, and the fact that both Mary and Jesus make meaningful eye contact with the viewer. This creates an intimate connection between human and divine.
However, there are still some holdovers from the previous style. Although we have eye contact with the figures, there is still a formality to the piece between the figures. This is due to the hierarchy of scale. Mary and Jesus are, by far, the most important figures, so they take up the most space. Finally, there is the same golden background that we see in the work of St. Francis.
The final work being discussed in this post is a bit of a mysterious one. It is called “the Navicella”, Italian for “little ship” and was a mosaic in the Old St. Peter’s Basilica. This work was commissioned to celebrate the jubilee of 1300, clearly showing that Giotto was well known enough to receive such a prestigious commission. It depicts the story of Jesus walking on water, the version from the Book of St. Matthew where St. Peter is called to join Christ. Unfortunately, this piece was mostly destroyed in the 17th century renovation of the Basilica. A few pieces did survive and were incorporated into the new mosaic. Thankfully, a full size oil copy was painted, so we are able to see what the piece looked like.
Again, like the past works, this work has the Byzantine element of a golden background. However, from the drawing, we can see the dynamic movement and emotional elements that Giotto added. There is also a sense of three dimensionality to the figures, a definite Renaissance development.
Giotto di Bondone is one of the most important figures in art history. He was able to seamlessly blend elements of the past and future together, inspiring artists to try something new. This helped to usher in the Renaissance, one of the greatest periods of art.
Portrait of Giotto, c. 1490. Florentine School via CC 3.0 - Wikimedia Commons
St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata. Public Domain - Wikimedia Commons
Ognissanti Madonna. Public Domain - Wikimedia Commons
Navicella - Public Domain - Wikimedia Commons
Gardner’s Art through the Ages, 12th edition by Fred. S. Kleiner