Giotto di Bondone

Giotto di Bondone
(ca. 1266-1337)
   Florentine painter, regarded by most subsequent Renaissance artists and critics as the first great figure of "modern" (i.e., Renaissance) art. Although more recent interpreters have reservations about this view because they are aware of the similarities between his work and the medieval style of his immediate predecessors, they concede that in many respects his work points to the principal characteristics of the Renaissance art that developed in the early 15th century. Giotto was immensely famous in his own lifetime, mentioned by authors such as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. At the peak of his career the republic of Florence named him overseer of the workshop of the city's cathedral, the city's most distinguished artistic appointment, which had previously been held only by architects and sculptors. Later Renaissance historians and artists like Filippo Villani, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Giorgio Vasari regarded Giotto as the one who replaced what they regarded as the crude "Greek style" of the late 13th century with the "modern" style of their own time. Vasari in particular made canonical the opinion that Giotto's work marks the crucial turning-point in the "recovery" of the spirit of ancient art.
   Very little is known about Giotto's early life, and even the attribution of some of his famous paintings has been disputed. Nevertheless, he left behind a substantial body of work that is almost certainly his own, as well as other paintings in which the division between the master and his apprentices is not clear. A story told by Ghiberti and Vasari claims that Giotto was a peasant boy whose skill at drawing attracted the attention of the leading Florentine painter of the preceding generation, Cimabue, a master who worked in the medieval style known as maniera greca; Cimabue persuaded the youth's father to let him become an apprentice, and in time, the pupil outstripped the master. Whether the story is true or not, the influence of Cimabue's maniera greca on Giotto's paintings is evident, even though he developed far beyond that style.
   Most of Giotto's work is in the form of frescoes, wall-paintings done on wet plaster, though a small number of panel-paintings also survive, including one of his best-known, the Madonna Enthroned (ca. 1310). The main body of his work, however, is in two great cycles of fresco paintings. One is a series of 38 scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary in the Arena Chapel at Padua, done about 1306 (the most famous of these is Christ Entering Jerusalem). The second is a cycle of scenes from the life of St. Francis painted in the upper church of San Francesco in Assisi. Different historians date this cycle between the 1290s and the 1320s. Perhaps the most famous individual painting from this series is St. Francis Preaching to the Birds.
   What distinguishes Giotto from the Florentine painters who preceded him, and thus makes him a progenitor of the later Renaissance style, is a series of characteristics markedly different from medieval painting. The first of these is his simplification of traditional scenes—his paintings exclude the extraneous details that tend to clutter the work of late-medieval painters; his scenes concentrate on the essentials and skillfully focus the viewer's attention on a single theme. A second characteristic is what critics have called the "tactile values" of his pictures: the pictorial space and the figures placed within it create an illusion of three-dimensional depth as if the viewer could reach into the picture-space and touch them. Third, his paintings, while not having the sophisticated single-point perspective created by Filippo Brunelleschi and Masaccio a century later, present an illusion of three-dimensionality that gives the figures a rounded, lifelike appearance rarely found in Western painting since ancient times. This third characteristic probably reflects both the artist's familiarity with surviving works of ancient sculpture and painting and with the sculptural work of late-medieval artists like Nicola and Giovanni Pisano.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.


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