Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Giotto di Bondone

“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.”
- Dante Alighieri. Purgatory, Divine Comedy (1310-20)

Statua di Giotto by Giovanni Dupré, 1845.

            Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337), a very talented painter, architect, and sculptor from Florence, is considered one of the most prominent figures in Italian Renaissance Art. As revealed in the opening quote, the legendary story says that Cimabue – the revolutionary leader of the artistic movement – discovered the 12-year-old Giotto who was sketching one of his father’s sheep on the rock and eagerly adopted him as a pupil.

The Navicella by Giotto, 1298

            The legend behind the veil of his talents continues – when Giotto was asked to present a sample of his work to Pope Boniface VIII before receiving the commission for St. Peter’s Basilica, he simply took out his brush and drew the Perfect Circle. Upon viewing this flawless work, the Pope instantly approved of his talents. The mosaic of Navicella, an Italian term for “small ship,” depicts St. Peter walking on the Sea of Galilee.

Frescoes in Cappella Scrovegni by Giotto, 1306

            Another impressive work of Giotto is a series of 38 frescoes – paintings done on the walls or ceilings rapidly, so that the watercolors become semi-permanently fixed to the plaster – in Arena Chapel in Padua. These frescoes as a whole capture the story of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Coming from my personal experience (this past summer’s trip to Italy), walking down the chapel was such a magnificent experience; the holistic view and the overwhelming atmosphere seep into every sense of the viewer, as if he is witnessing the biblical scenes himself. Learning about the nature of frescoes – that Giotto was pressed for time when creating this work – adds to the amazement.

Lamentation by Giotto, 1306

            One of Giotto’s 38 frescoes in the Scrovegni is Lamentation – mourning the death of Jesus Christ. What was especially striking in the Middle Ages is that Giotto broke away from his contemporary way of portraying anatomically accurate human bodies. Instead of displaying such factual acuity, Giotto’s works are appealing to human emotions. The smooth combination of pastel colors and rich facial expressions are essential in creating that sensation. Occlusion and perspective are used to convey a sense of depth. The halos around the heads of these biblical figures remind the viewers of the nature of the paintings.

Crucifixion by Giotto, 1306

“Giotto translated the art of painting from Greek to Latin.”
-       Cennino Cennini, 1400

Because the majority of Giotto’s work was commissioned by the wealthy individuals – considering the time period, the Church – his paintings have overarching religious themes and symbols. Not only Giotto’s innovative style contributed to the Catholic art in the successive periods, but also it also heavily influenced later Florentine paintings. Also, his sense of naturalism that does not require factual acuity was groundbreaking to his contemporaries, who followed the Greek models of hypermasculinity. Even far after the decline of International Gothic, Giotto’s influence is evident in other renowned artists, such as Masaccio and Michelangelo. Because of his distinctive and unique style that no one else could replicate, Giotto was able to establish such enduring fame and reverence – even without ever having to put a signature on his works!


Pioch, Nicholas.
            WebMuseum, Paris. Giotto de Bondone: July 27, 2002.
Girardi, Monica.
            Giotto the Founder of Renaissance Art – His Life in Paintings. 1999.
Krén, Emil and Daniel Marx.
            Web Gallery of Art. Frescoes in the Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua
St.Peter’s Basilica Official Website:

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