Giotto di Bondone

Giotto di Bondone
Giotto di Bondone

The early life, artistic training, and attributed works of Giotto di Bondone (commonly referred to as Giotto) are all shrouded in mystery and legend. In his Lives, Vasari provided the first biography and chronicle of the works of Giotto. Giotto was born in 1276 in the village of Vespignano outside of Florence to a farmer named Bondone.

While still a boy Giotto developed the ability, without formal training, to draw from nature using whatever material was available, such as the ground, stones, or sand. Giotto would make these drawings to pass the time while tending to his flock of sheep.

Vasari tells us that his natural talent was so great that when Cimabue spotted his works while passing through his village he immediately sought the permission of Giotto’s father to take the 10-year-old Giotto to Florence to study with Cimabue as a member of his workshop.

Giotto has received credit from art historians as being among the first to abandon the medieval artistic tradition in favor of the early development of naturalism—a style that would be fully realized during the Italian Renaissance. Giotto received praise by such luminaries as Dante Alighieri in Divine Comedy, Giovanni Boccaccio in Decameron, and Vasari for breaking from what Vasari refers to as the “crude manner of the Greeks.”

In his Lives, Vasari recounts two stories that illustrate the talent of Giotto. According to Vasari, Pope Benedict IX sent an emissary to Tuscany to see Giotto and to judge his fitness for a papal commission. The courtier asked Giotto for a small drawing to take to the pope.

Giotto, without using a compass or moving his arms, drew a perfect circle and instructed the shocked courtier to take that simple drawing back to the pope. Pope Benedict immediately recognized Giotto’s greatness and sent him papal commissions. This story is also credited with giving birth to the Italian proverb “Thou art rounder than Giotto’s circle.”

The second story recounted by Vasari supports the claim that Giotto had a great gift for naturalism. As a boy in Cimabue’s workshop, Giotto painted a fly on the nose of a figure painted by Cimabue. Upon his return to the workshop Cimabue tried to shoo the fly away before realizing that it was just a painting.

One of the earliest works successfully attributed to Giotto is the crucifix (c. 1295) of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Giotto’s crucifix followed the design seen in Cimabue’s earlier crucifix with Christ flanked by images of the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist.

Giotto deviated from Cimabue with form clearly moving toward three-dimensional in its effect. The figures are also imbued with a humanity and emotion missing from earlier works. Italian Renaissance art historian Bernard Berenson credits him with the birth of modern painting particularly with regard to the portrayal of the human form.

Throughout his career Giotto received commissions from patrons in Rome, Naples, Ravenna, and Padua. In 1305 he executed frescoes commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni for his chapel commonly known as the Arena Chapel. While the entrance wall is covered by a fresco of the Last Judgment, a popular theme in medieval Italy, the remainder of the walls are devoted to a series of frescoes illustrating scenes of the life of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ.

In these frescoes Giotto employed simple but dramatic architectural and landscape elements to focus our attention on the massive forms and the story being told. This simple, but dramatic, style would influence future fresco painters such as Michelangelo.

Art historians have long debated whether or not Giotto is responsible for the frescoes chronicling the life of St. Francis at his basilica in Assisi. As early as 1313 a chronicle written by Riccobaldo attributes the St. Francis cycle to Giotto. The attribution to Giotto was further supported in later centuries by the writings of Lorenzo Ghiberti in the 15th century and Vasari in the 16th century. In addition to painting, Giotto was also an architect and sculptor.

As an architect, he is credited with the initial design and construction of the campanile of Saint Maria del Fiore (also known as the Duomo) in Florence. Giotto’s involvement with the construction ended upon his death, and construction continued under his former student Taddeo Gaddi. Giotto died in 1336 and was buried with honors within Saint Maria del Fiore.

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