Gitto di Bondone is one of the greatest Protorenaissance masters, prominent innovator of Italian painting. Preserving many signs of Gothic art, he was the first one to step towards three-dimensional depiction of space. His pieces bear the first slight signs of emerging naturalism in art.
Very few trustworthy historical sources on Giotto’s life exist; the lack of information led to enveloping his early years with surmises and myths. According to the most common notion, the future artist was born near Colle Vespignano in Tuscany in a peasant family. Some scientists, however, stick to the version of his Florentine origin: his father is thought to be a blacksmith, who lived in the Santa Maria Novella quarter.
In his Lives of the Artists Vasari retells the following legend: once little Giotto, while tending sheep, was drawing on a stone to entertain himself. Cimabue was passing by and saw the boy. Stricken with his talent, the painter took Giotto as his apprentice. Another story exists: Bondone, Giotto’s father, insisted him to be an apprentice for a wool merchant; but the boy was often slipping away to the workshops of local painters, until Cimabue convinced his parent not to impede the artistic inclinations of his son. As we see, both versions claim Cimabue to be Giotto’s teacher, though some biographers doubt about it.
German art historian Heinrich Thode introduced Franciscan myth about Giotto. Thode believed the painter’s art was affected by philosophy of Francesco d’Assisi, with his ideas about Nature and theory of inner contemplation, which allows creating powerful connection between individual and God. But recent researches proved that, unlike his friend Dante, Giotto wasn’t an adherent of Franciscan concepts, though he is known to have created several cycles about the life of “poverello” (as they used to call this saint). Giotto even wrote a poetry “Canzone. Of the Doctrine of Voluntary Poverty”, where he spoke against it, talking in a practical and humorous tone.
Specialists kept on searching for the roots of his legacy and suggested theory of Gothic influence, according to which Giotto was the greatest Gothic artist, who depicts one of the main ethic subjects of Gothic culture in his murals – particularly psychomachia (the battle of the soul). But in Gothic cathedrals all scenes of that kind are more epic narratives than individual dramas. Though Gothic impact in the master’s heritage is undeniable, the only rational idea of the theory concerns the fact that Giotto absorbed the formal side of the style indirectly, mainly from his predecessors Niccolo and Giovanni Pisano, who interpreted and developed attainments of then-contemporary French art. But even in their most gothic compositions their works are very close to classicistic language. So a new theory that could explain Giotto’s art was needed.
Doubtlessly, all above-mentioned aspects played their role in the development of the master’s style, but the crucial part belongs to the Roman painting and Pietro Cavallini above all. The latter’s works are similar to Giotto’s in the manner of depicting of human figures. For proving the theory we have to presume Giotto spent his young years in Rome; however, if it’s true, then his authorship or the dating of the Assisi frescoes are called into question. So, very soon art historians started claiming it was Cimabue, who has attended Rome and passed his knowledge afterwards to his pupil. It seems to be the most plausible version – it clarifies somehow Giotto’s artistic evolution, yet doesn’t clarify the reasons of general opposition to Byzantinism in Italian culture of that time.
Around 1288 the mural paintings in the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi were started. The question about participation of young Giotto di Bondone in working over them still remains opened. One of the assumptions identifies him with Isaac Master, named so after two frescoes Isaac and Jacob’s story, which stands out by their artistic quality among the paintings in San Francesco. It was Vasari, who ascribed the authorship of the images in the Upper Church to Giotto, commissioned by Giovanni Morovalle. The Crucifix in Santa Maria Novella Church and Madonna in San Giorgio alla Costa di Giotto is dated the same period.
In 1300, when Pope Boniface VIII proclaimed the first Jubliee year (a special year of remission of sins and universal pardon in Christianity), Giotto, according to some evidence, left for Rome, where completed a mosaic of Christ saving St. Peter from the waves, known as Navicella, and the fresco fragment of Boniface VIII Proclaiming the Jubilee in San Giovanni in Laterano.
The first and the most significant piece of Giotto that has survived till nowadays is a large cycle of mural paintings in the Scrovegni chapel in Padua (circ. 1305 – 1308). Its building was financed by a wealthy local money-lander Enrico Scrovegni. The chapel is located where the arena of ancient roman amphitheater once was (some ruins are visible there even today); hence it got its second name – the Arena Chapel. Despite of the comparatively small, elongated and rectangular-shaped space it strikes with the amount of light and expanse. Not in the last turn such impression is created due to Giotto’s frescoes with their intensive coloring and lucidity of forms. Figures, painted in yellow, rose and green hues, stand out on cold-blue background. The images are dedicated to life of the Virgin and Christ. Scene of the Last Judgment is placed on the wall by the entrance and the Annunciation episode is depicted on the opposite side.
The second cycle of frescos attributed to Giotto isn’t so numerous. These are paintings of two small Chapels (circ. 1318 – 1325) that once belonged to noble Florentine families Bardi and Peruzzi. They’re situated in one of the biggest Florentine churches – Basilica of Santa Croce. The murals were repainted in the 18th cent. and cleared up in a century. They were badly damaged by regular floods of the Arno river, as the low-located quarter of the basilica is inundated up to 6 m. The scenes in the Bardi Chapel is dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, and in the Peruzzi Chapel – to John the Baptist.
These frescoes are less expressive in comparison to those in Padua, looking more coldish and realistic. At the same time, the artist successfully finds solutions for more complicated compositions. All paintings are placed in three registers on the walls; each wall has only one image of wall-length in each register. Architecture serves for the arrangement of the space: each mural has one, strictly symmetrical building in the foreground that adds orderliness to the image, organized according to the laws of antique perspective.
Giotto is also credited to be the author of several altarpieces, among which the most authentic one is Madonna and Child Enthroned, made for the Ognissanti church in Florence (circ. 1410). Hieratical and exalted scenes of the Heavens, typical for Madonnas of Duecento, was there replaced with the humane image of Mother with an open look and a subtle smile, whereas Madonnas of previous centuries were rather estranged and melancholic. Her earthly-like appearance is created by rather massive body that contrasts with delicate architectural details of the throne.
In 1320 Giotto appeared in the list of Arte dei medici e degli speziali guild, where painters were also accepted.
In 1328 – 1333 Giotto di Bondone worked together with some apprentices for the Angevin court in Naples. He was commissioned to create frescoes for the Palatine Chapel (or Chapel of Santa Barbara) and the main hall of the palace. His work was so praised, that the artist was designated the title of familiaris. Afterwards Giotto was invited to Bologna, but the murals there are now completely destroyed. The same destiny befell the paintings of the Visconti residence in Milan he made in 1337. It’s only known that they contained portraits of the prominent rulers of the ancient world.
Giotto followed the direction towards the new forms of synthesis of painting and architecture. Scenes in the Padua chapels, The Ognissanti Madonna and Florentine murals mark the stages of his evolution as a monumental painter. The logic of that development logically led him to the architectural practice, which finalized his career.
Soon after returning from Naples to Florence in 1334, upon the death of Arnolfo di Cambio Giotto was appointed chief architect of the cathedral in Florence. He also designed a famous for its beauty bell tower of Santa Maria del Fiore, or Campanile. Though that fact is often considered doubtful, but its gothic decoration is still defined by clear partition and rhythmic concordance of all parts. Giotto lived to see only its first floor. After his death the construction of the tower was entrusted to Andrea Pisano, who headed it in 1337 – 134, and was finalized in 1359 by one of the prominent architects of Florence Francesco Talenti, who completed the contemporary appearance of Campanile.
After returning from Milano, Giotto died on January 8, 1337 in Florence.
Giotto’s art impressed his contemporaries and their decedents. Dante haughtily compared the place he occupied in literature with Giotto’s place in painting. Historian Giovanni Villani called him “”the most sovereign master of painting in his time, who drew all his figures and their postures according to nature.” The artist’s heritage defined the development of the whole Florentine painting of Quattrocento and greatly influenced other Italian schools of that time. Many generations of the Florentine masters gather in the Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels, copying images and discussing artistic issues. One of their frequent visitors in the end of the 15th cent. was young Michelangelo Buonarotti.