Holly has master's degrees in history and writing, as well as an extensive background in art history.
The First Renaissance Man
Two hundred years before Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci, Giotto di Bondone -- known simply as Giotto -- revolutionized Italian painting. Giotto is acclaimed as the first Renaissance painter because he created expressive, anatomically convincing figures in clearly defined three-dimensional spaces. Both his contemporaries and his successors hailed him as the man who brought about the rebirth of painting and helped make his native Florence the center of Italian art.
Very little is known for sure about the life of Giotto; this isn't surprising, considering that he lived and worked 700 years ago. At his death in 1337 he was said to be seventy years old, so his date of birth is usually given as 1266 or 1267. Vasari, a later biographer, claimed that Giotto was a shepherd boy who was discovered drawing on a rock in a field by Cimabue, the most famous painter of the previous generation. But few take this story at face value, and nothing is really known of Giotto's background or training.
What we do know is that he rose to the top of his profession, completing numerous commissions in his native Florence, as well as elsewhere in Italy, and possibly as far away as France. Unfortunately, much of his work has not survived. He was also a well-known personality in the Florence of his day, a friend of the writer Boccaccio, suggesting that top artists, at least, were seen as something more than simple craftsmen. Giotto also mastered architecture, designing a campanile, or bell tower, for the duomo (cathedral) of Florence; while the plans were later altered, the structure is still known as Giotto's Campanile.
Before Giotto, the most powerful influence on Italian painting was the Byzantine, or 'Greek', tradition of flat, stylized, religious imagery, seen in the icons of the Orthodox Church. Giotto moved away from the so-called Italo-Byzantine tradition, reintroducing observation from nature and the illusion of three dimensions.
Before looking more closely at Giotto's surviving work, it's helpful to remember that, in his day, paintings were not created simply as objects of beauty. They were made first and foremost to aid people in their religious devotions, helping them to visualize holy figures -- Christ, the Virgin Mary, the saints -- and learn the stories of their lives. Paintings of secular subjects did not become common for another century or so, and all of Giotto's surviving works have Christian subject matter.
Giotto's ties to the Italo-Byzantine past are most evident in his surviving panel paintings. Canvas as a painting surface was not yet known, nor had oil paints been invented. Free-standing paintings (as opposed to frescoes) were painted on wooden panels using tempera (ground pigments mixed with egg yolk). The ground of the painting was covered in gold leaf, a clear link to the panel painting's origin as a precious religious icon.
Giotto's surviving panel paintings are mostly images of the Crucifixion or the Madonna and child, often flanked by saints. Most would have been used as altarpieces; depending on how many panels it included, an altarpiece may be called a diptych (two panels), a triptych, (three panels), or a polyptych (many panels).
Giotto's paintings differ most from the work of his contemporaries in his handling of space and of the human body. As seen in his in Ognissanti Madonna, Giotto's simple yet monumental figures appear to occupy three dimensions in a physically and psychologically convincing way. Despite the gold backgrounds and formalized symbolism, Giotto's paintings represent the first phase of the Italian Renaissance.
Giotto's greatest achievements were in the medium of fresco, or wall painting. Like his panel paintings, these served religious purposes, covering the walls of chapels and other places of worship. Their larger size meant greater complexity; Renaissance frescoes often depicted entire cycles of stories, each frame telling one part of a larger story, like a chapter in a book.
Frescoes did not require gold backgrounds, so Giotto experimented with more naturalistic settings. Buon fresco, or true fresco, involves painting directly onto wet plaster, so the paint soaks in and the image becomes part of the wall itself.
The most important of Giotto's surviving works are the frescoes he created for a small church in Padua known as the Arena Chapel or the Scrovegni Chapel (after the donor who commissioned the work). They depict the life of the Virgin Mary and the life of Christ. Giotto's figures are both expressive and monumental, their bodies understood as interconnected wholes. They convey emotion through their body language, even their backs.
Compositional devices, such as the torches held by spectators in the scene of Judas kissing Christ, heighten the drama. Symbolism and naturalism combine -- the boys in the trees in the scene of Christ's entry into Jerusalem are gathering palms, but their poses subtly foreshadow the Crucifixion.
Other important frescoes by Giotto include a cycle depicting the life of St. Francis in the Bardi Chapel, part of the church of Santa Croce in Florence. The image of St. Francis falling to one knee as he receives the stigmata perfectly exemplifies Giotto's handling of the human figure.
Santa Croce also contains the Peruzzi Chapel, in which Giotto painted the lives of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist. Tradition also attributes the frescoes at Assissi depicting the life of St. Francis to Giotto, but later art historians have questioned this, and the authorship of the Assissi frescoes continues to divide scholars.
Giotto's realism marked his work as something new in Italian painting. Later artists and writers celebrated him as the man who blazed a path for figures like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. While he created art for the purpose of religious devotion, Giotto made the direct observation of nature a central feature of the Italian Renaissance.
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