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Giotto (Giotto di Bondone1)
1267? - January 8, 1337
Part 2 of 6: Paintings
In this division of opinion it is safer to regard the revival of painting in Giotto's hands simply as part of the general awakening of the time, and to remember that, as of all Italian communities Florence was the keenest in every form of activity both intellectual and practical, so it was natural that a son of Florence should be the chief agent in such an awakening. And in considering his career the question of his possible participation in the primitive frescoes of the upper courses at Assisi is best left out of account, the more so because of the deplorable condition in which they now exist. But with reference to the lowest course of paintings on the same walls, those illustrating the life of St Francis according to the narrative of St Bonaventura, no one has any doubt, at least in regard to nineteen or twenty of the twenty-eight subjects which compose the series, that Giotto himself was their designer and chief executant. In these, sadly as they too have suffered from time and wholesale repair, there can nevertheless be discerned the unmistakable spirit of the young Florentine master as we know him in his other works - his shrewd realistic and dramatic vigour, the deep sincerity and humanity of feeling which he knows how to express in every gesture of his figures without breaking up the harmony of their grouping or the grandeur of their linear design, qualities inherited from the earlier schools of impressive but lifeless hieratic decoration. The "Renunciation of the Saint by his Father," the "Pope's Dream of the Saint upholding the tottering Church," the "Saint before the Sultan," the "Miracle of the Spring of Water," the "Death of the Nobleman of Celano," the "Saint preaching before Pope Honorius" - these are some of the most noted and best preserved examples of the painter's power in this series. Where doubt begins again is as to the relations of date and sequence which the series bears to other works by the master executed at Assisi and at Rome in the same early period of his career, that is, probably between 1295 and 1300. Giotto's remaining undisputed works at Assisi are the four celebrated allegorical compositions in honour of St Francis in the vaulting of the Lower Church, - the "Marriage of St Francis to Poverty," the "Allegory of Chastity," the "Allegory of Obedience"' and the "Vision of St Francis in Glory." These works are scarcely at all retouched, and relatively little dimmed by time; they are of a singular beauty, at once severe and tender, both in colour and design; the compositions, especially the first three, fitted with admirable art into the cramped spaces of the vaulting, the subjects, no doubt in the main dictated to the artist by his Franciscan employers, treated in no cold or mechanical spirit but with a full measure of vital humanity and original feeling. Had the career and influence of St Francis had no other of their vast and far-reaching effects in the world than that of inspiring these noble works of art, they would still have been entitled to no small gratitude from mankind. Other works at Assisi which most modern critics, but not all, attribute to Giotto himself are three miracles of St Francis and portions of a group of frescoes illustrating the history of Mary Magdalene, both in the Lower Church; and again, in one of the transepts of the same Lower Church, a series of ten frescoes of the Life of the Virgin and Christ, concluding with the Crucifixion. It is to be remarked as to this transept series that several of the frescoes present not only the same subjects, but with a certain degree of variation the same compositions, as are found in the master's great series executed in the Arena chapel at Padua in the fullness of his powers about 1306; and that the versions in the Assisi transept show a relatively greater degree of technical accomplishment than the Paduan versions, with a more attractive charm and more abundance of accessory ornament, but a proportionately less degree of that simple grandeur in composition and direct strength of human motive which are the special notes of Giotto's style. Therefore a minority of critics refuse to accept the modern attribution of this transept series to Giotto himself, and see in it later work by an accomplished pupil softening and refining upon his master's original creations at Padua. Others, insisting that these unquestionably beautiful works must be by the hand of Giotto and none but Giotto, maintain that in comparison with the Paduan examples they illustrate a gradual progress, which can be traced in other of his extant works, from the relatively ornate and soft to the austerely grand and simple. This argument is enforced by comparison with early work of the master's at Rome as to the date of which we have positive evidence. In 1298 Giotto completed for Cardinal Stefaneschi for the price of 2200 gold ducats a mosaic of Christ saving St Peter from the waves (the celebrated "Navicella"); this is still to be seen, but in a completely restored and transformed state, in the vestibule of St Peter's. For the same patron he executed, probably just before the "Navicella," an elaborate ciborium or altar-piece for the high altar of St Peter's, for which he received 8oo ducats. It represents on the principal face a colossal Christ enthroned with adoring angels beside him and a kneeling donor at his feet, and the martyrdoms of St Peter and St Paul on separate panels to right and left; on the reverse is St Peter attended by St George and other saints, receiving from the donor a model of his gift, with stately full-length figures of two apostles to right and two to left, besides various accessory scenes and figures in the predellas and the margins. The separated parts of this altar-piece are still to be seen, in a quite genuine though somewhat tarnished condition, in the sacristy of St Peter's. A third work by the master at Rome is a repainted fragment at the Lateran of a fresco of Pope Boniface VIII. proclaiming the jubilee of 1300. The "Navicella" and the Lateran fragment are too much ruined to argue from; but the ciborium panels, it is contended, combine with the aspects of majesty and strength a quality of ornate charm and suavity such as is remarked in the transept frescoes of Assisi. The sequence proposed for these several works is accordingly, first the St Peter's ciborium, next the allegories in the vaulting of the Lower Church, next the three frescoes of St Francis' miracles in the north transept, next the St Francis series in the Upper Church; and last, perhaps after an interval and with the help of pupils, the scenes from the life of Mary Magdalene in her chapel in the Lower Church. This involves a complete reversal of the prevailing view, which regards the unequal and sometimes clumsy compositions of this St Francis series as the earliest independent work of the master. It must be admitted that there is something paradoxical in the idea of a progress from the manner of the Lower Church transept series of the life of Christ to the much ruder manner of the Upper Church series of St Francis.
A kindred obscurity and little less conflict of opinion await the inquirer at almost all stages of Giotto's career. In 1841 there were partially recovered from the whitewash that had overlain them a series of frescoes executed in the chapel of the Magdalene, in the Bargello or Palace of the Podestà at Florence, to celebrate (as was supposed) a pacification between the Black and White parties in the state effected by the Cardinal d'Acquasparta as delegate of the pope in 1302. In them are depicted a series of Bible scenes, besides great compositions of Hell and Paradise, and in the Paradise are introduced portraits of Dante, Brunetto Latini and Corso Donato. These recovered fragments, freely "restored" as soon as they were disclosed, were acclaimed as the work of Giotto and long held in especial regard for the sake of the portrait of Dante. Latterly it has been shown that if Giotto ever executed them at all, which is doubtful, it must have been at a later date than the supposed pacification, and that they must have suffered grievous injury in the fire which destroyed a great part of the building in 1332, and been afterwards repainted by some well-trained follower of the school. To about 1302 or 1303 would belong, if there is truth in it, the familiar story of Giotto's O. Pope Benedict XI., the successor of Boniface VIII., sent, as the tale runs, a messenger to bring him proofs of the painter's powers. Giotto would give no other sample of his talent than an 0 drawn with a free sweep of the brush from the elbow; but the pope was satisfied and engaged him at a great salary to go and adorn with frescoes the papal residence at Avignon. Benedict, however, dying at this time (1305), nothing came of this commission; and the remains of Italian 14th-century frescoes still to be seen at Avignon are now recognized as the work, not, as was long supposed, of Giotto, but of the Sienese Simone Martini and his school.
Part 3: Frescoes
1 Not to be confused with Giotto di Buondone, a contemporary citizen and politician of Siena.
This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
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