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  • Giotto (Giotto di Bondone1)
    1267? - January 8, 1337
    Part 3 of 6: Frescoes

    At this point in Giotto's life we come to the greatest by far of his undestroyed and undisputed enterprises, and one which can with some certainty be dated. This is the series of frescoes with which he decorated the entire internal walls of the chapel built at Padua in honour of the Virgin of the Annunciation by a rich citizen of the town, Enrico Scrovegni, perhaps in order to atone for the sins of his father, a notorious usurer whom Dante places in the seventh circle of hell. The building is on the site of an ancient amphitheatre, and is therefore generally called the chapel of the Arena. Since it is recorded that Dante was Giotto's guest at Padua, and since we know that it was in 1306 that the poet came from Bologna to that city, we may conclude that to the same year, 1306, belongs the beginning of Giotto's great undertaking in the Arena chapel. The scheme includes a Saviour in Glory over the altar, a Last Judgment, full of various and impressive incident, occupying the whole of the entrance wall, with a series of subjects from the Old and New Testament and the apocryphal Life of Christ painted in three tiers on either side wall, and lowest of all a fourth tier with emblematic Virtues and Vices in monochrome; the Virtues being on the side of the chapel next the incidents of redemption in the entrance fresco of the Last Judgment, the Vices on the side next the incidents of perdition. A not improbable tradition asserts that Giotto was helped by Dante in the choice and disposition of the subjects. The frescoes, though not free from injury and retouching, are upon the whole in good condition, and nowhere else can the highest powers of the Italian mind and hand at the beginning of the 14th century be so well studied as here. At the close of the middle ages we find Giotto laying the foundation upon which all the progress of the Renaissance was afterwards securely based. In his day the knowledge possessed by painters of the human frame and its structure rested only upon general observation and not upon detailed or scientific study; while to facts other than those of humanity their observation had never been closely directed. Of linear perspective they possessed but elementary and empirical ideas, and their endeavours to express aerial perspective and deal with the problems of light and shade were rare and partial. As far as painting could possibly be carried under these conditions, it was carried by Giotto. In its choice of subjects, his art is entirely subservient to the religious spirit of his age. Even in its mode of conceiving and arranging those subjects it is in part still trammelled by the rules and consecrated traditions of the past. Many of those truths of nature to which the painters of succeeding generations learned to give accurate and complete expression, Giotto was only able to express by way of imperfect symbol and suggestion. But among the elements of art over which he has control he maintains so just a balance that his work produces in the spectator less sense of imperfection than that of many later and more accomplished masters. In some particulars his mature painting, as we see it in the Arena chapel, has never been surpassed - in mastery of concise and expressive generalized line and of inventive and harmonious decorative tint; in the judicious division of the field and massing and scattering of groups; in the combination of high gravity with complete frankness in conception, and the union of noble dignity in the types with direct and vital truth in the gestures of the personages.

    The frescoes of the Arena chapel must have been a labour of years, and of the date of their termination we have no proof. Of many other works said to have been executed by Giotto at Padua, all that remains consists of some scarce recognizable traces in the chapter-house of the great Franciscan church of St Antonio. For twenty years or more we lose all authentic data as to Giotto's doings and movements. Vasari, indeed, sends him on a giddy but in the main evidently fabulous round of travels, including a sojourn in France, which it is certain he never made. Besides Padua, he is said to have resided and left great works at Ferrara, Ravenna, Urbino, Rimini, Faenza, Lucca and other cities; in some of them paintings of his school are still shown, but nothing which can fairly be claimed to be by his hand. It is recorded also that he was much employed in his native city of Florence; but the vandalism of later generations has effaced nearly all that he did there. Among works whitewashed over by posterity were the frescoes with which he covered no less than five chapels in the church of Santa Croce. Two of these, the chapels of the Bardi and the Peruzzi families, were scraped in the early part of the 19th century, and very important remains were uncovered and immediately subjected to a process of restoration which has robbed them of half their authenticity. But through the ruins of time we can trace in some of these Santa Croce frescoes all the qualities of Giotto's work at an even higher and more mature development than in the best examples at Assisi or Padua. The frescoes of the Bardi chapel tell again the story of St Francis, to which so much of his best power had already been devoted; those of the Peruzzi chapel deal with the lives of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist. Such scenes as the Funeral of St Francis, the Dance of Herodias's Daughter, and the Resurrection of St John the Evangelist, which have to some extent escaped the disfigurements of the restorer, are among acknowledged classics of the world's art. The only clues to the dates of any of these works are to be found in the facts that among the figures in the Bardi chapel occurs that of St Louis of Toulouse, who was not canonized till 1317, therefore the painting must be subsequent to that year, and that the "Dance of Salome" must have been painted before 1331, when it was copied by the Lorenzetti at Siena. The only other extant works of Giotto at Florence are a fine "Crucifix," not undisputed, at San Marco, and the majestic but somewhat heavy altar-piece of the Madonna, probably an early work, which is placed in the Academy beside a more primitive Madonna supposed to be the work of Cimabue.

    Part 4: Later Years

    In this biography:
    Part 1: Early Years
    Part 2: Paintings
    Part 3: Frescoes
    Part 4: Later Years
    Part 5: Successors
    Part 6: Related Articles, Sites, etc.

    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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