The Hero’s Journey of Giotto

The first Western artist to bring painted Christian archetypes to life was also the first to be brought to life by his admirers. Giotto di Bondone (1267? – 1337) was a legend in his own time. A young man of 24 when Giotto died, Boccaccio featured him in a story in the Decameron. “Giotto was a man of such a genius that there was nothing in Nature …. that he could not paint with his stylus, pen or brush, making it so much like its original in Nature that it seemed more like the original than a reproduction. Many times, in fact, while looking at paintings by this man, the observer’s visual sense was known to err, taking what was painted to be the very thing itself”.

In his “Purgatory,” Dante, Giotto’s contemporary, meets those suffering from the endemic sin of artists:

O gifted men, vainglorious for first place, how short a time the laurel crown stays green unless the age that follows lacks all grace!

Once Cimabue thought to hold the field in painting, and now Giotto has the cry so that the other’s fame, grown dim, must yield.

(Translated by John Ciardi)

It is not surprising that Dante’s praise for Giotto was so grudging. He must have envied the artist newcomer who had been acclaimed in the native Florence from which Dante had been so early and so unjustly exiled.

Giotto’s phenomenal native talent was still celebrated in the sixteenth century by Vasari, the biographer of Renaissance artists. One day in the late thirteenth century, he reports, as Cimabue, the master painter of Florence passed on the road to nearby Vespignano he was surprised to find a young shepherd “portraying a sheep from nature on a flat and polished slab, with a stone slightly pointed, without having learnt any method of doing this from others, but only from nature.” This was the boy Giotto. Not one to hesitate, “Cimabue, standing fast all in a marvel, asked him if he wished to go to live with him. The child answered that, his father consenting, he would go willingly”. When Giotto’s father “lovingly” consented, the boy accompanied Cimabue to Florence, and “in a short time, assisted by nature and taught by Cimabue, the child not only equaled the manner of his master, but became so good an imitator of nature that he revived the modern and good art of painting, in producing the portraying well from nature of living people, which had not been used for more than two hundred years.”

A young immigrant to the city, Giotto throughout his life prospered from the good opinion and the profitable commissions of the rich and famous. And one of his first important commissions was the chapel for the family of the notorious Paduan usurer Scrovegni, whom Dante consigned to the burning sands of the seventh level of Hell. On that chapel Giotto spent two years and there left some of his best work. We know of no occasion when Giotto refused to profit by embellishing his own adopted city or any others that could pay his price. The nostalgic Dante stood for old-village virtues, while Giotto prospered with the growing commercial metropolis. Himself reputed to be a usurer, Giotto hired out looms to weavers and sued debtors if they did not repay him promptly and with interest. He served the Bardi and Peruzzi, powerful bankers of Florence, moneylenders to the pope and the king of England; he worked for the Visconti of Milan and embraced the patronage of Robert of Anjou, king of Naples.

Giotto’s confidence in his talent was proverbial. When Pope Boniface VIII wanted some pictures painted for St Peter’s Vasari recounts, he sent a courtier to Florence “to see what sort of man was Giotto”. Since artists in Siena had already supplied samples of their work, the courtier asked Giotto for “some little drawing, to the end that he might send it to His Holiness.”

“Giotto, who was most courteous, took a paper, and on that, with a brush dipped in red, holding his arm fast against his side in order to make a compass, with a turn of the hand he made a circle, so true in proportion and circumference that to behold it was a marvel. This done, he smiled and said to the courtier: “Here is your drawing.” He, thinking he as being derided, said: “Am I to have no other drawing but this?” “Tis enough and to spare,” answered Giotto “send it, together with the others and you will see if it will be recognized.” The envoy, seeing that he would get nothing else, left him very ill-satisfied and doubting that he had been fooled. (translated by Gaston du C. de Vere)

Giotto’s tour de talent won the pope’s commission and “there was born from it the proverb that is still wont to be said to men of gross wits: Thou art rounder than Giotto’s circle!”. Called to Rome, Giotto painted five scenes from the life of Christ from the apse of St Peter’s and the chief panel in the sacristy. The pope was so well pleased that he gave Giotto six hundred ducats of gold. “besides granting him so many favors that they were talked of throughout all Italy.”

While the facts of Giotto’s life are overcast with legend, there is no doubt of his role as a creator of modern painting. He transformed schematic religious symbols into warm living figures and so showed the way for creating human figures that transcended religion. The art of painting in the West followed his pioneer efforts to humanize the lore of Christianity, to make religion real. The image of nature would come later. But Christianity provided the first storytelling arena and the drama where Western artists brought the visible world to life.

In Florence Giotto applied his talents to the familiar Christian stories, but he did not allow himself to be imprisoned in the familiar ways of treating them. The novelty of his way of painting at once attracted disciples. Among them was Cennino Cennini whose influential Libro dell’arte one of the first treatises on art to discuss the proportions of man, defined the new tradition of Giotto. Now at last he declared, painting “justly deserves to be enthroned next to theory, and to be crowned with poetry.” For “an occupation known as painting … calls for imagination, and skill of hand, in order to discover things not seen, hiding themselves nder the shadow of natural objects, and to fix them with the hand, presenting to plain sight what does not actually exist.”

A century after his death Giotto was already recognized as a one-man Renaissance. Lorenzo Ghiberti recounted:

“Giotto saw in art what others had not attained. He brought the natural art and refinement with it, not departing from the proportions. He was extremely skillful in all the arts and was the inventor and discoverer of many methods which had been buried for about six hundred years. When nature wishes to grant anything she does so without avarice. He was prolific in all methods, in fresco on walls, in oil, and on panels. … ” (translated by Elizabeth Gilmore Holt).

Bold in his manner, Giotto was comfortingly familiar in his matter. He painted only Christian subjects, but impressed his viewers by saying something new in an old vocabulary. Even the casual student can sense this in the grandeur, bulk and depth of his Virgin in Majesty, still among the first paintings to greet the visitor to the Uffizi in Florence. With Gothic liberation he refreshed the central figures of Christian iconography.

Giotto’s fame as an artist was recognized by his fellow citizens of Florence in 1334, when they named him capomaestro, or surveyor, of their cathedral and architect to the city. He showed the versatility expected of artists of his age when, a few months later, he began building the bell tower beside the cathedral, which was finished only after his death.