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Giotto di Bondone

(c. 1267—1337) Italian painter


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(b ?Colle di Vespignano, nr. Florence, c.1270; d Florence, 8 Jan. 1337).

Florentine painter and architect. Giotto is regarded as the founder of the central tradition of Western painting because his work broke away decisively from the stylizations of Byzantine art, introducing new ideals of naturalism and creating a convincing sense of pictorial space. His momentous achievement was recognized by his contemporaries (Dante praised him in a famous passage of The Divine Comedy, saying he had surpassed his master Cimabue), and to succeeding generations it was clear that a new artistic era began with him: in about 1400 Cennino Cennini wrote that ‘Giotto translated the art of painting from Greek into Latin and made it modern.’ He was the first artist since antiquity to achieve widespread fame, the demand for his services coming from all over Italy: early sources suggest that he worked in Assisi, Bologna, Ferrara, Lucca, Milan, Naples, Padua, Ravenna, Rimini, Rome, Urbino, and Verona, as well as Florence, and according to Vasari he also visited Avignon in France, where he is said to have carried out commissions for Pope Clement V (reigned 1305–14). However, these early references tend to be frustratingly vague, many of the works they refer to are unidentifiable or have been destroyed, and no surviving painting can be given to Giotto on the basis of unimpeachable contemporary documentation. His work, indeed, poses some formidable problems of attribution, but it is universally agreed that the fresco cycle in the Arena Chapel at Padua is by him (he is credited with it in two separate literary references dating from c.1313), and it forms the starting point for any consideration of his work. The Arena Chapel (so-called because it occupies the site of a Roman arena) was built by Enrico Scrovegni (see donor), one of Padua's leading citizens, in expiation for the sins of his father, a notorious usurer mentioned by Dante. It was begun in 1303 and Giotto's frescos are usually dated c.1303–6. They run right round the interior of the chapel, which is virtually devoid of architectural ornament and clearly was conceived with painted decoration in mind (Giotto himself may well have been involved in the design of the building): the west wall is covered with a Last Judgement, there is an Annunciation over the chancel arch, and the main wall areas have three tiers of paintings representing scenes from the life of the Virgin and her parents, St Anne and St Joachim, and events from the ministry and Passion of Christ. Below these scenes are figures personifying Virtues and Vices, painted to simulate stone reliefs—the first grisailles. The figures in the main narrative scenes are about half life-size, but from reproductions it is easy to imagine they are much bigger, because Giotto's conception is so grand and powerful. His figures have a totally new sense of three-dimensionality and physical presence, and in portraying the sacred events he creates a feeling of moral weight rather than divine splendour. He seems to base the scenes on personal experience, and no artist has surpassed his ability to go straight to the heart of a story and express its essence with gestures and expressions of unerring conviction.

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Subjects: Art.


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