Giotto di Bondone 1266-1337 BACK

Giotto was the king of the proto-renaissance, he was the man who invented modern painting. He was a child prodigy and as the story goes he was discovered by his teacher while tending sheep and doodling realistic scenes on a rock. He was a keen entrepreneur and cornered the market on pigs' bristles and made fabulous brushes that made him rich. His two best known works are the frescoes in the church of St Francis in Assisi and the Arena Chapel in Padua. His figures show a awesome sense of place, a tangible three dimensionality, and express emotions. The Arena Chapel is one of the top five works in the western world.

An excerpt from Giotto: The Arena Chapel Frescoes
by James Stubblebine

One aspect of Giotto's genius is, as we have already observed, his ability to suggest different types of people and even their conditions in life. A good example of this is the youngest of the three Magi in The Adoration of the Magi, a figure which embodies youth, beauty, and regality. His figure is ramrod straight; the simple robe has folds as carved and regular as the flutes of a column. Like Piero della Francesca in a later age, Giotto assimilates such a figure to an abstract, geometric form-a way of idealizing the young king and lifting him above the common man. In contrast, the groom just behind him, in an ill-fitting costume, is shown in a foreshortened view, more realistic and more mobile-all this because he represents a servant type. An even greater contrast to the young Magus is afforded by the two shepherds in the preceding scene of The Nativity: their shifting gait, irregular hems, hunched-over shoulders, and the entire stance of these figures is at a far remove from the proud, elegant perfection of the young Magus.

Or again, Giotto can convey something very different in his treatment of the figure, as in The Betrothal of the Virgin . Perhaps the single most enchanting figure in the Arena Chapel is the Virgin in this scene. Demure yet smiling, she exudes a glow universally recognized as the particular quality of a bride. All this is confirmed by the harmonious lines of her white gown falling in a graceful train behind her. This lyrical mood persists in the representation of the Virgin in the next scene, The Return Home. Here again the beauty of the figure depends to a great extent on the flowing rhythms of the gown, enhanced now by the delicate sway of the Virgin as she moves along to the tune of the musicians and daintily lifts the drapery in front.

The composition of The Betrothal-with the cluster of rejected suitors at the left and the grouping around the Virgin on the rightinvolves the important artistic principle of isocephaly, that is, of all heads being on the same level. An indispensable device in the sculpture of Antiquity and, later, in the fullness of the Renaissance, it was usually ignored in the medieval world. Essentially it is a device that unifies the composition by confirming the existence of all the figures in the same space and standing on the same ground plane. Isocephaly strongly controls The Betrothal scene, as, indeed, it does The Virgin's Return Home, which follows. In both instances the chief danger of isocephaly-a too monotonous, friezelike arrangement of figures-is avoided by the cadences of the groupings, the turning of certain figures to face the other way as a means of relieving strict regularity, the drapery folds which corroborate the moving and standing of the figures-all elements that unite the figures while giving them variety and naturalness. In one of his moments of keen insight in regard to these frescoes, John Ruskin compared The Virgin's Return Home to the Parthenon frieze. Certainly Giotto understood those same compositional ideas which make the classical relief one of the most impressive creations in the history of art.

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Image List

Poor Clares Mourn the Death of St Francis


Madonna and Child Unthroned

Betrayal of Christ


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