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Giotto di Bondone (c. 1267 – 1337), known simply as Giotto, was a Florentine painter and architect. He is now considered the first great master of the Italian Renaissance and the founder of modern European painting. Giotto’s natural and realistic style broke away from the symbolism of Byzantine art and was the catalyst that marked the start of the Renaissance.
Giotto was born in a small hamlet north of Florence. His father was a farmer and Giotto probably spent much of his youth as a shepherd. According to art historian Giorgio Vasari, the renowned Florentine artist, Cimabue, who was the last great painter in the Byzantine style, discovered the young Giotto drawing pictures of sheep on a rock. Cimabue was so impressed by the young boy’s talent that he immediately took him on as an apprentice. That story may be apocryphal but by around 1280 Giotto was working in Florence and by 1312 he was a member of the Florentine Guild of doctors and apothecaries, a guild that also included painters. He traveled to Rome with Cimabue and may well have worked on some of the master’s commissions.
Giotto signed his name to just three paintings. All other attributions to him are speculative and the unresolved controversy has raged through the art world for over a hundred years. Nevertheless, his work stands at the brink of a new age in art. He concentrated on representing human emotions, people in everyday situations, and capturing the human experience through his art.
Although he lacked the technical knowledge of perspective, he created a convincing three-dimensional pictorial space. His genius was immediately recognized by his contemporaries; he was lauded by great philosophers, writers and thinkers of his day, among them Dante and Boccaccio. Under Giotto’s leadership the old, stylized Byzantine art forms slowly disappeared from Florence, and later from other Italian cities. His freedom of expression influenced artists of the early and high Renaissance, and changed the course of European painting.
One of Giotto’s finest works is the series of frescoes painted 1304-1305 for the Scrovegni chapel in Padua, usually known as the Arena Chapel. The 37 scenes depict the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary and are considered to be one of the masterpieces of the Early Renaissance. The figures in his paintings interact, gossip, and look at each other.
From 1306 to 1311 Giotto was in Assisi where some art historians believe he painted the fresco cycle of the Life of St. Francis. Although the style of the frescoes is realistic and breaks away from the Byzantine stylization, the controversy is caused by the stylistic differences between the St. Francis and Arena Chapel frescoes. Documents that could have proved the origin of the commissions were destroyed by Napoleon’s troops when they occupied the town in the early 19th century.
Giotto received commissions from princes and high officials of the church in Florence, Naples and Rome. Most scholars agree that he painted the frescoes in the Church of the Santa Croce in Florence and although he never signed the Ognissanti Madonna altarpiece, the Florentine work is universally recognized as being by him. It is known that Giotto was in Florence from 1314-1327 and the large panel painting depicting the Virgin was painted around 1310. The face of the Virgin is so expressive that it may well have been painted using a live model.
Towards the end of his life, Giotto was assigned to build the Campanile of the Florence Cathedral. In 1334 he was named chief architect and, although the Campanile is known as “Giotto’s Tower,” it was probably not built to his design specifications.
Giotto died in January, 1337. Even his burial place is surrounded by mystery. Vasari believed he was buried in the Cathedral of Florence, while other scholars claimed he was buried in the Church of Santa Reparata. But Giotto left an artistic legacy that could not be ignored. His disciples, Bernardo Daddi and Taddeo Gaddi continued in the master’s tradition and, a century later, the artistic torch lit by Giotto was passed on to Michelangelo and Raphael, the great masters of the High Renaissance.
Giotto made a radical break from the Byzantine (abstract – anti-naturalistic) style and brought more life to art. Giotto primarily painted Christian themes depicted in cycles and is best known for his frescos in various Chapels (Arene Chapel, Florence Cathedral, Assisi, Scrovegni).
Our pattern set collection features many of his more familiar works including the Ognissanti Madonna, The Mourning of Christ, The Marriage at Cana, The Mourning of St. Francis, Crucifixion and Madonna and Child.
Giotto di Bondone
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