Thursday, October 26, 2006


Saint Francis Fresco Cycle In this fresco, one of a series of frescoes executed by 14th-century Italian artist Giotto in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence, Italy, Francis of Assisi receives papal confirmation for the rule of his Franciscan order. Giotto’s concern with the realistic depiction of human figures in sculptural, rounded forms marked a decisive break with medieval pictorial conventions. His altarpieces and church frescoes heralded some of the most important innovations of Florentine Renaissance painting.Scala/Art Resource, NY

By contrast, some 100 years earlier than the Limbourg brothers, the Italian painter Giotto had given a monumental scale and dignity to the human figure, making it the bearer of the drama. His work had thereby revolutionized Italian painting; eventually, his discoveries and those of other artists affected painting in the north. Giotto's superb frescoes of the lives of Christ and the Virgin, painted from 1305 to 1306, are in the Arena Chapel in Padua (Padova). In addition, Giotto painted large wood-panel altarpieces, as did several other late medieval painters.

Giotto di Bondone
Italian painter Giotto is held in high regard as the artist who moved away from the traditional medieval technique of portraying the human figure as a stiff, flat, two-dimensional character. An artist far ahead of his time, Giotto began to protray humans as rounded, proportioned, and naturalistic. His work influenced the development of Renaissance art more than a century after his death in Florence in 1337.

From Lives of the Artists: Giotto
By creating more natural, three-dimensional representations of space and the human form, the Italian painter Giotto (1267?-1337) made a dramatic break from the flat, stylized renderings typical of... Gothic and Byzantine art. In this passage from Italian writer and artist Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1550, revised 1568), Vasari discussed Giotto’s early career. Vasari provided a description of some of Giotto’s works, including his frescoes in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence, and what were believed to be Giotto’s frescoes in the Upper Church of the Basilica of San Francesco at Assisi. The authorship of the frescoes in Assisi continues to be debated by art historians.
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By creating more natural, three-dimensional representations of space and the human form, the Italian painter Giotto (1267?-1337) made a dramatic break from the flat, stylized renderings typical of Gothic and Byzantine art. In this passage from Italian writer and artist Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1550, revised 1568), Vasari discussed Giotto’s early career. Vasari provided a description of some of Giotto’s works, including his frescoes in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence, and what were believed to be Giotto’s frescoes in the Upper Church of the Basilica of San Francesco at Assisi. The authorship of the frescoes in Assisi continues to be debated by art historians.

From Lives of the Artists: Giotto

By Giorgio Vasari

In my opinion painters owe to Giotto, the Florentine painter, exactly the same debt they owe to nature, which constantly serves them as a model and whose finest and most beautiful aspects they are always striving to imitate and reproduce. For after the many years during which the methods and out-lines of good painting had been buried under the ruins caused by war it was Giotto alone who, by God's favour, rescued and restored the art, even though he was born among incompetent artists. It was, indeed, a great miracle that in so gross and incompetent an age Giotto could be inspired to such good purpose that by his work he completely restored the art of design, of which his contemporaries knew little or nothing. And yet this great man, who started life in the year 1276 in the village of Vespignano, fourteen miles out in the country from the city of Florence, was the son of a poor peasant farmer called Bondone, who gave him the name Giotto and then brought him up just like any other boy of his class.

By the time he reached the age of ten Giotto showed in all his boyish ways such unusually quick intelligence and liveliness that he delighted not only his father but all who knew him, whether they lived in the village or beyond. Bondone used to let him look after some sheep; and while the animals grazed here and there about the farm, the boy, drawn instinctively to the art of design, was always sketching what he saw in nature, or imagined in his own mind, on stones or on the ground or the sand. One day [the Italian painter] Cimabue was on his way from Florence to Vespignano, where he had some business to attend to, when he came across Giotto who, while the sheep were grazing near by, was drawing one of them by scratching with a slightly pointed stone on a smooth clean piece of rock. And this was before he had received any instruction except for what he saw in nature itself. Cimabue stopped in astonishment to watch him, and then he asked the boy whether he would like to come and live with him. Giotto answered that if his father agreed he would love to do so. So Cimabue approached Bondone, who was delighted to grant his request and allowed him to take the boy to Florence. After he had gone to live there, helped by his natural talent and instructed by Cimabue, in a very short space of time Giotto not only captured his master's own style but also began to draw so ably from life that he made a decisive break with the crude traditional Byzantine style and brought to life the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years. Although, as I said before, one or two people had tried to do this, no one succeeded as completely and as immediately as Giotto. Among the things that he did at this time was, as we can see today, a painting in the chapel of the palace of the Podestà at Florence, showing his dear friend Dante Alighieri, who was no less famous as a poet than he was as a painter. (We find Giotto being highly praised by Giovanni Boccaccio in the introduction to his story about Forese da Rabatta and Giotto himself.) In the same chapel are portraits by Giotto of Dante's master, Brunetto Latini, and of Corso Donati, an eminent Florentine citizen of those days.

Giotto's first paintings were done for the chapel of the high altar of the abbey of Florence where he executed many works which were highly praised. Among them, especially admired was a picture of the Annunciation in which he convincingly depicted the fear and trembling of the Virgin Mary before the Archangel Gabriel; Our Lady is so fearful that it appears as if she is longing to run away.

The panel painting over the high altar of the same chapel is also by Giotto, but this work has been kept there more from respect for anything by so great an artist than for any other reason. Four of the chapels in Santa Croce were also painted by Giotto, three of them between the sacristy and the main chapel and one on the opposite side of the church. In the first of the three, that of Ridolfo di Bardi where the bell-ropes are, is the life of St Francis. In this painting Giotto painted with great effect the tears of a number of friars lamenting the death of the saint. In the second, the Peruzzi Chapel, are two scenes from the life of St John the Baptist, to whom the chapel is dedicated: in these, Giotto has depicted in very lively fashion the dancing and leaping of Herodias and the prompt service given by some servants at table. In the same place are two marvellous scenes from the life of St John the Evangelist, showing him restoring Drusiana to life and then being carried up into heaven. In the third chapel, belonging to the Giugni family, and dedicated to the Apostles, Giotto has painted scenes showing the martyrdom of many of those holy men. In the fourth chapel on the other side of the church towards the north, belonging to the Tosinghi and the Spinelli families and dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady, Giotto painted the Birth of Our Lady, her Betrothal, the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi, and the Presentation of the Christ-child to Simeon in the Temple. This is a beautiful work, for apart from the skill with which he has depicted the emotions of the old man as he takes Christ from His mother, the attitude of the child Himself, who is frightened of Simeon and all timidly stretches out his arms and turns towards his mother, could not be more moving or beautiful. Then in the painting showing Our Lady's death Giotto depicted the Apostles and a number of angels with torches in their hands, very beautifully executed.

In the Baroncelli Chapel of the same church there is a painting in tempera by Giotto, in which he has very carefully depicted the Coronation of Our Lady with a great number of small figures and a choir of angels and saints, finished with great care. On this work are Giotto's name and the date, in gold letters; and any artist who considers when it was that Giotto, without any enlightenment from the good style of our own time, gave the first impulse to the correct way of drawing and colouring, is bound to hold him in the greatest respect.

In the same church of Santa Croce there is also, above the marble tomb of Carlo Marsuppini of Arezzo, a Crucifixion, with the Virgin, St John, and the Magdalen at the foot of the cross. On the other side of the church, directly opposite this, above the tomb of Leonardo of Arezzo near the high altar, is an Annunciation; and this has been retouched by later painters, with results that show little judgement on the part of whoever was responsible. In the refectory [dining hall] there is a Tree of the Cross, with scenes from the life of St Louis and a Last Supper, all by the hand of Giotto; and on the presses of the sacristy there are a number of scenes, with small figures, from the lives of Christ and of St Francis.

The chapel of St John the Baptist in the Carmelite Church was also decorated by Giotto with four paintings tracing the life history of St Francis: and in the Guelph Palace at Florence there is by his hand a history of the Christian Faith, perfectly executed in fresco, containing the portrait of Pope Clement IV who established the Guelph magistracy and conferred on it his own coat-of-arms which it has held uninterruptedly ever since. When all this work was finished, Giotto left Florence for Assisi in order to finish the works which had been started there by Cimabue. On his way he decorated the chapel of St Francis, which is above the baptistry in the parish church of Arezzo, as well as painting from life portraits of St Francis and St Dominic, on a round column which is near a very fine, antique Corinthian capital, and also, in a little chapel of the Duomo outside Arezzo, executing the beautifully composed picture of the Stoning of St Stephen.

After this Giotto went on to Assisi in Umbria, having been summoned there by Fra Giovanni di Murro della Marca, who at that time was minister general of the Franciscans; and at Assisi in the Upper Church of San Francesco, on the two sides of the church under the gallery that crosses the windows, he painted thirty-two histories from the life and works of St Francis. There are sixteen frescoes on each wall, and they were so perfect that they brought Giotto tremendous fame. There is, indeed, wonderful variety not only in the gestures and attitudes of all the figures shown in the cycle but also in the composition of every single scene; moreover, it is marvellous to see the way Giotto painted the various costumes worn at that time and his observation and imitation of nature. One of the most beautiful scenes is of a man showing signs of great thirst kneeling down to drink eagerly at a fountain; the incident is conveyed so exactly and movingly that one might be looking at a real person. There are many other things in the cycle which demand our attention. For the sake of brevity I shall not dwell on them; it is enough to record that this work won tremendous fame for its author because of the excellence of the figures, and because of the liveliness, the ease, order, and proportion of Giotto's painting, qualities which were given him by nature but which he greatly improved by study and expressed clearly in all he did. As well as being naturally talented, Giotto was extremely studious; he was always going for new ideas to nature itself, and so he could rightly claim to have had nature, rather than any human master, as his teacher.

After the fresco cycle was finished, Giotto did some more work in the same place, but in the Lower Church, painting the upper part of the walls beside the high altar and all four angles of the vault, above where St Francis is buried, with scenes of great beauty, imagination, and inventiveness. In the first he depicted St Francis glorified in heaven, surrounded by the virtues necessary if one wants to be in a state of perfect grace before God. On one side there is Obedience, putting a yoke on the neck of a friar who kneels in front of her; the reins of the yoke are being drawn up towards heaven, and Obedience, a finger at her lips, is cautioning silence and turns her eyes towards the figure of Jesus Christ, whose side is flowing with blood. Standing among the various virtues are the figures of Prudence and Humility, intended to show that where there is true obedience there is always humility and always the prudence to make every action wise. Chastity is depicted on the second angle of the vault, standing secure in a strong castle and unmoved by the offers being made to her of kingdoms and crowns and palms of glory. At her feet is the figure of Purity, washing the naked and attended by Fortitude who is bringing people to be washed and purified. To the side of Chastity is the figure of Penitence, chasing away Cupid with the cord of discipline and putting Impurity to flight. On the third angle is Poverty, who goes in her bare feet trampling on thorns; there is a dog behind her, barking, and near at hand one naked boy throwing stones and another pressing thorns into her legs with a stick. We see this same figure of Poverty being wed by St Francis, with her hand held by Jesus Christ, in the mystical presence of Hope and Charity. In the fourth and last of the angles of the vault is St Francis, again in glory, clothed in the white tunic of a deacon; he stands triumphant in heaven in the middle of a great choir of angels, who bear a standard showing a cross and seven stars, and over above is the Holy Ghost. On each of these paintings are written some words in Latin, which explain their significance.

As well as the paintings on the vault, there are on the walls of the transepts some beautiful pictures which truly deserve to be held in great esteem, not only because they are perfect works of art but also because they were executed with such tremendous care that they are still as fresh today as when they were done. Among them is an excellent portrait of Giotto himself. And above the door of the sacristy there is another painting by Giotto, again in fresco, showing St Francis receiving the stigmata and displaying such devout emotion that it seems to me the finest Giotto did in that group, although all the paintings are really beautiful and praiseworthy.

When he had finally finished his work with the painting of St Francis, Giotto returned to Florence where, after his arrival, he did a panel picture to be sent to Pisa, showing St Francis standing on the fearful rock of La Vernia. He took extraordinary pains over this work, for as well as depicting a landscape full of trees and rocks, which was an innovation for that time, he showed in the attitude of St Francis, who is eagerly kneeling down to receive the stigmata, a burning desire to be granted it and a tremendous love for Jesus Christ, who is seen above surrounded by seraphim and who concedes it to him, showing such expressive tenderness that it is impossible to imagine anything better. On the predella of the same painting are three other scenes from the life of St Francis, all beautifully executed.

This painting, which can be seen today on a pillar at the side of the high altar in San Francesco at Pisa, where it is kept as a memorial of so great a man, was the reason why the Pisans, who had just finished the fabric of the Campo Santo according to the designs of Giovanni, the son of Nicolò Pisano … commissioned Giotto to paint some of the interior. They wanted the inside walls to be decorated with the most noble paintings, since the outside had been encrusted at very great expense with marbles and intaglios, the roof covered with lead, and the interior contained very many antique monuments and tombs from the times of the pagans which had been brought to Pisa from all parts of the world. So having gone to Pisa for this purpose, Giotto made a start on one of the walls of the Campo Santo with six great frescoes showing scenes from the life of the patient prophet Job. Now, very judiciously, Giotto took note of the fact that the marble in the part of the building where he had to work was turned towards the sea and therefore, being exposed to the sirocco, was always damp and tended to exude salt, just as do nearly all the walls in Pisa, with the result that colours and paintings are eaten into and fade away. So to preserve his work as long as possible, wherever he intended to paint in fresco he first laid on an undercoat, or what we would call an intonaco or plaster, made of chalk, gypsum, and powdered brick. This technique was so successful that the paintings he did have survived to the present day. They would be in even better condition, as a matter of fact, if they had not been considerably damaged by damp because of the neglect of those who were in charge of them. No precautions were taken (although it would have been a simple matter to have done so) and as a result the paintings which survived the damp were ruined in several places, the flesh tints having darkened and the plaster flaked off. In any case when gypsum is mixed with chalk it always deteriorates and decays, so although when it is used it appears to make an excellent and secure binding, the colours are invariably spoilt.

.Source: Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Artists. Translated by Bull, George. Penguin Books.

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Blogger Kristin said...

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I'm writing one too.
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3:56 AM  

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