Giotto was a Florentine painter and architect who was recognized as an artistic genius and protagonist during the Italian Renaissance. For artist Giorgio Vasari – the great biographer of Italian Renaissance artists – the new art had its birth with Giotto. Giotto lived and worked at a time when society was exploring and testing the boundaries of medieval traditions and institutions. This is reflected in his religious subjects where the earthly, full-blooded energy for which he was so famous was to spark the beginnings of artistic naturalism and humanism.
For Vasari, Giotto’s work represents a period when painting woke from its long subjection to the Greeks. As Hale says:
the stiffness of the Byzantine style gave way to something like grace, figures began to cast shadows and to be foreshortened, their drapery revealed movement and their faces reflected feeling, fear, hope, anger or love. 
These characteristics are reflected in one of Giotto’s earliest works, Madonna and Child, where the child, although now lost, is affectionately clasping the Madonna’s hand, with its other hand outstretched to her face. The Madonna’s eyes meet those of the viewer with an elongated stare. Both of these qualities reflect Giotto’s desire to express human sentiment and his interest in the communication of feeling. Giotto also experiments with form so that the straight alignment of the Madonna’s features are juxtaposed against the shape of her gown which flows down and away from her face.
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Giotto is famous for his frescoes at Assisi where he perpetuated a new use of space and colour. For example, The Doctors of the Church sets portraits within areas framed by extravagantly decorative geometric, figurative, and floral motifs. In The Scenes from the Life of St. Francis the strong portrayal of animals, plants, flowers, pottery and rocks are integrated into the human scenarios so that the two become integral to one another. In St. Francis Giving his Mantle to a Poor Knight the red of the knight’s robe is seen on the back of the mule and in the buildings and landscapes of the background. This is suggestive of Giotto’s desire to unify different elements of his paintings – a theme which was to continue into the trends of the fourteenth century. Indeed in his frescoes at Padua (1302-5) where he painted the lives of Christ and the Virgin in the private chapel of Enrico Scrovegni, Padua’s richest citizen, his fusion between figures and space and his conception of them as a ‘single coherent unit’ is taken to a new extreme. A section of The Last Judgement shows Enrico Scrovegni offering a model of the chapel to Mary, who stands beside a saint and an angel. The gift symbolises Enrico seeking penitence for his father’s sin of usury. This arrangement reflects man’s communication with God, and in turn the unification of the material and the spiritual. In The Last Judgement, where Christ sits surrounded by an aura, Giotto places figures at the centre of their world – representing mankind’s place at the centre of history and his unique individuality, which was to become a fundamental of the humanist vision during the fourteenth century.
Fourteenth century Italian art was intrinsically linked to the political developments occurring during the time. Giotto was certainly one of the first to assert a style based on observations of nature rather than the upholding of medieval traditions, and during a time when city states were becoming more independent, and democracies were governed by guilds – associations of merchants, bankers, artisans, and other professionals – this form of artistic freedom was welcomed by those who had democratic or political influence. Giotto’s decorating of the family chapels of the wealthiest citizens of Florence and Padua suggests that art was seen as an ultimate aesthetic representation of virtue and power. In S. Croce Giotto painted the life of St. Francis in the Bardi chapel and those of the two St. Johns in the Peruzzi chapel. The Bardi and Peruzzi were the two greatest banker families of Florence and court bankers of the kings of England and Naples, to the latter of whom Giotto was court painter between 1328-32. These were important developments for fourteenth century art as at Peruzzi Giotto incorporates portrait heads, presumably of the Peruzzi family. As Antal phrases it:
‘it was the wealthiest citizens of Florence who were the first to be represented, outside a fresco or religious painting, in almost wholly independent portraits, though still for the time being inside the same frame.’ Later artwork was to completely separate portraits from religious paintings so that the individual could be represented as independent of, but still connected to, the spiritual realm.
Fourteenth-century frescoes reveal that individualism was greatly esteemed in the Italian city-republics, and a developing trend for freedom of expression can be seen in Giotto’s pupils and successors such as Taddeo Gaddi. The lives of Christ, the Virgin and the Saints were the subjects of many important paintings and sculptures commissioned at the time. However, although these subjects continue those used by Giotto, his style began to be adapted by his pupils. His idea of a painting as a single unified whole was taken further by incorporating a greater diversity of individual elements within that whole. As Antal explains it:
The painters abandoned Giotto’s centripetal emphasis in order to obtain a fuller narrative; the number of figures is greater, they are individualised and more vehement in their movements, more passionate or more charming; sometimes landscape predominates, and the architecture is richer and more Gothic.
However, Giotto’s work was still to prove pivotal to the changes occurring during the fourteenth century. By mid-century, Italy saw a surge of artistic output which integrated new ideals into earlier modes of representation. Over time, figures became more naturalistic, and the linear and angular quality of clothing on figures became softened. As mentioned above, Giotto’s volumetric figures of Madonna and of Christ express these qualities – nearly a century earlier. These works were to influence major fourteenth century artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael. As seen in Madonna and Child Giotto experimented with the form of the figure and created a shadow effect, adding three dimensionality to the painting. This solution to creating the illusion of solidity to his figures was developed by the later artists who are famous for their exquisite eye for detail.
With Giotto, the two dimensional world of thirteenth-century Italian painting was transformed into an analogue for the real world. It was the simplicity of his style and his mastery of illusion which captivated the audiences of his time. As Bernard Berenson puts it:
With the simplest means, with almost rudimentary light and shade, and functional line, he contrives to render, out of all the possible outlines, out of all the possible variations of light and shade that a given figure may have, only those that we must isolate for special attention when we are actually realizing it.
Giotto was to lay the foundations of a radical artistic movement in fourteenth century Italy. Later artists developed the simplicity of his use of line, form and three-dimensionality. His bold use of colour and composition was to precipitate a wealth of changes in the styles and tastes of fourteenth century Italian art, and his contributions to the history of aesthetics are perhaps some of the most comprehensive in history.
Antal, F., 1947, Florentine Painting and Its Social Background; the Bourgeois Republic before Cosimo De’ Medici’s Advent to Power: XIV and Early XV Centuries. London: K. Paul
Bennett, A., 1999, Giotto. London: Dorling Kindersley
Berenson, B., 1953, The Italian Painters of the Renaissance. Phaidon: New York
Hale, J.R., 1954, England and the Italian Renaissance: The Growth of Interest in Its History and Art. London: Faber and Faber
Osmond, S.F., 1998, The Renaissance Mind Mirrored in Art. World and I, Vol. 13
Henderson, J., and Verdon, T., (eds), 1990, Christianity and the Renaissance: Image and Religious Imagination in the Quattrocento. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press
Martindale, A., 1969, The Complete Paintings of Giotto. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.
Murray, L., and Murray, P., 1963, The Art of the Renaissance. New York: Praeger
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