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Most Sovereign Master

Giotto

By Francesca Flores d’Arcais
Abbeville Press, 2012

Just published by Abbevile Press, this lavish volume on Giotto, the father of Renaissance painting is an updated edition of a prior volume published in 1995. The author, Francesca Flores d’Arcais, is a professor of Art History at the University of Verona and an expert on Giotto and Northern Italian painters.

This large tome contains not only the most up to date scholarly work on the greatest of the early Renaissance masters, but a visual feast of revealing photographs of Giotto’s works. More than three hundred illustrations, mostly in color, grace its pages, reproducing in exacting, gloriously colorful, and exquisite details Giotto’s artistic achievement. One of d’Arcais’ theses is that Giotto’s frescoes reflect the theological tensions inherent in a period when urbanization and commerce were accelerating. The role of monastic orders, particularly the Franciscans and the Dominicans, was becoming extremely influential in the Roman Catholic Church, and the first stirrings of humanism were being felt throughout Europe. Clerical emphasis on Christ’s divinity opposed humanist insistence on His inherent humanity, creating conflicts in individuals and society. Art Historian Kenneth Clark, writing about the same tensions between the spiritual and the temporal, said that Giotto was interested in humanity while his friend Dante was more in tune with spirituality.

Giotto, through his compositional skills, use of rudimentary perspective, the realistic depiction and natural pose of his figures, their bodily heft, tactility, as Berenson called it, set within a believable well-defined space his use of drawing and colors, emotional candor, and attention to details captured onlookers in his time as he still does today. His compositions speak with realism and emotionality, and yet also with a dignified grandeur, the “gravitas” missing from many of his contemporaries. His style influenced generations of painters and even Matisse said of him: “When I see [one of] Giotto’s frescoes at Padua… [I] perceive instantly the feeling which radiates from it and which is instinct in the composition in every line and color…” Leonardo da Vinci, who was to use his observation of the natural world to make his paintings uncannily and realistically alluring, admired Giotto greatly: “Giotto appeared and drew what he saw.” He did, thus revolutionizing painting, and setting the canon for the next six centuries.

His achievement was not, however, a sudden development. Others, both in painting and in sculpture, in Rome, Lucca, Pisa, Siena, and Florence, had already taken tentative steps along this road. The Byzantine artists from the east and the Gothic style from the north, represented figures in a flat, frontal, linear, ascetic fashion, sizing them in accordance with their religious or social rank and slavishly following a traditional symbolist iconography. These were slowly replaced by both the ancient Greco-Roman style and the forward-looking Gothic sculptural developments in France. Human bodies began to be depicted in a realistic way, giving them heft and material substance; they were placed in believable surroundings, in logical groupings, expressing both by their facial demeanor and their gestures the artist’s sense of acute observation and emotion, the desire to relate to the viewers and bring them into the action. Visually, the “talking to” mode was being replaced by “talking with.”

Although virtually all subjects were still religious, their humanity was brought to the fore, emphasizing that God, in the form of Jesus Christ, was made man and that He, and the Virgin Mary, and saints, like us, had human features and attributes. The awe and mystery of the divine was brought down to a common level of understanding, increasing direct accessibility to religious stories and circumventing the middleman (the clergy).

In addition to being a groundbreaking pictorial development, this was also an important social development at a time when most people in Europe were illiterate and books, hand-copied by scribes, were a rarity affordable only to the wealthy. The clergy and monks, through their preaching and often their literary status, enjoyed an unbroken monopoly on the spread and interpretation of culture – mostly religious culture, the most important path to salvation. Thus, on the one hand, while the new style popularized and made directly accessible and understandable the stories from the Old and New Testament and episodes in the life of popular saints, it also diminished the role of the mysterious hocus-pocus that the clergy often employed to protect or expand their turf.

Giotto gained a fame that was unusual for a painter of his time, when artists were still considered mere craftsmen, and his renown continued to grow long after his death. Dante, for a while a prominent civic official in Florence, mentions him favorably in his encyclopedic opus the Divine Comedy – the only living artist mentioned (here in Longfellow’s translation):

“In painting Cimabue thought that he
Should hold the field; now Giotto has the cry
So that the other’s fame is growing dim”
(Purgatory, Canto XI, 94-97)

A few years later (c.1360) Giotto’s personality and mode of painting found its way in one of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron stories. Boccaccio writes in the fifth story of day six: “…Giotto was so extraordinary a genius that there was nothing in Nature, the mother of all things … that he could not recreate with pencil, pen, or brush so faithfully, that it hardly seemed a copy, but rather the thing itself … he brought to light again that art, which had lain buried …” Boccaccio also describes frescoes depicting famous men of antiquity, which he had probably seen in the Great Hall of the Barons, in Castelnuovo in Naples, where Giotto had painted them. Although we do not know for sure, it is also possible that Boccaccio and Giotto had met when in the early 1330s Boccaccio was studying canon law and Giotto was painting at the court of King Robert the Wise in Naples.

The third person of the early Italian Renaissance literary trinity, Francesco Petrarch, may have also met Giotto in 1335 in Avignon, where Giotto may have gone to talk to the Pope about decorating his official residence. Petrarch also mentions Giotto’s work in the Royal Chapel of St. Barbara in Castelnuovo in Naples, which he had seen in 1341, and in his will he left a Madonna painting by Giotto to his patron, the ruler of Padua Francesco Carrara, describing the painting as “a wonderful work of which the ignorant might overlook the beauties but which the learned man must regard with amazement.”

Giovanni Villani, a Florentine chronicler and contemporary of Giotto, wrote that the painter was, “the most sovereign master of painting in his time…” and Giovanni’s grandson, Filippo Villani, also a chronicler and civic official, included a biography of Giotto in his Lives of Illustrious Florentines, the first time a painter had been honored in a book of the sort. After reviewing Cimabue’s achievements, Filippo Villani wrote “… Giotto – not only comparable to the classical painters of fame but even superior to them in art and genius – restored painting to its pristine dignity and great renown.”

Lorenzo Ghiberti, who was with Donatello the foremost sculptor of his era, also had a high regard for Giotto’s achievements and in his Commentaries opined: “Giotto developed into a great master in the art of painting … Giotto saw in art that which remained inaccessible to others. He introduced naturalness and grace, without going too far.” Ghiberti also compiled a comprehensive inventory of Giotto’s works, which although we now know was inaccurate in its attributions, provided a frame of reference for future art historians and experts. Lastly, Giorgio Vasari, in his groundbreaking work Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550) had this to say about Giotto:

The gratitude which the masters in painting owe to Nature – who is ever the truest model of him who, possessing the power to select the brightest parts from her best and loveliest features, employs himself unweariedly in the reproduction of these beauties – this gratitude, I say, is due, in my judgment, to the Florentine painter, Giotto, seeing that he alone – although born amidst incapable artists, and at a time when all good methods in art had long been entombed beneath the ruins of war – yet, by the favour of Heaven, he, I say, alone succeeded in resuscitating art, and restoring her to a path that may be called the true one. And it was in truth a great marvel, that from so rude and inapt an age, Giotto should have had strength to elicit so much, that the art of design, of which the men of those days had little, if any, knowledge, was, by his means, effectually recalled into life.

Yet, despite Giotto’s fame and his prominence in the Olympic pantheon of painters, we know precious little about his personal life, and the chronology of his life is a matter of controversy among experts.

Most of the Giottesque documents found in archives in Florence concern Giotto’s financial acumen and property transfers, his rentals of carding looms to others, the recovery of household effects, the giving of property to his children, and similar mundane affairs. The only other documents that have thus far come to light are from his period in Naples at the court of Robert the Wise, mostly records of payments made to Giotto.

Even Giotto’s birth date is in dispute. He was born about 13 miles from Florence in the village of Vespignano c. 1266-67, although Varasi in his Lives gives the date of birth as 1276. Even the place of birth is disputed, with some experts believing that he was not born in Vespignano, a tiny village of a dozen or so houses, but in a farmhouse on a hilltop about a mile away, known as Colle di Romagnano. Nevertheless, in the 1850s, a widow living in Vespignano in an ancient house with a truncated tower attached a marble –carved inscription to the house wall stating, “Here Giotto was born,” and the credence that this was indeed Gioto’s native abode took root. The house, now the property of the municipality of Vicchio, has been turned into a small museum.

Villiani reported that Giotto died on January 8, 1337 (1336 in the old calendar) and popular poet Antonio Pucci picked up this date when he set to verse Villani’s chronicle, adding that Giotto died at the age of seventy. Pucci may have rounded Giotto’s age to seventy for rhyme purposes, or just written thus to indicate that Giotto lived to a ripe old age. Although many others have concluded that the painter was born before 1267, the consensus is that his birth falls between 1265 and 1275 and that 1267 is a likely date.

The legend, as told by Vasari, was that Giotto’s father was a farmer and that the youth was a sheepherder, who, to wile the time, was drawing sheep on a rock with a piece of charcoal when the famous painter Cimabue discovered him. Seeing his gift for drawing, Cimabue prevailed on Giotto’s father to entrust the youngster to him as an apprentice, and Giotto moved to Florence to learn the craft in Cimabue’s workshop. Giotto remained there for a few years and eventually set up his own shop. During his apprenticeship, the young man is said to have played a joke on his master by painting a life-like fly on the nose of a subject in one of Cimabue’s paintings. Cimabue, believing the fly to be alive, tried to shoo it away several times before realizing he had been had!

A stout, solidly built, not very good-looking man with curly short hair, Giotto was a ready wit and a shrewd businessman. He had eight children and when once his friend Dante first saw Giotto’s children, he was struck by their ugly faces. “My friend,” he said, “you make such handsome figures for others – why do you make such plain ones for yourself?” The unruffled Giotto replied: “I paint by day (and see what I am doing), but I procreate at night in the dark.”

Another time, Pope Boniface VIII, who was considering Giotto for a commission, sent a messenger to his Florence shop studio to obtain a sample of the painter’s work. With a single continuous stroke of his practiced hand, Giotto drew a perfect circle, and when the O was shown to the pope, he obtained the commission. He apparently was a good family man, and whenever he travelled, his Florentine wife, Ciuta di Lapo del Pela, and the children travelled with him.

By the time he had completed the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, in 1303-06 (?), Giotto was a wealthy man. He kept a large workshop in Florence, set up other temporary ones whenever he travelled for commissions, kept buying real estate in Florence and the countryside, and was not above getting involved in lawsuits to protect his interests (he employed a number of debt collectors to hound those who owed him money). He also bought wool looms that he then leased for a good profit to poor weavers who worked out of their homes.

Giotto’s first documented important commission was a big 15 foot high Crucifix for the Dominican Church of St. Maria Novella (c. 1290-1300), a work of realism, which many take as the beginning of Renaissance painting. Compared with a similar Crucifix (c.1285) that Cimabue had painted for the Franciscan Church of Santa Croce (unfortunately seriously damaged in the Florence floods of 1966), the differences are striking. Giotto’s dead Christ on the cross is no longer a symbol of majestic superhuman piety but rather a dead person whose flesh has started to turn a greenish hue. The realistically portrayed a body hangs on the cross rather than being placed on it; the face is reposed and beautiful after the torments of agony, and the subdued, restrained, delicate hues of Giotto’s palette entirely appropriate for the subject.

In 1300, called by Pope Boniface VIII, who had declared the first Holy year, Giotto was in Rome working to decorate the city’s churches with Cimabue, the Roman Pietro Cavallini, and his fellow Florentine, who had made the first plan for Florence Cathedral and that of Palazzo Vecchio, the sculptor Arnolfo da Cambio. It is very probable that Giotto developed some of his stylistic traits by observing the ancient Roman-inspired work of frescoes and mosaics of Cavallini and the Provence-inspired sculptures of da Cambio. While in Rome, Giotto was asked by Cardinal Jacopo Caetani dei Stefaneschi to prepare a mosaic for the Old St. Peter’s Church. The mosaic, called La Navicella, portrays Christ saving the Disciples from the fury of a tempestuous sea. The mosaic of the same name in the foyer of the current Saint Peter’s Church bears only few traces of Giotto’s original, since it is a liberal reconstruction made in 1673 by mosaicist Orazio Manenti on commission by Pope Clement X.

During his life, Giotto must have returned to Rome several times. In fact a document drafted by him and dated 1313, appointed a proxy to retrieve for him personal effects, including a bed, he had left in Rome before returning to Florence. A 1320 triptych altarpiece commissioned again by Stefaneschi for the main altar of old St. Peter’s and now in the Vatican Museums points to even a later stay.

A great puzzle of Giotto studies, not yet resolved satisfactorily, concerns whether or not he was the author of the stunning cycle of frescoes on the life of St. Francis in the upper Church of St. Francis in Assisi, and if so, when they were painted. The controversy over the attribution of 28 frescoes in the upper church traditionally believed to have been done by Giotto is compounded by the fact that documents relating to the artistic commissions of the Franciscan friars of Assisi for the period in question were destroyed during the Napoleonic period, when Assisi was occupied by French troops and soldiers quartered in the church and monastery.

Early written sources such as Lorenzo Ghiberti and the chronicler Riccobaldo da Ferrara ascribe the St. Francis Cycle frescoes to Giotto, but starting with German scholar Friedrich Rintelen in 1912, and continuing with Richard Offner, many scholars have come to believe that these frescoes are not Giotto’s. Without getting into the technical stylistic discussion (amply covered in this Abbeville Press volume), critics believe that the differences between the St. Francis Cycle in Assisi and the subsequent Scrovegni Chapel fresco cycle Giotto painted in Padua in 1303-06 are such that they cannot be accounted by ascribing them to the artist’s development.

Thus, current scholarship doubts that these frescoes are the work of Giotto, although it cannot be excluded that he may have worked on them as part of a team of Florentine painters. Alternatively, the cycle may be the work of some of Giotto’s pupils, working under his general supervision, such as Jacopo del Casentino, Pacino di Bonaguida, or the so-called “Master of St. Cecilia.”

This last hypothesis, expounded by art experts Federico Zeri and Bruno Zanardi, may be the most probable. They have noted that painting a large expanse of wall in true fresco requires a certain amount of organization and division of labor and involves a number of persons. The typical organization for such an endeavor included a master organizer-artist in chief, called the protomagister, three magisters, or master painters, eight journeyman painters, and up to twenty masons to mix and apply wall plasters just prior to the painting, and grind and mix the colors. It is likely that in Assisi, starting circa 1280, Cimabue was the protomagister for the decoration of the upper church, assisted by Pietro Cavallini and Arnolfo da Cambio, with Giotto lending a hand as journeyman painter or as assistant chief.

Giotto may then have assumed the role of protomagister probably around 1296 and retained overall supervision of the task for a number of years, even when not physically present in the town. Giotto’s own hand is definitely visible in some frescoes done in the early decades of the 1300s in the lower church.

Giotto’s most important work is the cycle of frescoes in the private Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, which he painted circa 1304-06. In 1300, Enrico Scrovegni, the scion of a wealthy Paduan banker Rinaldo degli Scrovegni, had purchased the land and buildings on the site of an ancient Roman arena and started to build his palace there. The palace chapel was in a separate brick building accessible both from the palace grounds through a side door and from the street through the main entry door. Enrico Scrovegni intended this small church to be his personal one as well as a sacred locus for the entombment of members of his family. In 1303 Enrico Scrovegni hired Giotto to decorate the chapel and Giotto worked at this task from circa 1304 to 1306.

While the dates of the building of the chapel are not known, a papal document dated March 1, 1304, states that Pope Benedict XI (1303-04) had granted a special indulgence to those faithful who visited the Chapel of the Virgin Mary of the Charity at the Arena. We also know that the chapel must have been popular with pilgrims, since on January 9, 1305, the Augustian friars of the recently built (1276) Church of the Eremitani, which was near the chapel, lodged a detailed protest with the bishop claiming that Enrico Scovregni personal chapel was turning into a regular church and providing unwarranted competition to their temple. Incidentally, the Eremitani monks stopped complaining when Enrico Scovregni gave them the job of officiating in his chapel.

Lastly, a document of the Major Council of Venice, dated March 16, 1306, approved the lending to Enrico Scrovegni of Venetian carpets, tapestries, and altar decorations from St. Mark’s for the consecration of his chapel in Padua. It is believed that by March 1306, Giotto had completed the chapel’s frescoes and thus the chapel was inaugurated on march 25, the Feast of the Annunciation.

The Scrovegni Chapel exterior plainness and comparatively small size (approx. 65 by 25 feet) belies the splendor Giotto lavished within: a fresco cycle of 34 frescoes situated on three tiers along the two long sides of the rectangular building. The end wall above the public entry door is taken up by a single fresco depicting the Last Judgement, while on the opposite end wall above a chancel arch another large fresco portrays God the Father sending the Archangel Gabriel on his Annunciation mission, which is celebrated by smaller frescoes on the arch’s side. On the south side long wall, the top tier of frescos narrates the story of Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Virgin Mary, while the top tier of the north wall tells the story of the Virgin Mary from her birth to her marriage to St. Joseph. The story of the Incarnation and infancy of Christ begins on the Chancel Arch with the Annunciation and Visitation and continues on middle tier of the south wall with scenes of the Nativity of Jesus to the Herod’s Sacrifice of the Innocents. The middle band of frescos of the north wall narrates scenes pertaining of Christ’s life, from Christ among the elders in the temple to the expulsion of the moneychangers from the temple.

One side of the chancel arch and the lower tier of frescoes on both long walls are dedicated to the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ and to the Pentecost. Below the three tiers of frescoes, nearest to the chapel’s floor, both long walls are frescoed with faux marble panel and with allegorical figures of the seven virtues and the seven vices.

The vault ceiling is also frescoed with a brilliant night blue sky and stars and a number of round frames enclosing half-length portraits of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus, of Christ blessing the world, and of seven prophets and one saint. Behind the public area of the chapel and the chancel arch is a smaller room covered by a Gothic vault which was reserved to the Scrovegni family, and in which some family members, including Enrico, are buried. Giotto also frescoed this area with Gothic architectural details.

In the Scrovegni Chapel, Giotto demonstrates a supreme mastery of the medium. The organization of the various scenes is coherent and complex, and yet totally logical in its simplicity. His ability as a storyteller is evident and by his skill and planning he is able to transform conventional religious stories, previously depicted in a formulaic manner, into vivid narratives that draw the viewer into the scene. The story is told in its many details by figures who look like real people and display comprehensible emotions in their gestures and facial expressions. For example, in the panel of the Marriage at Cana we see a fat host standing behind his water containers, astonished, sampling the water that Jesus has just turned into the best wine, and in the panel on The Betrayal of Judas Giotto has an evil-looking Judas embrace Christ, enveloping him in his large yellow mantle as if he wished to obliterate him from the scene. The English art historian John Ruskin, who wrote a whole book about Giotto’s frescoes in Padua, described Giotto’s Judas:

For the first time we have Giotto’s idea of the face of the traitor clearly shown. It is not, I think, traceable through any of the previous series; and it has often surprised me to observe how impossible it was in the works of almost any of the sacred painters to determine by the mere cast of feature which was meant for the false Apostle. Here, however, Giotto’s theory of physiognomy, and together with it his idea of the character of Judas, are perceivable enough. It is evident that he looks upon Judas mainly as a sensual dullard, and foul-brained fool; a man in no respect exalted in bad eminence of treachery above the mass of common traitors, but merely a distinct type of the eternal treachery to good, in vulgar men, which stoops beneath, and opposes in its appointed measure, the life and efforts of all noble persons, their natural enemies in this world; as the slime lies under a clear stream running through an earthy meadow…

In addition to his work in Florence, Assisi, Rome, and Padua, the enterprising Giotto apparently painted in many other Italian cities. In Rimini, on the Adriatic Riviera, where he stayed perhaps either before going to Padua or after completing the Scrovegni Chapel, he worked in the Church of St. Francis, now known as Tempio Malatestiano. Only traces of the frescoes and a mutilated cross remain. Dillian Gordon, the curator of pre-1500 Italian paintings at the National Gallery, London, also believes that seven tempera paintings with stories of the life of Christ, now scattered throughout the world, were made during Giotto’s stay in Rimini.

In Pisa, probably in the period 1295-1300, he painted a chapel altarpiece for the Church of St. Francis. The main piece, St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, and its predella of three smaller paintings, were taken to Paris during the Napoleonic period and have been at the Louvre since 1813.

It appears that Giotto was also in Bologna c. 1332-33, commissioned to decorate a papal church. A five-panel polyptic shows the Madonna with baby Jesus, the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, and St. Peter and St. Paul; this work is still in the Pinacoteca of Bologna.

Vasari relates that Giotto also painted in Ferrara and in Ravenna, but no documentary evidence that he even visited these cities has surfaced.

Between 1317 and 1320 Giotto was back in Florence, frescoing the Bardi Chapel and the Peruzzi Chapel in the Franciscan Church of Santa Croce. Vasari writes that in 1318 Giotto started to fresco the chapels of four prominent Florentine families in Santa Croce. The frescoes he did in two of those chapels, the Giugni Chapel and the Tosinghi Spinelli Chapel, were subsequently destroyed. The Peruzzi Chapel, with frescoes of the lives of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, although damaged by the passage of time, remains a powerful reminder of Giotto’s masterful use of spatial representation, shading, and plasticity that gives monumentality to the persons depicted. Subsequently both Masaccio and Michelangelo took lessons from these Giotto frescoes. The polyptych that Giotto did for the chapel’s altar, representing the Virgin Mary and saints, was first dismembered and dispersed but it is now miraculously reunited in the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.

Circa 1328, in the Bardi Chapel, next to the Peruzzi’s, Giotto frescoed episodes from the life of St. Francis. Although the scenes treat the same subjects as Giotto’s frescoes in Assisi, the stylistic difference is notable. Here Giotto has simplified the background while giving emphasis to the human figures and their emotions and gestures (Incidentally, in 1714, at the height of the Baroque period, both the Peruzzi and Bardi frescoes were whitewashed because they were deemed to be archaic, simple and not worthy preserving. Both were rediscovered and heavily restored in the mid-19th century; More recent work has cleared away the encumbrances of these maladroit restorations and brought back to view what remains of Giotto’s originals).

From 1328 to 1334 Giotto was in Naples, working as painter for King Robert the Wise, who admitted him as resident to his castle, called him “our faithful and familiar friend” and later gave him a pension.

Giotto, according to Petrarch, other chroniclers, and records of payments he received, was on King Robert’s payroll beginning in late 1328. In January 1330, he was made an official member of the king’s household and remained in Naples until late 1333 – early 1334. Within the castle, Giotto frescoed and did altarpieces for the Cappella Segreta, the small personal chapel of the royal family, the larger Capella Magna, which could accommodate all the courtiers, and the Gran Sala, the large castle hall. In the hall, rather than religious subjects he frescoes the portraits of nine famous men of antiquity and nine famous women, a novelty when virtually all paintings were of religious subjects.

Unfortunately, only few traces of Giotto’s work remain in the castle. The earthquake of December 4, 1456, destroyed most of them and the balance were obliterated when the castle was “remodeled’ in the Catalan style by a subsequent dynasty.

On April 12, 1334, Giotto was appointed by the government of Florence as Chief Master for the building of the cathedral and chief architect for the building of city walls, fortresses, and other government buildings. The walls and fortresses were in a sad shape due to a terrible Arno River flood that created havoc in the city on November 4, 1333, reaching the height of 10 feet in some parts of the city once the wall levies were breached. The government resolution appointing Giotto said, in part, “…Master Giotto di Bondone… shall therefore be named … as grand master and publicly regarded as such, so that he may have occasion to sojourn here for a long time; for by his presence many can have the advantage of his wisdom and learning, and the city gain no little glory because of him.”

Giotto’s major contribution was the design and commencing of the Campanile, the bell tower, whose first stone was laid on July 18, 1334. Although Florence boasted a 308 feet tower in the Palazzo della Signoria that Arnolfo di Cambio had started to build in 1299 to house Florence’s government, the tower had a forbidding medieval look that could not quite compete in beauty and elegance with the 186 feet graceful circular arcaded (although famously leaning) bell tower Pisa had completed building in 1319.

The Florentine government wanted to best Pisa’s tower and in the resolution approving the project decreed: “The Florentine Republic, soaring even above the conception of the most competent judges, desires that the Campanile be built also as to exceed in magnificence, height, and quality anything of the kind produced at the zenith of their greatness by the Greeks and Romans.” The tower was completed in 1359, at a height of 280 feet. Giotto also contributed the design and perhaps the actual carvings of a series of sculptural bas-reliefs (splendidly described by Ruskin in his Mornings in Florence) that grace the tower’s first story.

As onerous as Giotto’s duties as an architect and as an engineer were, he must have been a very good manager and able to delegate, since he could take time off, at the request of Florence, to go for a few months to Milan.

Duke Azzone Visconti had asked Florence to prevail on Giotto to go there to fresco his palace and other Milanese monuments, wishing to enhance his reputation and glory by employing an artist of Giotto’s fame. Vasari tells us that Giotto, “…worked also in Milan on a few things that are scattered throughout the city and are still beautiful…”

Giotto died on January 8, 1337, and, according to Villani, was buried in the Cathedral “with great honors at the expense of the commune”. He apparently was buried in a corner of the church nearest to his bell tower. Through the passage of time the exact location of burial was lost. During an excavation in the 1960-74, archaeologists recovered bones from beneath the pavement of Santa Reparata, the old Romanesque church that lies beneath the current cathedral. The bones were forgotten for decades until a journalist, Stefano Siena, claimed that his investigation and forensic reconstruction of the face from the recovered skull pointed to the fact that these were Giotto’s remains. While other experts scoffed at the claim, the remains were reburied in the cathedral near Filippo Brunelleschi’s tomb on January 8, 2001.

Whether or not the remains belong to Giotto, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore contains a more visible reminder of Giotto’s honored place in the history of artistic achievement and of Florence. Set high on a wall in the right nave near the main entrance on the left is a large medallion enclosed by an impressive round frame decorated with oak leaves and acorns representing in relief a vigorous and stout man at half bust, curly hair closely cropped, looking confident and skilled and intent on setting a marble or glass chip in a small mosaic of Christ’s head. It is a memorial to Giotto, ordered in his honor in 1490,153 years after Giotto’s death, by the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de Medici. Benedetto da Majano, reputed to have been Michelangelo’s first teacher, carved the medallion. Angelo Poliziano, a humanist, philosopher, poet, and a personal friend of Lorenzo de Medici, composed the Latin text carved in a marble frame below the medallion. It reads:

I am he through whose merit the lost art of painting was revived; whose hand was as faultless as it was compliant. What my art lacked nature herself lacked; to none others was it given to paint more or better… But what need is there for words? I am Giotto, and my name alone tells more than a lengthy ode.

That almost-lost art – the unique ability of painting to speak directly to its viewers, to clothe their dreams and legends in the pathos of very human flesh – has never had a more magnificent presentation than this large, lavish volume. The crisp reproductions on these pages zoom into close details only professional restorers could have appreciated in the past. Abbeville Press is to be congratulated on another outstanding accomplishment.

____
Luciano Mangiafico was born in Italy and is a retired U.S. diplomat. Among his many foreign postings in several continents, he was U.S. Consul in Milan (Italy), and Consul General in Palermo (Italy), Bucharest (Romania), and Bridgetown (Barbados). This essay is an abridged portion of a book in progress.

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