The Renaissance Résumé: Giotto di Bondone


Prepared for the fulfillment of submitting a paper for the assessment of optional course “Introduction to Renaissance” in the third semester of the degree of Bachelor of Arts, Department of English.


Submitted by

Anusha Pal

(Roll no. 001400401060)


On the 20th of November, 2015



The era of Italian Renaissance painting began in the late 13th century and flourished from the early 15th to the late 16th centuries. This majorly occurred in the Italian peninsula which at that time was divided into many political areas. The painters of Renaissance Italy were attached to particular courts and served loyalty to particular towns. They also wandered the length and breadth of Italy, often occupying a diplomatic status and disseminating artistic and philosophical ideas.

The city of Florence in Tuscany is renowned as the birthplace of Renaissance and in particular, of Renaissance painting. Italian Renaissance can be classified into four periods: the Proto-Renaissance, the Early Renaissance, the High Renaissance and Mannerism. The Proto-Renaissance began with the professional life of painters like Giotto and includes Orcagna, Altichiero and Taddeo Gaddi. The Early Renaissance was marked by the works of Uccello, Ghiberti, Fra Angelico, Masaccio, Verrocchio and Piero della Francesca. The High Renaissance painters were Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian and Michaelangelo. Mannerism dealt with in a separate article; however, it included artists like Pontormo and Andrea del Sarto.

nn1     Ghiberti: Gates of Paradise


Leonardo da Vinci: The Last Supper


The art of the region of Tuscany in the late 13th century was dominated by two masters of the Byzantine style, Cimabue of Florence and Duccio of Siena. Their commissions were mostly religious paintings, several of them being very large altarpieces showing the Madonna and Child. Taking one of the Renaissance artists and painters into consideration, Giotto would count to be as one of the most terrific Renaissance artists of the time. His name, for a time, became the Medieval equivalent of a brand, the word ‘giotto’ a synonym for ‘painter’.

Giotto di Bondone is universally acknowledged as something of a pioneer in the art world, having taken the first artistic step toward the Renaissance. His career began in the time of the great medieval artists, whose stylized Byzantine techniques he soon traded in for the earthly, natural style he is known for today.

Giotto looked to these artists and to his master, Cimabue, for cues on subject matter and location of his frescoes. Like his master and others, he decorated chapels, churches, altars and other religious locations, depicting beautifully intricate scenes from the life of Christ and the saints.
Though di Bondone had his start among the medieval greats, he soon became a great in his own right, transforming the art world with his revolutionary painting style and technique.  Giotto came of age in an era of profound social change. As cities grew, a world of merchants, traders and craftsmen displaced traditional agricultural village life. Universities replaced monasteries as centers of learning and culture and writers such Dante and Boccaccio began writing in the vernacular, beginning a movement which stressed the importance of humans and the temporal world in which they lived.

The 16th century biographer Giorgio Vasari says of him “…He made a decisive break with the …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.” Giotto’s masterwork is the decoration of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, commonly called the Arena Chapel, completed around 1305. This fresco cycle depicts the life of the Virgin and the passion of Christ. It is regarded as one of the supreme masterpieces of the Early Renaissance.


A Scene from the Life of St. Francis Assisi

That Giotto painted the Arena Chapel is one of the few certainties of his biography. Almost every other aspect of it is subject to controversy: his birthdate, his birthplace, his appearance, his apprenticeship, the order in which he created his works, whether or not he painted the famous frescoes at Assisi, and where he was eventually buried after his death.

The fresco cycle of the Life of St. Francis in the Upper Church is commonly considered to be the work of Giotto, but the documents of the Franciscan Friars that relate to artistic commissions during this period were destroyed by Napoleon’s troops, who stabled horses in the Upper Church of the Basilica, and in the absence of documentary evidence to the contrary, it has been convenient to ascribe every fresco in the Upper Church that was not obviously by Cimabue, to Giotto, whose prestige has overshadowed that of almost every contemporary.

Some of the earliest remaining biographical sources, such Ghiberti and Riccobaldo Ferrarese, cite the fresco cycle of the life of St Francis in the Upper Church as his earliest autonomous works. However, since the idea was convincingly put forward by the German art historian, Friedrich Rintelen in 1912, an increasing number of scholars have expressed doubt that Giotto was in fact the author of the Upper Church frescos. There are many differences between them and the Arena Chapel frescoes which can not be accounted for by the stylistic development of an individual artist. It seems, rather, that several hands painted the frescoes and that the artists were probably from Rome. If this is the case, then Giotto’s frescoes at Padua owe much to the naturalism of these painters. According to Vasari, Giotto had made a fresco of the Annunciation of Christ and also the enormous suspended crucifix about the height of 5 metres.  These were one of his earliest works and they apparently were for the Dominicans at Santa Maria Novella.

The few other works of Giotto, which includes Madonna and Child panel(below) now rests in the Diocesan Museum of Santo Stefano al Ponte, Florence, and the famous signed panel of the Stigmata of St. Francis, from Pisa is now in the Louvre.

nn4Madonna and Child

Sometime between 1303 and 1310, Giotto executed (and signed) his most influential work, the painted decoration of the interior of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. This chapel, the building and decoration of which were commissioned by Enrico degli Scrovegni to atone for the sins of his father, is externally a very plain building of pink brick which was constructed next to an older palace that Scrovegni was restoring for himself. The palace, now gone, and the chapel were on the site of an Roman arena, for which reason it is commonly known as the Arena Chapel. The theme is Salvation, and there is an emphasis on the Virgin Mary, as the chapel is dedicated to the Annunciation.


The Birth of the Virgin Mary

On either side of the chancel paintings of the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, depicting the Annunciation. The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary and The Life of Christ is finely incorporated with it. The source for both, varies. The source for The Life of the Virgin is the Golden Legend of Jacopo da Varazze while The Life of Christ draws upon Meditations of the Life of Jesus by the Pseudo-Bonaventura. Being common in the decoration of the Medieval period, the west wall is dominated by the Last Judgement. Arranged around the lateral walls in 3 tiers, starting in the upper register with the story of Joachim and Anna, and the cycle been divided into 37 scenes, the parents of the Virgin and continuing with the story of Mary. The life of Jesus occupies two registers. The Last Judgment fills the entire pictorial space of the counter-façade.

While Giotto’s master Cimabue painted in a manner that is clearly Medieval, having aspects of both the Byzantine and the Gothic, Giotto’s style draws on the solid and classicizing sculpture of Arnolfo di Cambio. Unlike Cimabue and Duccio, Giotto’s figures are not stylized, not elongated and do not follow set Byzantine models. They are solidly three-dimensional, have anatomy, faces and gestures that are based on close observation and are clothed, not in swirling formalized drapery, but in garments that hang naturally and have form and weight. Although aspects of this trend in painting had already appeared in Rome in the work of Pietro Cavallini, Giotto took it so much further that he set a new standard for representational painting.

The heavily sculptural figures occupy compressed settings with naturalistic elements, often using forced perspective devices so that they resemble stage sets. This similarity is increased by Giotto’s careful arrangement of the figures in such a way that the viewer appears to have a particular place and even an involvement in many of the scenes. This dramatic immediacy was a new feature, which is also seen to some extent in the Upper Church at Assisi.

Famous panels in the series include the Adoration of the Magi, in which a comet-like Star of Bethlehem streaks across the sky, and the Flight from Egypt, in which Giotto broke many traditions in the depiction of the scene. The scenes from the Passion were much admired by artists of the Renaissance for their concentrated emotional and dramatic force, especially the Lamentation over the body of Christ, and studies of the sequence by Michelangelo exist.


Giotto Di Bondone made excellent use of the space he was allotted, planning carefully both to maximize the all-important authenticity and to give his viewer a sense of involvement in the work. It is often believed that, due to the way Giotto arranged his subjects, the viewer often have a place in his paintings.
Giotto used horizon lines, diagonal lines (often in the form of heavenly beams) to draw attention to the main idea of the fresco and to what he most wanted viewers to focus on.


The Lamentation of the Christ
One particular example of this is in Lamentation of the Christ (Church of St. Francis, Assisi), where the downward-left diagonal line of the mountain in the background draws the eye to Mary holding her dead son, while John the Baptist throws his arms up and back in despair. The upward motion leads the eye to the sky above the lamenters, where angels are weeping for the death of Christ.


If Giotto’s compositional style could be called unique, his use of color could probably have been called almost blasphemous for his time. Dismissing the excessively reverent, celestial tone of most existing religious works,  Bondone chose to substitute lovely natural blue skies for the typical “heavenly” gold ones so favored by Medievalists.
He gave authentic color to his subjects’ clothing, hair and faces, eschewing the accepted standard of dull, nondescript details and all emphasis on the work’s sanctity. He also incorporated the hues of bold greens, yellows, oranges and reds to communicate emotion, feeling, strength, harmony, peace and joy, quite unusual at the time.
Where his predecessors had relied almost exclusively on gold and other “holy” colors, it was Bondone’s adherence to naturalism which meant that he painted the world as it is – colorfully and bright. He did not use any medium to re-create the world – seeing terrors all around him, he wanted the beautiful things of life to be put up. The little beauties of nature made him gasp with joy. Those things beautifully came out in his paintings and other works.

Yet another way in which Giotto broke the mold was to manipulate the effects of light and shade to communicate a sense of reality to the viewer. He used light and shade both to demonstrate the variety of settings earth instead of the traditional, sacred-looking background and to give life to his subjects.
In this way, di Bondone’s lack of interest in Byzantine styles be seen: he did not paint his subjects as flowy and other-worldly, but as real people with weight and form that were governed by the laws of gravity. The use of light and shade draws attention to the realness of the human form by emphasizing curves, bulk, muscles, and other body lines. Bondone proved, in short, to be a master of chiaroscuro.

As I previously did mention, Giotto painted his works so as to make his viewer feel like more than just a spectator; he wanted them to have a place in his scene. To that end, he often painted so that the viewer seems to be in the painting, observing at a discreet distance the action taking place. This is particularly evident throughout the frescoes on the ceiling of the Scrovegni Chapel where, as Bondone painted scenes from the lives of Mary and Jesus, he carefully arranged the figures so as to allow the viewer to feel as though he or she were, for example, walking along on the road to Egypt.


The Flight into Egypt

It can easily be said that Giotto di Bondone adhered for virtually his entire career to the same style, methods and techniques. His initial innovations, largely (if not totally) unaltered, spread throughout Italy and eventually Europe like wildfire, winning him lifelong fame and attracting any number of ardent followers and imitators. Di Bondone’s methods were ground-breaking at the time, and he spent most of his seventy years very slowly refining them. His earliest known work, at the Church of St. Francis in Assisi, does not noticeably differ from his final work at the Campanile in Florence.

Giotto died in January 1337. According to Vasari, Giotto was buried in Santa Maria del Fiore, the Cathedral of Florence, on the left of the entrance and with the spot marked by a white marble plaque. According to other sources, he was buried in the Church of Santa Reparata. Thus, ended the life of one of the great Proto-Renaissance artists.

Giotto’s techniques – the non-stylized, bulky, emotional, authentic-looking way of painting humans, the bright and colorful scenery substituted for traditionally “holy” colors, and his dedication to naturalism – made him the definitive artist of his time. His informal title of father of the Renaissance is not undeserved. Although the next step in the evolution of his style was not taken until Masaccio, di Bondone’s style remains one of the most important contributions in the history of art.










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