|"Credette Cimabue nella pittura
tener lo campo, e ora ha Giotto il grido,
sì che la fama di colui oscura." (Dante)
"Once Cimabue thought to hold the field
as painter; Giotto now is all the rage,
dimming the lustre of the other's fame".
WHO WAS GIOTTO? WHERE AND WHEN WAS HE BORN?
Giotto di Bondone (Giotto son of Bondone), one of the greatest exponents in the History of Painting, of which he could be declared Father founder in modern times, was born at Colle di Vespignano, a village near Vicchio di Mugello and not far from Florence in Tuscany, in 1267. His birthdate is taken from the testimony of Antonio Pucci who, in 1373, wrote that Giotto died in 1337 at the age of seventy. Vasari declared his birthdate as 1276, but this however seems unlikely.
IN WHICH HISTORICAL PERIOD DID GIOTTO LIVE?
In the darkest decades that followed the Fall of the Roman Empire, there was a force
that ensured, in Europe, a cultural homogeneity through the Middle Ages. The Church of
Rome, head of Christianity, with its virtual monopoly of scholarship and its Latin speech,
provided the medieval world with its essential unity. It imposed a general and common
standard of culture and learning, deriving mostly from the classical past.
States, and their social organization, as we know them today, were still not formed.
The Christian world of the IXth and Xth centuries had been attacked and surrounded by
enemies on the East, North and South. Europe seemed on the defence and was isolated from
the outside world.
In the XIth and XIIth centuries the situation turned upside down. A particular kind of
social organization, based on a system of warriors and priests over an enormous mass of
peasants, changed the perspectives for the various European microcosms which, finding
faith in themselves, were sproned to finding places and possibilities for their own
The Crusades were the first stage of this outward movement by
the restless races of the new Europe whose exuberant energy was accelerated by a
But, in those same times, there was another force at work - Trade - which was inimical
to this feudal world. Trade was the main force that drew people together in the dark
years, trade allowed movement and exchange, trade allowed the persistance of life in town.
This force was working like yeast and, at the beginning of the XIIIth century, it
impressed a violent acceleration on everything concerned with man : political order,
social structure, way of life and thinking, approach to nature and the territory, not to
mention the structure of trade itself, the way it was carried out, the possibilities of
financing it and, with its proceeds, finance other enterprises, the way of protecting the
same. In a few words, it was a real, outstanding revolution that changed the western
world, a revolution as dramatic as the one (nearest in time and therefore better known to
us) that changed the face of Britain in the late eighteenth century. This commercial
capitalism, still struggling in the framework of feudalism, learned ( and through Italy
spread quickly throughout the rest of Europe) not only how to express itself in all such
different ways, but also how to give man a different place in the world.
No wonder, then, if a man of culture born in the fast-pulsing heart of this revolution,
the town of Florence, leading center for trade as well as for new enterprises and cultural
life, was to represent the spirit of adventure, the rationality and the efficiency of this
world and of its mercantile class in particular. Trade, as newly intended, moved that kind
of revolution that acts slowly, day after day, rather than in an outburst of forces and
changes, but, in doing so, it modifies more deeply man and his world. Giotto's impact on
painting had the same depth and character.
It must be said in advance that, for what concerns the psychological and connoscitive
aspect, the man of the Middle Ages lived in quite a different world from how we imagine,
know or live it today. He lived in a world in which the visible was only a trace of the
invisible, in which there was no line of demarcation between the day to day natural life
and the "supernatural". He lived in a world stained to the core by religion.
Nature appeared to him as a terrifying forest from which to draw back and which was
impossible to know. His whole world was permeated by a symbolic structure, the whole
reality, the phenomena, things themselves were symbols to decipher. The same mental form
of the medieval man was therefore deeply moulded by this symbolic dimension. Immersed in
this context, the artist of the time did not even consider giving faithful representation
of reality, questioning forms and structure and to know it materialistically, but he
adhered, mind and hand, to the "dogma", to the iconographic tradition which was,
in fact, of closely symbolic nature. The representations to which he could be destined (
he was still far from the figure of artist-individual, arteficer of his own fortune and
expression of his own will) concerned, in the great majority, religious themes to which
could sometimes be added themes in th7e order of warriors or courtesans.
Giotto is the first artist whose thought and new vision of the world helped to launch,
through an ideal relay, that movement, the Humanism, that offered liberation from the
oppressive dogmatism of the Middle Ages, restoring to man a central place in the Universe
and giving him a sense of mastery over his own destiny. He was a precursor, but his break
was sharp and vivid and propelled the birth, in the next two centuries, of generations of
artists that, they themselves , would make this period one of the great epochs of human
achievement. As testified by the introductory quotation, taken from Dante's Divine Comedy, Giotto was recognized as a great man
and painter by his own contemporaries as well as by artists and men of culture, such as
Ghiberti, Boccaccio, Vasari, Leonardo, of the following Renaissance period. Again, at the
beginning of the nineteenth century, Goethe, in his essay on Dante, proposed that "in
those times, figurative art rose again to its natural force with Giotto". It is no
wonder therefore that tradition too has delivered to us the figure of Giotto just like
that of the hero of a naturalistic revolution that broke all links with the Middle Ages
and laid down the foundations of modern painting. We worship him in the same way.
CHRONOLOGICAL TABLE OF GIOTTO
Note : Events relating to the artistic context, painting in particular, have been printed in Italics.
|In Florence, the "Guelfi" take over political control of the city.
||Birth of Giotto, not far from Florence
|The last Crusade departs.
|Marco Polo leaves Venice with destination China.
|In England Edward I goes to the throne.
|Rudolph I of Absburg goes to the throne.He is the first monarch of this house that,in times to follow, will hold the throne of Germany for nearly four centuries in succession.
|In Florence the historian Giovanni Villani is born. Birth of Pietro Lorenzetti
|In Venice the Ducat is coined. Birth of Simone Martini.
|In France,Philip IV "le bel" goes to the throne. Birth of Ambrogio Lorenzetti
|Birth of Paolo Veneziano
|The territories of Uri,Unterwalden and Schwytz join to form the first cell of the Swiss Confederation.
||Giotto is working in Assisi in the church of St. Francis.
|In Venice,closure of the "Maggior Consiglio"
|Pope Boniface VIII announces the first Jubilee.
|Death of Giovanni Cimabue
||Giotto is in Padua where he Begins his most important work, the decoration of the Scrovegni Chapel (60 images).
||He finishes the cycle of frescoes in Padua.
|The Papacy in Avignone.
||First documented news that names Giotto.
|Death of Giovanni Pisano
|Death of Duccio
|Birth of Giovanni Dondi. Birth of Giusto de Menabuoi
||On this date he results as Member of the guild "Medici e Speziali".
|Death of Dante
|In Mantua, the Gonzaga family.
||Giotto is in Naples, working takes over political control. For the court of Carlo d'Angiò. None of this work remains.
|Birth of Altichiero da Zevio
||In Florence,Giotto is appointed master-builder of the "Opera of St. Reparata" ( The belfry of Giotto ).
||According to the historian Villani he works in Milan for Azzone Visconti. None of this work remains.
|The Hundred Years war begins
||Death of Giotto on 8th January according to Villani
Introduction to the works
The Works of Giotto