Often credited with being the ‘Father of Renaissance’, Giotto di Bondone, was the first-ever artist to break away from the monotonous byzantine style of paintings and move forward with naturalism. He spent his entire career focusing on frescos and drawing from real life. He was devoted to portraying humans with immense physical and emotional accuracy in his paintings. Giotto was a strikingly talented painter and his techniques and methods of painting are considered as his ultimate gift to the renaissance.
The life of Giotto
Almost everything one can find about Giotto’s life is subject to uncertainty and legends, his birth, apprenticeship, legacy, even death. Hence, it was commonly accepted that he was born around 1266 in the village of Vespignano, Italy and he was believed to be discovered by Cimabue, an Italian painter when he found an extremely realistic sheep drawn on a rock and was in awe. He then asked permission from di Bondone’s father to take young Giotto as an apprentice. Giotto spent his apprenticeship exploring Italy with his master and then opened up his workshop in around 1290.
It is also said that it was Cimabue who suggested that Giotto open his workshop when he tried to chase away a fly painted by Giotto in one of his paintings. After that is when Giotto’s career went uphill and he went to Assisi to fresco the Upper Church with the life of Saint Francis, considered one of his best works now. Between 1200 and 1300 Giotto worked in Rome and Assisi, where he gained extreme appreciation and riches as an artist, prevailing over his master, Cimabue. He came back to Florence in around 1311 and between 1320 and 1325, worked in Santa Croce, the Peruzzi chapel, and Bardi Chapel.
At one point, he gained so much success that he was called by the king of Anjou, Naples, to work on the Baroncelli Polyptych, in today’s San Diego. In 1327, when he returned, he was appointed the chief architect of Florence and began work as a master builder for the Florentine opera Del Duomo and started building the Florence bell tower, now named after him.
In his final years, Giotto became friends with many famous poets and writers like Boccaccio, Sacchetti, and Dante who featured him in their stories. One of the most appreciated pieces on Giotto is in the Divine Comedy, where Dante immortalized his contemporary when a painter in Purgatorio (XI, 94–96) said: “Cimabue believed that he held the field/In painting, and now Giotto has the cry, / So the fame of the former is obscure.”
Di Bondone’s last known project was the Podesta Chapel in Florence; he died in Florence on January 8th, 1337, and was initially buried in the church of Santa Reparata. However, in the 1970s, the place underwent excavations and his remains were moved near the grave of Brunelleschi.
Giotto’s Style and Works
Giotto, although apprenticed to a master who stringently adhered to a style of painting that incorporated both gothic and Byzantine styles, he instead, drew from life, imbuing his characters and paintings with emotions and realism. His early works were characterized by experimenting with thicker than normal brush strokes to create more realistic-looking subjects. Giotto’s paintings had depth, his compositions forced perspective and foreshortening. He even painted the figures’ clothing with naturalistic drapery. His frescoes on the life of St. Francis at the church of Assisi are clear evidence of these techniques and his style of work.
He also pioneered a unique style of painting where he arranged the subjects in such a way that the viewer appears to have a place in the painting.
As Giotto grew older, his subjects, while staying religious, his style continued to develop. His ingenious use of chiaroscuro and his masterful manipulation of perspective in the Peruzzi Chapel are evidence of his growth.
Some of his work to stand out amongst the rest is the spectacular Ognissanti Madonna, also known as the Uffizi Maesta, the frescoes in the Basilica of Santa Croce, the Peruzzi Chapel which he frescoed with the Life of Saint John, and the Bardi Chapel displaying the Life of Saint Francis.
Giotto’s work involved humanism, his interest in depicting human emotions and modeling human figures, his ability to simplify and breakdown the distance between his paintings and the viewers, his interest in architecture, proportions, perspective, and even engineering, were all significant elements in developing the renaissance humanist art and thoughts. His methods were groundbreaking at the time and he spent his entire lifetime refining them.
He made excellent use of space, carefully planned his compositions, used geography and geometry, and drew attention to the main idea of the fresco and to what he wanted the viewers to focus on. His use of color could probably be called almost blasphemous for his time, he dismissed celestial tone and adhered to naturalism, that is, he painted the world as it is, colorfully.
Recognized in his own time as a master by poets and thinkers, Giotto’s development of pictorial space and his obsession with an unprecedented degree of realism inspired the early instigators of the renaissance in Florence. His influence can be seen in the sculptural revolution by figures such as Lorenzo Ghiberti and Donatello and his artistic inheritance can also be recognized in the paintings of young Masaccio. Giotto’s concepts of realism and perspective were highly popular and it spurred an increased interest in paintings with emotions and realism. Eventually, these humanist interests and the realist techniques culminated in the Renaissance, and as we know it now, Giotto’s name became legend.
Unfortunately, most of Giotto’s work has been destroyed or lost but whatever remains leaves us with a beautiful reminder and appreciation for his work. His influence continued to be recognized by later artists. His techniques – the non-stylized, emotional, authentic-looking paintings of humans, the bright colorful scenery substituting the traditionally holy and celestial colors, and his dedication to naturalism are what made him the definitive artist of his time.
- YouTube. Giotto di Bondone. [Online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5JIUnMkBykE [Accessed 24 Sept 2021].
- Artble. Giotto di Bondone. [Online]. Available at: https://www.artble.com/artists/giotto_di_bondone [Accessed 25 Sept 2021].
- Art story (2017-2018). Giotto- Italian proto-renaissance painter. [Online]. Available at: https://www.theartstory.org/artist/giotto/ [Accessed 25 Sept 2021].
- Wikipedia. Giotto di Bondone. [Online]. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giotto [Accessed 25 Sept 2021].