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Giotto a Firenze

4 works by Giotto on display in Florence

Discovering the famous artist who painted the frescoes in the Assisi Basilica

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Giotto di Bondone, known as Giotto, was born in 1267 in Vespigliano, a district of the town of Vicchio, and died in 1337 in Florence. Born into a family of counts, he was driven by a strong passion for painting and began going to the studio of painter, Cenni di Pepi, known as Cimabue.

Giotto’s artwork and technique was very important for Italian art. His sacred subjects were always distinguished by a great expressiveness and a profound humanity that stood out in all of his painted stories. His landscapes, almost always represented in natural environments, are known for their quality obtained by strong colour variations. His style, copied by other painters, has influenced all of Italy’s artistic traditions.

Among the most famous of Giotto’s influences are definitely the Stories of isaac, Stories from the Old and New Testaments and Stories of St. Francis. After working in Rome and Assisi, he went to Padua and Florence, where he painted frescoes in many monuments, such as the Church of Santa Croce, the Peruzzi Chapel and the Bardi Chapel.

Here are 4 of the artist’s works that are on display in the city:

The Badia Polyptych by Giotto
Giotto, Badia Polyptych
Giotto, Badia Polyptych - Credit: scan / Wikipedia

Giotto’s Badia Polyptych is composed of five pieces with triangular pinnacles: in the central one, a half-figure Madonna and Child are depicted; on the sides, from the left, are saints Nicholas of Bari, John the Evangelist, Peter and Benedict, also from the waist upwards (identifiable not only by their appearances, but also by inscriptions on the bottom); in the pinnacles are tondi with the busts of angels, and in the centre is Christ Blessing. 

The polyptych was conserved for a long time in the convent which then became the Museum of the Opera di Santa Croce, where Ugo Pocacci succeeded in identifying its actual origins as being from the church of Badia, from where it was removed during the Napoleonic suppression of the convents (1810). With this identification, the attribution to Giotto was confirmed that was proposed for the first time by Henry Thode at the end of the 19th century, but which had aroused uncertainty among critics: in Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Commentaries he refers to the polyptych above the high altar of Badia as a work by the master.

After being luckily saved from the November 1966 flood, the work was displayed in the Uffizi Galleries. In 2000, it underwent restoration by Mario Celesia.

Madonna di San Giorgio alla Costa, Giotto
Madonna di San Giorgio Alla Costa, Giotto
Madonna di San Giorgio Alla Costa, Giotto - Credit: Wikipedia

The painting gets its name from the church where it was kept until just a few decades ago; nowadays it is kept in the Diocesan Museum of Santo Stefano al Ponte in Florence but it has a very troubled past. On May 27th, 1993, it was damaged in a Mafia attack which took the lives of five people. This work was only recognised as Giotto’s in 1937 by German critic Robert Oertel, in an extravagant and important review of the Giotto exhibition held in Florence that year. The question of attribution experienced numerous controversies but today it is generally agreed upon.

The painting shows the typical features of the Giotto’s youthful techniques, with influences from the oldest frescoes in Assisi (the Stories of Isaac, the vault depicting the Doctors of the Church and some Stories from the Old and New Testaments in the upper registers of the aisles), the Santa Maria Novella Crucifix and the fragment of the Madonna and Child in Borgo San Lorenzo.

The Crucifix in Santa Maria Novella, Giotto
Crucifix in Santa Maria Novella, Giotto
Crucifix in Santa Maria Novella, Giotto - Credit: Rufus46 / Wikipedia

After a long restoration project carried out at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, the Crucifix was put in the central nave of Santa Maria Novella.

The artwork shows Giotto’s typical features, highlighted in the substance of the figures, particularly the body of Christ, made heavy with death. A series of comparisons with other paintings by the artist, particularly with the other crucifixes, suggests that this dates back to his youth. This is also proven by the fact that a cross painted by the Lucca-based painter Deodato Orlandi in 1301 is incorporated into his composition.

The frescoes in Santa Croce, Giotto
Giotto, Death of St. Francis, Santa Croce, Florence
Giotto, Death of St. Francis, Santa Croce, Florence - Credit: Wikipedia

In the final years of his artistic career, Giotto created a series of frescoes in the church of Santa Croce in Florence. The frescoes were kept in the Peruzzi Chapel and the Bardi Chapel. In the first chapel, he depicted stories of the lives of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, while in the second chapel, he painted stories of the life of St. Francis. With regards to the dating of these frescoes, there is not yet a scholarly agreement, but they were definitely made after 1320, when Giotto was approximately 60 years old and entering the more mature phase of his art.

The style, compared to his previous frescoes, seems barer and simpler, but progress in the spatial vision is decidedly better than other contemporary works. Giotto, in these frescoes, comes to the almost complete understanding of the laws of perspective, to a level that, several decades later, only the Lorenzetti brothers understood. However, these attempts to understand perspective stopped suddenly in the middle of the 14th century and were only resumed at the start of the 15th century with Brunelleschi, Masaccio and Donatello.

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