Much of what we know about Giotto today is subject to uncertainty and legends, like his exact birthdate, birthplace, appearance, where he apprenticed, the chronology of his works and his burial place. The artist was born Ambrogio or Angiolo di Bondone, most likely in 1267 in Colle di Vespignano (Vicchio) 35 kilometres north of Florence. He was probably trained in the workshop of Cenni di Peppi, also known as Cimabue, the artist with whom Giorgio Vasari begins his Lives that document all the Italian artists he knew.
According to legend, Cimabue discovered Giotto, a humble shepherd, while drawing his sheep on a rock. The pictures were so life-like that Cimabue approached the boy’s family to ask if he could take him on as an apprentice. Another legend says that the young apprentice painted a fly in one of Cimabue’s pieces so realistically that the artist tried brushing it off!
Some scholars consider the small San Giorgio alla Costa Madonna and Child (part of the collection of the Diocesan Museum at Santo Stefano al Ponte and on long-term loan to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo) to be Giotto’s first independent panel painting. Stylistically the work is still close to that of his master – an important document of early Giotto. Giotto probably followed Cimabue to Assisi to paint several frescoes, including the cycle depicting the Life of St. Francis, whose attribution is still a topic of discussion.
According to some documents dated to 1301 and 1304, the artist owned large estates in Florence, likely was leading a large workshop and was receiving commissions from all over Italy, such as Padua (where he decorated the interior of the Arena or Scrovegni Chapel, his most complete and important surviving fresco cycle), Assisi and Rome.
Giotto died in January 1337 and was possibly buried in the Church of Santa Reparata with a solemn ceremony paid for by the city. Dante acknowledged the greatness of his contemporary in his Divine Comedy, writing in Purgatory (XI, 94–96): "Cimabue believed that he held the field/In painting, and now Giotto has the cry,/ So the fame of the former is obscure."