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Giotto: his life, his art and endless curiosities

the importance of a genius

He was a forerunner to the Renaissance, the painter who introduced life-like drawing and was able to draw a perfect "O" without a compass. His name was Giotto

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, 35 kilometres north of Florence. He was probably trained in the workshop of Cenni di Peppi, also known as Cimabue, one of the most renowned painters in the history of Italian art.

San Giorgio alla Costa Madonna and Child, Diocesan Museum at Santo Stefano al Ponte in Florence
San Giorgio alla Costa Madonna and Child, Diocesan Museum at Santo Stefano al Ponte in Florence

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 (now housed in the Diocesan Museum at Santo Stefano al Ponte in Florence) was the Giotto’s first independent panel painting, which is characterized by the budding style he would go on to lead. 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.

Crucifix in the Church of Santa Maria Novella
Crucifix in the Church of Santa Maria Novella - Credit: Rufus46 / Wikipedia

Giotto’s first proven Florentine masterpiece (dated to around 1290) is the large Crucifix in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, roughly 5 metres in height and a revolutionary work. Christ’s body is painted vertically, with his legs bent, depicting a truly human figure in the midst of suffering rather than a non-canonical figure.

After this piece, Giotto's fame as a painter was firmly established. 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 Scrovegni Chapel), Assisi and Rome. Around this time, in Florence, he created some works that are considered the height of his artistic maturity, like the Ognissanti Madonna altarpiece, a large painting now held in the Uffizi Gallery, the Dormitio Virginis and the Crucifix in the Church of Ognissanti. In 1318, he started painting chapels for four Florentine families in the Church of Santa Croce: the Bardi Chapel (Life of St. Francis), Peruzzi Chapel (Life of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist) and the lost Giugni Chapel (Stories of the Apostles) and Tosinghi Spinelli Chapel (Stories of the Holy Virgin).

Peruzzi Chapel, The Ascension of St John the Evangelist
Peruzzi Chapel, The Ascension of St John the Evangelist

As with most aspects of Giotto’s career, the dates of these frescoes are disputed. The Bardi Chapel, to the right of the church’s main chapel, was largely painted a secco, a quicker but less durable technique. The Peruzzi Chapel was especially famous during the Renaissance and his work later influenced Masaccio’s frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel, as well as Michelangelo, 200 years later, who is known to have studied the Santa Croce frescoes. 

After a series of commissioned works in Rome, Naples and Bologna, Giotto spent his last years working as an architect, almost always in Florence. In 1334, he was appointed chief of the construction sites in piazza Duomo and superintendent of public works for Florence. That same year, he began working on the cathedral’s new bell tower. Interestingly, even though the tower is today known as “Giotto’s Bell Tower,” the artist actually only completed the lower floor before his death and the finished product was not entirely faithful to his original designs.

Giotto's Bell Tower in Florence
Giotto's Bell Tower in Florence - Credit: carolyngifford

His last known work is the decoration in the Podestà Chapel in the Bargello, with a cycle of frescoes that are today poorly preserved. These frescoes include the oldest portrait of Dante Alighieri.

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."  

Here's an infographic about Giotto.


This article was written by Leila Firusbakht.

Art and Culture