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Who is... Giotto?

`St. Francis giving his cloak to a poor man' (Fresco)

Oh empty glory of human powers...
In painting Cimabue thought to hold the field,
And now Giotto has the cry,
So that the other's fame is diminished.

Divine Comedy, 11th canto of Purgatory

Dante Aligheri

THUS DANTE wrote of his friend Giotto di Bondone, recognised by art historians as the first genius of art in the Italian Renaissance. Born in 1266 in Vespignano near Florence, there are many stories about Giotto's precocious talents.

According to art historian Giorgio Vasari, Cimabue, a well-known Florentine artist, saw the 12-year-old Giotto sketch a lamb on a rock and was so impressed that he persuaded Giotto's father to let him become his pupil. Giotto quickly outstripped his master as Dante writes.

`Preaching before Pope Honorius III' (Detail)

While Giotto's output was huge there is a lot of controversy surrounding the authorship of his works - particularly the frescoes on the life of St. Francis at Assisi. Giotto is supposed to have been very witty and a practical joker as well apart from his talents in architecture, sculpture and poetry. Florence honoured Giotto with the title of Magnus Magister (great master) and appointed him City Architect and Superintendent of Public Works. At his death in 1337, he was survived by six children.

There is another story of how the Pope Boniface asked Giotto to send a sample of his work and he dipped a brush in red paint and painted a perfect circle with a continuous stroke. When the Pope saw it, Vasari writes, "he instantly perceived that Giotto surpassed all other painters of his time."

Homage of a simple man (fresco)

Giotto was responsible for the shift from the stylisations of Byzantine art. He is credited with introducing ideals of naturalism and a convincing sense of pictorial space. Though Giotto lacked technical knowledge of anatomy and perspective that later artists had, his figures had a three dimensionality and presence that expressed the essence of the emotion in a flash. His influence was great as is obvious from the establishment of Giotteschi, schools of artists formed in places he visited including Assisi, Padua, Rimini, Milan and Naples.

After his death, his influence tapered with the growth of international Gothic but that he had a great influence on Western art is a given, considering masters like Michelangelo and Masaccio were his spiritual heirs and in the words of Cennino Cennini, "Giotto translated the art of painting from Greek to Latin."


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