Giotto di Bondone: Crucifix, 1290-1295
Giotto di Bondone: Kiss of Judas (fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel)
Giotto di Bondone: Ognissanti Madonna
"Credette Cimabue nella pittura / Tener lo campo, ed ora ha Giotto il grido/ sì, che la fama di colui oscura "
Dante, Divine Comedy
In his "Lives of the artists", Vasari mentioned the following story: in a quiet day, the Florentine painter Cimabue was walking in the countryside when he observed with surprise how a young shepherd, just a little boy, was painting ewes on a rock with a white chalk. When the master asked him about his name, the kid said: "My name is Giotto, and my father is called Bondone"
This story is probably untrue, but it is useful as an introduction to the Art of Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337), the painter who, with his unusually imaginative talent, his original iconographies, and his remarkable love for the nature and the human expression, revolutionized Western Art to the point that many critics consider him, not without reason, the first genius of European painting, praised by his contemporaries Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio. At his death in 1337, at age 70, Giotto left a school with important disciples (Bernardo Daddi, Taddeo Gaddi...) who directed Florentine painting until the arrival of the great quattrocentist masters like Fra Angelico.
The first works of Giotto, still very close to Cimabue's stylistic features, already began to show some of his original pictorial characteristics: that is the case of the Crucifix in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, in Florence (painted between 1290-1295), where the humanization of the figure of Christ is completely different than the those found at the hieratic Byzantine crucifixes.
The first masterpiece by Giotto are the frescoes that he painted at the Basilica of San Francisco in Asis, between 1296 and 1300, based on the legend of Saint Bonaventure. Nevertheless, these works do not reach the perfection of those in the Scrovegni Chapel, in Padua, where, in addition to the individual quality of each scene (from the dramatism of "The Massacre of the Innocents" to the mysterious faces of the women in the "Meeting of Saint Joachim and Saint Anna"), the value of the spatial conception of the entire set is added. Giotto painted another series of frescoes for the Church of Santa Croce, already in his maturity (c. 1325).
In addition to these frescoes, Giotto made several paintings on panels, being the most famous the Madonna in Majesty (known as the Ognissanti Madonna) in which the face of the Virgin, far from the cold and hieratic inexpressiveness of the Byzantines panels, shows an expressivity that suggests the possibility of having been taken from a living human model, perhaps a Florentine young woman.
It is also known that Giotto was an accomplished architect, receiving the assignment of designing the campanile in the Cathedral of Florence, although he probably only made a few sketches.
Giotto is to Italian trecento a phenomenon which all his contemporaries tried to follow, but none of them were able to reach until the appearance of Fra Angelico and the primitive flamenco masters of the early 15th Century.