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little is know about the youth and training of Giotto, except that he
was born in a family of peasants in about 1267, in Colle of Vespignano
He was a pupil of Cimabue and worked with his teacher on some works. It
is highly unlikely that Cimabue understood the talent of his pupil by
looking at him draw one of the sheep he had led to graze, despite the
very popular legend.
A very important part of Giotto's training was the journey to Rome before
joining the construction sites in Assisi. An important school of painting
was developing in Rome in those years and included Pietro Cavallini, Jacopo
Torriti and Filippo Rusuti, who painted with classical art monumentality.
After the period in Rome Giotto worked in Assisi. The basilica of St Francesco
d'Assisi is made up of two overlapping churches. The lower basilica has
a complex plan with chapel with paintings by a number of artists. The
upper church has a unitary and clearly understandable iconography: episodes
of the old and new Testament are connected by pictures of the life of
St Francis according to the biography of St Bonaventura written in about
Between 1277 and 1280 Cimabue started decorating the left transept of
the upper church but the frescos were finished by his followers, including
Jacopo Torriti and Duccio da Boninsegna. He decorated the space between
the windows of the nave with stories of the old and new Testament; some
of these were probably painted by Giotto (his style can be seen in the
two Stories of Isaac and in the fragmented Deposition in the grave).
Giotto is the author of the lower decorations, beneath the windows, along
the nave. There are 28 rectangular frescos (270x230 cm) showing episodes
from the life of St Francis. The saint is, for the first time, a man who
walks among people, in a landscape, among buildings, in easily recognisable
places. Examples of this are in: the Renunciation to worldly possessions
(the saint is half naked), death of the knight of Celano, Homage of a
simple person and Nativity scenes of Greccio, where the search for perspective
is clearly evident. In these scenes Giotto refused all Byzantine elements
and frontal and bi-dimensional representation of holy scenes, which are
painted in a life-like setting. In the fresco where St Francis gives his
cloak to a poor man (one of the first paintings) there are elements typical
of Giotto's art (careful use of chiaroscuro to achieve volume, perspective
and the attempt of creating a harmonious, non-static, composition).
Giotto returned to Assisi at a later date for the decoration of the vault
of the lower basilica with Franciscan Allegories and the decoration of
the chapel of Magdalene.
During the years spent painting the frescos of Assisi Giotto also painted
a board depicting the saint receiving the stigmatas on a golden background
(now in the Louvre). The painting was for the church of St Francesco in
Pisa where some episodes of the saint's life are shown.
In 1300 in Rome he painted some frescos (none have survived; the fact
is recorded in documents of the time). Giotto then returned to Florence
where he painted more pictures (some are fragmented, like the great board
with the Crucifix in the sacristy of the church of Santa Maria Novella,
where the Byzantine elements have clearly been discarded; the representation
of a nail, used for the feet of Christ on the Cross, which induces the
legs to overlap, creates a perspective effect).
Between 1304 and 1306 Giotto worked in Padua and decorated the Scrovegni
chapel, built by Enrico Scrovegni to atone for the sins of his father,
condemned to the tortures of Hell by Dante in the Divine Comedy.
The pictures in the chapel exalt the Madonna; the back of the facade is
the picture of the Last Judgement (many parts were painted by his pupils
rather than by Giotto himself). On the sides and on the triumphal arch,
divided into three different types of decoration, are the Stories of Joachim
and Anne and the Stories of the life and of the passion of Christ. These
clearly show how the artist's style had matured, particularly the kiss
of Judas and Lamentation over the Dead Christ.
Before 1310 he painted the Madonna di Ognissanti, in the great altar piece
(325x204 cm), now in the Uffizi of Florence, where a typical element of
gothic culture is elaborated and renewed.
In 1320 he returned to Florence; most of his works from this period did
not survive or were divided and scattered in various museums all over
the world (as the Polyptich with Scenes of the life and of the passion
of Christ, divided between the Horne Museum of Florence and the National
Gallery of Art of Washington).
His tendency to physically and psychologically characterise the characters
he paints can be seen in the decorations of the Peruzzi and Bardi chapels,
in the church of Santa Croce in Florence. Today there are two chapels
but there should have been four.
The Peruzzi chapel was decorated with Stories of St John the Baptist and
of St John the Evangelist. The buildings' architecture is complex and
the artist's interest in perspective is becoming increasingly clear.
In the Bardi chapel the Stories of St Francis were painted; the chapel
was unfortunately damaged during the centuries and the cycle of paintings
was damaged with it. The Polyptich of the Virgin, painted after the Bardi
chapel, is in the Baroncelli chapel.
Between 1328 and 1333 Giotto went to Naples where he painted many pictures
for king Robert d'Anjou. None have survived. He then went to Bologna where
he worked on the Polyptich of Bologna (now in the National Picture Gallery
He painted the Stefaneschi Polyptich (Vatican Picture Gallery) for the
main altar of the basilica of St Peter. In 1334 he became "magister
et gubernator" of the work of Santa Reparata, i.e. of the construction
site of the duomo of Florence, where he built the first floor of the bell
tower, known as Giotto's bell tower.
In 1335-1336 he was in Milan, in the court of Azzone Visconti but nothing
is known about these years. He returned to Florence and died on 8th January
1337 at the age of 70.
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