di Bondone, better known simply as Giotto, was an Italian painter and
architect from Florence. Giotto was described by Dante as the foremost
painter, displacing the elder Cimabue in fame and fortune. Posterity,
however, has seen Giotto in stronger terms, as the revolutionary who
altered the course of painting in Western Europe, striking out of the
Gothic and Byzantine styles towards the
Giotto di Bondone is generally considered the first in a line of great artists who contributed to the Italian Renaissance. Giotto di Bondone, the father of modern painting and one of the greatest figures in the history of Western art, was born in a small hamlet in the valley of the Mugello, twenty miles north of Florence. We know very little about Giotto di Bondone and his exact birthplace has been disputed. Giotto lived and worked at a time when people's minds and talents were first being freed from the shackles of medieval restraint. He dealt largely in the traditional religious subjects, but he gave these subjects an earthly, full-blooded life and force.
Giotto di Bondone was born about 1266 in the village of Vespignano, near Florence. His father was a small landed farmer. Giorgio Vasari, one of Giotto's first biographers, tells how Cimabue, a well-known Florentine painter, discovered Giotto's talents. Cimabue supposedly saw the 12-year-old boy sketching one of his father's sheep on a flat rock and was so impressed with his talent that he persuaded the father to let Giotto become his pupil. Another story is that Giotto, while apprenticed to a wool merchant in Florence, frequented Cimabue's studio so much that he was finally allowed to study painting. By 1312 Giotto belonged to the Florentine Guild of doctors and apothecaries to which painters belonged.
The earliest of Giotto's known works is a series of frescoes (paintings on fresh, still wet plaster) on the life of St. Francis in the church at Assisi. Each fresco depicts an incident; the human and animal figures are realistic and the scenes expressive of the gentle spirit of this patron saint of animals. In about 1305 and 1306 Giotto painted a notable series of 38 frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua. The frescoes illustrate the lives of Jesus Christ and of the Virgin Mary. Over the archway of the choir is a scene of the Court of Heaven, and a Last Judgment scene faces it on the entrance wall.
The compositions are simple, the backgrounds are subordinated, and the faces are studies in emotional expression. All of these paintings were in churches and of spiritual images because during the renaissance period the world was changing and people being scared turned to religion for comfort and that's what the artists gave to the public they gave them safety and hope of a brighter future.
Between 1329 and 1332, Giotto worked for the King of Naples and in 1334 he was appointed chief architect for the Cathedral of Florence, which he helped design and for which he created several statues. We know that Giotto worked at various times in Rome, Milan, Padua, Assisi, Ravenna, Rimini, and other cities in Italy and in France.
Giotto signed his name to only three of his paintings. His most famous attributed works are the Arena Chapel frescoes (1305-10) in Padua, the Bardi and Peruzzi Chapel frescoes in Santa Croce in Florence, and the magnificent Ognissanti Madonna (shown here) for the Church of All Saints. The twenty-eight frescoes based on the life of St. Francis and located in the Upper Church of the Franciscans in Assisi are accepted as Giotto's by some art historians and denied him by others. The controversy, which has now raged for a century and a half, fills volumes and has yet to be resolved.
In 1334 the city of Florence honored Giotto di Bondone with the title of Magnus Magister (Great Master) and appointed him city architect and superintendent of public works. In this capacity he designed the famous campanile (bell tower). Vasari tells the story of how Pope Boniface VIII sent a messenger to Giotto with a request for samples of his work. Giotto dipped his brush in red and with one continuous stroke painted a perfect circle. He then assured the messenger that the worth of this sample would be recognized. When the pope saw it, he "instantly perceived that Giotto surpassed all other painters of his time."
Giotto di Bondone died in 1337, before the work was finished. Giotto was short and homely, and he was a great wit and practical joker. Giotto di Bondone was married and left six children at his death. Unlike many of his fellow artists, he saved his money and was accounted a rich man. Giotto di Bondone was on familiar terms with the pope, and King Robert of Naples called him a good friend.
Giotto was concerned with the problem of presenting human figures and their actions realistically on a flat surface that was to represent three-dimensional space. Before Giotto di Bondone, artists had followed the flat forms of the Byzantine tradition, imitated each other, and disregarded what they saw around them.
Giotto di Bondone studied both nature and the human body which he saw as invested with great dignity, deep emotions, and humanity, and he placed his human figures in free, albeit shallow, space. It is to the credit of his contemporaries, artists and laymen alike, that Giotto di Bondone's genius was recognized and accepted immediately. The old forms of art gradually vanished, first from Florence and then from other Italian art centers, to be replaced by new art forms from which there could be no turning back.