How Giotto Changed Art in 10 Masterpieces

In the 15th-century Cennini, a painter and author of artistic treatises, wrote that Giotto “changed the art of painting”; Giotto brought a revolution by making art more faithful to reality.

Dec 26, 2021By Cinzia Franceschini, MA Art History w/ History of Art Criticism
giotto di bondone portrait and artwork masterpieces

 

Giotto di Bondone (ca 1267-1337) was a pioneering Tuscan painter of the 14th century. Considered among the most influential artists in Western art history, he introduced naturalism, spatial construction, and emotionality into his many paintings, including polyptychs and frescoes, such as those at the marvelous Scrovegni Chapel. Giotto himself is surrounded by an aura of mystery. Little is known about his life and career, starting with his true name, which may have been Ambrogio or Biagio. Many biographical anecdotes and artworks attributed to him are still wrapped in legend, although this only helps to make his masterpieces more fascinating.

 

10. Giotto’s Crucifix: A Revolutionary Christ

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Crucifix of Santa Maria Novella, by Giotto, ca. 1280, via Wikimedia Commons

 

When we think of artists who have left an indelible mark on the history of painting, we often think of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. We rarely go back further than the Renaissance. However, Giotto di Bondone’s work represents a pivotal moment in art history because his work was a breaking point with previous artistic tradition. He left behind the rigor and hieratic solemnity of Byzantine icons, in favor of art that was closer to reality. He was the first to introduce (an albeit primitive) perspective and he used chiaroscuro to create depth and volume in his compositions and figures.

 

Giotto’s extraordinary talent was attributed to him from childhood. According to legend, his master Cimabue found him painting when he was a young shepherd. Giotto then spent his time painting extremely realistic sheep on rocks. This skill led the elderly painter to bring him to his studio in Florence as an apprentice. There are no documentary sources that attest to the link between the two artists, but scholars have seen evidence emerge from stylistic comparisons.

 

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Crucifixion, Scrovegni Chapel, by Giotto, 1304-1306, Padua, Italy, via the Web Gallery of Art

 

The striking crucifix at the Church of Santa Maria Novella is one of the most interesting parallelisms between Giotto and Cimabue. Giotto started working on it in 1259. His representation of Christ was a veritable pictorial and visual revolution. A revolution that would also take place in the Scrovegni Chapel. Giotto passes from the geometric and schematic crucifixes, like those attributed to Cimabue, to a more natural representation. The Christ of Santa Maria Novella has a weight that naturally leans downward and a suffering and natural expression on his face. It is a realistic body of a real man. As so often happens in history, the student had surpassed the master.

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9. The Louvre Panel: Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata

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St. Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, by Giotto, 1295–1300 ca, via Britannica

 

Giotto was a famous artist in his day, and was desired by many patrons. Despite this fact, there are not many sources on his artworks and life. For example, there are very few signed paintings or paintings that have been unanimously attributed to him by critics. Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata is one of the few. Realized for the Saint Francis Church of Pisa around the 14th century, this masterpiece is now preserved at the Louvre museum.

 

The Tuscan painter decided to depict an overwhelming scene from the life of Saint Francis. He painted the moment when the saint received the stigmata from Christ, after forty days of isolation and prayer in the Apennine Mountains. Giotto recreated the vision of the Saint, conveying astonishment in his expression. The spatial construction, divided into foreground and background, and conveyed with naturalism, is another important innovation. Despite being coveted by wealthier patrons, Giotto never gave up painting for the Franciscan order. The painter shared the same love of nature with the Franciscan church.

 

8. Baroncelli Polyptych: Another Florentine Masterpiece

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Coronation of the Virgin with Angels and Saints (Baroncelli Polyptych), by Giotto, after 1328,  via Santa Croce Opera

 

The Baroncelli polyptych is another work of art attributed to Giotto, but there are some doubts and perplexities surrounding it. Although it bears the inscription “work of the master Giotto“, it was attributed for centuries to Taddeo Gaddi. Currently, scholars are concordant that it is a Giotto. It is located where it was originally conceived in 1328: in the Baroncelli Chapel in the Florentine Basilica of Santa Croce.

 

The polyptych was commissioned by the Baroncelli family, who were wealthy Florentine merchant bankers. Giotto painted in the carved and gilded frame the coronation of the Virgin. Originally the polyptych was characterized by pinnacles in a Gothic style, which were later eliminated. The artist once again innovated the art of his time. His crowded group of singing angels, saints, and cherubs are characterized by expressions that are all different from one another and naturalistic!

 

7. Looking for Spatial Depth: Bologna Polyptych

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Bologna Polyptych, by Giotto, 1330-1334, National Art Gallery of Bologna, via Arthistoryproject.com

 

The Bologna Polyptych is the third masterpiece originally signed by Giotto. Through careful analysis, you can glimpse his name placed on the throne of the Virgin. However, despite this recognizable element, there are no documents that attest to the date or location of this panel. The stylistic comparison with the previous Baroncelli polyptych leads scholars to date this one slightly later. The figures have a more fluid and dynamic posture; they are less rigid than those of Santa Croce. There is also a hint at spatial depth, especially in the throne of the Virgin. Even the baby Jesus, unlike other medieval representations, is more natural in his pose and gestures. It could therefore be a later work of the master. The Bologna Polyptych was probably realized to honor the return of the Pope from Avignon to Bologna. The elegance of the ornaments and the colors demonstrate it was an authoritative commission.

 

6. Giotto: Architect of the Florence Bell Tower

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Santa Maria del Fiore Bell Tower, designed by Giotto, photo by Mauro Grazzi, via Unsplash

 

When you think of Giotto, you probably imagine his frescoes and paintings. Few people know that the artist was also a talented architect. He was initially the master-builder of a very famous monument: the bell tower of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Made of green, white, and red marble, the 80-meter (262 foot) bell tower is considered one of the most significant in Italy.

 

The artist was called to design it in 1334, but he failed to see it completed. After his death, the project was then entrusted to Andrea Pisano and Luca della Robbia, who carried on the original idea. Giotto’s bell tower is more decorative than functional for the Cathedral. It masterfully combines the tendency toward verticality typical of Gothic cathedrals(TC Link Gothic Cathedrals), with the solidity of the Florentine tradition and the architectural geometry of the Renaissance.

 

5. The Mystery of Assisi Basilica: The Questione Giottesca

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Legend of St. Francis, Assisi Basilica, by Giotto, 1297-1299, via the Web Gallery of Art

 

Scholars have strived for generations to understand the construction site of the incredible Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi. Different artists and styles followed one another in this double church, one of the most important of 13th-century art. Giotto probably also figured among them. The fresco work decorating the basilica is not precisely documented. It probably began in the lower church, with the artist conventionally called the “master of St. Francis”. The decoration of the Upper Basilica began only in the 1280s, with masters such as Cimabue as well as later Roman masters, such as Pietro Cavallini and Jacopo Torriti.

 

Giotto’s touch has only been recognized after 1289. The cycle of frescoes of the Stories of St. Francis, which runs along the lower nave of the church, are attributed to him. The cycle, consisting of twenty-eight frescoes with descriptive captions, tells of the life of the saint and his miracles, based on the Legenda Maior of St. Bonaventure.

 

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Legend of St. Francis, Exorcism of the Demons at Arezzo,  Assisi Basilica, by Giotto, 1297-1299, via themedievalists.net

 

Giotto created a series of highly innovative frescoes here. Inspired by the principles of the Franciscan order, he wanted to speak directly to the faithful. His work tells of the life of the friar St Francis, first as a man, then as a saint. His figure, through his solid drapery, looks like a real body. Expressions and human emotions animate his face. Moreover, the light and spatiality are realistic. The scene of the “Renunciation of Paternal Goods”, in which the saint deprives himself of his material possessions, and the “Exorcism of Demons”, are among the most famous of the cycle.

 

The so-called questione giottesca — the academic discussion about the origin of these frescoes — explains very well how art historians work. The attribution, not having documentary sources, has come about through stylistic comparison. The compactness, the size, and the realism of the figures has made scholars lean toward the hand of Giotto. Either way, there is no doubt that the frescoes of Assisi represent a revolution. Byzantine rigidity has left in favor of the humanity that would become typical of Renaissance art.

 

4. The Evocative Madonna Enthroned in the Uffizi Gallery

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Ognissanti Madonna, by Giotto, 1310, via the Uffizi Gallery

 

Another masterpiece by Giotto is preserved in one of the most famous halls of the Uffizi. It is the Madonna Enthroned, also known as Madonna Ognissanti. Exhibited alongside the Madonnas of Duccio of Buoninsegna and Cimabue, it reveals its striking originality. Giotto realized it around 1310, probably on his return from his work in the Scrovegni Chapel. Once again, the dating comes from a stylistic comparison: some figures recall those of the Paduan chapel. The plasticity of the figure of the Madonna is one of its typically giotto-esque traits. It takes up the principles of classical solidity. The perspective of the throne is also innovative, with its precious marble steps.

 

3. The Masterpiece of Scrovegni Chapel: The Life of the Virgin 

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Scenes from the Life of the Virgin: The Marriage of the Virgin, Scrovegni Chapel, by Giotto, 1304-1306, via legacy-uma.org; with View of the Scrovengi Chapel, via dailyartmagazine.com

 

In 1303 the rich Paduan banker Enrico Scrovegni commissioned Giotto to decorate a chapel. The incredible work was probably meant to rehabilitate his surname, being the son of a usurer. The result was beyond expectations. The iconographic program created by the Tuscan painter included a cycle of 39 consecutive frescoes. They represented on one side the episodes of the life of Mary, on the other the life of Christ. Finally, Giotto painted a wall with the Universal Judgment and an innovative decorative band displaying key vices and virtues. Everything in the Scrovegni chapel speaks of redemption — it was a path to salvation. The choice to depict Mary’s life — starting with her parents and her birth up to her marriage — was done for religious reasons. It is probably connected to the ancient Marian cult, extremely popular in the city of Padua.

 

2. Inside the Scrovegni Chapel: The Life of Christ

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Scenes from the Life of Christ: The Arrest of Christ (Kiss of Judas), Scrovegni Chapel, by Giotto, 1304-1306, via the Web Gallery of Art

 

The Annunciation scene occupies the arch portion of the chapel. It acts as a link between the life of Mary and that of Christ. Giotto represents the affections and the emotional experiences of the protagonists in these scenes. The tormented angels of the Lamentation and the grief of the characters in the Mourning of the Dead Christ are examples of his poetics. The Kiss of Judas is among the most famous scenes of the cycle. In the fresco, Judas embraces Jesus to identify him, causing him to be captured. Giotto uses full-bodied drapery and palpable volume, and he plays with the dramatic expressions of the figures.

 

1. The Stunning Last Judgement in Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel

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The Last Judgement, Scrovegni Chapel, by Giotto, 1304-1306, via Web Gallery of Art

 

The Scrovegni Chapel, in addition to its biographical cycles, has a timeless masterpiece on its main wall: The Last Judgment. This great fresco occupies the entire counter-façade. Christ-the-judge dominates the center of the composition; at the sides, there are the angelic hosts arranged in rows, as well as the prophets, and the elected and the damned.

 

The entire chapel then functioned as a warning to the faithful. It reminded them of the possibility of divine judgment. This meaning attributed to the decorative scheme is also confirmed by other details. Giotto also represented, for example, the vices and virtues in sidebands, which are depicted almost as if they were sculptures in faux marble.

 

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The Last Judgement detail, Scrovegni Chapel, by Giotto, 1304-1306, via Italotrip.com

 

Giotto’s intent to bring together the human and the divine through his art is attested by another unusual detail. In The Universal Judgement the artist also represents his client Enrico Scrovegni, who is depicted giving a model of the chapel to Christ. It is only one of several original aspects attributed to the artist.

 

Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel definitively broke with traditional medieval painting and its two-dimensional composition. Moreover, his faces and figures were no longer conventional, but expressive and human, and they relate to each other. In 2021, the Scrovegni Chapel was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for containing a cycle of frescoes that revolutionized figurative style and fresco techniques. Without Giotto, there would not have been the Renaissance as we know it.



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By Cinzia FranceschiniMA Art History w/ History of Art CriticismCinzia is an Italian Art Historian specialized in the History of Art Criticism, with a second degree in Communications and Sociology studies. Currently based in Northern Italy, she studied at the University of Padua. She works as a guide in Museum Education Departments and as an Art Writer. She writes about Contemporary Arts and Social Sciences, and how they intertwine.