You’ve probably heard that Giotto (1266-1337) is considered the father of the Renaissance.
This is true. And even more. Modern European Art begins with Giotto. Before him there were icons. After him, a completely new art that lasted until Impressionism in the late 19th century.
It is difficult for a modern person to understand what is unusual about his frescoes. But when you see artworks of his predecessors and contemporaries, you are amazed. How did he manage to create this? Just from scratch!
At the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries, it was like a miracle. Crowds of people began to walk into the Scrovegni Chapel, painted by Giotto. They couldn’t believe their eyes. They saw something completely new.
Let’s try to look at Giotto’s frescoes through the eyes of his contemporaries in order to feel all its revolutionary character.
Giotto lived and worked in Italy. The country was heavily influenced by Byzantium.
Byzantine Art is icons with strict canons. They echoed very well the worldview of medieval man. The main thing is spiritual qualities. Ascetic lifestyle. Fight against earthly temptations.
All this is reflected in painting. Please look at the 13th century fresco.
Flat, symbolic faces. Shapes are static. Folds of the clothes are unnatural. The horse and rider are suspended in the air. Toy architecture. After all, the spiritual component for the medieval person is more important than the bodily one. So it makes no sense for the master to depict the physical world realistically.
Giotto’s innovation is best understood in his main masterpiece: the cycle of frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.
These are plots from the life of Mary and Jesus Christ. Size 2.5 x 2 m. 39 images.
Let’s take a look at few of them. This is enough to understand why Giotto is a genius.
1. Annunciation to Saint Anne
On the fresco “Annunciation to St. Anne” the heroine receives good news from an angel. An elderly woman will be able to conceive and give birth to a girl. The future saint Mary.
For the first time, people of the Middle Ages saw an aging face. Before that, saints over 50 were depicted schematically, without any special signs of old age. Giotto approaches the truthfulness of life. Departing from icon-writing symbolism.
Giotto was one of the first to overcome the flatness of figures. He gives his characters volume and weight.
Please, look at the servant figure spinning under the stairs. This is already an image of a living person. We see her volume. The woman pushed one knee aside. And folds of the clothes echo this movement.
It’s incredibly realistic. Compare her at least with St. Mary in the icon of Guido da Siena. How symbolic her folds are. How flat the figure of the saint is. Although these works are separated from each other by only a couple of decades.
Another interesting point. The heroes are depicted in the interior. We see the everyday details of their lives. Shelf, chest, bench. Before Giotto, people were not depicted in the interior. But this makes the image even more realistic.
2. Meeting at the Golden Gate
The future parents of Saint Mary, Joachim and Anna, met at the golden gate. The husband understood without a word what his wife wanted to tell him. In a fit of tender feelings, two already elderly people kiss.
Giotto showed the tender intimate feelings of people very expressively. Until Giotto, you will not find such sincerity of feelings. The hugs of the spouses are so tender. Their kiss is so touching.
Note that Joachim and Anna are off-center. They are shifted to the left. In the center are women in black and white. Perhaps they are symbolic. Like, next to happiness, grief always walks. After all, we all know what a painful loss their daughter Mary will have to endure.
Here we can safely say that Giotto was the first who created the composition. He saw this scene just like that. He put a certain meaning in placing minor figures in the center.
Before Giotto, the concept of composition simply did not exist. And a medieval master would have placed the spouses exactly in the middle.
3. Adoration of the Magi
Giotto departs from the gold background adopted at the time. He paints his frescoes with blue skies. This is already a real three-dimensional space. Not an abstract gold background.
His heroes are firmly on their feet. Remember how this was neglected by the masters before him. Horses and humans could “hover” above the ground.
Giotto’s heroes are also full of inner dignity. They are sincere people. Living people. Unlike the faces-masks of Byzantium.
The master makes the well-known biblical stories true, life-like. As if it happens in reality with real people.
Compare “The Adoration of the Magi” by two contemporary masters. And you will understand all the amazement of people who first saw the artwork of Giotto. After all, the master seemed to explain the transcendental biblical stories in a simple, understandable language.
By the way, the star depicted in the sky is unusual. It is believed that Giotto depicted the comet Halley, which was visible to the naked eye in 1301.
4. Kiss of Judas
The fresco depicts a scene of betrayal. The bribed Judas must give the guard a sign. So that they understand which of those standing is Jesus. Judas must kiss him.
In the center we see two faces. The noble, beautiful face of Christ with the correct features. High forehead. The developed neck of a healthy man. And the ape-like, ugly face of Judas. Highlighted brow ridges. Sloping chin. Small, shifty eyes.
Moral beauty is combined with physical beauty. And physical ugliness with moral ugliness. This is exactly what will be done after Giotto in the Renaissance. The beauty of the faces of noble people and the ugliness of traitors.
Remember how terrible Leonardo da Vinci depicts Judas in his famous fresco “The Last Supper”.
5. Flagellation of Christ
The three-dimensional figures are especially noticeable in the “Flagellation of Christ” fresco. They are heavy. Even lumpy. This is not surprising. Giotto, of course, did not know human anatomy. But he did his best to show people voluminous, and therefore real.
This fresco is also notable for something else. Please see how different the torturers of Christ are. Both in appearance and in facial expressions. Before Giotto, such an individuality was never found among medieval masters.
6. Mourning for Christ
Drama. The grief is depicted incredibly believable. These are no longer conventional gestures, but real emotions.
It is enough just to compare it with a fresco of the same 14th century. The difference is enormous. It is not for nothing that Giovanni Boccaccio, an Italian writer, said of Giotto: “He brought to light an art that had been buried for many centuries”.
Giotto’s students took up his innovations. It would seem that the Renaissance is about to come. But the revolution in art did not happen. For a whole century after Giotto, Gothic dominated art.
Please take a look at the Gothic painting by Fabriano
Thin pattern. The nobility of persons. Exquisite costumes. Lots of characters. The picture is very entertaining. But this is a fairy tale. This is an entertaining painting. Collage of impressions. It is very far from Giotto. And very far from the realism of the Renaissance.
Only after a whole century, Giotto’s ideas continued their development in the work of Masaccio. The same veracity and vitality of emotions. Three-dimensional space. And even already knowledge of the anatomy of the human body.
P.S. Giotto was ahead of his time. He was a Renaissance man. But he worked almost 2 centuries earlier.
It can be assumed that because of his innovation, Giotto was an incomprehensible, impoverished genius. This is not true. People came in droves to look at his frescoes. Contemporaries appreciated and respected him. And they paid him generously.
They just could not yet fully understand his reforms and continue his work. This will be done by their descendants. You could read about them in the article “Artists of the Renaissance. 6 Great Italian Masters”.
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Photos: Wikimedia Commons