Gateway to the Classics: Great Artists: Volume Five by Jennie Ellis Keysor
Great Artists: Volume Five by  Jennie Ellis Keysor

"The most fitting meed of praise to Giotto is not that he painted the purest and loveliest frescoes in the world; not that he raised above Florence a tower, which has been a wonder and delight of all succeeding ages, but that he was the first to show by his work that Art was useful to man, not only as a teacher, but as a friend."
Harry Quilter

"The characteristics of Power and Beauty occur more or less in different buildings, some in one and some in another, but all together, and all in their highest possible relative degrees, they exist, as far as I know, only in one building in the world, the Campanile of Giotto."
John Ruskin.

"All writers who treat of the ancient glories of Florence—Florence the beautiful, Florence the free— from Villani down to Sismondi, count Giotto in the roll of her greatest men. Antiquaries and connoisseurs in art search out and study the relics which remain to us and recognize in them the dawn of that splendor which reached its zenith in the beginning of the sixteenth century; while to the philosophic observer, Giotto appears as one of those few heaven-endowed beings whose development springs from a source within—one of those unconscious instruments in the hand of Providence, who, seeking their own profit and delight through the expansion of their own faculties, make unawares a step forward in human culture, lend a new impulse to human aspirations, and like the bright morning star, day's harbinger, may be merged in the succeeding radiance, but never forgotten."
Mrs. Jameson.



Giotto Bondone


When we study the pictures of Raphael or Correggio, we are deeply interested, for they seem well-nigh perfect. Their very perfection so satisfies us that oftentimes we are quite willing to end our studies of Italian painting with the great masters. In doing this, we deprive ourselves of one of the greatest pleasures that arise from this study; that is, the consideration of the masters to whom we owe the development of Italian painting up to a point which made it possible for such men as Raphael and Angelo, and all the other masters of "the flowering time," to paint their wonderful pictures.

To study merely the finished masterpieces of the Renaissance is like analyzing the open flower without giving any attention to the plant or the soil which produced the blossom. As such work in botany would be quite illogical, so it is in the study of an art. While we enjoy the finished masterpieces, yet there is a more profound pleasure in tracing the growth of an art, in observing how this man, from apparently crude work, added something material to the art he followed, while another artist added something else, and so on, until perfection was attained.

It is to these makers of the art of painting in Italy that we are to give our attention in this collection of sketches.

The student may remember the splendid coloring of the Byzantine mosaics, the exquisite designs from the illuminated books of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the delightful stories of the courtliness of Cimabue, but his heart ever turns to Giotto, the real father of modern painting, the one who introduced light and naturalness into the art. He is the spirit of light that first shone on the darkness of Middle Age painting and to him we turn with loving reverence as painter, sculptor and architect.

Let us see the condition of painting when Giotto was born in the last half of the thirteenth century. It was intensely Byzantine,  which is to say, the colors were dark and heavy, a thick brown leading; there was no animation in the figures, which had elongated bodies, faces and extremities; there was no more roundness to the figures than if they were cut from paper and pasted on to the plain or stippled gold backgrounds; the expression on the faces was uniformly stupid; from the almond-shaped eyes came no ray of intelligence and from the thin lips came no responsive smile. Like the civilization which gave rise to the style, it was dead, though glossed with a golden aureole here, a batch of golden stars there, or a molten background yonder.


Cathedral or Duomo and Campanile, Florence

We must remember that whenever we speak of Byzantine  we mean, originating in Constantinople.  Greek culture, in the days when the Roman Empire had its capital at Constantinople, deteriorated until it became empty of all ideas. It was pure form and as such it stepped across the Adriatic through Venice, the natural gateway between the East and West, and entered Italy. Here it attained a strong foothold, which it held until the glorious Renaissance illuminated the world and swept away from art and science and literature the darkness that had so long enshrouded them.

To painting the impulse came faintly in the work of the courtly Cimabue, the Florentine painter, whose Madonna, strangely unattractive to us to-day, was carried, encircled by wreaths, through the streets of Florence and hailed with shouts of triumph by a grateful people. Cimabue was but the harbinger of the glorious sun of painting about to transmute the world of pictures into glowing, graceful transcripts from nature. That glorious sun was Giotto, a shepherd, and the child of a common peasant.

The town where Giotto was born was Vespignano, about fourteen miles from Florence and high up among the peaks of the Apennines, even beyond the heights of Fiesole. Vespignano is a small village surrounded by a rather lonely landscape which abounds in cultivated fields and stretches of wild mountain land broken by ilex and oak and olive trees. Occasionally there is a ruined tower to give variety to the simple homes of the farmers, but the palace and the stately villa, which add so much to the Fiesolean slope, are entirely lacking.

Into this region of moderate diversity, remote from commercial centers, the child, Giotto, was born in 1376. The records tell us that the father was an ordinary peasant; yet we know that he was more than that as he was able to leave to his son considerable land in the vicinity of his birthplace.

There is nothing but legend regarding Giotto's parents or his early life, but the body and character of his work remain as indisputable evidence of his genius.


Duomo, showing Campanile, Florence

In lieu of more substantial matter, we always rehearse with zest the legends regarding the youth of Giotto. One very matter-of-fact account relates how his father, who had a large family, apprenticed him to a wool merchant that he might learn all the details of the business. On the way to the merchant's place of business it was necessary for him to pass by Cimabue's studio. Led by interest and perhaps by curiosity as well, he frequently entered to watch the students and their master at work. After awhile he took a few lessons in the hours when he was not busy with the wool merchant's affairs. Then it was found, to the despair of his father, that the business of painting was the thing his son loved and had an aptitude for instead of the unsavory, commonplace details of the wool trade. The same authority goes on to relate that the sensible father had his son give up his apprenticeship and enter the studio of Cimabue.

Such is one account of Giotto's youth and one quite to our liking. Most authorities, however, give another and more romantic account of how Giotto came to enter Cimabue's studio—the story first related by Vasari in his "Lives of the Painters." Now Vasari was a very commonplace Italian painter of the sixteenth century. He was on intimate terms with many of the artists whose lives he narrates and many others he knew by hearsay. He rambles on about them and their pictures in a most interesting way, never failing to relate all sorts of anecdotes regarding them. At the same time, however, he gives a contemporary view of the men which is invaluable.

More scientific critics have arisen in our own time and along with their science they have swept away, as without foundation, many of the most interesting stories which Vasari relates of the artists. While they criticise them as unworthy of our attention they always manage to repeat the stories, thus adding interest to their pages. We may then enjoy these tales in our beginning work without being gain-said by the critics.

To return to our subject: Vasari tells us that one day as Cimabue, who was a courtly, kind-hearted man as well as the greatest painter of Florence, was riding in the vicinity of Florence, he came upon a young shepherd whose sheep for the moment were uncared for, because the boy who watched them was doing his best to draw with a sharp bit of rock the form of one of his sheep on a flat stone before him. So occupied was he with his task that he did not notice the approach of the stranger until he was near enough to see closely the drawing which the boy was making. You and I could easily draw on our imaginations for the conversations which ensued between the favored painter and the inspired young shepherd.

In the list of irrecoverable things, such as the angel Dante drew when thinking of Beatrice, or the sonnet Raphael wrote to show his love, this crude picture which Giotto drew on the stone would be one of the most precious. You and I, however, will never see the angel Dante drew, or the sheep shaped by the child-hand of Giotto or read the poem penned by Raphael. We can only guess of their great qualities and treasure up the memory of that upon which no man can set his eyes.

Whatever the merits of this primitive picture, the painter Cimabue, after obtaining the consent of Giotto's parents, took the boy, then only ten years old, to his home and instructed him in the art of painting.

To enter as apprentice, an artist's studio in those days, was quite a different thing from doing the same to-day. There was the long apprenticeship of grinding colors, cleaning brushes, preparing surfaces to be painted upon, sweeping out the studio and so on, before the apprentice was allowed to work at the art he had come to study.


Home of Dante

We know that naturally much must have intervened between these early days and an incident which immediately preceded a visit of the young artist to Rome, where he was able to work as a finished artist. To jump from that period of Giotto's life, when he was an art student grinding colors in Cimabue's studio in Florence, to a point in the same artist's career, when he was able to excel all painters before him, is a leap indeed, yet this is what we must do in the case of Giotto.

About 1296, Pope Boniface VIII., who was very anxious to make his rule notable, sought throughout Italy for the most able artists to decorate St. Peter's Church. Courtiers were sent to Florence to see what sort of an artist Giotto was.

Just here took place that famous incident which has given rise to a universal saying, "Round as Giotto's O." When the courtiers approached Giotto and asked for a specimen of his work to take back to the Pope, he merely drew his right arm close to his body, after dipping a brush in red paint, and struck off a perfect circle. This was the only specimen of Giotto's work that the astonished courtiers carried back to the Pope. Strange to say, it won that potentate's regard for the painter, whether on account of his daring in sending so trifling a pledge of his ability or because he saw in this evidence of the mechanical skill which he sought, we cannot tell.

Giotto went to Rome to work for the Pope, but unfortunately all that remains of his work in the Holy City is the famous mosaic of the "Navicella"  and a few small panel pictures. The "Navicella"  was made for old St. Peter's and has suffered much from change of location and from restorations. It represents the ship of the Church with the Apostles, except Peter, on board. He is just beginning to flounder in his effort to walk upon the sea.

Within a few years the artist returned to Florence, where he decorated the Bargello with frescoes. Into a picture called "Paradise"  he introduced portraits of some of his friends and acquaintances, among them Dante. This portrait we reproduce. It is one of the best known of classical portraits and richly deserves the high place it holds. It represents Dante before the sorrow and anguish of an exile had furrowed his face, and it shows beautiful and soul-satisfying to-day, even though it has stood six hundred years, two hundred of these under a thick coating of whitewash.



Two years after the painting of this portrait Dante was banished to Verona. It was the beginning of a lasting exile, for despite his utmost efforts, he never again entered the gates of his beloved Florence. Giotto and Dante had been friends, so it was a pleasant surprise, a few years later, when Giotto went to Padua, to find that Dante was settled there.

Here Giotto has left us his best work in the Scrovigni Chapel of the Arena Church. The building itself was an exceedingly plain structure, said by some to have been designed by Giotto. Whoever planned the church, it certainly seems to have been designed with special reference to its decoration by frescoes. It was built at the expense of Enrico Scrovigni on the site of a Roman amphitheatre and dedicated to the Madonna. It was really intended as a place for the representation of the Annunciation after the manner of our English mysteries which were so much in vogue before the drama became perfected. The scene was enacted on Lady Day, the 15th of August, each year.


St. Francis Liberating a Bishop

The chapel was adorned with thirty-nine pictures representing the history of the Virgin and of Christ, and fourteen figures of the Virtues and Vices done in monochrome, that is, in one colour. It is supposed that it was owing to Dante's influence that the last were represented. These figures, so arranged that the Virtues face the Vices, are very fine. Those of Hope, Justice and Temperance are especially beautiful. In the larger pictures there are a great many touches of nature absolutely unknown to Italian art previous to this time, and in these we trace the artist's early occupation and his love of natural, living things. It may be the sheep upon the hillside, the dog watching beside his charge or the child clinging to his mother. As we study his work, it seems as if it were pervaded by that "touch of nature that makes the whole world kin."

Padua was once the seat of the strongest university of Italy, and learning was in its very atmosphere. To-day it is flat, dingy, and uninteresting, save for the church that Giotto decorated. William Story thus writes of it:

"How sweet the mild retirement of this spot!

This area, where the gladiator bled,

With turf and flowers is softly carpeted;

These girdling walls where later knighthood fought,

Now draped with ivy stand, remembering not

Their scenes of former life. But here, instead,

The artist's steps in pilgrimage are led

To seek the shrine by Giotto's genius wrought.

Here, dedicated to art and piety,

His simple chapel stands; and painted here

Upon its walls a picture life I see,

Inspired by feeling, earnest and sincere.

What faith, what simple dignity and grace

Art since hath lost, are in this cloistered place!"

Although it is generally conceded that Giotto's best work was done in the Arena Chapel, yet in most minds his name is most intimately associated with Assisi, where he decorated the double church of St. Francis. As it is quite impossible to tell at what time in Giotto's career this work was done, it is perhaps quite as well to treat it independently. From the quality of the work it was evidently done previous to that on the Arena Church, and further, the frescoes on the lower church are of a more advanced type than those of the upper church, where the work seems immature and possibly done largely by pupils of the great master.


Nativity of Christ

Now Assisi is one of the most interesting towns in all Italy to the student. That it is picturesquely located in Umbria among the peaks of the Apennines and in the vicinity of Perugia and Foligno, is not the source of his interest. Neither is the warlike history which the now dead town has had, the cause of this interest. That it was the dwelling place of St. Francis and that here repose his remains—these are the facts that draw the student and the traveller to this remote mountain town.

This same St. Francis was the son of a wealthy man, who expected his son to follow him in his business and who sent him to France to be educated for this purpose, hence his name, Francis, for the name given him at his birth was Giovanni, which is Italian for John.

His youth was one of pleasure embellished by all the refinements of the time. When he was about twenty-five, in the leisure of a long illness he concluded that pleasure was not the end for which man was created, and that his personal destiny was to be a soldier of Christ. When he recovered, he threw aside all the appurtenances of wealth and gave himself up to fasting and prayer, that he might be directed in the new life he was about to embrace.

It was a time when men saw visions and St. Francis saw his share. At all events he dressed in the garb of poverty, casting aside even his belt as the last useless thing and substituting in its stead the cord of the anchorite. Then as the espoused of Poverty, whom he had met by the roadside in one of his vision-seeing moods, he went forth doing good to men and purifying the church he loved.


St. Francis Preaching to the Birds

It was a wicked time when he appeared on the earth: the cruelest wars were almost constantly waged between cities, and men in their private affairs were controlled by selfishness and greed. The rise of this man and his devout followers, who taught men to forsake wealth, live pure lives and obey God and the dictates of their consciences, was a most purifying influence. So unwavering was the saint in his life of self-abnegation that the holy influence he exerted is still the most thoroughly living thing about old Assisi, one of the most beautiful and notable things in history.

Wild stories have gathered about this saint as about all those mediaeval creations of the church, but if we go back earnestly seeking to know the man, we find him a simple soul without worldly ostentation, totally under the dominion of love—love for God, for his fellow-man and for the living creatures of the field and wood. The gospel he taught was the gospel of kindness, the thing his age needed more than anything else, indeed the thing we need to-day.

In his renunciation of worldly things he was at first looked upon as a fanatic, but as the singleness of his purpose became more evident his followers increased and men began to look upon him as a bit of heaven sent to bless the dark world, and when his bodily presence was removed they made his burial-place a shrine. So thoroughly was the region under his influence, that artists painted it and poets wrote it into their works. In painting we speak of it as the Umbrian spirit,  and to its dominion we attribute the finest works of the consummate artist, Raphael.

Nothing was more natural than that over the burial-place of this great man, the idol of the people, should have been erected a monument. In this case the monument was a church, perhaps the best specimen of a Gothic church in Italy. Its structure, that of a double church, is peculiar and gives rise to the expression, the upper and lower church. One is not literally on top of the other, but above it in the sense that one stair is above the one just below it. Under the lower church is the crypt in which are the remains of the saint.

It is probably that the work of frescoing these churches began some time before Giotto. Here we find Cimabue's work in which he was assisted by his pupils, Giotto undoubtedly among them. There is hardly an inch of space on walls or ceiling that is not covered with the work of painters, rows and rows of pictures separated by bands of painted mosaic down to the very floor which is itself a kind of coarse mosaic of red and white marble.

The subjects treated here are largely events from the life of St. Francis, things that he saw in his visions or events in his life, his death and his burial. Besides these, many events are depicted from the life of Christ and the Virgin. The whole colour scheme, which has been mellowed by time, is delightful. As we study the pictures in detail, they all bear the marks of early workmanship, though there are exceptionally strong ones among them like the "Crucifixion,"  which is perhaps the best of the frescoes in either the upper or lower church.


Obsequies of St. Francis

There is legendary record that Giotto at one time went as far south as Naples, but it is usually thought to be mere legend. The last painting that Giotto did was in Santa Croce, the Westminster of Italy. Here he adorned four chapels, but his paintings only remain on two of these. Here, too, is Giotto's only easel picture. All his other painting was in the popular method of fresco. The subject of this unique picture is the "Coronation of the Virgin."  It is painted in five compartments, all of which, except the middle one, are occupied with choirs of singing angels. In the centre one is the Virgin dressed as a bride and bending her head to receive the crown that Christ places there.

Fra Angelico painted a similar subject and for his angels he had a fine model in these of Giotto's painted so long before his time. Giotto was able to add a human element where Fra Angelico gives us creatures purely of another world. Wherever Giotto went we trace his footsteps by the rich coloring that here and there gave beauty to churches or monasteries.


Church of Santa Croce, Facade

A time came, however, when he was called upon to lay down the brush and take up the square and compass of the architect, the chisel of the sculptor. The great church of Santa Maria del Fiore, that is, the Duomo of Florence, was in process of construction in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and in 1334, Giotto was appointed master of the works.

There are bits of work along one side of the wall of the church in which we trace the hand of Giotto, but the glory of the artist's work as architect, in fact, the glory of his artistic life, is the Campanile, or bell tower, which, straight as an arrow, lovely as a lily, stands beside the Duomo. Poets have sung its praises, travellers never fail to name it as the gem of all the things they have seen in their wanderings, art critics, even those as crotchety as Ruskin, pronounce it perfectly beautiful. There it stands, tall and graceful as a flower, linking, as it were, the airy splendor of Brunelleschi's dome to the hoary and solemn majesty of the Baptistry.

The bell towers of Italy are a most interesting lot of buildings. The earliest ones are round and some of them are in an inclined position as those at Pisa and Bologna. Others are straight shafts with no more architectural beauty than big factory chimneys have. Most of them stand detached from the buildings they are associated with, and, almost without exception, they lack all gradation of size, being as large at the top as at the base, although frequently there is a little octagonal lantern at the very top having no connection in shape or size with the main tower.


St. John on the Island of Patmos

Many of these towers are beautiful and graceful, all making striking objects in the landscape. The histories of some of the bells of those towers are romantic enough to interest the most expectant of readers. From the bell towers of Italy have rung out, since early times, the metallic notes that have called the citizens to war, to council, to right wrongs and alas! sometimes to inflect them. Interesting and beautiful as are these towers, as a class, one there is that excels them all in beauty of workmanship, and that is Giotto's Tower, or what Ruskin pleases to call "The Shepherd's Tower."

As will be seen from any photograph of the tower, it is square, and rises straight to the top without buttresses or any other device, except the increasing size of the windows, to give the tapering effect so noticeable in northern Gothic towers. It is two hundred and ninety-two feet from the pavement and it is divided into four stories. In the first story there are no windows and the decoration is largely by sculpture. In the next two stories we have windows of about equal size, mullioned with the most exquisite of twisted columns terminating in capitals of fine workmanship. Then come bands of mosaic and beautiful triangular canopies just above. Perhaps there never was wrought in stone anything more delicately lace-like than these windows of the Campanile.

Sculpture as a mode of decoration gradually yields to mosaic, as greater heights are reached, until in the last story we are ready for the fine large Gothic window which seems to transform that story into airiness itself. The octagonal corners and the heavy cornice save the tower from the excessive plainness which characterizes so many of the Italian campaniles. From pavement to cornice the building is enriched with a marble paneling of several colors, white marble, red porphyry and green serpentine, which while it breaks up the vertical lines, gives it the jewel-like appearance which seems to impress all beholders.

Charles V., when visiting Florence, was so delighted with the Campanile that he said it ought to be enclosed in a case like a jewel, to be looked at once in a while as a rare treat. Instead, however, of an aristocracy of beauty like this, it stands in the busiest square of Florence, in the midst of fruit and flower venders, who, when customers come slowly or the rain drips lazily, fill in there vacant moments by tracing idly with their fingers the lowest bas-reliefs of Giotto's Campanile. Nor does decay attend its exposure to the sun and air of heaven, but each year—each decade—lays its finger most gently upon this beloved building leaving its imprint only in a more mellow colour, a more subdued light.

The building was completed to the present height in Giotto's life time. It is said that he planned to add another story something after the order of a spire. He planned and possibly designed the bas-reliefs that surround the lowest story, one row of six-sided lozenge shaped medallions and one row diamond shaped. Here we see depicted the creation of man and his gradual development in the arts and sciences. It is said that he executed only two or three of these himself. Other men of great talent also worked on them, Andrea Pisano and Luca della Robbia among the number.

Above the medallions is a row of statues, some of them of great excellence. Donatello's Zuccone  placed here, the artist considered one of his best works, one to conjure by, as he often vouched for a thing by saying, "By the faith I have in my Zuccone."  It is supposed to represent David when somewhat aged. The name signifies "bald-headed."

Such, in brief, was the gem that Giotto gave to his home city and to the world from out the richness of his last days. It was his final pledge to posterity of his joy in beauty and in life.

"In the old Tuscan town stands Giotto's tower,

The lily of Florence blossoming in stone,—

A vision, a delight and a desire,—

The builders' perfect and centennial flower,

That in the night of ages bloomed alone,

But wanting still the glory of the Spire."

Giotto was married and had a considerable family. His children were very ugly of face and he was often made a jest of on this account. It is said that he was not beautiful himself, but Vasari revels in repeating anecdotes of Giotto's quick wit. He seemed never at a loss for an apt retort, and if occasionally his jokes were coarse, it was because the age was. The man who could be true to art as he was, who could be the intimate friend of Dante, the very spiritual part of the age, must have had within him a soul as pure as snow, the whiteness of which was commensurate with the soft and varied colors with which he adorned the Arena Chapel at Padua, the Double church at Assisi.

He died in 1336 and was buried in the Duomo at Florence, where Lorenzo de Medici erected a monument in his honor.

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