Forerunners Of Giotto

IN the history of her painting, Tuscany does not greatly differ from certain other provinces of Central and Northern Italy. In comparison with Rome, she cannot be said to have possessed anything deserving the title of a native school of painters until at a relatively late period. Such primitive efforts as were turned out by her craftsmen during the earlier Middle Ages, were hardly to be distinguished by the appellation of works of art ; and the first paintings of any real importance which we find in this part of the country appear to differ in no essential way from the generality of work produced in the other parts of Central Italy—the usual compound of Latin and Byzantine forms, with a sufficient tinge of native crudity, to lend, at times, an air of local originality to the whole. Such painters as Margaritone of Arezzo and Giunta Pisano have given us in their works an excellent idea of the state of painting in Tuscany at the time of Niccolo’s appearance upon the scene, and the absolute imperviousness of the workmen of their school to all new outward and natural influences, clearly shows the set and mechanical conventionality of their craft.

The marked improvement which we have alluded to above, as having been effected through the Florentine artists during the last decades of the thirteenth century, did much to advance the state of painting in these parts toward something resembling the artistic standards of Rome. Nevertheless, this progressive movement has been exaggerated by various historians into something far beyond its real importance. Among other things due to their writings, the public has been taught for years to look upon the mural decorations of the upper church of San Francesco, at Assisi, as the unquestionable products of these same Florentine or Tuscan artists. As to ourselves, we are unable to discover any palpable grounds beyond those of mere tradition in support of this generally accepted theory, and we must look in vain for any really conclusive critical reasons for its maintenance.

With the exception of the frescoed church of San Pietro in Grado, near Pisa,—the decorations of which building belong to a period preceding by many years those at Assisi—the mosaics of the baptistery at Florence, and one or two less extensive works in Lucca and in Pisa, we do not find, throughout all Tuscany, a single important existing example of mural decoration that can, for a moment, suffer a comparison with the great works of the Roman school ; and certainly none that would in any way support the prevalent opinion which gives to Cimabue and his assistants the entire credit of a series of works that rank as the most powerful and perfect that Christian art had produced up to the time.

Apart from the great series of frescoes relating to the life of the saint to whom the church is dedicated, and attributed by common consent to Giotto—works which do not in any way bear upon our present examination of the older decorations of the edifice—the walls and ceil ings of San Francesco are entirely covered with scenes from the Old and New Testaments, with figures of angels and saints, and with various minor decorative ornaments. Painted for the greater part, in all probability, between 1250 and 1290, at a time when the Roman schools were enjoying an exceptional period of prosperity, these frescoes possess far more in common with the paintings and mosaics of that capital city than with anything that the artists of Florence and Tuscany have to show us during the same period. Although the Byzantine element is preponderant in the majority of them, others of these paintings show marked characteristics of the more purely Latin school, and there is a sufficient visible diversity of style to prove to us that a goodly number of different artists were engaged, during a lengthy period, upon the adornment of the building.

We meet with no works, in the entire range of the earlier mediaeval painting of Italy, that can be said to surpass, or even to equal, in dramatic force and expression, the greater part of these frescoes at Assisi ; and yet, superior as they are in these respects, they mark no essential departure from the usual style and manner of the Italo-Byzantine school. The same binding conventions that had fettered the free expression of the artists’ ideas and individuality through so many long centuries, are still in full force here, and although we may be led to perceive, in many of these works, a certain apparent appreciation and study of nature and natural models which strike us as exceptional, it is, at its best, but a passing and unsatisfied attempt on the part of the painter to realize those new, though vaguely defined, ideals that were day by day unconsciously developing themselves within him, and which had already borne such fruit in the work of Niccolo of Pisa.

Enough has already been written concerning these paintings to prove the futility of any attempt to classify, or even to discover, their real authors ; and we shall not here add to the confusion of ideas already existing in regard to them. We may do far better, for the present, by leaving this question of derivation and authorship to a future satisfactory solution on the part of some one of the many critics who are constantly occupying themselves with it, and by remaining content with the knowledge that, even as they now exist—mutilated and repainted, and in part entirely washed away—these frescoes still represent to us the greatest existing examples of pre-Giottesque art in Italy. With them the Italo-Byzantine school of the West may be said to have reached the limits of its possibilities, and the artists of the time seem themselves to have partially, though unconsciously, recognized this fact.

The realistic tendencies and attempts at a more naturalistic style, which we have already noticed in these paintings at Assisi, were by no means without their counter-parts, in a less degree, at Rome and in other parts of the peninsula. The growing dissatisfaction with the old-established forms, and their absolute unsuitability as a medium of expression for the constantly increasing naturalistic inclinations of the age, was made manifest in the numerous unsuccessful efforts on the part of various painters throughout the country, to infuse a more realistic and life-giving element into the conventional art of the time. Latin and Byzantine painting had become too steeped in the spirit of formality and repetition, however, to allow of its successful transformation into a naturalistic art, and the technical style of the ancient schools was in itself sufficiently opposed to the introduction of any such realistic innovations, as to render their satisfactory development an impossibility. Nevertheless, the artists of Italy continued unceasing in their efforts to adapt the time-worn forms to the expression of their new ideals, loth to abandon the ancient traditions, and yet unable to endow them with the life and animation that their inward artistic aspirations longed so to express. Had they but looked beyond themselves, they might have seen the way lying open to the fulfilment of their desires, in the example of the Gothic sculptors of the North, and of Niccolo of Pisa ; but they were too deeply sunk in the hereditary spirit of convention common to their schools, to feel the force of these distant influences. The time was ripe for a vital and imperative change, and yet no spirit had arisen, sufficiently gifted with the qualities of perception and originality, to head the movement toward the necessary transformation, or even to bring the painters of the period to a clearer understanding of their own half-conscious ideals.

How long the painting of Italy might have remained in this restless and critical state, had it not been for the sudden appearance of one of the greatest minds that have ever been connected with the history of art, it is difficult to say or think. In Giotto it found the long-awaited liberator ; and the wonderful transformation which he effected was as sudden and complete as it had been long deferred. What Giotto was as a man and as an artist, and in what lay the nature of the great changes which he brought about, it will be our effort to show in the following pages.