THERE exists, perhaps, in the entire history of art, no single personage whose character is more truly reflected in his works than is the case with Giotto di Bondone. To us they are a lasting commentary on his life, and from them we may draw a far truer idea of the man than any written documents could possibly afford ; nor could the result of our deductions be more clearly or beautifully expressed than in the words of Ruskin : ” His love of beauty was entirely free from weakness ; his love of truth untinged by severity ; his industry constant, without impatience ; his workmanship accurate, without formalism ; his temper serene, and yet playful ; his imagination exhaustless, without extravagance ; and his faith firm, without superstition.”
Of the master’s private life we know comparatively nothing beyond the fact that he was married to a certain Ciuta di Lapo, of the Popolo of Sta. Reparata, by whom he became the father of eight children : Francesco, whose name we find inscribed among the members of the Company of Painters in 1351 ; Caterina, who married the painter Ricco di Lapo ; Lucia, Chiara, Bice, Donato, a second Francesco, by calling a priest, and Niccola.
Giotto seems never to have forgotten his native home in the quiet Val di Mugello, and documents prove to us that he possessed considerable landed property in those parts.. In Florence, also, he appears to have owned several houses, and we can easily imagine that he amassed no small amount of wealth during his long life of constant industry and toil.
Many are the anecdotes related of him by the writers of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as well as by – Vasari. Although not entirely dissimilar to the traditions which gather, in the course of time, about the personality of every great artist, we find among them, in this present case, a strange and significant coincidence in their painting of the man ; and, each and all, they tend but to con-firm our own previous conception of his nature. An alert shrewdness and an abundance of sound and practical common sense seem to go hand in hand with an amiable humour, and a quick but kindly wit. Little wonder that a nature so perfectly balanced as was his made him the chosen companion of the greatest minds of his day; little wonder that his company was sought for both by scholars and by princes.
As an artist, we have already made clear to the reader Giotto’s position among the painters of his time. The history of art affords no parallel to the tremendous transformation effected by him in the field of painting during the short period of his earlier artistic activity. Not only did he bring about a fundamental change in the technical treatment, as well as in the spiritual significance, of his art, but he succeeded in raising it to a position of independence such as it had never before enjoyed. Eminently a naturalist, in the highest meaning of the term, his work is equally removed from the stiff conventionality of his Byzantine predecessors, and the trivial and photographic realism of a later age. His was an idealized naturalism, one which aimed at the expression of Nature’s deeper truths, far rather than at the exact reproduction of her more obvious outward details.
To many modern critics the technical development of his art may leave much to be desired ; but to him his means were amply sufficient unto his ends. Indeed, these very so-called technical deficiencies serve but to accentuate his marvellous artistic powers ; and we can bring to mind no other artist who can be said to have accomplished as much as did Giotto, at so wonderfully slight an expenditure of means. The direct simplicity and significance of every line and touch, of every movement and gesture, of every detail and of every spot of colour, cannot possibly escape the observation of any serious student of Giotto’s art. Nor does there exist a single genuine creation of the master’s brush which does not possess, to a greater or a less extent, this same marked spirit of concise expression.
Of the versatility of his genius we have already had occasion to remark. If we may believe the writings of the earlier historians, he united to his gifts as a painter, architect and engineer, those of a poet. Of his productions in this field we have been left but a single examplea long poem on the Virtue of Voluntary Poverty in which, however, the practical qualities of his nature are as clearly and vividly apparent as in any of his paintings.
Of the technical innovations which Giotto introduced into the art of his day in the matter of colour and design, and, above all, in the representation of plastic form, we have already spoken in the preceding pages of this little book.
The first to break away from the trammels and conventions of the painting of his time, Giotto not only laid the foundations of a new art, but during his own lifetime brought it to such a stage of perfection as to limit the progress of the succeeding centuries of the Renaissance to a mere development of technical detail. In dramatic force of representation, in unfailing directness of expression, in concise significance of action, in dignity and nobility of conception, in sanity of imagination and sincerity of feeling, he stands unsurpassed among the painters of Italy and the world. In Masaccio and Filippo Lippi, in Michelangelo, in Titian and in Tintoretto, vastly different as they seem among themselves, we find his legitimate successorsmen showing, to a greater or a less degree, these same qualities of his genius. In no one of them, however, do we find that rare and perfect combination of all these varied gifts, which was so uniquely his possession ; and it is in this respect, if in no other, that Giotto must remain to us and to all time as one of the greatest artists that the world has ever known.
Of Giotto’s numberless followers and pupils, we have made but slight and passing mention in these pages. Spread as they were, during the master’s own lifetime, throughout the length and breadth of Italy, we must reserve for a future volume the study of their art and of its influences, as space forbids us here from entering into any discussion either of their faults or of their merits. As to their technical methods of execution, which were also Giotto’s own, we cannot do better than refer the reader to the famous treatise of Cennino Cennini on that subject.