Giotto – Introductory

THERE are few characters of any real importance in the history of Italian art, concerning whom we possess less certain or genuine information than we do in regard to Giotto di Bondone.

Notwithstanding the fame and celebrity that have been universally accorded him as one of the greatest and most striking personalities in the artistic annals of the Christian world, we are left to found our ideas of his private life and of his career as an artist, almost entirely upon tradition, and such of his works as have been spared us through the centuries that have elapsed since he laid aside his brush.

As to authentic notices concerning his life and work, we have been bequeathed the unsatisfactory legacy of a few scattered documents, which afford no further enlightenment than to establish one or two relatively unimportant dates connected with certain periods of his artistic activity—records mostly of an official or legal nature, and which cast no light whatever upon the personality of the man himself.

In attempting, therefore, to construct anything approaching an ordered or probable account of his life, we are forced to fall back almost entirely upon such internal evidence as we may gather from his works, the narratives of his earlier biographers being too mixed with the qualities of error and imagination to be of any real service to us.

Under such circumstances, it is easily apparent that the most conscientious and well-meaning attempt in this direction can lay claim to nothing beyond a certain appearance of probability, so far must the elements of conjecture and uncertainty enter into every endeavour to put together a connected story of his life.

As to a review of his career as an artist, however, we are less devoid of substantial material for study, and the remains of his artistic activity, ruined and repainted as in the majority of cases they are, at least enable us, by means of a careful and unbiassed critical examination, to trace to a certain extent the progress and development of his extraordinary genius.

Much has been written regarding Giotto and his works, both of late years and in earlier times, but even at the present day the ideas of the majority of art students—not to mention full-fledged critics and historians—concerning him, both as a man and as a painter, are almost directly, if at the same time unconsciously, dependent upon the well-known biography of Giorgio Vasari, the famous chronicler of the sixteenth century.

Vasari’s monograph is, in more ways than one, an exceedingly interesting creation, and especially characteristic of certain phases of that writer’s peculiar talents. With the exception of his ” Life of Cimabue,” it would be difficult to find a more elaborate and, at the same time, a more inconsistent piece of work throughout the entire series of biographical sketches that go to make up his famous book.

How much of the narrative in question is due to Vasari’s own imagination, and how much to the writings of the different authors upon whom he drew for the foundation of so many of his ” Lives,” it is difficult to say. Perhaps the honours are equally divided in this respect—certain it is that large demands were made upon Vasari’s fertile invention for the means of knitting together the long account of Giotto’s works, and of his endless artistic wanderings, with which he fills so many pages.

It is in his capacity as a critic, however, that our faith is most shaken ; and, in his promiscuous attributions to Giotto of works having little or nothing in common with that painter’s own particular style, and often differing greatly among themselves, we are forced to wonder at his strange lack of critical sense in accepting, unhesitatingly, the often times ignorant and untenable attributions and opinions of his predecessors and contemporaries.

Nevertheless, despite its various chronological errors and inexcusable critical mistakes, Vasari’s biography is worthy of our careful consideration as being the first really comprehensive attempt at compiling a detailed account of Giotto’s life, together with a description of his works. Although, as we have already said, it is at times difficult to detect the historian’s own imaginative additions to the story of the great painter’s career, as he gathered it from the writings of the authors who preceded him, we can upon the whole trust to him as more or less faithfully recording the traditions current in his day, at least as far as the more important features of his narrative are concerned ; and it is in this respect, rather than as a critical commentary, that his work has for us its greatest value.

Such writers and students as Baldinucci, Lanzi, Bottari—and, at a later period, Milanesi and Crowe and Cavalcaselle—did much to correct a great part of Vasari’s errors and mis-statements, as well as to clear up many uncertain points in regard to Giotto’s life ; but, with the exception of the last-named authors, their work partook rather more of an historical and archivistic, than of a critical, nature.

Crowe and Cavalcâselle’s life of the master, in the first part of their monumental work on the painting of Italy, despite various critical shortcomings, remains, as a whole, the most authoritative that has yet been given us, and one destined to hold a foremost place in the list of works concerning Giotto and his school.

The various contributions to the subject on the part of that greatest of all writers on art, John Ruskin, are too well known to the majority of readers to require more than a passing mention here. Nevertheless, great as Ruskin is in his ethical and aesthetic consideration of Giotto’s work, he is lacking as a critic in the modern technical sense of the word, and in this respect he has taught us little in regard to the painting of that master.

To a later and more purely scientific school of criticism, belongs Mr. Bernhard Berenson’s invaluable little book on the Florentine Painters of the Renaissance, and to him is due the first really careful and discriminating catalogue of Giotto’s works as we know them today.

Perhaps no personality exists in the artistic annals of Europe, a true appreciation of whose work and influences depends more deeply on a thorough knowledge of his predecessors and contemporaries, than is the case with Giotto himself. And yet, despite the comparatively generous quantity of literature that exists at the present day regarding him, no single volume has, to the best of our knowledge, yet appeared upon the subject, that can be said to combine the double purpose of a biographical sketch and a critical guide-book, and certainly none in which a notice of the master’s life has been preceded by any concise examination of the art that anticipated his own.

It is not without a just claim to the title, that Giotto has been proclaimed the first of modern painters ; but we must not allow this laudatory qualification to blind us to the fact that, however great his individual genius may have been—and it is certain that the history of art holds in its lists few names that rank as his in this respect—it would be both erroneous and unjust to deny that he was as much the culminating figure of a movement long on foot in France and Italy, as he was an absolutely original innovator. What he did for the art of Painting, others had accomplished, years before his time, for that of Sculpture ; and to pass over in silence these pioneers of the artistic renaissance of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—men to whom the real foundation of what is known as modern art was in so great a measure due—would be to convey a false, or at best an imperfect, impression of Giotto’s real position as a reformer.

In the preparation of this little volume, for a series intended to supply the public with a number of hand-books of a critical as well as of an historical character, it was originally our desire to preface our study of Giotto with an essay upon the earlier mediaeval art of Europe. Unfortunately, we have been able but partially to carry out our wishes in this direction, and circumstances have obliged us to abandon our original design. The limits of the present little work have rendered it impossible for us to enter into anything resembling a detailed or adequate delineation of the artistic progress and development of Italy during the centuries previous to Giotto’s birth ; nor has it been possible for us to follow, in its varied phases, the unique struggle for supremacy between the two great conflicting elements of Latin and Byzantine art, into a record of which the history of painting in that country, from the seventh century onwards, must inevitably resolve itself.

The twelfth century, however, marks the beginning of a new epoch in the moral and intellectual history of Western Europe—an epoch the revolutionary character of which is unmistakable. An account of the great struggle for individual assertion, brought about by the inevitable reaction against the conventionalities of the later Middle Ages, would again occupy too many pages to find a place here. It belongs rather more to the religious and political, than to the artistic, history of Europe. Nevertheless, the two are inseparably connected, and, as has ever been the case, such a movement could not fail, to influence, almost at once, the outward spiritual expressions of the people it affected, as manifested in their art and literature. So far as Italy herself was concerned, this deep inner change may be said to have found its most remarkable exponent in Francis of Assisi, than whom we can bring to mind no more typical a personification of the new spirit of this extraordinary age. The far-reaching influences of this great saint’s life and teachings were by no means limited to a merely religious character, and their after-results became distinctly visible, at a period but shortly removed from his death, in the art and literature of what may truly be said to constitute the commencement of the real Renaissance in Italy. Niccolo and Giovanni Pisano in the field of sculpture, Dante Alighieri in that of literature, Giotto di Bondone in the world of painting, all were but culminating figures in this same strong and irresistible movement toward an inner change in the moral and intellectual life of Western Europe—toward an emancipation of individual thought and feeling, and a return to more natural, simple, and life-giving models than those of mere convention.

It is not to Painting, however, but to her elder sister, Sculpture, that we must look for the first really important advance toward the practical realization of the new ideals that were stirring in the minds of the artists of Italy.

Already, in the beginning of the twelfth century, we meet with symptoms of an inward change in the spirit of the work turned out by the sculptors of Northern Italy and Tuscany—mere signs, it is true, hidden behind the veil of technical awkwardness and incapacity, but nevertheless sufficiently obvious to denote the growing change of ideals, and the ever-increasing restlessness on the part of the craftsman, beneath the yoke of conventionality which, both here and in the East, had so long borne down and suppressed the individual expression of his ideas.

The towns of Northern Italy are thickly strewn with examples of this struggling art, at times barbaric in its grotesque crudity, at others less so, but never once reaching a sufficient technical perfection or excellence to allow the artist fully to realize his inner dreams and ideals.

To Niccolo Pisano belongs, undoubtedly, the credit of the first effective step in this great mutation. His sudden appearance upon the artistic horizon of Italy may well seem to the generality of readers a matter for no small wonderment ; but a more careful consideration of the contemporary history of the period will lead them to look upon it as far less casual and unprepared an event than is generally supposed. The causes which tended to make it possible were manifold, and Niccolo was but the natural product of an age ripe for the practical embodiment of its new ideas. What he did for the artistic future of his country, was done, perhaps, in total unconsciousness on his part of the importance of the step, and of its wide-reaching after-results ; but his struggle against the conventionalities of his day was none the less sincere and heart-felt on this account, nor his final victory less complete. And yet, however great a figure in the artistic annals of his country, Niccolo must certainly appear to the careful student of his work, far more as one gifted with unusual powers of appreciative selection, than as a really extraordinary or original innovator. His genius was not such as to allow of his solving the problem at once and alone, or of passing with a single step from the observance of time-worn models to the imitation of Nature herself. The revolution which he effected was due rather to an appeal to her through intermediary means, and took the form of a direct return to better and purer models than those which had been for so long held up to the emulation of the Latin and Byzantine schools. It is precisely here that so many of his biographers, in their anxiety to attribute to him the entire glory of the reformation of Italian art, have exaggerated his real merits as an inventor, and misunderstood the true nature of his reforms.

We are accustomed to hear the now famous pulpit of the Baptistery at Pisa—Niccolo’s earliest known work—quoted almost invariably, as being not only the greatest and most representative creation of the master’s genius, but as the first important product of what has been termed the ” Modern Age” of Italian art. This statement, repeated by so many writers on the subject of Niccolo and his school, is a distortion of the actual truth.

If we examine carefully the style and manner of the Pisan pulpit, we cannot fail to become convinced that the reforms and innovations which Niccolo here introduced into his work were almost entirely of a technical nature, and hardly destined to leave any really permanent inward impressions upon the art that followed later. The artist has here, it is true, passed at a single step from the technical deficiencies of his contemporaries to a far higher plane of excellence in this direction, but we seek in vain for any really essential improvement upon the inner spiritual conceptions of the Byzantine and Latin artists of the time.

In clothing his subjects and characters with the out-ward forms of the Graeco-Roman art of classic times, Niccolo was but unconsciously returning to the example of the early Christian artists of Rome. The entire Pisan pulpit, as far as its sculptural decorations are concerned, is no more than a faithful study of Roman bas-reliefs, and there is nothing in its inner contents to characterize it in any way as a work of Christian art, beyond the mere subjects themselves. This absolute return to the neo-classic models of ancient Roman times was, as it were, an unwitting experiment on Niccolo’s part, and as such was not without a distinctly beneficial influence upon the sculpture of the day. The master himself, however, seems to have been among the first to recognize the limits of its success, and to acknowledge the unsuitability of the newly resurrected forms to a satisfactory representation of his own Christian ideals. A glance at the great pulpit in the Cathedral of Siena—his second work of importance, executed but a few years after the one at Pisa—will suffice to prove the truth of this supposition.

Although still adhering, in part, to some of the out-ward forms of his earlier classic models, we find an absolute inward change in the style of the work at Siena—a change due to the presence of an entirely new spirit in the master’s manner. Side by side with types recalling, almost directly, the conventional ones of the Roman reliefs, we find others that appear to us quite new—the counterparts of which we may seek for in vain in the rest of the Italian art of the period. These fresh forms seem based upon a more or less direct study of natural models ; there is in them none of the conventionality of the art of the time ; and in movement and expression, drapery and form, they seem possessed of an individuality and naturalism, that strike us at once as unprecedented in the entire range of the Byzantine and Latin art of the previous centuries.

As we examine this work—so unlike anything that had preceded it in the art of Italy, and so different in spirit from the earlier work of Niccolo himself—we are inclined to seek the source of the new naturalistic influences that had evidently had so great a share in the sudden change. That the transformation was entirely due to Niccolo’s personal creative genius, is hardly to be credited for an instant—that the influence came from Italy, or the East, is equally out of the question. There remains, therefore, but one solution to the problem, and we must turn to the North for an answer to our questions—and it is precisely from this direction that these new influences arose.

A really satisfactory study of the Gothic sculpture of France, and of its influences upon the art of the South, remains to be made and written. There are few epochs in the history of the world’s art which afford us a greater or a more surprising example of the visible outward expression of a nation’s thought and spiritual development, than does this marvellous efflorescence of sculpture in the North of Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. One of the earliest, and at the same time one of the most characteristic, manifestations of that same widespread intellectual and moral awakening which we have already spoken of as having made itself felt in Italy, the sudden appearance of this great school of French sculptors stamps it as unique in comparison with the slower and more gradual development of the Southern schools.

Of far greater importance, however, than this rapidity of rise and growth, was the creative e originality of its artists. The types and forms ch we meet at Paris, Chartres, Amiens, Strassburg, and a dozen other cathedral towns of France and South-Western Germany, appear to us as belonging to an absolutely new school of art, and due no longer, as was the case in Italy and the Orient, to the study and recasting of conventional and worn-out models, but to an almost direct reversion to that greatest of all teachers, Nature herself. We feel instinctively the presence of a new and life-giving element in the freedom and individuality of thought which shows itself in these new creations of the Northern workmen. For the first time in centuries, we meet with a style that is at once both natural and free ; and the humanizing spirit which runs through the work of these nameless French sculptors, brings their art at once into a far more intimate relation with ourselves than was the case with any that had gone before it. We are conscious of new feelings of sympathy and attraction, such as the older art of Rome and Byzantium had been powerless to awaken in us. Its freshness and simplicity strike us as a healthy and welcome change from the eternally repeated forms of the South and of the East, and, to our modern taste and judgment, this new style appeals at once as a far more human and natural embodiment of our own ideals of Christian art than any in the entire previous history of sculpture or of painting.

Nor was it merely in its inner spiritual qualities that this new Gothic sculpture showed so distinct a departure from the work of Italy and the Orient ; for we find in it a technical perfection of form and workmanship that must appear as little less than marvellous in comparison with the relative degeneracy of the Italo-Byzantine schools.

That an art possessing such qualities of freshness and originality should have withheld its invigorating influence for so long a time from the near-lying sister country of Italy, is as surprising as it is unaccountable. Niccolo Pisano seems to have been the first Italian artist of importance to feel its effects. How, and at what exact period of his life, he first came in contact with the creations of the Northern workmen, it is difficult to say. His early recognition of the unsuitability of the pseudo-classic style adopted by him in the Pisan pulpit, to the expression of his innate Christian ideals, may have led him to look about for other and more adaptable models. In the work of the Gothic sculptors he would certainly have found what was at least the partial realization of his dreams ; and although diversity of nature and education might have prevented his adoption of the new forms in their entirety and at once, their influence could not have failed to stamp itself upon his work to such an extent as to effect a thorough, though gradual, change in his style and manner. However this may have been, the great pulpit of Siena is a standing proof of the sudden alteration of his art, and may well be looked upon as the turning-point of his own career, as well as of the artistic history of his country.

What time may have done for Niccolo in the assimilation of the new Gothic spirit of naturalism and artistic freedom of thought, as well as in the development of his own individual powers, we cannot definitely ascertain, for the reason that the work of his later years is too vaguely commingled with that of his son Giovanni, and of various other assistants, to give us any really exact idea of his own share in it. The great public fountain at Perugia, the last existing work upon which we know the master to have been engaged, bears the names of both father and son. Whatever may have been Niccolo’s own direct share in it, this work shows us the complete realization of that new style, the germs of which are so visible at Siena. The conventional stiffness of the Pisan pulpit and the hybrid qualities of the one at Siena, have here entirely disappeared, and we find ourselves in possession of forms as free and natural as those of Giotto himself ; forms which bespeak the final and absolute emancipation of the artist from the classic and Byzantine traditions that had for so long governed the art of Italy.

In his son Giovanni, and in another of his pupils, the Florentine, Arnolfo, Niccolo left behind him two successors who were destined worthily to carry on and perfect the work which he had himself begun. Through Giovanni, more especially, the fame of the Pisan school rose to a renown that eclipsed even that of Niccolo, and it is in the works of this younger sculptor that those traits of humanity and individual expression, which had already begun so strongly to characterize the work of Niccolo’s later years, reach a point of previously unequalled development.

Giovanni’s great natural gifts, his deep dramatic sense, and his careful study of natural models, stood him in good stead for the furtherance of the new ideals of his school.

Of a temperament markedly different from his father’s, he replaced the calm sedateness of Niccolo’s style with a restless energy of expression that became a leading characteristic of his work; and he seems nowhere more at home than in the depicting of subjects calling for animated dramatic treatment. The passionate action of his figures is exaggerated at times into a positive violence, verging upon a fault. With this overflow of vitality, however, was united a sanity of conception, a simplicity of style, and an appreciation of natural and human sentiment, that brought his work into a greater affinity with the spirit of the Gothic schools of the North than had ever been the case with that of Niccolo. Nevertheless, this approach to the feeling of the Northern sculptors was not arrived at through any loss of individuality on Giovanni’s own part, but, on the contrary, we find a constantly increasing quality of originality in his work, which stamps it as deserving of the respect due to an independent school of art, reaching its climax, at a late period, in the still more perfect creations of his successor, Andrea da Pontedera—better known as Andrea Pisano—regarding whose personality and work we will have more to say in another place.

Not withstanding the innovations which they had introduced, the influence of Niccolo and his earlier followers upon the painting of their time was, strange to say, for years an absolutely imperceptible one. Even in their native Tuscany, the pictorial arts continued to lead an entirely separate existence from that of their sister, sculpture ; and their sudden revival during the latter half of the thirteenth century, the entire credit of which has traditionally been laid at the feet of that mysterious personage, Cimabue, was due in no way to the influence of the Pisan school of sculptors, but entirely to the resurrection of better Latin and Byzantine models than had hitherto been in use.