Giotto – Later Works

IF the history of Giotto’s earlier life may be said to I rest beneath a cloud, we have at least been able to account for his presence in Rome and at Assisi during the greater part of the ten years preceding his acceptance of the commission to decorate the chapel of the Paduan Arena. With the completion of this great work, however, commences a period of nearly twenty years duration which remains to us a sealed chapter in the story of the master’s life. We do not possess as much as a single document or record of sufficient importance to throw any real light upon the manner in which these years were spent, or to determine in any way the truth regarding the various journeyings which the painter is said to have undertaken during this lengthy space of time. Even in the matter of existing works, we possess relatively little in comparison with the length of time covered by this period—by no means sufficient, in fact, to account for more than a small fraction of these obscure years.

How long Giotto may have remained in Northern Italy, after the completion of the frescoes in the Arena Chapel, we have no means of ascertaining. That the fame which these great works must surely have brought him should have led to various other commissions, both at Padua and elsewhere, is certain ; and there is undoubtedly some foundation of truth to Vasari’s statement that he painted important works at Verona, Ferrara, and Ravenna, as well as in Padua. Unfortunately, the hopeless chronological confusion and the utter disregard of historical exactness which characterize Vasari’s narrative, render it impossible for us to depend upon his words, which here, as elsewhere, must be accepted only with all due allowances for the inventive genius of their author. In regard to Giotto’s work at Padua, more especially, he seems exceptionally confused. According to his record of events, the great painter paid two visits to this city at distinctly different periods—one almost immediately after his return, in 1316, from an imaginary sojourn of some ten years’ duration in Avignon and other parts of France ;’ another, shortly before his death in 1336. In his account of the first of these two visits, Vasari makes no mention whatever either of Scrovegno or his chapel, and satisfies us with the knowledge that Giotto, having been called to Padua at the instance of the Signori della Scala, painted a most beautiful chapel—” una bellissima cappella “—in the church of S. Antonio. Whether Messer Giorgio may have had in mind—as was later the case with Baldinucci—the Cappella di S. Jacopo, with its frescoes by Altichieri and Avanzi, or some other chapel within the main church, it is impossible to say, but there exists to the present day what once must certainly have been ” a most beautiful chapel,” still used as the chapter-house of the church, wherein we may look upon the ruined remnants of a series of frescoes which clearly be-speak, in part at least, the work of Giotto’s brush. Sadly damaged and repainted, as a natural result of the various architectural changes which the chapel has undergone, as well as of the succession of fires to which it has been subject on no less than three different occasions, the fragments that have been left to us of the original deco-rations afford little more than a few general indications of their former style and manner. Vague as these indications may be, however, they are sufficiently convincing to confirm the identity of their origin, and we clearly recognize Giotto’s own hand in the row of mutilated saints along the two end walls. In general style these figures still closely resemble those of the Arena Chapel, although their greater grandeur and severity, and their monumental dignity of pose, would point to their having been executed during a somewhat later period of the master’s development. Unhappily, all further discussion of their merits is rendered impossible owing to the deplorable state to which they have been reduced.

The frescoes in this chapter-house may well have been among the ” many other things and chapels which, Vasari tells us, were painted by Giotto during his second visit to Padua, at which time, we are given to understand, he also executed a Gloria mondana, in the ” Place of the Arena,” which work ” brought him much honour and benefit.” The tradition that Giotto painted in the great Sala della Ragione of the Palazzo Comunàle, seems to be confirmed by a passage in the chronicle of Riccobaldo Ferrarese, to which we have alluded in a note. No traces of the master’s handiwork, however, are to be found at the present day among the endless frescoes which adorn the walls of this vast hall.

If we may believe Vasari, Giotto painted for Messer Cane (Can Grande della Scala), and for the friars of S. Francesco in Verona, and, later, in Ferrara, for the House of Este. The works which he executed in this latter town, in the palace of the Este family and in the church of S. Agostino, were still to be seen, the historian tells us, in his own day. Needless to remark, nothing now remains to prove the correctness of this assertion.

It was during his stay at Ferrara, Vasari goes on to say, that Giotto was invited to Ravenna by Francesco da Polenta, at the suggestion of Dante Alighieri, who was a guest of that nobleman at the time. Whether there be any truth in this tradition, it is impossible to say, for we do not find it corroborated by any of the early chroniclers. Nevertheless, the picture of the meeting of the two great Florentines, during these closing years of Dante’s life,’ is one far too temptingly affecting to be easily put aside by the majority of modern writers ; and, indeed, nothing would have been more natural than that Giotto should have gladly seized upon such an opportunity for renewing the friendship of early years, and once more enjoying the company of the exiled poet, his compatriot; nor would the pleasure have been less on Dante’s own part. However this may really have been, there seems little reason to doubt Giotto’s presence in Ravenna during some period of his life, although nothing now remains of his own handiwork in either of the two churches in which Vasari tells us he once painted. The much re-painted ceiling frescoes in one of the side chapels of S. Giovanni Evangelista, which are still accepted by most critics as creations of Giotto’s brush, point rather to the work of one of the more talented of his many followers. Nor is this the only Giottesque work to be found in Ravenna and its neighbourhood, where numerous frescoes by other of the master’s followers bear evidence to the strong influence which he brought to bear upon the painters of these parts.

From Ravenna, Vasari takes the subject of his biography back to Florence by way of Urbino and Arezzo, painting as he goes. Strange to say, the town of Rimini is left out of the present tour, to be visited by the master at a later period, on his return from Naples(?), when, Vasari tells us, he painted in the church of S. Francesco ” very many things,” which were destroyed during the remodelling of that building by Sigismondo Malatesta. ” He painted also in the cloister of that place the story of the Beata Michelina ; which was one of the most beautiful and excellent things that Giotto ever made.” Two closely printed pages follow this latter statement, in which Vasari gives full vent to his enthusiastic admiration for these works, describing them with a care and minuteness which he bestows to a like extent upon no other of the many creations which he attributes to the master. The paintings in question are now under whitewash, and we of the present day are no longer able to enjoy their undoubted merits ; but it is unfortunate for Vasari’s reputation as a critic of Giotto’s style, that the subject of the series, the Beata Michelina of Pesaro, is known to have died some twenty years after that great master had passed away from the scene of his earthly labours. That Giotto really did work in Rimini, however, seems almost certain from a passage in that same record of Riccobaldo. Ferrarese, which we have already had reason to quote on two occasions.

Once returned to Florence, Giotto is not given much time by his biographer for rest, and although, as usual, he ” painted many things,” immediately upon his arrival in that city, in 1322 we find him in Lucca working for Castruccio, lord and ruler of that town, and shortly afterwards in Naples with King Robert. After having executed a vast number of works in this last-named city, as well as in Gaëta, Rimini and Ravenna, Vasari brings him back again to Florence some time before 1327, in which year we find him called upon to supply a design for the tomb of Guido Tarlati, the warlike Bishop of Arezzo.

So much for Vasari’s wonderful narrative of Giotto’s movements, and of the herculean labours accomplished by that painter during this somewhat limited period of his life. Whether Giotto really made more than one visit to Padua and its neighbourhood during these years of his activity, or if, as we are told by Michele Savonarola, in that writer’s ” De Laudibus Patavii,” he really made that town his headquarters for a lengthy period of time, we have no means of determining. Certain it is, however, that sooner or later he must have returned to his beloved Florence, where he doubtless spent a goodly number of years, previous to his famous journey to Naples, which could not have taken place, despite Vasari’s statement to the contrary, until considerably after 1327. Of the many works which he is said to have painted during different periods of his life, in this his adopted city, a single altar-piece and two sadly damaged series of frescoes are all that not remain to tell the tale of those long years of steady toil and labour ; and to the Florentines themselves belongs the glory of having wantonly destroyed the grand creations of this their greatest artist.

In the great Franciscan church of Santa Croce, which, before its desecration by the vandals of the so-called ” Later Renaissance,” was assuredly to be counted among the grandest monuments of early Italian art, Vasari mentions no less than four different chapels as having been decorated by Giotto’s hand.

Incredible as it may seem, not even the time-honoured name of the great master by whom they were adorned was sufficient to save these beautiful chapels from the deluge of whitewash which the barbaric taste of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries poured out upon the older churches of Italy, and Giotto’s paintings shared the common fate of many another masterpiece. The walls of two of these chapels—those of the Bardi and Peruzzi families—have since been freed from their coats of plaster and of wash, and some of the grandest of all Giotto’s works rescued from permanent oblivion—not, however, without the inevitable accompaniment of ” restoration ” and renewal. Nevertheless, deplorably damaged and repainted as they are, the original grandeur of these once splendid frescoes still makes itself felt through the screen of modern paint, stamping them unmistakably as having once belonged to the list of Giotto’s most perfect creations, painted at the zenith of his powers. Although all attempts to fix the exact date of these paintings can but end in mere approximate conjectures, a critical comparison with Giotto’s works at Padua and Assisi plainly shows them to belong to a much later period than that fixed upon by many critics, and they are certainly the latest in date of all the master’s works preserved to us.

An examination of the two series leaves no doubt as to the Bardi Chapel having been the first to be decorated by Giotto, and here he once more takes up the favoured subject with which he had already shown his powers at Assisi—the Life of St. Francis. Space has here rendered so lengthy a series as that in the Assisan church impossible, and the painter has been obliged to content himself with eight subjects, chosen by his employers as being, in their estimation, the most important ones of all.

Giotto commences on the right wall, with St. Francis’ Renunciation of his Father and the World. Let us compare this fresco with the master’s treatment of the same subject at Assisi. After making due allowance for the influence of the space—which differs in each representation—upon the general arrangement of the figures, we find that the essential features of the composition are not radically changed. In the later work, painted to fill a long and low lunette, the artist has been allowed far greater freedom for the lengthening out of his design, which has thereby gained in grace over the more compact arrangement of the figures at Assisi. In the matter of action and movement, the two frescoes resemble each other closely, even to the repetition of certain minor motives. In simple energy of expression, the painting at Assisi distinctly holds the first place, while the later representation is characterized by a greater ease of movement, and a certain dignified quiet and restraint. The work of the restorer has, however, in both cases rendered a just appreciation and comparison of the original figures quite impossible, all such details as those of facial expression having been entirely changed or lost.

In the fresco of St. Francis before Innocent III., in the opposite lunette, Giotto has sought by means of the sloping architectural lines and the addition of the two lateral pairs of figures, to adapt his composition to the space allowed him. In the fulfilment of this intention, he has been singularly successful, although we instinctively feel that the symmetrical balance of the whole has been purchased at the cost of a certain amount of that freedom and naturalness so characteristic of the master as we generally know him. In the treatment of the principal group, Giotto has not essentially departed from his earlier design.

In the painting below, of St. Francis before the Sultan, the master no longer follows the arrangement of the same scene at Assisi, but has here produced an entirely different composition. Restoration has again dealt severely with this once splendid fresco, and is especially to be thanked for the present awkward and badly draped figure of the Saint. Better followed out, however, is the truly noble and expressive one of the Sultan himself, and those of the Saracen guards and the retreating priests. In the last-named, especially, the restorer has kept quite faithfully to the beautiful lines of the original drapery. Very fine, in its purity of style and decoration, is the Sultan’s throne, with its classic marble canopy.

The Apparition at Arles forms the subject of the fresco next in order. Here, again, although perhaps superior in symmetry of arrangement, Giotto’s later work, as it now stands, falls behind his treatment of the subject at Assisi, both in grandeur and in energy of expression.

The painter has combined the next two subjects, those of the Visions of Frate Agostino, and of the Bishop of Assisi, in a single fresco. This painting has suffered more severely than any other of the series, the figure of St. Francis appearing to the Bishop being entirely new, while those of the other personages in both scenes are hardly better off.

We now come to the closing scene of all—the Funeral of the Saint (Pl. 31). Probably, in more ways than one, Giotto’s greatest masterpiece, as a composition this work remains unsurpassed, if not unparalleled, in the entire history of Italian art. No words can do the slightest justice to the beauty of this wonderful design, so faultless in its absolute perfection—in a way the culminating effort of the master’s genius as an artist, and sufficient in itself to confirm all our claims to the great position held by Giotto, not only as the first painter of his own day, but as one of the greatest of all times. Here, for once, even the sad work of the restorer passes almost unnoticed in our admiration of the whole, and his worst efforts have been powerless to ruin the effect of solemnity and grandeur which still pervades this veritable triumph of Giotto’s art.

In the four divisions of the ceiling are representations of St. Francis in Glory, and of those three Virtues most particularly held in reverence by his order—abridged versions of the far more elaborate Allegories at Assisi.

On either side of the altar, one above the other, are painted the full-length figures of St. Louis of Toulouse’ and St. Clara, St. Louis, King of France, and St. Elizabeth of Hungary, each in a feigned Gothic niche. Terribly repainted as they are, the original nobility of these figures still shows out clearly from beneath their thick coatings of repaint. Even more unfortunate in the treatment they have received, are the figures of saints in the vaulting of the entrance, preserving as they do, nothing beyond a few vague traces of their original character and design.

High above this arched entrance to the chapel, on the main wall of the church, Giotto painted as a complement to the series—and probably as forming the most significant subject of all—the Reception of the Stigmata by St. Francis (Pl. 32). Comparatively free from restoration, this damaged painting is the only one of the entire series from which we may derive anything resembling a correct conception of the original beauty and nobility of these frescoes, as they left Giotto’s hand. To all who give it a moment’s real attention, the advance accomplished by the master in his technical rendering of form, movement and expression, will be easily apparent. As compared with his earlier treatment of the subject at Assisi, we find here an increased simplicity and conciseness of representation, the painter having eliminated the extra figure of St. Francis’ companion, thus concentrating the entire attention of the spectator upon the Saint himself, and the Divine Vision which is the subject of the fresco.

In part even more cruelly repainted than these frescoes of the Bardi Chapel, are those relating to the lives of St. John the Baptist and his namesake the Evangelist, in the adjoining chapel of the Peruzzi family. The monumental style in which these works were originally conceived, is, however, still unmistakably apparent ; and they are certainly to be considered as products of the most mature period of Giotto’s activity, in all probability posterior in date, by some years at least, to the paintings in the Bardi Chapel, as well as the latest of all the master’s existing paintings. Commencing on the left wall, we have three subjects from the life of the Baptist. The first of these represents the appearance of the Angel to Zacharias. So entirely repainted is this fresco, that nothing now remains of the original figures beyond a general sense of their form and movement—sufficient, nevertheless, to afford us some idea of their former beauty. The same may be said with equal truth of the scene that follows—the Birth and Naming of St. John. The fresco of the Feast of Herod (Pl. 33), however, has in some inexplicable manner escaped, to a great extent, the fate of the other paintings, and a goodly portion of Giotto’s work is still left to us, in a measure free from the restorer’s changes. As in the case of the fresco of the Stigmata in the preceding series, we may still arrive through a study of this one work at a comparatively just appreciation of the perfection of Giotto’s style at this period of his activity Best preserved of all is the beautiful and justly praised figure of the viol player, but we need not confine our interest to this one personage, for, one and all, the participants in the scene are worthy of careful study and attention. Beneath the archway to the right, Giotto has represented a second episode in the tragedy—Salome presenting the head of the Saint to her mother. Very interesting is the architecture in this painting, and the master’s study of classic models comes most strikingly to the fore in the decoration of the loggia, foreshadowing, as it does, the work of the later Renaissance.

The lunette fresco on the opposite wall—representing the Vision of St. John the Evangelist on the Isle of Patmos—is chiefly remarkable as an example of Giotto’s powers in concisely treating a subject which, in the hands of most painters of the time, was usually spread out into a number of different scenes. The various figures are here too heavily repainted to admit of further discussion of their respective merits. Restoration has also had far more than its due share in the following painting—The Raising of Drusiana—but the striking grandeur of arrangement, the noble dignity of the principal figures, their deep expressiveness of movement, and their splendid development of form, still impress us with much of their original power, proving the uniform excellence at which Giotto had arrived at the time these works were painted. Even grander and far more carefully preserved, is the fresco that follows, representing the legendary Assumption of the Saint (Pl. 34). No later artist ever succeeded in surpassing the perfect realization of movement arrived at by Giotto in this wonderful work. It would indeed be difficult to conceive of a more dignified, and at the same time a more impressive and rational, conception of the subject than that here given us by Giotto—a worthy climax indeed to the long series of the master’s paintings with which we have hitherto become acquainted.

Of the other works executed by Giotto in Santa Croce, nothing now remains. Chief among these must have been the decorations of the chapels belonging to the Giugni, and to the Tosinghi and Spinelli families. Both these chapels were, however,-whitewashed together with the others, and early in the past century the last-named was covered with the modern paintings which now deface its walls, Giotto’s work being irretrievably lost thereby. As to the famous ” Baroncelli ” altar-piece—still looked upon by critics as one of the most ” authentic ” of Giotto’s paintings—we must again express our wonderment that any one pretending to the least acquaintance with the master’s style should for a moment have mistaken this work for a genuine production of Giotto’s brush. A single glance at any of the figures in the composition is certainly sufficient to effectually disprove its present attribution to the master whose name it bears ; for, apart from the evident falsity of the signature, the long straight noses, the narrow slit-like eyes, the peculiar folds of the drapery, the comparative slightness of form, all point to a production of one of Giotto’s many pupils—in this case very near to Taddeo Gaddi.’ To Taddeo himself belongs the long series of little panels—once a part of the cup-boards in the Sacristy—now in the Academy at Florence.

These interesting little works relating to the life of Christ and of St. Francis, and so nearly resembling Giotto’s own works in composition and in spirit as to easily lead to the supposition that they were executed from the master’s own designs, are still by many considered to be entirely his creations. The Last Supper and the other frescoes on the end wall of the Old Refectory are also unmistakable productions of Taddeo.

For a detailed account of the many other paintings said to have been executed by Giotto during these later years of his activity, we must recommend the reader to the pages of Vasari. However inexact that writer’s list may be, there is little reason to doubt that, apart from the innumerable works carried out by his many pupils, the master must have fulfilled with his own hand a large number of the endless commissions which poured in upon him both at Florence and elsewhere. Nevertheless, with the exception of the ruined frescoes which we have already examined in the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels, and one or two relatively unimportant little panel pictures, no further traces of the master’s industry during these later years of his activity now remain.