Giotto’s Early Years

GIOTTO DI BONDONE was born at Colle, a little village belonging to the Commune of Vespignano in the beautiful valley of the Mugello, not many miles to the north of Florence.

No authenticated evidence has been handed down to us regarding the exact date of his birth, a fact which has given rise to various discussions and conjectures on the part of art-historians, for the past two centuries, as to the most probable year in which that important event took place.

Vasari, upon some unknown authority, places the date at 1276. Certain outward evidence of later periods in the artist’s life, however—as, for instance, the fact of his having been intrusted at Rome, as early as 1298, or even before that time, with works of such importance as the famous mosaic of the ” Navicella ” and the high-altar piece of St. Peter’s—leads us to doubt the accuracy of that writer’s statement.

We are hardly inclined to believe that even one of Giotto’s exceptional genius could have risen, at the early age of twenty-one, to such fame and pre-eminence in his art, as to have insured his being chosen in preference to all the artists of Italy to fulfil such important commissions as those we have just mentioned. Probabilities are certainly against the supposition that a mere youth, however talented, should suddenly have been elevated to a position above the heads of the foremost painters and mosaic-workers of the day, many of whom, greatly his seniors in age, had long before acquired a firmly established reputation throughout all Italy as the greatest living masters of their respective arts.

We have the further testimony of no less an authority than Antonio Pucci, in support of the opinion that Giotto was born at an earlier period than is generally believed to have been the case. This writer tells us in his “Centiloquio “—which work is but a rhymed para-phrase of Giovanni Villani’s ” Chronicle”—that the great painter died on the eighth of January, 1 336 (according to the old Florentine method of reckoning), at seventy years of age. The statement of Pucci, who, together with Villani, was a contemporary, and undoubtedly a personal acquaintance, if not a friend, of Giotto, certainly lays claim to a greater degree of credibility than the assertion of a writer living some two centuries later, and we may reasonably place the actual year of Giotto’s birth somewhere between 1265 and 1270.

Of his boyhood and early life we know virtually nothing, beyond the fact that he was by no means born in the poor and humble circumstances represented to us by so many of his biographers. That his father was something more than a poverty-stricken day-labourer is proved to us by a document of the year 1320,’ in which Giotto is mentioned as being the son of a certain Francesco Bondone of Vespignano, to all appearances, judging from the contents of the document in question, a well-to-do landed proprietor, who is spoken of as vir praeclarus, a title never given either to labourers or peasants, both of whom are invariably designated in all official documents of the time as laboratores terrarum.

Even tradition seems to have kept a comparative silence regarding the painter’s early childhood, and it is only at a period long after his death that we come upon certain legends in which his name is associated with that of Cimabue, in the relationship of pupil and master.

It is through Dante Alighieri that we first hear of the painter Cimabue in the now famous lines Credette Cimabue nella pintura Tener lo campo, ed ora ha Giotto il grido, Si the la fama di colui oscura.

This is, perhaps, praise enough, just and sufficient, but it is chiefly to the writings of Vasari and others, at a much later period, that Cimabue—or Cenni di Pepo, as he was properly called—owes his present fame.

Ghiberti mentions him simply as a follower of the “Greek” manner of painting. Filippo Villani and, later on, Cristoforo Landini, were among the first to speak of him as the “regenerator of the art of painting,” and the founder of a new school, at a period sufficiently remote from his own lifetime to lend an air of inventive originality to their remarks. To Francesco Albertini we are indebted for the first imaginative catalogue of his works, together with those of his would-be pupil Giotto.

To all of these writers, and to the anonymous compiler of a series of biographical sketches of great and famous artists—from Cimabue to Michelangelo, still preserved in MS. form-at Florence—Vasari is under strict obligations for the main statements in his eulogistic ” Life of Cimabue.

Vasari’s narrative is an astonishing combination of half-truths, historical misrepresentations, and lack of critical judgment. In his enumeration of Cimabue’s supposed works, he seems to be entirely devoid of any set criterion whatever in regard to the paintings of this earlier period of Italian art, and, following in the footsteps of Albertini, sets down to the glory of Cimabue, as the creator of a new school, a promiscuous series of works having, in the majority of cases, naught in common beyond a general air of antiquity and Byzantinism. The one prevalent idea in Vasari’s mind—as was the case with so many of his compatriots—seems to have been to give to Florence, at any cost, the entire honour and glory of the reformation of medieval painting, and, as far as outward results have been concerned, he seems to have attained the fulfilment of his desires, for Cimabue has been passed down to us in the full light of his making.

Summarily, it may safely be said that Vasari’s biography of this painter is, on the whole, the most untrustworthy and incorrect of all his ” Lives ” ; and we cannot do better than lay it aside as a compilation in the main dependent upon the invention of its author and a few other sixteenth-century writers, whose imaginative faculties were often stronger than their love of facts, and whose critical judgment, literally speaking, was worth nothing. As in the case of his ” Life of Giotto,” this biography of Vasari can have, therefore, little value for the student, beyond affording him a general view of the various traditions which were afloat in that author’s day regarding the misty personality of Cimabue.

We have little reason to doubt that Dante’s words of praise were, to a certain extent, justified, or that Cimabue was, at a certain period of his life, really in the possession of a celebrity beyond that enjoyed by the majority of his contemporaries. At the same time, the poet’s lines do not by any means exclude the existence of other well-known artists during this period of Italian art-history, and modern criticism has given us good reason to believe, furthermore, that his words were more especially applied to the painting of Tuscany than to that of other parts of the peninsula. Again, even Dante Alighieri was himself at times not entirely free from a certain Chauvinisme, and his quotation of Cimabue, as having ” held the field of painting” before Giotto’s time, may have been in a measure prompted by a certain very natural, and perhaps excusable, local patriotism.

What Dante’s gifts as an art-critic may have been, we do not exactly know, but it seems almost certain that he must, at the time, have been acquainted with the creations of the great school of painters and mosaic-workers at Rome—works which show a far higher standard of artistic excellence than any of the various paintings that can, with any reasonable probability, be attributed to Cimabue or his contemporaries of the Florentine school.

As to the frescoes in the Upper Church at Assisi, we have already expressed our opinion in another place. The real authorship of these works, which would certainly establish Cimabue as the greatest painter before Giotto’s day, could their attribution to him be but proven, unfortunately remains too doubtful a question to admit of any very probable or satisfactory solution. Still another work, and one that has perhaps contributed more than any other toward the building up of Cimabue’s extraordinary fame—the great Madonna of the Rucellai Chapel, in the church of Sta. Maria Novella at Florence —is now admitted, by more than one serious critic, to be a direct production of the school of Duccio of Siena,’ and not a Florentine work at all.

Such other works as remain in the list of paintings traditionally attributed to Cimabue, although in one or two cases decidedly superior to the average Tuscan painting of the time, are scarcely of a nature to confirm the usual exaggerated opinions of his greatness as an innovator ; and in the present lack of all decisive proof concerning his life and works he must become to us an almost mythical character—one to be considered as a type representative of that artistic progress and advance which we know to have taken place in Florentine art during the latter half of the thirteenth century, rather than as any strictly defined personality. Tradition may have been right in considering him the regenerating spirit of painting in Tuscany, and in attributing to him such works as the Madonna in the Academy at Florence; but such examples are insufficient in themselves to make good his claim to the position of the greatest painter of his day. Until, therefore, some fortunate critic can come forward with more satisfactory arguments than those which have heretofore been offered us in defence of Cimabue’s asserted greatness and superiority over the other artists of his time, or until some documents are brought to light proving to us his rights to the authorship of the frescoes at Assisi, we cannot share the popular opinion regarding this most vaguely defined of painters, and he must remain to us an unsolved problem in the art-history of his century.

Time seems to have dealt exceptionally severely with such of Giotto’s youthful works as might have furnished us a means of judging more correctly of his early education, and of the gradual formation of his style. With the possible exception of two or three small panel paintings, which have of late years been attributed by Mr. Bernhard Berenson to this early stage of the master’s professional activity, we cannot boast of possessing a single work of this particular period in Italian art that can be said to show any characteristics in common with Giotto’s style as we are wont to know it. Nevertheless, no artist, however gifted, could possibly have arrived at the comparative perfection evinced by the master in his earlier creations at Rome and at Assisi without having passed through a long stage of preparatory study and development, and we are not inclined to believe that Giotto stepped at once into the possession of such a style without having left behind him some material evidence of his early studies. Such evidence, had it been preserved, would have been sufficient to have made clear to us the truth concerning his early artistic education, as well as the real merits of his masters and the different influences brought to bear upon him as a youth. Unfortunately, almost every trace of his earliest activity as a painter has been lost, and, despite the persistent attempts of various modern critics—mostly of the German school—to persuade us to see the entire course of Giotto’s early education mapped out before us in the older frescoes of the Upper Church at Assisi, we must reluctantly dismiss all present hope of becoming acquainted with the real facts regarding his earlier development.

Probabilities certainly tend, however, toward the acceptance of the usual tradition that Giotto was, at one time in his life, a pupil of Cimabue, or of some one of that painter’s Florentine contemporaries. How long he may have continued under the influence of these Tuscan masters, and to what extent he may have been indebted to them in the formation of his later manner, it is—in the absence of all certain knowledge concerning the painters in question and this particular period of his own life—futile to conjecture. It is hardly probable that one gifted with his restless spirit of progress and advance should have remained long satisfied with the comparatively narrow artistic education that Florence was able to afford, and there is every likelihood of his having visited both Rome and Assisi at an early period of his career, either in the company of Cimabue or some other such artist. A journey to Assisi—where the great church of S. Francesco, but recently completed, was already acquiring a widespread fame as a treasure-house of art—would almost of necessity have led in time to a visit to the not far distant papal capital, still, in Giotto’s day, the artistic centre of the Occident—the Jerusalem of every serious artistic pilgrimage.

The art of Rome, however,—as had been the case with the apparently far less important art of Florence-. was, even at its grandest and best, too hampered and conventional to teach Giotto more than it had taught his predecessors. The young painter’s exceptional genius must soon have exhausted the possibilities of both schools, and arrived, at an early period, at the limit of their capacity for further development. A mind such as his could not have remained long blinded to the differences that lay between this conventional and limited art and the new and unfettered one of Giovanni Pisano and his followers ; nor could it have failed to recognize and appreciate the causes that went to make up this great diversity. The advance made by the Pisan stone-cutters must have appealed to Giotto as applicable to his own case. Instinctively he must have felt that the realization of his artistic ideals lay beyond the pale of the pictorial traditions of the time, and was to be arrived at only through a radical departure from the conventions of his predecessors and contemporaries, and a bold entry upon a new and untrodden path in the field of painting. To one of his peculiar temperament thought was equivalent to action, and his genius carried him at once beyond the barrier that had served to stay the progress of so many lesser men in the same struggle for freedom of expression. With naught else but Nature as his prototype, he was enabled to create, almost at once, such forms as were perfectly suited to the expression of his ideas, and he suddenly stands before us, in the earliest works that can with any security be attributed to his hand, as a master already possessed of an entirely free and independent style, having nothing in common with the productions of his contemporaries beyond a few relatively insignificant technical details.

To how great an extent the example of the sculptors of Pisa and of the North may have affected Giotto in this decisive change, it is impossible to say. Certain it is, however, that to Giovanni, if to no other of his school, Giotto owed no small debt in the formation of his style. The effect of Giovanni’s work upon the painter’s artistic development was an undeniable and a potent one, and, as far as he may be said to have had any real teacher beyond Nature herself, Giovanni Pisano was certainly the artist whose creations exercised the greatest influence upon the moulding of his manner.