National Gallery – Giotto And His School

IT is much to be regretted that there is no attested example of the work of Giotto in the National Gallery. His name is, of course, the foremost of the fourteenth century, and he founded a school of followers which made it possible for his influence to dominate the whole art-work of the century. But there are several bits of his followers’ work in this collection, and, by an observation of them, and their methods, which were inherited directly from the master, we may come at a fairly good idea of his style.

Giotto himself stood for three special innovations in the field of art : he was the first painter who was able to transcribe his own thought in his work, painting with realism instead of being hampered by symbolism; grasping the essential points of interest, he presented them in so convincing a way that the spectator felt instinctively the true import of the picture. Another entirely new feature, original with him, was the ability to make objects stand out, — he gave relief to his figures. The third great contribution of Giotto was his marvellous use of a given space, always filling it in the most skilful way both for narrative and decorative purposes. These three leading characteristics of his work descended in his school, and may be observed as we study one after another of his followers.

The traditional story of Giotto, as a boy, being found by Cimabue in a field, sketching sheep on a flat stone, probably has little historic foundation; but it is probable that Giotto was a pupil of Cimabue, and that he surpassed his master early in his career. If Cimabue was as proud and tenacious a character as he is described by the Anonimo, one may take issue with Mrs. Browning when she claims —

That Cimabue smiled upon the lad At the first stroke which passed what he could do.”

It is well to begin by tracing some of the processes which made fourteenth-century art possible. One of the school of Giotto has left an illuminating treatise which has been mentioned before as a mine of information concerning the arts of his time. Cennino Cennini’s treatise exhorts artists to follow one master, and he informs us of his own pedigree in the arts. ” Do you pursue the method of colouring which I shall point out to you, because it was adopted by Giotto, the great master, who had Taddeo Gaddi . . . for his disciple for twenty-four years; his disciple was Agnolo, his son; I was Agnolo’s disciple for twelve years, and he showed me this method.” So any student of Giotto can hardly do better than turn to Cennino Cennini for elucidation as to the methods employed by the master and his school.

Cennino’s directions for painting on walls commence with instructions to procure lime and sand, and to sift them well. These, after having been tempered with water, are to be laid on the wall. ” First sweep the wall,” says Cennino, ” and wet it well ; you cannot wet it too much.” Minute di-rections follow, for measuring the spaces, laying out the drawing, and applying colours. In giving suggestions as to the colouring to be employed, Cennino, speaking of the hair and beards of the figures to be portrayed, says : ” I warn you, how-ever, to let it be of some colour that you are accustomed to see.” Then he gives didactic and relentless information, stating : ” I will now acquaint you with the proportions of a man; I omit those of a woman, for there is not one of them perfectly proportioned.” He proceeds : I will not speak of irrational animals, because they appear to have no certain proportions.” Cennino then gives a recipe for tempera. It is compounded of white and yolk of an egg, and some cuttings from the top of a fig-tree; this mixture is the vehicle, but is to be employed ” not in too great quantity, but as if you were diluting wine with water.” He feels sure that this warning is prudent. He further conjures all artists to use the best colours only. ” And if you say that a poor person cannot afford the expense,” he argues, ” I answer that if you work well, and paint with good colours, you will acquire so much fame, that from a poor person you will become a rich one.” In painting flesh-tints, he directs the artist to be sure and temper his colour with ” the yolk of a town-laid egg; because high-coloured yolks of eggs, laid by hens fed in the country, are only fit to colour the faces of old and dark persons ! ” And even at this early period, it is evident that oil must have been somewhat employed, for he directs : ” If you desire to make your colours more brilliant, you may temper them with oil or with liquid varnish, which is the most powerful of temperas.”

The only pictures in the National Gallery which were ever attributed to Giotto, are a fragment of fresco, No. 276, and a Coronation of the Virgin, No. 568. Both of these pictures are now ascribed to his scholars. But they are both fine examples of the style of the Giottesques. The bit of fresco was taken from a wall-painting in the Church of the Carmine, in Florence, and may easily have been the work of Taddeo Gaddi, or Agnolo, his son. As the fresco was not painted until after the death of Giotto, it is impossible that it should be his actual handiwork. But one may learn much of the detail of the art from this beautiful fragment; the marks of the stile may be seen in the outlines, and the whole spirit of agony, as Giotto conceived it, is here portrayed.

Of the other works given to Taddeo Gaddi in the gallery, let us examine one, No. 579, the Baptism of Christ. This is an altar-piece with a pre-della below, showing numerous scenes from the lives of the saints. The picture is inscribed with the date 1387. As Taddeo died in 1366, he could not have painted it. The fish in the water in this picture are not in accidental groups ; they are in a regular procession, as if the artist had it in his ingenuous mind that the fish should observe a fitting ritual on this occasion! All the pictures said to be by Taddeo are rendered in tempera, or dis-temper, on gesso grounds ; these grounds, however, are laid on a canvas first stretched on the panel. Another work in his manner and in his school (why not by Cennini himself ?) consists of a couple of panels with various saints, Nos. 215 – 216, a very peaceful impressive company of the Spirits and Souls of the Righteous. The Coronation of the Virgin, No. 568, should be compared with the same subject as treated by Orcagna, No. 569. In both cases the pictures are the work of pupils of Giotto.

Orcagna was one of the greatest followers of the master. Both these altar-pieces have the reverent spirit which characterizes the art of the fourteenth century; in many of the more secular subjects, it has been thought that Giotto and his school lost sight of the ecclesiastical traditional treatment (as, indeed, was only consistent with any progress in realism!), but in altar-pieces, where the person-ages to be portrayed were divine, then these fourteenth-century men turned their eyes as near heaven as they knew how. A wealth of jewelled detail represented to this school the idea of decency and order in heaven; and they certainly spared no pains and expense to render what they considered true and laudable service. Orcagna was one of the most brilliant of the school of Giotto; indeed, he is often regarded as having improved upon the work of his predecessor. In Italy, there is some reason for this statement, but, alas ! in London, it would be difficult to convince a spectator, from this work here attributed to him, that he was in any way great. The example is unworthy of his reputation.

There is a series of pictures by Landini, a pupil of Taddeo, which is very interesting. The central composition, No. 58o, represents St. John the Evangelist being lifted up to heaven, and is stiff and awkward; but the draperies of the saints in the side-panels are charmingly disposed, and the figure of the Virgin in the smaller panel, numbered 58oa, is full of grace and sweetness. In the predella to this altar-piece, the scenes are well-conceived and carried out.

All the Giottesque altar-pieces so far have been more or less on the same order; there is a little one, however, by Justus of Padua, No. 701, and dated 1367, which far surpasses the larger ones in originality. Cosmo Monkhouse calls it filled from corner to corner with the very passion of invention.” Observe the pretty, fresh type of the Virgin, and the manly bearing of St. Paul. The alert little attendant, in the panel which represents the birth of our Lord, is excellently drawn. Note, too, the remarkably modern little tub in the left panel, and the naïve ” repeat ” of three angels, who look like rosettes set on the edge of the roof of the cattle-shed ! All these touches are very original and delightful, and the coiling dragon tied in a double knot at the feet of St. Margaret is also anatomically instructive !

There is a good panel, also, by Barnaba da Modena, No. 1437, representing the Descent of the Holy Ghost. The little group of disciples, with the Virgin in their midst, are full of awe and reverence. The heads are very varied in type; the rafters of the ceiling, being close above these heads, increase the sensation of brooding wonder. The draperies are all painted with such naturalism as Giotto’s school had reached, with the exception of that of the Virgin; this robe, touched here and there with fine gold lines, conforms to the Byzantine rule.

Spinello Aretino, who is associated somewhat with Sienese art, but whom we recognize as be-longing to the Tuscan school, has several examples of his work in the National Gallery. Born about 1333, he is a disciple in a direct authenticated line from Giotto. No. 581, a group of three saints, shows little to warrant us in admiring this master. We pass to another of his works, the Crucifixion, No. 1468; this is a conventional treatment of the subject. It. looks much like most altar-pieces of its period, both in rendering and conception. But there is another work, full of vigour, decorative, original; this is a fragment of the great fresco which Spinello painted at Arezzo, when he was an old man, over eighty, in all probability. Here we have, in No. 1216, St. Michael leading his hosts of warriors, presiding over the fall of the rebel angels. Here is a swift rush of energy, the spirit which should animate the Church Militant. Vasari tells us that, while he was painting this fresco, Spinello had made an effort to conceive and portray Lucifer in the most hideous form imaginable. He had studied this horrible face so long that, one night, ” the figure he had painted appeared to him in his sleep, demanding to know where the painter had seen him looking so ugly as that, and wherefore he permitted his pencils to offer Lucifer so mortifying an affront.” The artist awoke in much terror, and could hardly be re-covered; Vasari says that he ” was on the point of expiring, . . . and did not, in fact, survive beyond a very short time, during which he remained in a dispirited condition, with eyes from which all intelligence had departed. It was thus that SpineIIo closed his career,” adds Vasari; and, if we may credit his account, certainly Spinello Aretino enjoyed the unique distinction of having scared him-self to death.

A striking painter among these early Tuscans, who were beginning to turn to the light, was Paolo Uccello. His last name signifies ” bird “; it was adopted from his intense love for birds, and from the fact that he constantly painted them. But there is nothing so trivial as a bird in the great picture by Uccello in the National Gallery, the subject of which is the Battle of St. Egidio, and the number, 583. Here we have anything but sylvan tranquillity ; the picture is usually considered the finest example of the master in existence. Uccello made a special study of perspective, and whether he was successful in depicting things in perspective or not is less to our purpose than the fact that it was his constant effort to do so. He spent many precious hours, which might have been better employed, in calculation and experiment. Donatello said to him: ” Ah, Paolo, with this perspective of thine, thou art leaving the substance for the shadow ! ” Indeed, it is recorded of him that he would stand all night by his drawing-board, working out problems in his favourite science, and when his wife remonstrated with him, urging him to take the necessary rest, his only answer would be : ” Oh, what a delightful thing is this perspective ! ” Uccello was born in 1397, and stands almost alone in his period in his line.

The Battle of St. Egidio represents a historic scene, which may be interpreted in two ways. Ac-cording to one hypothesis, Carlo Malatesta, Lord of Rimini, has just met Braccio di Montone, Lord of Perugia, and is about to be taken prisoner. The actual moment chosen for presentation is when the young Malatesta rides into battle with his uncle, Carlo, the leader of the army. Carlo is shown as sixty years of age. The knights are closing; two, with lowered lances, are pushing forward, and the fight is beginning. The helmet of the young Malatesta is not yet placed upon his head, which is covered with golden hair. He sits calmly awaiting his captain’s orders. The intention of Uccello in introducing a beautiful rose-hedge as a background for this scene of carnage is doubtless to mark the contrast between the benignity of nature and the warring passions of men. This scene may be differently interpreted. The condition of the ground may indicate that the battle is finished, and that Malatesta and his nephew are being led away prisoners. This theory is substantiated by the fact that they are not under their own standard. Ac-cording to this interpretation, the active fighting going on at the right might be an effort on the part of Malatesta’s forces to rescue their leader. In either interpretation, the picture is interesting be-cause it presents a scene in contemporary life, which the painters of that day seldom attempted, and also shows several efforts to display Uccello’s knowledge of perspective. The fallen knight, lying on the ground, is in such extreme perspective that he is almost disposed of altogether with his rapid vanishing-lines! The black horse on the right is well foreshortened, and the introduction of figures at various distances in the background, also, is done to exploit the artist’s knowledge of diminishing-lines. There is a good deal of feeling in common between the work of this man and the Japanese method of treating a battle-scene. The selection of simple dramatic episodes which tell the story in a straightforward way is a trait of both early Italian and Japanese art.