Monday, January 08, 2007

April Freshness

"Renaissance artists and writers were emphatic in their insistence that Giotto was their true ancestor. Perhaps at no other moment in the entire history of painting has a single idea achieved so rapid, widespread, and well-nigh complete a change." -F. Hartt.

The painter Giotto died on this date in 1337 in Florence.

Universally recognized, even in his own lifetime, as the first great Italian master, Giotto was born around 1266 in Vespignano, near Florence, and early on was apparently a student of both Cimabue and Nicola Pisano. Yet Giotto's work represented an astonishing departure from the works of his teachers, the first draft of a bold line between the formalistic religious painting of his Medieval predecessors and the foundations of the Italian Renaissance.

In his earliest work, a cycle of frescoes of the lives of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ on the walls of the Arena Chapel at Padua, Giotto immediately reveals a new, more naturalistic vision of religious painting. Unlike his predecessors who, influenced by the painting traditions of Byzantine iconography, arranged stylized figures on gold leaf backdrops with little discernible emphasis on dramatic intensity or personality, Giotto drew from nature and portrayed his weightier figures in the midst of psychologically familiar moments; imbued the Arena Chapel scenes with clear, uniform light; placed his characters on firm, solid ground with vegetation and architectural ornaments providing a real-life context; and, most startlingly, used beautiful glowing colors -- blues, greens, reds and ivories.

Noting the contrast with Giotto's earlier contemporaries, the critic John Ruskin called attention to the "April freshness" of Giotto's panels; forgiving the modern association of that phrase with laundry detergent, Ruskin's observation is accurate when one looks at the drearily gilded panels being painted in Italy at the time. Giotto's other important works included frescoes at Santa Croce in Florence and a panel, the Ognissanti Madonna.

Just before his death, Giotto designed and began the building of the campanile (bell tower) for the Duomo Cathedral in Florence as official architect of the city. He was one of the best known personalities of his day when he died, and his name was celebrated in the works of Dante and Boccaccio. Dante, incidentally, by legend once asked the homely Giotto why his children were so ugly, to which the artist replied, "My frescoes I make by day, and my children by night."

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