Giotto: The Artist Who Changed Art History

People are familiar with the inventions that have changed the course of history, like the internet, rocketry, steam power, the printing press, and gunpowder. But when it comes to more objective expressions like music, literature, and art, it can be harder for the average person to pinpoint which works or artists forever changed the course of creativity. In a series of pieces I’d like to present over the next few weeks, I’ll discuss a few pieces and artists that truly transformed the way we portray the world in painting.

Today I’d like to discuss Giotto (pronounced joh-toh), who lived from 1267 to 1337.

Giotto di Bondone was an Italian painter from Florence whose lifetime was situated in a unique period between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. For hundreds of years, the prevalent style in painting was a flat, two-dimensional, and often expressionless portraiture that was heavily influenced by Byzantine mosaics. Serene but poorly-proportioned figures were surrounded by gold leaf and positioned against an unrealistic background devoid of perspective. 

But towards the end of the Middle Ages, artists like Duccio, Simone Martini, and Giotto began to redevelop ideas of perspective, proportion, and emotive expression that had been lost since the end of antiquity.

Granted, it would be another generation before Brunelleschi developed a geometrical system for drawing three-dimensional perspective or Michelangelo dissected human bodies to better understand their proportions, but it is clear from Giotto’s work that even without systems in place to guide his art, he was adept at invigorating static religious scenery with a new realism. 

Giotto did things like applying subtle color variations to create a sense of volume and depth in the fabric that covered his figures and gave their bodies contours that were true to nature. HIs figures have rounded forms and a sense of weight, and shadows emphasize musculature and facial features, unlike the flat stylized Byzantine portraiture of years before.

But perhaps most importantly in terms of drawing the viewer into a story, rather than creating an object of mere ritual veneration, was Giotto’s ability to capture emotion. Take a look at his Lamentation of Christ, a fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, painted around 1305.

The angels hovering above the scene bear a range of emotions from dismay to anguish to pity. The faces of the human figures around the body of Jesus parallel the emotional range of angelic expressions above, creating a complexity in the composition vis-a-vis mirroring.

Rather than placing the body of Jesus in the center of the composition, he has placed it in the corner, and further emphasized the movement of our eyes in that direction with the diagonal lines of the outhrust hands of the bent-over figure who examines Jesus in dismay.

The rocky slope leading up to a bare tree both captures the medieval iconography of death, but also lends the piece a certain naturalism. The different poses of the figures and angels, combined with the placement of Jesus in the bottom corner and the natural upward slope of the background gives this piece a certain dynamic, real-time quality that would be echoed by later artists like Rogier van der Weyden in his Descent from the Cross (1435) and Peter Paul Rubens’ Baroque treatment of the descent theme (1612).

From our own standpoint, Giotto’s accomplishments may not seem so earth shattering, but to artists back then he broke with the Byzantine tradition of frozen portraiture and set painting on the path to realistic and emotive expression. In the words of  Giorgio Vasari in Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Painters, Sculptors, and Architects:

“That very same debt painters owe to nature…is also owed, in my opinion, to Giotto, the Florentine painter; for when the methods and outlines of good painting had been buried for so many years by the ruins of war, he alone…revived through God’s grace what had fallen into an evil state and brought it back to such a form that it could be called good.”

As you can see, there is so much to learn about art and art history. For a stunning compilation of retouched visuals spanning every period in art history, along with excellent commentary of the imagery, I recommend Art: The Definitive Visual Guide by DK Publishers. For an excellent narrative treatment of the story of art as it’s unfolded over the centuries, I recommend The Annotated Mona Lisa.