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Giotto di Bondone: Painter of the Original Works on the Life of St. Francis in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy. (c. 1267 – 1337)

Giotto was an outstanding Florentine painter, sculptor, and architect and was recognized as the first genius of art in the Italian Renaissance. He dealt largely in the traditional religious subjects, but he gave these subjects an earthly, full-blooded life and force.

Giotto was born about 1266 in a village near Florence. His father was a small landed farmer. Cimabue, a well-known Florentine painter, discovered Giotto’s talents when he saw the 12-year-old boy sketching one of his father’s sheep on a flat rock and was so impressed with his talent that he persuaded the father to let Giotto become his pupil.

The earliest of Giotto’s known works is a series of frescoes (paintings on fresh, still wet plaster) on the life of St. Francis in the church at Assisi. Each fresco depicts an incident; the human and animal figures are realistic and the scenes expressive of the gentle spirit of this patron saint of animals. The compositions are simple, the backgrounds are subordinated, and the faces are studies in emotional expression.

His figures have a completely new sense of three-dimensionality and physical presence, and in portraying the sacred events he creates a feeling of moral weight rather than divine splendor. He seems to base the representations upon personal experience, and no artist has surpassed his ability to go straight to the heart of a story and express its essence with gestures and expressions of unerring conviction.

In common with other artists of his day, Giotto lacked the technical knowledge of anatomy and perspective that later painters learned. Yet what he possessed was infinitely greater than the technical skill of the artists who followed him. He had a grasp of human emotion and of what was significant in human life. In concentrating on these essentials he created compelling pictures of people under stress, of people caught up in crises and soul-searching decisions.

His figures have a completely new sense of three-dimensionality and physical presence, and in portraying the sacred events he creates a feeling of moral weight rather than divine splendor. He seems to base the representations upon personal experience, and no artist has surpassed his ability to go straight to the heart of a story and express its essence with gestures and expressions of unerring conviction.

The other major fresco cycle associated with Giotto’s name is that on the Life of St Francis in the Upper Church of S. Francesco at Assisi. Whether Giotto painted this is not only the central problem facing scholars of his work, but also one of the most controversial issues in the history of art. The St. Francis frescos are clearly the work of an artist of great stature (their intimate and humane portrayals have done much to determine posterity’s mental image of the saint). Attempts to attribute other frescos at Assisi to Giotto have met with no less controversy.

In the generation after his death he had an overwhelming influence on Florentine painting; his work was later an inspiration even to Michelangelo.
(Reference: Web Museum, Paris)

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