February 21, 2009

'Giotto and the 14th Century'

Giotto, Crucifixion - Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua
“Giotto e il Trecento” (Giotto and the 14th Century), the major exhibition opening on March 6 at the Vittoriano in Rome and running through June 29, will be the first ever realized outside of Florence—the latest one was at the Uffizi Gallery in 1937—and one of the artistic highlights of the year.

An event not to be missed by anyone who loves art. Ok, I’m not what you’d call a neutral witness, because I have a passion for Giotto, and have loved him since the first time I saw his frescoes of the St. Francis cycle in the upper Basilica in Assisi, when I was little more than a child—but it is authoritatively said that Medieval art came to an end and the modern era began with Giotto’s frescoes of the life of Christ and the Virgin in the Cappella degli Scrovegni (Padua). He made “a decisive break with the Byzantine style,” and “brought to life the great art of painting as we know it today,” wrote the later 16th century biographer Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists:

One day Cimabue was on his way from Florence to Vespignano, where he had some business to attend to, when he came across Giotto who, while the sheep were grazing near by, was drawing one of them by scratching with a slightly pointed stone on a smooth clean piece of rock. And this was before he had received any instruction except for what he saw in nature itself. Cimabue stopped in astonishment to watch him, and then he asked the boy whether he would like to come and live with him. Giotto answered that if his father agreed he would love to do so. So Cimabue approached Bondone, who was delighted to grant his request and allowed him to take the boy to Florence. After he had gone to live there, helped by his natural talent and instructed by Cimabue, in a very short space of time Giotto not only captured his master's own style but also began to draw so ably from life that he made a decisive break with the crude traditional Byzantine style and brought to life the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years. Although […] one or two people had tried to do this, no one succeeded as completely and as immediately as Giotto.

Giotto, Stigmata - Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua
But his greatness was also acknowledged during his lifetime, to the point that his contemporary Giovanni Villani— the famous Florentine chronicler who wrote the Nuova Cronica on the history of Florence—wrote that Giotto was “the most sovereign master of painting in his time, who drew all his figures and their postures according to nature.”

”This event will not simply commemorate Giotto’s work, it aims to approach the master from a fresh point of view,” said Architectural Heritage Superintendent Roberto Cecchi at the presentation of the event. ”There are so many aspects to Giotto that we still know little about, such as his interest in architecture, and the exhibition will contain some appealing ideas for future studies,” he added.

Yet, as Culture minister Sandro Bondi pointed out, this won’t be only a cultural event, but also “a civic and democratic one,” in fact, “discussing Giotto is trying to find again the deepest sources of our society.” Well said, but it seems to be a very hard search, given the times in which we live ...

Over 150 masterpieces will give an idea of Giotto not only as a painter but also as “a European artist who transmits a serene message of gratifying Christianity,” says Louis Godart, a member of the Artistic Heritage Conservation Board for the Italian Presidency of the Republic.

This is enough to make me want to go and to recommend that you do the same, if you can.

Giotto, Raising of Lazarus - Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua