A guide to discover and appreciate one of the great masters of the history of art.
Giotto in the Chapel of the Scrovegni by S. Poletti and T. Formenton. Designed by G. Formenton. Historical Research & Editing: S. Poletti. Translation: P. Knipe. Layout: G. Formenton. Cover Design: E. Fiorese, T. Formenton. Drawings: M. A. Baraldi
Photography: Gabinetto Fotografico Musei Civici Eremitani Padova for hund concession of the Museum authorities and the Cultural Councillar of Padua City Council.
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Giotto di Bondone
Painter and architect, the most representative artist of the Middle Ages was born at Colle di Vespignano, near Vicchio in the Mugello, about the year 1267. Giotto enjoyed a great reputation in his own day and the famous acknowledgement contained in Dante’s verses in the Purgatory, canto XI, vv. 94-96:
Cimabue thought to hold the field in painting, and now Giotto hath the cry, so that the fame of the other is obscured.
Although well-documented, the sources dealing with Giotto’s debut are rather vague on details, so it is not possible to trace an historical outline based on certainty. Even though his activity in the Basilica of San Francesco at Assisi was noted in 1313 by Riccobaldo da Ferrara and, in the following centuries, by notables such as Ghiberti and Vasari, the question as to the real extent of his involvement remains open.
The problem is complicated by the fact that there are two churches, and that Giotto worked on both. Most present-day critics, however, would agree in attributing to him the frescoes on The Life of St Francis in the nave of the upper church of San Francesco of Assisi mainly basing this assumption on stylistic analysis.
The decorations in the basilica do contain, in point of fact, “such a concentration of figurative innovations as to be inevitably considered the crucial point in the change that took place in Italian painting between the last decades of the thirteenth century and the beginning of the fourteenth”.
The most renowned painter in Italy
In the last decade of the 13thC Giotto went to Rome several times, enlarging his direct knowledge of classical painting and of the works of Cavallini and of Arnolfo di Cambio. Alas, there is but fragmentary evidence of that sojourn in the Eternal City that was so vital for the evolution of the classical elements of his art. There is the Cross of Aracoeli, the tondi of the prophets in the left transept of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, and the fresco depicting Bonifacio VIII between two clerics in the Basilica of St John Lateran.
To these same years belong the Crucifixion in the Malatesta Temple at Rimini, damaged on the outer tips of the arms of the cross but stylistically very similar to the Crucifix he executed for the Chapel of the Scrovegni.
When Giotto reached Padua he was the most renowned painter in Italy. Perhaps he had been invited there by the friars of the Basilica of the Saint to paint the frescoes in their Chapterhouse; whatever the case, he worked in Padua over a long period of time and returned several times at the request of his patrons.
Of all this activity, only the cycle of frescoes in the Chapel of the Scrovegni remains, since those in the Basilica of St Anthony were lost, and likewise those in the Hall of Justice, the Palazzo della Ragione. Giotto’s arrival signalled a revolutionary change in pictorial language, carried to such an extent that its effects on Veneto culture were to be felt right into the second half of the 14thC.
It is Giotto who affirms the three-dimensionality of space into which his figures and events are placed realistically, seeming to have a life of their own. The observer experiences a feeling of “presence” the sensation that something has taken place; and, when there has been time to reflect more carefully and profoundly on the scenes, becomes aware of the profoundly significant symbolism underlying the purposeful plan of the cycle.
The Paduans were quick to appreciate Giotto’s originality and some years later engaged him to decorate the building that stood out as the symbol and pride of their citizenship, the Hall of Justice. Between 1307 and 1308 Giotto was back in Assisi working on the frescoes in the Magdalen Chapel in the lower basilica.
Rome, Florence, Naples and Milan
Around the year 1311 he made a second journey to Rome to execute the mosaic of the Fishing Boat, which is now in the portico of the Basilica of St Peter, opposite the entrance doors: of the original mosaic work, only two fragments remain busts of angels, which however have been reset many times. There is considerable controversy too over the dating of the double-sided polyptych commissioned by Cardinal Stefaneschi for the high altar of the Basilica of St Peter sometime between 1300 and 1330.
One of the panel works most widely thought to be by his own hand is the Madonna in Majesty once in All Saints, now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence – an altarpiece “that is impressive and monumental with a sense of depth that seems difficult to collocate in Giotto’s painting style earlier than the frescoes in Padua”.
The Master’s presence in Florence is better documented from the second decade of the 14th century and the frescoes in the Peruzzi and Bardi Chapels situated in the right-side transept of the Franciscan Church of the Holy Cross are the last evidence of his fresco painting. The former depicts the Lives of St John the Baptist and of St John the Evangelist, while the latter continues the theme of his earlier works in Assisi, The Life of St Francis.
Over the following centuries it was especially the frescoes in the Peruzzi Chapel that were to enjoy particular fame, even Michelangelo copying some of the figures. Clearly that great patron of the arts, the Court of the Anjou at Naples, was to hear of Giotto’s celebrity; and from December 1328 to some time in 1333 there is some evidence of his sojourn with Robert of Anjou: sadly, all works executed in that period have been lost.
There is detailed evidence that on 12th April 1334 Giotto was nominated Master Builder of the Opera di Santa Reparata, now Santa Maria del Fiore, and the Commune’s Superintendent of Public Works. According to Giovanni Villani’s Nuova Cronica, that same year the foundation of the cathedral bell-tower was laid, based on plans by Giotto.
The artist was able to follow the works down to the lower part of the plinth, until he died in 1337 while returning from Milan where the Florence Commune had sent him to lend his skills to Duke Azzone Visconti.
The Chapel of the Scrovegni History
A small, unadorned brick building whose architect has not been identified some scholars have suggested Giovanni Degli Eremitani, others Giotto himself the chapel was commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni.
Perhaps it was in suffrage for the soul of his father, Reginaldo, who was made famous through those verses of Dante’s in the XVII canto of the Inferno which accuse him of usury; and perhaps it was to forestall a similar destiny especially since he may have felt himself “tarred with the same brush”.
In point of fact, in the scene in the Last Judgement of the dedication of the chapel to the Blessed Virgin, Enrico appears dressed in violet, the colour of penitence, as he offers his sacred gift in symbolic restitution of what he had extracted by usury. Begun in 1303 and consecrated on 25 March 1305, the chapel was dedicated to Our Lady of the Annunciation.
It was to serve as memorial chapel (Enrico Scrovegni, his wife, and two nephews are buried here) and private chapel, connected as it was to the palace that the Scrovegni had had built inside the Arena on land purchased from the Dalesmanini family in February 1300; this palace later became the property of the Foscari family and was demolished in 1827.
The facade, in the hall-church style, is scanned in the upper parts by hanging arches and by a Gothic window of three mullions, and in the lower part by a door whose archivolt is of alternating white and reddish bricks; along the south wall is a row of six tall mullioned windows.
The interior, featuring a barrel-vaulted nave, is subdivided by two small side altars. According to some scholars they were placed there during a later alteration, while others say that they were placed there as pulpits to separate the part reserved for the faithful from the Scrovegni family, who accessed their part through a small door at the end of the northern wall.
At the back, a polygonal apsidiole contains the Sarcophagus of Enrico Scrovegni (d.1336), attributed to Andriolo de’ Santi; while on the altar are two Angel candle-bearers, and The Virgin & Child by Govanni Pisano.
It was Enrico Scrovegni who commissioned Giotto to execute the frescoes in the interior of the chapel, where the Master attained the height of his artistry, for this cycle of paintings signals “a point of no return in the entire history of western painting”. The work is attributed to the artist from Tuscany in a well-documented tradition, the first evidence dating back to the first decades of the 14th century.
Scholars disagree as to the actual date of the decorations, although they unanimously accept 1305 as the date of the consecration of the edifice, since it is documented in a resolution passed by the Great Council in Venice on 16th March 1305 when approving a loan to Enrico Scrovegni, of some altar decorations from the Basilica of St Mark, for the consecration of a chapel of his proprietorship in Padua. It seems most likely, therefore, that by this date the decorations in the chapel, if not complete, were well on the way to being so.