When is a Renaissance artist not a Renaissance artist? When he is born some 200+ years before the traditional start of the Renaissance in Italy, which was around 1400. The artist in question is Giotto di Bondone. For the uninitiated, one could understand the mistake in assuming he was a Renaissance master, considering he is consistently mentioned as one of the originators of the movement.
So why wouldn’t Giotto be a Renaissance artist? He was born in 1276 in Vicchio, Italy and died around 1337 in Florence, around the time that the Black Plague began its devastating sweep through Europe — an important point we will get back to in a future post.
Giotto’s time was the Middle Ages. He worked within the Gothic style incorporating many of the characteristics of the later Renaissance. He was a kind of Proto Renaissance artist and his innovations had not been seen in the art world since the days of classical Rome and Greece. He was bringing the realism and humanism of the classical past into his pictures.
He was considered to be a pupil of Cimabue, the most prominent Italian artist of the 13th century, who tried, with mixed results, to inject a form of realism into his works. He was not successful overall. But if one can be permitted to judge success in those who learn from one’s example, then Cimabue’s influence on Giotto was a resounding success overall.
Inspired by the rugged realism of the sculptor Pisano, along with the aforementioned inspiration drawn from classical times past, Giotto rose to astonishing new heights in artistry most readily seen in his masterpiece of Frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. His subjects, man and woman, look truly human. Gone are the stiff, emotionless, puppet-like figures that populated the Byzantine period. In Giotto’s work, his subject matter focused on the people within the work. They exude emotion. There is drama in his figures. When Giotto paints Adam and Eve being expelled from the garden, we actually feel the agony. It’s radiating off the surface of the painting. They are in pain and we feel it.
This was his genius, and it was this same genius that would carry the Renaissance masters from Masaccio through Raphael to ever greater heights in the art world.
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