Vasari on Giotto

The Apparition to Brother Augustin, Giotto

Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists is an amazingly readable book, full of lore and wonderful detail about particular painters, even though it was published nearly five centuries ago. The author’s voice is as alive and vivid as a contemporary writer’s, and his enthusiasm for his subjects seems as if it ought to be a model for all art criticism, especially now. He wrote about human beings, in terms any commonly educated reader could grasp, and it’s clear why the reader should love the work he described. He wrote about what he admired, and his appreciation for the art he saw around him was boundless. The preface, amusingly, says that “in some respects Vasari’s vocabulary is limited. For example, he employs the adjective beautiful over and over again, much to the despair of all his translators.” It sounds less like a limit to his vocabulary than a sign that he adhered to the highest standards in what he treasured about art. There’s something ingenous and innocent in that little fact that he kept calling attention to the beauty of the work; it’s endearing. Tough luck for his translators, I guess, but great news for anyone interested in the Italian Rennaisance.

I ordered a used paperback of this book because I was eager to read about Giotto as much as any of the other painters in his dozens of biographical stories. I’ve always considered Giotto an austerely religious genius who initiated naturalistic depiction of individual human beings in Western painting. Instead, what seemed to emerge, while reading Vasari, was that Giotto advanced the depiction of the human figure as a necessity for conveying the reality of a human being’s inner life. He managed to show extreme human emotion in figures which lie somewhere between flat Byzantine icons and the full realism of the later Rennaissance. His work was almost exclusively devoted to Christian subjects, so when I came to learn how worldly he was, and how witty, it took some getting used to. He was a smooth, charming, totally at ease with anyone. His skills were legendary.

Vasari considers great draftsmanship as the foundation of visual art, a way of capturing the design inherent in nature, and Giotto was a child prodigy in this regard, a sort of Mozart of visual representation. A great storyteller, Vasari describes Giotto’s skill, which reads almost like a brief tale from a Zen Buddhist anthology of koans:

Once a courtier had come to see Giotto and to find out what other excellent masters of painting and mosaics lived in Florence . . . to evaluate Giotto’s work, finally asking him for a small sketch to send to his Holiness. Giotto, who was a most courteous man, took a sheet of paper and a brush dipped in red, pressed his arm to his side to make a compass of it, and with a turn of his hand made a circle so even in its shape and outline, it was a marvel to behold. After he had completed the circle, he said with an impudent grim to the coutier: “Here’s your drawing.” The coutier, thinking he was being ridiculed, replied: “Am I to have no other drawing than this one?” “It’s more than sufficient,” answered Giotto, “Send it along with the others and you will see whether or not it will be understood.”

Realizing that this was all he was going to obtain, the envoy left Giotto rather disatisfied, thinking he had been tricked . . . (yet) the pope and many of his knowledgeable courtiers realized just how far Giotto surpassed all other painters of his time in skill. When this episode became widely known, it gave rise to a proverb which is still in use today: “You are rounder than Giotto’s O.”

Giotto’s genius earned him such a privileged life, and he was so well-liked, that he could get away with being a bit of a smartass with King Robert of Naples, who apparently loved to hang out in Giotto’s studio and watch him paint. It makes you wonder if he called him Bob:

 . . the king took pleasure in seeing Giotto paint and hearing him talk. And Giotto, who was always ready with some clever remark or a witty retort, amused him with painting and pleasant, clever conversation. One day when the king announced to Giotto that he wanted to make him the first man in Napes, Giotto replied: “That must be why I am living near the Porta Reale city gate—to be the first in Naples.” On another occasion, the king said to him: “Giotto, now that it is so hot, I would put aside my painting for a while if I were you.” And Giotto answered: “I certainly would too, if I were you.

I’d always thought of Giotto as essentially pious, almost otherworldly, since his commissions and work were mostly devoted to Biblical scenes, yet he must have enjoyed quite the good life, becoming extremely rich through his talents. Vasari repeatedly talks about how much the artist earned from his work.

And for all these works, Giotto was not only made a Florentine citizen but he was also paid one hudnred golf florins a year by the Commune of Florence, which was a great fortune in those days. (Apparently inflation was an issue even back in the Rennaisance. A hundred gold florins was a fortune . . .back then in the 13th century . . .)

The central passage in this short life of Giotto, though, describes, with vivid detail, how this painter was the first in Western art to delve into the individual inner life of his figures, conveying their spiritual ordeals, by rendering facial expressions of great stress and deep emotion. He was, in a sense, a psychological and dramatically narrative painter in an era when no one had even fully worked out the rules of perspective and techniques for creating a sense of genuine visual depth in a scene. He wanted to convey how it felt to be a unique human being caught in a fleeting world full of conflicting passions. No one had ever attempted this in painting before Giotto:

In the cloisters of the place . . . he painted in fresco the story of the Blessed Michelina, which was one of the most beautiful and excellent works that Giotto ever made, by reason of the many and beautiful ideas that he had in working on it; for besides the beauty of the draperies, and the grace and vivacity of the heads, which are miraculous, there is a young woman as beautiful as ever a woman can be, who, in order to clear herself from the false charge of adultery, is taking oath over a book in a most wonderful attitude, holding her eyes fixed on those of her husband, who was making her take the oath by reason of mistrust in a black son born from her, whom he could in no way bring himself to believe to be his. She, even as the husband is showing disdain and distrust in his face, is making clear with the purity of her brow and of her eyes, to those who are most intently gazing on her, her innocence and simplicity, and the wrong that he is doing to her in making her take oath and in proclaiming her wrongly as a harlot.

In like manner, he expressed a very great feeling in a sick man stricken with certain sores, seeing that all the women who are round him, overcome by the stench, twisting their bodies in disgust, in the most graceful manner imaginable. But above everything else that is in this work, most marvellous is the gesture that the Blessed Michelina is making towards certain usurers, who are disbursing to her the money from the sale of her possessions for giving to the poor, seeing that in her there is shown contempt of money and of the other things of this earth, which appear to disgust her, and, in them, the personification of human avarice and greed. Very beautiful, too, is the figure of one who, while counting the money, appears to be making sign to the notary who is writing, considering that, although he has his eyes on the notary, he is yet keeping his hands on the money, thus revealing his love of it, his avarice, and his distrust. In a similar way, the three figures that are upholding the garments of St. Francis in the sky, representing Obedience, Patience, and Poverty, are worthy of infinite praise, above all because there is in the manner of the draperies a natural flow of folds that gives us to know that Giotto was born in order to give to the art of painting. Besides this, he portrayed Signor Malatesta on a ship in this work, so naturally that he appears absolutely alive; and some mariners and other people, in their promptness, their expressions, and their attitudes—and particularly a figure that is speaking with some others and spits into the sea, putting one hand up to his face—demonstrate the artist’s skill. And certainly, among all the works of painting made by this master, this may be said to be one of the best, for the reason that there is not one figure among so many of them that does not show very great craftsmanship, and that is not depicted in an imaginative pose. And therefore it is no marvel that Signor Malatesta did not fail to reward him magnificently and to praise him.


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