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Early Italian Painters

( Originally Published 1913 )



Cimabue, whose dates are uncertain, but are approximately 1240-1302, has long been called the Father of Italian painting. At least we may say that his work marks a breaking away from the old Byzantine style. His famous Madonna and Child is not particularly attractive to us today, and yet the picture provoked great admiration when it was produced. We read that the Florentines formed a procession to accompany its removal from the artist's studio to the Church, and that the occasion was one of joyful thanksgiving.

The picture preserved many Byzantine characteristics: the face was still long and melancholy, the hands long and stiff, the eyes aslant; nevertheless beyond all this the face bore an ex pression; this at least was new. In contrast to wooden, blank faces, this conveyed a sense of humanity. The artist had also loosened the draperies a little, and the figure was better proportioned.

However, Cimabue was destined to be far eclipsed by his pupil, Giotto, in whose later work it is indeed impossible to find traces of the master's influence. A story for centuries perpetuated relates that as the courtly Cimabue was riding in the country one day he came upon a shepherd lad, so engaged in sketching one of his sheep on a huge stone that he remained unaware of the stranger's presence. Recognizing the boy's native talent, Cimabue sought out the father and gained permission to take Giotto back to Florence with him to study his art. So rapid was the pupil's progress that he soon surpassed his teacher.

During his early years Giotto continued painting in Florence, where he came in touch with the work of many artists. From them he appears to have learned what to avoid, perhaps, for his pictures show little imitation. When he was about thirty years of age Pope Boniface VIII., needing painters for the decoration of St. Peter's, sent messengers to Florence to ascertain what were Giotto's abilities. Told that the Pope wished a specimen of his work, it is said that Giotto seized -t brush and with one skilful stroke described a perfect circle. This he gave the messenger without a word. Either for his skill or daring, the Pope ordered him to come to Rome, where for some time he was occupied. Unfortunately little of the work he did here remains.

Some of Giotto's most masterly painting is to be seen today in the Upper and Lower Churches of Assisi.

Assisi will be remembered as the home of St. Francis. During his life St. Francis had been dearly loved, and after his death his followers were anxious to raise a fitting memo rial to his memory. The Lower Church was founded as early as 1228, and was built as the repository for the saint's remains. In 1230 the body of St. Francis was entombed there. The Upper Church, above the first, was founded in 1253. The frescoes of these two churches illustrate Italian painting during the first century of its development.

Before the birth of Giotto the best artists of Italy had been engaged in making beautiful the walls of these churches. Cimabue had done some of his best work here; some of it still re mains. In the Upper Church the middle and upper portion of the wall on the left had been decorated by a series of sixteen fresco paintings, setting forth the principal stories of the Old Testament: the Creation, Temptation, Expulsion from the Garden, Noah and the Ark., etc. Correspondingly, on the right scenes from the life of Christ had been painted. Giotto was given the task of painting a series of fresco pictures below these on both walls, illustrating the life of the beloved St. Francis. This was a most welcome undertaking. In the first place, the life of , St. Francis offered many dramatic possibilities. Again, the rules governing the portrayal of saints' personages, such as Christ and the Patriarchs, were less binding upon a modern personage like St. Francis. In twenty-eight scenes the principal events in the saint's career were set forth, to the gratification of his loyal order.

Far indeed are Giotto's portrayals from any special ease and grace; a tree or two conveys the notion of a forest; a few boulders give the impression of mountain ranges. Neverthe less, with striking clearness and definite lines the main features of the pictures are shown; the story is evident; the figures are unmistakable. Animals and birds show motion; the people's faces are expressive. Color had not yet been mastered; horses were sometimes painted red and trees blue; still the general color effect was not unpleasing and the pictures as a whole were gratifying indeed.

In the Lower Church Giotto painted four pictures to fill in the four divisions of the ceiling. For subjects he chose the three vows of the Franciscan order: Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, and the Glorification of St. Francis. These allegorical paintings are most interesting and far in advance of any previously done. In Arena Chapel, Padua, other of his paintings are to be seen. His portrait of Dante was a great favorite with the Florentines.

Giotto's followers were known as the Giottoesques. For many years they continued to imitate him, to the detriment of Italian art. Taddeo Gaddi is one of the best known of this school; Puccio Capanna and Giottino also belonged to it.

One other achievement of Giotto's was noteworthy. In 1334 he was appointed architect of the Florentine Duomo. In this capacity he designed the beautiful Campanile, or bell tower. Two hundred and ninety-two feet high, it is divided into four stories. The first story was ornamented with statues; in the three other stories beautiful windows mullioned with exquisitely-twisted columns appear. Those in the fourth story are higher than the rest, to give the whole a slender appearance. Probably nothing formed of stone has ever compared with the windows of this campanile in lace-like effect. The whole was to have been crowned by a spire, but Giotto died before this was put in place. There in the very midst of Florence it stands to-day, the joy of the traveler, the pride of the Florentine. Each year the elements leave it only more mellowed by the flight of time.

"In the old Tuscan town stands Giotto's tower,
The lily of Florence blossoming in stone,
A vision, a delight and a desire,
The builders' perfect and centennial flower,
That in the night of ages bloomed alone,
But wanting still the glory of the spire."



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