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Architecture - Giotto's Tower

( Originally Published 1915 )



In a future chapter, on Renaissance Architecture, we speak of the great dome of the Cathedral of Florence.

The dome only was Renaissance; the Cathedral itself was Gothic, though it hardly looks like Gothic after one has seen Notre Dame. In fact it is not true Gothic. The Italians built only a few true Gothic churches like that at Milan. They did not adopt the flying buttress and pinnacle, the large pointed windows and the other prominent Gothic features such as we see in France, Germany, and England. They did not care much for Gothic. Milan is an exception. Rome with its 365 churches of note, one for every day of the year, has only one good Gothic church.

The Florence Cathedral was as near as the Florentines of that day cared to come to true Gothic. Arnolfo del Cambio, its architect, was one of the greatest builders of the Middle Ages. The bell-tower, as we read in connection with Pisa, was in Italy a separate building. That at Florence was no exception. It was designed and mostly built by Giotto and was known as Giotto's tower. He and his tower are two of the most famous things in all the world.

" Of all the beautiful things with which Giotto adorned his city, not one speaks so powerfully to the foreign visitor as the lovely Campanile which stands by the great Cathedral. The enrichments of the surface, which is covered by beautiful groups set in a graceful framework of marble, with scarcely a flat or unadorned spot from top to bottom, has been ever since the admiration of artists and of the world. The structure affords us that soft ecstasy of contemplation which art so seldom gives, though Nature often attains it by the simplest means, through the exquisite perfection of a flower, or the stretch of a summer sky."

Ruskin says of it: " And if this be, as I believe it, the model and mirror of perfect architecture, is there not something to be learned by looking back to the early life of him who raised it? Not within the walls of Florence, but among the far away fields of her lilies, was the child trained, who was to raise that headstone of Beauty above her towers of watch and war. Remember all that he became : count the sacred thoughts with which he filled the heart of Italy."

The story of Giotto's life is like a fairy-tale. It is said that, when Cimabue, the painter, was quite old and very famous, he was riding in the valley of Vespignano, a few miles from Florence, and saw a shepherd-boy, who, while his flocks were feeding, was making a picture of one of his sheep on a bit of slate with a pointed stone. Cimabue looked at the sketch and found it so good that he offered to take the little Giotto who was only twelve years old and teach him to paint. The boy was very happy, and his father, whose name was Bondone, was glad of this good fortune for his son; so Giotto di Bondone lived thenceforth with the noble Cimabue, and was instructed in letters by Brunetto Latini, who was also the teacher of the great poet, Dante; while his art studies were made under his adopted father, Cimabue.

Pope Boniface VIII, hearing, in Rome, of Giotto s painting, sent to invite him to his court. The messenger of the Pope asked Giotto to show him something of the art which had made him so famous; and Giotto, taking a sheet of paper and a pencil, drew quickly, with a single motion, a circle so perfect that it was considered a miracle.

When at Naples, in the employ of King Robert, one very hot day, the King said: " Giotto, if I were you, I would leave work, and rest."

" So would I, sire, if I were you," said Giotto.

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