Giotto and the Proto-Renaissance

Notre Dame de Paris

The Church as Patron
Art began to change during the Proto-Renaissance, and this had a lot to do with who was paying for it!  During the Middle Ages, the Church controlled everything; the towering scale of the Gothic cathedral is just one indication of power and wealth of the Catholic church at this time. Since most people were too poor to afford to buy art, the Church was also the dominant patron of art; not surprisingly, most of the art created during the middle ages was religious in subject matter, and it reflected the church’s point of view.  But things began to change in the later Middle Ages.  Cities grew, trade flourished, merchants prospered — and a new patron class emerged with money to buy art!

14th century bankers
14th century bankers

The Shift in Patronage
In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, works of art were commissioned (or made to order) by a patron, who had a great deal of control over the outcome.  Medieval art reflected church doctrine because the Church was paying for it.  But when private individuals  — wealthy bankers and merchants — began to commission works of art, artists were encouraged to explore new subjects and styles that reflected the worldly values of their patrons, rather than the spiritual values of the church.

Andrea del Castagno, Portrait of the Humanist scholar Giovanni Boccaccio, 1450

The bankers and merchants who began to commission works of art were influenced by a new philosophical movement called Humanism. Inspired by the re-discovery of classical learning, Humanism represented a shift towards a more secular view of the world.

During the Middle Ages scholarly inquiry focused on the interpretation of scripture, and was preoccupied with understanding the nature of God.  All human life revolved around preparation for the coming Day of Judgment, and life beyond this world.  Humanist scholars were less concerned with scripture or theology; they turned instead to ancient Greek and Roman scholars (previously dismissed as “pagans”) for insights into understanding the world around them:

“During the Middle Ages (a period of European history from the third through 13th centuries), art and learning were centered on the church and religion. But at the start of the 14th century, people became less interested in thinking about God, heaven and the saints, and more interested in thinking about themselves, their surroundings and their everyday lives. Part of this change was influenced by the study of ancient Greek and Roman writings on scientific matters, government, philosophy, and art.”
Humanism in the Renaissance

This shift from a religious focus on spirituality to a more secular preoccupation with the physical world (based on human knowledge and logical modes of inquiry) marked a radical break with the Medieval worldview.  It also laid the foundation for a new kind of art that abandoned symbolism in favor of a more naturalistic style based on the observation of nature (the legacy of Aristotle!).

Perspective view of Florence

Florence in the 14th Century
In the 14th century, Florence was a prosperous city state and banking capital.  Soon to become the cradle of the Renaissance, it was the birthplace of Giotto di Bondone, whose innovations laid the foundation for the Renaissance in the 15th century (this period is therefore often referred to as the “Proto-Renaissance”).  Influenced by the new Humanism that became prevalent in Italy in the later Middle Ages, Giotto broke with the Italo-Byzantine style and forged a new approach to painting that radically changed the Christian image of divinity.

Giotto di Bondone, Ognissante Madonna, c. 1310

Giotto broke away from the Italo-Byzantine style by pioneering a more naturalistic representation of figures and space, based on the direct observation of nature.  Giotto’s figures look more “real” because he uses modeling (gradations of light and shade) to create the illusion of volume and weight.  He also creates an illusion of depth by placing the angels in front of one another (in perspective), so that the foreground figures block our view of those behind them.  These techniques — which had been used by artists in ancient Greece and Rome — resulted in a new, more “humanized” representation of the Virgin:  she is no longer a symbolic heavenly creature, but more human and accessible.  She has been “brought down to earth” and made part of our physical world.

“Giotto’s figures are volumetric rather than linear, and the emotions they express are varied and convincingly human rather than stylized. He created a new kind of pictorial space with an almost measurable depth. With Giotto, the flat world of thirteenth-century Italian painting was transformed into an analogue for the real world, for which reason he is considered the father of modern European painting.”
Jennifer Meagher, “Italian Painting of the Later Middle Ages,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Cimabue’s Santa Trinita Madonna & Giotto’s Ognissante Madonna

Arena Chapel, Padua
The Arena Chapel, 1305-1306

The Arena Chapel, 1305-1306
The Arena chapel was commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni, a wealthy banker and prominent citizen of Padua.  Scrovegni’s father was a banker, which means he made his fortune by lending money at interest.  In the Middle Ages this was called “usury,” and was considered a sin!  Presumably, Scrovegni commissioned his chapel as a gift to god in atonement for his father’s sins.

Giotto, Last Judgment, Arena Chapel, 1305
Giotto, Last Judgment, Arena Chapel, 1305

Enrico Scrovegni
Giotto included an image of Scrovegni in his fresco of the Last Judgment on the back wall of the chapel.  He is placed on the side of the saved, offering a small model of his chapel as a gift to to the Archangel Gabriel, and two personifications of the Virgin (the Virgin of Charity, and the Virgin of the Annunciation).  The subject matter of the work remains religious, but the motivations behind the commission are much more complex, reflecting the more worldly interests of the patron. While the work most certainly expresses religious belief, it is equally an expression of self importance and pride.  Private individuals would never be seen depicted in the company of heavenly figures in the Middle Ages, but Enrico Scrovegni had the money and power to literally “buy his way into heaven”!

Interior of The Arena Chapel, 1305-1306

The interior walls of the Arena chapel are decorated with frescoes depicting episodes from the Life of Mary and Christ. They are painted in what is called “bon fresco” technique. This means the artist painted directly onto wet plaster.  Once the plaster dried, the artist could not make any further changes, so he could only work on small portions of the picture each day. These parts are called giornata (Italian for “day”).  This image shows the “giornata” for the Nativity scene from the Arena Chapel.  It took Giotto and his workshop at least nine days to complete the picture.

Giotto di Bondone, The Lamentation, Arena Chapel, c. 1305

One of the most dramatic scenes in the chapel depicts the Lamentation — the moment when Christ was brought down from the cross and was mourned by his family, friends, and angels.

Unknown Master, Lamentation, from the Crucifix with the Stories of the Passion, around 1200

Giotto’s innovations can be seen most clearly when compared to a medieval representation of the same subject.  While the Medieval figures are cartoon-like and flat, Giotto’s use of  modeling with light and shade makes his figures seem three dimensional and “real.”  He also creates the illusion of depth by placing the scene on a shallow stage with a landscape background, rather than the gold background that was customary in Medieval art.  Finally, Giotto “humanizes” the story by creating a convincing sense of psychological drama.  The facial expressions and gestures of his figures express intense human emotions, as they react to the sad news of Christ’s death.  In this way, Giotto brings the story to life, making it possible for us to relate to it on a deeply human level.

Giotto, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel, Padua, c. 1305 – Part 3 of 4 (The Lamentation)

Italian Painting of the Later Middles Ages
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Giotto was not alone in his departure from the flat linear style of Byzantine icons.  There were other Italian artists who were also striving to create a more humanistic interpretation of religious subjects.  Click on the link to see a slideshow from the Metropolitan Museum’s collection:

You can also read the Khan Academy’s chapter on Siena in the Late Gothic period, where Giotto’s contemporary Duccio di Buoninsegna was exploring a more naturalistic approach to religious subjects:


Web Resources:
“Humanism in the Renaissance,” The Renaissance Connection, Allentown Art Museum 

 Italian Painting of the Later Middle Ages

Byzantine Art and Painting in Italy During the 1200s and 1300s (National Gallery, Washington DC)

Guide to Altarpieces (National Gallery of Art, London)

Florence in the Late Gothic Period (Khan Academy)

Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance (Getty Museum)

Dr. Allen Faber, Giotto’s Arena Chapel (SUNY Oneonta)

Official Site for the Scrovegni Chapel

Frescoes in the Capella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel) — Web Gallery of Art


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