The Early Modern World, C. 1300–1600

Proto-Renaissance

How did Giotto become so famous?

Giotto was a thirteenth-century celebrity. Discovered by master artist Cimabue drawing sheep while tending to his flock (as the story goes), he eventually achieved star power not seen by any artist before him. He was written about by Giorgio Vasari, discussed at length by the artist-writer, Cenino Cenini, and mentioned by Leonardo da Vinci as one of the most important artists who came before him. Vasari explained what made Giotto famous: he set “art upon the path that may be called the true one” (as quoted in Stokstad, Art History, p. 608). Vasari went on to explain that it was Giotto who made the biggest visual breakthroughs in depicting a realistic sense of three-dimensional space in his painting.

Giotto’s masterpiece is the fresco series he painted inside the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy. Made for the Scrovengi family and completed around 1305, the frescos cover the barrel-vaulted chapel walls in deep lapis blue, and are dotted with stars and discs featuring the portraits of saints. Giotto paints a narrative by dividing the wall up into quadrants, each telling a different part of the story of the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Each scene has a sense of depth and the figures are realistically modeled by using dark shades for shadow, and whiter shades for highlights. The largest fresco in the series is The Last Judgment, at the west wall of the chapel. In The Last Judgment, Christ raises His hand in blessing; the saved are grouped on Christ’s right side and the damned descend to Hell on the left. The patron, Enrico Scrovengi, is shown offering his family chapel to Christ in an attempt to cleanse his sins. The Renaissance artist Lorenzo Ghiberti said the Arena Chapel was “one of the glories of the Earth” (quoted in Art Past Art Present 241).



This scene, Flight into Egypt, from Giotto’s fresco series in the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy (completed c. 1305), is a masterpiece of visual depth and naturalism. Giotto is considered one of the most important artists of the early Renaissance.

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