Key to Umbria

Supposed portrait of Giotto (ca. 1450) by Paolo Uccello

Detail of “Five Fathers of Perspective”, Louvre, Paris

Giotto di Bondone, who was first documented in Florence in 1301, was recognised as a great artist in his own lifetime:

  1. In his “Compilatio chronologica” (1313), Riccobaldo da Ferrara referred to him as "Joctus pictor eximius florentinus agnoscitur” (Giotto, acknowledged as the best Florentine painter), and cited his work for the Franciscans at Assisi, Rimini and Padua as well as in the Arena Chapel, Padua.

  2. In the “Divine Comedy” (ca. 1320), Dante Alighieri wrote that: “In painting Cimabue thought the field was his alone.  Now the cry is Giotto, so the fame of the other is in shadow ..” (Purg. xi. 94-6).

Outside Florence, Giotto was documented in Rome, Assisi and Naples:

  1. An entry in the necrology of St Peter’s Rome in 1343 states that Cardinal Giacomo Stefanesci had paid for two works of art in the basilica both by Giotto:

  2. the mosaic on the facade (i.e. the Navicella (ca. 1300)); and

  3. the altarpiece on the high altar (i.e. the Stefaneschi Altarpiece (ca. 1330)).

  4. In 1309, Palmerino di Guido (see below) repaid a loan in Assisi on his own behalf and that of “Iocto Bondoni Florentiae” (Giotto Bondoni of Florence).  This was almost certainly for working materials, presumably for frescoes in San Francesco, Assisi (see below). 

  5. Giotto was paid as the court artist of King Robert of Naples in the period 1328-32.

He was capomaestro at the Duomo, Florence from 1334 until his death in 1337.

Three signed altarpieces by Giotto survive, although scholars attribute all of them to his workshop:

  1. the Stigmatization of St Francis (1300) from San Francesco, Pisa, which is now in the Louvre, Paris;

  2. the Baroncelli Altarpiece (1327) at Santa Croce, Florence; and

  3. the polyptych of the Maestà with saints (ca. 1330) from Santa Maria degli Angeli, Bologna, which is now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna.

The attribution of other works to Giotto largely revolves around the frescoes (ca 1305) in the Arena Chapel, Padua: although these are undocumented, they are nevertheless generally accepted as his masterpieces.   The other important work that is almost universally accepted as his is the so-called Ognissanti Madonna (ca. 1310).

The followers of Giotto whose works survive in Umbria include:

  1. the Maestro Espressionista di Santa Chiara, who might be identifiable as Palmerino di Guido (see above);

  2. the Maestro della Crocifisso di Spello, who is named for a panel (ca. 1290) of Christus Patiens with St Francis in Sant’ Andrea, Spello;

  3. the Maestro del Crocifisso di Trevi; and

  4. Puccio Capanna.

San Francesco, Assisi

In the “Commentarii” (ca. 1450), Lorenzo Ghiberti asserted that Giotto had painted “quasi tutta la parte di sotto” (nearly all of the lower part) of the Basilica of San Francesco.  This is, of course, ambiguous: it could mean that Giotto painted all of the Lower Church, but a more natural reading is that he painted the frescos in the lowest register in the Upper Church, which contains 28 scenes from the life of St FrancisGiorgio Vasari relied on this information for the 1st edition (1550) of his “Lives of the Artists”, probably because, at that time, he had no first-hand knowledge of the works in question and could not, therefore make an independent judgement.

Upper Church

Vasari visited Assisi in 1563 and 1566 in order to prepare the 2nd edition (1568) of the “ Lives of the Artists”.  In this edition, he asserted that the Minister General, Brother John of Morrovalle, had called Giotto to Assisi (see the page on San Francesco in the 14th Century) to complete what Cimabue had begun.   Specifically, he attributed the frescoes of the Upper Church to Cimabue, except for the scenes from the life of St Francis, which they attributed to Giotto.  This is the earliest known salvo in what has become known as the “Giotto Question” - did Giotto, or did he not, paint the scenes from the life of St Francis in the Upper Church?

At about this time, the local artist, Dono Doni wrote a guide to the art in San Francesco that survived in the archives there until at least 1882. 

  1. He probably hosted Vasari  during his visits to Assisi in 1563 and 1566 as he prepared his 2nd edition of the “Lives of the Artists”.  Vasari commented in that work that Dono Doni’s “gentleness and good manners have caused him to be considered liberal and courteous”.   It is hard to imagine that they did not discuss the matter of the attribution of St Francis Cycle in the Upper Church.

  2. Dono Doni was also a friend and advisor of Fra. Ludovico da Pietralunga, whose guide (ca. 1575 ) to the Basilica still survives.  This guide also attributed the St Francis Cycle in the Upper Church to Giotto. 

Fra. Ludovico did not slavishly follow Vasari in his attributions.  Significantly, when he differed from Vasari in attributing a (now lost) work in Santa Chiara to Puccio Capanna, he justified his position in part by citing the reasoned opinion of none other than Dono Doni.   Thus, if Fra. Ludovico agreed with Vasari about the attribution of the St Francis Cycle to Giotto, it is a safe bet that he was following Dono Doni in doing so.  Indeed, Dono Doni might well have been the first of the three men to make this attribution.

The Giotto Question still awaits a definitive answer.  The fact that Giotto (or at least his workshop) actually did work at San Francesco is not in doubt.  There is, however, considerable uncertainty about any involvement by Giotto in the Upper Church (as described in the page on San Francesco in the period 1253-1300). 

Lower Church

In his 2nd edition, Vasari asserted that: “the aforesaid scenes [from the life of St Francis in the Upper Church] being finished, [Giotto] painted ... in the Lower Church the upper part of the walls at the sides of the high altar and the four parts of the vaulting above the place where lies the body of St Francis ....”

Giotto and his workshop are indeed generally agreed to have painted some of the frescoes in the Lower Church, in two distinct campaigns (as described in the page on San Francesco in the 14th century):

  1. Phase I, which involved the Cappella di San Nicolò and the upper part of its entrance wall (the back wall of the right transept) began shortly before 1297 (i.e. during the tenure of Brother John of Morrovalle as Minister General); and

  2. Phase II, which is believed (on stylistic grounds) to post-date the work in the Arena Chapel, involved the rest of the right transept, the apse and vaults above crossing and the Cappella di Santa Maria Maddalena.  As noted above, Giotto and Palmerino di Guido are known to have repaid a loan in Assisi in 1309, presumably for this phase of the redecoration of the Lower Church.


Giotto (ca. 1267-1337) 

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Giotto in:  Assisi