by Roderick Conway Morris

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Stubborn Mysteries of Giotto

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE 8 July 2000
Uffizi, Florence
Ognissanti Madonna by Giotto, c.1310



Henry Kissinger, so the story goes, told his staff that if ever he showed serious interest in trying to solve the Cyprus Problem, they should put him in a straitjacket. Some art historians who have entered the endless, often heated arguments as to which works Giotto did or did not paint must eventually wish they had told their nearest and dearest to do the same.

Giotto was the first 'modern' artist to achieve a status comparable to that enjoyed by the celebrity artists of ancient Greece and Rome.

Dante wrote of him (in Dorothy Sayer's translation): 'Once Cimabue thought to hold the field/ In painting; now Giotto's all the rage today/ The other's fame lies in the dust concealed.'

The poet's subtext was that, as fame is fickle, Giotto would in due course, too, be eclipsed by his successors.

But this did not happen - in part because, ironically, Dante, who otherwise gave scant attention to artists, cited him as the current star in his field in 'The Divine Comedy.'

Giotto only signed three works, and two, sometimes all three of them, are generally agreed to be by members of his studio - the master's moniker authenticating that they came from Giotto Inc., but were not necessarily, according to the conventions of the era, by his hand. Thus, attributions have relied mainly on patchy contemporary documentary evidence and analysis of stylistic characteristics.

The most reliable available canon is of 40 unsigned works, including fresco cycles, attributed to Giotto by the 14th-century sculptor Ghiberti in his autobiography. But given the painter's enduring renown, the wish to attribute additional pieces to him dates back many centuries and shows no sign of abating today.

'Giotto,' at the Galleria dell'Accademia, an exhibition of 37 works, does not include many of the unanimously accepted attributions and contains quite a crop of new ones that are unlikely to convince all the experts, or even the more discriminating gallery-going public. And, seeing that the show, which runs until Sept. 30, is trumpeted as the most comprehensive Giotto review since the last Florence show in 1937, the failure of the Uffizi - at this time of year mobbed by tourists and difficult to get into - to lend the 'Ognissanti Madonna' is frankly inexplicable.

The greatest general bone of contention among the specialists is what part, if any, Giotto played in the painting of the frescoes at the San Francesco church in Assisi. The issue is raised in the show, but the frescoes themselves are only represented by some fragments that fell from the vault in the 1997 earthquake and color photographs - making one wonder whether it would not have been better to hold the show in Assisi (though many lenders might have balked at dispatching their treasures to this seismically prone region).

Ghiberti included Assisi in his list of places with works by Giotto, but his wording as to their exact location is ambiguous, and it is possible that, along with other known works that have disappeared, they are no longer extant. In 1550, Vasari claimed Giotto to be the author of the St. Francis cycle in the Upper Church, but this was long after the event.

In more recent times, critics have tended to divide into two camps, with the Italians following Vasari's lead and foreign commentators minimizing Giotto's personal role in the Assisi frescoes, or denying that he had any hand in the surviving works there. Indeed, championing Giotto's authorship has become almost a question of national pride in Italy, which has done nothing to clarify the arguments.

The heart of the problem lies in the considerable differences in style between the Scrovegni Chapel frescoes at Padua, universally recognized as mainly painted by Giotto himself, and those at Assisi, and in how far apart these cycles are chronologically.

Acres of print have been produced on these stubborn mysteries, but a final answer to them has not yet been found, nor looks likely to be.

In the last couple of decades there has been a certain degree of rapprochement, with some foreign critics displaying more openness to the idea of Giotto's playing some role in the execution of the Assisi frescoes. But the two camps still maintain a kind of armed truce.

Needless to say, the opportunity provided by this exhibition, which is almost entirely an Italian affair, has been eagerly seized upon by its organizers and contributors to lob some newly primed critical grenades in the direction of the foreign minimalists.

But by choosing the age-old battle ground as its arena, the Florence show passes up the chance of attempting something that really might have increased our understanding of the essential Giotto, by examining his work in the light of his antecedents and the wider scene in which his art came to flourish.

Unfortunately, Giotto has been affected by the Michelangelo Syndrome - the notion of the young, self-generated prodigy that bursts fully fledged upon an unsuspecting world.

In reality, it has long been acknowledged among specialists, for example, that sculptors such as Nicola and Giovanni Pisano anticipated Giotto's naturalism and inspired him to follow their example. A presentation of his painting in the context of these and other innovative artists of the 13th century could be genuinely enlightening.

In the end, the overview offered by this show is partial (to some extent inevitably so, given the centrality of the fresco cycles), and no substitute for a tour of the key churches and museums where Giotto's undisputed masterpieces can be seen.

'A truly great exhibition about Giotto will probably never be done,' Angelo Tartuferi, curator of the present show, almost gloomily remarks in the catalogue.

This may or may not be the case - perhaps Padua, the home of the Scrovegni Chapel, with the spaces of the Civic Museum next door might some day attempt it - but one can only concur in agreeing that this exhibition is certainly far from being satisfactory, let alone definitive.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024