Monday, 21 January 2013

Giotto and the Frescoes in Santa Croce.

Anybody seeking to understand Giotto’s contribution to Florentine painting mustn’t ignore the two sets of frescoes executed by the painter in transept chapels in the Church of Santa Croce. The investigation is, as might be expected, hindered by the lack of documentation, which leaves the art historian to fall back on careful visual analysis of the walls, which despite damage, is almost universally accepted as Giotto’s work. Only one scholar has contested Giotto’s authorship and given the two sets of paintings to the “Master of Bardi Chapel”, whoever he may have been. For Ugo Procacci, the two fresco cycles date to the first years of the fourteenth-century (Trecento) “halfway between the cycles of Assisi and Padua.”[1] 

The frescoes suffered neglect due to taste decreeing that they would lie untroubled until the nineteenth-century; they were then discovered under a coat of whitewash in 1853.[2] This necessitated restoration, which at this time meant a repainting of the surface. At the hands of nineteenth-century restorers the frescoes fared badly until a modern campaign in the 1950s; but despite the success of this, much of Giotto’s paint was lost to time, and oh, restorers. Some blame must accrue to Giotto himself; he experimented with moist instead of dry plaster, although the flood of 1966 didn’t help matters either since it carried corrosive salts to the walls.[3] Paint has played an important part in interpretation because colour has been used to “read” the meaning of the pictures. Cole notes the “sober” colours of the Bardi colours compared to the more famous ones in the Arena Chapel at Padua. His explanation is that Giotto wanted to show the restrained coloured habits of the Franciscans, and used it not only to unify the composition, but also as a “symbol of the Franciscans.”[4]

Giotto, Scenes from the Life of Saint Francis: 6. St Francis before the Sultan (Trial by Fire), 1325, Fresco, 280 x 450 cm Bardi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence.
  In addition to a consideration of colour and painting technique, understanding Giotto’s frescoes depends upon understanding how space is used in the cycles. This impinges on the question of which chapel cycle predates the other. According to Richard Offner, on stylistic and formalist grounds, the Bardi chapel must predate the Peruzzi murals. This claim depends upon whether the Bardi chapel matches the use of space, the placing of figures, and the general effect of the Paduan frescoes, considered to be Giotto’s earliest “unquestionable work” and completely different in orientation to the Peruzzi walls, pace Offner.[5] 

1.       Giotto, Scenes from the Life of St John the Evangelist: Raising of Drusiana, 1320, Fresco, 280 x 450 cm, Peruzzi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence.
 Offner draws attention to how the Peruzzi cycle is stylistically dissimilar to the Arena Chapel. Within the Peruzzi Chapel, Offner observes that there isn’t so much distinctive symmetry; the figures are different; faces are modelled differently; heads are smaller; there is a greater flow of air around the figures. Offner’s basic argument is that the space is expanded and compositions opened up within the Peruzzi transept. Generally for Offner, the Peruzzi frescoes “receive the highest degree of compositional and spatial expansion known within Giotto’s work…” and therefore designate a new phase of Giotto’s development. Offner also quite rightly points out that unlike the narrative fluidity of the Arena frescoes where the eye follows them smoothly, at Santa Croce the pictures are superimposed on top of each other which makes for a more jagged, irregular reading, and maybe even contributes more to a symbolic interpretation than a narrative one.

[1] Frescoes from Florence, ex cat, Hayward Gallery, London, (1969), 58.
[2] Cole, Giotto and Florentine Painting, 98.
[3] Frescoes from Florence, 31.
[4] Cole, Giotto and Florentine Painting, 99.
[5] Richard Offner, “Giotto, Non-Giotto”, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 74, No. 435 (Jun., 1939), pp. 258-269, 260.

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