Friday, 18 January 2013

Was Giotto a Shepherd Boy?

Giotto, Head of a Shepherd, (a fragment from the scene of Joachim among the Shepherds, fresco, 253 x 132 cm, Bardi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence.caption
In my opinion painters owe to Giotto, the Florentine painter, exactly the same debt they owe to nature.”
Giotto is most famously mentioned by Dante in his Divine Comedy: “O empty glory of human powers…In painting Cimabue thought to hold the field, and now Giotto has the cry, so that the other’s fame is diminished.”Dante’s summation proved to be prophetic and can be measured by the flood of books and articles on Giotto compared with Cimabue who has been cast down from his high estate by a more powerful force. It's significant that Cimabue has been separated from the story of Giotto’s origins, the story that the older artist found the boy shepherd in the mountains drawing a sheep that he was tending "by scratching with a slightly pointed stone on a smooth clean piece of rock."  We are asked to believe that Cimabue asked the boy's father if he could take him to Florence. It's a charming vignette, but as with so much of Vasari, it's just a way of promoting a view, namely that Giotto's naturalism marked the beginnings of the genius of Florentine painting, to be distinguished from the "barbarism" of the Byzantines, or those that painted in the Greek manner.  Vasari seems to have been making this up as he went along. As for his claim that Cimabue brought Giotto to Florence, it is more likely that Giotto’s father recognized his talent and took the boy himself.  We shall never know the real truth, but we do know that Giotto came from the Mugello, a mountainous region north of Florence, and today the village of Vicchio houses a museum within what is supposed to have been his house.  

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