“Credette Cimabue ne la pittura
tener lo campo, e ora ha Giotto il grido,
sì che la fama di colui è scura”
(Purg. XI, vv. 94-96)
In painting Cimabue thought that he/ Should hold the field, now Giotto has the cry,/ So that the other’s fame is growing dim.” This famous Dantesque tercet bears witness to Dante’s esteem and admiration for Giotto (1267-1337), celebrating his artistic merits and his role in the renewal of Italian painting. Vice versa, Dante’s portrayal―found in the fresco in the Chapel of Mary Magdalene in Palazzo Bargello―is attributed to Giotto and his workshop. In his famous work “Le vite” (The lives of the artists) Giorgio Vasari states: “[…] among the others he portrayed […]in the chapel of the palace of the Podestà in Florence, Dante Alighieri, his contemporary and dear friend, who was no less famous during those times as a poet than Giotto was as a painter, and highly praised by Messer Giovanni Boccaccio in the preface of his tale about Messer Forese da Rabatta and also Giotto.”
Dante is portrayed in profile in the Last Judgement and stands among the Elect in Paradise. The portrait, which disappeared when the Palazzo del Podestà was turned into a prison, was found in 1840 and had a huge resonance both nationally and internationally.
Restored numerous times (the most recent restoration was by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure) the portrait presents numerous touch ups a secco. Dated between 1332 and 1337, it pertains to the last phase of Giotto’s activities, in the years in which the belltower of the cathedral was also built. Giotto was presumibly both the creator and the “designer” of the entire decorative cycle, as well as the one who supervised the architectural space and the groin vault roof.
Vasari bears witness to the fact that the two friends were in contact even while the poet was in exile. Giotto, in fact, went to Verona to visit “Cane”, alias Canagrande Della Scala, Dante’s famous host to whom the poet dedicated his third canticle, Paradise. On Giotto’s return to Tuscany, he stopped in Ferrara at the home of the Este family, and “[…] when news reached the ears of Dante, the Florentine poet, that Giotto was in Ferrara, he did all he could to have him taken to Ravenna, where he was exiled; and he had him fresco scenes in the church of San Francesco for the Lords of Polenta.” As is well known, in fact, the Polenta family were the last to host Dante before he died of malaria upon his return from Venice in September 1321.
Vasari continues by stating that “[…] in 1332, being that the year before his great friend Dante had died causing him much sadness, he went to Lucca, and at the request of Castruccio, Lord of that city and his homeland, he painted a panel in San Martino.”
In Giotto’s biography we find curious anecdotes of the perfect circle drawn for Pope Benedict IX and the prank he played on Cimabue when he painted a fly on the nose of one of Cimabue’s characters: the fly was so lifelike that the master tried to shoo it away many times with his hand. In addition, Vasari writes that Giotto was “ingenious and very pleasant and terribly witty.”
The name Giotto was perhaps short for the name Angiolotto, Ambrogiotto, Parigiotto, or even Biagiotto (the nickname “Giotto” for Biaxio was still in use in Florence in the 15th century).
Biographical information about the artist’s first years are fragmentary. It was in the 1280s, and therefore when he was roughly ten years old, that he met Cimabue and followed him to Florence where he worked as an apprentice in the artist’s workshop.
Legend has it that the episode that changed the boy’s life, as recounted by Lorenzo Ghiberti in his “Commentarii” (1452), and also later by Vasari, took place on the Ponte Alla Ragnaia―since called Ponte di Cimabue (Cimabue’s bridge)―while the boy was intent on depicting one of the sheep in his flock on a slate using a pointed stone. The Master was so taken aback that he asked the boy to follow him to his work shop in Florence.