In the work of Giotto and Duccio, Western painting reached the climax of an ancient tradition and the radical beginnings of another that has continued to endure. Giotto became probably the most highest paid artist in Italy. He died rich in lands and in money, which is somewhat ironic since he had established a large part of his fame in the service of the Franciscans depicting the virtues of poverty as demonstrated in the life and ordinances of Saint Francis of Assisi. Giotto was aware of the practical dangers and the exaggerations that could blemish the practice of poverty as a spiritual discipline. In the end he preferred the hard-won affluence of his later years to the involuntary poverty of his childhood and to the professed poverty of his Franciscan patrons.
Measured against the pace of social and cultural developments over the centuries preceding the Renaissance, Giotto lived in a time of rapid change.As the age of mystical faith waned, Giotto changed painting from an art of symbols to an art of passion. He tied painting to the earth, but by doing so he released it to explore in a multiplicity of directions the vast range of the human spirit and intelligence.
Giotto had a power to paint grave and impressive scenes marked by a careful and informed selection of revelatory attitudes. In his cycle of frescoes that cover the Arena chapel in Padua, the saints are nobly erect, their heads slightly inclined towards the supplicant with a combination of majesty and compassionate recognition that befits their role as courriers between the earthly realm and the celestial one they have attained, while the donor of the chapel, Enrico degli Scrovegni, kneels in full humility without loss of dignity.
At a time when painters had mastered only a few generic formulas for facial expressions, Giotto made of Enrico’s head not only a portrait that we are safe in accepting as an accurate one but a full revelation of a complex emotional state. Enrico, is at the moment of realization, the awesome moment when his fears for his temerity, his fears that his gift might be rejected, are about to be dissipated by the joy of learning that it is acceptable.
Giotto was able to depict this scene with all its psychological interplay despite the technical difficulties besetting an artist who was still feeling his way toward the representation of forms of monumental character in combinations and from angles of vision that painters had never before presented realistically. The technical failures are obvious, but these displays of awkwardness are not likely that important, or central when looking at this artist, but they are only technical and would remain unmastered in art for at least another hundred years.
Giotto was very daring. He abandoned the safe conventions of a limited catalogue of formulas for drawing and cast his figures in the dramatic compositions that revolutionized not only techniques, but the whole spirit of painting. The Padua frescoes at Arena were completed at a time when the fiery Dante had consigned the donors father to the seventh circle of hell, as told in the ”Inferno” for usury. The Arena chapel was a placative gift,a rare privilege of ransom for a soul destined for near eternal damnation.
The side walls of the chapel are lined with Giotto’s thirty-eight scenes from the lives of Joachim and Anna, the Virgin and Christ. The incidents of the story were hardly new. However, Giotto recast them in an interpretation that raised painting to the supreme position among the arts. Afterwards, painting was to be the medium for the most profound expression for human aspiration and of the sustainig hope that life on earth had a purpose and was subject to divine authority and divine mercy.
Previous to Giotto, architecture had been primordial in reflecting all breadth and epth of human declaration. Temples and cathedrals had summarized man’s ideas about himself and his gods, assisted by sculpture. Painting was regarded as purely decorative. Giotto changed this, because as a painter he became the instrument of change. He initiated the great ages of painting, where painting became a summarizing art that explored the world, the mind, and the spirit in pictures.
Coincidentally, Giotto’s frescoes were created at the same time with a parallel cycle of paintings on the same themes by Duccio di Buoninsegna in the Siena cathedral. Duccio was the fountainhead of a school of late medieval painting that was graceful and elegant, aristocratic, sometimes sophisticated and often intense. Echoes of Duccio,s influence would carry north to affect an international style that in turn contributed to the final miracle of medieval art, namely Flemish painting of the fifteenth century.
Duccio represents a refinement within the boundaries of tradition and Giotto represents a climactic explosion that burst those boundaries. Giotto’s humanistic clarity and Duccio’s mystical tenderness seem mutually intensified by juxtaposition. Duccio’s altarpiece fits more closely the stereotype of the late Middle Ages as a time of waning celestial dream, yet celbration on a monumental spiritual scale. It was in effect, a miniature architectural fantasy, in harmony with the cathedral which remains the most luxuriantly medieval structure in Italy.
Over the years, Duccio’s huge altarpiece of ten by fourteen feet was cut, sawn, stolen, pried, reassembled, butchered and mutilated.Thus, much of the spiritual entity of the altarpiece was violated along with the violation of its physical being. The dispersal of its various elements results in a group of individual aesthetic objects that lack its that lack all context of the ”Maesta” as a religious object. The reality of Duccio’s Madonna, was all the more vivid because the division between the physical world and the spiritual world was less drastic than today. The transcendent image and the human representation merged as a single identity, and thus Duccio’s Madonna must have seemed invested with a true life, a warm life, for the special reason that he introduced human tenderness into what had been a tradition of aloofness.