I will not hide the fact that I consider Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1266-1337) one of the greatest painters of all time. Giotto broke with Byzantine formalism and rigidness and started painting people as people again, with natural forms, intricate details and brilliant colours. His year of birth is uncertain, as is much of the rest of his life. What is certain, however, is that he died on the eighth of January of the year 1337 in Florence while engaged as chief architect of the city’s new cathedral and – most importantly – the campanile which is named after him. Giotto’s most famous and most influential work is probably the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padova, but he also worked in cities such as Rome, Naples and Assisi.
Although highly original, Giotto definitely learned from other artists. We can assume that he was a pupil of Cimabue (ca. 1240-1302), although most of the anecdotes about his apprenticeship may be later inventions. Giotto was also likely influenced by artists such as Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1255-1318/19) from Siena, and by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano from Pisa, father (ca. 1220-1284) and son (1250-1315) and both sculptors. Another source of influence may have been the great Roman painter and mosaicist Pietro Cavallini (ca. 1259-1330), a representative of a style dubbed ‘Roman naturalism’. So to sum up, Giotto never worked in isolation and his style continued to evolve throughout his long and fruitful career.
Giotto is well represented at the Uffizi Gallery, Florence’s most famous art museum. It is interesting to compare his large panel painting of the Madonna Enthroned, in the Uffizi since 1919, to two other works on the same subject: one by his master Cimabue and one by his pupil Taddeo Gaddi (ca. 1300-1366), both in the Uffizi as well. Giotto’s work is also known as the Ognissanti Madonna or the Maestà di Ognissanti, as it was painted for the church of Ognissanti in Florence, where it was on or at least close to the high altar for some 500 years (it has been speculated that it was actually part of the choir screen). There seems to be consensus that it was painted around the year 1310, after Giotto’s return from Padova where he had worked at the church of Il Santo (perhaps 1302-1303), the aforementioned Cappella degli Scrovegni (1303-1305) and the Palazzo della Ragione (after 1309), all in all three completely different commissions. The Ognissanti Madonna was executed in egg tempera and painted on a large panel that measures 325 by 204 centimetres.
The Madonna herself is at the centre of the painting, seated on a Gothic-style throne and dressed in brilliant white and dark blue. The Christ child is on her lap, dressed in pink robes and giving a blessing with his right hand. The throne is decorated with intricate geometrical patterns and surrounded by angels and saints. All of these are depicted much smaller than the Virgin, who is clearly of greater religious importance. The angels are ready to present gifts to the Virgin. Two angels dressed in green robes – note the folds in their mantles! – are holding a crown and a box made of gold. The two kneeling angels have their hands clutched around vases that contain lilies and roses. Both flowers are closely associated with the Virgin. The saints on either side of the throne are not easy to identify. However, it is clear that the balding, bearded man who is peeking through the large opening in the left side of the throne is Saint Paul. Next to him is a young adolescent, presumed to be Saint John the Evangelist. One the other side of the throne are Saints Bernard of Clairvaux and Benedictus of Nursia. Both saints were important for the Humiliati, the somewhat obscure religious order that administered the church of Ognissanti and commissioned the painting from Giotto.
Cimabue: the Santa Trinita Maestà
Now let us compare Giotto’s Madonna to the so-called Santa Trinita Maestà, which was painted by Giotto’s teacher Cimabue for the high altar of the church of Santa Trinita in Florence. The latter work was painted before 1300, perhaps between 1290 and 1300, so it is some ten to twenty years older than the former. Although Cimabue can certainly be considered an innovator, his painting is much more medieval and Byzantine in style. The perspective of the large throne is very good and so are the folds in the Virgin’s robes, but the composition as a whole looks much more generic, rigid and stiff than Giotto’s work. Giotto’s figures are certainly more realistic and elegant and his colours are much more vivid and striking. This is definitely due to a difference in style between the two artists and has nothing to do with the state of conservation of both paintings. In fact, both were restored around the same time, Giotto’s Madonna in 1991 and that of Cimabue in 1993.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the Santa Trinita Maestà is the space below the throne. Here Cimabue had a little exercise in perspective, painting the busts of four figures from the Old Testament who have been identified as Jeremiah, Abraham, David and Isaiah respectively. Jeremiah and Isaiah were prophets who, according to Christian doctrine, foretold the coming of Christ. See for instance Isaiah 7:14, “Look, a Virgin will conceive and bear a son”. Christ was descended from both Abraham and King David according to Matthew 1:1, “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham”.
For me it is quite clear that while Cimabue’s painting is very good and very interesting, the conclusion must nevertheless be that Giotto surpassed his master. In fact, it was the poet Dante Alighieri (ca. 1265-1321) who, already during Giotto’s lifetime, stated that the master’s fame had quickly been eclipsed by that of the student:
“In painting Cimabue thought he held the field
but now it’s Giotto has the cry,
so that the other’s fame is dimmed.”
So what about the student of the student? Was Taddeo Gaddi, who was considered one of Giotto’s most talented pupils, able to surpass his master’s painting skills? The best way to answer this question is to compare Giotto’s Ognissanti Madonna to a Madonna and Child with angels executed by Gaddi in 1355, which has been in the Uffizi since 1914. Gaddi’s painting can in fact be considered a simplified version of Giotto’s work. The saints are now absent. The slightly smaller throne is flanked by just angels, six in total. Present again are the gifts for the Virgin, the crown (now on the right instead of the left), the box (now on the left instead of the right) and two vases containing lilies and roses. Gaddi must have closely observed his master’s work. One notable difference is the little bird that Christ is holding in his right hand. It is probably a goldfinch, symbolising Christ’s Resurrection on the third day. The little bird looks like it is trying to escape from Christ’s clutch. Another interesting detail is the Star of Bethlehem on the Virgin’s robes.
Gaddi’s painting is significantly smaller than the works of both Cimabue and Giotto. It measures just 154 by 80 centimetres. It was originally in the Segni chapel in the church of San Lucchese in Poggibonsi, some thirty kilometres south of Florence. The Latin text on the base of the throne – “TADDEVS GADDI D[E] FLORE[N]TIA ME PI[N]XIT” – confirms that Taddeo Gaddi painted this work. Below this text is the year 1355 in Roman numerals (MCCCLV), as well as the name of the man who commissioned the painting, one Giovanni di Ser Segna. This part of the text is actually in Italian.
Gaddi’s Madonna and Child stands out because of its vivid colours, especially the bright blue and red. It is certainly a charming and well-executed painting by someone who knew his trade. I admire Taddeo Gaddi’s work and have discussed some of it on previous occasions, for instance his important frescoes in the churches of Santa Croce and San Miniato al Monte, both in Florence. However, I still prefer Giotto’s original Ognissanti Madonna. In this case the pupil failed to outperform the master.