Giotto in Rome

Giotto fragment.

The Florentine painter and architect Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1266-1337) can be counted among the most important Italian artists of all time. Among his most famous works are the frescoes in the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padova, the campanile of the cathedral of Florence and – probably – various frescoes in the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi. Giotto also worked for the popes in Rome. I have previously discussed how, in about 1297, Pope Bonifatius VIII (1294-1303) summoned him to the Eternal City to decorate his new Loggia of Benedictions with frescoes so that it would be ready for the Jubilee of 1300. Of these frescoes virtually nothing has survived. All that is left is a tiny fragment, now in the cathedral of San Giovanni in Laterano, which shows the Pope, a deacon and a cardinal. The fragment is intriguing, but since it has already been discussed on a previous occasion, this post is about other works by Giotto in Rome.

The Navicella mosaic

The first work to be discussed here is the Navicella mosaic that can be found in the portico of Saint Peter’s Basilica, facing the entrance to the church. The mosaic was commissioned by Jacopo Caetani degli Stefaneschi (ca. 1270-1343), a cardinal and canon of Saint Peter’s. His brother Bertoldo was also a cardinal; he commissioned Pietro Cavallini to execute his famous mosaics for the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere. Dating medieval works is always a difficult exercise and we cannot be certain when Jacopo Stefaneschi summoned Giotto to Rome to make his Navicella mosaic. Giorgio Vasari suggests it was during the pontificate of Pope Benedictus XI (1303-1304), but Francesca Flores d’Arcais proposes a date of 1312-1313[1] and that is plausible enough. There can be no doubt, however, that it was cardinal Stefaneschi who commissioned the mosaic, as it is mentioned in his obituary. The mosaic depicts the scene from Matthew 14:22-14:33:

Navicella mosaic.

22 And straightway Jesus constrained His disciples to get into a boat and to go before Him unto the other side, while He sent the multitudes away.
23 And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up onto a mountain apart to pray. And when evening had come, He was there alone.
24 But the boat was now in the midst of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary.
25 And in the fourth watch of the night, Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea.
26 And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a spirit”; and they cried out for fear.
27 But straightway Jesus spoke unto them, saying, “Be of good cheer. It is I; be not afraid.”
28 And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it be Thou, bid me come unto Thee on the water.”
29 And He said, “Come.” And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus.
30 But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, “Lord, save me!”
31 And immediately Jesus stretched forth His hand and caught him and said unto him, “O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?”
32 And when they had come into the boat, the wind ceased.
33 Then those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him, saying, “In truth Thou art the Son of God.”

What we see is the moment Christ grabs Saint Peter by the hand, just as he is about to go under. The moment is highly symbolic, as it demonstrates how Christ supports both the Church and the Papacy, Saint Peter being considered the first pope. The other disciples are in the boat (‘Navicella’ means ‘little boat’), showing various emotions. The disciple at the helm looks like Saint Paul, which would of course be incorrect, as by that time he had not entered the story yet (Saint Paul never met Christ while the latter was alive). The fishing boat, sailing in rough waters, represents the Ship of the Church. The rough weather is caused by two wind gods, who seem to have been borrowed straight from Classical Antiquity. On the clouds above the boat are the four evangelists. Also visible are a fisherman in the bottom left corner of the mosaic and a kneeling clergyman, presumably cardinal Stefaneschi, in the bottom right corner.

Navicella – Andrea di Bonaiuto (Santa Maria Novella, Florence).

Unfortunately what we see today can hardly be called original. The mosaic was altered and restored on many occasions, mostly in the seventeenth century. In 1610 it was detached from its location in the atrium of Old Saint Peter’s Basilica and then moved around until during the pontificate of Pope Clemens X (1670-1676) it was finally set up in its present location in the portico of New Saint Peter’s Basilica. A drawing of the mosaic by Parri Spinelli (ca. 1387-1453) shows that several changes have been made to the composition. The tower on the shore is no longer present in the current mosaic and an extra wind god seems to have been added. In Spinelli’s drawing there is not a sign of the four evangelists, while cardinal Stefaneschi appears to be absent as well. Perhaps most importantly, the mosaic nowadays lacks the look and feel of a medieval mosaic. Its appearance is clearly seventeenth century, and this indicates that it was almost entirely re-laid between 1610 and 1674/75. Also part of the Navicella mosaic were two tondi with busts of angels. One is still kept in the Grotte Vaticane beneath Saint Peter’s Basilica (although I have never been able to spot it there), the other was donated to the church of San Pietro Ispano in Boville Ernica, a town east of Rome.

Giotto’s Navicella mosaic was highly influential. The theme of the so-called Barque of Saint Peter was copied by many other artists. See for instance Andrea di Bonaiuto’s rendition of the topic for the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella or the ceiling of the church of Santa Maria in Domnica in Rome. The Barque is also depicted on Lorenzo Ghiberti’s first set of doors for the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence. And then there was a Navicella fresco in one of the lunettes in the Brancacci Chapel, attributed to either Masolino or Masaccio, but unfortunately it was destroyed during “restorations”.

The Stefaneschi Triptych

Cardinal Stefaneschi also commissioned Giotto to paint a brilliant triptych for one of the altars of Old Saint Peter’s Basilica. The triptych can now be found in the Vatican Museums. Dating this panel painting is again quite difficult. Giorgio Vasari claims Giotto worked for the aforementioned Pope Benedictus XI and painted five scenes from the life of Christ for the tribune of Old Saint Peter’s Basilica for him. Perhaps the Stefaneschi Triptych was part of the same project, but a date of 1303-1304 seems a bit too early. Francesca Flores d’Arcais proposes a date of 1320, a year that may have once been mentioned on the frame of the painting.[2] It should be noted that the triptych is no longer in its original frame. The current frame is modern.

Stefaneschi Triptych (obverse side).

Cardinal Stefaneschi.

The Stefaneschi Triptych is painted on both sides. The obverse side[3] shows a haloed Saint Peter in the centre, sitting on a beautiful throne with Cosmatesque decorations. He is dressed as a pope and is holding the two Keys of Heaven in his left hand while giving a blessing with his right. On either side of the throne is a blond angel. Kneeling at Saint Peter’s feet are cardinal Stefaneschi and Pope Celestinus V, the man who made Jacopo Stefaneschi a canon of Saint Peter’s. Celestinus has a halo, which indicates that he is a saint. This means that the triptych was certainly made after 1313, the year in which the pope – chiefly remembered for his abdication in 1294[4] – was canonised. Cardinal Stefaneschi is introduced to Saint Peter by Saint George (note the “dragon” at the saint’s feet). This is explained by the fact that Stefaneschi was titular deacon of the church of San Giorgio in Velabro. The cardinal can be seen offering his triptych to Peter, an interesting early example of the so-called Droste effect. Celestinus V is introduced to Saint Peter by his namesake, the first pope named Celestinus (422-432).

The side panels feature four more saints. From left to right these are Saint James the Greater, Saint Paul, Saint Andrew and Saint John the Evangelist. Above them are prophets and angels. Two out of three panels of the predella are missing. The sole surviving panel depicts Saint Stefanus the Protomartyr on the left and two other saints whose identity cannot be established with certainty. The original position of this panel is also uncertain. The Vatican Museums have now put it on the left side of the predella, but it has been placed in the centre as well.

The reverse side of the Stefaneschi Triptych is much more detailed. In the centre is Christ, seated on a magnificent throne surrounded by angels. Kneeling at his feet is cardinal Stefaneschi again, this time dressed as a humble canon. The left panel features the crucifixion of Saint Peter, an event which is (incorrectly) said to have taken place near the church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome. Peter is crucified upside down, according to his own request. In the top part of the painting, the saint’s soul is taken up to Heaven by six angels. The crucifixion takes place between two rather striking structures. The one on the left is a pyramid, possibly that of Gaius Cestius in Rome, which medieval Romans for some time believed to be the tomb of Remus (Meta Remi). The structure on the right could be the Meta Romuli, the presumed tomb of Rome’s first king, Romulus.[5] This pyramid-shaped edifice was located between Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Castel Sant’Angelo. It was demolished in the middle of the sixteenth century. Giotto probably based this panel on a fresco by his teacher Cimabue in the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi.

Stefaneschi Triptych (reverse side)

Crucifxion of Saint Peter.

The right panel shows the beheading of Saint Paul, which is also set in Rome. Once again, the soul of the deceased is taken up to Heaven by six angels. An interesting detail is that Saint Paul still interacts with the woman standing on a hill: he throws her his blood-stained cloth and she stands ready to catch it. The woman has been identified as Plautilla. In the top right corner is a tower-like building, but it is not clear whether this represents a building existing at the time. Saint Paul’s execution was said to have taken place at the site where we now find the San Paolo alle Tre Fontane, named after the three wells which were said to have sprung up as the saint’s head bounced on the ground three times after the decapitation.

The predella of the reverse side has been preserved in its entirety. The central panel features a Madonna and Child with two angels and Saints Peter and James. The other two panels feature the remaining ten apostles.


[1] Francesca Flores d’Arcais, Giotto, p. 244.

[2] Francesca Flores d’Arcais, Giotto, p. 309.

[3] It is not entirely clear which side was intended to be the front and which the back. Here I follow Francesca Flores d’Arcais, which means I will treat the side with Saint Peter as the front.

[4] The last to do so until Pope Benedictus XVI resigned in 2013.

[5] Other interpretations are possible of course. The pyramid on the left could be the Meta Romuli and the structure on the right an obelisk.


  1. Pingback:Florence: Giotto at the Uffizi – – Corvinus –

  2. Pingback:Florence: Giotto in de Uffizi – – Corvinus –

  3. Pingback:Rome: Saint Peter’s Basilica – – Corvinus –

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