Florence: the Giotto from San Giorgio alla Costa

Madonna of San Giorgio alla Costa – Giotto.

On my way to Arcetri I happened to pass by the church of San Giorgio alla Costa in Oltrarno, Florence. This church can be described with the keywords “small”, “old” (possibly from the tenth century) and “until recently closed to the public”. The good news is that it is no longer closed: in April of 2023 I found the San Giorgio open again. The Baroque interior from the eighteenth century was not that interesting, but appeared to be in excellent condition. On the back wall hung a copy of a medieval altarpiece of the Madonna and Child with two angels. It was then that I had my epiphany: this was the church that had once held a Madonna and Child by the great master Giotto (ca. 1266-1337). The large panel painting was later moved to the Museo Diocesano in Florence. This museum is situated near the church of Santo Stefano al Ponte, a church that stands close to the Ponte Vecchio and has been converted into a music hall. The museum is famous for never being open. Did this mean that I would never see the Madonna di San Giorgio alla Costa and had to be content with an inferior copy in the San Giorgio?

Fortunately someone gave me a tip. The panel was reportedly on display in the museum of the Duomo of Florence. And lo and behold, I actually found it there, in its own room with excellent light. The panel has been restored in the 2000s and the colours look exceptionally fresh again. Over the course of the centuries the mantle of the Madonna had turned all black, but thanks to the restoration it got back its original dark blue colour. And pink pieces of clothing are now pink again instead of red. Unfortunately the panel was severely mutilated in the eighteenth century. On all four sides pieces were sawn off to make the work fit the Baroque altar of the San Giorgio. The throne on which the Madonna sits therefore regretfully misses quite a few centimetres at the bottom and at the two sides. The wooden panel to which the painting has been attached in the museum gives us an indication of the hypothetical original dimensions of the work. More damage was caused by a Mafia car bomb that exploded in the street between the Uffizi and the Santo Stefano in 1993. A lesion in the robes of the angel on the left is still visible.

Giotto painted the panel around 1296, when in all probability he was also active or has been active in the basilica of San Francesco in Assisi.[1] He must in any case have completed the Madonna and Child before Pope Bonifatius VIII (1294-1303) summoned him to Rome. In the past very few scholars have denied that Giotto was the maker of the panel. The famous sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) attributed it to him as early as the fifteenth century. However, in 1927 the Austrian-American art historian Richard Offner (1889-1965) argued that the panel was a work by the Cecilia Master, a painter to whom some frescoes in Assisi are attributed. The German art historian Robert Oertel (1907-1981) then attributed the panel to Giotto again in 1937, and his vision was quickly shared by Roberto Longhi (1890-1970) from Italy and many others. In her excellent book about Giotto, Francesca Flores d’Arcais therefore concludes: “It is now almost unanimously accepted as his work and placed chronologically alongside his Franciscan frescoes of Assisi”.[2] Thanks to the museum of the Duomo this beautiful painting can now be admired again by the public.


[1] The museum dates the work to ca. 1288-1295.

[2] Francesca Flores d’Arcais, Giotto, p. 105.

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