“There was no uglier man in the city of Florence,” said Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists. He was writing about Giotto di Bondone, one of the greatest early Italian Renaissance painters.
When anthropologists exhumed Giotto’s body in 2000, they found his bones saturated with arsenic and lead, chemicals usually associated with paint. They also found that he had been a four-foot dwarf.
The Artist Comes To Naples:
We know through his art that Giotto spent his life working in many cities, including Rome, Padua, Ramini, Bologna, and Milan. He is best known as the chief architect of the Campanile in Florence. But he also left his mark on the city of Naples.
Before the days of Italian unification, any artist worth his genius spent time living in the Kingdom of Naples. Rossini, Boccacio and Petrarch are only a few names on an endlessly long list. From court records we know that Robert the Wise brought Giotto and his workshop assistants to Naples. He stayed from 1328 to 1332 and the King named him ‘first court painter.’
Giorgio Vasari wrote that Giotto was very witty, ugly, and brilliant. The artist was also so beloved by the king that Robert the Wise often visited and watched Giotto paint while engaging in conversation. About Giotto’s interaction with King Robert the Wise, Vasari says:
And one day the king, as a caprice, asked him to paint his kingdom. Giotto, it is said, painted a laden ass with a new load lying at his feet, which while it refused it seemed to desire, and both on the new and old burden was the royal crown and scepter of power. And when Giotto was asked by the king what the picture signified, he replied, “Such must be the subjects and such the kingdom which every day desired a new lord.”
What To Look For
Many witty sayings about Giotto arose over time. Vasari says Giotto once painted a fly on the face of his Florence teacher, Cimbue, and the image was so life-like that Cimbue kept trying to swat the fly off his face.
Whether myth or non-fiction, Giotto is credited with casting off the Byzantine painting style of two hundred years before him and creating life-like images. Notably, his depictions of people included emotions on their faces.
The Naples Tour:
The most famous and still extant work by Giotto can be visited at the Castel Nuovo where Robert the Wise lived. In the Cappella Palatina you can see fragments of Deposition from the Cross and Table of the Lord.
Besides these fragments, all that remains of Giotto are figments of our grand imaginations as well as his influence upon pupils. Inside the Santa Chiara Church you’ll find white washed walls that once were filled with Giotto frescoes. Robert the Wise is buried here, but unfortunately bomb raids in WWII destroyed the church and its frescoes. According to the 16th century sources, Giotto had painted scenes from the Apocalypse along the walls.
At Santa Maria Incoronata (Via Medina 19), two fresco cycles were once attributed to Giotto. While not true, it’s interesting to note that by the 16th century Giotto held such fame that any 14th century painting of excellent quality were attributed to Giotto. At this church, modern scholars have found that these frescoes are actually the work of Giotto’s pupil, Roberto Oderisi. He created Stories from the Bible (1340-43) and in the vault are The Triumph of Religion and The Seven Sacraments (1352-54).
Roberto Oderisi’s The Madonna of Humility can be found in the Church of San Domenico Maggiore.
At Sant’Eligio Maggiore (Via Sant’Eligio), the left hand nave leads to a cross-vaulted area decorated with the 14th century frescoes Stories of St. Nicolas and The Annunciation. Both are attributed to a master associated with Giotto’s workshop.
At San Lorenzo Maggiore, in the sixth chapel from the right, frescoes by a Neapolitan pupil of Giotto reside. Importantly, this is also where Giotto’s friend, Boccacio, saw the beloved girl Fiammetta.
Giotto’s influence permeates Neapolitan Renaissance artists as well as Italian artists at large. He also kept good company. In his final years Giotto became friends with Boccaccio and Dante.
Some say Dante visited Giotto in Naples. Another tall tale also says that Dante, upon meeting Giotto’s children, asked how a man who painted such beautiful pictures could create such plain children. Giotto replied, “I made them in the dark.”
Barbara Zaragoza is a freelance writer. She holds an A.M. degree from Harvard University in European History and enjoys writing about history, local cuisine, myth, archeology, politics and more. She has published non-fiction as well as fiction for print and on-line outlets. Find out more about Barbara here.
Read more of Barbara’s articles on Napoli Unplugged.