(A post about one of my favorite artworks. This is more or less how I used to teach it in my introductory classes:)
Giotto frescoed the walls of the Arena Chapel in Padua in the first decade of the fourteenth century. His patron was Enrico Scrovegni, a wealthy banker who appears in one of the frescoes offering a model of the chapel to the Virgin Mary. Scrovegni’s father (or grandfather, forgive me, I’m working entirely from memory here!) had the dishonor of appearing in Dante’s Inferno among the usurers. The fresco cycle, which consists mostly of scenes from the lives of the Virgin and Christ, is concerned with redemption, (most appropriate for a rich patron like Scrovegni.)
Giotto was unusual for his time in that he had something of an international reputation; although he was based in Florence, he also worked in the north and south of Italy, and in France. He was famous in his own lifetime. His contemporaries said that his paintings were so real that they lacked only breath. Whenever I told my students that, they would look at the slides projected on the lecture room wall with scrunched up faces, their disbelief apparent. Well, just what is “real?”
Leaving aside the characteristics of Giotto’s visual style for now, consider the subject matter of the narrative frescoes- scenes from the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ. These are stories about people who lived long, long before anyone in the chapel’s intended audience. They involve people who were, to put it simply, unusual, or special, who, on the face of it, had very little in common with the frescoes’ viewers.
I’m just going to focus on one scene, because I feel it is representative of what Giotto does in these frescoes, and because it’s my favorite. The Meeting at the Golden Gate illustrates an encounter between Anna and Joachim, Mary’s elderly parents, just outside Jerusalem. They have just discovered that after years of infertility, they are finally going to have a child.
“Try to imagine that you are Joachim or Anna,” I used tell my students. “Try to imagine what it would be like to be childless for all those years in a time when to be so was a sign that you were not favored by God, and when it could make you an outcast. Imagine the joy you feel when you discover that you’ll finally have what you’ve longed for all those years. But you don’t hear the news together. What’s the first thing you want to do when you hear it?”
Some brave student would say timidly, “Go the other person?”
“And then what?”
Someone else, “Hug them?” (By this point I was always wondering what made nineteen-year-olds so sheepish in the classroom.)
“And what kind of kiss would it be? You wouldn’t close your eyes for this one, would you? You would stare at into your spouse’s eyes, drinking in the joy you saw there. It wouldn’t matter where you were, if there were other people around, you wouldn’t be any less passionate, would you? Well, that’s real.”
That’s what Giotto’s contemporaries saw in his paintings. Giotto’s frescoes illustrate the same narratives that other painters had depicted centuries before he did, but what is new about his works is that he tells the stories in human terms.
“Imagine now that you’re a member of Scrovegni’s family, looking up at this fresco while you’re in the chapel for mass. These people, Anna and Joachim, lived a long, long time before you and in a place very far away, and they lived unusual lives, but they weren’t so different from you, were they? And maybe, because of that, their story is just a little more interesting to you, a little more present to you, a little more real?”
To illustrate this emotional human drama, Giotto uses a visual style that emphasizes the physicality of his figures. They may be stocky, but they’re solid and they stand firmly on the ground. To convey this, Giotto uses modelling and shadow. To create the space that these figures inhabit, Giotto relies on a system of two point perspective, which in this fresco, is visible in the projection of the city gate.
To create a concise, unified composition, (and to direct the viewer’s eye through it,) Giotto repeats the arch shape: the city gate, the embracing couple, the bridge and the arches that support it. This allows him to place the main action in the scene off-center, and away from the framing device of the city gate, without misleading his viewers. Remember that before Giotto, artists relied on conventions like centering and framing to signal importance in their works. Giotto has more natural means at his disposition.
I think that what I like best about this fresco, and what makes it my favorite in the cycle, is its simplicity, and pure rhetorical style. Giotto’s work is austere (without our noticing it, really) and powerful at the same time. He paints just enough and never too much and seems always to have his audience in mind.
“This is good rhetoric,” I used to tell my students. “When you write your papers I want them to have the verbal equivalent of Giotto’s clear, concise and powerful visual style.”That always made them groan, which was fine. That’s how I knew they got it.