Giotto also painted other set of frescoes in which he took advantage of old evangelical stories to present them rejuvenated to his contemporaries. It is the series of frescoes in the small chapel that Arrigo Scrovegni, lord of Padua, had built in the center of the Roman amphitheater of this city to commemorate the martyrs sacrificed there. This amphitheater or arena of Padua surrounds the chapel with an atmosphere of solitude and silence that greatly favors the contemplation of Giotto’s paintings. This small sanctuary was all decorated by Giotto’s own hand or by disciples who worked there under his immediate direction. It includes 38 panels whose themes are based, some on the Canonical Gospels, and others on the apocryphal Gospel of St. James where the legends of Joachim and Anne are told. In this text the story of Joachim is portrayed as a romantic novel in where he, though jealous of his wife, returns for a tender reconciliation after fleeing to the desert. Giotto, with his great narrative force, gave new life to these scenes like the one that represents Joachim pensive in the midst of the shepherds. Here, the landscape is simply indicated with some rocks and a few trees to give an idea of a rustic environment. Here we are still somewhat far from the days when artists will enjoy freedom in technique and composition to enjoy themselves in the use and master of perspective and the impression of a local environment.
The Gospel of St. James also offers apocryphal details about the birth, childhood and betrothal of the Virgin, all of these themes that the Byzantines were pleased to illustrate and that Giotto, being himself religious, also repeated by infusing them with modern significance. The important characteristic of these frescoes is the sentimentality portrayed by the holy people, who show themselves superior because of their capacity to love. But when the drama of the Passion ended, the paroxysm of pain and the agitated souls of the characters are shown with broken gestures. Dante had to recognize there characters from his own Divine Comedy as if he was looking into a mirror. Dantesque and giottesque are almost synonymous.
The main interest of Giotto’s frescoes in Padua and Assisi always lies in the artist’s insight to analyze the intimate depths of the human soul. The spectator that for the first time, without being prepared, see these two monumental sets of paintings would perhaps be somewhat baffled by the naive simplification of the backgrounds, the simplicity of the landscapes drawn with miniature trees, and the childish looking architectures of fantastic buildings, sustained by unbelievable thin little columns with which Giotto wanted to represent the temple of Jerusalem or the palaces of his time. But for this great artist all of that was less than secondary, the main focus, almost the only thing, is the human soul protagonist in all the scenes. Dante’s friend had to be distinguished precisely by this: Giotto, like the Florentine poet, closely observes the immense multitude of beings that act upon the Earth in order to give each one his/her gesture, his/her own soul, his/her characteristic look, which expresses the torment or joy of that particular being in one of the moments of his/her existence.
In addition, Giotto decorated part of the ancient basilica of St. Peter, in the Vatican, which was destroyed when the current church was built. From that set of compositions only remains a few fragments of the mosaic once located over the entrance door representing a passage from the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 14: 24–32) of Christ walking on the water. It was also Giotto’s work the main altar of the old Vatican basilica, whose few fragments are kept in the Pinacoteca Vaticana. Today they are important because very few paintings on panel by Giotto are preserved. The most characteristic of his painted panels in this genre is in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence: represents a Madonna sitting on a throne, surrounded by saints and angels. The throne is no longer the Byzantine ivory throne of the Virgins of Cimabue, but a very Italian throne, richly decorated with mosaics. The angels, kneeling, present small vases with flowers and look with affectionate intensity to the motherly figure, a woman with developed breasts and wide lap, majestically wrapped in the folds of her robe, almost statuesque. Her head also has new and human beauty: it corresponds to that of a woman with a thick neck and a face very similar to that of the Tuscan peasants, so elegant by nature.
At the end of his life, Giotto, after establishing his reputation throughout Italy, also established it in his homeland. His triumph couldn’t be more complete. In 1334 the City Council called him to Florence to be appointed as chief architect to Florence Cathedral. He was called under this dictate: “That for the works that are being carried out in the city of Florence, and paid for by the common citizens, be executed in the most perfect manner, which would not be possible if an eminent and experienced director did not direct them and as in the whole world no one can be found better than the Master Giotto di Bondone, he will be called in his hometown Magnus Magister and publicly recognized as such”. Giotto died in 1337, he was 69-70 years old. But he had left a well formed school. Giotto was the first painter that widely and systematically depicted three-dimensional figures in the history of western European art.
To the left, a detail of Virgin Mary and Christ Child from the Madonna Ognissanti. This panel painting continued the traditional Italo-Byzantine style by using gold coloring and a flat golden background. The altarpiece still retains the stiffness of Byzantine art, and the hierarchy of scale, making the centralized Madonna and the Christ Child much larger in size than the surrounding figures. But in this painting the figures appear weighty and are reminiscent of three-dimensional sculptures. The Madonna’s intricately decorated throne with clearly Italian Gothic design, shows Cosmatesque decoration popular in Rome since the Early Christian period and in Tuscany in the Late Middle Ages. The painting also seems heavily influenced by the enthroned virgins painted by Cimabue, traditionally recognized as Giotto’s teacher, as seen in the very symmetrical composition of the piece. The tranquility of Giotto’s figures resembled also the style of Pietro Cavallini.
Tondo: (From the Italian rotondo, meaning “round”, plural “tondi” or “tondos”). A Renaissance term for a circular work of art, either a painting or a sculpture.