Friday, March 28, 2008

On Giotto as the initiator of the Renaissance in painting

Lamentation (Pieta) by the Master of Nerezi, 1164

Lamentation by Giotto, 1304-06

A comparison between two paintings of the same subject may clarify the novelty represented by the paintings of Giotto and justify the importance of his contribution to the Early Renaissance. The first painting is by an anonymous Byzantine artist, referred to as the Master of Nerezi: a fresco on the Lamentation over the Dead Christ in the Church of St. Pantaleimon, created in 1164 (Middle Byzantine period) located in Nerezi, Macedonia. The other represents the same subject as depicted by Giotto in 1304-1306, in the Capella degli Scrovegni, in Padua, Italy.

The Master of Nerezi is undeniably able to transmit something of the pathos, the emotional dimension, of his subject, within the constraints of the Byzantine formal rules. In comparison to the early, strictly hieratic and solemn expression of the royal or Imperial-Christian art of Byzantium, there is here a more dynamic visual concept and action indeed: The Virgin Mary embracing the deposed Christ, the curved body of the disciple holding the hand of Christ, within a very briefly indicated location and schematic spatial setting.

As Gombrich (The Story of Art) observed about the Byzantine style, within this basically two-dimensional formal concept in painting, we distinguish also the heritage of Greek and Hellenistic art, largely transformed but still recognizable. For example: skiagraphia, or “shadow painting”, was a system of tonal and color modulation employing mainly, according to some specialists, graphic elements such as cross-hatching. Its initial development was attributed to the Athenian painter Apollodorus (430-400 BCE). Skiagraphia aimed at optical effects, the creation the impression of solid and round bodies in space taking into account a subjective point of view. It survives in Byzantine painting as a conventionalized linear system of “patterned” anatomical representation.

In contrast to the Pieta by the Master of Nerezi, Giotto’s figures are solidly articulated in themselves and among each other within a unified and coherent spatial setting. They not simply rest as patterns upon a surface, but occupy their own space and interact within the virtual space of the painted setting: the pictorially constructed box or stage. Two are the main sources, according to Gombrich, of Giotto’s accomplishment: classic (Roman) sculpture and the Christian plays publicly staged on different occasions in front of the churches, the theater as a traditional instrument of mass education and indoctrination in the Christian Church. In Giotto's Lamentation we recognize a tableau vivant or "staged picture" of representations of sacred narratives.

Marcelo G. Lima

images are from Wikipedia

Sunday, January 27, 2008

What is Classicism ?

"In ancient Rome, the citizens of the first rank were called classici. When Aulus Gellius (19.8.15) contrasted a scriptor classicus with a scriptor proletarius, the description carried an implication of quality which is still current: we speak of a work being a 'classic' in the sense that it is a model which deserves to be followed. The French were using classique in this manner in the sixteenth century but it was not until the eighteenth century in England and France that the term 'the classics' came to mean precisely the masterpieces of Greek and Latin literature. Since at that time a classical education was acknowledged as the only correct training for civilized life, such an extension of meaning is not surprising. In the history of art as in the history of literature, classicism is an approach to the medium founded on the imitation of Antiquity, and on the assumption of a set of values attributed to the ancients. The continuing importance of ancient culture in many disciplines, such as law and administration or epigraphy and poetry, is shown in the fusing of the two senses of the word 'classic' in the term classical tradition, which denotes the retention of and elaboration upon classical values in the art of succeeding generations. This is not a notion invented in the twentieth century to explain the history of art; there is an observable propensity in some artists and at certain times to work in a classical manner: their antecedents are proclaimed by the very characteristics of their work."
Michael Greenhalgh - The Classical Tradition in Art, London, 1978,


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci, Vitriuvian Man
(1485-1490, Venise, Galleria dell' Accademia)
photo by Luc Viatour

"For the human body is so designed by nature that the face, from the chin to the top of the forehead and the lowest roots of the hair, is a tenth part of the whole height; the open hand from the wrist to the tip of the middle finger is just the same; the head from the chin to the crown is an eighth, and with the neck and shoulder from the top of the breast to the lowest roots of the hair is a sixth; from the middle of the breast to the summit of the crown is a fourth. If we take the height of the face itself, the distance from the bottom of the chin to the under side of the nostrils is one third of it; the nose from the under side of the nostrils to a line between the eyebrows is the same; from there to the lowest roots of the hair is also a third, comprising the forehead. The length of the foot is one sixth of the height of the body; of the forearm, one fourth; and the breadth of the breast is also one fourth. The other members, too, have their own symmetrical proportions, and it was by employing them that the famous painters and sculptors of antiquity attained to great and endless renown.

Similarly, in the members of a temple there ought to be the greatest harmony in the symmetrical relations of the different parts to the general magnitude of the whole. Then again, in the human body the central point is naturally the navel. For if a man be placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a pair of compasses centred at his navel, the fingers and toes of his two hands and feet will touch the circumference of a circle described therefrom. And just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square figure may be found from it. For if we measure the distance from the soles of the feet to the top of the head, and then apply that measure to the outstretched arms, the breadth will be found to be the same as the height, as in the case of plane surfaces which are perfectly square."

London, 1914


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Vasari on the role of Giotto in the Renaissance

Flight into Egypt
Giotto di Bondone
about 1304-1306
Fresco, 200 x 185 cm
Padua, Cappella degli Scrovegni

image source:

Presumed portrait of Giotto (1266-1337) by
Paolo Uccello (1397 ?–1475)

"THE gratitude which the masters in painting owe to Nature — who is ever the truest model of him who, possessing the power to select the brightest parts from her best and loveliest features, employs himself unweariedly in the reproduction of these beauties—this gratitude, I say, is due, in my judgment, to the Florentine painter, Giotto, seeing that he alone— although born amidst incapable artists, and at a time when all good methods in art had long been entombed beneath the ruins of war—yet, by the favour of Heaven, he, I say, alone succeeded in resuscitating art, and restoring her to a path that may be called the true one. And it was in truth a great marvel, that from so rude and inapt an age, Giotto should have had strength to elicit so much, that the art of design, of which the men of those days had little, if any, knowledge, was, by his means, effectually recalled into life"


free-access ebook available at: Google Books

Monday, January 14, 2008

Vasari on the invention of Painting and Sculpture: God as the "first artist"

Vasari - Le Vite, 1568

" I AM aware that it is commonly held as a fact by most writers that sculpture, as well as painting, was naturally discovered originally by the people of Egypt, and also that there are others who attribute to the Chaldeans the first rough carvings of statues and the first reliefs. In like manner there are those who credit the Greeks with the invention of the brush and of colouring. But it is my opinion that design, which is the foundation of both arts, and the very soul which conceives and nourishes in itself every part of the intelligence, came into full existence at the time of the origin of all things, when the Most High, after creating the world and adorning the heavens with shining lights, descended through the limpid air to the solid earth, and by shaping man, disclosed the first form of sculpture and painting in the charming invention of things. Who will deny that from this man, as from a living example, the ideas of statues and sculpture, and the questions of pose and of outline, first took form; and from the first pictures, whatever they may have been, arose the first ideas of grace, unity, and the discordant concords made by the play of lights and shadows?"

Giorgio Vasari - Lives, Preface, 1550


For Vasari, God is the "first artist", and Man the "first" work of art, the highlight of creation, the original form from which the forms of painting and sculpture are derived. Art comes from Nature and, therefore, has its ultimate origin in the divine intelligence of the Creator.