The artist's full name was Giotto di Bondone. He was born about 1266 in the village of Vespignano, near Florence. His father was a small landed farmer. Giorgio Vasari, one of Giotto's first biographers, tells how Cimabue, a well-known Florentine painter, discovered Giotto's talents. Cimabue supposedly saw the 12-year-old boy sketching one of his father's sheep on a flat rock and was so impressed with his talent that he persuaded the father to let Giotto become his pupil. Another story is that Giotto, while apprenticed to a wool merchant in Florence, frequented Cimabue's studio so much that he was finally allowed to study painting.
The earliest of Giotto's known works is a series of frescoes on the life of St. Francis in the church at Assisi. Each fresco depicts an incident; the human and animal figures are realistic and the scenes expressive of the gentle spirit of this patron saint of animals. In about 1305 and 1306 Giotto painted a notable series of 38 frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua. The frescoes illustrate the lives of Jesus Christ and of the Virgin Mary.
Vasari tells the story of how Pope Boniface VIII sent a messenger to Giotto with a request for samples of his work. Giotto dipped his brush in red and with one continuous stroke painted a perfect circle. He then assured the messenger that the worth of this sample would be recognized. When the pope saw it, he "instantly perceived that Giotto surpassed all other painters of his time."
In Rome, Naples, and Florence, Giotto executed commissions from princes and high churchmen. In Rome he would have seen the work of Pietro Cavallini, which was as important an influence on him as that of his master Cimabue. In the Bargello, or Palace of the Podesta (now a museum), in Florence, there is a series of his Biblical scenes. Among the bystanders in the paintings is a portrait of his friend the poet Dante. The Church of Santa Croce is adorned by Giotto murals depicting the life of St. Francis.
In 1334 the city of Florence honored Giotto with the title of Magnus Magister (Great Master) and appointed him city architect and superintendent of public works. In this capacity he designed the famous campanile (bell tower). He died in 1337, before the work was finished.
Giotto was short and homely, and he was a great wit and practical joker. He was married and left six children at his death. Unlike many of his fellow artists, he saved his money and was accounted a rich man. He was on familiar terms with the pope, and King Robert of Naples called him a good friend.
In common with other artists of his day, Giotto lacked the technical knowledge of anatomy and perspective that later painters learned. Yet what he possessed was infinitely greater than the technical skill of the artists who followed him. He had a grasp of human emotion and of what was significant in human life. In concentrating on these essentials he created compelling pictures of people under stress, of people caught up in crises and soul-searching decisions. Modern artists often seek inspiration from Giotto. In him they find a direct approach to human experience that remains valid for every age.
Giotto is regarded as the founder of the central tradition of Western painting because his work broke free from the stylizations of Byzantine art, introducing new ideals of naturalism and creating a convincing sense of pictorial space. His momentous achievement was recognized by his contemporaries (Dante praised him in a famous passage of "The Divine Comedy", where he said he had surpassed his master Cimabue), and in about 1400 Cennino Cennini wrote "Giotto translated the art of painting from Greek to Latin."
In spite of his fame and the demand for his services, no surviving painting is documented as being by him. His work, indeed, poses some formidable problems of attribution, but it is universally agreed that the fresco cycle in the Arena Chapel at Padua is by Giotto, and it forms the starting-point for any consideration of his work. His figures have a completely new sense of three-dimensionality and physical presence, and in portraying the sacred events he creates a feeling of moral weight rather than divine splendor. He seems to base the representations upon personal experience, and no artist has surpassed his ability to go straight to the heart of a story and express its essence with gestures and expressions of unerring conviction.
In the generation after his death he had an overwhelming influence on Florentine painting; it declined with the growth of International Gothic, but his work was later an inspiration to Masaccio, and even to Michelangelo. These two giants were his true spiritual heirs.