Tom Lubbock: The more we see of his lifelike world the better

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The Independent Culture

Circa 1300, Giotto was the next big thing. Dante mentions him in The Divine Comedy as the artist who now "has the cry". He was more than a trendsetter: he was an original of the most radical type. He began the whole tradition of European painting, transforming it from the flatness of the Greek-Byzantine icon to the rounded solidity of a Roman statue. Realism is the word.

There are various legends about Giotto's artistic powers, the best of which has the Pope asking for a demonstration of his skill. Giotto takes a paintbrush and draws a perfect circle freehand. The truth of such tales may be doubtful. What's not in doubt is Giotto's unprecedentedly life-like world, created in the fresco sequences in Florence, Padua, Assisi. This is the quality – bodies rendered tangibly in light and shade – that is now being revealed again on the walls of the Peruzzi Chapel in Santa Croce in Florence.

Giotto's fate hasn't always been happy. He was an inspiration to the Renaissance, but his founding realism eventually looked outdated. His tubby characters began to look quaint. One artist said that they looked as if they had been modelled on "the bendings of a sandbag".

His works fell into disrepair or worse. The scenes in Peruzzi Chapel are a faint memory of their originals. Only in the mid-19th century did Giotto begin to be admired again. Modern artists have delighted in him. "What ho! Giotto!" Stanley Spencer cried, when he got the commission to paint the Sandham Memorial Chapel. Giotto's reputation could now hardly be higher. Any more Giotto, even the slightest bit, would be welcome. So now we do have just a little bit more.