AHFNP: Proto-Renaissance

Well, it has been FOUR MONTHS since the last Art History for Normal People entry, and for that, I apologize.

This post is a relatively short one, because what we call the proto-Renaissance is a short but important connector between the Gothic and Renaissance periods. And the story of the proto-Renaissance centers mainly around a fellow named Giotto di Bondone, one of my favorite artists of all time and a mainstay of this blog.


IntroductionMesopotamia • Egypt • Ancient Greece (Part I) • Ancient Greece (Part II) • Ancient Rome • The Monastic Period • Romanesque • Gothic • Proto-Renaissance


Prior to about 1300, much of the art produced in the western world – particularly in Italy – was Byzantine in style. This has to do with the rise of Constantinople (now Istanbul), the Crusades, and Venice’s role as an emerging, prosperous trade center at the threshold of east and west.

The interior of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, a huge example of the Italo-Byzantine style. Photo by Gary Ullah from UK – Basilica San Marco, CC BY 2.0, Link

What do I mean by “Byzantine style?” You can see in these icons that there is no sense of space or location. The characters have weird proportions and they sort of float on a background of gold. If there is a building in the scene, it’s only ever half-finished. A few Italian painters (like Cimabue and Duccio) around 1275 begin the work of making art more natural, but their steps in this direction are small. (See bottom of the post for examples.)

Then, seemingly out of nowhere emerges the hero of our story, Giotto. There is a tradition that Giotto was a hideous dwarf with a hooked nose and mismatched eyes, but he managed to create some of the most enchanting, luminous paintings in history.

Sir Kenneth Clark says this:

When he was a young man – he was born near Florence in about 1265 – Italian painting was really only a less polished form of Byzantine painting. It was a flat, flowing, linear style based on traditional concepts which had changed very little for five hundred years. For Giotto to break away from it and evolve this solid, space-conscious style was one of those feats of inspired originality that have occurred only two or three times in the history of art. When such drastic changes do take place, one can usually find certain points of departure, models or predecessors. But not with Giotto. We know absolutely nothing about him till the year 1304, when he decorated a small, plain building in Padua known as the Arena Chapel, and made it, to anyone who cares for painting, one of the holy places of the world.

Interior of the Arena Chapel (aka Scrovegni Chapel), painted by Giotto. Photo by Rastaman3000Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The “solid, space-conscious style” Clark mentions is what makes Giotto one of the greatest artistic geniuses ever.

Giotto, Expulsion of the Money Changers from the Temple, Scrovegni Chapel, c. 1305. — We can tell this is an early Giotto work because it is not as well-composed as others. But there is such drama! The table is flipped, the ram escapes, and the two old guys in back are looking sideways at each other like “Can you believe this guy?” Look at the kid in red on the left, hiding in his dad’s cloak because of the commotion.

There are two main things to notice here. First, Giotto chooses to focus on a few characters instead of jumbling the whole painting with people and decoration. The paintings are composed so that the viewer seems to have a role in the action.

Kiss of Judas, Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, c. 1305. — “What an invention that Judas should put his cloak round Our Lord!”

Giotto concentrates on the characters’ emotions, something not really mastered since the height of classical Roman sculpture. Clark says that “once we have learned Giotto’s language, we can recognize him as one the greatest masters of painted drama that has ever lived.”

Giotto, Lamentation, Scrovegni Chapel, c. 1305.


Giotto, Death and Ascension of St. Francis, Bardi Chapel (Assisi), c. 1325

The second thing is that Giotto employed perspective, which allows his paintings to have a greater sense of place and solidity than anything before. Even the characters themselves feel solid and weighty, especially the fat guy in the Marriage at Cana.

Giotto, Marriage at Cana, Scrovegni Chapel, c. 1305. — Notice the architectural detail that really gives a sense of place to the scene. There’s a fat guy drinking wine, the guests are chatting, you can see people’s legs under the table…it’s all very human!

Combined, these qualities give his paintings an altogether human feeling. This new humanism, combined with the rise of Florence, would pave the way for the extraordinary event we know as the Renaissance.

Compare these four “Madonna and Child” paintings to clearly see the development from early Italo-Byzantine art to Giotto. Compare the 3D perspective used in the chair, naturalism in appearance and poses of figures, and the draped clothing.

One comment

  1. Enjoyed reading about Giotto’s creative breakthrough very much. That Clark assumes that because the influences that sparked his more objective vision are unknown, they did not exist. We may never know what they were, but I always doubt that kind of logical leap.

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