Great art endures; great art forever changes. Vasari observed how Giotto’s early masterpiece, the Annunciation in the Badia Chapel at Florence, “expressed vividly the fear and terror that the salutation of Gabriel inspired in the Virgin Mary”. Yet, just over three centuries later, Matisse could say, “When I see Giotto’s frescoes, I am not concerned to know which Christian scene is before my eyes, but to perceive the feeling which is embodied in the lines and the colours.”
The art of medieval religion thus becomes the religion of modern art. Mark Rothko, who called a painter’s concept of space a “statement of faith”, compared Giotto to Thomas Aquinas, who had bolstered the Church against a “newly rising world” that eventually bore it away. Giotto’s “spatial divergences” are early “rumblings of disintegration”: an individuated, rational perspective is challenging the “Christian synthesis” between imagination and reality. Like Aquinas, Giotto offers an “objective statement” of religion, but he seeds the old image with subjective impressions.
Giotto’s religious context, the unity of site, society and subject, survives in a modern mockery: you have to go to church to see his frescoes. He was also, though, the first itinerant artist, whose individuality was prized highly enough for him to work all over the Italian peninsula, from Naples to Milan. So it is no less true to Giotto’s spirit that a collection of 14 portable works, including the stunning Baroncelli Polyptych, has been gathered at the Palazzo Reale in Milan under the title Giotto: Italy (until January 10, 2016). The show includes works from all phases of his career, as well as two of only three autographed pieces. Unless we have the time and money to tour the frescoes chronologically, the show is a rare chance to view Giotto in the perspective of the modern unity, biography.
Giotto was born at Vespignano, a village near Florence, in 1266, the son, Vasari reports, of “a tiller of the soil”. In the first of a trio of legends that record his natural talent, Cimabue came across Giotto as a ten-year-old shepherd, “portraying a sheep from nature on a flat and polished slab, with a stone slightly pointed”, and whisked the prodigy back to Florence as his apprentice. In Vasari’s second legend, Giotto painted a fly on the nose of one of Cimabue’s portraits; his master tried to brush it off. In the third legend, Giotto, asked by a Papal emissary to demonstrate his talent, simply drew a perfect circle.
Vasari wrote that Giotto replaced the “rude Greek manner” of Byzantine stylisation with portraying “living people” from nature. But Giotto’s realism is staged with a sophisticated technical effect that owes much to Byzantine “primitives”. He creates three-dimensional impressions by modelling geometric space, but the space is not that of Brunelleschi’s stable geometry.
De Chirico, one of the many moderns inspired by Giotto’s articulate distortions, wrote that in Giotto, “architectural sense attains high metaphysical space”. In his polyptych altarpieces, the success of the spatial design triumphs over the rules of representation, creating an otherworldly intimacy. The five framed panels, divided by decorated pillars, work as window frames. The saints can look out, and we can look in. In the Badia Polyptych (1295-1300), St Peter is thoroughly human — he looks like Peter Ustinov after receiving bad news — but at the same time, thoroughly transformed by his sacred, timeless responsibilities.
The unities of the Baroncelli Polyptych, a late masterpiece created for the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, are especially powerful. Again, the spaces are compressed and the perspective distorted. The perspective is so foreshortened that the back of the picture rises up, stacking the priests and nobles against a golden field, and pushing the consort in the foreground towards the viewer. Mary and Jesus are gentle giants; in reality, the angels attending them would be midgets. Yet together these images attain the condition of music. It is impossible not to stand before them without hearing heavenly harmonies from the viols, harps and trumpets of the musicians.
Italy creates another fleeting unity, by reuniting the polyptych with its decorative triangular cusp, borrowed from the San Diego Museum of Art. Two angels float towards God’s visage, holding smoked glass over their eyes, like airborne astronomers looking into the sun. Physical reality may never change, but the greatest art always changes before our vision.