|Giotto, The Preaching of St Francis to the Birds, c. 1298|
If I could have a say in how I will return in the next life, I think I would like to be a bird in a Giotto painting. As my American friend said of the two in the air on the predella of The Stigmatisation of St Francis of Assisi, they are like feathers falling out of the sky. They are weightless, carefree, and standing before them, nothing else matters.
|Giotto, The Stigmatization of St Francis of Assisi, c.1298|
The most precious moments in the room of paintings in this small exhibition at the Louvre, are those that make up the intimate details, the everyday lives of Giotto’s figures. The Stigmatization itself is wonderful for its sumptuous gold, its very odd perspective, the gentle saint receiving the stigmata from Christ, the richness of his robe despite it being in brown. But the three scenes from the life of St Francis along the predella are exquisite. Their beauty is in their quietness, his humility as he receives recognition from the Pope, the simplicity of the saint feeding the birds, all of whom are looking towards him, in motion towards him. It is true that the perspective is curious, especially in the first and second panels. In 1300 Giotto still did not understand, or rather, he was still working out how to account for the distortions that need to be incorporated so the work can be seen looking up and at an angle.
|Giotto, The Dream of Innocent III, 1298|
But what is so touching in these predella panels is the quietness of St Francis as he raises the foundations of the falling church, genuflects to Innocent III, as he feeds the birds. These scenes are peaceful, they are human, and they depict St Francis as a figure with an inner life. Even if we do not see the expression of emotions in these particular images, the realism of the figures reassures us that he and the other figures have them. While the altarpiece has always been celebrated for its realist depiction, especially since Vasari trumped it in 1568, what is most notable today is how the predella images are like moments out of time, not in the grand narrative of St Francis’ life as it is usually told. As much as the greatness of the venerable St Francis is remembered — as Vasari would have it — the beauty of the altarpiece also lies in the intimacy of everyday gestures.
|Seated Figures of Two Men Holding a Sword, St Paul and St Julian ?|
I was also captivated by a small piece of green/grey paper on which are two metal point figures, two men seated holding swords. The Louvre claims it was done by Giotto, but like most of what is attributed to him, we can’t be so sure. Giotto was always on the move, always on the way to the next commission, even before the last had finished. Often he would leave the “compagnia” to finish the works, or indeed, to paint them from scratch. Because the whole notion of the artist was so different in his day, Giotto neither thought of himself as an individual genius, and neither was his place in the Italian trecento anything like that of today’s artists. I know so little about attribution of works from the trecento, but I do know that this delicate metalpoint has all of the intimacy, humanness and immediacy of St Francis with the birds and as he receives the order before Pope Innocent III. In this small metal point with white highlighting, the two men sit close together: the scene is so immediate that we can feel the tension between them. The man on the left is not so sure, his hand on his sword. The one on the right is more confident, his robes textured and nuanced by the white highlights, done with a brush. This is a small scene in which great things are being discussed and we are allowed into the moment for a brief look. Similarly, it’s not simply the two figures that are marvelous here, but the paper itself is breathtaking. It doesn’t really matter if this work is done by Giotto or not because the paper that is over 700 years old is a work of art in itself.
|Giotto, The Crucifixion, 1335|
And lastly, the colours. This is, of course, my attraction to Giotto and later Renaissance painting, especially in Florence. This exhibition shows that Giotto, even though he was working in what might be called the pre-Renaissance, has begun to use the colours which he has taken and developed from his one time master, Cimabue. The Berlin Crucifixion not only has the same gentle movements that we see in the St Francis altarpiece, but the robes of the figures are resplendent: pink, red, blue, with the highlighting and shadowing in their corresponding opposite. Giotto is one of the first Italian painters who really understood how to use colour. He understood that colour was instrumental to the movement of the painting, to the definition and characterization of the figures, and in the Berlin Crucifixion, to the story being told as the characters gather at the base of the cross. Not to mention the fact that Giotto is one of the first to paint skin tones in anything other than green and grey, an important factor in the realism that is often attributed to his works.
|Giotto, St John the Evangelist, c. 1320|
Giotto is important today, at least he enjoys notoriety and draws crowds at the Louvre, because modernism has resurrected him. His turn to realism, his fascination with colour, with the human stories that unfold outside of the grand biblical narratives, all of these concerns are embedded in art especially in the early 20th century. And so, even though I kept thinking how much better Giotto’s paintings look in Italian churches, there’s something fitting about doing battle with the crowds on a Friday night at the Louvre to get a glimpse of these exquisite masterpieces.