Friday, January 9, 2009

The Man in the Arena

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

The Man in the Arena speech by Theodore Roosevelt, delivered April 23, 1910

At the edge of the shadowy beginnings of the Italian Renaissance stands a giant—Giotto, who died on January 8, 1337. Born around 1267, Giotto’s name now rings with the almost inhuman divinity of Praxiteles or Zeuxis, thanks mainly to the early mythmaking of Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists. Vasari tells of Cimabue discovering Giotto as a young shepherd drawing his sheep on a rock. Later, taking a page from the legend of Zeuxis, Giotto (according to Vasari) painted a fly so realistic that Cimabue tried to shoo it away. Behind the myth of Giotto, however, remains the reality of his groundbreaking realism, which departs sharply from the Byzantine style of Cimabue and two centuries of art before Giotto’s heyday. Although many works once ascribed to Giotto are now disputed, the frescoes of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, also known as the Arena Chapel (shown above from the entrance, from 1303-1306) bear Giotto’s signature, a clear sign of pride in his mammoth accomplishment. Like Roosevelt’s “man in the arena,” Giotto knew victory and defeat, yet continually burned with the passion to strive valiantly through error into what Vasari and others judged as perfection.

There are so many great frescoes in the Arena Chapel that it’s hard to pick a few to talk about. (A nice selection of images of the frescoes can be found here.) One of the most moving for me, as a Christian, is Giotto’s depiction of the Resurrection, also known as Noli me tangere (above, from 1304-1306). It’s amazing to think of such colors surviving seven centuries. Even though Giotto paints the supreme supernatural event of Christianity, he infuses it with his signature realism and humanity. Mary Magdalene gives in to her instinctive impulse to touch the risen Christ, disbelieving her eyes, but Jesus pulls away and tells her, “Do not touch me.” Whereas Mary Magdalene and the sleeping soldiers wear earthy reds and browns, Christ and the angels wear white with golden accents and almost fade away into nothing as Christ freshly assumes his heavenly aspect and begins to leave the physical world behind. The stylized Christ of the Byzantine period now becomes a Christ who walks among real people, thus reaffirming the promise of the Incarnation lost in the Dark Ages and pointing forward to the humanism of the Renaissance.

Before Michelangelo painted his Last Judgment, he studied Giotto’s, placed at the end of the Arena Chapel (above, from 1306). (Better pictures of details of Giotto’s Last Judgment appear here.) We know Michelangelo visited the Arena Chapel and looked closely at the frescoes because some of his studies of those works still exist. Giotto’s vision of the final days must have captured Michelangelo’s imagination and planted a seed that took root decades later when the opportunity arose to cap off his monumental achievement in a different chapel that would become synonymous with his name. A contemporary of Dante, Giotto most likely knew of Dante’s Divina Commedia and its mind-blowing conception of Hell. Giotto creates a visual equivalent to Dante’s Inferno in the lower right corner of his Last Judgment that borders on Hieronymus Bosch in perversity, yet predates Bosch by almost a century and a half. The more you look at Giotto’s work the more he seems like a time traveler, skipping ahead to see what’s ahead and then darting back to his own time to paint it. As much as Vasari overindulged in the farfetched in his Lives, Giotto more often than not manages to live up to the myth.


Merrill Kazanjian said...

It took me a long time to appreciate Giotto. I had to put him in to the context of history to see how significant and influential that he was. When compared to a Caravaggio or Rembrandt, he pales in comparison. In fairness, thats like comparing an early car with a Ferrari (hopefully choosing an Italian car wont take away from my point :). There is no overall comparison, but early automotive innovations led to Cars like Ferrari's just as the groundbreaking techniques of Giotto (passed on and refined) led to Rembrandt and Caravaggio.

Merrill Kazanjian

* said...

Caravaggio and Rembrandt are undoubtedly great but such a relative ranking of the merits of these artists against Giotto on a ladder of progress seems a little ridiculous. Looking at Giotto as the necessary but primitive precursor to later styles is sounds to me like someone is still missing the point of Giotto. He achieved perfection at what he did on his own terms, if there is such a thing as perfection in art.