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from issue no. 12 - 2007

GIOTTO. The frescos of the Upper Basilica of Assisi

That masterpiece in which “The living seemed living


Criticism has always been divided about the author of the frescos of the Upper Basilica of Saint Francis, an absolutely new factor in the history of art. But for Luciano Bellosi, the greatest Italian scholar of the fourteenth century, that new factor present in Assisi bears the same signature as the author of the ScrovegniChapel in Padua


by Giuseppe Frangi


A shot of the nave of the Upper Basilica, Assisi

A shot of the nave of the Upper Basilica, Assisi

And the “living seemed living”. More than a title of a book, this is its summary in a flash. Luciano Bellosi, the greatest Italian scholar of the fourteenth century, who up to last year held the chair of History of Art at Siena, a teacher who over decades of lectures fostered dozens of young scholars now in the forefront, has picked on this verse of Dante to suggest the meaning of his fundamental research on Giotto. Bellosi had already begun to familiarize himself with the great Florentine artist in the mid ’seventies, when Einaudi published another book of his that became a landmark in art history. And in that case also the title had its own undoubted efficacy: La pecora di Giotto [Giotto’s sheep]. But with this recent volume, collecting all his essays on the subject, and with another published contemporaneously in the series I Grandi Maestri dell’Arte [The Great Masters of Art], distributed with the newspaper Il Sole 24 ore Bellosi proposes an interpretation aimed at clarifying one of the most controversial points in the whole of Giotto’s career, but also in the whole history of art: the attribution of the frescoes in the Upper Basilica of Assisi.
That the cycle represented a decisive shift is a matter on which all agree. But after that consensus paths divide. In particular in recent years the hypothesis, supported by the all but clinical studies of the great restorer Bruno Zanardi and backed by the authority of Federico Zeri, that the frescoes should be attributed to a master from the Rome school, given the close affinity with Pietro Cavallini (the author of the fresco on the interior of the façade of the Basilica of Saint Cecilia) and in particular with Jacopo Torriti (the master who in 1295 signed the apsidal mosaic in Saint Mary Major). At the origin of this Rome “workshop” was Cimabue, the great artist who had begun the Assisi cycle, and who in 1272 is documented as working in the city of the popes.
Bellosi instead overturns the hypothesis and, almost plummeting into the interior of the Assisi frescoes, after his decades-long research, manages to demonstrate that there is something absolutely novel in the cycle. And that the absolutely new factor conforms to the same “reasoning mind” that in 1304 signed the cycle of frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. That “reasoning mind”, obviously answers to the name of Giotto.
Some very recent documentary discoveries also provide backing for Bellosi. In 2003 in fact two English scholars made known a text dated 1310 in which the conventual Franciscans defended themselves against accusation from the pauperists of wasting too many resources on the decorations of their churches. The conventuals replied that the case of Assisi was an exception in that it had been the Pope himself (the Titular of the Basilica) who had decided on the cycle. And they cited Nicholas IV, the first Franciscan Pope (Gerolamo of Ascoli, second General of the Order, after Bonaventure), as having commissioned it. The document therefore provides a sure date for the work in the Basilica: the pontificate of Nicholas lasted in fact from 1288 to 1292. At that time Giotto was already on the scene and had already accomplished a masterpiece that signalled to all the novelty of which he was the bearer: the Crucifix painted for the Dominicans of Santa Maria Novella in Florence and datable to around 1290. In the “tabellone” (that is the board on which the figure of Christ crucified was painted) Giotto inserted that “force of gravity” that makes the crucified body look real. Only 10 years previously, in the masterpiece of Santa Croce so damaged by the flood, Cimabue was still bound by a most elegant stylization, with the Savior’s body shaped as an “S”, all twisted to one side. With Giotto instead, Bellosi writes, “for the first time in painting [one finds] the shapes and the positions of a real human body...; the pain and death are no longer translated into a heraldic shape”.
In those same years a novelty of similar scale became clear in the great work-site of Assisi. In the upper register, the one devoted to Old Testament stories, at the height of the third span, a true revolution took place. In the two squares depicting Isaac’s blessing of Jacob and Isaac rejecting Esau even the daily working technique changed completely: the fresh plaster, on which the artists had to work, used to be laid on up to then in strips, more or less of the height of a person. The new master who had taken charge of the enterprise saw to it instead that the plaster was laid on following a less mechanical principle: the plaster followed the painting foreseen for the working day, nearly always corresponding to single figures. Substantially the work-site adapted to the needs of a master who had a completely different mode of progressing than his precursors. Moreover, the two three-by-three meter squares show a new constructive coherence. The scene is set in the same room, with the protagonist, Isaac, in the identical position: lying on his bed on the eve of his death. Bellosi emphasizes an analogy with the Santa Maria Novella crucifix: in that case also the absolute novelty lies in the unification of the light source. Here it comes from the left and, because it gives solidity to the bodies, it creates an effect of the real. For the first time also the space is a real space, the distance that separates the two posts supporting the red canopy of the bed can even be measured. In short, for the first time we have the feeling of being in a place, perfectly real and circumscribed, in which the figures “seem living”, just as happened to Dante in Canto twelve of the Purgatorio looking at the bas-reliefs depicting the vicissitudes of the arrogant. “The living seemed living”: the figure of Jacob particularly so, with his rigid stare, as if fixed on hypnotizing his father and hiding his deceit.
The two squares that determine the shift in the Assisi work-site, are in no way accidental, but certainly had strategic importance in the iconographic scheme. The old Isaac in fact is shown with eyes dimmed with trachoma, which was the very problem that plagued Francis in the last period of his life on earth. In the second place, they are a reflection on the theme of succession that in those years was causing a split in the Franciscan movement. Finally they are placed precisely over a key scene in the stories of Francis (frescoed in the lower register), that is that of the Approbation of the Rule by Innocent III.
<I>Pope Innocent III approves the Rule</I>. An episode of the Franciscan Stories of Giotto, Upper Basilica Assisi

Pope Innocent III approves the Rule. An episode of the Franciscan Stories of Giotto, Upper Basilica Assisi

All these are features on which historians and critics have poured out rivers of ink. Bellosi’s approach instead is more immediate and more intuitive, just in the manner of the great, insightful Roberto Longhi. And faced with the thousand doubts raised on the real authorship of these Stories of Isaac, he proceeds by visual parallels that have the invincible efficacy of simple things. For example, he sets the space of the two Biblical squares alongside that of Pentecost frescoed in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. The framing of the two settings is constructed in an altogether analogous fashion, with the long side opened towards the spectator and the short vanishing to the right. But while in Assisi the artist still had to pay a small debt to his immaturity, in Padua he resolved the problem of the podium in the foreground, no longer frontal, but shifted slightly enough to respect the sense of perspective.
The change that Giotto made was a change that began precisely from a revolution in the representation of space. His space is irreducibly real; a true space, that also makes real the happenings depicted there. A space that, as Longhi wrote, “frames perspectively and puts deeply on show within the window frame”. Giotto accomplished a sort of break-through, that an eye not too dimmed by critical sophistry can hardly fail to grasp. What Bellosi manages as he goes through the Assisi cycle is to clear the gaze and try to identify the simplicity of what is new in Giotto. For Cimabue and the others who had preceded him, including the great Rome artists employed on the Assisi work-site, the surface to be painted was two-dimensional. In those two dimensions they exercised all their urge as creators and the grace of which they were capable. Giotto instead clamorously opened a third dimension, as can be deduced from the coffered ceiling that encases the many stories of Francis to which he gives exceptional depth. He saw to it that they “break through” the wall assigned to them. The analogy between this space and that of the two Stories of Isaac is undeniable. And for Bellosi that certifies that it was one single artist who brought the great novelty to the Assisi work-site. And that artist can be no other than the one who approximately ten years later was to bring that insight to maturity on the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel.
Of course Giotto’s greatness lies in having opened wide that space not out of intellectual calculation but out of poetic intuition. Or better, urged by a need: that of making “the living seem living”. It was his sense of the objectivity of happening that led him to take such an innovative step and one so much commensurate with reality.


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