Giotto, Donatello, and Duccio: The Greats

by Dave

You may not know the names of these great artists, but you would recognize their work. They were all a significant part of the early Renaissance. This article discusses three scholarly writings on these artists. Read on to learn more about these Renaissance greats.

Giotto, Donatello, and Duccio have many stylistic differences, but their fame in the early Renaissance and beyond connects them. Giotto, Donatello, and Duccio especially each have a significant work, or multiple, that put them on the early Renaissance “map”.

Hayden Maginnis: “In Search of an Artist”

In the excerpts of “In Search of an Artist”,  Hayden Maginnis presents the situation of the “Giotto-not Giotto” problem. She argues her case: that Giotto was not the Isaac Master, but was influenced by the Roman artists. She also argues he underwent changes through his career which are evident in the varying styles in the Arena Chapel. Also that his dynamic workshop was more complex than originally thought. It involved several independent artists and creating the conflicting styles of the panel pictures, including the Ognissanti Madonna.

Maginnis argues that Giotto did paint the Arena, Bardi, and Peruzzi Chapels. Also he did not paint the Infancy Cycle in the Assisi Church. She argues that the early work at Assisi is still indeterminate because it predates the definitive work at Arena.

Giotto’s Legacy

As one of the most famous artists in the time and place. This is due in part to the lack of records at the time. Also because of the writings of historians like Vasari who praised his work with naturalism above all others. The problem arises with conflicting reports from the historians. Many of whom lived later than the people they are writing about, and so are not primary sources. An example Maginnis gives is that Ghiberti gave Giotto credit for the Assisi Church (as the Isaac Master?). Also he gave credit for the Arena Chapel, while Vasari only gave Giotto credit for Arena.

This problem is particularly relevant to those historians because they revered naturalism, as a way to connect with antiquity. So Giotto’s more 3-D forms and brilliant use of architecture became the paragon of naturalism.

Historians continued these ideas when they rejuvenated reverence of antiquity in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The example Maginnis gave was of Berenson adding to Giotto’s list of works in 1896. Vasari did something similar not long after Giotto actually lived. In fact many of these added works did not fit in with Giotto’s style at any part of his known life, and some were quite bad.

Diana Norman: “A noble panel: Duccio’s Maestà”

Duccio’s Maestà is an altarpiece dating to the early Trecento. It was first placed above the altar of the Duomo in Siena. Authorities hailed it as an excellent work and a source of civic pride. However people did not treat it as well throughout the years. An unknown person cut it in half to separate the back and the front, tore it into strips, and separated it from its frame. We have lost some of the panels and pieces forever. However, even as it exists today, historians have called the Maestà “the most complex altarpiece to be created in Italy”.

In this excerpt, Norman tests that claim by focusing on features of the surviving work, methods used to create it, the organizational skill of the narrative. He considers the placement of the work as an altarpiece. Norman examines many past arguments and the evidence to support or oppose them. This excerpt will present various ways in which the Maestà fulfilled its original function as an icon.

The audacity of attempting such a project is shown in comparison to other altarpieces. While some are polyptychs, none are multi-tiered, have the ambitious Gothic pinnacles of the Maestà, or were double-sided. Many altarpieces had been done before with some of these characteristics, but not with all of them at once.

Duccio’s Style and Legacy

Look at stylistic differences and at the daunting number of panels. We can see that an entire workshop would have painted the Maestà. Norman presents this with the side by side characterization of two panels of The Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin on the front face of the Maestà.

Norman presents two contradictory arguments of attempts made to make organizational sense of the discrepancies in style. Stubblebine argues for dividing up the panels and attributing groups of them to specific artists. He would include well known painters Simone Martini, Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Signia di Bonaventura, and Ugolino di Nerio, as well as unnamed others.

White, however, argues that collaboration in the workshop was too close-knit to have parcelled out entire panels to separate people. Instead Norman argues the manager of the entire Maestà was Duccio. He attributes the influence of many unnamed painters to each panel and image. This would mean that the entire workshop is working together as one. They would move top to bottom together, learning on the way, which would account for the stylistic differences.

The Impression Duccio Left on the Maestà

The collaboration also seems to have extended to choosing the scenes; the Bishopry of Siena undoubtedly involved themselves in such a prestigious (and expensive) work. The artists organized the Maestà elaborately but also added continuity to the narrative. The front face included many works about the Virgin Mary, as it should, being the altarpiece to St. Maria Cathedral in Siena, a city dedicated to the Virgin. The back face showed a greater number of smaller scenes depicted the life of Christ.

We can see the influence of the Maestà in the imitations made of it: from local watered down copies to the altarpiece for St. Peter’s in Rome. However none of these copies were ever as complex as the original. Norman then presents the continuous portrayal of the Temple of Jerusalem and the cityscape the appear throughout the entire work as Sienese as a way for the devotional image to reach out and capture the viewers in a way characteristic of icons.

Bergstein: “Donatello’s Gattamelata and its Humanist Audience”

In this article, Bergstein argues that Greek, Roman, and Humanist visual and literaly sources influenced Donatello. She argues Donatello’s work in Padua shows this influence. Bergstein mentions the statue Gattamelata.

Donatello’s workshop built this large equestian statue among a suspected amalgam of influential artists. This included prominent humanists, like Ciriaco d’Ancona and even Leon Battista Alberti. The latter’s treatise on horses, if this theory is correct, takes on a new light in terms of its connection to Donatello’s equestrian statue.

The themes of this statue are victory and commemoration. As this statue was commissioned after the death of Erasmo da Narni, called Gattamelata, and paid for with contributions from his widow and nephew, the sense of commemoration of a celebrated general of Venice makes sense. The iconography of the statue is reminiscent of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, which leads to the idea of victory. All of the smaller decoration of the armor, of which there is many, alludes to Julius Caesar and, Bergstein argues, the Athenian horses on the Parthenon.  

Giotto’s Legacy in Donatello’s Work

During this time, more and more of the ancient Greek texts about art were being translated, which added importance to any monuments that were transported over to Italy. Donatello admired and collected such artifacts, he aquired many of them from humanists like Andreolo Giustiniani. An influential friend to Donatello, Ciriaco traveled to Greece during the time Donatello would have been working on the Gattamelata, from 1447 to 1453, and would have access to Donatello’s workshop.

Bergstein hypothesizes Ciriaco could have contributed drawings or wax carvings that are now lost to us. These would show us a more direct quotation of the Parthenon or similar Greek monuments to Donatello’s work. It may be as Bergstein argues, however it is unprovable, something she also states.

The small city of Padua, while conquered by Venice in 1405, cannot be overshadowed by its larger neighbor. Padua had a university while Venice did not, and many important humanists came to study there, including Leon Battista Alberti in his youth. Also, Donatello began many later projects in Padua, which increased its importance by putting it in competition for Donatello’s attention with already dominant cities like Florence.

With all of these allusions on the work, the Gattamelata includes much more than could be attributed to the life of the Gattamelata himself. Instead, Donatello adds parts of himself, and what he has taken from his friends, which in Padua at this time include many humanist scholars and collectors.