<i>Adoration of the Magi</i>, by Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, ca 1305; the star of Bethlehem is represented by Comet Halley (wga.hu)

Adoration of the Magi, by Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, ca 1305; the star of Bethlehem is represented by Comet Halley (wga.hu)

Giotto di Bondone

JANUARY 8, 2020

Scientist of the Day - Giotto di Bondone

Giotto di Bondone, an Italian painter, died Jan. 8, 1337. Giotto is often considered the first Renaissance artist, because of the naturalism of his figures and the depth of human expression he was able to capture and portray. He is best known for two fresco cycles, one depicting the lives of Jesus and Mary, in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua and another commemorating the life of St. Francis, in the Upper Church in Assisi (this latter attribution is disputed by some, although all agree that Giotto worked at Assisi). We include a painting from each cycle among our images here (first and second images).

One of the 41 frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel depicts the Visitation of the Magi and is well-known to historians of astronomy because of the peculiar form of the Star of Bethlehem at the top (first image). Instead of depicting a bright star, Giotto has painted what appears to be a comet above the stable. When we note that the painting was finished about 1305, the cometary form makes perfect sense, because in that year, Comet Halley (Halley’s Comet) was prominent in the evening sky, and Giotto has given us one of the very few representations we have of Comet Halley before early modern times.  It was enough to earn him a place in this history of science blog.

Giotto also made a foray into architecture, which we often showcase in this space as the essential counterpart of civil engineering.  Giotto was asked by the city fathers of Florence to design a bell tower, or campanile, for Santa Maria del Fiore, the mother church of Florence.  Giotto did so, and although only a few levels were constructed before he died in 1337, the tower was eventually completed according to his designs (third image).  It is usually referred to as Giotto’s Campanile, and it is almost as famous as the Dome (Duomo) designed and built by Filippo Brunelleschi in the 1420s (fourth image).

Since we include here one of the paintings from the St. Francis cycle at Assisi (second image), we might also comment that the naturalism of Giotto’s painting becomes even more remarkable, when one considers that he painted without the benefit of the rules of perspective, which Brunelleschi would not work out until 1415.  Giotto’s buildings may look awkward in his pictorial space, but the expressiveness and substantial forms of his human subjects make one forget that entirely.

There is a statue of Giotto in the walkway beneath the Uffizi that celebrates dozens of prominent Florentines, but we thought we would show here a detail from a painting in the Louvre that is usually called Five Famous Men (fifth image).  It used to be assigned to Paolo Uccello, but now it is ascribed to an unknown Florentine master of the 1490s.  Giotto is the first or leftmost of the five, who are all artists.  Since we have the space, we will show the complete panel as well (sixth image).  Brunelleschi is at the far right, a worthy bookend to Giotto, just like the Campanile and Dome of our fourth image.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor emeritus, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to ashworthw@umkc.edu.