Well, on this Giotto’s portrait (left) the author of “Divine Comedy” looks … truly divine. This proud profile of a good-looking, wealthy young man compromises strangely the feminine delicacy with a will and mind power of a genius poet, who was about to – like no one else before or after him – lead his mesmerized readers through the magical circles of Inferno, Purgatory and Paradiso – these three ultimate universes, each human being is likely to experience on different stages of his/her life.
There was only two years gap between them – the painter and the poet, they shared their beloved Florentine sky, yet Giotto (1267-1337) was lucky not to finish as he had started – shepherding his father’s flocks, while Dante (1265-1321) went through all the adventures of a young patrician – contracted marriage, madly-divine ‘courtly’ love (not for the wife) and an ill-fated involvement in a political conflict – all most probably before these two met and the fresco portrait was painted in Bargello Chapel in Florence. And this may be the only image of him having been painted on his land of birth – the story afterwards goes, as most of us know, sadly for the poet – he was banished from Florence for the lifetime – the fate he considered as a form of death, though he had opportunities to redeem himself from it (he refused to pay fines as a sort of ‘bribe’ for his return, for he believed to be innocent in the first place). Traveling around Europe and painting in words – in a language not heard before (his Italian is considered as the most perfect/standard form till now) – scenes of both – angelic beauty and tenderness and these of darkness so deep and real, that only maybe Bosh’s imagination could have rivaled in horror – he must have thought sometimes about that unfinished portrait of him, left behind in the paradise lost.
And Giotto? He remained in Florence leaving it only to execute the prestigious commissions, like that from Padua which became his opus magnum. Between 1303 and 1310 he decorated (in frescos) Scrovegni Chapel there (called also Arena Chapel, since it localization is believed to be on the site of the Roman arena). What was and is still so fascinating about the works there, is not that easy to spot for the modern eyes. One has to keep in mind the exact historic and cultural context in mind – that was an era of iconic representations where humans portrayed looked like being ashamed of their own flesh, their terrestrial roots. Balancing somewhere between the pale perfectness of angels and gods and the heroic mysticism of saints, they hardly ever touched the ground with their feet (think about Byzantine models)… Then, let’s look at the Lamentation from the Cappella degni Scrovegni (below): the place is real, we can hear the sand and rocks being replaced by the figures, and – what really matters – the emotions are real – and how powerfully real! – we’ve got the black rainbow of pain, anguish, disbelief, grief… even angels above abandon themselves in expressing their deep sorrow… How Dante would put it? (Canto III, Inferno):
Strange utterances, horrible pronouncements, accents of anger, words of suffering, and voices shrill and faint, and beating hands-all went to make tumult that will whirl forever through that turbid, timeless air, like sand that eddies when a whirlwind swirls.
There was something really exciting going on in peoples’ minds and hearts just at the dawn of 14th century (nota bene – Dante is believed to write the first books of Divine Comedy just around 1303-1310, that would match perfectly, time-wise, Giotto’s efforts in the chapel…) They were recognizing their humanity in its purely emotional, individualistic expression, not being particularly shy or frightened of exploring the more dark, gothic, sinister sides of their identity. There is something glorious about Giotto’s figures – despite their fully dimensional and convincing fleshiness and humanness, they also exist in another dimension – there is an incredible concentration/intensity in their eyes, mimics – you can experience something similar watching couples with so-called chemistry between them. Giotto’s gods, saints and ‘ordinary’ mortals have that chemistry – not necessary sexual but, I would say – existential/spiritual energy and tension – like a string between souls fully stretched, the magic of an existence after it has been struck by a bolt of a discovery, that there are other worlds, entire universes of beings and things so similar, yet so different, so familiar yet so alien, so painful yet so sublime…
Let’s finish with Dante for, unsurprisingly, his voice signs in words what Giotto was trying to convey in images:
But then my mind was struck by light that flashed and, with this light, received what it had asked. Here force failed my high fantasy; but my desire and will were moved already – like a wheel revolving uniformly – by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars. (Paradiso, Conclusion)