Much of Giotto’s biography and artistic development must be deduced from the evidence of surviving works (a large portion of which cannot be attributed to him with certainty) and stories that originate for the most part from the late 14th century on. The date of Giotto’s birth can be taken as either 1266/67 or 1276, and the 10 years’ difference is of fundamental importance in assessing his early development and is crucial to the problem of the attribution of the frescoes in the Church of San Francesco, in Assisi, which, if indeed by Giotto, are his great early works. It is known that Giotto died on Jan. 8, 1337 (1336, Old Style); this was recorded at the time in the Villani chronicle. About 1373, a rhymed version of the Villani chronicle was produced by Antonio Pucci, town crier of Florence and amateur poet, in which it is stated that Giotto was 70 when he died. This fact would imply that he was born in 1266/67, and it is clear that there was 14th-century authority for the statement (possibly Giotto’s original tombstone, now lost). But Giorgio Vasari, in his important biography (1550) of Giotto, gives 1276 as the year of Giotto’s birth, and it may be that he was copying one of the two known versions of the Libro di Antonio Billi, a 16th-century collection of notes on Florentine artists. In the Codex Petrei version, a statement that Giotto was born in 1276 at Vespignano, the son of a peasant, occurs at the very end of the “Life” and may have been added much later, even, conceivably, from Vasari. In any case, whether Vasari or “Antonio Billi” first made the statement, it cannot have the same authority as that attached to Antonio Pucci, who was about 27 when Giotto died. Certainty of the date of Giotto’s birth, if settled by new documents, could help to solve the problem of his work at Assisi, as well as the question of the origins of his style.
Giotto has always been assumed to have been the pupil of Cimabue; two independent traditions, each differing on the particular circumstances, assert this, and it is probably correct. Furthermore, Cimabue’s style was, in certain respects, so similar to Giotto’s in intention that a connection seems inescapable. Cimabue was the most outstanding painter in Italy at the end of the 13th century; he tried, as no artist had before, to break through, with the power of reality and imaginative force, the stylized forms of medieval art. He did not fully succeed, but it seems almost certain that Giotto began his remarkable development with him, inspired by his strength of drawing and his ability to incorporate dramatic tension into his works. On the other hand, whatever Giotto may have learned from Cimabue, it is clear that, even more than the sculptor Nicola Pisano about 30 years earlier, he succeeded in an astonishing innovation that originated in his own geniusa true revival of classical ideals and an expression in art of the new humanity that St. Francis had in the early 13th century brought to religion.
In Giotto’s works human beings are the exclusive subject matter, and they act with dedicated passion their parts in the great Christian drama of sacrifice and redemption. By comparison, all his predecessors and most of his immediate successors painted a puppet show with lifeless mannequins tricked out in the rags of the splendid, hieratic, and impersonal art of Byzantium, which was to be entirely superseded by the urgent emotionalism of the Franciscan approach to Christianity.