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Master Storyteller in Fresco

By Christopher Andreae / January 19, 1994

GIOTTO: THE ARENA CHAPEL FRESCOES Edited by Giuseppe Basile Thames and Hudson 308 pp., $100, $55 in British pounds. GIOTTO: THE SCROVEGNI CHAPEL, PADUA By Bruce Cole George Braziller 120 pp., $22.50, $15.95 in British pounds.

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THE Italian painter Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1266-1337) is considered one of the great originals in the history of art.

It is perhaps no longer thought that he sprang like a phoenix out of the ashes of the benighted Middle Ages. Or that he single-handedly revived in painting the naturalism and classicalism, lost since ancient times, that were to become distinguishing features of the Renaissance. He is still seen as one of those artists whose work radically altered the course of art.

Other heroic figures of the Renaissance, like Masaccio and, later, Michelangelo, looked back at Giotto's work not only with admiration but also with a clear need to learn from it as one of the necessary foundations of their own originality. The young Michelangelo made drawings of some of Giotto's figures, studying their expressive containment of strong emotion and drama.

To art historians of today, Giotto's work still appears to represent a decisive turning point because it has so many features that differ radically from any precedent that the artist might have known. Above all, he turned away from the typical characteristics of Byzantine church art, with its rather flat figures standing like symbolic icons, and depicted not just significant events for the edification of worshippers, but also invested these sacred occurrences with astonishing and very human sympathy.

Giotto's viewers were made to observe his imagery and to feel and witness crucial moments in a narrative as if they were bystanders, themselves actually present, watching the reactions - the awe, penitence, disbelief, betrayal, joy, amazement, grief, or quiet dignity - of the people who took part in such events as the virgin birth of Jesus, his entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, or his resurrection.

Giotto's cycle of wall-paintings in the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy - his major work and the only example of his painting that nobody has ever questioned as his - acts on viewers to this day not as reminders of doctrine, ecclesiastical propaganda, or records of historical events, but as disarmingly vivid experiences. They are quite literally ``dramatic'' in the sense that they are like tableaux from a mystery play; they not only flow from one scene to the next, but within each scene the movements of the figures are by no means frozen.

One reason they are not frozen, either kinetically or by the traditional requirements of convention, is that Giotto's figures are painted in such a way that they appear to occupy or displace three-dimensional space. Each figure, in fact, seems to have air all around it, and in its relationship to other figures and to whatever setting it is placed in, whether architecture or landscape, it possesses its own individual space to move around in.

Giotto seems to have been fascinated with the potential of this idea, which was then surprising and unusual in painting if not in sculpture. Even his flying- angel figures, frequently depicted in the blue skies of scenes, move in a great variety of different directions - forward, backward, and sideways, so that the sky is shown to be space and not flatness, and the angels themselves are convincingly rounded and relatively ``real.''

In the larger of two books recently published about the artist, ``Giotto: The Arena Chapel Frescoes,'' author and editor Giuseppe Basile points out how in the frescoes the ``human figure plays a predominant role. Bodies, and especially faces, are presented in every imaginable way: in profile, full-face, three-quarter view, from the back, from above and below.''