Realism and revelation. Giotto's beautiful frescoes blaze with light and drama

WHEN approached by the Pope's agent for a sample of his work, the artist Giotto paused and drew a circle - a perfect circle. At a time when artists were treated more like craftsmen than creators and were utterly dependent on patrons, Giotto sent the Pope an audacious but unmistakable message: ``I'm your man.'' With the other Florentine individualists Dante and Machiavelli, Giotto flourished at a time of great upheaval - artistic, religious, political. As George Holmes shows in Florence, Rome, and the Origins of the Renaissance (Oxford University Press; US paperback edition due out in the fall), the city-state of Florence was the scene of constant strife between powerful families. Furthermore, family vendetta was linked there to rivalry in international commerce.

And yet, he concludes, ``Around the artists, cruelty, intensity of passion and high civilization coexisted in a manner that is not found in more settled societies.'' Holmes's intention is to show how, surrounded by such turmoil, great art was possible. Giotto's work exhibits the ``fruitful combination'' of religious emotion - Florence witnessed a variety of expressions of religious enthusiasm - and a new visual realism based on the observation of classical models.

Holmes provides the contexts for Giotto's images. For the images themselves, we turn to Jacqueline and Maurice Guillaud, authors of Giotto: Architect of Color and Form (Clarkson N. Potter, distributed by Crown Books). Their publishing effort follows their failure to create a new type of museum in Paris. Having closed the doors of their Centre Culturel du Marais in 1985, and hoping, later this year, to open the Paris-USA Center for the Arts in Manhattan, the Guillauds have thus far published books on Fra Angelico, Rembrandt, Matisse, Goya, and now Giotto.

The Guillauds are innovators. Instead of high gloss paper, they use a special onionskin paper that captures the chalky, dry, yet highly luminous quality of Italian Renaissance fresco. The paper is so thin that only one side can be printed on; it also takes more time for each press run. Costs of materials and production are reflected in the price of ``Giotto,'' which is $100.

At first one doesn't ``read through'' this book of multi-format reproductions of Giotto's life of Jesus from the Arena Chapel in Padua. One sits down and opens it at random and stares at the images, getting up to close the window to keep the onionskin paper flat.

Giotto's carefully restricted color range blazes with light. His solid, fleshly shapes reveal the ultimate human drama against the dreamlike gem colors of vestment and sky. Eyes speak. Hands punctuate. The torsion from waist to shoulder sings. The gap between huddled bodies and an isolated individual, not to mention the bias of buildings against the picture plane - every inch of wall is expressive, and all urge one thing: Ecce homo, behold the man!

No wonder historians write of Giotto's drama! And Moshe Barasch of Hebrew University, Jerusalem, has just published Giotto and the Language of Gesture (Cambridge University Press), an eloquent, first-of-its-kind study of the body language in Giotto's figures.

Giotto's drama is played out on the walls of the Arena Chapel at Padua, a modest, barrel-vaulted rectangle where everything seems planned for painting. As John White observes in The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space (Harvard University Press, now in paperback), ``Without the painter there is nothing but the inarticulate, bare wall.''

``The painter'' covered the bare walls with 41 supremely economical scenes out of the story of Jesus - from Joachim and Anna (Mary's parents) to Pentecost. Crowded with highly individualzed figures and buildings, these pictures tell the story from the spectators' point of view, as it were. White's detailed analysis demonstrates how Giotto achieved this effect.

By means of ``oblique construction,'' Giotto set his frequent buildings against the flat picture plane, thus creating an illusion of space within the scene. Furthermore, each scene has its own viewpoint, adapted to that of the spectator standing in the middle of the chapel.

Some historians try to explain Giotto's emotional intensity as a function of the papacy's desire to corner the market created by a growing, ever restless body of lay Christians.

Holmes notes that though ``divine intervention ... is shown graphically in the very beautiful heavenly scene of God, enthroned above a crowd of angels against a blue sky, there is no emphasis on the sacramental implications of the Passion or the Eucharist. The story is about dramatic events, the interplay of personalities and the dominating power of Jesus.''

But this is more than a ``humanized'' gospel. Whether entering the cool chapel on a hot day in Padua or turning over the pages of the Guillauds' book, one suddenly sees that Giotto's realism finds its sanction in revelation. This great work of realism is, after all, the story of Jesus, the son of God.

Giotto matters. How he bridges lives and cultures and centuries is suggested by a story Vasari tells in his life of Giotto published in 1550. Vasari notes that in his will, the great humanist Francesco Petrarch (1304-74) saved for the Lord of Padua, Signor Francesco de Carrara, ``the only thing I have that is worthy of him'' - a picture by Giotto. ``Its beauty is incomprehensible to laymen, yet it astounds professional artists,'' explained Petrarch.

Indeed, learning more and more about these paintings, we move from incomprehension to astonishment and grasp the truth of White's statement that ``every element in Giotto's spare and economical design is fraught with meaning both for mind and eye.'' The meaning is inseparable from the story, the story from Giotto's sense of history. In Giotto's narrative of Jesus, we feel once again the force of the pun equating history and his story.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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