Master Storyteller in Fresco

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.

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.''

It is as if Giotto were exuberantly exploiting a freshly realized potential, although he puts such experimentalism, if that is what it was, at the service of his visual storytelling and human characterization. It is not just done for some aesthetic or stylistic reason. It helps to make the depicted happenings more convincing.

Basile, who among other things is in charge of conservation of the Arena Chapel frescoes, argues that it was Giotto's understanding of Gothic sculpture and the sculpture of contemporary Nicola Pisano that led him to introduce into painting this vigorous depiction of the three-dimensionality and movements in space of figures. Giotto's figures, writes Basile, ``have consistency and weight, and to avoid any possible diminution of their three-dimensional effect, the colors are kept within a fairly even and muted register, varying only between areas in the light and those in shadow.''

This impressive volume on the Arena Chapel is the outcome of an exercise in conservation. Although cleaned and restored in 1961-64, the frescoes are still under threat from various sources - dust, damp, movement of the chapel's structure, and chemical pollutants. So between 1988 and 1991, a thorough examination was carried out, and this was recorded in minute detail.

It is the series of details, many of them actual size, that form the main body of the book and make this volume so exceptional. These details are so good that you almost feel you can touch the paint surface, and you can certainly see every surviving brushstroke. With texture, color, and expression, page after page offers an opportunity for scrutiny of chosen parts of these almost 700-year-old wall-paintings that until now has surely only been available to conservationists and flies.

SO intent are the book's publishers, however, on presenting these beautiful plates that the need for page numbers and minimal captions, or even helpful notes identifying figures, has been largely overlooked. This is both a pity and rather frustrating. But with some ingenuity, readers can find their own unaided way around these pages; and if they want merely to gaze in mute admiration at the intensity and clarity of these close-up revelations of Giotto's fresco painting, the cavil is probably minor.

``Giotto: The Scrovegni Chapel, Padua'' by Bruce Cole, the other book on the chapel published in recent months, is excellent in other ways. It is neither terribly expensive nor large and weighty. But it manages to convey with a scholarly economy the character, complexity, meaning, and continuing strong appeal of this totally decorated chapel interior.

Professor Cole describes the Arena frescoes (also known as Scrovegni Chapel frescoes) as ``one of the earliest major fresco cycles of Northern Italy.'' He describes (as does Basile) the technique of fresco, with its application of water-based paint to damp plaster, only a limited wall surface being paintable at one time, and calls it ``a very unforgiving medium.''

Giotto's particular use of fresco in this chapel, according to Cole, was part and parcel with its effectiveness as narrative drama. Giotto's ``sureness'' is evident throughout, and it is this, above all, that makes his work so intensely and immediately communicative.

Cole writes of ``the broadness, fluidity, and boldness with which each object is painted'' as the ``perfect expression of the sureness and speed required for successful fresco painting.''

The conservationist Basile points out that there are very few pentimenti - corrections - evident anywhere in these chapel paintings, another indication of Giotto's great confidence. Detail after detail shows, however, not mere confidence, but what might best be called a kind of knowing wit. This is far more than humor (though there is evidence, surely, that Giotto was not lacking in this commodity). It is an aptness of expression that can pierce straight to the viewer's inner feelings and belongs in this remarkable building to an artist who, when he decorated the chapel at the beginning of the 14th century, seems to have been at the peak of his powers.

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