The city people, in the end, were tired of struggles. It happened then that a merchant — or a banker or a nobleman — richer and more powerful than the others, allied himself with the small people, after promising better conditions of life, and became master of the city. In this way the Municipalities were transformed into Lordships. Citizens no longer chose their leaders.
It is not easy to be free, the citizens of the Municipalities tried to do it from 1200 to 1400 AD, but their attempts resulted in a failure. However, during these turbulent centuries, some great Italians stood out for their spirit and their works.
One of these was Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337). Even today the walls of some churches in Florence, Assisi and Padua are covered with paintings that tell the life of St. Francis and Jesus. They are all paintings by Giotto or, at least, it is thought that they are or that he contributed considerably. The restoration of the crucifix of the Opificio delle Pietre dure in 2001 seems to have dispelled all doubts.
If the cycle of San Francesco is uncertain, it is certainly the splendid Scrovegni chapel in Padua.
Who does not remember the Giotto brand drawing albums sold in the 60s? Giotto is portrayed on the cover, while drawing a sheep on a stone, observed by Cimabue who, according to legend, thus became his master. It also seems that the Tuscan painter knew how to draw an O without compass, and that he painted a fly so realistic that Cimabue tried to chase it away.
Legends aside, Giotto modernizes painting, abandons the still images and golds of Byzantine art, recovering contact with reality and nature. The figures are no longer flat but become concrete, surpassing those of Cimabue. This leaves behind the “Greek” conventions, followed until a few years earlier by Cimabue and all the other painters. Dante Alighieri writes:
Credette Cimabue ne la pittura
tener lo campo, e ora ha Giotto il grido,
sì che la fama di colui è scura. (Purgatorio Canto XI)
Giotto’s Christ is no longer a Byzantine icon but a crucified man, with blood flowing from his side. Giotto, in fact, abandoned the iconography of the Jesus arched to the left, with the halo still similar to that of the Pantocrator, to paint it with the figure sinking downwards and the head forward, with the arms no longer parallel to the ground but flexed by weight and suffering. We move from a merely spiritual and mystical image to a more concrete one, from centuries drenched in faith and a search for transcendence — from the upward push given by Gothic architecture — to a period in which man, his figure and its carnality, will be central. There is even a hint of light that, over time, will take us to Caravaggio.
This is how we move slowly but surely from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.