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Members' Research Report Archive

What's in a Name? Giotto di Bondone

Julian Gardner, University of Warwick (emeritus)
Samuel H. Kress Professor, 2011–2012

Anthroponymy, the study of names, has made impressive progress as an area of research on medieval Italy. It has been aided by remarkable documentary survivals but has neglected the abundant surviving visual evidence, which clarifies the seismic changes that transformed the Italian onomastic repertory. Names are more than merely whispers from the past. The monuments may be mute, but the pictures continue to speak to us if we learn how to listen.

Many thirteenth-century artists possessed augurative names: Giunta (Bonagiunta) Pisano (act. 1236–1254), Dietisalvi di Speme (act. 1250–1291), or Deodato Orlandi (c. 1280–1331). The patronymics of Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1255–1318) and Giotto di Bondone (c. 1267–1337) are augurative. In thirteenth-century Tuscany most male names were auguratives, including Bencivenni, Benvenuto, and Bonaccurso; the commonest Sienese name was Bonaventura. Women’s names tended to denote appearance—for instance, Belriso or Belcolore. (As Aquinas remarked, “Names are always imposed because of some quality of the person to whom the name is given.”)

The Libro de Montaperti, which lists Florentine combatants at the battle against Siena in September 1260, records an overwhelming majority of male artisan names. Two important Florentine painters appear: Coppo di Marcovaldo (c. 1225–1274) and Meliore (c. 1260–1280). Coppo painted a Madonna for the Sienese Servites in 1261; Meliore signed and dated the polyptych Christ and Four Saints in 1271. Marcovaldo derives from the aristocratic Germanic Marcoald, while Coppo is a hypocoristic of Jacobus.

Francis (Francesco) was a new saint with a nickname prompted by his draper father’s activity in France. The name Dominic was rare in Tuscany and clearly linked to names like Sabbatinus. The Dominican General Chapter of 1250 encouraged church dedications in honor of Dominic, and in 1253, the year of Peter Martyr’s canonization, Dominicans were enjoined to press for his insertion into the calendars of cities and dioceses where the order was established. As saints’ names became predominant, the vigorous thirteenth-century sprawl of names markedly contracted.

Naming changes coincided with the development of altarpieces. The new high altarpieces resembled Gothic church elevations, often more advanced than their architectural settings. The community of saints now inhabited a Gothic building. A libellus describing church or altar dedications became a ubiquitous requirement of thirteenth-century synodalia. Equally important, new church dedications required new images to identify the titulus of the high altar. Onomastic change gradually impinged on chapel dedications as well. Private chapels punctuated an increasingly fissiparous sacred space, and they required saints’ dedications. Polyptychs within family chapels became machines for genealogical mnemonics. By about 1330 names of papally canonized saints preponderated and were increasingly reflected in altarpiece programs.

The forenames of Giotto’s followers—Taddeo Gaddi, Bernardo Daddi, and Maso di Banco—reflect these onomastic trends. (Maso is a hypocoristic for Tommaso.) Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti have apostolic forenames, while their surnames possess a saintly substratum.

The second strand of my research at CASVA was the painting of Giotto. What are the present-day problems confronting research on Giotto? In brief, structure, chronology, and patronage. The earlier, predominantly stylistic approaches continue to ship water. Difficulties with the traditional attribution (and dating) of the Legend of Saint Francis in San Francesco at Assisi, symptomatic of growing unease with this approach, have stimulated a more comprehensive and flexible understanding of workshop procedures. The Legend was painted by several workshops with startlingly diverse painting methods. Discarding this work makes sense but leaves substantial problems in localizing its original designer.

Despite the lack of surviving evidence to support any biographical approach, the Vasarian model remains dominant. Giotto’s painting career, which probably exceeded forty years, is not regularly signposted. The Arena Chapel is demonstrably early; the Bardi Chapel and the frescoes in the Lower Church at Assisi can be dated to c. 1316–1319; and the Bologna and Baroncelli polyptychs were painted in the last decade of Giotto’s life. The dates of the Badia Altarpiece and the Ognissanti Madonna are uncertain, but likely to be close in date to the Arena Chapel. The interstices between these groups preclude framing an overarching stylistic development.

Growing understanding of Giotto’s patrons complicates the picture. The Franciscan Order of about 1300 regarded its founder as a historic figure; he would barely have recognized the order he founded, now the preserve of university graduates and of priests rather than the laymen who initially flocked to him. The dominant conventual faction harshly persecuted a spiritual wing, which strove to return to Francis’ original rule. The conventuals commissioned the complex allegory for the crossing of the Lower Church. The spirituals bitterly criticized these gaudy, painted decorations to which Giotto contributed with his Pisa Stigmatization and the Bardi cycle in Santa Croce. One of Giotto’s institutional patrons, the papacy, changed fundamentally in his lifetime. Boniface VIII (r. 1294–1303) ruled a church immemorially based in Rome; John XXII (r. 1316–1334), a Gascon canonist who never visited Italy, was determined to bring the Franciscan Order to heel. Thus if Giotto executed either the Navicella mosaic or the Stefaneschi altarpiece after 1305, as some claim, they would have been for a city deserted by the popes. Achieving a better understanding of Giotto’s patrons is thus an urgent task.

Center 32 (includes image not shown here)

Italian, 1265 - 1337