Dante and Giotto, parallel lives: Stefano Zuffi's book comparing them

After Raphael and Mozart, Stefano Zuffi parallels two more artists' lives: Enrico Damiani Editore publishes "Giotto and Dante. Paradise for Two."

A new book by art historian Stefano Zuffi parallels the lives of two greats of the past: after Eternal Boys. Raphael and Mozart, Two Lives in the Mirror, the Milanese scholar for several years lent to quality popularization signs the volume Giotto and Dante. Paradise for Two, again published by Enrico Damiani Editore (188 pages, 16.00, ISBN 9788899438821), on the occasion of the seven hundredth anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s birth. This time, however, the comparison is no longer just on an ideal level, but becomes a more stringent one, since Giotto and Dante were contemporaries (born in 1267 the former, 1265 the latter), were from the same city, probably frequented the same or similar circles, and almost certainly knew each other in person.

Dante, as is well known, mentions Giotto in a famous triplet of Canto XI of the Purgatory (“Credette Cimabue ne la pittura / tener lo campo, e ora ha Giotto il grido, / sì che la fama di colui è scura”), and in turn Giotto (or one of his collaborators) includes Dante among the blessed in the line-up observed in the chapel of the Podestà in the Palazzo del Bargello, moreover the focus of a recent exhibition(Honorable and Ancient Citizen of Florence. The Bargello for Dante) that was also held on the occasion of the seven hundredth anniversary of the Supreme Poet’s death. “Contemporaries and countrymen,” Zuffi writes in the book’s introduction, “they certainly met several times, not only as young men in Florence but in all probability also in later years, in other cities, such as Padua and Ravenna; that they esteemed each other there is no doubt, between their works there is an obvious relationship; but much less likely is that they were really friends, their relationship of esteem was, if anything, moved by a certain custom and Florentine parochialism.” Their lives then crossed completely opposite fates: Dante was exiled in 1302 and spent the last years of his life far from home, in the ever-frustrated hope that he would one day return (his memory would only be rehabilitated many years later), while Giotto, on the other hand, achieved glory and honors, and while the poet wandered wandering through the courts of Italy, Giotto became the most acclaimed artist in Florence, obtaining works and commissions from the most important clients, from the Bardi and Peruzzi families to the Opera del Duomo.

Giotto e scuola giottesca, Ritratto di Dante (1334-1337; affresco; Firenze, Museo del Bargello, Cappella del Podestà)
Giotto and the Giotto School, Portrait of Dante (1334-1337; fresco; Florence, Bargello Museum, Cappella del Podestà)
La copertina del libro
The book cover

With a path divided into ten chapters, Zuffi traces similarities and differences between the personalities of Dante and Giotto (the suggestion of somehow linking the lives of these two greats goes back as far as Vasari: the Aretine historiographer had defined Dante as “his greatest friend” referring to Giotto and talking about the portrait of the poet in the Cappella del Podestà) but also between the poetry of the former and the painting of the latter, against the backdrop of a Florence, that of the mid-13th century, which was at the time one of the most populated and richest cities in Europe and was therefore fertile ground for the flowering of arts and letters. A double portrait that does not even spare the description of the temperament of the poet and the painter, going beyond mere celebration but also delving into the flaws and harshness of the characters, particularly that of Dante, whom the sources describe as a lustful man and who, despite his veneration for Beatrice, did not disdain female companionship even outside of his marriage to Gemma Donati, and then stern, sullen, touchy and proud to a fault (Zuffi also collects some anecdotes that see Dante at the center of singular episodes of wounded pride). Giotto, on the other hand, knew how to be a person of companionship, was a man with a ready wit and who could take a joke (even to the point of joking about his children), but on the other hand he was also attached to money (a defect that did not touch Dante, who on the contrary was more interested in politics, prestige and fame than money) and prone to accumulation (one of his works could be worth as much as the entire annual income of a middle-class family of the time).

Zuffi then finds other interesting connections: an entire chapter, for example, is devoted to the iconic sheep, the animal that has always been associated with Giotto (the art historian notes how, in the scene of Jacob’s banishment painted in the Scrovegni Chapel and chosen as the book’s cover, the sheep that make up Jacob’s flock are all different from each other, “and so,” Zuffi writes, will be every time Giotto paints his sheep“), which in Dante is the protagonist of a famous metaphor in the Purgatorio (”Come le pecorelle escon del chiuso / a una, a due, atre, e l’altre stanno / timidette atterrando l’occhio e ’l muso... ) but also of a passage in the Convivio in which sheep become a symbol of men who act by following others and not by reasoning for themselves. What Dante and Giotto have in common most solidly, however, is the figure of St. Francis: a further chapter is devoted to the Francis of Assisi’s Upper Basilica frescoes and to that of Dante’s Paradise. “Dante,” the author writes, "makes the life of Francis flow as if a ribbon of scenes frescoed by Giotto were being unrolled before our eyes. The point, however, of greatest closeness between Giotto and Dante is, according to Zuffi, the Scrovegni Chapel, whose frescoes were created in the same years as the Divine Comedy: “just as Dante’s individual cantos and various characters take on meaning and vigor, empowering each other within the structure of the poem, so the scenes frescoed by Giotto are chapters in a pressing and coherent visual narrative, on the same Dantean theme of man’s journey of salvation. Giotto and Dante [...] have never been so close as on the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel.” To the point that it cannot be ruled out that the two may have met in Padua. Then there is a chapter in which the hypothesis that Dante dabbled in painting is revived: from his writings emerge advanced technical skills, knowledge of the artistic circles of the time (not only Giotto and Cimabue are mentioned but also other artists, such as the miniaturist Oderisi da Gubbio, the protagonist of some verses that place him alongside another miniaturist, a “Franco Bolognese” of whom, however, we have no news), and there are some reports (Vasari says, for example, that the frescoes that decorated one of the chapels of Santa Chiara in Naples, a Franciscan church, were “as far as it is said an invention of Dante”) that indicate a very close proximity of Dante to art. Who knows, then, that he himself did not try his hand with paints and brushes, thinks the author of the book.

Similar worlds, then, worlds that touch each other: “I like to imagine (and it is really not difficult to do so),” Zuffi writes, “that the characters who populate the Divine Comedy have the appearance, the massive build, the clothes, the darting looks of those who animate Giotto’s frescoes.” But there are not only human beings: Zuffi also finds similarities in the way Giotto and Dante looked at the stars: those painted on the ceiling of the Scrovegni Chapel and those with which Dante closes all the canticles of the Divine Comedy. Dante and Giotto looked passionately at the stars, studying their influences and trying to “listen to the mystical music of the spheres rotating in the darkness of the night.” Here, according to Zuffi, one of the most important legacies of Dante and Giotto is precisely the teaching that urges us to “look up.”

Dante and Giotto, parallel lives: Stefano Zuffi's book comparing them
Dante and Giotto, parallel lives: Stefano Zuffi's book comparing them

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