Inside the Scrovegni Chapel with Roberto Longhi: the spacious Giotto and his choruses

We are going to discover Giotto's ability to represent space ... in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, and with Roberto Longhi :-)

One of the big problems we face if we decide to visit the Scrovegni Chapel is theshort time we are allowed to visit: just a quarter of an hour. Our Ilaria had already told you about this in an article in her column Museums of Italy. So, since our time is so short, it is difficult, alas, to dwell on every single fresco that Giotto ’s genius left in the chapel. So in this post we want to focus on a single detail: the two coretti, the two painted windows on either side of the triumphal arch. To be clear, when we enter, we see them if we turn immediately to the left.

The triumphal arch of the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
The triumphal arch of the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua. Giotto’s frescoes were executed between 1303 and 1305.

Our friend Grazia Agostini had already spoken beautifully about the two choruses in her blog Senza Dicasta describing “Giotto’s window,” “the novelty of an artist who discovers that painting can depict what the eye sees, without worrying about subjects, symbols or sacred figures, without telling a story,” to describe in her words the meaning of this depiction. And yes, because it must be said that many scholars have labored to find a meaning for what was thought to be an allegory, but which is actually nothing allegorical, and in a moment we will see why. So: in addition to Grace, we want to call in another guide to take us inside these two details of Giotto’s frescoes: Roberto Longhi, one of the greatest art historians of the twentieth century, who based on Giotto’s two choretti a fundamental essay of 1952, Giotto spazioso, first published in Paragone magazine (in issue 131, from page 18 to page 24) and later republished in several collections of Longhi essays, such as “Judgment on the Thirteenth Century” and Research on the Fourteenth Century in Central Italy.

Meanwhile, let us try to understand what these two “coretti” are. Here is how Roberto Longhi describes them: “two Gothic compartments, of which, sheltered as they are by a rectangular slab parapet, we see only the top of the walls in mirrors squared with mixed marble, the Gothic ribbed vault from the key of which hangs a caged iron lampstand with its vials of oil, and the narrow and long mullioned window, open on the celo. Figures, none.” The two cores are those openings, those windows that, as mentioned earlier, we notice on either side of the triumphal arch. They are the first two panes that we see at the height of the lowest band of frescoes on the side walls. It seems that Giotto wanted to open up the arch that leads us to the altar to let us see something that lies beyond this space: so here are two small chapels covered by cross vaults, with Gothic ribs from the intersection of which an iron chandelier hangs, and on the walls of which we see two mullioned windows beyond which we catch a glimpse of the blue sky. To continue with Longhi’s words, Giotto has done no more than add “two secret little chapels whose base, given the height of the vaults, may well be on the very plane of the floor of the major chapel; and which can therefore be imagined to be entered from the presbytery itself.”

The two choirboys of the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
The two choruses in the Scrovegni Chapel

This is a revolutionary innovation. So revolutionary that in his Giotto spazioso, Longhi immediately declares himself surprised that art historians before him have not devoted sufficient attention to the two choretti, a term whose “invention” is attributed by the scholar to another art historian, Giuseppe Fiocco. And to understand the extent of the novelty, we can still use a definition Longhi gives of the two choretti: “optical deceptions.” In fact, Giotto, according to Roberto Longhi, shows a precocious interest in perspective, the technique for representing objects in space on a two-dimensional plane, such as can be a canvas or a wall. And we say “precocious” because of the fact that, as is well known, interest in perspective will become “systematic,” so to speak, only in the 15th century. The highest example of such Giottesque passion are precisely these two choretti in the Scrovegni Chapel: “Giotto was thus fully aware of perspective.” What, to be precise, was the operation accomplished by Giotto? Longhi’s words come to our aid again: “For those who now stand in the center of the floor of the chapel, that is, in the most suitable place to embrace with a single glance the wall in which the apse opens, it becomes immediately clear, palpable, sensitive to the illusion that the two false compartments ’pierce’ the wall, aiming to intervene in the very architecture of the sacellum. To the effect of veridical illusion the two Gothic vaults concur, contributing to a single center that is on the axis of the church, that is, in the ’real’, existential depth of the apse; the internal light that, starting from the center, spreads inversely in the two compartments, even on the mullions and jambs of the two mullioned windows, concurs; the external light of heaven that fills the opening of the mullioned windows themselves concurs.”

Longhi identifies three fundamental moments in the success of Giotto’s illusion. The first: the imaginary lines that furrow the cores in depth converge toward what scientific perspective would have codified as the vanishing point, which here is unique and is positioned in the center of the arch, in real space. The second: the light inside the chapel, which reflecting above the two chorettes makes them appear more truthful. The third: the light of the painted sky beyond the mullioned windows, which seems real. Longhi says that we can almost imagine the swallows flying across it, that sky beyond the windows. In short: we are faced with an illusionistic experiment and, says Grazia Agostini, “for the first time, in Western art, there is a space without figures,” “where the outside world bursts in, for the first time.”

If we look at the Chapel’s frescoes, we can see that Giotto applied this intuitive perspective of his only to architectures without figures. And Longhi also tries to ask why, and to give himself the answer: for the simple fact that Giotto probably considered these illusionistic devices necessary only where spaces that could be real were to be represented. In the sense that beyond the triumphal arch there really could have been two secret chapels. Which, on the other hand, was not possible for the architecture of the sacred scenes, which were therefore not meant to represent real spaces, but rather memories of spaces, as Longhi says. Giotto wants, in short, to explore the potential of painting in the representation of real space, and he is the first painter to have this intuition: we can therefore understand why these two choruses have no allegorical meaning.

And because of this we can also guess, in addition to the enormous novelty brought by Giotto with this detail of his, what will be the considerable influence that will be exerted on subsequent generations of painters, starting with all those who worked in the Paduan area. For Longhi, here, in the Scrovegni Chapel, “it is truly licit to speak of perspective in toto”: we are not yet, of course, at the scientific and mathematical perspective that will come in the 15th century, but it is enough to speak of a Giotto who has a vast knowledge, albeit intuitive, of the rules underlying the representation of space: of a spacious Giotto, therefore, and here is the sense of the title of Roberto Longhi’s essay.

What, has a quarter of an hour passed already? Well... we stopped to admire the two choruses, took up Roberto Longhi’s words, tried to understand them, got caught up in Giotto’s windows again... and the time flew by, it couldn’t have been otherwise. Anyway, no problem: we will be back ;-)

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