Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337), an outstanding painter, sculptor and architect is recognized as the first genius of art in the Italian Renaissance. Giotto lived and worked at a time when people's minds and talents were first being freed from the shackles of medieval restraint. He painted mostly the traditional religious subjects, but he gave these subjects an earthly, full-blooded life and force. The 16th-century biographer Giorgio Vasari says of him "...He made a decisive break with the ...Byzantine style, and brought to life the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years."
Vasari also tells how Cimabue, a well-known Florentine painter, discovered Giotto's talents. Cimabue supposedly saw the 12-year-old boy sketching one of his father's sheep on a flat rock and was so impressed with his talent that he persuaded the father to let Giotto become his pupil. The earliest of Giotto's works is a series of frescoes (paintings on fresh, still wet plaster) on the life of St. Francis in the church at Assisi. In about 1305 Giotto painted a notable series of 38 frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua. The compositions are simple, the backgrounds are subordinated, and the faces are studies in emotional expression.
Vasari tells another story of how Pope Boniface VIII sent a messenger to Giotto with a request for samples of his work. Giotto dipped his brush in red and with one continuous stroke painted a perfect circle. He then assured the messenger that the worth of this sample would be recognized. When the pope saw it, he "instantly perceived that Giotto surpassed all other painters of his time."
Like other artists of his day, Giotto lacked the technical knowledge of anatomy and perspective that later painters learned. Yet what he possessed was infinitely greater than the technical skill of the artists who followed him. Giotto's figures have a completely new sense of three-dimensionality and physical presence, and in portraying the sacred events he creates a feeling of moral weight rather than divine splendor. He seems to base the representations upon personal experience, and no artist has surpassed his ability to go straight to the heart of a story and express its essence with gestures and expressions of unerring conviction. He had a grasp of human emotion and of what was significant in human life. In concentrating on these essentials he created compelling pictures of people under stress, of people caught up in crises and soul-searching decisions. Modern artists often seek inspiration from Giotto. In him they find a direct approach to human experience that remains valid for every age.
Giotto is regarded as the founder of the central tradition of Western painting because his work broke free from the stylizations of Byzantine art, introducing new ideals of naturalism and creating a convincing sense of pictorial space. His achievement was recognized by his contemporaries. Dante praised him in a famous passage of The Divine Comedy, and in about 1400 Cennini wrote "Giotto translated the art of painting from Greek to Latin."