Giotto & The Perfect O

This is from Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, and is one of my favourite snippets. It concerns Giotto (c.1267-1337), one of the first great Italian artists of the Renaissance.

Giotto won such reputation in Pisa and beyond that Pope Benedict IX, who was intending to have some paintings commissioned for St Peter’s, sent one of his courtiers from Trevisi to Tuscany to find out what sort of man Giotto was and what his work was like. On his way to see Giotto and to see whether there were other masters in Florence who could do skilful work in paintings and mosaic, this courtier spoke to many artists in Siena. He took some of their drawings and then went to Florence itself, where one day he arrived at Giotto’s workshop to find the artist at work. The courtier told Giotto what the Pope had in mind and the way in which he wanted to make use of his services, and, finally, he asked Giotto for a drawing which he could send to his holiness. At this, Giotto, who was a very courteous man, took a sheet of paper and a brush dipped in red, closed his arm to his side, so as to make a sort of compass of it, and then with a twist of his hand drew such a perfect circle that it was a marvel to see. Then, with a smile, he said to the courtier: ‘There’s your drawing.’ As if he were being ridiculed, the courtier replied: ‘Is this the only drawing I am to have?’ ‘It’s more than enough,’ answered Giotto. ‘Send it along with the others, and you’ll see whether it’s understood or not.’

The Pope’s messenger, seeing that was all he was going to get, went away very dissatisfied, convinced he had been made a fool of. All the same when he sent the Pope the other drawings and the names of those who had done them, he also sent the one by Giotto, explaining the way Giotto had drawn the circle without moving his arm and without the help of a compass… So the Pope sent for Giotto to come to Rome, where he recognised and honoured his genius, and commissioned from him five scenes from the Life of Christ for the apse of St Peter’s, as well as the principle work for the sacristy. Giotto executed these so painstakingly that they were the most finished work in tempera ever to have left his hands. The Pope, realising how well he had been served, had Giotto given as a reward six hundred gold ducats, and did him so many other favours besides that it was talked about through all Italy.


  • October 30, 2009 - 11:57 am | Permalink

    Guggenheim, who famously wore one earring designed by Tanguy and another earring by Alexander Calder to the opening of her New York gallery (Art of This Century, in 1942) to show her equal support for both surrealism & avant garde.

  • October 29, 2009 - 10:41 pm | Permalink

    I’m trying to work out the modern corollary. Maybe Peggy Guggenheim (or Herbert Read) without the readies, but with an abundance of words.

  • October 28, 2009 - 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Exactly. What I find interesting about Vasari is his blurring of history & art with his own contemporaneous interests. His motivation for particular stories or works of art says as much about him as author as it does about the history of art and artists he seeks to interrogate.

  • October 27, 2009 - 3:59 pm | Permalink

    Great story. On a par with the story (which you’ve probably heard) about Vasari’s bigging up (technical term) of the Mona Lisa. “Una sorrisa indimenticabile”, he raved, which of course stuck and was the root of much of the painting’s subsequent fame. The punchline is that most historians think it unlikely that he ever saw it.

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