Italian painter and architect Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337) is today regarded as the first of the great artists of the Italian Renaissance. According to his biographer, Giorgio Vasari(1511-1574), Giotto deserted the then prevalent Byzantine style, initiating instead "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."
There is an interesting anecdote about Giotto recounted in Vasari’s bio. In Vasari's words (I have added the paragraphing):
After this he was called to Assisi by Fra Giovanni di Muro, at that time general of the order of S. Francis, and painted in fresco in the upper church thirtytwo stories from the life and deeds of S. Francis, which brought him great fame. It is no wonder therefore that Pope Benedict sent one of his courtiers into Tuscany to see what sort of a man he was and what his works were like, for the Pope was planning to have some paintings made in S Peter's.
This courtier, on his way to see Giotto and to find out what other masters of painting and mosaic there were in Florence, spoke with many masters in Sienna, and then, having received some drawings from them, he came to Florence. And one morning going into the workshop of Giotto, who was at his labours, he showed him the mind of the Pope, and at last asked him to give him a little drawing to send to his Holiness.
Giotto, who was a man of courteous manners, immediately took a sheet of paper, and with a pen dipped in red, fixing his arm firmly against his side to make a compass of it, with a turn of his hand he made a circle so perfect that it was a marvel to see it Having done it, he turned smiling to the courtier and said, "Here is the drawing." But he, thinking he was being laughed at, asked, "Am I to have no other drawing than this?" "This is enough and too much," replied Giotto, "send it with the others and see if it will be understood."
The messenger, seeing that he could get nothing else, departed ill pleased, not doubting that he had been made a fool of. However, sending the other drawings to the Pope with the names of those who had made them, he sent also Giotto's, relating how he had made the circle without moving his arm and without compasses, which when the Pope and many of his courtiers understood, they saw that Giotto must surpass greatly all the other painters of his time.
This thing being told, there arose from it a proverb which is still used about men of coarse clay, "You are rounder than the O of Giotto," which proverb is not only good because of the occasion from which it sprang, but also still more for its significance, which consists in its ambiguity, tondo, "round," meaning in Tuscany not only a perfect circle, but also slowness and heaviness of mind.
Find it hard to imagine someone drawing a perfect freehand circle?
These days there are even World Championships in freehand circle drawing, check out some amazing examples by clicking on the following links:
See some of the competitors, competition and winner of the 2007 World Championship:
Does anyone else think he looks like Voldemort?
One final comment:
Giotto’s sending of a circle on a piece of paper to the Pope to evidence his artistic skill reminds me of an equally brief communication between Victor Hugo and his agent. Nervous about the release of a new work, Hugo left on a holiday so as to be away from the scene of a possible flop. Curiosity got the better of him and he sent a letter to his agent that said simply “?”. His agent, advising that the work was a success, wrote back “!”.
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