Monday, November 19, 2012


In The King’s Agent, the quest of the main characters is fueled by an imaginary work of the great Giotto, for no piece of Italian literature set in the Renaissance would be complete without the mention of the man. In 1550, Giorgio Vasari wrote the Lives of Artists; in it he proclaims Giotto di Bondone (known widely and simply as Giotto) as a founder of “the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the technique of drawing exactly from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years.” This dissemination of the natural style, while perhaps not begun by Giotto, was no doubt more thoroughly evolved by him than any previous purveyor of the style, a style that was an organic melding of artistic progress with human need. The natural technique provided the growing intellect of the upper classes with the clarifying interpretations of the prevalent religious themes, while bringing to the common people these same subjects in an immediate and palpable form, exposing to them to an enlightenment heretofore incomprehensible and unreal in earlier art.

And yet of this man who constructed and surmounted a major bridge in the advancement of painted works, little facts are positively known. Offered in question and theory, much of the details of Giotto’s life are subject to disambiguation. That he was born in Florence and died in Florence there can be little question. Prevalent theory holds that he was born in 1266/67 in the village of Colle Vespignano in the Provence of Florence, but a few miles north of the city proper. The legend, for it can be called nothing less, states that the famous artist Cimabue (at the time considered one of but two most widely renowned painters), while on a walking tour through the region, saw some of the child Giotto’s strangely lifelike rock drawings of sheep—which he had done while at work in the fields. So impressed was Cimabue with the youth’s talent, that Cimabue immediately asked Giotto’s father for permission to make the child his apprentice.

The deal was immediately struck, Giotto’s apprenticeship thus began when he was estimated to be about thirteen or fourteen years old. On the tail of his master Cimabue, Giotto traveled the peninsula, learning, soon participating, and quickly outshining his teacher. One lasting and enduring anecdote tells of a day in which Cimabue was absent from the studio. In that time, his precocious apprentice painted such a realistic fly on the face of his master’s painting, Cimabue tried many times to shoo it away.

As Giotto’s path found him in Rome, Rimini, Naples, Bologna, Padua and back to Florence, he made his way merrily, known as a happy man who possessed a great wit and a love of practical jokes. A favored yarn in evidence of his mischievous side relates that when a messenger from the pope arrived at Giotto’s door asking for proof of the painters genius, Giotto drew a perfect red circle—in one stroke—and sent it back in answer to the challenge. And along his joyous journey through life, he created such masterpieces as to inspire the great Dante to write of him and the masters of the High Renaissance to learn from him, such men as Masaccio, Michelangelo and Raphael. Due to the lack of ascription and the frequency of his travels, it is hard to put an exact number on his works, but it can easily be said to be near or over a hundred, consisting mostly of panel paintings and frescoes.

No discussion of Giotto would be complete without mention of the Scrovegni Chapel. Considered his masterwork, the painted interior decoration of the chapel of Enrici degli Scrovegni in Padua was completed—and signed—sometime between 1303 and 1310. Said to have been commissioned by degli Scrovengni to atone for the sins of his father, the theme of the entire work is Salvation with specific emphasis on the Virgin Mary with special dedication to the Annunciation.

Giotto’s greatest artistic gift, that which truly set him apart from other artists of his day (and a characteristic this author hopes in her own way to emulate as the writer of historical fiction) was his ability to capture and render the emotions and the soul of his subject, not just to reiterate their lives, but to bring them to life.

Three years before his passing in 1334, the city of Florence named Giotto Magnus Magister (Great Master) and appointed him the city’s head architect and chief of public works. At the time of his death, he was in the middle of constructing the Campanile, now known as Giotto’s Tower. The project was finished by one of Giotto’s most ardent followers, Andrea Pisano. Giotto was buried in Santa Maria del Fiore, the great Cathedral of Florence, at a spot to the left of the entrance marked by a white marble plaque.

Giotto’s influence on the entire scope of art, not just of that in the Renaissance, can never be devalued, but he left more than just a cataclysmic artistic legacy. Around the age of twenty, Giotto met and married Ricevuta di Lapo del Pela, whom most called “Ciuta.” The number of their offspring varies from six to eight, but it is agreed that at least one of them, Francesco, became a painter as well, though not of his father’s caliber. It is also said that, like their father, none of the children possessed any physical attractiveness. In Vasari’s Lives of Artists, the author proclaims that there was ‘no uglier man in Florence.’ When Dante visited the family he asked the artist how a man who could create such beautiful works of art managed to produce such homely children, to which Giotto replied, “I made them in the dark.”

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


The research for my book, The King’s Agent, brought me to Florence. My current research and work in progress have me firmly planted there for what is assuredly a trilogy, perhaps a longer series. So much I encounter everyday takes my breath away, so much makes me long to learn more. The Renaissance (a word based on the Italian word Rinascimento, meaning rebirth) began in the fourteenth century and lasted through to the seventeenth. By then it had spread throughout Europe, but it is undeniable that it began in Italy, in Tuscany and Florence specifically. And while men such as da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bramante, and Raphael perfected the movement, these four men—Francesco Petrarch, Giotto di Bondone, Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (known as Donatello), and Filippo Bruneschelli—began it.

As a writer and self-proclaimed philosopher and spiritualist, it seems only apropos that I begin this series of blog posts with another writer and philosopher, Francesco Petrarch.

Although Dante Alighieri’s work defined the Italian language, it is the literary and philosophical work of Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) that brought about and encouraged the intellectual enlightenment of the Renaissance via his Humanist writings. The son of exiled nobles, Petrarch was born in Arezzo to Ser Petracco—a merchant who served the State as a notaries public—and Eletta Canigianic. Petrarch was forced to study the law, as his father had, though his interests—his passion—lay in writing and Latin literature. Such passions were all the more antithetical to the life around him as it was a time and place of vast illiteracy.

Africa, Petrarch’s first major work written in spurts over the years of 1337 and 1340, not only cemented his reputation as a model for lyrical poetry but elevated him to the stature of celebrity and awarded him the first crown of a poet laureate of Rome since antiquity. Ironically this work is considered by experts to be influenced by Dante’s Divine Comedy which in turn greatly influenced my book, The King’s Agent. Even in the very first paragraph of the work, a Latin epic recounting the life of the notable Roman General Scipio Africanus, Petrarch’s artistry of language is in magnificent evidence:

"Recount even to me, Muse, the man–famous for his valor and dreadful in war–to whom noble Africa, subdued by Italian arms, first gave her eternal name. Sisters who are my sweet care, if I sing to you of wonders, I pray that it be granted to me to drink again at the fountain of Helicon. Indeed, now Fortune has restored to me the meadows and springs of friendly country, the stillness of uninhabited fields, streams and hills, and the pleasures of sunny forests. You, restore to your bard your songs and inspiration."

Though some may question her true existence, there is strong evidence that the love of Petrarch’s life was one Laura de Noves, a married woman to whom he wrote the Canzoniere, perfecting the sonnet in the doing, a work encompassing 366 poems.

"It was on that day when the sun's ray was darkened in pity for its Maker, that I was captured, and did not defend myself, because your lovely eyes had bound me, Lady."

Having taken vows, finishing his Minor Orders, Petrarch had entered the service of Cardinal Colona. And yet it is believed he fathered two children by a woman or women unknown, Giovanni born in 1337 and Francesca in 1343, both of whom he later legitimized.

For decades, Petrarch traveled, not only to all the major cities of the States of Italy, but to Paris, Flanders, Prague and more. Petrarch traveled and wrote, composing a multitude of poetry and books. So many call him not only the Father of the Renaissance, but the Father of Humanism for he was the first to combine the abstract entities of classical culture with Christian philosophy. Petrarch vehemently argued that God had bequeathed man with enormous intellectual and creative potential, a gift to be used to its fullest. This ‘humanist’ philosophy ignited an intellectual eruption…the study of human thought and action.

During the course of his life, Petrarch lost almost everyone he loved to the plague: father, mother, son, grandson, numerous friends, and even the mysterious Laura. On July 19 of 1374, Petrarch was found dead by his daughter, slumped over his desk, quill in hand, at work on yet another masterpiece. Though buried at his parish church, his remains were later moved by his son-in-law to a sarcophagus built in Arqua. His influence begins with Boccaccio, through countless others, to Shakespeare, and, in the lyricism of his style, to this very humble author.

"I had got this far, and was thinking of what to say next, and as my habit is, I was pricking the paper idly with my pen. And I thought how, between one dip of the pen and the next, time goes on…"