Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The return of Giotto's Crucifix

The return of Giotto's Crucifix - Forgotten jewel of an age

by Goffredo Silvestri

(Article in La Repubblica, 14th January 2011)

FLORENCE: Formerly in the sacristy for 84 years, this monumental work is now back in the Florentine church for which it was painted in 1310-1315, after a careful 8-year long restoration by the Opificio delle pietre dure (OPD) which has restored the luminosity and brilliance of its colours and glazes, its volumes and its modelling.

Someone should have the patience to write a history of art recounting the crimes of displacement of art works in churches when convenient, to the point of their destruction either through loss or damage. For example Duccio's Maestà, which hung on the high altar of Siena Cathedral until 1506, when it was moved to a wall in the transept. In 1771 the two painted sides of the panel were split into two separate paintings, hung in two separate chapels, while another part hung in the sacristy. Soon afterwards these parts were sold to collectors and foreign museums.

In this particular history of art, one of the foremost places is occupied by the monumental Crucifix by Giotto (4.67m high by 3.60m wide) in the Florentine church of Ognissanti (All Saints). Painted according to historians either in the period 1310-1315 or in the 1320's for the monastic order of the Umiliati who then occupied the church and convent, it was located on the partition wall about four feet high that separated the choir reserved for the clergy from the nave for the faithful. This wall, which also had a central doorway, would have seemed to our eyes like a brutal obstruction, but it must have been spectacular, since the Crucifix was accompanied by four other panels by Giotto mentioned by Ghiberti (who wrote a century after the death of the master): the large (325cm x 204cm) Madonna and Child enthroned among the angels (the famous Madonna of Ognissanti now in the Uffizi), the small (75cm x 178 cm) Dormition of the Virgin in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, the Madonna with the Child in her arms (now lost), and an unknown panel. In addition, the wall was also decorated with frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio (St Jerome in his Study) and Botticelli, who is buried in the Church (St Augustine in his Study).

Between 1564 and 1566 Vasari had the wall demolished (with the  detachment and transfer in one piece of the frescoes to the refectory) and the Ognissanti restructured (like Santa Maria Novella and other churches) in line with the liturgical changes made by the Council of Trent in 1563. The Crucifix was moved to the wall at the side, then to a chapel in the transept which was used as a cloakroom, where, squeezed between two wardrobes, the Crucifix was neglected and abused to the point of physical damage. Finally, it was moved to the sacristy in 1926, when that arm of the transept was converted into a memorial of the First World War. So for the last 84 years Giotto's Crucifix has virtually disappeared, passsed into oblivion even for the faithful. But who recalls that in 2000 Antonio Paolucci, then a conservator, in an "acclaimed concession" loaned the Crucifix to the historic exhibition at the Galleria dell'Accademia, which was the resumé of the "critical appraisal of sixty years of studies and research on Giotto." The Crucifix was billed as "Giotto" in the exhibition conceived and curated by Angelo Tartuferi and Franca Falletti, and as "follower of Giotto" ('Parente di Giotto') in the accompanying volume of critical appraisal.

The loan of the Crucifix had been conditional on its subsequent restoration, and the Opificio delle pietre dure, once work on the earlier (1285-1290) Giotto Crucifix in Santa Maria Novella had finished in 2001, began painstaking work on the Ognissanti Crucifix the following year. And now, after eight years of study, scientific examination, the search for a new method of cleaning, and restoration, once again the Crucifix appears in the church of Ognissanti, in the raised chapel in the left transept, the Cappella dei Caduti (chapel of the fallen), accessed by a small flight of steps. Mounted on a newly designed metal base, it now stands, looking almost relieved to be back, under the ancient Gothic arches, even more so thanks to the lighting system from below and its slight forward inclination (as it used to be on the partition wall). In the Santa Maria Novella, the Giotto Crucifix had been relocated back to its old "more respectable" position in the centre of the nave. Something impossible in the Ognissanti while "preserving all the restructuring work of the sixteenth century and the Baroque period," and in the nave there is no space.

The church of Ognissanti was founded in 1251 by the Umiliati friars, followers of St. Benedict, who, while keeping faith with their Lombard origins, had adopted a fruitful life of production and trade in wool cloth in Florence, whose earnings were used for works of charity. Unfortunately, when the Umiliati were replaced in 1561 by the Minor Observant Franciscans, their archives were destroyed or dispersed. But the great works of art remained: in the Chapel of the Vespucci family, two frescoes by Ghirlandaio, the principal illustratore of the age of Lorenzo the Magnificent: the Madonna of Mercy and the Pietà, in the sacristy the Crucifixion fresco by Taddeo Gaddi, and in the refectory the fresco of the Last Supper by Ghirlandaio and, as mentioned above, the frescoes by Ghirlandaio and Botticelli from the partition wall.

There were three directors of the OPD during the period of restoration (Cristina Acidini, Bruno Santi and Isabella Lapi Ballerini), while the work itself was overseen throughout by Marco Ciatti (head of the restoration laboratory for paintings on panel and canvas) and Cecilia Frosinini (head of the fresco division, which had already begun a diagnostic examination, "with significant results," of another work, "completely" Giotto's, the cycle in the Peruzzi chapel). Ciatti also edited the book L'officina di Giotto (Giotto's Workshop, 252p, published by Edifir, in the valuable series Problemi di conservazione e restauro) which includes both technical details of the restoration and critical perspectives...

Video report (in Italian) by the OPD on the return of the Giotto Crucifix to the church of Ognissanti:

In the Crucifix (painted in egg tempera), Christ is represented as Christus patiens, suffering, about to expire. The tension in the muscles of the arms is treated with delicacy, but the ashen colour is so imprinted in the flesh that it is a "true body", of a sculptural consistency that suggests it was modelled from life. The tips of the fingers are of "purest white", and the lips flushed. The body hangs on a more intimate Cross, the 'heart' of the triumphant Cross painted with gilded bands; at its centre an overflowing mosaic of starred crosses, squares and ellipses. The 'beams' of the Cross are painted in "bright, but deep and intense blue," the precious lapis lazuli inlaid with greater or lesser amounts of lead white, as in the sloping pedestal to which Christ's feet are pinned (by a single nail). The blue is crossed by thin red lines, cinnabar blood with more purplish glazes. On the forehead are a few drops of "pure red lacquer."

The Cross terminates in quatrefoils with gold backgrounds. To the left is Mary, prematurely aged, a pained expression in her characteristic slanted eyes, all wrapped up in a blue mantle that serves as a protection and almost as a hiding-place, again painted with lapis lazuli whose blue becomes more luminous when depicting the volume of her hands and covered arms. On the right is St John the Evangelist, in a pink mantle over a blue robe also painted with lapis lazuli and lead white. From his eyes a stream of tears descend, and from his mantle emerge his "most beautiful tightly joined hands", clasped so as not to explode in a gesture of despair. The preparatory drawing "shows through the thin layer of colour." The cheeks of the Virgin and of St John, the 'Mourners', show a flush caused by tears, achieved by multiple applications of cinnabar. Above is the Blessing Christ in pink robe and blue mantle, on which is mounted a large book with a red cover. Probably during the damaging period in the transept chapel of Ognissanti, the Crucifix has lost the edges of the golden quatrefoils of the 'Mourners' (remade for the exhibition of 1937 and retained in the modern restoration). Most importantly, it has lost the lower part of the Cross, just below Christ's pierced and bleeding feet, where it is probable that Giotto repeated his invention in the Crucifix of Santa Maria Novella, the rock of Golgotha with the skull of the first man to represent humanity.

Before the current restoration, the colours of the Crucifix were "extremely dim and dark" due to a layer of "very dull and greyish" surface material, negating the volumes and the modelling, the "refined decoration and detail". The test results showed an "unusual" overlay consisting of a vegetable-based gum (like apricot) and calcium oxalate, from a previous cleaning intended to "varnish" the work. Its main detrimental effect was due to its having collected dirt, fine particles of air pollution, and the soot from candles. Conversely, it maintained a layer of "very thin and old paint" on the surface. With the restoration has come a transformation from an object seen through a dirty curtain to a brightness and brilliance of the golds, the blues and the "textures"; the rivulets of blood, the details of the Christ, the contours of his chest and groin, the tense bands of muscles in his arms and legs, the strands of his hair and beard, his eyelashes. Also the glazes: not a complete innovation (neither for Giotto nor for other artists like Perugino or Pinturicchio), but nonetheless it is of great interest that Giotto in the Ognissanti work used them more extensively compared to that in the Santa Maria Novella; glazing in Christ's halo (which is painted in relief); glazed paste and painted glazes (even in minute plant motifs), and gold in imitation of precious stones and enamels, in cabochon style or pyramid shapes; in blue, green, white and reddish-white colours; in the frame red and blue glazing alternating with pale green; at the centre of the three beams a large glass-coloured painted and gilded glaze (only one survives). The scientific examination revealed residues of lead foil around the glazes, "perfectly reflective", resembling those in the halo of Christ the Judge in the panel in the Scrovegni chapel.

From the technical point of view the biggest "hitch" was to develop an "innovative" method of cleaning everything (not the traditional solvents which previous "heavy abrasions" indicated would have been disastrous), but "water-based systems" a much slower technique and used with a new type of laser. The Crucifix is in fact an "extremely delicate" painting, built up "with very thin layers of colour" and a preparatory base "extremely sensitive" to moisture, perhaps "because of a small amount of glue used as an adhesive binding for the chalk." The examination uncovered some interesting details: Giotto changed the size and position of the halo (which was lowered and reduced in size) affecting  the "entire figure" of the Christ. The head would have been "much higher" than in any other of Giotto's Crucifixes. The strips of parchment and (probably used) linen, spread out over the panel as "shock absorbers" to "restrict" the natural movements of the wood under the preparatory layers and the painting itself. One of the "indicators of the care and refinement of execution" of the Crucifix is the different techniques used in painting the Blessing Christ relative to the other figures. Here the depiction of the flesh is "more compact and denser." Ciatti indicates that this is typical of Giotto (as found in the Santa Maria Novella Crucifix), the "juxtaposition of areas of meticulous and subtle brushwork and other features strongly marked by large brushstrokes, almost brusque like in some of the folds of the Virgin's mantle."

When it comes to Giotto (or other great masters) there is always a lurking doubt as to the attribution of a work, in whole or in part. Always remember - recommends Ciatti - that in the Middle Ages a work created according to the modern mind, the creation of "an individual artist, the unique and unrepeatable product of his hand and creative genius, is unimaginable." Mediaeval artistic production is "collective in nature", constructed with numerous, often specialised, collaborators, especially in the studio of a highly successful artist like Giotto, working on many commissions from major clients in different cities. The term 'studio' should not be "synonymous with inauthenticity." On the one hand "the great innovative drive and the continuing transformation of modes of expression, due to which Giotto is never repetitive nor equal to himself from one work to another, can only be traced to his own ingenuity and creativity"; on the other hand "the direct participation of a large group of collaborators" was inevitable. In the book, Arturo Carlo Quintavalle notes that in the Ognissanti Crucifix it is not simply the lobed panels at the extremities which are innovative, but "rather the emphasis on the pathos of the story", the "emotional tension" of the 'Mourners'. And the body of Christ is portrayed in "a much more analytical fashion" than the Christ of Santa Maria Novella. All these aspects can only be down to the inventiveness of Giotto. After the restoration "the primary result" is the hand of Giotto "inevitably in collaboration with his studio."

For Cristina Acidini, currently director of the Florentine art historical heritage and its complex of museums, the Crucifix (of an "unquestionable beauty of painted material"), carries after its restoration the onerous weight of a Giotto attribution in its arms, and carries it with dignity." Giorgio Bonsanti sees in the Crucifix a "slight decrease in technical quality" compared to the Crucifixes of Santa Maria Novella, Rimini and Padua... For Bonsanti the expressions of Mary and St John are a "kind of grimace." "Definitely a very intense and impressive effect," but not the universal representation of suffering charactistic of other figures painted by Giotto. The Ognissanti Crucifix is a "product, however great, of the studio of Giotto," due to the "tendency" defined as 'Follower of Giotto', as invented by Giovanni Previtali. This would have been a personality with "recognisably similar stylistic characteristics" to those of Giotto. For Ciatti the Blessing Christ must "really be the result of the hand of an assistant who either completed or began the work" in the absence of the master, with a technique similar to that used previously by Giotto, "who in the meantime had already changed." But Ciatti confirms the doubts about this 'follower' that would have accompanied the master, "almost from the beginning, for decades." A solution that does not satisfy the vast majority of critics.

Beyond the artistic evaluation, Ciatti cites the care with which Giotto, nothing short of an "astute businessman", supervised the economic aspect of his business, and says that he would never have favoured an "internal competition". It was against Giotto's interests to give the opportunity of exposure to someone of value to him, allowing him to nurture a reputation he might have profited from outside of his studio. The at least twenty-year-long relations that Giotto maintained with the Umiliati was not only an artistic one. A document dated September 1312, quoted by Alessandro Cecchi, reveals that the master was trading in "woolen" goods and charging "an exorbitant price (unum telarium francigenum)." Further documents attest to his relations with Vespignano Vicchio, since he visited the Mugello to buy land and houses. And the coins found beside the body of the painter in his grave under the floor of the old Duomo in Florence (a few yards from the tomb of Brunelleschi), serve to confirm the age of Giotto (about seventy) in January 1337, but also indicate his love of money to "to the point of usury." His teeth were his "tax return," worn down as could have been only those of someone who regularly ate "lots of meat, cooked meat above all," which "only those who had money" could afford.

Pictures of the restoration process in La Repubblica


  1. Sadly fascinating how since the so-called age of enlightenment, or perhaps the 20th century's dawn, or perhaps just since V2, the devil has realized his goal of marginalizing images of our only Hope in coat closets. Indeed, right now, how many actual tabernacles containing consecrated hosts are shoved off to the side even to the point of being in broom closets at various hipster parishes?

  2. How utterly magnificent! I was enraptured! Brad is so true. There is a church in our area where the tabernacle of the Blessed Sacrament is actually outside the church area, in a "closet", albeit a very nice closet, where people going to Mass pass right by without so much as a nod to the Lord of the Universe. Inside this "closet" is a bench that will seat perhaps 6 at most. I would go and keep Him company until Mass started; sadly, no one else did. May God forgive us.

  3. I just came across your blog and really love it. Thank you for taking the time to help bring beauty back!

  4. I too just found your blog, coming from Cahiers Péguy.

    After half of an adult life, I must admit I didn't have any idea how l a r g e the Giotto Croce is; I've misinterpreted the 'monumentales' I've read as qualifying the work's significance, not also its actual size. Many thanks!

  5. Should be really appreciate a link to the OPD's YouTube Chanell !!

    Giancarlo Buzzanca
    WebMaster OPD

  6. What an enlightening article. I entered Chiesa di Ognissanti on a whim while visiting Florence two years ago. To my delight, I saw the newly restored cross hanging in the transcept (I believe it was two days after its dedication). Of all the memories I took home of that beautiful city none can compare with the lure of that church or the magnificence of Giotto's cross which seemed held aloft by light. Giotto's work illuminated not only the church but my heart.
    Cheryl Carpenter, Tewksbury, Massachusetts
    Tewksbury, Massachusetts