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Devilish Giotto Discovery Ups His Art Historical Cred

by Hrag Vartanian on November 9, 2011

A devilish head in the clouds of a Giotto mural appears. (via dailymail.co.uk)

In today’s dose of art history geek news, we turn to the Daily Mail, which reports that “art restorers have discovered the figure of a devil hidden in the clouds of one of the most famous [13th C.] frescos by Giotto in the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi.” If Giotto wasn’t already the master of kicking off the Renaissance, his art history cred just skyrocketed (if that’s possible) with the latest discovery.

According to Reuters:

The discovery was made by Italian art historian Chiara Frugone. It shows a profile of a figure with a hooked nose, a sly smile and dark horns hidden among the clouds in the panel of the scene depicting the death of St Francis.

And then the art history game of “who did it first” kicks in as the Washington Post writes:

Giotto appears to have beaten by nearly two centuries a technique attributed to Andrea Mantegna, who in one painting shows a knight emerging from a cloud.

Damn, Giotto. You just pwnd Mantegna. The Mantegna work they are referring to is his “St. Sebastian” (1456-59) in Vienna:

A detail of Mantegna's "St. Sebastian" in Vienna with an enlargement of the knight in the clouds. (via Wikipedia)

You can see the Giotto fresco in a larger context here. I can barely see the horns of the figure in Giotto’s mural but I’ll leave the final decision with those who have seen it in person and can make out the color changes clearly — from here it looks more like a dark spot though I can see what could be horns.

Yet more proof that Giotto was truly awesome and deserves his title of the first master of the Italian Renaissance. No word yet as to whether the devil discovery impacts the interpretation of the mural cycle.

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  • Daniel Larkin

    Saint Francis was legendary for chasing away devils. So my guess is that Giotto was riffing on that symbolism – and taking poetic license with the devil’s smile showing that the demon is pleased that his nemesis is leaving earth.   
      
    Here’s a passage from the golden legend, a classic texts that Giotto knew well, about Saint Francis and devils.  

    “On a time, as (Saint Francis) was in his prayers, he saw upon the covering of the house assemblies and companies of devils which ran hither and thither with great noise, and he went out, and signed him with the sign of the cross, and said: I say to you in the name of Almighty God that ye devils do to my body all that is suffered to you to do, and I shall suffer it patiently. For I have no greater enemy than my body, and ye shall avenge me of mine adversary, whiles ye take on it vengeance by my life. Then they vanished away all confused.”

    Devils pops up 16 times in the entire story in the golden legend for Francis, which you can read here: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/goldenlegend/GL-vol5-francis.asp

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