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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Giotto's Bones

Artists often lead very restless, even turbulent lives. Some of us work so hard sometimes, we barely take time out to eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom. And even though someone once said that death is nature's way of telling us to slow down, quite a number of artists might likely say when their time comes, "Don't bother me now, I'm too busy." Epitaphs sometimes reflect this, such as: "Who? Me? Dead?" Or another: "Just waiting for my paint to dry." Another reads a bit more hopefully, "Gone to help Michelangelo paint that great ceiling in the sky." Perhaps it was a sculptor, perhaps not, whose stone bore the epitaph, "Pardon my dust." Maybe I'm being morbid, but I've pondered my own epitaph a few times. Right now I'm kind of leaning toward: "Ready to paint the second coming." Of course since I usually work from photos, I'm hoping when the time comes they bury me with my digital camera. And for the artist too busy living to even think about dying, they can always fall back on the old standby, "Rest in Peace."

Dr. Francesco Mallegni with a
reconstruction of the head of
Giotto based upon skeletal
Of course even that might be wishful thinking. In this day and age, and even in the past, one's "final" resting-place may not be all that final at all. In 1337, the great medieval painter, Giotto di Bondone was laid to rest in a grave... well...somewhere. No one alive today really knows for sure. Inasmuch as the man considered the "Father of European Painting" was a Florentine, presumably his earthly remains were interred in some prestigious location within the city of Florence. One man who thinks he knows where Giotto was buried is Dr. Francesco Mallegni, an anthropology and palaeontology professor at the universities of Pisa and Palermo. Some forty years ago, the bones of a man buried about the time of Giotto's death were unearthed during restoration work on Florence's landmark Duomo cathedral. Mallegni studied them for  several months. A chalk outline of the scull bears a striking similarity to a presumed self-portrait of the artist (bottom) in frescoes located in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.

Giotto, up close and personal
to an accuracy of 90%.
Mallegni's analysis shows a short, somewhat stocky man with a larger than usual head and indications of a hooked nose. The bones indicate the presence of osteoporosis, suggesting that the man was in his 70s at the time of death. Giotto's date of birth is estimated to be between 1260 and 1270 making him between 61 and 71 years old when he died. The bones also indicate high levels of aluminium, arsenic, zinc, lead, and other substances used in 14th century paints. Likewise, the bones in his neck are thicker than normal, as one might expect from an artist who spent a lot of time looking up. Also, analysis of the teeth indicate the deceased my have used them for holding a paintbrush. Mallegni plans to have DNA tests done of the teeth, comparing the results to tests of Giotto's known descendants.


Believed to be a
self-portrait of Giotto
from The Universal
Judgement fresco in
the Scrovegni Chapel.
The grave itself was well inside the walls of the cathedral, discovered as workmen were reinforcing the foundations of some interior piers. However, when Giotto died, the cathedral was barely under construction. Mallegni explains this factor in that the present-day cathedral was built around the old Church of Santa Reparata, which was still in use in 1337, even as the cathedral that was to replace it literally went up around it. The grave would therefore have been a place of honour just outside the old church walls. Critics of Mallegni's work question both the accuracy of the chalk scull reproduction as well as the assumption that the face in Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel fresco is, in fact, a self-portrait. They also point out that the skeleton could easily be that of another painter of the time. All of which serves to suggest that if one really wants to "rest in peace" the best choice might be fire or water--cremation or burial at sea--or both. But then again, where would one put the clever epitaph?
The Universal Judgement (detail, lower left quadrant), 1304-05, Giotto. The
presumed self-portrait (enlarged above) is in the black box, lower left 
section of the above image.
Note: Dr. Mallegni is now in search of the bones of the actual Mona Lisa.

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