The Three-Dimensionalisation of Giotto’s 13th-century Assisi Fresco: Exorcism of the Demons at Arezzo

The Three – Dimensionalisation of Giotto’s 13th – Century Assisi Fresco: Exorcism of the Demons at Arezzo

By Theodor G. Wyeld

Digital Humanities:  Proceedings of the 1st International Conference of the Association for Digital Humanities Organization (2006)


Introduction: Giotto’s thirteenth-century fresco Exorcism of the Demons at Arezzo in the Church of San Francesco in Assisi is often referred to as marking the transition from the flattened medieval Byzantine ritualised image to the more spatially realistic perspectives of the Renaissance proper. His achievements were recognised by his contemporaries such as Dante and Cennini, and his teacher Cimabue. He had a profound influence on Florentine painting in general and inspired the generation of artists that followed such as Masaccio and Michelangelo. In this, the tenth panel of a series of twenty eight frescos, we see an awkward (by modern standards) attempt to depict depth on a two-dimensional surface. His frescos attempted to illustrate the natural world with depth cues such as receding lines and chiaroscuro shading techniques. He also broke with the tradition of strictly depicting size relationships between people in a scene according to their hegemonic hierarchy. Instead, Giotto illustrated a spatial hierarchy between objects in a scene – including people. On the left we see the cathedral of San Donato (now the Diocesan Museum) with St Francis and Brother Sylvester attempting to drive out the demons aloft over the city, to the right of the fresco. The cathedral has been constructed with lines receding to the left suggesting distance. This is incongruous, however, with the city buildings to the right which have their diminishing lines marching to the right. Hence, as a complete composition, it does not portray the truly unified perspectival space we are more accustomed to that came later in the Renaissance. Nevertheless, in his clumsy way Giotto had established a sense of depth in his paintings which would have been just as profound to the uninitiated as any photograph we could produce of the scene today.

Was Giotto’s depiction of depth really that clumsy though? Perhaps by today’s mathematically precise algorithmic computer-generated perspectives it is. Or, perhaps Giotto was not attempting to depict a realistic scene, as much as later Renaissance paintings would, but simply hinting at the spatial arrangements of the city of Arezzo, the cathedral and surrounding countryside? The city of Arezzo depicted in Giotto’s fresco dates back to the sixth century BC. At the time, the city was situated on the top of the Donato Hill where we can now find the Prato Gardens and the fifteenth-century Medici Fortress. Between the Cathedral and the Fortress was a vast natural depression. The cavity has since been filled in to construct the Prato Gardens. Many of the original features are present in his fresco.

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