Theory about old master gets the brush-off

By Time of article published Sep 22, 2000

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Rome - For centuries, the life of Giotto, considered the father of European painting, has been wrapped in mystery. His exact birth date was not known, his remains were never found.

Now, an Italian anthropology expert claims that he has identified a skeleton unearthed 30 years ago beneath Florence's Duomo cathedral as Giotto's.

A chalk reconstruction based on analyses of the skull shows a strong resemblance to a presumed self-portrait of the master in Giotto's famous cycle of frescoes in Padua's Scrovegni Chapel, Francesco Mallegni told The Associated Press in a telephone interview on Thursday.

Some Italian scholars expressed scepticism. Mallegni said he plans to make DNA tests on the skeleton's teeth to back up his claim.

An anthropology and paleontology professor at the universities of Pisa and Palermo, Mallegni said that he studied the bones for three months.

Results of the analyses portray a short, squarely built man, with a huge head and a hooked nose, Mallegni said. The bones show signs of osteoporosis, corroborating the theory that Giotto died quite old, perhaps at the age of 70, in 1337.

Also found on the skeleton were high levels of aluminum, arsenic, zinc, lead and other chemical elements used in paints in the 14th century materials that Giotto's body probably would have absorbed during his lifetime.

"All the pieces in the jigsaw puzzle fit," Mallegni said.

Bones of the neck show a contraction, suggesting that the man spent a lot of time looking upward, perhaps at frescoes, the professor said. Analyses of the teeth suggest that the man may have held a paintbrush in his mouth, he said.

The research also indicates that he ate a lot of meat, a sign that he was well off.

Considered the father of European painting, Giotto achieved great personal fame in his lifetime. His works point to the innovations of the Renaissance style that developed a century later.

The Scrovegni Chapel's frescoes are considered his masterpiece. Three years before he died, he started working on Florence's bell tower which bears his name.

Mallegni said that the skeleton was not very well preserved. It was found, along with 14th-century coins, in a grave of the Church of Santa Reparata, which was later replaced by the Duomo cathedral. When Giotto died, Santa Reparata was still in use while the cathedral was being built around it.

The skeleton had been studied before, but could not be identified.

Mallegni's theory has been received with some scepticism by other Italian scholars.

Art historian Alessandro Parronchi told the Milan daily Corriere della Sera that the chalk reconstruction used is not realistic. He also pointed out that the Scrovegni Chapel painting used for the comparison may not be Giotto's self-portrait - a long-standing doubt that has divided experts.

Others have said that the skeleton might belong to another painter active in Florence in the 1300s. - Sapa-Ap

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