THE FIRST MORNING. SANTA CROCE.
If there is one artist, more than another, whose work it is desirable that you should examine in Florence, supposing that you care for old art at all, it is Giotto. You can, indeed, also see work of his at Assisi; but it is not likely you will stop there, to any purpose. At Padua there is much; but only of one period. At Florence, which is his birthplace, you can see pictures by him of every date, and every kind. But you had surely better see, first, what is of his best time and of the best kind. He painted very small pictures and very large - painted from the age of twelve to sixty - painted some subjects carelessly which he had little interest in - some carefully with all his heart. You would surely like, and it would certainly be wise, to see him first in his strong and earnest work, - to see a painting by him, if possible, of large size, and wrought with his full strength, and of a subject pleasing to him. And if it were, also, a subject interesting to yourself, - better still.
Now, if indeed you are interested in old art, you cannot but know the power of the thirteenth century. You know that the character of it was concentrated in, and to the full expressed by, its best king, St. Louis. You know St. Louis was a Franciscan, and that the Franciscans, for whom Giotto was continually painting under Dante's advice, were prouder of him than of any other of their royal brethren or sisters. If Giotto ever would imagine anybody with care and delight, it would be St. Louis, if it chanced that anywhere he had St. Louis to paint.
Also, you know that he was appointed to build the Campanile of the Duomo, because he was then the best master of sculpture, painting, and architecture in Florence, and supposed to be without superior in the world. [Footnote: "Cum in universe orbe non reperiri dicatur quenquam qui sufficientior sit in his et aliis multis artibus magistro Giotto Bondonis de Florentia, pictore, et accipiendus sit in patria, velut magnus magister." - (Decree of his appointment, quoted by Lord Lindsay, vol. ii., p. 247.)]
And that this commission was given him late in life, (of course he could not have designed the Campanile when he was a boy;) so therefore, if you find any of his figures painted under pure campanile architecture, and the architecture by his hand, you know, without other evidence, that the painting must be of his strongest time.
So if one wanted to find anything of his to begin with, especially, and could choose what it should be, one would say, "A fresco, life size, with campanile architecture behind it, painted in an important place; and if one might choose one's subject, perhaps the most interesting saint of all saints - for him to do for us - would be St. Louis."
Wait then for an entirely bright morning; rise with the sun, and go to Santa Croce, with a good opera-glass in your pocket, with which you shall for once, at any rate, see an opus; and, if you have time, several opera. Walk straight to the chapel on the right of the choir ("k" in your Murray's guide). When you first get into it, you will see nothing but a modern window of glaring glass, with a red-hot cardinal in one pane - which piece of modern manufacture takes away at least seven-eighths of the light (little enough before) by which you might have seen what is worth sight. Wait patiently till you get used to the gloom. Then, guarding your eyes from the accursed modern window as best you may, take your opera-glass and look to the right, at the uppermost of the two figures beside it. It is St. Louis, under campanile architecture, painted by - Giotto? or the last Florentine painter who wanted a job - over Giotto? That is the first question you have to determine; as you will have henceforward, in every case in which you look at a fresco.
Sometimes there will be no question at all. These two grey frescos at the bottom of the walls on the right and left, for instance, have been entirely got up for your better satisfaction, in the last year or two - over Giotto's half-effaced lines. But that St. Louis? Re-painted or not, it is a lovely thing, - there can be no question about that; and we must look at it, after some preliminary knowledge gained, not inattentively.
Your Murray's Guide tells you that this chapel of the Bardi della Liberta, in which you stand, is covered with frescos by Giotto; that they were whitewashed, and only laid bare in 1853; that they were painted between 1296 and 1304; that they represent scenes in the life of St. Francis; and that on each side of the window are paintings of St. Louis of Toulouse, St. Louis king of France, St. Elizabeth, of Hungary, and St. Claire, - "all much restored and repainted." Under such recommendation, the frescos are not likely to be much sought after; and accordingly, as I was at work in the chapel this morning, Sunday, 6th September, 1874, two nice-looking Englishmen, under guard of their valet de place, passed the chapel without so much as looking in.
You will perhaps stay a little longer in it with me, good reader, and find out gradually where you are. Namely, in the most interesting and perfect little Gothic chapel in all Italy - so far as I know or can hear. There is no other of the great time which has all its frescos in their place. The Arena, though far larger, is of earlier date - not pure Gothic, nor showing Giotto's full force. The lower chapel at Assisi is not Gothic at all, and is still only of Giotto's middle time. You have here, developed Gothic, with Giotto in his consummate strength, and nothing lost, in form, of the complete design.
By restoration - judicious restoration, as Mr. Murray usually calls it - there is no saying how much you have lost, Putting the question of restoration out of your mind, however, for a while, think where you are, and what you have got to look at.