by Alexandra Dodson

In Purgatory 11.93-95 Dante describes the painter Giotto di Bondone as surpassing in greatness the artist Cimabue, considered by Dante to be the first painter of his time: “In painting Cimabue thought he held/the field, and now it’s Giotto they acclaim-/the former only keeps a  shadowed fame” [Credette Cimabue ne la pittura/tener lo campo, e ora ha Giotto il grido,/ sì che la fama di colui è scura].

Giotto is notable for infusing his paintings with a naturalism and dimensionality that moved beyond the Byzantine style popular in Italy at the time. A prolific painter, Giotto and his workshop completed fresco cycles and altarpieces from Padua (where he painted the Arena chapel frescoes depicting the life of Christ and the Last Judgment) to Naples, and engaged in architectural work such as the design for the campanile of the Florence Duomo. 

Another of the many Florentine works attributed to Giotto is the painting of the Chapel of the Magdalene in the Palazzo of the Podestà, today the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, which was discovered in 1840 behind layers of whitewash. The podestà oversaw the judicial system of Florence, and the palace functioned as a courthouse. Those sentenced to execution would receive their last rites in the Chapel of the Magdalene. 

The frescoed walls of the chapel bear scenes from the lives of Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist (on the lateral walls), an image of Hell (on the entrance wall), and an image of Paradise (on the east wall). Of the numerous figures represented in Paradise, one is said to be Dante. He is depicted as a young man, wearing a red cap and robes, holding a book under his left arm, standing amidst a crowd of figures in Paradise. Giorgio Vasari wrote that Giotto also included his own portrait in this scene, along with those of Brunetti Latini, and Corso Donati.

Fresco of Dante by Giotto, now in the Museo Bargello. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber. Image available via Wikimedia.

These frescoes were attributed to Giotto well before Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. Filippo Villani’s 1405 vita of Giotto mentions a portrait of Dante in the Bargello. Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Commentarii from the 1450s mentions that Giotto had completed frescoes in the Chapel of the Magdalene. A fact to consider in this attribution, however, is the date of the frescoes, which traditionally have been dated to the late 1330s, based on an inscription connecting the work to the podesteria of Fidesmino de Varano and on a fire that damaged the Palazzo in the early 1330s. As Giotto died in 1337, a late-1330s date for these frescoes might preclude his authorship, though it would be feasible that he participated in designing a cycle ultimately executed by his bottega. Other scholars, though, have instead proposed that the frescoes were completed in the early 1320s, based on documents listing allocations for expenditures on the Chapel of the Magdalene at that time. 

In either case, the frescoes were completed long after Dante’s exile from Florence in 1301, a fact that has cast some doubt on whether or not the fresco would actually have been intended to represent the poet. An exiled traitor, it is questionable that he would be glorified in the Palazzo of the Podestà. We can also note dissimilarities between this representation of Dante and Boccaccio’s description of him in the Vita di Dante as a man with a dark complexion and a thick, curly beard. Another interpretation proposes that Giotto might have completed a different painting of Dante for the Chapel of the Magdalene, one that was on the altar panel, rather than the wall, or, as E.H. Gombrich suggested, that he painted the poet in a different cycle in the Palazzo, a cycle known as Il Comune rubato

Yet the fresco of the red-robed man in the Chapel of the Magdalene remains tied to Dante and to Giotto, two men legendarily said to have been friends in life. Among those interested in their relationship was Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti who, shortly after the rediscovery of the Magdalene frescoes, completed paintings depicting Giotto at work painting Dante’s portrait. Since the poet praised the artist in his writing, history wants to believe that the artist reciprocated.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante, 1852. watercolor over pencil. Photo available via Wikimedia.

Selected Bibliography

Elliott, Janis. “The Judgment of the Commune: The Frescoes of the Magdalene Chapel in Florence.” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 61 (1998): 509-519.

Firenze e provincie. Milan: Touring Club Italiano, 2007.

Gombrich, E. H.. “Giotto’s Portrait of Dante?” The Burlington Magazine 121 (1979): 471-481, 483.

Holbrook, Richard Thayer. Portraits of Dante From Giotto to Raffael. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911.

Supino, I.G. Giotto. Florence: 1920.

Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. New York: Modern Library, 2006.

von Sclusser, J. Lorenzo Ghibertis Denkwüdigkeiten (I Commentarii), Berlin 1912, Vol II p. 36.