July 18: The Painter and the Tower

2016/07/18 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1334 the bishop of Florence blessed the foundation stone for the city’s new campanile.

The bell tower was designed by Giotto (1266-1337), better known (and just better) as a painter of frescoes.  With the brush, he was well-nigh divine; as an architect, he was no slouch (but no Brunelleschi, either).  Lucky for Giotto that he lived long before licensure exams because there’s no way he would have been tapped to fill the pointy shoes of the former architect of the cathedral works, Arnolfo di Cambio (1240-1310),  after his death.  But Giotto lived in one of those misty periods–either the twilight of the Middle Ages or the predawn dusk of the Renaissance–that allowed creative people to do creative things at whatever scale and media they wanted to (or, rather, could get other people to pay for them to do).  Giotto knew how to do a lot of different things, and do each of them well.

So Giotto got this job for the bell tower: not a throw-away, simple project by a long shot.  Campaniles are tricky structures due to their relative slenderness and the weird forces occasioned by the giant bells that swing around inside of them (a “live load” condition you don’t see too often on the A.R.E.).  They’re also highly significant symbols: as one of the two buildings (with the baptistery) that, in Italy, signify the cathedral–the seat of the bishop–as different from a plain old grande church.

Giotto’s tower has a square plan, 47 feet on a side, and reaches a height of 277 feet.  The windows become larger and airier high above its completely solid base, which enhances the soaring visual quality. Its stone structure is covered with polychrome marble revetment–mostly green, pink and white, which is one of the signature elements of Florentine Gothic architecture.  It’s dripping with relief sculpture and other evidence of the tremendous skill of its builders.

Giotto’s campanile is a beautiful part of a wonderful piazza, the thinnest, although not the tallest, of the Three Graces of the cathedral group.  A hike to the top is rewarded by the best view in the city of Brunelleschi’s great dome.  It also has the practical advantage of being shorter, and thus an easier climb (by about 50 steps) than the dome–although when you’re in Florence, the Muse wonders why you would not do both, with a significant dose of Italy’s best medicine in between, of course.

Image: the campanile (Clio’s)


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