Giotto’s Perfect Circle

After sleeping for a thousand years, art woke up in Tuscany at the end of the thirteenth century. Giotto was the first great genius.

Giotto by Giovanni Dupré (1817-1882)   Statue on the facade of the Uffizi Gallery (photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, published here.)

There are a lot of stories about Giotto.

The most famous is his big O.

Pope Boniface VIII wanted to commission some paintings for St. Peter’s and so he sent a courtier around to find the best painter in Italy. The courtier asked all the artists to give him a sample of their work to send to the Pope. He came to Giotto’s workshop, explained his mission, and asked him for a drawing which would give the Pope some idea of his competence and style. “Sure,” said Giotto; and he laid down a sheet of paper, reached for a brush dipped in red paint, closed his arm to his side to make a sort of compass of it, and in one even sweep scribed a perfect circle. “There you are,” he told the courtier, handing it to him with a smile.

“That’s your drawing?” asked the courtier, who didn’t know whether Giotto was pulling his leg. “Is that all you’re going to send His Holiness?”

“That’s more than enough,” said Giotto. “Send it with your other drawings and see whether it’s understood or not.”

The Pope’s messenger took the drawing and went away trying to hold his temper. Did that little painter think he was a fool?

When he got back to Rome he showed the Pope the big O and told him how Giotto had scribed it—freehand, without a compass. The pope and his advisors DID understand the achievement of that O and gave Giotto the commission.

See Giotto’s Last Judgment in Little Nudes in Hell

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26 Responses to Giotto’s Perfect Circle

  1. daisy lopez says:

    awsesome paintings

  2. Anonymous says:

    i remember hearing about this in Sphere. liv Shrieber

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  4. Artfoartsake says:

    I think the artist artist you are actually referring to is Michael Angelo. Pope Benedict IX was born about 1012 and lived until 1065 or 1085. Giotto di Bondone was born around 1267 and died on January 8, 1337.

    • 100swallows says:

      Artforartsake: My Penguin classics translation of Vasari’s Life of Giotto, where the story comes from, says Benedict IX. Maybe the mistake was Vasari’s. Thanks for the correction. Maybe you can help me find the name of the pope Vasari meant.

    • Anonymous says:

      It’s Michelangelo, not Michael Angelo

      • Dan Mortensen says:

        It’s both one and the same. Contraction or expansions of names occur cross cultures and time. Happens all the time when translating any Latin based famous name. (Example: purists and snobs refer to Cristobal Colon as the only proper way to write and speak the great explorers name, while not a few of us in the US can think of nothing butt a doctor having difficulty identifying something between a rectum and duodenum!)

    • clmosher says:

      I’ve heard Michael Angelo as well.

      • 100swallows says:

        Clmosher: Neither of the first biographers tells this story about Michelangelo.
        But Condivi wrote this one: The Cardinal San Giorgio sent a man to Florence to find out who had made a statue he had been tricked into buying as an antique (it was in fact by Michelangelo, who had treated it to look old). When the emissary got to Michelangelo’s workshop he asked to see something of his work. “As he had nothing to show, Michelangelo picked up a pen…and drew a hand for him with such skill that the gentleman was astonished.”

  5. Artfoartsake says:

    Dude,

    It seems we are both right. I found this on”

    http://www.oldandsold.com/articles10/famous-buildings-29.shtml

    Quote: “Pope Boniface VIII, hearing, in Rome, of Giotto s painting, sent to invite him to his court. The messenger of the Pope asked Giotto to show him something of the art which had made him so famous; and Giotto, taking a sheet of paper and a pencil, drew quickly, with a single motion, a circle so perfect that it was considered a miracle.”

    There are lots of great videos on YouTube of people drawing perfect circles on chalkboards. My personal favorite method is to use your knuckle as a central point and then, with pen or pencil in hand, keep your hand still and rotate the paper on a flat surface. Cool party trick.

    Keep it real, and apologies if I came across as a wise ass. No offense.

    AFAS

    • 100swallows says:

      Hi Artforartsake. Not to worry. I appreciated the correction–I wonder if even my Vasari translator noticed the error. Now you found out it was Boniface VIII and I thank you again.

      The source for all those anecdotes about Giotto is Vasari’s Life of Giotto–that’s where oldandsold got them, unless he picked them up second-hand somewhere. Some of them are often told of other people, like the “so would I if I were you.” Did you see Vasari’s story of Columbus’Egg? It wasn’t Columbus, he says, but Brunelleschi. See my post:

      http://100swallows.wordpress.com/2007/09/29/whos-the-smartest/

      I saw one of those videos about the time I wrote this post–a teacher drew a perfect circle on his blackboard. Holding the pencil still and turning the paper seems a little cheaty, no?

  6. callmeddt says:

    i heard this story told by my 9th grade social studies teacher 7 years ago and as an architecture fanatic was inspired by it. it took me a while to work up the nerve to get it done but i got a circle tattooed on my forearm to always remind me art is more than just big, fancy paintings, but is more about the meaning.

    IMG_0126

    thank you for the story behind this.

  7. Brian says:

    The submission of sample work to the pontiff was not loan-based but a permanent transfer. The pope thus expected to collect the finest of works from artists without any payment obligation. This practice was well known and intensely disliked by artists. Gioto knew that his talent was well worthy of a papal commission but could not risk causing insult by refusing to present a work. The genius of Gioto was to present something which was both perfect and yet worthless. The emissary’s irritation was not that he didn’t understand the virtue of a perfect circle but that Gioto had elegantly sidestepped the papal trap which supported a small army of art procurers.

    • 100swallows says:

      Brian: Yours is a believeable report of “what really happened”. But did it happen at all? As far as I know,Vasari is the only source of the tale. In my retelling of it I tried to keep the fairy-tale aura, with some cartoonish exaggeration. I thought plausibility was out of place.
      Many of Vasari’s artists are cheeky and astute and this story could have been told about any of those. He wasn’t interested in a historical context outside of its utility in the tale. He even got the Pope wrong in this one. His aim was to impress the reader with the artist’s pride and skill. Your addition of the Pope’s greed and how he forced poor artists to give him good work free really enhances the story, but Vasari didn’t think of it. I wouldn’t have said Giotto used his arm as a compass, which seems to cheat, but that he drew the circle with a free-swinging arm, judging the distance all around. That would have shown his skill better. But the story isn’t mine.
      Hey, why do you spell Giotto’s name that way?

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  9. My life drawing teacher also told me a similar story about Michelangelo, which I saw was already stated above. Very interesting indeed!

  10. Anonymous says:

    I believe the Pope was the Blessed Benedict XI, 1303-4. Perhaps both Vasari and Charles Perrault (also credited Benedict IX [1012-1056] in “Parallel of the Ancients and Moderns”) were dyslexic?

    • Anonymous says:

      Michelangelo e Michel Angelo e’ la stessa cosa
      soltanto che si riferisce al fatto che in quell’epoca
      il personaggio in questione ( Dipingeva Angeli )
      allora fu’chiamato Michelangelo il Michele delli Angeli
      molti nomi antichi si attribuiscono a mestieri ‘o
      paesi di provenienza, per poi diventare propri nomi.
      cordiali saluti da Armando Torre

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  14. Quentin says:

    Of course many artists, following Ruskin;s advice, spend a long time practicing freehand shapes. It give an elegant fluency to theur line. No, I can’t draw a pefect circle. But I can do a darn good one.

  15. Well-described; I love the intellectual elegance as well as the artistic skill that this tale of Giotto displays. No-one who didn’t have an incisive mind would have been able to recraft the rules of visual perspective virtually de novo.

    I also appreciate your (and Artfoartsake’s) commitment to accuracy as well–I’ve been wandering about reporting the commission as Benedict’s till now.

    • 100swallows says:

      Madeleine Marzio: Thanks. Of course if I were Benedict or Boniface or whoever I’d have liked to see not just a sample of Giotto’s drawing “pulse” but a work or two of his imagination.

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