Giotto di Bondone was born in 1267 in poverty in the countryside near Florence, the son of a peasant. He was himself a shepherd.
The legend (as reported by Giorgio Vasari in his 'Lives of the Artists') holds that at the age of 11, while tending the sheep, Giotto was drawing on rocks with chalk. The artist Cimabue passed and saw young Giotto drawing a sheep, so natural and so perfect that he immediately asked Giotto's father if the boy could come with him as an apprentice to study art. Giotto's father agreed, and thus Giotto's career started. Another story in Vasari's 'Lives' depicts Giotto as a playful apprentice, painting a fly on the nose of a figure with such skill that his teacher Cimabue made numerous attempts to brush the fly away. This legend foreshadows the life-like painted figures that would come to characterize Giotto's work.
His art was extremely innovative, and is considered as a precursor of that evolution which was to lead to the explosion of the Italian Renaissance. He stands as the key link between the Byzantine art of the late middle ages, and the more realistic and humanistic art which flowered in the Renaissance. The flat, symbolic figures grouped in decorative space were exchanged for modelled, individualized figures interacting in perspectival space. Comparing his Madonna to that of his teacher Cimabue shows why his contemporaries considered Giotto's paintings miracles of naturalism. Giotto is seen as the great initiator of three dimensional space in European painting.
He received commissions for many works throughout Italy, and became a good friend of the king of Naples, as well as of Dante Alighieri.
Giotto di Bondone died on January 8, 1337 in Florence.