Giotto was probably born in a hilltop farmhouse, perhaps at Colle di Romagnano or Romignano, since 1850 a tower house in nearby Colle Vespignano, a hamlet 35 kilometres north of Florence, has borne a plaque claiming the honour of his birthplace, an assertion commercially publicised. He was the son of a man named Bondone, described in surviving public records as "a person of good standing". Most authors accept that Giotto was his real name, but it may have been an abbreviation of Ambrogio (Ambrogiotto) or Angelo (Angelotto).
The year of his death is calculated from the fact that Antonio Pucci, the town crier of Florence, wrote a poem in Giotto's honour in which it is stated that he was 70 at the time of his death. However, the word "seventy" fits into the rhyme of the poem better than would have a longer and more complex age, so it is possible that Pucci, used artistic license.
In his Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari relates that Giotto was a shepherd boy, a merry and intelligent child who was loved by all who knew him. He was discovered by the great Florentine painter Cimabue, drawing pictures of his sheep on a rock. They were so lifelike that Cimabue approached Bondone and asked if he could take the boy as an apprentice. Many scholars today consider the story legendary and think it more probable that Giotto's family was well-off, and had moved to Florence where Giotto was sent to Cimabue's workshop as an apprentice.
Vasari recounts a number of such stories about Giotto's skill. He writes that when Cimabue was absent from the workshop, his young apprentice painted such a lifelike fly on the face of the painting that Cimabue was working on, that he tried several times to brush it off. Vasari also relates that when the Pope sent a messenger to Giotto, asking him to send a drawing to demonstrate his skill, Giotto drew, in red paint, a circle so perfect that it seemed as though it was drawn using a compass and instructed the messenger to give that to the Pope.
Giotto's master, Cimabue, was one of the two most highly renowned painters of Tuscany, the other being Duccio, who worked mainly in Siena. Around 1280, Giotto followed Cimabue to Rome, where there was a school of fresco painters, of whom the most famous was Pietro Cavallini. The famous Florentine sculptor and architect, Arnolfo di Cambio, was then also working in Rome.
From Rome, Cimabue went to Assisi to paint several large frescoes at the newly-built Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, and it is probable, but not certain, that Giotto went with him. The fresco cycle of the Life of St. Francis in the Upper Church is commonly considered to be the work of Giotto, but the documents of the Franciscan Friars that relate to artistic commissions during this period were destroyed by Napoleon's troops, who stabled horses in the Upper Church of the Basilica. In the absence of documentary evidence to the contrary, it has been convenient to ascribe every fresco in the Upper Church that was not obviously by Cimabue, to Giotto, whose prestige has overshadowed that of almost every contemporary. Some of the earliest remaining biographical sources, such as Ghiberti and Riccobaldo Ferrarese, cite the fresco cycle of the life of St Francis in the Upper Church as his earliest autonomous works. However, since the idea was convincingly put forward by the German art historian, Friedrich Rintelen in 1912, an increasing number of scholars have expressed doubt that Giotto was in fact the author of the Upper Church frescos. There are many differences between them and the Arena Chapel frescoes which can not be accounted for by the stylistic development of an individual artist. It seems, rather, that several hands painted the frescoes and that the artists were probably from Rome. If this is the case, then Giotto's frescoes at Padua owe much to the naturalism of these painters.
According to Vasari, Giotto's earliest works were for the Dominicans at Santa Maria Novella. These include a fresco of the Annunciation and the enormous suspended Crucifix which is about 5 metres high. It has been dated around 1290 and is therefore contemporary with the Assisi frescoes.
In 1287, at the age of about 20, Giotto married Ricevuta di Lapo del Pela, known as "Ciuta". The couple had numerous children, (perhaps as many as eight) one of whom, Francesco, became a painter. Giotto worked in Rome in 1297-1300, but few traces of his presence there remain today. The Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano houses a small portion of a fresco cycle, painted for the Jubilee of 1300 called by Boniface VIII. In this period he also painted the Badia Polyptych, now in the Uffizi, Florence.
Giotto's fame as a painter spread. He was called to work in Padua, and also in Rimini, where today only a Crucifix remains in the Church of St. Francis, painted before 1309. This work influenced the rise of the Riminese school of Giovanni and Pietro da Rimini. According to documents of 1301 and 1304, Giotto by this time possessed large estates in Florence, and it is probable that he was already leading a large workshop and receiving commissions from throughout Italy.
Among those frescoes in Padua which have been lost are those in the Basilica of. St. Anthony and the Palazzo della Ragione, which are however from a later sojourn in Padua.
Numerous painters from northern Italy were influenced by Giotto's work in Padua including Guariento, Giusto de' Menabuoi, Jacopo Avanzi, and Altichiero.
From 1306 to 1311 Giotto was in Assisi, where he painted frescoes in the transept area of the Lower Church, including The Life of Christ, Franciscan Allegories and the Maddalena Chapel, drawing on stories from the Golden Legend and including the portrait of bishop Teobaldo Pontano who commissioned the work. Several assistants are mentioned, including one Palerino di Guido. However, the style demonstrates developments from Giotto's work at Padua.
In 1311 Giotto returned to Florence, A document from 1313 shows his presence in Rome, where he executed a mosaic for the façade of the old St. Peter's Basilica, commissioned by Cardinal Jacopo Stefaneschi and now lost except for some fragments. In Florence, where documents from 1314-1327 attest to his financial activities, he painted an altarpiece known as the Ognissanti Madonna and now in the Uffizi where it is famously exhibited beside Cimabue's Santa Trinita Madonna and Duccio's Rucellai Madonna.
At this time he also painted the Dormition of the Virgin in the Berlin Gemaldegalerie and the Crucifix in the Church of Ognissanti.
According to Lorenzo Ghiberti, in 1318 he began to paint chapels for four different Florentine families in the church of Santa Croce: the Bardi Chapel (Life of St. Francis), the Peruzzi Chapel (Life of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, including a polyptych of Madonna with Saints now in the Museum of Art of Raleigh, North Carolina) and the lost Giugni Chapel(Stories of the Apostles) and the Tosinghi Spinelli Chapel (Stories of the Holy Virgin). The remaining frescoes show that in later years Giotto's style had become more ornate, perhaps as a response to the emerging International Gothic style.
The Peruzzi Chapel was especially renowned during Renaissance times, and Michelangelo is known to have studied it. Though largely restored, the decoration displays clearly Giotto's capabilities in chiaroscuro and his study of perspective in the ancient buildings. Giotto's compositions later influenced Masaccio's Cappella Brancacci.
The Bardi Chapel is of particular interest as it follows the same iconographic plan as the frescoes in the Upper Church at Assisi, dating from about 20 years earlier. A comparison makes apparent the greater attention given by Giotto to expression in the human figures and the simpler, better integrated architectural forms.
In 1320 Giotto finished the Stefaneschi Triptych, now in the Vatican Museum, for Cardinal Jacopo, who also commissioned him the decoration of St. Peter's apse, with a cycle of frescoes destroyed during the 16th century renovation. According to Vasari, Giotto remained in Rome for six years, subsequently receiving numerous commissions in Italy and in the Papal seat at Avignon, though some of these works are now recognized to be by other artists.
In 1328, after completing the Baroncelli Polyptych, he was called by King Robert of Anjou to Naples, where he remained with a group of pupils until 1333. In Naples few of his works have survived: a fragment of a fresco portraying the Lamentation of Christ in the church of Santa Chiara, and the Illustrious Men painted on the windows of the Santa Barbara Chapel of Castel Nuovo (which are usually attributed to his pupils). In 1332 King Robert named him "first court painter" with a yearly pension.
After Naples Giotto stayed for while in Bologna, where he painted a Polyptych for the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and, according to the sources, a lost decoration for the Chapel in the Cardinal Legate's Castle.
In 1334 Giotto was appointed chief architect to Florence Cathedral, of which the Campanile (founded by him on July 18, 1334) bears his name, but was not completed to his design.
Before 1337 he was in Milan with Azzone Visconti, though no trace of works by him remain in the city. His last known work (with assistants' help) is the decoration of Podestà Chapel in the Bargello, Florence.
In his final years Giotto had become friends with Boccaccio and Sacchetti, who featured him in their stories. In The Divine Comedy, Dante acknowledged the greatness of his living contemporary through the words of a painter in Purgatorio (XI, 94-96): "Cimabue believed that he held the field/In painting, and now Giotto has the cry,/ So the fame of the former is obscure."
Giotto died in January of 1337. According to Vasari, Giotto was buried in Santa Maria del Fiore, the Cathedral of Florence, on the left of the entrance and with the spot marked by a white marble plaque. According to other sources, he was buried in the Church of Santa Reparata. These apparently contradictory reports are explained by the fact that the remains of Santa Reparata lie directly beneath the Cathedral and the church continued in use while the construction of the cathedral was proceeding in the early 14th century.
During an excavation in the 1970s bones were discovered beneath the paving of Santa Reparata at a spot close to the location given by Vasari, but unmarked on either level. Forensic examination of the bones by anthropologist Francesco Mallegni and a team of experts in 2000 brought to light some facts that seemed to confirm that they were those of a painter, particularly the range of chemicals, including arsenic and lead, both commonly found in paint, that the bones had absorbed.
The bones were those of a very short man, of little over four feet tall, who may have suffered from a form of congenital dwarfism. This supports a tradition at the Church of Santa Croce that a dwarf who appears in one of the frescoes is a self portrait of Giotto. On the other hand, a man wearing a white hat who appears in the Last Judgement at Padua is also said to be a portrait of Giotto. The appearance of this man conflicts with the image in Santa Croce.
Vasari, drawing on a description by Boccaccio, who was a friend of Giotto, says of him that "there was no uglier man in the city of Florence" and indicates that his children were also plain in appearance. There is a story that Dante visited Giotto while he was painting the Arena Chapel and, seeing the artist's children underfoot asked how a man who painted such beautiful pictures could create such plain children, to which Giotto, who according to Vasari was always a wit, replied "I made them in the dark."
Forensic reconstruction of the skeleton at Santa Reperata showed a short man with a very large head, a large hooked nose and one eye more prominent than the other. The bones of the neck indicated that the man spent a lot of time with his head tilted backwards. The front teeth were worn in a way consistent with frequently holding a brush between the teeth. The man was about 70 at the time of death.
While the Italian researchers were convinced that the body belonged to Giotto and it was reburied with honour near the grave of Brunelleschi, others have been highly sceptical.