Bones Under Church May Be Giotto's

Almost 700 years after his death, the remains of pre-Renaissance painter Giotto can’t rest in peace. That is, if they really are Giotto’s remains.

A scholarly war is raging over a skeleton found under Florence’s Duomo cathedral. One side says it is the man renowned as the father of European painting. The other says it’s not.

Despite the dispute, the city has decided to go ahead with a ceremonial burial on Jan. 8, the anniversary of Giotto’s death. It had been put on hold after an American archaeologist, Franklin Toker, said the bones weren’t Giotto’s

“Let’s not render honor to the bones of some fat butcher,” he pleaded in a letter to Florence’s Archbishop Silvano Piovanelli.

“What Kind of Science Is This?”

Toker, a professor of art history at the University of Pittsburgh, took part in the excavations that unearthed the bones in the 1970s. He doesn’t believe they are Giotto’s

On the other side of the debate are author Stefano Sieni and Francesco Mallegni, an anthropology and paleontology professor at the universities of Pisa and Palermo. They base their identification on an analysis of the skeleton. Reconstructing the face, they came up with a strong likeness to what may or may not be a Giotto self-portrait in a fresco.

“What kind of science is this?” Toker demanded in a telephone interview. “You take the bones, take the fresco and make the bust. You can produce anyone that way.”

Sieni concurred “any face” might have emerged, but “Giotto’s was the one that in fact did.”

Although he attained fame in his lifetime, little is known about Giotto’s life. Scholars think he died in Florence in 1337, probably at age 70.

Sieni’s reconstruction came up with a short, squarely built man — a well-nourished person who was probably affluent. Indentations in the teeth, Sieni maintains, were made by paintbrushes held in the mouth.

Clues in the Bones

Giotto’s masterpiece is a cycle of frescoes in Padua’s Scrovegni Chapel, which contain a figure some scholars think is a self-portrait. Sieni’s reconstruction resembles this figure.

Still, Toker argues, there is no proof the fresco painting is a self portrait. “This is just speculation, it is tourist literature,” Toker said.

Another scholar, Luciano Bellosi, said flatly the figure “is not Giotto.”

Toker has also raised other questions. The skeleton was found in a grave of the Church of Santa Reparata, which was later replaced by the Duomo cathedral. It was found on the right side of the building, while Toker maintains there are documents from the 16th century saying Giotto was buried on the left side.

In addition, he argues, someone of Giotto’s prominence would have had his own tomb. The skeleton was found in a tomb containing a “jumble of three skeletons,” he said.

Sieni argues there are a series of clues pointing to the identity of the skeleton.

He said the bones showed high levels of aluminum, arsenic and other chemicals commonly found in the pigments used by 14th-century painters. In addition, the neck shows a contraction typical of someone who spent a lot of time looking upward, as a fresco painter would have.

The dispute comes at a time when there is a renewed interest in Giotto. A huge exhibit opens Saturday in Padua to celebrate the artist, whose works prefigure the innovations of the Renaissance style a century later.