Giotto was born in the northern village of Vespignano near Florence, most probably in 1266. An old legend (articulated by the 16th century artist/biographer Giorgio Vasari) says that the great Florentine painter, Giovanni Cimabue, discovered the young shepherd boy, Giotto, drawing pictures from nature on a flat rock. Recognizing talent when he saw it, Cimabue took Giotto to Florence as an apprentice and soon,
The "rude manner of the Greeks", to which Vasari refers, is, of course, the brightly colored but expressionless, emotionless, perspectiveless Byzantine style of paintings and mosaics that had dominated art for at least the preceding seven hundred years. People in Giotto's works were clearly alive, able to move and to angle their heads and bodies from the characteristic straight up and full faced Byzantine pose. Most importantly, they lived in a three dimensional world: Giotto is generally credited with the re-discovery of perspective and convergence.
Giotto was short and not particularly handsome, and he was a great wit and practical joker. He was married and left six children at his death in January of 1337. Unlike many of his fellow artists, he saved his money and was accounted a rich man. Robert, the King of Naples of the time, called him a good friend, and he was on familiar terms with the pope. (Vasari tells the story of Giotto winning for the patronage of Pope Benedict XI by submitting a perfect circle painted in a single stroke of red. The Italian proverb: "Perfetto come la 'O' di Giotto", meaning "As perfect as Giotto's circle".)
Because he was famous in his own time and was in very great demand, some experts say, Giotto supervised more than he painted, adding only finishing touches to the work of assistants and students of his school. None of the paintings attributed to Giotto are unquestioned. The Giotto signature on several extant paintings (notably the Stefaneschi Altarpiece, in the Vatican) is generally regarded as a trademark of his school. The Ognissanti Madonna at the Uffizi in Florence is neither signed nor documented and the same applies to the Crucifix in Santa Maria Novella in Florence.
Giotto is sometimes also listed as an architect: he was appointed architect to Florence Cathedral in 1334, and he began the celebrated campanile, but his design was altered after his death. It is generally accepted that Giotto was appointed not because of any demonstrable architectural skills, but rather because he was the top Florentine painter of his time. But his many of surviving frescoes attest to his real skills and innovations.
Giotto is most famous for his work in the church of Saint Francis in Assisi, where his cycle of frescoes on the life of Francis have been recently restored after being seriously damaged by earthquakes in 1997. For years, these frescoes were considered to be Giotto's first and greatest independent works, but an earlier "Twelve Months" fresco cycle uncovered in 1999 in an upper chamber (not yet open to the public) of the Church of Santi Quattro Coronati in Rome is thought to be of Giotto's school and may be by his hand. Art history would have to be rewritten.
And for the past several years, some experts on Italian art and on the early Renaissance have been trying to do that on other grounds as well. First, there are questions about who really painted "Giotto's" Assisi frescoes -- are they all really his of are some perhaps by Cimabue, with or without Giotto's assistance? It's known that Cimabue was working in Assisi alongside Giotto. Other scholars say that some of the Assisi frescoes ascribed to Giotto were actually painted by Pietro Cavallini, another older contemporary of Giotto. There are questions about whether Giotto really originated anything. Some characteristics of both naturalistic posing and the use of perspective appear in earlier works by Cimabue and Cavallini. Giotto was certainly familiar with Cavallini's work in Santa Maria in Trastevere, where Giotto painted after Cavallini's works were already in place, and in other Roman churches. (Cavallini was, in fact, the most famous artist of his day and decorated many of Rome's great churches, including old St. Peter's. But precisely because they were the "great churches" they were subsequently redecorated or rebuilt like St. Peter's, and most of Cavallini's work was lost. Some Cavallini frescoes were recovered during the millennium restorations of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli in Rome.)
The real question (and it's now been debated for more than a hundred years) boils down to whether Giotto burst full blown on a decadent, desolate Byzantine art world or whether he made a slight incremental improvement on the style of older contemporaries, who were already well on their way to abolishing the Byzantine style's artistic dominance. A glance at Giotto's work provides the answer: the change was incremental, but it was anything but slight. See for yourself at the following Internet sites:
From "Christus Rex": http://www.christusrex.org/www1/francis/, and http://www.christusrex.org/www1/francis/upper.html (follow links at page bottom to more pages of Giotto's work),
From Carol Gerten-Jackson's Fine Arts (CGFA): http://sunsite.dk/cgfa/giotto/ (also has a link to a short biography).
From the Web Gallery of Art (WGA): http://gallery.euroweb.hu/html/g/giotto/ (link to artistic bio.)
Cimabue and Giotto from Vasari's Lives: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/vasari/vasari1.htm.
Artcyclopedia Giotto Links: http://www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/giotto_di_bondone.html.
About.com Giotto Links: http://historymedren.about.com/homework/historymedren/library/who/blwwgiotto.htm