A Portrait of Central Italy’s Geology through Giotto’s Paintings and its Possible Cultural Implications

By Ann C. Pizzorusso

Geoscience Communication 3 (December 15, 2020): 427–442.


Central Italy has some of the most complex geology in the world. In the midst of this inscrutable territory, two people emerged – St. Francis and Giotto – and they would ultimately change the history of ecology, religion and art by extolling the landscapes and geology of this region.

From antiquity to the Middle Ages, humans had a conflicting relationship with nature, seeing it as representing either divine or satanic forces. On the vanguard of a change in perspective toward the natural world was St. Francis of Assisi (ca. 1181–1226) who is now, thanks to his pioneering work, a patron of ecology. He set forth the revolutionary philosophy that the Earth and all living creatures should be respected as creations of the Almighty.

St. Francis' affinity for the environment influenced the artist Giotto (ca. 1270–1337), who revolutionized art history by including natural elements in his religious works. By taking sacred images away from heaven and placing them in an earthly landscape, he separated them definitively from their abstract, unapproachable representation in Byzantine art. Giotto's works are distinctive because they portray daily life as blessed, thus demonstrating that the difference between the sacred and profane is minimal.

Disseminating the new ideas of St. Francis visually was very effective, as the general populace was illiterate. Seeing frescoes reflecting their everyday lives in landscapes that were familiar changed their way of thinking. The trees, plants, animals and rocky landscapes were suddenly perceived as gifts from the Creator to be used, enjoyed and respected. Furthermore, Giotto recognized that the variety of dramatic landscapes would provide spectacular visual interest in the works. By including the striking landforms of central Italy, and portraying them accurately, Giotto allows us the opportunity to identify the types of rock in his frescoes and possibly even the exact locations he depicted. In fact, it would be discoveries in the pink Scaglia Rossa limestone – depicted in Giotto's frescoes as pink buildings and used to construct the Basilica of St. Francis at Assisi – which would revolutionize the history of geology.

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