Italians on Italians
Beyond Toscano

A perfect circle from a Tuscan genius

From halos to smoke rings, circles always seem to have an air of beauty about them. But as any artist will tell you, circles are notoriously difficult to draw free-hand. In the 13th Century, in order to compete for a prestigious commission, Tuscan painter Giotto was invited by Pope Boniface VIII to give him a painting that proved his ability. But rather than submit some of his finest work, Giotto took a risk.

The pope had sent a messenger to Giotto’s studio to collect a painting that demonstrated competence and style. But rather than deliberate over which of his works to send, Giotto simply reached for a blank canvas, grabbed a brush and some red paint, and using his elbow as a pivot, drew a perfect circle. He handed it to the messenger with a smile. “Send this to his Holiness, along with the work from other artists. He’ll understand.”

The messenger was bemused, and somewhat insulted, but followed the instructions. The pope, on hearing what had happened and on seeing the perfection of the circle, was impressed enough to award Giotto the commission, cementing his reputation as one of Tuscany’s finest painters.