Nov 152007

Injustice is the only clearly identifiable male figure among the allegories: he wears a distinct facial hair, and sits in a masculine posture. His eyes are covered — the man is blind — a feature that becomes characteristic of all Giotto’s vices to one degree or another: Despair appears dead altogether (her eyes are closed or downcast); Anger directs her head straight up, with her eyes also closed; Idolatry seems to have been born completely blind; Inconstancy and Foolishness look away; and, finally, Envy’s vision is blocked by the symbolical snake.
Giotto understood that the eyes and the gaze can be expressive psychological tools: his virtues look straight ahead, conveying honesty and truth, while the vices usually “avoid” eye contact, implying falsehood and deceit. By presenting them — their anthropomorphic carriers — as literally lacking vision, Giotto renders the eyes an allegorical agent as well, one suggesting the spiritual blindness of his fallacious protagonists.

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Interestingly, the head gear of the vices is much more stylish, original and unusual than those of the virtues. In a way, inventive fashion choices comment on the inventiveness of sin; there are many ways in which a man can fall — the road to truth will always be clear, straight, and self-evident. Giotto makes sure to introduce an element of ugliness and imbalance into the clothes, a touch of disarray and disorder, all to emphasize the negative features of the wearers, and make sympathy impossible.

Originality extends beyond garments to carefully conceived compositions: intentionally unbalanced they display a mockery of incompetence with a ruthless ironic thrust. Giotto demonstrates that by means of composition an artist can be critical and unforgiving towards his characters — just as he can be welcoming and affectionate.

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The allegory of Injustice exhibits arguably the most complex composition of all the vices: there is the illusionist  architecture; the elaborate accessories (double hooked staff and the sword) on which the man relies; the miniature forest, implying darkness and bad quality of judgment. The scene shown at the lower edge depicts events that negate the positive effects of Justice (which appear on the same area in the virtue allegory), as these people — who fight, argue, and even torture each other — demonstrate the consequences of the opposite vice.

While Giotto tries hard to diminish and ridicule the sins, they retain, and project, a certain charisma. Perhaps it is an inevitable result of a honest representation of some of the most common human imperfections; the artist literally gives them a human face. Conversely, the virtues have the advantage (or the disadvantage) of being idealized, which can suggest unattainable, however longed-for, heights.

*this article has been edited at a later date

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