The Goblin Of Giotto's Tower
An Italian Folk Tale
No one has ever seen the goblin of Giotto's Tower, though many have heard its voice and any flower vender, in the busy square in Florence where the tower stands, can tell you the legend of the little goblin. This lively sprite is the real guardian of Giotto's Campanile, or Shepherd's Tower. When one mounts the stairs of the tower, a gentle voice is heard below, saying:
Some people think this encouraging word comes from the guide or from a fellow-sightseer. For it's oddly true that fully half the grown-ups in the world and one-sixth of the children never see goblins or fairies even when the little beings are cutting capers directly in front of their noses. Yet, in Florence, there is many a "folletto" or protecting spirit, fairy or goblin, who gives special favor to anything worth while. Now every one knows that Giotto's Tower is decidedly worth while, for it is one of the most beautiful towers ever built. So, of course, it has its own "folletto," for all time. On moon-lit nights, you can often see the shadow of the "folletto," if you look at the left of the center bas-relief, on the west side of the tower--the bas-relief that shows the herdsman, Jabal, sitting in his tent and looking out at his sheep and a lamb. A wise, little puppy is sitting at the right, outside the tent, with his careful eyes on the sheep. But, just as you come near the shadow of the goblin, (for you are sure it is the actual shadow) to--it is gone!
A few miles northeast of Florence, the town of Fiesole perches on a high hill, and a few miles beyond Fiesole, is the small town of Vespignano, nestling high up in the Apennines. Six centuries ago, the rolling fields and green trees of Vespignano looked much as they do today, and the ilex, the 'oak and the olive gave a welcome shade to the herdsman. Beneath a wide-spreading oak tree, one sunny, spring day, in the year 1286, a ten-year-old boy lay on the grass, his chin resting in his hands. His father's sheep were grazing all over the field. Giotto's eyes were not on the sheep this moment, but on the gnarled, gray-green olive trees, far off on the hills. There was always so much for Giotto di Bondone to see, while he was tending the sheep, that the hours of the long day flew like the wind, and, if his little dog hadn't been always on the alert for straying lambs, who knows what might sometimes have happened? But the good dog, hardly more than a puppy, was occupied, hour after hour, with his serious work of watching the sheep, so that the boy, ever on the look-out for the things of interest in the near field or on the distant hills, could let his thoughts roam, free as a bird, wherever they liked.
Giotto was a boy who loved to draw, and he was constantly looking, looking at the things around him with the thought of putting them on his slate. He kept by him a piece of slate on which he would draw, with a pointed stone, whatever attracted his eye. Even when he wasn't drawing, he liked to look at a tree, a goat, or anything whatever, and think how he might draw it so that it would look just as solid on his slate as it looked in the field. Sometimes he would laughingly watch his little dog barking excitedly at a straying sheep; sometimes he would gaze absorbedly at one of the sheep standing still, or at the thick neck of a donkey in a neighboring field; or, with half-shut eyes, he would dreamily follow the motions of some boys climbing into the great oak which stood farther up on the hillside. He never tired of watching the way the wind turned back the oak leaves and lifted them in masses that emphasized the solid structure of the tree. The birds, too, that at times, came very near him, especially pleased him; for they had a habit of standing in attentive little groups, as if, he said to himself, they were waiting for some one to talk to them. For several minutes, he would silently watch them, until, at last, his chuckling laugh would send them flying away.
Yet Giotto's father remarked to a neighbor, "A fine boy to work is that boy of mine! . . . He's almost old enough to apprentice to the wool merchant."
There had been in the flock of sheep, until three days ago, one little lamb so fond of Giotto that it would never roam around the field with the other lambs and sheep, but would stay, all day, close to the boy's side. Under the oak tree where Giotto was now lying, was a large, flat stone on which the lamb used to lie. In fact, the lamb had liked so much to lie there that Giotto had named the stone The Lamb's Stone. Giotto had told one of his boy friends that this lamb truly talked to him. "Da vero," declared Giotto, with a twinkling smile, "the lamb often asks me to lie down with it on this big stone." So, to please the lamb, Giotto would sometimes put his head down on the stone. Three mornings ago, the little lamb, at first full of frisky gambols as usual, became quiet and somehow not like itself. By afternoon, it had become unable to stand, and suddenly, to Giotto's dismay, appeared too weak to live. Just as Giotto realized this, the lamb had raised its head from the stone where it lay, and said:
Then the lamb had died.
Today, Giotto, dreaming deep day dreams under the oak tree, saw everything near and far, especially the near. A herdsman, going down the slope, took his attention, for, to Giotto, the figure of the man looked thick and solid, surprisingly solid, outlined against the field. The sheep, cropping the grass, seemed continually to give new turns to their placid heads. The boy liked to look at the actual form of anything. His rambling thought now went back to his little lamb on that morning when it had been frolicsome and had stood with a funny, thoughtful turn of its head before it took droll, capering steps. Presently Giotto took up his slate and began to draw, saying aloud, "Agnello mio, I'm going to draw you exactly as you looked."
Gradually, there appeared on the slate the form of the spirited little lamb. So intent was the boy on his drawing that he didn't notice a man who had been watching the growing picture of the lamb. When Giotto finally looked up a moment from his drawing, he was astonished to see, standing near him, a man in the dress of a noble.
"Boy," said the man, "I see you like to draw."
Giotto gave a quick glance straight at the face of the man, and smiled.
"That lamb must be your own lamb; it's so natural it looks alive," added the man.
A twinkle came into Giotto's eye. Yet he felt, at once, stirred within himself. Who could this great man be who cared to stop beside a mere boy to look at his drawing? Something about him drew Giotto strongly.
"My boy," said the noble, "have you a father?"
"Si, Signore," replied Giotto, wonderingly.
"When you go home," continued the man, "ask your father if he will let you go to Florence to study drawing under me. I should like to have you in my workshop. My name is Cimabue."
Then the boy rose quickly, and with a flush in his face, said, stammeringly, "I will, Signore . . . I will ask him to-day." For Giotto had, of course, heard of the great artist, Cimabue--the greatest painter of the time--and could hardly believe his own good fortune.
"You would like to study drawing?" went on Cimabue.
"Si, Signore," said Giotto, with all his heart in his voice. Like to study drawing? . . . Like to study under the great Cimabue? . . . Wasn't drawing the one thing in life he wanted to do? . . . Something within him shouted for joy!
Then Cimabue, looking down again at the drawing on the slate, put his hand on the boy's shoulder and said, somewhat gravely, "You have taught me something, mi' figlio, and it may be that I can teach you something." With a pleasant nod, he walked on, leaving the young Giotto in a whirl of new ideas.
The noble seemed to the boy the most wonderful person he had ever seen. No one before had ever noticed his drawing. No one had ever told him that it was worth while for him to draw. He drew because he felt he must. How kind a voice the man had! How he had looked and looked at this simple little lamb! Giotto had now a keen desire to see the paintings which Cimabue had done; for a man like that would surely paint glorious pictures. The thought of going to Florence to study drawing under him rushed through his whole being, as a mighty wind rushes through the trees. Something within him was suddenly freed. He felt lifted up and tingling with joyful expectation; all because of a compelling power in the noble, a power which the boy could not explain. He felt as though he himself, some day, would do great things--he, only Giotto di Bondone, watching his father's sheep!
Years passed. The wool merchant lost "a fine boy for work," but the world gained a great artist. Giotto painted at Assisi, Padua, and Florence, frescoes of such power and freedom that all who saw them realized that here was an entirely new way of expressing life. For the man Giotto looked at men with the same understanding eyes with which the young Giotto had watched the sheep and the oak trees on the hillside; and he painted his human figures in firm reality as he had dreamed of doing. As a boy, he had looked with his own eyes; as a man, he still looked with his own eyes; and, because he so looked, painting, in his hands, became a new thing.
When the Cathedral in Florence was built, Giotto designed and commenced the Campanile, the beautiful bell tower. Some of the bas-reliefs are his own work; some are by his friend and pupil, Andrea Pisano; and some, which are by other sculptors, are carved from Giotto's designs. The bas-relief of Jabal--whoever made it--has, in it, a thought of the small hill-town of Vespignano and the brown-skinned boy with his sheep.
When you stand near the Shepherd's Tower--Giotto's Tower--in the midst of the fruit and flower venders, you will see, from pavement to cornice, exquisite paneling of white marble, red porphyry, and green serpentine that is like the soft green of Giotto's field. You will see finely wrought capitals of the windows, lace-like design, and beauty, everywhere. If you belong to the portion of the world that never sees goblins, you will not see even the shadow of the goblin of the tower. If you belong to the fortunate portion that sees and hears all that there is to see and hear, you will easily believe the tale of Lucia, the flower vender, when she points to the bas-relief of the little lamb outside Jabal's tent and says: "The folletto of this tower is Giotto's lamb, you understand; yes, the lamb's spirit it is that guards so well our beautiful tower."
When you mount the stairs you will hear a voice saying encouragingly:
As you hear the voice, you will have a momentary glimpse of a boy on a far-away hillside playing with his little lamb, and you will know that you really hear the voice of the spirit of the lamb--the guardian spirit of Giotto's Tower.
Sources And Further Reading
Sacred Texts Tower Legends by Bertha Palmer Lane