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Cimabue Photo

Cimabue - Biography and Legacy

Italian Painter and Mosaicist

Born: c. 1240 - Florence, Italy
Died: c. 1302 - Pisa, Italy
Movements and Styles:
Byzantine Art
Early Renaissance

Biography of Cimabue


Very little official documentation is available about the life of the 13th century Italian master, christened Bencivieni di Pepo, but better known by the name Cimabue. The earliest account of Cimabue's life was penned by Giorgio Vasari in his famous work The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550). Vasari, whose biographic anthology effectively established him as the modern world's first art historian, opened his book in fact with Cimabue's biography.

According to Vasari, Cimabue was born in the year 1240 in Florence to a family of noblemen. His father sent him to a relative to learn to read and write but the boy reportedly showed little interest in his studies. He was then sent to the Santa Maria Novella convent school where Cimabue took to sketching figures and animals on the pages of his textbooks. When Greek artists arrived in Florence to decorate the convent church, Cimabue's parents gave him permission to study their work. By Vasari's account, Cimabue "surpassed by a long way those Greek painters".

Because it is known that Vasari freely embellished the story of his artists' lives, one should remain circumspect when examining his account of Cimabue's life. As art historian J. White writes, according to Vasari "Cimabue becomes, with his Florentine successor [Giotto], one of the first heroes, in the battle fought to escape the abyss of medieval barbarism, which follows the great deeds of Antiquity and precedes the even more marvellous conquests of the Renaissance". The art critic Johnathan Jones adds that Vasari even "falsely claimed [Cimabue] painted the Rucellai Madonna, a famous altarpiece in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence that is credited today to the Sienese artist Duccio. This wasn't an innocent mistake: Vasari was a court artist to the Medici and wanted to credit Florence with starting the Renaissance".

Early Training and Work

In Vasari's account, Cimabue was trained by Greek Byzantine artists who resided in Florence throughout the thirteenth century. However, contemporary art historians believe that now seems highly unlikely and that story probably served Vasari's wish to account for Cimabue's genius and to heighten the impoverished state of Italy's art prior to the Florentine's intervention. There are no other confirmed facts about Cimabue's early training. However, his early work suggests that he was influenced by Pisan painter Giunta Pisano and Florentine painter Coppo di Marcovaldo. Given the strong stylistic similarities, chronological and geographical circumstances, it is also possible that the young Cimabue served for a period as Coppo's apprentice.

Because only a small number of works can be attributed to Cimabue, and because there is so little documentation that cites the artist explicitly by name, the dates of most of his works remain speculative. Nevertheless, it is generally accepted that one of his early important works was a wooden crucifix for the Basilica of San Domenico in Arezzo which he created around 1270. It demonstrates his attempt to advance the Byzantine style both in technique and in his more humanistic vision of religious art. Cimabue's Christ is not therefore triumphant or defiant, but closer to a human figure weighed down by suffering and sin.

Mature Period

White states, "[Cimabue] was certainly an adult and an independent teacher when, on 18 June 1272 in Rome, he was mentioned as a witness in a notarial document as 'Cimabove Pictore de Florencia'". Sadly, not much else is known about his activities in Rome. But the document indicates that Cimabue (a "painter from Florence") was already an accomplished artist and by now in his early thirties. Furthermore, the list of witnesses in the document reveals that he was well-connected and in the company of powerful figures in the Church.

On his return to Florence (from Rome), Cimabue created the large wooden Crucifix for the Basilica di Santa Croce (which was badly damaged in the devasting Arno River flood of 1966). Historian Kay Carson says of the work, "The realistic slump of Christ's body, together with the strain of his outstretched arms, graphically depicts human suffering, far removed from the stylised, expressionless iconography of the time. Moreover, the folds of cloth and the way in which the hands and feet protrude beyond the cross provide an albeit basic, three-dimensional effect".

Basilica of Saint Francesco, Assisi. Cimabue painted frescoes in the Upper Basilica of Saint Francesco.

One of Cimabue's most important undertakings around this time was the fresco cycle created for the Basilica of Saint Francesco in Assisi. The date of the frescos are still disputed among scholars but they were probably painted under the patronage of Pope Nicolas III between 1277 and 1280 (or less likely under the patronage of Pope Nicholas after 1290). The Basilica of Saint Francesco consists of two churches. The lower Romanesque church dates from around 1230, while the upper Gothic church opened in 1253. The Cimabue fresco cycle occupy the Upper Church (Giotto decorated the lower area) with The Four Evangelists in the vault of the presbytery; Stories of the Virgin in the choir; his Apocalyptic Scenes and Crucifixion occupy the northern arm of transept; and the Healing of the Lame the southern arm.

The large-scale project required a workshop that employed numerous assistants who supported the artist with this ambitious task. Cimabue worked alongside Jacopo Torriti and Pietro Cavallini, Roman artists who were also interested in exploring more humanistic forms of icon painting. Indeed, White observes that history has tended to "overlook or not realize how mobile artists were - moving from place to place across the unstable political boundaries of the time, often taking their workshops with them and changing citizenship when circumstances [demanded]".

The project earned high praise from Vasari: "[Cimabue] demonstrated in this work greater powers of invention along with a beautiful style in the pose of a Madonna". An example of this is the reworking of the Virgin's robe, namely the veil that falls vertically from the top of the head giving the image a more natural appearance. These innovations were adapted by other artists in Cimabue's circle as well as younger artists (including Giotto and Duccio). In fact, because of its similarities to Duccio's Rucellai Madonna, it is reasonable to assume that the two artists worked closely together or were at least acquainted professionally. It is also evident the Cimabue was influenced by (and indeed an influence on) Dietisalvi di Speme, a painter, and probably his closest rival, working in the Siena region (76km south of Florence).

The origins and date of his adopted name is something of a mystery: "cima" translates as "top", while "bue" refers to an ox or other bovine creature. John R. Spencer, Professor of Art, Duke University, Durham, suggests that "Cimabue's character may be reflected in his name, which can perhaps best be translated as 'bullheaded'". Spencer cites "an anonymous commentator in a work on Dante written in 1333-34" that described Cimabue as "so proud and demanding that if others found fault with his work, or if he found something displeasing in it himself, he would destroy the work, no matter how valuable". In Italian the nickname "bullhead" also applied to "one who crushes the views of others" and this tallies with the biographical picture of an artist whose hubris made him contemptuous of his critics and distractors.

Paul Narcisse Salières, <i>Cimabue Encounters Giotto</i> (1876). The painting recounts Lorenzo Ghiberti's story that tells how Cimabue first encountered Giotto drawing a sheep on a slab of stone.

There are two famous myths regarding Cimabue and Giotto's relationship. The Florentine artist, Lorenzo Ghiberti recounted a story of how Cimabue met Giotto as a small boy who was drawing a sheep from life. So impressed was he by his talent, Cimabue took on the young boy as his apprentice. This narrative has reverberated down the centuries and was also visualized by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Frederic Leighton. Another account describes how Giotto fooled his teacher by painting a fly so convincingly that Cimabue repeatedly tried to brush it off.

Vasari attributed Cimabue's haughty and proud character trait to his bitterness over Giotto's rise to fame. Indeed, Cimabue is marked in history as the teacher of the great Early Renaissance painter (Giotto). The idea of Cimabue being" overtaken" by Giotto was fixed, however, by Dante in his poem Purgatorio (Purgatory), the second part of the Divine Comedy:

"In painting Cimabue thought that he
Should hold the field, now Giotto has the cry,
So that the other's fame is growing dim."

These stories reaffirm Cimabue's role as a teacher who is destined to be eclipsed by his pupil. As art historian Holly Flora put it, "[Cimabue] played the role of John the Baptist to Giotto's Christ, a prophet of painting who prepared the way for his successor who would complete the path to artistic glory". Yet not everyone supported this view. As Carson observes, "Victorian art critic John Ruskin believed Cimabue to be Florence's finest painter, with talent equalling that of Tintoretto and Michelangelo. He suggested that it was only because he was the first in a series of artists who laid the foundations for the Renaissance that his contribution and impact have been eclipsed by those who followed. Ruskin [wrote] 'It is so with all great men: they rise to greatness on unknown stepping-stones'".

Flora writes that with his innovative approach to his Santa Trinita Maestà "Cimabue was perhaps responding to a request from the painting's commissioners [...] a religious reform order called the Vallombrosans, men who lived in community and practiced strict acts of fasting and penance". She adds that: "the Santa Trinita Madonna was commissioned at a time when many different religious orders such as the Franciscans and Dominicans were competing for the loyalty of Florence's wealthy citizens and their offerings. The building of lavish and spacious churches embellished with paintings commissioned by renowned artists were part of these groups' efforts to keep ahead in the rivalries".

Cimabue put his indelible stamp on the work by including four figures at the base of Mary's throne, King David and the prophets Jeremiah, Abraham, and Isaiah. Flora writes, "identified by the scrolls they hold displaying biblical texts associated with each of them [these] figures from the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) are included because they each - according to Christian theology - foretold or made possible the coming of Christ". This novel element appears to be an early incarnation of a predella, a decorative platform at the base of the altar that became popular in later altarpieces. Moreover, these figures are symbolically located at the base of the painting since the Old Testament serves as the foundation of which the New Testament is built.

Another smaller, but no less significant, devotional painting from this period was verified by The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The tiny painting, Madonna and Child with SS. Peter and John the Baptist, which historians believe was painted either by Cimabue or perhaps one of his pupils, dates from around the same time as the Santa Trinita Maestà and is considered highly significant because it shows a cloth of honor - that being the length of material, often gold brocade, which is hung behind the seat on which the Virgin and Child are enthroned - that historians believe may well be the first example of a patchwork quilt in Western art.

Late Period

Very little is known about Cimabue's activities during the last years of his life. Official documents - in which he is referred to as "Magister Cimabue Pictor Magiestatis" ("painter/supervisor of magic status") - confirm, however, that between 1300 and 1302 he was commissioned to work on two projects in Pisa: a mosaic for the apse of the Pisa Cathedral and an altarpiece (now lost) for the hospital Santa Chiara. There is no official record of the artist's death, but a testament from 1302 specifies that Cimabue's heirs inherited his estate in Fiesole. It is therefore presumed that he died during 1302 while still working on his Pisa commissions.

The Legacy of Cimabue

Vasari called Cimabue the one "who shed first light upon the art of painting". The legacy of Cimabue is intricately connected to a long literary tradition shaped by no less a figure than Dante, but Cimabue was destined to be outshone by the genius and talent of his greatest student, Giotto. Today the scholarly discourse on Cimabue tends to evaluate his contribution to Western art more independently. He is now accepted (since historians have firmly distinguished Cimabue's works from that of Duccio, who might have been Cimabue's rival) as the major artists of his generation; the man who built the bridge between Byzantine and Early Renaissance art.

Professor John R. Spencer wrote: "After him the Byzantine tradition in Italy died out, partly because it had been superseded by a new style, but also because he had exhausted all the possibilities inherent in [that] tradition [...] He was able to exploit a growing interest in narrative that had been inherent in the Byzantine tradition but never fully developed [and] he brought to Italian painting a new awareness of space and of sculptural form. By his own personality and by his contributions to painting he merits Vasari's characterization of him as the first Florentine painter and the first painter of 'modern' times". The Irish-British painter Francis Bacon cited him as one of his influences, and even kept a reproduction of a Cimabue crucifix in his studio. Bacon observed the "upside-down" Cimabue crucifix as an the inspirations on his famous painting, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944).

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Content compiled and written by Naomi Kojen

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Cimabue Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Naomi Kojen
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 01 Nov 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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