Although heavily influenced by Byzantine models, Cimabue is generally regarded as one of the first great Italian painters to break from the Italo-Byzantine style. While art of this period consists of scenes and forms that appeared relatively flat and highly stylized, Cimabue's figures were depicted with more advanced lifelike proportions and shading compared to other artists of his time. According to Italian painter and historian Giorgio Vasari, Cimabue was the teacher of Giotto, the first great artist of the Italian Proto-Renaissance. However, many scholars today tend to discount Vasari's claim, citing earlier sources which suggest this was not the case.
Little is known about Cimabue's early life. One source that recounts his career is Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, though the accuracy of what it has to say is uncertain.
He was born in Florence and died in Pisa. Hayden Maginnis speculates he could have trained in Florence under masters culturally connected to Byzantine art. Many scholars today discount Vasari's claim that he later had Giotto as his pupil, citing earlier sources which suggest this was not the case.
Italian art historian Pietro Toesca attributed the Crucifixion in the church of San Domenico in Arezzo to Cimabue, dating around 1270, making it the earliest known attributed work that departs from the Byzantine style. Cimabue's Christ is bent and the clothes have the golden striations introduced by Coppo di Marcovaldo.
Around 1272 Cimabue is documented as being present in Rome, and a little later he made another Crucifix for the Florentine church of Santa Croce. Now restored, having been damaged by the 1966 Arno River flood, this work was larger and more advanced than the one in Arezzo, with traces of naturalism perhaps inspired by the works of Nicola Pisano. In the same period (c. 1280), Cimabue painted the Maestà, originally displayed in the church of San Francesco at Pisa, but now at the Louvre. This work established a style which was followed subsequently by numerous artists, including Duccio di Buoninsegna in his Rucellai Madonna (in the past wrongly attributed to Cimabue), as well as Giotto. Other works from this period, which were said to have heavily influenced Giotto, include a Flagellation (Frick Collection), mosaics for the Baptistery of Florence (now largely restored), the Maestà at the Santa Maria dei Servi in Bologna and the Madonna in the Pinacoteca of Castelfiorentino. A workshop painting, perhaps assignable to a slightly later period, is the Maestà with Saints Francis and Dominic currently housed in the Uffizi.
During the pontificate of Pope Nicholas IV, the first Franciscan pope, Cimabue worked in Assisi. At Assisi, in the transept of the Lower Basilica of San Francesco, he created a fresco named Madonna with Child Enthroned, Four Angels and St Francis. The left portion of this fresco is lost, but it may have shown St Anthony of Padua (the authorship of the painting has been recently disputed for technical and stylistic reasons). Cimabue was subsequently commissioned to decorate the apse and the transept of the Upper Basilica of Assisi, in the same period of time that Roman artists were decorating the nave. The cycle he created there comprises scenes from the Gospels, the lives of the Virgin Mary, St Peter and St Paul. These paintings are now in poor condition due to the oxidation of the brighter colors which the artist used.
The Maestà of Santa Trinità, dated to c. 1290–1300, which was originally painted for the church of Santa Trinità in Florence, is now in the Uffizi Gallery. The softer expression of the characters suggests that it was influenced by Giotto, who was by then already active as a painter.
Cimabue spent the last period of his life, 1301 to 1302, in Pisa. There he was commissioned to finish a mosaic of Christ Enthroned, originally begun by Maestro Francesco, in the apse of the city's cathedral. Cimabue was to create the part of the mosaic depicting St John the Evangelist, which remains the sole surviving work documented as being by the artist. Cimabue died around the year 1302.
According to Giorgio Vasari, "Cimabue of Florence was a painter who lived during the author's own time, a nobler man than anyone knew but he was as a result so haughty and proud that if someone pointed out to him any mistake or defect in his work, or if he had noted any himself...he would immediately destroy the work, no matter how precious it might be." 
His nickname, Cenni di Pepo, translates as ‘bull-head’, but also possibly as ‘one who crushes the views of others’, from the Latin word cimare, meaning top, shear, and blunt. The conclusion for the second meaning is drawn from similar commentaries on Dante, who was also known "for being contemptuous of criticism".
History has long regarded Cimabue as the last of an era that was overshadowed by the Italian Renaissance. As early as 1543, Vasari wrote of Cimabue, "Cimabue was, in one sense, the principal cause of the renewal of painting," with the qualification that, "Giotto truly eclipsed Cimabue's fame just as a great light eclipses a much smaller one."
O vanity of human powers,
how briefly lasts the crowning green of glory,
unless an age of darkness follows!
In painting Cimabue thought he held the field
but now it's Giotto has the cry,
so that the other's fame is dimmed.
Maestà of Santa Trinita, (detail) Prophet
Detail of the Santa Croce Crucifix showing Apostle John
Detail of mosaic Christ enthroned with the Virgin and St John showing St. John the Evangelist
References and sources
- Vasari, G. Lives of the Artists. Translated with an introduction and notes by J.C. and P Bondanella. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Oxford World’s Classics), 1991, pp. 7–14. ISBN 978-0-19-953719-8.
- Joseph F. Clarke (1977). Pseudonyms. BCA. p. 38.
- J. A. Crowe and G. B. Calvalcaselle, A History of Painting in Italy; Umbria, Florence and Siena from the Second to the Sixteenth Century, vol. 1, AMS Press, 1975, p. 202.
- Fred Kleiner (2008). Gardner's Art through the Ages: A Global History. Vol. 2. Cengage Learning EMEA. p. 502.
- Hayden B.J. Maginnis, "In Search of an Artist," in Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona, The Cambridge Companion to Giotto, Cambridge, 2004, 12-13.
- Paoletti, John T.; Radke, Gary M. (2005). Art in Renaissance Italy. Laurence King Publishing. p. 51.
- Van Vechten Brown, Alice; Rankin, William (1914). A Short History of Italian Painting. J.M. Dent & Sons, ltd. p. 41.
- Brink, Joel (October 1978). "Carpentry and Symmetry in Cimabue's Santa Croce Crucifix". The Burlington Magazine. Volume 120 (No. 907).
- Maxwell, Virginia; Leviton, Alex; Pettersen, Leif (2010). Tuscany & Umbria. Lonely Planet. p. 364.
- Havely, Nick (2004). Dante and the Franciscans: Poverty and the Papacy in the 'Commedia'. Cambridge University Press. p. 39.
- Brooke, Rosalind B. (2006). The Image of St. Francis: Responses to Sainthood in the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge University Press. p. 352.
- Paoletti, John T.; Radke, Gary M. (2005). Art in Renaissance Italy. Laurence King Publishing. p. 85.
- White, John (26 May 1993). Art and architecture in Italy 1250-1400 (3rd Revised ed.). Yale University Press. p. 175. ISBN 9707250208.
- Kleinhenz, Christopher (2004). Medieval Italy: An Encyclopedia. Routledge. pp. 223–224.
- Vasari, Giorgio (1991). Lives of the Artists, 1550. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 13. ISBN 0-19-281754-X.
- Gibbs, Robert. "Cimabue". www.oxfordartonline.com. Retrieved 2017-02-11.
- Purgatio XI, cited in the Cenni di Petro Cimabue article in the Catholic Encyclopedia
- Adams, Laurie Schneider (2001). Italian Renaissance Art. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. p. 420. ISBN 0-8133-3690-2.
- Vasari, Giorgio; translation by George Bull (1987). Lives of the Artists. Penguin Classics. ISBN 9780140445008.
- Vaughn, William (2000). Encyclopedia of Artists. Oxford University Press, Inc. ISBN 0-19-521572-9.
- Rossetti, William Michael (1911). "Cimabue, Giovanni". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
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