The Italian painter Cimabue (active last quarter of 13th century) worked in an Italo-Byzantine style characterized by a vigor and vivacity that set it apart from the more conventional art of his times and anticipated the more natural style of the 14th century.
Cimabue whose given name was Cenno de' Pepi, was probably born before 1250. The earliest document associated with him dates from June 8, 1272. The only other documented phase of Cimabue's life relates to his apse mosaic, St. John the Evangelist, in the Pisa Cathedral, dated 1301-1302. He died sometime after mid-1302.
Some hint of Cimabue's personality comes from literary sources. Dante mentioned Cimabue in the Divine Comedy but was more concerned with the moral lesson to be taught about the transitory nature of fame than with Cimabue's character: "Once, Cimabue thought to hold the field/In painting; Giotto's all the rage today;/The other's fame lies in the dust concealed" (Purgatory, Canto XI, 94-96, trans. Dorothy L. Sayers).
In an early-14th-century commentary on the Divine Comedy, Cimabue was described as arrogant and haughty; however, Lorenzo Ghiberti's account of the legend, later repeated by Giorgio Vasari, of how Cimabue discovered Giotto as a shepherd drawing on a flat stone and offered to train the boy in the artist's craft would suggest that Cimabue's disposition had a charitable side as well.
The majority of extant examples of Cimabue's art consists of frescoes and panel paintings. The most extensive of these are the frescoes in the transept and apse of the Upper Church of S. Francesco in Assisi (ca. 1290). Vasari declared that Cimabue was responsible for all the decorations in the Upper Church except for the series of frescoes given over to the legend of St. Francis. Modern critics have tended to see Cimabue as the guiding spirit behind the decoration of the transept and apse but not necessarily the author of every scene.
The large Crucifixion scene in the left transept is the masterpiece among Cimabue's works in Assisi. The fresco, which now has the appearance of a photographic negative, the result of the blackening of lead pigments, is powerful and evocative. Cimabue took a Byzantine iconographic form, the dead Christ on the cross, and filled it with human drama. From the gentle rhythms among the faithful on the left to the pulsating hysteria of the angels fluttering about the cross, Cimabue related the story of the Crucifixion in direct, humanly comprehensible terms. The firmly rendered figures possess a plasticity and fullness not commonly found in late-13th-century painting and certainly explain why he was cited as the first painter to break away from the "Greek" manner and develop a more natural style of painting.
The Evangelists' portraits in the vaults of the crossing also reveal Cimabue's skill in creating full and plastic forms. Placed in half of the rather awkward triangular format, balanced in the other half with a cityscape, the Evangelists sit on wooden thrones drawn in distorted perspective. Their heads and hands have a volume quite consistent with the three-dimensional rendering of the drapery.
In the Lower Church of S. Francesco is the fresco Madonna Enthroned with Angels and St. Francis. It is one of Cimabue's most touching works, although it is in poor condition now.
Two painted wood crucifixes demonstrate the evolution of Cimabue's style. In the earlier work, in S. Domenico, Arezzo, which probably dates from before the frescoes in Assisi (that is, before ca. 1290), the artist retained traditional Italo-Byzantine conventions, especially in the linear definition of muscles, treatment of the hair, gold striations in the opaque loincloth, and two bust-length portraits in the terminals. The later work, formerly in Sta Croce, Florence (destroyed 1966), which probably dates from about the same time as the murals in Assisi, showed a new softness of modeling and abandonment of some Byzantine conventions, like gold striations. The torso of Christ was modeled with broad, widely varied tones which tended to suppress the tortoiseshell appearance seen in the Arezzo crucifix. In the Florence crucifix Cimabue was moving further along the path toward greater naturalism.
The large Madonna Enthroned from the Church of Sta Trinita in Florence (1280-1285) is one of the best paintings to study in order to understand Cimabue's art. The artist retained a number of Byzantine motifs but forsook the austere, hieratic remoteness of the typical Byzantine Virgin for a softer, more human warmth. She is more accessible, more loving, more the earthly mother. Cimabue, furthermore, showed a concern for the realistic depiction of space in his arrangement of the angels around the throne and in the perspective of the throne itself. The four busts which appear in openings below the throne are without precedent. They give the panel an architectural stability and importance not found in any other work of the period.
The literature on Cimabue is substantial, with most of the work in Italian and German. Among English language works Eugenio Battisti's monograph Cimabue (1963; trans. 1967) is the most useful. It includes complete transcriptions of all documents, most of the earliest sources, a catalogue raisonné, a good bibliography, and especially fine color and black-and-white reproductions. Alfred Nicholson, Cimabue: A Critical Study (1932), is basic for an understanding and appreciation of Cimabue's role in the evolution of Italian painting. It includes very useful appendices, with summaries of documents and sources and lists of authentic and attributed works.