CIMABUE, GIOVANNI (1240 to about 1302), Italian painter, was born in Florence of a respectable family, which seems to have borne the name of Gualtieri, as well as that of Cimabue (Bullhead). He took to the arts of design by natural inclination, and sought the society of men of learning and accomplishment. Vasari, the historian of Italian painting, zealous for his own native state of Florence, has left us the generally current account of Cimabue, which later researches have to a great extent invalidated. We cannot now accept his assertion that art, extinct in Italy, was revived solely by Cimabue, after he had received some training from Greek artists invited by the Florentine government to paint the chapel of the Gondi in the church of S. Maria Novella; for native Italian art was not then a nullity, and this church was only begun when Cimabue was already forty years old; Even Lanzi's qualifying statement that Greek artists, although they did not paint the chapel of the Gondi, did execute rude decorations in a chapel below the existing church, and may thus have inspired Cimabue, makes little difference in the main facts. What we find as the general upshot is that some Italian painters preceded Cimabue - particularly Guido of Siena and Giunta of Pisa; that he worked on much the same principle as they, and to a like result; but that he was nevertheless the most advanced master of his time, and, by his own works, and the training which he imparted to his mighty pupil Giotto, he left the art far more formed and more capable of growth than he found it (see Painting).
The undoubted admiration of his contemporaries would alone demonstrate the conspicuous position which Cimabue held, and deserved to hold. For the chapel of the Rucellai in S. Maria Novella he painted in tempera a colossal "Madonna and Child with Angels," the largest altarpiece produced up to that date; before its removal from the studio it was visited with admiration by Charles of Anjou, with a host of eminent men and gentle ladies, and it was carried to the church in a festive procession of the people and trumpeters. Cimabue was at this time living in the Borgo Allegri, then outside the walls of Florence; the legend that the name Allegri (Joyous) was bestowed on the locality in consequence of this striking popular display is more attractive than accurate, for the name existed already. Of this celebrated picture, one of the great landmarks of modern and sacred art, some details may be here given, which we condense from the History of Painting in Italy by Crowe and Cavalcaselle.
"The Virgin in a red tunic and blue mantle, with her feet resting on an open-worked stool, is sitting on a chair hung with a white drapery flowered in gold and blue, and carried by six angels kneeling in threes above each other. A delicately engraved nimbus surrounds her head, and that of the infant Saviour on her lap, who is dressed in a white tunic, and purple mantle shot with gold. A dark-coloured frame surrounds the gabled square of the picture, delicately traced with an ornament interrupted at intervals by thirty medallions on gold ground, each of which contains the half-figure of a saint. In the face of the Madonna is a soft and melancholy expression; in the form of the infant, a certain freshness, animation and natural proportion; in the group, affection - but too rare at this period. There is sentiment in the attitudes of the angels, energetic mien in some prophets, comparative clearness and soft harmony in the colours. A certain loss of balance is caused by the overweight of the head in the Virgin as compared with the slightness of her frame. The features are the old ones of the 13th century; only softened, as regards the expression of the eye, by an exaggeration of elliptical form in the iris, and closeness of the curves of the lids. In the angels the absence of all true notions of composition may be considered striking; yet their movements are more natural and pleasing than hitherto. One indeed, to the spectator's right of the Virgin, combines more tender reverence in its glance than any that had yet been produced. Cimabue gave to the flesh-tints a clear and carefully fused colour, and imparted to the forms some of the rotundity which they had lost. With him vanished the sharp contrasts of hard lights, half-tones and shadows."
In a general way, it may be said that Cimabue showed himself forcible in his paintings, as especially in heads of aged or strongly characterized men; and, if the then existing development of art had allowed of this, he might have had it in him to express the beautiful as well. He, according to Vasari, was the first painter who wrote words upon his paintings, - as, for instance, round the head, of Christ in a picture of the Crucifixion, the words addressed to Mary, Mulier ecce filius tuus.
Other paintings still extant by Cimabue are the following: - In the academy of Arts in Florence, a "Madonna and Child," with eight angels, and some prophets in niches, - better than the Rucellai picture in composition and study of nature, but more archaic in type, and the colour now spoiled (this work was painted for the Badia of S. Trinita, Florence); in the National Gallery, London, a "Madonna and Child with Angels," which came from the Ugo Baldi collection, and had probably once been in the church of S. Croce, Florence; in the Louvre, a "Madonna and Child," with twenty-six medallions in the frame, originally in the church of S. Francesco, Pisa. In the lower church of the Basilica of S. Francesco at Assisi, Cimabue, succeeding Giunta da Pisa, probably adorned the south transept, - painting a colossal "Virgin and Child between four Angels," above the altar of the Conception, and a large figure of St Francis. In the upper church, north transept, he has the "Saviour Enthroned and some Angels," and, on the central ceiling of the transept, the "Four Evangelists with Angels." Many other works in both the lower and the upper church have been ascribed to Cimabue, but with very scanty evidence; even the above-named can be assigned to him only as matter of probability. Numerous others which he indisputably did paint have perished, - for instance, a series (earlier in date than the Rucellai picture) in the Carmine church at Padua, which were destroyed by a fire.
From Assisi Cimabue returned to Florence. In the closing years of his life he was appointed capomaestro of the mosaics of the cathedral of Pisa, and was afterwards, hardly a year before his death, joined with Arnolfo di Cambio as architect for the cathedral of Florence. In Pisa he executed a Majesty in the apse, - "Christ in glory between the Virgin and John the Evangelist," a mosaic, now much damaged, which stamps him as the leading artist of his time in that material. This was probably the last work that he produced.
The debt which art owes to Cimabue is not limited to his own performances. He was the master of Giotto, whom (such at least is the tradition) he found a shepherd boy of ten, in the pastures of Vespignano, drawing with a coal on a slate the figure of a lamb. Cimabue took him to Florence, and instructed him in the art; and after his death Giotto occupied a house which had belonged to his master in the Via del Cocomero. Another painter with whom Cimabue is said to have been intimate was Gaddo Gaddi.
It had always been supposed that the bodily semblance of Cimabue is preserved to us in a portrait-figure by Simon Memmi painted in the Cappella degli Spagnuoli, in S. Maria Novella, - a thin hooded face in profile, with small beard, reddish and pointed. This is, however, extremely dubious. Simone Martini of Siena (commonly called Memmi) was born in 1283, and would therefore have been about nineteen years of age when Cimabue died; it is not certain that he painted the work in question, or that the figure represents Cimabue. The Florentine master is spoken of by a nearly contemporary commentator on Dante (the so-called Anonimo, who wrote about 1334) as arrogante e disdegnoso; so "arrogant and scornful" that, if any one, or if he himself, found a fault in any work of his, however cherished till then, he would abandon it in disgust. This, however, to a modern mind, looks more like an aspiring and fastidious desire for perfection than any such form of "arrogance and scorn" as blemishes a man's character. Giovanni Cimabue was buried in the cathedral of Florence, S. Maria del Fiore, with an epitaph written by one of the Nini: -
"Credidit ut Cimabos picturae castra tenere,
Sic tenuit vivens; nunc tenet astra poli."
Here we recognize distinctly a parallel to the first clause in the famous triplet of Dante:
"Credette Cimabue nella pintura
Tener lo campo; ed ora ha Giotto il grido,
Sì che la fama di colui s' oscura."
Besides Vasari, and Crowe and Cavalcaselle (re-edited by Langton), the following works may be consulted: - P. Angeli, Storia della basilica d' Assisi; Cole and Stillman, Old Italian Masters (1892); Mrs Ady, Painters of Florence (1900).
(W. M. R.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)