The hidden master: Cimabue

Destiny seems to have relegated the Florentine painter Cimabue to the shadows compared to other major masters of the history of art. In part his fame was obfuscated by the popularity of other artists, particularly Giotto. In part many of his works have been either lost over the centuries, or severely damaged by natural disasters. Even the date of Cimabue's birth is known only approximately, placed between 1240 and 1245. The first historic fact of his life is a notation that on 18 June 1272, he was present in Rome as a witness to the assumption of patronage by Pope Gregory X of the monastery of Saint Damiano. The fact that he was called to witness the event suggests that at the time Cimabue was already a well-known and respected figure. It is also significant that Cimabue had traveled to Rome, and was thus exposed to the influences of the classical school.

Following that, historical information is available only for an event some 25 years later, when between 1301 and 1302, Cimabue was called to Pisa to complete the mosaics in the cathedral. Also in 1301 the hospital of Santa Chiara charges the master with the painting of a large alter piece, which has unfortunately been lost. The year 1302 also marks the death of Cimabue.Fresco by Cimabue: San Francesco

Despite the paucity of information, subsequent research has led to the conclusion that Cimabue was perhaps the first innovator in Italian art who overcame the stylistic rigidity of Byzantine art and moved to more varied colors and natural representations of images. The art historian Vasari was the first to attribute the fresco decorations in the Basilica of Saint Francis at Assisi to Cimabue, with the exception of those regarding the life of Saint Francis which were painted by Giotto. However, while Cimabue is recognized as an innovator in art history, it was Giotto who carried forward the innovation and promoted a major change in the art form.

Among the major works attributed to Cimabue is the large cross in the church of Saint Domenico in Arezzo, It is believed that the painting dates to around 1270. An innovative element is that is depicts Christ in the dramatic moment of his death, underlining the commonality with human suffering. This painting, while innovative in many respects, is not yet the full expression of Cimabue's later style.

Fresco by Cimabue : Christ ( detail ) source image Wikipedia

The fact that Cimabue's style was subsequently influenced by his Roman experience is underlined by his frescoes in the vault of the Evangelists in the superior basilica of Saint Francis at Assisi. In particular, the famous painting of “Ytalia" symbolized by the city of Rome. In what is one of the oldest painted representations of the city, all of the major monuments of the city are pictured in great and realistic detail.

The other frescoes in Saint Francis are grouped in three distinct cycles: eight relate to Storie della Vergine (life of the Virgin), seven Scene apocalittiche (apocalyptic scenes), and finally five Storie apostoliche (stories of the apostles). The decorations are completed by two large frescoes of the crucifixion, both on the side walls of the church.

Fresco by Cimabue: St John - Detail - Source ( wikipedia )

Unfortunately, many of the frescoes have reached us in a compromised state. Cimabue made extensive use of tempera touch-ups on dry plaster to complete his works, and over the centuries many of these were detached. Moreover, the white color used to highlight portions of the paintings has become severely oxidized, causing an inversion between light and dark in the paintings. The earthquake of 1997 had further severe adverse effects on the frescoes due to the collapse or cracking of the supporting walls, but intensive restoration efforts have helped to remedy these problems.