Monday, 7 January 2013

Who was Cimabue?

Cimabue, Great Crucifixion,1280-83, Fresco, 350 x 690 cm
Upper Church, San Francesco, Assisi.detail;  two figures, one possible self-portrait (right).

The first real Florentine artist is thought to have been Cimabue. We know from written sources that Cimabue’s name was Bencivieni di Pepo, or to render it in modern Italian: Benvenuto di Guiseppe. An error was made by one seventeenth-historian who called him “Giovanni,” a mistake explained by similar names being given to painters by writers of this time. The “Cima” in the name has two meanings: cima, a noun meaning summit, or head; bue, meaning ox, could be rendered “Ox-head.” Also the verb cimare, which means to shear or cut. “Cimabue” would therefore signify “a boldly scornful or ironical man.”[1] This interpretation gains some support from a commentary on Dante’s Divine Comedy of 1310, where Cimabue is located in Purgatory:

Domenico di Michelino
Dante and the Three Kingdoms
Oil on canvas
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence
 “Cimabue, of Florence, a painter of the time of our author (Dante), knew more of the noble art than any other man; but he was so arrogant and proud withal, that if any discovered a fault in his work, or if he perceived one himself, as will often happen to the artist who fails from the defects of the material that he uses, or from insufficiency of the instrument with which he works, he would instantly abandon that work, however costly it might be.”[2]

Cimabue, Great Crucifixion,1280-83, Fresco, 350 x 690 cm
Upper Church, San Francesco, Assisi.
 Though Cimabue left no image of his own face, on the basis of the description given of Cimabue, one scholar has speculated wether a face in his Grand Crucifixion at San Domenico in Assisi is that of Cimabue’s own.[3]  The Cimabue scholar, Eugenio Battisti agreed with this interpretation believing that the “fierce, hostile tone” of this face conformed to Dante’s view of Cimabue as an arrogant man, acid- tongued towards his enemies and intolerant of stupidity in others. Dante placed Cimabue in Purgatory because he was guilty of the sin of pride (Purg., Canto XI). Later commentators have glossed Dante’s inclusion more broadly; the painter’s pride is seen as a facet of his ambition, noble in outlook, and regarding himself separate from mere artisan status like many painters of the age.
 Though he was born in Florence (about 1240), he travelled widely and worked outside that city, eventually dying in Pisa in 1302. Most of Cimabue scholarship must proceed on the basis of stylistic analysis or connoisseurship given the lack of documentary evidence about the artist, unless we rely on unreliable narrators like Giorgio Vasari. Vasari said that Cimabue taught Giotto, but he speculated about Cimabue’s own artistic education.[4] Possibly Cimabue was trained by masters in Florence with links to Byzantine art; he may also have been influenced by nearby schools such as the Lucchese, as mentioned in the last post. Cimabue’s first attributed work is the previously mentioned Grand Crucifixion at Arezzo which has nothing of the Byzantine manner about it. Painted with a grand sweep containing figures with dramatic gestures.

[1] Eugenio Battisti, Cimabue, Penn State University Press, (1967), 5.
[2] Ottimo Commento della Divina Commedia, 1333-34.
[3] Guglielmo Capogrossi whose hypothesis is mentioned in Battisti, Cimabue, 5-6. 
[4] Vasari, Lives, Vol. 1, “Cimabue”, 49-56.

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