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Cenni di Pepo Cimabue

Florentine painter (1240-after 1301)

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Cimabue, CENNI DI PEPO, Florentine painter, b. 1240; d. after 1301; the legendary founder of Italian painting and the reputed master of Giotto. Vasari begins his biography with these words: “In the flood of disasters which had overwhelmed unfortunate Italy not only all monuments of art worthy of the name but also all artists had disappeared, when, in 1240, Cimabue was born in the city of Florence, of the noble Cimabue family of the period, to illumine, as it were, the way towards the art of painting.” Then follows the story of the painter’s childhood. According to Vasari some Greeks who had settled in Florence were his masters, but he soon surpassed them, and his reputation became so great that Charles of Anjou came to visit him in his studio. When he completed his famous “Madonna”, the people bore it in triumph to Santa Maria Novella, with such jubilation that the section where the painter lived was afterwards called the Borgo Allegri.

All this has since been proved untrue, and is attributed to the zeal of Vasari, the Italian historian of art, for the glory of Florence, his native city. The so-called barbarism of the thirteenth century is no longer credited. This was, on the contrary, the age of the true Renaissance. The cathedrals of Pisa, Lucca, and Pistoia had been built; the basilica of Assisi and the Abbey of S. Galgano were already in the course of construction. In Rome this was the era of the great Cosmati family, of Torriti, and Cavallini, in Sicily of those wonderful sculptors, Ravello and Capone. At Pisa (1260) it was marked by the completion of the famous pulpit of the baptistery, the work of Nicolo Pisano, and the first classical work of art in Italy. Yet this is what Vasari called the “barbarism of the thirteenth century”. The story of Cimabue is a curious example of false historical data. It frequently happened among the ancients that the victorious race stole even the past laurels of the vanquished, appropriating their gods, their legends, and their myths. Similarly a rivalry existed in the Middle Ages between the Republics of Siena and Florence. Florence could never pardon Siena for its great victory of Montaperti (1260), and this was the cause of much trouble between the two. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the most brilliant era of Florence, marked Siena‘s downfall. Florence alone possessed artists and writers. By means of the printing press the Florentines spread broadcast boasting accounts of themselves, and these errors became fixed.

Nothing availed against such a mass of official falsehoods. It needed all the patience of the modern critic to right these wrongs. It is now established that the famous “Madonna” of Santa Maria Novella, called the “Madonna Ruccellai”, is the work of the great artist of Siena, Duccio di Buoninsegna, who painted it in 1285 for the altar of the Brotherhood of the Blessed Virgin. These facts are proved by the discovery of a contract preserved in the records of Florence, and also from the evident relationship between this immortal work of art and other works of Duccio. Again it has been discovered that the triumphal procession to which Vasari refers in his account of Cimabue was held not in Florence, but in Siena (June 9, 1311), in honor of another masterpiece of this same Duccio, the great Maesta, or “Madonna of Majesty”, which may now be seen at the Opera del Duomo in Siena. That day, writes an eyewitness, a public feast was ordained in Siena. All the shops were closed. The bishop, the clergy, the Council of Nine, with a multitude of people, went to seek the masterpiece in the house of the painter, near the Porta Stalloreggi, and accompanied it as far as the cathedral, bearing torches and singing canticles. Thenceforward Siena took, in all public acts, the name of Civitas Virgins.

It is evident that these comprise all the elements of the assumed biography of Cimabue. Tradition was contented with a change of name. Duccio was forgotten, and the memory of his triumphs remained attached to the name of Cimabue, which explains the verse of Dante (Purg., XI):

Credette Cimabue nella pintura

Tener lo campo, ed ora ha Giotto it grido

Si che la fama di colui s’ oscura.

(Cimabue thought himself the master of painters, Giotto took from him the glory and relegated him to oblivion.) From this verse of Dante, which preserved for posterity the name of Cimabue, it was inferred that he was the master of Giotto. There was nothing more to do but furnish him with a biography and a list of works. Legend did the rest, as we have already seen. We learn, however, from these verses that Cimabue was a renowned master in his time. A recently discovered text tells us that Cimabove, pictore de Florencid, resided at Rome in 1272. In 1301 he received ten “livres” from the Opera del Duomo of Pisa for “St. John the Baptist” in mosaic, which accompanies the “Christ” in the cathedral, and two notarial acts mention the price for an altar-screen of the Madonna, to be painted by the said master, Cenni de Pepo, called Cimabue, with one of his own associates. Here our certitude ends. Aside from the “St. John” of Pisa, a mosaic which has been much repaired, we have not a single work of Cimabue. Some critics ascribe several paintings to him, but it must be admitted that in the absence of documents these surmises are without ground. The “Madonna” of the Louvre and that of the Academy of Florence have enough of the characteristics of Duccio to be taken as paintings of his school. The same must be said of the celebrated fresco of the “Virgin with St. Francis” in the right transept of the lower church of St. Francis at Assisi. But in the upper church the frescoes, now almost in ruins, of both transepts and the choir, representing the “Last Ends”, illustrating texts of the New Testament from the Crucifixion and the Acts of the Apostles to the Apocalypse, show a savage grandeur and suggest the work of a Byzantine Aeschylus. Nothing confirms, and on the other hand nothing prevents, the attribution of them to Cimabue. At any rate they are the work of a great artist.


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