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Cimabue (Cenni di Pepi) (c.1240-c.1302)

( Originally Published 1955 )

There is very little documentary evidence of the activity of this Florentine painter, though his fame in his own time and later is attested to by Dante's reference to him in comparison with Giotto and by the injudicious liberality with which Vasari attributes works to him. In 1272 a "Cimabove pictore de Florencia" was called as a witness in Rome. In 1301-2 Cimabue was director of mosaic work at the cathedral of Pisa. In 1302 he was commissioned to paint an altarpiece, together with "Nichulux Apparechiati," for the New Hospital at Pisa. Scholarly opinion on the attribution of works to Cimabue runs from a minimum of some hand in one mosaic at Pisa to a maximum of a long list of controversial attributions. Only four monuments are generally agreed to be by him in whole or in part: 1. the mosaic of the Deesis in the Pisa cathedral (1302) ; 2. a large panel painting of the Madonna with Angels in the Uffizi; 3. the Madonna with Angels and St. Francis in the Lower Church of San Francesco, Assisi; 4. certain frescoes in the apse and transepts of the Upper Church at Assisi. The Pisa mosaic represents the Lord Enthroned, flanked by the Virgin and St. John. Only the figure of St. John is considered to be Cimabue's work, though he probably supervised other parts of the execution. This mosaic is in relatively good condition. The Uffizi Madonna, also in good condition, shows that Cimabue was at home in the Byzantine tradition, but affected by the new tendencies of the late thirteenth century toward grace and naturalness of posture and facial expression. The Madonna in the Lower Church at Assisi is closely related to the Uffizi Madonna but its present surface is largely a product of the seventeenth century. Cimabue's major work at Assisi was in the Upper Church (c.1288-96). Here he is believed to have executed a considerable part of the transept and apse decoration, which is in sadly dilapidated condition. The central subjects represented are two Crucifixions, scenes of the Apocalypse, scenes from the life of the Virgin, and Acts of the Apostles. Cimabue probably planned the entire series but much of it was executed by helpers. A Madonna panel in the Louvre is closely related to the Uffizi Madonna but is generally ascribed to a follower. Cimabue appears to have been Florentine by birth, generally Tuscan in artistic background, and much affected by the Roman school which is well represented in Assisi. His influence was not great and his art was soon overshadowed by that of Giotto, but he holds an important place in the development of the dramatic narrative style that flourished in Florence after his time.

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