THE origin of Florentine painting still remains wrapt in obscurity. But it is certain that in the dark and troubled times that followed the barbarian invasion and the fall of the Roman Empire, the practice of art never wholly died away in Italy. After the dissolution of Charlemagne’s Empire, in the ninth century, it probably reached the lowest ebb, and it is only in the eleventh and twelfth centuries that signs of renewed activity, both among painters and mosaic-workers, can be traced. Two chief influences are apparent in the rude style of the native artists of medieval Italy. On the one hand we have the Roman tradition that lingered on in the early mosaics of Ravenna, and in the remains of painting and sculpture which adorn the Catacombs. The civilisation of ancient Rome had sunk too deeply into the heart of Italy to be quite forgotten. Not only in the Eternal City, but all through Italy, remnants of classical art, temples and sarcophagi, still kept alive the spark of antique culture in the heart of the people, and de-based pagan types figured in the earliest representation of Christian subjects. This influence was always reappearing in one form or another in the classical architecture of churches, such as the Baptistery or San Miniato of Florence, and the decorative sculpture which we still see on twelfth century façades in Umbria, or again in the antique forms adopted by the Cosmati artists and mosaic-workers of mediaeval Rome. On the other hand there was the influence of Byzantium, which from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries supplied not only Eastern but Western Europe with its art, and became the medium through which classical traditions were handed on to the masters of France, Germany and Italy. This influence was chiefly felt in Venice and in Sicily, but at one time it held considerable sway in Tuscany, especially at Siena, where Byzantine traditions still prevailed in Giotto’s time. To a certain extent the same influences were apparent in the Florentine art of the day, although here they were mingled with other elements, and the lifelike feeling and spontaneous vivacity of native art asserted itself more fully at an earlier period. But even in Florence, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the technique of artists was, for the most part, learnt at Constantinople, and the types in use were those laid down by the, second Council of Nicea, and rigidly followed in the representation of Christian subjects. It was only towards the close of the thirteenth century that the great revival came,. and the strong tide of the new Christian art swept away the lingering remnants of decadent classicism and effete Byzantine tradition. The true leader of that movement, the real founder of the Italian Renaissance, was St. Francis of Assisi. He it was who by boldly proclaiming the brotherhood of the human race, and the equal rights of each individual soul in the sight of God, gave life a new glory and filled the old truths with new and diviner meaning. He it was who first set forth the love of God and the tender human relations of the Virgin Mother and her Child, and whose glowing eloquence and passionate devotion inspired artists with a new conception, which lived on through the next three centuries to reach its highest expression in the perfect art of Raphael. He it was, again, who, seeing the face of God in the beauty of the natural world, praising Him for the radiant splendour of his good brother Messer Sole, and calling the birds his little sisters, first opened the eyes of men to the wonder and loveliness about them, and made them see that this earth was very good. The enthusiasm of his new Gospel stirred the hearts of all Italy, and bore fruit in a thousand different forms. Instead of seeking desert solitudes and retreats hidden from the world, the friars of the new order settled in the most populous quarters of the cities. The crowds who flocked to hear them preach, the wealth with which they were endowed by rich citizens, led to the foundation of churches and convents in every town and village. These in their turn created a new and sudden demand for pictorial décoration, and thus the relations between the Mendicant friars and the burgher class produced the art of the Renaissance.
The natural artistic capacity of the Tuscan race and the political conditions of the time were both favour-able to the rise of this new Christian art. The first great master of the Renaissance was the sculptor Niccolò Pisano, a man of undoubtedly Tuscan birth, who, by forming his style on antique models, laid the foundation for all future progress. But although Niccolò began, about 1260, by carving Madonnas and angels, after the pattern of the bas-reliefs on ancient sarcophagi, before the end of his career he felt the power of another influence. This was the Gothic movement, which had already produced such splendid results in the architecture and sculpture of French Cathedrals, and was very rapidly spreading south of the Alps. While the romances of French chivalry and the songs of Provencal trouvères became every day more popular in Italy, French ivories and miniatures gradually found their way into Tuscany, and French artists were invited to the Courts of Angevin and Hohenstaufen princes at Naples and Palermo. This Gothic feeling it was which modified Niccolò Pisano’s conceptions in later years, and inspired the bas-reliefs and statues of his son Giovanni with that wonderful dramatic sense and vehement energy which brings him so near to Giotto. The new movement soon made itself strongly felt in Florence, where, before the end of the century, a scholar of Niccolò Pisano, Arnolfo di Cambio reared the walls of the Gothic Duomo and the Franciscan church of Santa Croce, and planned the lofty tower of the Palazzo Vecchio. -Painting in its turn felt the new impulse, and the revived artistic activity is evident in the large numbers of painters whose names appear in contemporary records. By the laws of Florence, painters belonged to the Guild of doctors and apothecaries, which was one of the seven Major Arts, or higher class of trades, and each artist was required to matriculate in this body before he could practise as an independent master. This close connection between painting and medicine dates back to very early days, and receives further illustration from the fact that St. Luke was the patron of both doctors and artists. During the last ten years of the thirteenth century more than twenty masters, who all had workshops and apprentices, are mentioned as living in Florence, and a street in the heart of the city bore the name of the Via dei Pittori. Among all these, the only painter who attained a high degree of reputation was Giovanni Cenni, surnamed Cimabue, after some member of a noble Florentine family by whom he was adopted, and generally known by this name, Both Dante and Vasari speak of him as the foremost artist of his age, and Vasari relates how this man was born, by the will of God, in the year 1240, to give the first light to the art of painting. In the account of Cimabue’s life which follows, the historian tells us that as a boy he was sent to study letters in the Dominican convent of Santa Maria Novella, where instead of learning grammar he spent his time in watching the Greek painters at work in the neighbouring church. Since Santa Maria Novella was only built when Cimabue was forty years of age, this statement can hardly be correct ; but Vasari is probably right in saying that the Florentine master owed his training to artists of Byzantine origin. The remainder of Vasari’s biography is of the same legendary nature. After enumerating Cimabue’s chief altar-pieces and frescoes in the churches of Florence, of Pisa and Assisi, he describes the great Madonna which he painted for the chapel of the Rucellai family in Santa Maria Novella, and tells us how, in the ecstasy of their admiration, the people bore the picture in solemn procession, to the sound of trumpets, from the master’s house to the church. ” It is further reported,” adds the biographer, ” that while Cimabue was painting this picture, in a garden near the gate of San Pietro, King Charles of Anjou passed through Florence, and the magistrates conducted him to see the painting of Cimabue. When this work was shown to the king, it had not yet been seen by any one, so all the men and women in Florence hastened in crowds to see it with the greatest demonstrations of joy. And the inhabitants of the neighbourhood afterwards called the quarter Borgo Allegri, a name it has ever since retained, although in course of time it became enclosed within the city walls.”
Since Charles of Anjou visited Florence in 1267, and the Rucellai Madonna was evidently painted at a later period of Cimabue’s career, Vasari’s tale, it is plain, must be accepted with reserve. Modern criticism, it must be owned, has dealt rudely with this master’s fame. Seventy years ago Rumohr boldly pronounced Vasari’s account of Cimabue to be the pure invention of Florentine municipal vanity, and Dr. Wickhoff has lately declared that it is doubtful whether a single painting by Cimabue is now in existence. None the less, a careful examination of the works which bear his name may enable us to form a clear and definite idea of the old Florentine’s style. Three of the Madonnas ascribed to him by Vasari still remain : the altar-piece which he painted for the monks of the Vallombrosan Order in the Church of the Trinità, now in the Accademia of Florence ; the picture in the Louvre, which he executed for the Franciscans of Pisa a work which Vasari tells us “brought him high praise and large rewards,” and the Rucellai Madonna, in Santa Maria Novella. All three of these pictures are painted on a gold ground, and follow the laws of Byzantine tradition. In all three Virgins we see the same long, curved nose, the same droop of the head, the same elliptic iris, oval-shaped eyes, and small mouth drawn on one side. Again, in all three pictures we see the same stiff, triangular folds of drapery, the same action of the attendant angels, who clasp the throne as if supporting it, and the same shaped throne, which, in each case, is not of stone, as in Duccio’s altar-pieces, but of carved wood. The Rucellai Madonna is evidently of later date than Cimabue’s other altar-pieces, and bears marks of a distinct advance in his artistic development ; but the general features remain the same, and the strong likeness of the Virgin’s type of face to that of an angel in his Academy picture, seems to prove that both works are by the hand of the same master. A critic of authority, Dr. Richter, has, indeed, lately ascribed this Madonna to Duccio, on the strength of a document which shows that the Sienese master received a commission to paint an altar-piece for Santa Maria Novella in 1285 ; but we have no proof that this order was ever executed, and it is far more probable that it was finally given to the Florentine Cimabue. The general inferiority of the whole conception in grace and feeling, to that of Duccio, is evident at first sight, while a close comparison of this picture, with the great Sienese master’s genuine works reveals a variety of minor differences in technique and style. We may therefore safely accept the old tradition, recorded by Vasari, and confirmed by an earlier and more trustworthy writer, Albertini (1510), and believe that this altar – piece, which still hangs in the Rucellai Chapel, is the last and best of Cimabue’s Madonnas, the picture which made the heart of old Florence glad, and was borne in triumph through her streets.
Some remains of Cimabue’s frescoes may still be found at Assisi, where, Vasari tells us, he was invited, ” in company with certain Greek masters, to paint the roof of the Lower Church of S. Francesco, together with the life of Jesus Christ and that of St. Francis, on the walls.” The learned and accurate Franciscan friar, Petrus Rudolphus, who wrote a careful description of the great church in 1586, records that Cimabue and Giotto both worked there, and Ghiberti, writing early in the fifteenth century, says that Cimabue painted the whole of the Upper Church of Assisi. Most of the early frescoes in the Lower Church have been destroyed, and the hands of many different artists are apparent in the paintings of the Upper Church ; but in the south transept of the Lower Church, close to the noble works painted by Giotto a few years later, we find a Madonna attended by angels, bearing strong marks of Cimabue’s style, which his great scholar may well have left untouched out of respect to his master. This Virgin is of the same Byzantine type as those in his other altar-pieces, the throne is of the same carved wood, and by the side of the attendant angels a full-length figure of St. Francis appears on the wall. Cimabue’s hand may be also recognised in the angels in the triforium of the Upper Church and in a large Crucifixion on the wall of the south transept. This last-named fresco is completely ruined, but in the figures grouped around the Cross, and the gestures of the weeping angels who hover in the air, we trace the first attempts to render natural feeling, the first crude efforts of native Italian art to break through the trammels of Byzantine tradition. Both here and in the tempera altar-pieces we recognise the spark of vitality which Cimabue was the first to introduce in Florentine painting, and which explains the great reputation which he enjoyed among his contemporaries. A proud and arrogant man, as he is described by Dante’s oldest commentator, Cimabue lived to experience the vanity of earthly renown, and to see his fame eclipsed by that of his young scholar.
” Credette Cimabue nella pintura Tener lo campo, ed ora ha Giotto il grido, Sì che la fama di colui s’oscura.”
The last works of Cimabue were executed at Pisa, where he painted some frescoes in the hospital of Santa Chiara, and, in 1302, received a sum in payment, at the rate of ten soldi a day, for a mosaic of a colossal St. John on the vault of the Duomo. Soon afterwards he died, and was buried within the newly raised walls of his friend Arnolfo’s Duomo, where a Latin epitaph was inscribed upon his tomb, saying that in his lifetime Cimabue held the field in painting, and now holds the stars of Heaven.
As an artist, Cimabue was distinctly inferior to his contemporary, the Sienese Duccio, the last illustrious Byzantine master, and still more inferior to his own scholar Giotto, the first of the great Florentines ; but he deserves to be remembered as a painter whose work gave the first promise of a return to nature, and who may justly be called a herald of the coming dawn.
Florence.Accademia delle belle Arti: 102, Madonna and Child.
S. Maria Novella : Rucellai Chapel : Madonna and Child with Angels.
Assisi. Upper Church: FrescoesCrucifixion, Angels.
Lower Church, S. transept: Madonna and Angels with St. Francis.
Pisa.Duomo: Mosaic of St. John.
Paris.–Louvre: 153. Madonna and Child, with six Angels.