Cenni di Pepo (Giovanni) Cimabue (before 1251 – 1302), also known as Bencivieni di Pepo or in modern Italian, Benvenuto di Giuseppe, was an Italian painter and creator of mosaics from Florence.
Cimabue is generally regarded as the last great Italian painter working in the Byzantine tradition. The art of this period comprised scenes and forms that appeared relatively flat and highly stylized. Cimabue was a pioneer in the move towards naturalism, as his figures were depicted with rather more life-like proportions and shading. Even though he was a pioneer in that move, his painting Maesta shows Medieval techniques and characteristics. The painting is commonly regarded as a painting which exemplified the Middle Ages. He is also well known for his student Giotto, considered the first great artist of the Italian Renaissance.
Owing to little surviving documentation, not much is known about Cimabue's life. He was born in Florence and died in Pisa. His career was described in Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (called, in Italian, Le Vite), widely regarded as the first art history book, though it was completed over 200 years after Cimabue's death. Although it is one of the few early records we have of him, its accuracy is uncertain. According to Hugh Honour and John Fleming: "His name is, in fact, little more than a convenient label for a closely related group of panel and wall paintings".
Judging this by the commissions that he received, Cimabue appears to have been a highly-regarded artist in his day. He was influenced by Dietisalvi di Speme. While he was at work in Florence, Duccio was the major artist, and perhaps his rival, in nearby Siena. Cimabue was commissioned to paint two very large frescoes for the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. They are on the walls of the transepts: a Crucifixion and a Deposition. Unfortunately these works are now dim shadows of their original appearance. During occupancy of the building by invading French troops, straw caught fire, severely damaging the frescoes. The white paint was partially composed of silver, which oxidised and turned black, leaving the faces and much of the drapery of the figures in negative.
Another damaged work is the great Crucifix of Santa Croce at Florence. It was the major work of art lost in the flood in Florence in 1966. Much of the paint from the body and face washed away.
Among Cimabue's few surviving works are the Madonna of Santa Trinita, once in the church of Santa Trinita, and now housed, with Duccio's Rucellai Madonna and Giotto's Ognissanti madonna, in the Uffizi Gallery.
In the Lower Church of Saint Francis in Assisi is an extremely important fresco, depicting The Madonna and Christ Child enthroned with angels and Saint Francis. It is claimed to be a work of Cimabue's old age.
Two additional, very fine paintings are attributed to Cimabue. The Flagellation of Christ was purchased by New York's Frick Collection in 1950 and was long considered to be of uncertain authorship, possibly Duccio's. But in 2000, the National Gallery in London acquired The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Two Angels with many similarities (size, materials, red borders, incised margins, etc.) to Flagellation. The two pictures are now thought to be parts of a single work, a diptych or triptych altarpiece, and their attribution to Cimabue is fairly secure. The pair are believed to date from 1280. The Virgin and Child was on loan to the Frick for a few months in late 2006, so the two works could be viewed side-by-side. The Flagellation painting is one of only two Cimabues permanently in the United States.
A tiny devotional painting of a "Madonna and Child with SS. Peter and John the Baptist" at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC was painted by Cimabue or one of his students around 1290. It is significant because it shows a cloth of honor that may well be the first patchwork quilt in Western art.
History has long regarded Cimabue as the last of an era that was overshadowed by the Italian Renaissance. In Canto XI of his Purgatorio, Dante laments Cimabue's quick loss of public interest in the face of Giotto's revolution in art:
O vanity of human powers, how briefly lasts the crowning green of glory, unless an age of darkness follows! In painting Cimabue thought he held the field but now it's Giotto has the cry, so that the other's fame is dimmed.