Vasari's Lives of the Artists Chapter I: Cimabue.

I've been meaning for a while now to reading Giorgio Vasari's The Lives of the Artists (1550). This encyclopedia, the full title being Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times, is pretty vast but I do have an abridged version published by Oxford World Classics which I'd like to spend the next year or so reading and blogging about. If I'm able, I'd like to blog about each artist in the book, I think it'd be at the very least interesting, but also I'll be able to teach myself a little something about art history (out of the Pre-Raphaelites I don't do so well). With that in mind, on to the first chapter!

The Life of Cimabue, Florentine Painter
[c. 1240 - 1320?]

The endless flood of misfortunes which swept over and drowned the wretched country of Italy had not only destroyed everything that could really be called a building but, even more importantly, had completely wiped out its population of artists, when, in the year 1240, as God willed it, there was born in the city of Florence to the Cimabue, a noble family of those times, a son Giovanni, also named Cimabue, who shed first light upon the art of painting.
So begins The Lives of the Artists. Vasari describes his early life, being sent to Santa Maria Novella for schooling however instead spending "the whole day drawing men, horses, houses, and various other fantasies in his books and papers". During this time there were a great many Greek artists in Florence and young Cimabue would enjoy observing them. When it was agreed he had a great talent he devoted his time to practice, taking an interest in Greek art but, as Vasari writes, his style was "more alive, more natural, and softer than the style of those Greeks, whose works were full of lines and profiles both in mosaics and in paintings". His works were primarily of a religious theme and Cimabue would go from church to church and monastery to monastery painting altar dossals, panels and the like. As he grew in confidence and ability he began to paint frescoes on walls of many churches of Mary, Jesus, St. Francis, John the Baptist, and others, and Vasari specifically comments on his use of vivid colours on gold backgrounds, and how he captured the light and shadows in his subjects. In his later years he worked as an architect for Arnolfo Lapi.

As the chapter closes Vasari notes that Cimabue's fame was somewhat eclipsed by Giotto (1266/7 - 1337), quoting from Dante's Purgatorio:
Once Cimabue thought to hold the field
As a painter: Giotto now is all the rage,
Dimming the lustre of the other's fame.
He then refers to a commentator of Dante's time who wrote,
Cimabue of Florence was a painter who lived during the author's [Dante's] own time, a nobler man than anyone knew, but he was as a result so haughty and proud that if someone pointed out to him any mistake or defect in his work, or if he had noted any himself (as happened many times, since an artisan may err because of a defect in the materials he uses or because of some shortcoming in the tools with which he works), he would immediately destroy the work, no matter how precious it may be.
Cimabue, Vasari argues, was the lesser talent when compared with Giotto, but Giotto was a follower of Cimabue who, whatever his faults or shortcomings, was "the principle cause of the renewal of the art of painting".

And to finish, here are some works by Cimabue:

Saint Francis Of Assisi (Detail).

Crucifix (1287-88).
Madonna Enthroned With The Child, St. Francis, St. Domenico And Two Angels.
Crucifix (1280-83).
The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Two Angels.
Kristi Gripande (Detail).
Virgin and Child.
Next post: The Life of Giotto, Florentine Painter, Sculptor, and Architect.


  1. Awesome post and what a great idea! I'd like to join you although I can't because, as you know, I'm already overloaded. I can't wait for your future reviews!

    1. Thank you :) I wish you could join! That said not really got a plan with this, just going to read it now and then. Maybe 2 a month? I don't know - I don't feel compelled to finish it, will just be happy enough reading it if that makes sense! :)

  2. the facial expressions seem so realistic and quite unlike the stylized portraits common in later Italian works... very interesting stuff; i look forward to future postings re V...

    1. I'm looking forward to getting into it too. I like the colours in Cimabue, I find some of the faces a bit alarming though (you can probably tell at this point I'm no art critic!). Love the St. Francis, that's my favourite one :)


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