THE GREAT FLOOD of misfortunes, by which poor Italy had been afflicted and overwhelmed, had not only reduced to ruins all buildings of note throughout the land, but what was of far more importance, had caused an utter lack of the very artists themselves. At this time, when the supply seemed entirely exhausted, in the year 1240, by the will of God, there was born in the city of Florence, Giovanni, surnamed Cimabue, of the noble family of that name, who was to shed the first light on the art of painting. He, as he grew, being judged by his father and others to possess a fine acute intellect, was sent to Santa Maria Novella to be instructed in letters by a relative of his who taught grammar to the novices of that convent.
But instead of attending to his lessons, Cimabue spent all the day in painting on his books and papers,men, horses, houses, and such things. To this natural inclination fortune was favorable, for certain painters of Greece, who had been summoned by the rulers of Florence to restore the almost forgotten art of painting in the city, began at this time to work in the chapel of the Gondi in Santa Maria Novella; and Cimabue would often escape from school and stand all day watching them, until his father and the painters themselves judging that he was apt for painting, he was placed under their instruction. Nature, however, aided by constant practice, enabled him greatly to surpass both in design and coloring the masters who had taught him. For they, never caring to advance in their art, did everything not in the good manner of ancient Greece, but after the rude manner of those times.
He painted in churches both in Florence and Pisa, and made the name of Cimabue famous everywhere, on which account he was summoned to Assisi, a city of Umbria, to paint in company with some Greek masters the lower church of S. Francis. For in those times the order of the Minor Friars of S. Francis having been confirmed by Pope Innocent III, both the devotion and the numbers of the friars grew so great not only in Italy, but in all parts of the world, that there was scarcely a city of any account which did not build for them churches and convents at great expense. Two years before the death of St. Francis, while that saint was absent preaching, Fra Elia was prior in Assisi, and built a church for Our Lady; but when St. Francis was dead, and all Christendom was coming to visit the body of a saint who in life and death was known by all to have been the friend of God, and every man at the holy spot was making gifts according to his power, it was ordained that the church begun by Fra Eli should be made much larger and more magnificent. But there being a scarcity of good architects, and the work needing an excellent one, for it was necessary to build on a very steep hill at the roots of which runs a torrent called Tescio, after much consideration they brought to Assisi, as the best architect that could then be found, one Master Jacopo Tedesco. He having considered the site, and heard the will of the Fathers, who held a chapter-general for the purpose in Assisi, designed a very fine church and convent, making in the model three storeys, one below ground, and two churches, one of which on the first slope should serve as the vestibule, having a very large colonnade round it, and the other for the sanctuary. And he arranged that you should go up from the first to the second by a most convenient order of stairs, which wound round the larger chapel, dividing into two, to enter the second church. To this he gave the form of a T, making it five times as long as it was wide.
In the larger chapel of the lower church was placed the altar, and below it, when it was finished, was laid with solemn ceremonies the body of St. Francis. And because the tomb which encloses the body of the glorious saint is in the first, that is the lowest church, which no one ever enters, the doors of it are walled up, and around the altar are gratings of iron, with rich ornaments of marble and mosaic. This work was brought to a conclusion in the space of four years, and no more, by the skill of Master Jacopo and the careful labors of Fra Elia. After his death there were made round the lower church twelve fine towers, and in each of them a staircase from the ground to the top, and in time there were added many chapels and many rich ornaments. As for Master Jacopo, by this work he acquired such fame through all Italy that he was called to Florence, and received there with the greatest honor possible,although according to the habit the Florentines have (and used to have still more) of shortening names, they called him not Jacopo but Lapo all the days of his life.
So in the lower church Cimabue painted in company with the Greeks, and greatly surpassed the Greek painters. Therefore, his courage rising, he began to paint by himself in fresco in the upper church, and painted many things, especially the ascent of the Virgin into heaven, and the Holy Spirit descending upon the apostles. This work, being truly very great and rich and well executed, must in my judgment have astonished the world in those days, painting having been so long in such darkness, and to myself, who saw it in the year 1563, it appeared most beautiful, and I marvelled how Cimabue could have had such light in the midst of such heavy gloom. Being called to Florence, however, Cimabue did not continue his labors, but they were finished many years after by Giotto, as we will tell in its place.
After his return to Florence he made for the church of S. Maria Novella a picture of our Lady, which work was of larger size than those that had been made before that time, and the angels that stand round, although they are in the Greek manner, yet show something of the modern style. Therefore this work caused such marvel to the people of that time, never having seen a better, that it was borne in solemn procession with trumpets and great rejoicing from the house of Cimabue to the church, and he himself received great honours and rewards. It is said, and you may read it in certain records of old pictures, that while Cimabue was painting this picture, King Charles of Anjou passed through Florence, and among other entertainments provided for him by the people of the city, they took him to see Cimabue's picture; and as no one had seen it before it was shown to the king, there was a great concourse of all the men and women of Florence to see it, with the greatest rejoicing and running together in the world. From the gladness of the whole neighborhood that part was called Borgo Allegri, the Joyful Quarter, and though it is now within the walls of the city, it has always preserved the same name.
Cimabue, Crucifix (detail), 1268-71, tempera on wood, 336 x 267 cm, San Domenico, Arezzo
Maestà, Musée du Louvre, Paris