The thirteenth-century Italian artist, Cimabue, was the first artist mentioned by the art historian, Giorgio Vasari, in his book, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Vasari wrote of Cimabue as letting "the first light into the art of painting". Cimabue's mastery of the Byzantine brushwork brought new light into Italian painting and made him the pride of Pisa. His own resulting pride earned him the nickname, "Cimabue," which means "ox head." As stubborn as an ox, Cimabue would prefer to destroy a painting than to have it criticized.
Bencivieni di Pepo, nicknamed Cimabue, was born around the year 1240 in Italy. He was a painter and creator of mosaic works from Florence. At the time when the Byzantine style of painting had been quite popular for a while, Cimabue was the first of the master artists to choose to change course. It’s not to say that he did not create some of his best works, like his Maestà, using the Medieval techniques of the day, but he moved away from the highly stylized and generally flattened forms of the Byzantine standards, and brought in a more natural depiction of figures by using methods of shading and proportions that were more real and lifelike.
The surviving records of his life are few, such as his birth, which took place in Florence, and the fact that he had died in Pisa in 1302, and so the rest of his details are just conjecture. It’s likely that he received his training from Byzantine artists in Florence, yet his Crucifixion, (made in 1270 according to Pietro Toesca, art historian) was his first attributed painting that was not purely Byzantine art. It was made for the church of San Domenco in the town of Arezzo. There is some similarity between his Crucifixion and Italian artist Giunta Pisano’s Christus patiens, which is dated circa 1250. It also had some of Coppo di Marcovaldo’s style, such as his use of golden striations in the clothing.
Cimabue was in Rome around the year 1272, according to some documentation, and then back in Florence where he painted a larger version of his Crucifixion for the church of Santa Croce around 1280. This work was more evolved than his earlier one, and linked to styling developed by Nicola Pisano. It was this Crucifixtion that created an artistic following of Cimabue’s more natural style.
His student, Giotto di Bondone and another artist named Duccio di Buoninsegna, were highly influenced by Cimabue’s style. In fact, one of Bouninsegna's works, called the Rucellai Madonna, was wrongly attributed for awhile to Cimabue due to the similarities in the artists’ styles. Later, when Giotto himself became a master painter, Cimabue was influenced by Giotto’s use of soft expressions on his figures’ faces.
Cimabue traveled a lot during his career, as his fame grew and he was called to Rome and Assisi, before taking on a mosaic project in the cathedral apse in the city of Pisa, around 1301. He lived and worked there until 1302, when he passed away. Cimabue’s fame and legacy of his works should have lasted a longer period, but he was considered the last of his era, which ended because of Giotto’s revolutionary new changes in art and the rise of the Italian Renaissance.
Dante wrote of him in his Divine Comedy: Cimabue may have brought new light to Italian painting, but as Dante wrote, Giotto di Bondone brought something much greater.