How Soon They Forget

John Haber
in New York City

Cimabue and Early Italian Devotional Painting

These days celebrities can become famous for their passing fame, and artists can qualify, too. Cimabue got there first, however, nearly seven hundred years ago. Dante hears of him just that way, on the poet's passage through purgatory:

"In painting Cimabue thought
To hold the field, and now Giotto has the cry,
So that the other's fame is dim."

Today a course in the Italian Renaissance may well start with Giotto, leaving the textbook's opening pages on Cimabue unread. "O powers of man! How vain your glory."

The Frick, too, long passed over Cimabue in silence. It had little choice. In 1950 it acquired a Flagellation of Christ, a small panel dating to around 1280. Doubts persisted over who painted it, however, and after 1968 it hung simply as work of the Tuscan School. Cimabue's Virgin and Child Enthroned / Flagellation of Christ (National Gallery / Frick Collection, c. 1280)

Those doubts have vanished. Now, reunited with a more recent companion discovery from the National Gallery in London, it stands as Cimabue's own. It also forms the center of a small but very fine exhibition at the Frick. It provides a compact history of how the very notion of the Renaissance came into being.

Remember Duccio?

When I read that passage from Purgatory, Canto XI, I think first of Dante as a good listener. The speaker is lamenting the follies of pride, including his own, and Dante, one might say today, feels his pain. Moreover, the poet in his role as narrator has set aside his real-life friendship for Giotto, in order to respect another's loss. Renaissance means a rebirth, already a testimony to recovered memory. In Dante's afterlife one must suffer remembrance.

The passage announces the Renaissance in another way, too. Surely, the moral sounds like a cliché. Ah, how soon they forget. However, now "they" truly have something to forget. Artists have reputations, even beyond their sphere. Their work increasingly helps to bring urban centers like Florence into existence, and yet styles change within a generation. Art, politics, and civic culture alike are in turmoil.

Cimabue, born around 1240 as Cenni di Pepo, exemplifies just that turmoil. In his grand, multi-tiered architecture and spare, wiry human forms, he could serve as the culmination of past ages or the beginning of the new. So could a younger artist in Siena, Duccio di Buoninsegna, and some scholars attributed the Frick painting to him. One can still see the two artists as shaking the foundations of the same house, but without rebuilding it like Giotto from the ground up.

Cimabue cannot let a setting or a costume go without adding layers and patterns. They overflow both static Byzantine forms on the one hand and naturalism on the other. He observes details, like a taut muscle or the spindly leg of a mammoth throne. Then he combines them in ways that might suggest sheer fantasy—or a new concern with three-dimensional space. He may fill a scene quite tightly with people, with harsh, unrevealing glances and priestly authority. Yet one remembers most the setting as a whole and its delicate symmetry.

Thanks to a heralded acquisition at the Met last year, one could discover how Duccio, too, built on the bloodless anatomy and gilded icons of the past. He brought a decorative unity and a playful, more naturalistic psychology. The Frick's own Duccio carries him further, as an architect of painting and, especially, a story-teller. I wish that the Frick had used a slightly larger room, with space to borrow a work by Giotto and to hold that Duccio as well. Alternatively, it could have built with other loans on Cimabue alone, expanding on the generation, or simply displayed the two Cimabue panels and let it go at that. However, the Frick's own Duccio is worth a visit while at the museum.

It shows the devil tempting Jesus with the cities of the world. They resemble marvelous chocolate houses set in the Tuscan hills. However, they also have the plain colors and geometry of a new era. If Jesus looks far more commanding, the devil seems more entertaining. Duccio's avoidance of symmetry makes their face-off more fun as well.

Whip smart

One can see how historians got into an argument. Do the pronounced calf muscles on the men with whips represent Siena's graceful line—or Florentine naturalism and dramatic tension? Does the city wall behind them resemble Duccio's notched parapets, which draw his images closer to the viewer? Or does its preposterously small scale and the additional stippling of its top edge make it closer to Cimabue's older, patterned forms? Do the oddly narrow towers behind each man reflect Cimabue's fantastic symmetry or Duccio's fantastic cities?

The London panel, The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Two Angels, settled things. Its angels, with thin limbs and narrow eyes, belong to Cimabue. Their pointy toes barely touch the ground, much like the feet of his thrones. The Madonna and infant have less bulk, less free play, less brightness, and less space between them than Duccio would allow. The enthroned central figures also have less prominence relative to the angels than he would demand.

The symmetry of throne and four figures belongs to Cimabue as well. This throne has his way of thrusting heavily into space without perspective convergence. Above all, the obsessive decoration is his, starting with the wild curves along the throne's sides and the carvings at its top. The angels wear dotted brown vests over flowing pink robes. It marks them as at once priestly and heavenly. Cimabue prefers those poles to ordinary life even at his most human.

The London panel came to light in 2000, and close study of the wood's edges made it a good fit for the Flagellation. One may never know whether they helped fill the wings of a grander altarpiece, although their parallels make it tempting to think of them alone together. Regardless, the pairing not only solves a mystery, but it also underscores what lies at stake in a battle over attributions. One is arguing about not just an age and its allegiances, but also how to understand a painting. Consider the Flagellation again, but now wholly as Cimabue's

Jesus, tied to a pole, seems almost to disappear beneath the blows. His feet, one raised on its toes, barely weigh upon the ground. The pole separates him from the viewer, and its cherry wood color and yellow stippling make him seem that much more passive compared to the visual activity at the painting's center. Only later does one note that he looms over his tormenters to either side. Only later does his near nudity seem heroic compared to their colorful clothing. Only then does the low wall behind them mark the event, unlike the city towers, as part of a privileged space—the space of a vision.

Each tormenter draws one arm back as far as it will go. It gives the moment life, as tense as the present, but also timelessness, as if the blow might never fall. The tall building to either edge, with their irregular tiers, high windows, and mismatched projecting rooftops, further emphasizes the men's volumes and profiled silhouettes. Their other arms reach out to touch Jesus. Is it to steady him, even to join in a human bond, or to make sure the whips land their blows? They may also suggest a missing crossbeam, an echo of the crucifixion, for Cimabue uses symmetry to anchor his figures both in painting and in myth.

First generation

Dante is not alone in making the artist an emblem of fame and fortune. A legend, reported in Giorgio Vasari's late Renaissance Lives, has Cimabue discovering the young Giotto sketching. He brings the shepherd boy back to Florence, and the rest is art history. The tale again promotes the growing stature of an artist, as not just an artisan but a native genius. It again boasts of Florence, much as Biblical genealogies define present and future kingdoms. It speaks, too, of the drama in passing from pages ages to the new.

To sense the drama and as another way to approach Cimabue, one could start the Frick's small show at either end, with artists that history really has largely forgotten. Also from around 1280, the Met lends a busy triptych by an anonymous Florentine, the Magdalen Master. A two-panel painting by Pacino di Bonaguida, again from the Met, dates from roughly 1310. Ten years later, Pacino also painted four pages of an illuminated manuscript, on loan from the Morgan Library. Tradition calls Pacino a student of Cimabue. For good measure, the Frick also displays a reliquary, with bright images and lettering traced on black glass.

The panels have plenty in common to modern eyes. They use gilded backgrounds, and they stack one scene above another within a single frame. Painting as window onto a continuous, infinite landscape comes only with Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi in the 1430s. Remember that all this took place a full century before the quattrocento—the 1400s and, commonly speaking, the early Renaissance. It unfolds a good two hundred years before Michelangelo or Raphael. The people here do not behave like actors in a naturalistic theater.

Still, much has changed in a generation. The Magdalen Master closely follows his Byzantine models—ironically already a marker of turmoil, thanks to increasing exchange with the East. The figures press upon one another or sway weightlessly. They have wide eyes, and they vary in scale from scene to scene. Jesus, easily the largest, gestures in blessing from a mandorla, the almond shape used since Classical times to enclose a god's majesty. When halos overlap in a crowd of saints, it flattens the composition that much further.

Pacino gives each figure ample space, from Saint John on a convincing hilly island of Patmos to Jesus triumphant even in death. He uses symmetry and architecture to create a stage, whether of Mary's throne or of a room in which his flagellation occurs. These people know joy and grief, like Mary Magdalene collapsing in anguish at the foot of the cross or flying angels with chalice so desperate to capture the blood. Bright colors individualize each actor further, down to the wings of angels. When halos overlap, they amplify the illusion of people one behind another in depth.

What has happened in between? Giotto surely and Cimabue's son may have studied with him, just as Taddeo Gaddi studied with Giotto. Mary's wide throne, the Magdalene's expressive back, and any number of Pacino's further details amount to direct, if slightly attenuated quotation from Giotto. Sculpture, too, helped, particularly Nicola Pisano's reliefs, which show how to handle overlapping figures in a mass. Intellectual ferment entered into the budding humanism, and Pacino places Saint Francis to the right of Mary's throne. It does not hurt, however, to remember a generation of upheaval—when Cimabue, once again, holds the field.

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"Cimabue and Early Italian Devotional Painting" ran at The Frick Collection through December 31, 2006. I set Sinclair's prose translation of Dante as poetry, to show the line breaks in the Italian. I took the quote that follows from the older and less faithful Cary translation, because it sounded suitably woeful.


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