When did the Renaissance begin, and who began it? Historians have debated this for a long time and still do. Most seem to agree though, that in art Florence was the place. The Renaissance didn’t happen over night. It took a few centuries to arrive at Michelangelo, Leonardo, Botticelli and Raphael, and it took the work of many others to influence those figures. Before the Medici took control of Florence and became the financial force behind the high Renaissance, other factors were gradually changing the trends of medieval Europe. In the 1200s, there was a renewed interest in ancient texts that were kept at monasteries. Slowly, the ideas of humanism were being rediscovered.
Two significant Florentine artists stand at the crossroads. Most historians view Cimabue (pronounced Chee-ma-boo-ee) as the last of the medieval masters, and his pupil Giotto (Gee-otto) as the first great Renaissance master. It’s maybe a little too convenient to say that these 2 artists alone are the bridge between a huge cultural shift, but their work does show significant clues to the changes in artistic thinking. Let’s start with Cimabue.
Cimabue lived from 1251-1302 and was a great painter of christian art. Not much is known about his life at all, but a few of his paintings remain. There was a very specific look to art in the 1200s. Paintings were flat with little or no depth and figures had a highly stylized look. Many medieval painters instituted a stylized black line to outline figures, and had a limited understanding of accurate body proportion. By Cimabue’s time, artists were paying more attention to the look of the real world, and there’s a change in the look of figures. Cimabue’s paintings show subtle changes that represent the start of something new. Here’s his famous Crucifix. We can see that his Christ is elongated but somewhat less stylized. There are shadows on the edge of his torso and limbs that demonstrate Cimabue’s attempt to show that the body is 3-dimensional. Jesus even has a slight green hue to his skin. You can feel the coldness of death in the painting.
Cimabue’s pupil was Giotto, who lived from 1266-1337. Giotto broke significantly with the traditions of medieval art, painting bodies and drapery with intense shadows and a feeling of depth. He also infused his figures with a newfound emotional depth. His most famous works are found in Padua in the Scrovegni Chapel from 1305, where Giotto decorated the walls and with vividly colored frescos. One of them is this panel, called the “Lamentation”. In it, the dead Christ has been removed from the cross and is mourned. As you can see, there’s some significant changes in the shadows of the figures. In particular, Giotto paints drapery and clothing with precision- you can easily sense the shape of the bodies undernieth. Most impressive are the weeping faces, which are incredibly expressive and enhance the feeling of sorrow and despair. Even Heaven itself is crying in anguish, seen in the weeping angels circling the sky. Giotto was to become a very influential painter, leading later artists to push artistic innovation further.
Today, you can see Cimabue’s crucifix and a painting by Giotto at the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, which also houses the tombs of Galileo, Machiavelli and Michelangelo among others. The best place to see their work is at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, where Cimabue and Giotto both have large wooden alter piece paintings of the Madonna and Child. They serve as a great way to compare and contrast the differences of these 2 painters at a time of significant change in the world of art. Here’s a great video that compares those 2 pieces in detail. Enjoy-