Origins of Medieval Tuscan Painting I. Pietro Cavallini and Cimabue

Although Giorgio Vasari in his 16th-century book “Lives of the most excellent painters, sculptors and architects” (1550, enlarged 1568) gave credit to the works of Cimabue and Giotto to explain the origin of the renaissance of painting in Italy, today it is well known that without ignoring the evident progress and important contributions that Cimabue and Giotto gave to the art of painting, it is also understood how much these masters learned from the old traditions of Italian painting which during the Middle Ages didn’t stop producing interesting works, especially in Rome.

In Tuscany a series of liturgical furniture were produced with images painted on wood which were the product of a local tradition. In some of them the image of Saint Francis was already represented. But the best known of this liturgical furniture were 13th-century crucifixes painted on wood which were hung from a high bar in the middle of the main altar or in the presbytery. Some are stored now in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Pisa, others can be admired in those of Perugia or Bologna. The tradition attributed them all to some artist named Giunta Pisano (worked from ca. from 1202 to 1236), a first Tuscan painter borne in Pisa, but some bear other artists’ signatures. Sometimes these crucifixes show a widening of the table on each side which included figures of the Virgin and St. John and scenes of the Passion in which artists began to familiarize themselves with a new iconographic repertoire.

Giunta Pisano is the earliest Italian painter whose name is found inscribed on an extant work. He is also best known for his crucifixes. His masterpiece is the Crucifix (1250, tempera and gold on wood) located in the left transept of the Basilica of Saint Dominic in Bologna, with the writing in Latin “Cuius docta manus me pixit Junta Pisanus” (‘painted by the learned or skilled hand of Giunta Pisano’). It represents one of the best examples of 13th-century Italian painting. Giunta’s crucifixes initiated a new way of representing Christ by substituting the traditional Byzantine image of Jesus serene though crucified (Christus gloriosus) with a convulsing Christ dying in agony (Christus patiens) to accentuate His suffering. This particular crucifix much influenced Cimabue, who would continue on this style and develop his own more emotional style.

In addition, the Tuscan artists prior to Cimabue and Giotto painted altarpieces with the image of the seated Virgin surrounded by angels and saints. In the oldest of these images, from the beginning of the 13th century, they aren’t much different to the Byzantine icons except for the primitivism with which they were executed. The Virgin was represented in half-body or sitting in an ivory throne, as she used to be represented in Byzantium, with the folds of her robe indicated by gold lines without the use of relief or chiaroscuro. The small paintings located to the sides of the main image still had a Byzantine character, they represented the evangelical tradition, but the iconography was modified and in the end they only had of Byzantine certain oriental-style forms of the temples and the backgrounds and landscapes.

The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Scenes of the Nativity and the Lives of the Saints,  by Margaritone d’Arezzo (ca. 1263-1264, egg tempera on wood, National Gallery, London). The painting shows the Virgin Mary, seated on a throne with the Christ Child on her lap, within a mandorla. Around them are eight scenes of the lives of various saints; two show Saint John the Evangelist and two show Saint Nicholas. In Byzantine art, this vision of the Virgin in frontal pose is known as the Theotokos (‘Mother of God’). This pose and the inclusion of the throne also reflects a Western tradition of images of the Virgin and Child known as the Mary maiestas (‘Mary of Majesty’) emphasizing her rank and status as the mother of God.

Vasari, in addition to also mentioning Giunta Pisano, recalled the name of another one of those Tuscan first painters, Margaritone d’Arezzo (ca. 1250-1290), of whom he said in the short biography he dedicated to him that “he was considered excellent among the other painters of that time that worked in the Byzantine way”. An altar front signed by Margaritone, which is today in the National Gallery of London, indicates however the poor progress achieved by this painter, its importance comes mainly from being a signed work. Much more personality and artistic distinction was shown in the works of another Tuscan, Florentine and somewhat more recent artist, named Coppo di Marcovaldo (ca. 1225 – ca. 1276).

Madonna and Child, by Coppo di Marcovaldo (ca. 1265-1268, Church of St. Martino dei Servi, Orvieto, Italy). Marcovaldo is the first Florentine artist whose name and works are well documented. His works are characterized by the fusion of the Italian and Byzantine icon styles and had great influence on later generations of Italian artists. In his work, Coppo used the method of “tecnica a velatura“, in which he layered down purest colors, which he later covered by tinted varnishes and glazes which helped to evoke a sense of volume.
The Madonna del Bordone (or ‘Madonna of the pilgrim’s staff’), by Coppo di Marcovaldo, 1261 (tempera on panel, Basilica di Santa Maria dei Servi, Siena). This signed and dated work is the only certain attribution to the Florentine painter and his most famous work. It portrays Mary enthroned and two small angels on her sides while She supports the blessing Child, who’s holding the Book of the Law in his left hand. The heads were painted in the following year (1262) by other artist, who added a sfumato style influenced by that of Duccio di Buoninsegna, this was evident after X-Ray analyses of the painting. Unlike the concentrated and fixed abstraction of contemporary works such as those by Margaritone d’Arezzo, in Marcovaldo’s Madonna the Child is looking in a tender way at his mother, a gesture that humanizes his divine status, but perhaps also represents the love of the Child for the Catholic Church, symbolized by the Madonna. The posture of the two figures though is typical of Byzantine painting.

We also know some works by a painter contemporary of all these Tuscan artists: the great Roman artist Pietro Cavallini (1259-ca. 1330) of whom we have very notable frescoes in the monastery of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere in Rome, some mosaics in the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere and other works in Rome, and in the upper church of Assisi. Artistically speaking, Pietro Cavallini was a thousand times above the afore mentioned Tuscan painters.

Pietro Cavallini’s masterwork is the Last Judgment fresco (ca. 1293-1298) in the Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere (Rome) and exemplifies the artistic style known as Roman naturalism. This naturalism influenced the work of contemporary artists from other Italian cities such as Florence and Siena. This fresco, pictured above from a fragment of the left half, is located in the choir of the nuns, and covers the entire width of the west wall of the entrance. It was part of a cycle of Old and New Testament scenes. The frescoes were plastered over and fragmented during a remodeling in 1724, they were rediscovered in 1900. Pictured below, a detail from the same fresco with some of the Apostles.

Detail of Christ from the Last Judgement fresco (ca. 1293-1298) by Pietro Cavallini. Here Cavallini is clearly borrowing from Byzantine types like the image of Christ pantocrator.

It should be noted that Vasari, who could not fail to mention a name as big as that of Cavallini, in his eagerness to attribute to Tuscany all the glory of the creation of the new renaissance in art, placed in second term this great painter active in Rome making him appear only as one of Giotto’s disciples. But it is known that Cavallini belonged to the previous generation to Giotto’s and that from Rome he went on to decorate a part of the new basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi, where he could very well coincide with Cimabue and communicate to the young Florentine master the advice and technique of old medieval Roman art.

Pietro Cavallini’s Scenes from the life of Mary (ca. 1291?, 1296?-1300?), include six panel mosaics located at the apse of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere (Rome). These mosaics are praised for their realistic portrayal, their attempts of perspective and their bold colors. Pictured above is the Nativity of the Virgin scene.
The Annunciation mosaic from the series “Scenes from the Life of Mary” by Pietro Cavallini (Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome).
The Birth of Jesus mosaic (Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome).
The Adoration of the Magi mosaic (Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome).

However, a master as important as Cavallini passed almost without leaving disciples in Rome; his artistic spirit flowed to Tuscany where, in Florence through the works of Cimabue and Giotto, a rebirth of the classical forms begun and was destined to continue. In the works of Cimabue (ca. 1240-1302), the first great master of the school of Florence, is always visible something of the typical disposition of the Virgin and saints used by the painters of the Byzantine school, works that Cimabue could have seen executed in the baptistery of Florence.

Little has been preserved of Cimabue’s work. There is, however, a fresco in Assisi, which we will discuss later, and two paintings of Madonnas sitting among angels, one located in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence (initially placed in the Trinity Church in Florence), and another kept in the Louvre.

Cimabue and his workshop decorated with frescoes the west end of the transept and the apse of the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi (starting ca. 1280). Pictured above is the fresco of the Crucifixion, showing Saint Francis on his knees at the foot of the Cross. The frescoes of Cimabue are in poor state of conservation due mostly to the use of lead oxide in the colors and because they were applied when the plaster was no longer fresh, as a consequence the frescoes have deteriorated and have been reduced to photographic negatives.

The type of the iconography of the Virgin created by Cimabue reflects such sweetness that these female figures are enough to consider him as the true father of modern painting. His style is also essentially Florentine: the aristocratic elegance of this type of Virgins will always be the dominant feature of the school of Florence.

The other painting attributed to Cimabue is the fresco representing the Virgin with angels, located in the apse of the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi. On one side of the Mother’s group with the angels, Saint Francis was already represented showing that skinny, sharp type that his image will keep perpetually. However, Cimabue’s repertoire doesn’t seem to have been very extensive; he did not venture like Giotto, his disciple, in the exploration of new themes, nor did he compose, like Giotto did, extensive programs featuring new stories.

In the Lower Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Cimabue painted a fresco named Maestà with Saint Francis (Madonna with Child Enthroned, Four Angels and St Francis, 12780-1280). This fresco includes what is considered as the nearest likeness existing image of Saint Francis, to the right of the fresco.

Santa Trinita Maestà by Cimabue (ca. 1290-1300, tempera on panel, Uffizi Gallery, Florence). It was originally painted for the church of Santa Trinita (Florence), where it remained until 1471.

After Cimabue, another painter named Giotto, his disciple, had to surpass him in passion and emotion, as Giovanni Pisano, son of Nicola Pisano, did surpassing the artistic concepts of his father, the founder of the new school of Italian sculpture.

The Madonna and Child in Majesty Surrounded by Angels by Cimabue (ca. 1280, tempera on panel, Musée du Louvre). This work is earlier than the Santa Trinita Maestà and stylistically was painted without pseudo-perspective, having the angels around the Virgin simply placed one above the other, rather than being spatially arranged. This work established a new type for the theme of the Madonna with Child, which was later used by other painters, such as Duccio di Buoninsegna.


Maestà: (From the Italian meaning “majesty”). An iconic formula of the enthroned Madonna with the child Jesus, whether or not accompanied with angels and saints. The Maestà is an extension of the “Seat of Wisdom” theme of the seated “Mary Theotokos”, “Mary Mother of God”, which is a counterpart to the earlier icon of Christ in Majesty, the enthroned Christ that is familiar in Byzantine Mosaics.

Velatura: (From the Italian, “Glaze” in English). Velatura is a pictorial technique, in which the artist superimposes layers of transparent paint. The previous color is expected to dry, so that a new translucent mixture is applied. Oil paint was preferred for this type of technique, due to the delay in drying. Acrylic paint also allows for this type of procedure.