Cimabue and Giotto
Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists


THE great flood of misfortunes, by which poor Italy had been afflicted and overwhelmed, had not only reduced to ruins all bwildings 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 hther and others to possess a fine acute intellect, was sent to S. 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 favourable, 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 S. 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 colouring the masters who had taught him. For they, never caring to advance in their art, did everything not in the good rnanner 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, bllt 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 S. Francis, while that saint was absent preaching, Fra Elia was prior in Assisi, and built a church for our Lady; but when S. 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 Elià should be made much larger and more magnificent. But there being a scarcity of good archi~ects, 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 chaptergeneral 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 S. 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 labours 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 honour 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 labours, 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 neighbourhood that part was called BorgoAllegri, the Joyful Quarter, and though it is now within the walls of the city, it has always preserved the same name.

Now in the year 1276, in the country of Florence, about fourteen miles from the city, in the village of Vespignano, there was born to a simple peasant named Bondone a son, to whom he gave the name of Giotto, and whom he brought up according to his station. And when he had reached the age of ten years, showing in all his ways though still childish an extraordinary vivacity and quickness of mind, which made him beloved not only by his father but by all who knew him, Bondone gave him the care of some sheep. And he leading them for pasture, now to one spot and now to another, was constantly driven by his natural inclination to draw on the stones or the ground some object in nature, or something that came into his mind. One day Cimabue, going on business from Florence to Vespignano, found Giotto, while his sheep were feeding, drawing a sheep from nature upon a smooth and solid rock with a pointed stone, having never learnt from any one but nature. Cimabue, marvelling at him, stopped and asked him if he would go and be with him. And the boy answered that if his father were content he would gladly go. Then Cimabue asked Bondone for him, and he gave him up to him, and was content that he should take him to Florence. There in a little time, by the aid of nature and the teaching of Cimabue, the boy not only equalled his master, but freed himself from the rude manner of the Greeks, and brought back to life the true art of painting, introducing the drawing from nature of living persons, which had not been practised for two hundred years; or at least if some had tried it, they had not succeeded very happily. Giotto painted among others, as may be seen to this day in the chapel of the Podestà's Palace at Florence, Dante Alighieri, his contemporary and great friend, and no less famous a poet than Giotto was a painter.

After this he was called to Assisi by Fra Giovanni di Muro, at that time general of the order of S. Francis, and painted in fresco in the upper church thirtytwo stories from the life and deeds of S. Francis, which brought him great fame. It is no wonder therefore that Pope Benedict sent one of his courtiers into Tuscany to see what sort of a man he was and what his works were like, for the Pope was planning to have some paintings made in S Peter's. This courtier, on his way to see Giotto and to find out what other masters of painting and mosaic there were in Florence, spoke with many masters in Sienna, and then, having received some drawings from them, he came to Florence. And one morning going into the workshop of Giotto, who was at his labours, he showed him the mind of the Pope, and at last asked him to give him a little drawing to send to his Holiness. Giotto, who was a man of courteous manners, immediately took a sheet of paper, and with a pen dipped in red, fixing his arm firmly against his side to make a compass of it, with a turn of his hand he made a circle so perfect that it was a marvel to see it Having done it, he turned smiling to the courtier and said, "Here is the drawing." But he, thinking he was being laughed at, asked, "Am I to have no other drawing than this?" "This is enough and too much," replied Giotto, "send it with the others and see if it will be understood." The messenger, seeing that he could get nothing else, departed ill pleased, not doubting that he had been made a fool of. However, sending the other drawings to the Pope with the names of those who had made them, he sent also Giotto's, relating how he had made the circle without moving his arm and without compasses, which when the Pope and many of his courtiers understood, they saw that Giotto must surpass greatly all the other painters of his time. This thing being told, there arose from it a proverb which is still used about men of coarse clay, "You are rounder than the O of Giotto," which proverb is not only good because of the accasion from which it sprang, but also still more for its significance, which consists in its ambiguity, tondo, "round," meaning in Tuscany not only a perfect circle, but also slowness and heaviness of mind.

So the Pope made him come to Rome, and he painted for him in S. Peter's, and there never left his hands work better finished; wherefore the Pope, esteeming himself well served, gave him six hundred ducats of gold, besides having shown him so many favours that it was spoken of through all Italy.

After Giotto was returned to Florence, Robert, King of Naples, wrote to his eldest son, Charles, King of Calabria, who was at that time in Florence, that he must by some means or other send him Giotto to Naples. Giotto, hearing himself called by a king so famous and so much praised, went very willingly to serve him, and did many works which pleased the king greatly. And he was so much beloved by him that the kj,ng would often visit him, and took pleasure in watching him and listening to his conversation, and Giotto, who had always some jest or some witty answer ready, would converse with him while going on with his painting. So one day the king saying to him that he would make him the first man in Naples, Giotto answered, "And that is why I am lodged at the Porta Reale, that I may be the first man in Naples." And another time the king saying to him, " Giotto, if I were you, now that it is hot, I would give up painting a little," he answered, "And so would I, certainly, if I were you."

So pleasing the king well, he painted him a good number of pictures, and the portraits of many famous men, Giotto himself among them; and one day the king, as a caprice, asked him to paint his kingdom. Giotto, it is said, painted a laden ass with a new load lying at his feet, which while it refused it seemed to desire, and both on the new and old burden was the royal crown and sceptre of power. And when Giotto was asked by the king what the picture signified, he replied, "Such must be the subjects and such the kingdom which every day desired a new lord."

There are many other stories remaining of the witty sayings of Giotto, and besides those that are told by Boccaccio, Franco Sacchetti tells many good ones, some of which I will give in Franco's own words.

"How a man of low station gives Giotto the great painter a shield to paint.

"Every one must have heard of Giotto, who was a great painter above any other. A rough workman, hearing of his fame, came to Giotto's workshop followed by one carrying his shield. Arrived there, he found Giotto, and said, 'God save you, master, I want you to paint my arms on this shield.' Giotto, considering the man and his manner of speech, said nothing but, 'When do you want it?' And he told him. Giotto said, 'Leave me to do it;' so he went away. And Giotto, left alone, said to himself, 'What did he mean? Has some sent him for a joke? I never had a shield to paint before. And this man was a simple fellow, and bade me paint his arms as if he were of the royal house of France. Certainly I shall have to make him some new arms.' So considering the matter, he put the shield before him and made a design and bade one of his pupils paint it, and so it was done. There was a helmet, a gorget, a pair of iron gloves, a cuirass, and cuisses, a sword, dagger, and lancc. So the worthy man came again and said, 'Master, is my shield painted?' Giotto answered, 'Certainly, bring it down.' But when it came the wouldbe gentleman looked at it and said, 'What is this you have been painting ? I won't pay four farthings for it.' Giotto said, 'What did you tell me to paint?' And he answered, 'My arms.' ' Are not they all here?' asked Giotto; 'what is wanting? Nay, you are a great fool, for if any one were to ask you who you are, you would hardly know what to answer; and you come here and say, Paint me my arms. What arms do you bear? Whence are you? Who were your ancestors? I have painted all your armour on the shield, and if there is anything else, tell me and I will add it.' But the other answered, 'You are giving me vile words, and have spoilt my shield.' And he went away and summoned Giotto before the justice. Giotto appeared, and on his side summoned him, demanding two florins for his painting. And when the court had heard the matter, they gave sentence that the man should take his shield so painted, and pay six lire to Giotto."

It is said that when Giotto was only a boy with Cimabue, he once painted a fly on the nose of a face that Cimabue had drawn, so naturally that the master returning to his work tried more than once to drive it away with his hand, thinking it was real. And I might tell you of many other jests played by Giotto, but of this enough.