Cimabue, Giotto and Duccio- A comparison of three Madonnas

The 13th and 14th centuries in Italy are known by a variety of different names in art history.  This period in Italy is when artists and scholars break from Medieval thought, philosophy and representations in art and begin to embrace the ideas of Humanism.  Some scholars refer to this as the Italian Gothic or "Italo-Byzantine" style.  Others refer to it as the early Renaissance or "Proto-Renaissance" in art. 

The 16th century art historian Giorgio Vasari coined the terms Trecento, Quattrocento and Cinquecento to describe the 1300's, 1400's and 1500's.*  I find myself using those terms as they refer to the time period rather than the style, calling this period the Trecento, though in the case of Cimabue, Duecento would be the more accurate term.

14' x 9' (4.27 m x 2.8 m)

Cimabue was the nickname of painter Cenni di Peppi and meant "ox-head" alternate accounts refer to either his stubbornness or homeliness.  However, aside from that nickname Cimabue was well renowned and highly sought after as a painter.  Born in Florence in 1240 he painted several monumental crucifix panels as well as church altarpieces with the Virgin and Child.

As the Louvre website states:
"Cimabue led the artistic movement in late 12th-century Tuscany that sought to renew the pictorial vocabulary and break with the rigidity of Byzantine art. The artist demonstrated a new sensibility, which endeavored to adhere more closely to reality."1

At first glance Cimabue's Madonna and angels do look rather stylized and abstracted, the faces are all similar and elongated, the angels hover weightlessly stacked on top of one another.  However in comparison with Byzantine models his figures are more filled out and have realistic folds in their drapery.  Their is an expressive and inquisitive look in each face of Cimabue's work.  Byzantine icons are beautiful works of art, but were created for spiritual reasons and were never meant to reflect naturalism.

While Giorgio Vasari considered Cimabue to have started the Italian Renaissance, later art historian Frederick Hartt in his book History of Italian Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture felt that Cimabue was instead the last artist of the Byzantine tradition.

The Ognissanti Madonna, Giotto, 1306-10, Uffizi
 10.7" x 6.7" (3.25 m x 2.04 m)

The pictorial inventions of Giotto can be seen in his altarpiece created for the church of Ognissanti in Florence.  Known as The Ognissanti Madonna (shown above), Giotto's figures have a solidity and weight to them.  Faces are quite expressive and individualized rather than stylized, the throne is shown as a realistic three dimensional space and the angels are shown convincingly in front of one another rather than stacked on top of each other.  Many art historians consider Giotto the father of the Italian Renaissance.  His innovations in art are especially evident in his many fresco cycles where he clearly captures the emotions in each individual.

After his time stylized iconographic figures and altarpieces start to wane from Italian art.

Maestà (Virgin in Magesty), Duccio, 1308
7' x 13.5' (2.13 m x 4.12 m)

Unlike Cimabue and Giotto who were Florentine, Duccio was a prominent painter from Siena.  Sienese painting was similar to the art of the art of Florence even though the two cities had a bitter rivalry.  Part of the rivalry was due to the political divide between the Guelphs who supported the Roman pope (Florence) and the Ghibellines who supported the Holy Roman Empire (Siena). Due to the ties with the Holy Roman Empire along with ties to the French papacy in Avignon, the Sienese had more artistic influenced which were derived from the International Gothic style found in Germany and France.  This can be seen in the poses and folds of drapery in his figures.  But Duccio like Giotto is painting in a way that captures the intelligence and personality of each saint and angel.

The front of the Maestà depicts the Madonna and Child enthroned with saints and angels (Maestà means the Virgin Mary in majesty), while on the reverse were nearly fifty scenes of the life of Christ.

As Keith Christiansen wrote in his article on Duccio and the Origins of Western Painting:
"Departing from the Byzantine notion of painting as a symbolic image of a divine being, Duccio, the founder of Sienese painting, endowed his figures with a new humanity, exploring the psychological relationship between Mother and Child."2

Cimabue, Giotto and Duccio are all in fact exploring the psychology of the figures they are painting and whatever one chooses to call this period in art, it is now evident that the ideas of Renaissance Humanism are taking hold in society.

*pronounced: "tray-chento," "kwatro-chento," and "cheen-quay-chento"

1 Louvre website-
2 "Duccio di Buoninsegna: Madonna and Child (2004.442)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (September 2010)   

Sculpture from the Cappella di San Severo

The Cappella di San Severo in Naples is today a small museum that was originally founded as a funerary chapel in the late 16th century for the noble di Sangro family, princes of Sansevero. Raimondo di Sangro, the seventh Prince of Sansevero (1710-71) was a generous patron of the arts and commissioned most of the incredible sculpture that has made the chapel famous.  I was fortunate enough to visit Naples this past April and see these fantastic works of art in person.  While the chapel had been around since the 1500's, the sculpture created in the mid-1700's is what the Cappella di San Severo is famous for today.

As Donald Posner wrote in the book 17th and 18th Century Art:

"The ideals of the eighteenth century brought about significant changes in Italian sculpture.  The baroque style was gradually transformed into a version of the Rococo as sculptors tended to stress elegance, lightness, and wit in their work." 1

Christo Velato, Giuseppe Sanmartino, 1753

This statement is found to be true when visiting this chapel. Raimondo di Sangro commissioned the renowned Venetian sculptor Antonio Corradini to carve a veiled Christ in marble as well as other sculptures to add to the chapel.  The internationally known Corradini had been working in Germany and Austria and came to Naples in 1750 to work on this project.  However the artist died in 1752 after creating his sculpture ModestyModesty, which was also a veiled figure, was a tribute to Raimondo's mother Cecilia Gaetani.

When Corradini died before sculpting the Christo Velato (the figure of the veiled Christ after the Crucifixion) Giuseppe Sanmartino was commissioned in his place to create this work.  Sanmartino was a young Neapolitan sculptor with less experience but who had a strong vision of what Christ should look like.

Sanmartino's sculpture is very strong in it's workmanship, a single block of alabaster carved to realistically convey the dead body of Christ as seen through a thin piece of fabric.  Through the cloth Christ's wounds, muscles and even veins can be seen.  As I walked around the work I found that the figure looked different from every angle.  I couldn't help but wonder what the artist used as a model as he carved this as it is so incredibly lifelike.

Disillusion, Francesco Queirolo, 1753-54

When I saw this in person I found this to be a very moving work of art.  I was surprised that until I visited the museum in Naples I hadn't heard of this sculpture and that it wasn't more widely known.  I found both the Christo Velato and Francesco Queirolo's Disillusion (seen above) to be some of the most original and well executed sculpture I have seen.

Francesco Queirolo's Disillusion was dedicated to Raimondo's father Antonio, the Duke of Torremaggiore.  The sculptor Queirolo, who was originally from Genoa, has created an unbelievably complex composition.  Out of one block of marble the artist convincingly created a figure emerging from a net with two very different textures; human flesh and the rope of the net.

The small winged figure is an allegory of Intellect helping the figure of Humanity to shed the Net of Disillusion.  Again, in person this sculpture makes a very powerful impact.

As the Museum website says of the chapel and Raimondo di Sangro's influence:

"Each individual work, in fact, had to play a unique role in the overall iconographic design that he had conceived, and which the artists themselves were probably unaware of. It is for this reason that in the Sansevero Chapel, more than in any other complex, there is the sense of patronage which, sometimes overwhelming the individual artistic presence, dominates and gives off energy, coherence, a sense of awe, and lends a European air to the whole complex." 2

1 Held, Julius S. and Donald Posner. 17th and 18th Century Art: Baroque Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. New York: Prentice-Hall Inc., and Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (1972) p. 355.