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Chapter 3. Deluge, Difference, and Dissemination

Chapter 3. Deluge, Difference, and Dissemination

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unhealthful exposure to aria, mixtures, or pedagogy. This new figure of the flood understands the

dynamic between foreign and native artists mediated through another natural element, the destructive

force of water that dilutes and dissolves. It brings forth another set of oppositions, contrasting the

torrent of invaders against the stable geographic entity of Italy. In his Storia fiorentina, the sixteenthcentury man of letters Benedetto Varchi referred to the onslaught of Imperial troops sacking Rome in

1527 as “such a flood of such strange peoples” that verged on submerging all of Italy. This not only

speaks to a shared currency of terms between Varchi and Vasari, both of whose works propagated

Cosimo I’s political aims. It also reveals once again the negative perception, understandably so given

its status as invasion, toward the arrival of foreign elements. Yet the metaphor of the flood implies

more than just destruction of man and beast, “from the creeping thing even to the fowls of the air”

(Genesis 6:7). In dismantling all forms, the cataclysm of a flood, as Mircea Eliade observed,

“purifies and regenerates because it nullifies the past, and restores ... the integrity of the dawn of

things.” The flood that introduces the life of Cimabue refers to annihilation and, at the same time, a

baptism that creates the possibility for artistic renewal.3

This deluge does not guarantee an immediate rebirth. Any messianic savior will have to contend

with Greek artists “summoned ... for no other purpose than to reintroduce the art of painting in

Tuscany.” How, then, does Vasari characterize Cimabue’s interactions with these foreign artists? He

reports that Cimabue escapes his school lessons to observe the Byzantine painters at work in the

Gondi Chapel (Santa Maria Novella), an ersatz bottega where the young artist begins his training.

Despite suggesting a pedagogical rapport between foreign teacher and native apprentice, Vasari

seems reluctant to depict this relationship as a hierarchical one between master/pupil, with its

overtones of obedience and submission. Cimabue learns from yet surpasses his “Greek” masters.

Vasari fashions this tension into a temporal, spatial, and ethnic matrix. A sense of stasis, even

unwillingness to change, exemplifies what is called the maniera ordinaria of the Byzantine artists.

By contrast, Cimabue advances upon their work “in a short period of time.” Employing the figurative

language of spatial distance (pass÷ di gran lunga, avanzo), Vasari likens Cimabue’s progression in

the arts to a journey, a theme that will find more sustained articulation in Part II. Vasari also puts style

in the service of stressing ethnic differences and patriotic allegiance: “And although he imitated the

Greeks, he executed many works in his patria, honoring it with the deeds he did there, and acquired

for himself both name and profit.” Painter and painting constitute part and parcel of the patria’s social

and physical makeup.4


Does Cimabue himself function as a mobile agent in his biography? Like earlier commentators such

as Villani, Landino, and the author of the so-called Ottimo Commento, Vasari stresses the artist’s ties

to Florence through designating a toponym (Cimabue pittore fiorentino) and announcing his

birthplace and his family’s lineage. Nevertheless, Vasari also recounts that Cimabue is active outside

his native city, for instance, in Pisa, where he executes the panel for the church of San Francesco,

now known as the Louvre Madonna (fig. 3.1). This work “was considered by those people a most

rare thing, recognizing [conoscendosi] in his style [maniera] a certain something which was new and

better, in the expression of the heads and folds of the cloth which those masters, spread already

throughout Italy, up to then had not done.”5

The maniera greca, as practiced in Pisa and Lucca by such artists as Berlinghiero, acts as a foil

against which Vasari can pinpoint the attributes of the more modern manner (fig. 3.2). To some

viewers, the similarities between Berlinghiero’s approach to painting and that of Cimabue may in fact

greatly outweigh the differences. The correspondences between Berlinghiero’s Hodegetria panel of

the Virgin and Christ and the Louvre Madonna go beyond iconography, gesture, materials, and

supports employed. Present in both works are the Virgin’s elongated nose, her expression of concern

about Christ’s impeding suffering, and the slight application of color that animates the cheeks.

Vasari’s priorities, however, lay in identifying what distinguishes Cimabue from his predecessors.

What accomplish the “expression of the heads” (aria delle teste) are the subtle transitions that render

the modeling of the flesh, combined with the direct gaze toward the viewer (fig. 3.3). So too is there a

great deal of tonal variety in Cimabue’s description of drapery, a wide spectrum of light to dark blues

alluding to the body underneath, which stands in marked contrast to the chrysography more standard in

Italo-Byzantine works of art (fig. 3.4).

FIGURE 3.1 Cimabue, The Madonna and Child in Majesty Surrounded by Angels, c. 1280. Tempera on panel (4.27 × 2.8 m). ©

RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Hervé Lewandowski. Louvre, Paris (formerly in San Francesco, Pisa).

FIGURE 3.2 Berlinghiero, Madonna and Child, c. 1230. Tempera on wood, gold ground (80.3 × 53.7 cm). Metropolitan Museum of

Art, New York. Gift of Irma N. Straus, 1960 (60.173).

Further heightening this contrast in the realm of text against the masters of the maniera greca is

Cimabue’s physical displacement from Florence. When staged abroad, the exhibition of the

differences between styles occurs as a dramatic event. Vasari places Cimabue on a stage where a

public (que’ popoli) acknowledges his difference from the maniera greca. What is more, this public,

while Tuscan, is foreign insofar as it is not Florentine, thereby suggesting regional prejudice has not

swayed its opinion. In fact, throughout the Lives, Vasari states that a work received the admiration of

both “natives and foreigners” to lend the impression that an artist has received universal and unbiased


FIGURE 3.3 Detail from Cimabue, The Madonna and Child in Majesty Surrounded by Angels, c. 1280. Tempera on panel (4.27 ì

2.8 m). â RMN-Grand Palais (musộe du Louvre) / Hervé Lewandowski. Louvre, Paris (formerly in San Francesco, Pisa).

FIGURE 3.4 Detail from Cimabue, The Madonna and Child in Majesty Surrounded by Angels, c. 1280. Tempera on panel (4.27 ì

2.8 m). â RMN-Grand Palais (musộe du Louvre) / Hervé Lewandowski. Louvre, Paris (formerly in San Francesco, Pisa).

Elsewhere in Part I, the mobility of things can rouse the mental activity of setting out distinctions.

Take, for instance, Vasari’s description of the antiquities gathered around the Cathedral and the

Campo Santo in Pisa. These fragments have been “destroyed by fires, ruins, the fury of wars and

transported to a variety of places.” Despite the arduous journey of these artifacts, “one recognizes

nevertheless the differences in the styles [maniere] of all countries.” As in his discussion of

Cimabue’s distinction from the maniera greca, Vasari catalogues these differences according to

ethnicity: Egyptian slenderness, Greek nudity, Tuscan rusticity, and the superiority of the Romans,

who “took the beautiful from all of these provinces and gathered them in a single style.” The

collocation of various artifacts in one setting makes differences more apparent. Though no doubt

vastly changed from the appearance that conjured Vasari’s taxonomy of difference, Méaulle’s print of

the Camposanto displays how a motley collection of artifacts calls for the viewer to make sense of

this bricolage (fig. 3.5). Pillage, war, and a desire for commemoration brings these objects to a

concentrated point where close looking can take place, where distinctions are able to be drawn.7

Mobility also informs the recognition of stylistic differences in another significant monument of

Tuscan artistic topography, the Florentine Baptistery. The key individual here for Vasari is the

Florentine Andrea Taffi. Though Taffi’s biographic details remain obscure, his inclusion is

meaningful as he functions as the conduit for bringing the “old way of the clumsy Greek manner” in

Florence. Andrea, holding the art of mosaic in high esteem, departs from Florence for Venice. There,

he encounters Byzantine artists active at San Marco, and “with pleas, with money and with promises”

persuades these practitioners of the maniera greca to move to Florence. Andrea imports a certain

“Apollonio pittore Greco,” who instructs artisans in the Tuscan city in mosaic making and application

onto walls. The Baptistery was the location of interventions in mosaic from about 1225 through the

fifteenth century. Due to these long-term campaigns, viewers witness various styles compressed and

juxtaposed within a single site of dense visual forms. Vasari explains: “But when the works of Giotto,

as will be said in its own place, were set in comparison with those of Andrea, of Cimabue, and of the

others, people recognized in part the perfection of the art, seeing the difference between the early

manner of Cimabue and that of Giotto, in the figures of the one and of the others and in those that their

disciples and imitators made.”8

Giotto’s involvement in the design for the Baptistery mosaic is generally doubted, despite a

number of eminent adherents who assert that the artist furnished cartoons. For his own part, Vasari

does not make good on his promise to recount Giotto’s work on the Baptistery in any detail. When

read with hindsight, it appears that the act of comparing the work of these artists does not literally

mean side-by-side analysis in the Baptistery per se. Vasari’s statement implies instead the viewer’s

awareness of Giotto’s other work in Florence and, by extension, a mental juxtaposition of that work

with the maniera greca. Indeed, when encountered in this specific passage, Giotto’s name serves

more as a placeholder for the more advanced style in Florence, a manner that is placed in opposition

to a foreign Byzantine style and those archaic artists held under its sway (Taffi, and even to some

extent Cimabue).9

What may have facilitated the impulse to mention the collision of ethnic and temporal styles is the

composition of the Baptistery vault itself. The different zones may break down to distinct

iconographic registers, among them the hierarchy of angels, scenes from the lives of Joseph, Christ,

and St. John the Baptist, and the Last Judgment. But these running bands also make the vault into a

diagram in mosaic, a table of sorts that lends itself to the making of contrasts and comparisons (fig.

3.6). Due to their placement directly on top of the other, we cannot fail to correlate and yet distinguish

aspects of gesture, stance, and expression in two disparate scenes such as The Expulsion from

Paradise and Joseph Led into Egypt (figs. 3.7 and 3.8). While modern specialist art historical

studies might have trepidations considering in the same glance mosaics that differ in iconography,

authorship, and style, Vasari and the publics he mentions evidently had no such qualms.

FIGURE 3.5 F. Méaulle, “Les chaines de l’ancien port de Pise et la statue de Jean de Pise au Campo Santo,” from Eugène Müntz, Le

tour du monde: I. A travers la Toscane. Pise (Pisa, 1882).

FIGURE 3.6 Side of dome with hosts of angels: Archangels. Byzantine mosaic. Baptistery, Florence.

FIGURE 3.7 Circle of Cimabue, The Expulsion from Paradise, c. 1280–85. Mosaic. Baptistery, Florence.

FIGURE 3.8 Circle of the Master of the Magdalene, Joseph Led into Egypt, c. 1280–90. Mosaic. Baptistery, Florence.

The absence of any hesitancy may be due to the cognitive gains promised by diagnosing

differences. For, as Vasari suggests, the act of witnessing distinctions in style is the means by which

knowing excellence is possible. He was not alone in forging a link between seeing differences and

the faculty of knowing. Benedetto Varchi defined the faculty of “cogitativa” as knowing the difference

between “what is benign and harmful ... enemy from friend, relatives from strangers and a thousand

other differences.” This exercise of distinguishing between things was particularly employed when

encountering the foreign, as attested by a wide range of early modern sources concerned with

mobility, both within and beyond Italy. As Richard Trexler observed, a task for visiting ambassadors

to Italian city-states was to sort out differences in a foreign public’s nonverbal behavior. The purpose

was to uncover the intended political message beneath the “skillful veneer” of spectacles mounted to

celebrate their arrival. Further afield, Leo Africanus’s introductory description of Africa is

essentially a catalogue of the differences between white and black Africans, in pronunciations in

languages, and in dress. Traveling artists such as Albrecht Dürer explored the issue of visual

difference in the graphic realm. His drawing of two women, one dressed alla veneziana, the other

like a citizen of Nuremberg, exemplifies an interest in accentuating ethnic characteristics through

visual discrepancies (fig. 3.9). The almost architectural solidity of Venetian dress, resembling a

fluted column, as Panofsky once observed, becomes emphasized when seen against the Nuremberg

Hausfrau’s elliptical and curvilinear folds. Graphically comparing and contrasting within the span of

a single sheet facilitates the faculty of discernment.10

That travel accounts diagnose difference in respect to either one’s native viewpoint or a variety

of foreign phenomena raises a significant issue. The recurrence of difference as a key term in both

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Chapter 3. Deluge, Difference, and Dissemination

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