By the will of God, in the year 1240, we are told by Vasari, Giovanni Cimabue, of the noble family of that name, was born in the city of Florence, to give the first light to the art of painting. Vasari's "Lives of the Painters" was first published in Florence in 1550, and with all its defects and all its inaccuracies, which have afforded so much food for contention among modern critics, it is still the principal source of our knowledge of the earlier history of painting as it was revived in Italy in the thirteenth century.

Making proper allowance for Vasari's desire to glorify his own city, and to make a dignified commencement to his work by attributing to Cimabue more than was possibly his due, we need not be deterred by the very latest dicta of the learned from accepting the outlines of his life of Cimabue as an embodiment of the tradition of the time in which he lived—two centuries and a quarter after Cimabue—and, until contradicted by positive evidence, as worthy of general credence. In the popular mind Cimabue still remains "The Father of modern painting," and though his renown may have attracted more pictures and more legends to his name than properly belong to him, it is certain that Dante, his contemporary, wrote of him thus:—

Credette Cimabue nella pintura
Tener lo campo, ed ora ha Giotto il grido
Si che la fama di colui s'oscura.

This is at least as important as anything written by a contemporary of William Shakespeare; and even if we are required to believe that some of his most important works are by another hand, his influence on the history of art is beyond question. Let us then follow Vasari a little further, and we shall find, at any rate, what is typical of the development of genius.

"This youth," Vasari continues, "being considered by his father and others to give proof of an acute judgment and a clear understanding, was sent to Santa Maria Novella to study letters under a relation who was then master in grammar to the novices of that convent. But Cimabue, instead of devoting himself to letters, consumed the whole day in drawing men, horses, houses, and other various fancies on his books and different papers—an occupation to which he felt himself impelled by nature."

This is exactly what is recorded of Reynolds, it may be noted, and very much the same as in the case of Gainsborough, Benjamin West—and many a modern painter.

"This natural inclination was favoured by fortune, for the governors of the city had invited certain Greek (probably Byzantine) painters to Florence, for the purpose of restoring the art of painting, which had not merely degenerated but was altogether lost. These artists, among other works, began to paint the chapel of the Gondi in Santa Maria Novella, and Cimabue, often escaping from the school, and having already made a commencement of the art he was so fond of, would stand watching these masters at their work. His father, and the artists themselves, therefore concluded that he must be well endowed for painting, and thought that much might be expected from him if he devoted himself to it. Giovanni was accordingly, much to his delight, placed with these masters, whom he soon greatly surpassed both in design and colouring. For they, caring little for the progress of art, executed their works not in the excellent manner of the ancient Greeks, but in the rude modern style of their own day. Wherefore, though Cimabue imitated them, he very much improved the art, relieving it greatly from their uncouth manner and doing honour to his country by the name that he acquired and by the works which he performed. Of this we have evidence in Florence from the pictures which he painted there—as for example the front of the altar of Saint Cecilia and a picture of the Virgin, in Santa Croce, which was and still is (i.e. in 1550) attached to one of the pilasters on the right of the choir."

Unfortunately the very first example cited pulls us up short alongside the official catalogue of the Uffizi Gallery (where the picture was placed in 1841), in which it is catalogued (No. 20) as "Unknown ... Vasari erroneously attributes it to Cimabue."

Tiresome as it may seem to be thus distracted, at the very outset, by the question of authenticity, it is nevertheless desirable to start with a clear understanding that in surveying in a general way the history and development of painting, it will be quite hopeless to wait for the final word on the supposed authorship of every picture mentioned. In this instance, as it happens, there is no reason to question the modern catalogue, though that is by no means the same thing as denying that Cimabue painted the picture which existed in the church of S. Cecilia in Vasari's time. Is it more likely, it may be asked, that Vasari, who is accused of unduly glorifying Cimabue, would attribute to him a work not worthy of his fame, or that during the three centuries since Vasari wrote a substitution was effected? The other picture, the Madonna and Child Enthroned, which found its way into our National Gallery in 1857, is still officially catalogued as the work of Cimabue, and it is to be hoped that this precious relic, together with the Madonnas in the Louvre, the Florence Academy, and in the lower church at Assisi, may be long spared to us by the authority of the critics as "genuine productions" of the beloved master.

On the general question, however, let me reassure the reader by stating that so far as possible I have avoided the mention of any pictures, in the following pages, about which there is any grave doubt, save in a few cases where tradition is so firmly established that it seems heartless to disturb it until final judgment is entered—of which the following examples of Cimabue's reputed work may be taken as types. The latest criticism seeks to deprive him of every single existing picture he is believed to have painted; those mentioned by Vasari which have perished may be considered equally unauthentic, but, as before mentioned, his account of them gives us as well as anything else the story of the beginnings of the art.

Having afterwards undertaken, Vasari continues, to paint a large picture in the Abbey of the Santa Trinità in Florence for the monks of Vallombrosa, he made great efforts to justify the high opinion already formed of him and showed greater powers of invention, especially in the attitude of the Virgin, whom he depicted with the child in her arms and numerous angels around her, on a gold ground. This is the picture now in the Accademia in Florence. The frescoes next described are no longer in existence:—

"Cimabue next painted in fresco at the hospital of the Porcellana at the corner of the Via Nuova which leads into the Borgo Ogni Santi. On the front of this building, which has the principal door in the centre, he painted the Virgin receiving the Annunciation from the angel, on one side, and Christ with Cleophas and Luke on the other, all the figures the size of life. In this work he departed more decidedly from the dry and formal manner of his instructors, giving more life and movement to the draperies, vestments and other accessories, and rendering all more flexible and natural than was common to the manner of those Greeks whose work were full of hard lines and sharp angles as well in mosaic as in painting. And this rude unskilful manner the Greeks had acquired not so much from study or settled purpose as from having servilely followed certain fixed rules and habits transmitted through a long series of years by one painter to another, while none ever thought of the amelioration of his design, the embellishment of his colouring, or the improvement of his invention."

After describing Cimabue's activities at Pisa and Assisi with equal circumstance, Vasari passes to the famous Rucellai Madonna, now supposed to be by the hand of Duccio of Siena. However doubtful the story may appear in the light of modern criticism, historical or artistic, it certainly forms part of the history of painting—for its spirit if not for its accuracy—and as such it can never be too often quoted:—

"He afterwards painted the picture of the Virgin for the Church of Santa Maria Novella, where it is suspended on high between the chapel of the Rucellai family and that of the Bardi. This picture is of larger size than any figure that had been painted down to those times, and the angels surrounding it make it evident that although Cimabue still retained the Greek manner, he was nevertheless gradually approaching the mode of outline and general method of modern times. Thus it happened that this work was an object of so much admiration to the people of that day—they having never seen anything better—that it was carried in solemn procession, with the sound of trumpets and other festal demonstration, from the house of Cimabue to the Church, he himself being highly rewarded and honoured for it. It is further reported, and may be read in certain records of old painters, that while Cimabue was painting this picture in a garden near the gate of S. Pietro, King Charles the Elder of Anjou passed through Florence, and the authorities of the city, among other marks of respect, conducted him to see the picture of Cimabue. When this work was thus shown to the King, it had not before been seen by anyone; wherefore all the men and women of Florence hastened in great crowds to admire it, making all possible demonstration of delight."

Now whether or not Vasari was right in crediting Cimabue with these honours in Florence instead of Duccio in Siena, makes little difference in the story of the origin and early development of the art of painting. One may doubt the accuracy of the mosaic account of the Creation, the authorship of the Fourth Gospel or the Shakespearean poems, or the list of names of the Normans who are recorded to have fought with William the Conqueror. But what if one may? The Creation, the poems and plays of Shakespeare and the battle of Hastings are all of them historic facts, and neither science, nor literature, nor history is a penny the worse for the loose though perfectly understandable conditions under which these facts have been handed down to us. When we come down to times nearer to our own the accuracy of data is more easily ascertainable, though the confusion arising out of them often obscures their real significance; but in looking for origins we are content to ignore the details, provided we can find enough general information on which to form an idea of them. To these first chapters of Vasari, then, we need not hesitate to resort for the main sources of the earlier history of painting. Even so far as we have gone we have learnt several important facts as to the nature of the foundations on which the glorious structure was to be raised.

First of all, it is apparent that the practice of painting, though strictly forbidden by the earliest Fathers of the Church, was used by the faithful in the Eastern churches for purposes of decoration, and was introduced into Italy—we may safely say Tuscany—for the same purpose.

Second, that being transplanted into this new soil, it put forth such wonderful blossoms that it came to be cultivated with much more regard; and from being merely a necessary or conventional ornament of certain portions of the church, was soon accounted its greatest glory.

Third, that it was accorded popular acclamation.

Fourth, that its most attractive feature in the eyes of beholders was its life-like representation of the human form and other natural objects.

Prosaic as these considerations may appear, they are nevertheless the fundamental principles that underlie the whole of the subsequent development of painting; and unless every picture in the world were destroyed, and the art of painting wholly lost for at least a thousand years, there could not be another picture produced which would not refer back through continuous tradition to one or every one of them. First, the basis of religion. Second, the development peculiar to the soil. Third, the imitation of nature. Fourth, the approbation of the public—there we have the four cardinal points in the chart of painting.

It would be easy enough to contend that painting had nothing whatever to do with religion—if only by reference to the godless efforts of some of the modernists; but such a contention could only be based on the imperfect recognition of what religion actually means. In Italy in the thirteenth century, as in Spain in the seventeenth, it meant the Church of Rome. In Germany of the sixteenth, as in England in the eighteenth, it meant something totally different. To put it a little differently, all painting that is worth so calling has been done to the glory of God; and after making due allowance for human frailties of every variety, it is hard to say that among all the hundreds of great and good painters there has ever been one who was not a good man.

As for the influence of environment, or nationality, this is so universally recognised that the term "school" more often means locality than tuition. We talk generally of the French, English, or Dutch schools, and more particularly of the Paduan, Venetian, or Florentine. It is only when we hesitate to call our national treasure a Botticelli or a Bellini that we add the words "school of" to the name of the master who is fondly supposed to have inspired its author. The difference between a wood block of the early eighteenth century executed in England and Japan respectively may be cited as an extreme instance of the effect of locality on idea, when the method is identical.

With reference to the imitation of nature, at the mere mention of which modernists become so furious, it is worth recalling that the earliest story about painting relates to Zeuxis, who is said to have painted a bunch of grapes with such skill that the birds ignored the fruit and pecked at the picture. In later times we hear of Rembrandt being the butt of his pupils, who, knowing his love of money, used to paint coins on the floor; and there are plenty of stories of people painting flies and other objects so naturally as to deceive the unwary spectator. Vasari is continually praising his compatriots for painting "like the life."

Lastly, the approbation, or if possible the acclamation, of the public has seldom if ever been unconsidered by the artist. Where it has, it has only been the greatest genius that has been able to exist without it. A man who has anything to say must have somebody to say it to; and though a painter may seem to be wasting the best part of his life in trying to make the people understand what he has to say in his language instead of talking to them in their own common tongue, it is rarely that he fails in the end, even if, alas for him, the understanding comes too late to be of any benefit to himself.

Cimabue's last work is said to be a figure, which was left unfinished, of S. John, in mosaic, for the Duomo at Pisa. This was in 1302, which is supposed to be the date of his death, though Vasari puts it two years earlier, at the time he was engaged with the architect Arnolfo Lapi in superintending the building of the Duomo in Florence, where he is buried.