How To Talk About Art History

It's easier than it seems.

Tag: Renaissance

Why was Cimabue so Important?

A Medieval-style painting of the Madonna sitting on a golden throne holding the Christ child. She is surrounded by four angels on either side, and below her throne there are four bearded men in robes. Golden halos surround the heads of each figure in the painting.

Maestà di Santa Trinità (1280–1285), Cimabue

Reader question: “Consider explaining how or why Cimabue is considered important—what were his influences on art and WHY was he considered great? Why is this perfectionist trait important? Did his pride influence others?” – asked by Eric

Cimabue was an Italian (more specifically, a Florentine) painter who was active in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, right before the Renaissance period started. As you correctly write, he is considered to be a very important figure in European art history. If I were to explain why, I would say that it’s for these two main reasons:

  1. He was the teacher of Giotto, considered to be the first truly great Renaissance painter, and
  2. He is seen as a kind of “transitional” artist between the Medieval and the Renaissance periods.

You’re also correct in that there are anecdotes suggesting that he was a “haughty and proud” artist who would destroy his work if there were any flaws in it. Before explaining why that legacy is so important, though, let’s look at why being Giotto’s teacher is such a big deal.

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“What are the most exciting fields in art history which haven’t been properly explored?”

Three examples of images from the Western art history canon: the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, Le Promenade by Claude Monet, and Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Pablo Picasso. These paintings, artists, and movements (High Renaissance, Impressionism and Cubism, respectively) have all been extensively studied in art history.

Three examples of images from the Western art history canon: the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, Le Promenade by Claude Monet, and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso. These paintings, artists, and movements (High Renaissance, Impressionism and Cubism, respectively) have all been extensively explored in art history.

Reader question: “What do you think are the most exciting fields in art history which haven’t been properly explored?”

Oh – this is a tough but great question!

It’s tough because there are just so many areas of art history that haven’t been properly explored. There are certain “popular” areas of art history that tend to get the most amount of attention in scholarship. These areas usually adhere to the Western art history canon.

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“Why do all old statues have such small penises?” (NSFW)

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Close-up of Michelangelo’s David

Reader question: “Why do all old statues have such small penises?”

The reader who sent me this felt that it was a question that was maybe too silly for my blog, but – firstly – there are no questions too silly for this blog, and – secondly – the answer to this question is actually pretty interesting.

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“I’m wondering about cobalt and the story about blue colours being so expensive in the past”: A Very Short History of Colours.

The super-beautiful and expensive ultramarine colour can be seen in the headdress of Vermeer's Girl With A Pearl Earring from 1665.

The super-beautiful and expensive ultramarine colour can be seen in the headdress of Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring from 1665.

Reader question: “I’m wondering about cobalt and the story about blue colours being so expensive in the past – is that true and does it have any importance for the evolution of art?”

It is true! But it’s actually not cobalt blue that you’re thinking of, it’s ultramarine.

The history of colours in art is really weird and interesting. It’s true that the availability of various colours has often determined which ones are used and what importance they have. This is especially true the further back we go in history, when all colours were not readily available in the nearest art shop.

A surprising variety of methods were used to make different colours. To make bright red, for example, an early 8th century process was described by Persian alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan: you had to heat mercury and sulfur in a flask, vaporize and recondense it, and then grind it to create a red colour.

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