Crucifix – pictured before the flood
14’3” x 12’7” (4.35 x 3.84 m)
Museo di Santa Croce, Florence
Cimabue was called “the first page of Italian art” by Giorgio Vasari. Although Vasari, who did not appear to count anything between the fall of Rome and Renaissance, saw Cimabue as the beginning of the Renaissance. Cimabue can also be considered the end of Italo-Byzantine art. His adherence to the Byzantine style of his figures of the Christus patiens (suffering Christ) flanked by the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist, is apparent in his famous Crucifix made for the Basilica of Santa Croce.
The faces are very expressive and Christ sways dramatically. His outwardly stretched arms create more tension than the sagging arms of most Byzantine crucifixes. His blood flows downward from his hands, pooling at the gold border of the cross. (Hartt, History of Italian Renaissance Art, 49-51)
During the Second World War, the Crucifix had been moved outside of Florence along with most of Florence’s other art for its protection. After the Germans fled Tuscany, these works were eventually brought home. Cimabue’s Crucifix was left in a cellar, leaning up against a wine cask. When Lt. Frederick Hartt and his compatriots discovered it, they were very concerned that the Crucifix and its cellarmates would be irreparably damaged by dampness and mold if left where they were, and they were moved to another room in the deposit. (Hartt, Florentine Art Under Fire, 35) Two decades later, the Crucifix would have more than mere dampness to contend with.
In November 1966, the devastating and irreparable damage to the Cimabue would become the most iconic symbol of the Florence Flood. The image of the suffering, dying Christ was now suffering and dying. Most of the paint of the Christ figure had been ripped off as the flood waters rose higher than twenty feet in the refectory of Santa Croce.
The devastation of Christ on the cross, suffering and dying for humanity, could not have been situated in a more appropriate neighborhood in Florence during the flood. Santa Croce was one the poorest neighborhoods and it was one the hardest hit. As to a question about the condition of what the pope called “la vittima più illustre” (“the most illustrious victim”) of the flood, Mayor Bargellini, a resident of Santa Croce, responded, “Enough about Cimabue’s poor Christ. Now we must think about the poor Christians.” (Clark, 190) While restorers lamented the damage and racked themselves over how to save it, the Crucifix’s neighbors had much the same worries about the state of their own lives.
The heavy wooden crucifix had taken on so much water that it had grown three inches and doubled its weight. The wood was cracked, it grew mold, and paint began to flake off even after it was removed from the refectory. The paint had to be removed from the canvas and it was years before the cross had shrunk down to its original size. The cracks were later filled in with poplar from the Casentine Forest, where Cimabue obtained the original poplar.
There were questions over what returning the Crucifix to its original form meant. Would it be as it was when Cimabue finished it or as it was on November 3, 1966? Umberto Baldini, the director of the Gabinetto del Restauro, decided that there would be no reconstruction or forgery of the image, although there was said to be at least one artisan in Florence who could do the job. The solution eventually settled on by the restorers was an idea by Ornella Casazza, a restorer and eventually Baldini’s wife. They were to use tratteggio, a hatching technique used with a fine brush. Using hues–yellow, red, and green with black–as well as lines corresponding with the flow from the surviving image surrounding them. This “chromatic abstraction” would fill the gaps with both color and guided movements would allow the eye to “average out” the image.
This solution, like any in art and art restoration, was met with criticism, most notably from Baldini and Casazza’s counterparts in Rome at the Istituto Centrale per il Restauro who claimed that the tratteggio drew too much attention to itself away from the surviving image. (Clark, 249-252)
Whatever its aesthetic effect, their solution does not hide what has now become one of the most significant chapters in its history. It does not take the keen eye of an artist or restorer to see what has happened. Anyone who visits Cimabue’s Crucifix in Santa Croce can see that it has been damaged. Unlike Bernard Berenson’s famous words about the bridges and waterfront after their 1944 destruction, there is no dov’era, com’era for the Crucifix. Not all harm can be undone, like the loss of life after disasters like the war and flood. Cimabue’s disfigured Crucifix hangs in Santa Croce to remind us.
Cimabue’s Crucifix after restoration
• Clark, R. (2008). Dark water: art, disaster, and redemption in Florence. New York: Anchor Books.
• Hartt, F. (1949). Florentine art under fire. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
• Hartt, F, & Wilkins, D.G. (2009). History of Italian Renaissance art: painting, sculpture, architecture. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.