Pietro Cavallini was a Roman painter; his name is associated with those of Cimabue and Giotto in the movement towards greatly increased naturalism in painting which took place in the latter part of the 13th and the first part of the 14th centuries. It is significant that most of Cavallini's activity was in Rome, for during the last quarter of the 13th century a program of restoration and redecoration of Early Christian monuments was commissioned there by the Papal court.
One of the works that Pope Nicholas III (1277 - 80) was involved in was the restoration of a cycle of Early Christian frescoes in the huge basilica of S. Paolo Fuori le Mura: these were scenes from the Lives of SS. Peter and Paul dateable to 1277 - 9. On the opposite, right, wall of the nave, Cavalini painted scenes from the Old Testament. All these frescoes were destroyed in a fire in 1823, but records of them survive in 17th-century manuscript copies. The scenes were divided in the Roman manner by twisted columns (a similar arrangement to that of The Legend of St Francis at Assisi). It is clear that in these scenes Cavallini was tackling the problem of creating a realistic sense of space by the use of architecture painted in perspective, and by the disposition of his figures. The surviving ciborium over the high altar of S. Paolo by Arnolfo di Cambio was completed in 1285, and this is the likely period of Cavallini's work in the church.
The influence of Gothic sculpture, and particularly of Arnolfo di Cambio, plays a considerable part in Cavallini's pioneering achievement; we find the two working at the same time in S. Cecilia in Trastevere. The church was frescoed by Cavallini and contains a ciborium by Arnolfo with the date 1293. The surviving fragment of Cavallini's Last Judgment displays rich, sculptural folds in the drapery, a new naturalism in the modeling of faces and hands, and the creation of a general sense of solid volume and weight in the figures. Although there are iconographical precedents for the form of this Last Judgement, it is transformed by Cavallini's revolutionary style.
It is perhaps more difficult to recognize a similar originality in his mosaics in S. Maria in Trastevere because he was using a far less flexible medium. The mosaics are in the apse: there are six scenes from The Life of the Virgin, and a votive group. Even allowing for the difference in medium it seems clear that these lovely mosaics represent a slightly earlier stage than the S. Cecilia frescoes. Cavallini's latest work is to be found in S. Maria Donna Regina, Naples (being built 1307 - c. 20) where the paintings appear to be the products of a large workshop. The frescoes include a few outstanding figures of commanding naturalism, such as that of David, which must be the last known works of the master himself.
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