One of the most important Florentine painters before Cimabue and in his own way quite on par with the later Michelangelo, Coppo di Marcovaldo is also one of the earliest of the Italian Renaissance artists about whom there is clear-cut known information. He was an artist of the Byzantine tradition. This art, originally centered in the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, around the Orthodox Church, consisted of Christian-themed painted icons, texts, sculptures, woven fabrics, frescoes and mosaics that were executed in a highly sophisticated and rational manner. Many of the Byzantine artists had been invited for their splendid skills to the Sicilian Court of King Roger in the twelfth century and by the following century the dazzling Italo-Byzantine artistic influence had made itself clearly discernible in Europe. After the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1204, there was a further exodus of the consequently out-of-work artists to greener pastures, namely to the wealthy and newly powerful states of Serbia, Venice and Tuscany, and they brought a further influx of the highly formalized, linear Byzantine style. The Florentine artists like Coppo di Marcovaldo and Cimabue were deeply influenced by this 'new' art and, surpassing it, made inroads towards a more realistic and intense depiction. This became the characteristic feature of the 'Dugento', an Italian word meaning 'two hundred' and used to specify the thirteenth century (1200s).
Coppo Di Marcovaldo was born in 1225 in Florence and served as a soldier in its army. He fought in the bloody Battle of Montaperti that took place between the Florentine Guelfs and the Sienese Ghibellines along the Arbia river in 1260. The Florentines lost heavily. Coppo was captured by the Sienese and, along with scores of other fellow Florentine soldiers, was thrown into prison. Prisons were quite horrendous places in those times and Coppo probably never quite recovered from the experience. However, after his subsequent release, he chose to settle in Siena and began a new career as an artist.
In Siena, one of his first commissions was to paint a Madonna and Child Enthroned for the high altar of the Santa Maria dei Servi Church in the city. This now-famous painting, known as the Madonna del Bordone, was done in Tempera on wood and is signed and dated 1261. It is a step forward in the Byzantine tradition, showing a somewhat realistic, three-dimensional representation of the Virgin, who has her head inclined towards the Child. Another documented, still-preserved work by Coppo is the Crucifix in Pistoia Cathedral, which he painted with his son Salerno in 1274. From the definitive style of these two known works, the Madonna and Child Enthroned in Sta Maria dei Servi in Orvieto and the Crucifix in the Pinacoteca at San Gimignano have also been deduced to have been painted by Coppo.
The Orvieto Madonna, in Tempera on wood and finished about 1265, is typical of Coppo's intensity of feelings, showing severe forms and strong interplays of light and dark. The Byzantine style Virgin has a sharply etched beauty, with a sad look, and a crown and a gold halo. She is enthroned with the Christ Child in her lap. The Child, who is shown with a strangely grown-up face, raises one hand in blessing and carries a scroll in the other, and there are two angels behind the throne.
In the Crucifix, done after 1261 in Tempera on wood, the upper part shows a scene of the Ascension with a Blessing Christ in a circle on top of it. At the left and right ends of the outstretched arms are shown the Madonna with St John and the Pious Women respectively. On either side of the torso there are six dramatic and emotional scenes - on the left there is the Capture of Christ, Flagellation, and Preparation of the Cross; on the right there is Christ before the Judges, Mocking of Christ and Deposition. The suffering main figure of Christ is powerfully expressionistic in its depiction. You can almost feel his torment when you look at him.
Another of Coppo's work 'Last Judgment' is considered one of the most overwhelming of the Dugento. A monumental mosaic executed on the west face of the octagonal pyramid vault of the Baptistry of Florence, it is a vivid and unparalleled example of Coppo's talent. The enthroned 'Christ Triumphus' is twenty-five feet in height, with a simplified form and opulent coloring. He has a clear look and outstretched arms, the right one towards the consecrated and the left one towards the lost souls. The whole, including the elliptical throne, where the seven heavens are depicted by arcs, is encircled by an intricate outline and can be perfectly viewed from the floor below. The many figures surrounding the Christ, although possibly of Coppo's design, are not however known for certain to be his works. These include angels with trumpets and several hell scenes.
It seems amazing after you've seen the intense, glorious content of Coppo di Marcovaldo's work that, following his death in 1274, he was pretty much forgotten, didn't merit a mention in Vasari's works, and has been generally overlooked by art historians. However he was to inspire and influence a generation of Florentine artists, prominently Guido da Siena, and heralded the further discoveries of the next Renaissance period, the Trecento.