St George and the Princess of Trebizond by Pisanello

St George and the Princess of Trebizond by Pisanello (1436-38)

When I was travelling around Italy last week the one thing I noticed, which was different from here in Great Britain, was the fact that most of the churches were open to visitors even if some, especially in tourist areas, had admission fees.   In my country most of the churches are locked up unless a service is in progress for fear of vandalism or theft.  The one exception to this open-policy was Milan cathedral which for some reason would not let individuals inside, just admitting pre-booked guided parties.  I have no idea the reason behind this and my lack of ability to speak Italian put me off questioning the very large armed policemen, who stood guard at the door.

The other difference between the churches I visited in Italy and the ones in my country was that the Italian churches seemed to all have frescoes and paintings adorning their walls whereas the churches I have visited here, although often architecturally attractive and have beautiful stained glass windows, one rarely comes across works of art.  Maybe that again is to do with possible vandalism and theft.  During my short vacation I visited Verona and after the obligatory visit to “Juliet’s balcony” I decided to visit a couple of the churches and I am so glad that I did.

I visited the church of Santa Anastasia and it was here I came across a wonderful fresco above the entrance to the Pellegrini Chapel which is just to the right of the main altar and which according to the guide book was done by an artist called Pisanello.  I decided that when I returned home I would find out a little more about the artist and his fresco and feature it in My Daily Art Display.  So here is what I found out.

Antonio di Puccio Pisano is thought to have been born in Pisa around 1395 and was to become one of the great fresco painters of the early Italian Renaissance and the Quattrocento, which was the collective name given to the cultural and artistic events of 15th century Italy and includes the artistic styles of the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance.  He was educated in Verona and it has been documented that he worked in Pisa, Venice, Florence and Verona.  Pisanello’s subjects include Arthurian legends and other courtly stories. They reflect the chivalric ideals of his noble patrons. The decorative nature of his work comes from the work of early 15th century artists such as Gentile da Fabriano, a leading exponent of the International Gothic genre.  Pisanello and Gentille collaborated on the frescoes of the Palazzo Ducale in Venice and they both worked at the court of the Gonzaga princes in Mantua.  Pisanello returned to Verona around 1436 and started work on the Pelligrini Chapel in the church of Santa Anastasia, which is the work of art I am featuring in My Daily Art Display today.

The fresco is entitled St George and the Princess of Trebizond and was completed in 1438.  It is based on what was a favourite subject of the period, Saint George, the Princess and the Dragon.  The fresco is in the crown and spandrels of the arch at the entrance to the chapel.  Sadly the fresco in the left-side spandrel has deteriorated badly.  It shows a barely discernible scene of the dragon’s lair where the creature had devoured its prey and all that was left were the bones of the victims which are surrounded by hideous animals which are scavenging the remains.

In the right spandrel we see the heroic St George with his curly golden hair, who has just dismounted from his horse after his gallant rescue of the princess.  The rescued damsel stands side on to us.  There is regality about her stance.  Her head is held high and just take a look at the splendour of her dress with its long train.   Both the Princess and her rescuer are dressed in the finest clothes of the day.  Unfortunately the gold and silver used in the fresco has fallen away over time but one can only imagine how spectacular the fresco would have been when Pisanello had completed it. 

It is interesting to note the way he has painted the two horses one of which we see from behind, the other seen head-on.  There is a perspectival foreshortening of the animals and this painting technique was starting to become popular with artists at this time.   The background is dominated by an enchanting city with its Gothic towers and ornate stonework.    In the left-hand background we see two hanged men swinging on the gallows.  Maybe they were thieves or traitors.  In the foreground we have a ram, what looks like a golden-coloured boar and a dog.

Whilst I was looking around the church I came across a girl on some scaffolding meticulously carrying out restoration work on another of the church’s frescos and it brought to mind the age-old argument as to whether frescoes should be restored or should they be left to slowly decay and thus one sees the original and not a “touched-up” offering.