The religious works of Andrea Mantegna

Bronze Bust of Mantegna attributed to Gian Marco Cavalli

The artist I am featuring today is the fifteenth century painter, Andrea Mantegna, who created many magnificent religious works.  Andrea Mantegna was born into a lower working-class family in late 1490 or early 1491 in Isola di Carturo a small village close to Padua which was then within the Republic of Venice.  His father, Biagio, was a carpenter.  When he was eleven years of age he started an apprenticeship with Francesco Squarcione, an Italian painter from Padua.   His school was very popular at the time and over a hundred painters passed through the school.  Padua, then, was looked upon as a great place to be if you were and aspiring artist and the likes of Uccello, Lippi and Donatello spent time in the city.  Mantegna, who was gifted with a precocious talent, stayed with his tutor for six years.

Although he gained a great reputation as an artist and was admired by many, he left Padua and spent most of his life in Verona, Mantua and Rome where he carried on with his paintings.  In 1460 he entered the service of Ludovico Il Gonzaga the Marquis of Mantua as his court artist.  This engagement earned Mantegna a great deal of money which was a sign of the high regard in which his work was held.  Whilst employed by Gonzaga he completed many fresco paintings of the Gonzaga family.

St Luke Polyptych by Andrea Montagne (1453-1454)

One of his early works was the St Luke polyptych which he completed as the altarpiece for a Benedictine Abbey of Santa Giustina in Padua.

Saint Justina

Santa Giustina (St. Justina) is depicted at the lower level of the altarpiece at the far right.   She is identified by the palm branch (a symbol of martyrdom) and the short sword in her breast which refers to her martyrdom in Padua in AD 303, during the persecutions of the Christians by the Roman Emperor Maximian.

Saint Luke (detail from Polyptych of St Luke by Mantegna)

In the central panel of the polyptych we see St. Luke depicted writing his gospel. Although many depictions of the saint feature an ox or calf, they are absent but in keeping faith with the fact this is an altarpiece for a Benedictine abbey, Mantegna has provided Luke him with a monk’s tonsure.

Man of Sorrows (detail from Polyptych of St Luke by Mantegna)

Above St. Luke, we see two saints either side of an image of the Man of Sorrows.  This is an iconic religious image that shows Christ, usually naked above the waist, with the wounds of his Passion prominently displayed on his hands and side.

St. Julian the Hospitaller (detail from Polyptych of St Luke by Mantegna)

The panel to the far right of that portrays St. Julian the Hospitaller, a Roman Catholic saint, depicted as a young nobleman. As in many depictions of this saint, he is holding a wrapped sword, held downward.  In his left hand he holds a palm branch symbolising martyrdom.

St. Prosdocimus (detail from Polyptych of St Luke by Mantegna)

To the left of St. Luke there is a portrait of St. Prosdocimus.  In one hand he holds the bishop’s crosier, which is an ecclesiastical ornament which is conferred on bishops at their consecration.

Other members of the deity depicted in the altarpiece are St. Jerome whose left hand points to his breast and his right holds a stone, which refers to the penances he endured to rid himself of shocking thoughts. We see him depicted in his usual red robes.  Two other figures in the lower tier are dressed in the brown Benedictine monk’s habits, each hold the martyrdom symbol of a palm branch.

Polyptych of Saint Zeno by Mantegna (1457-60)

Another beautiful altarpiece fashioned by Mantegna was a commission he received from the abbot of the Basilica of San Zeno, Gregorio Correr.

Central panel of the San Zeno polyptych

It comprises of three main painting above a predella comprising of three almost square scenes.  The central panel of the San Zeno Altarpiece depicts the Madonna holding her Child and surrounded by music-making angels.  She is seated on a marble throne decorated with Roman-inspired reliefs. Hanging across the top of the three main paintings are garlands that appear to be affixed to the top of them.

Left-hand panel depicting Saints Peter and Paul, St John the Evangelist and St Zeno.

To the left and right of this main panel there are portraits of eight saints.  The saints to be included in these two paintings was the choice of the commissioning abbot.  On the left are Peter, Paul, John the Evangelist and Zeno; on the right, Benedict, Lawrence, Gregory and John the Baptist.

Right-hand panel depicting Saints Benedict, Lawrence, Gregory and John the Baptist.
The predella

The three paintings of the predella depict biblical scenes. Presently, the three paintings on the predella are not the originals which were taken by Napoleon in 1797 along with the main picture which was restored to Verona in 1815. The original outer two predella paintings are now in Tours, Musée des Beaux-Arts and the centre one is in the Louvre. 

The Agony in the Garden

The left-hand panel depicts the Agony in the Garden.  The setting is Gethsemane and we see an angel floating high above with the cup that symbolizes the inexorable fate reserved for Christ. Beyond the dead tree Mantegna has attempt to depict Jerusalem in accurate detail. A winding road leads through a rural scene with unrepaired boundary walls to the main gate. The central temple towering over the rest of the buildings was modelled on the Omar Mosque, which in the Middle Ages was often taken for Solomon’s Temple.

The Crucifixion

The middle painting depicts the Crucifixion.  The setting is a cracked rocky plateau on Golgotha. The place of execution is marked by holes in the rock, that had already been used for other crosses. At the foot of Christ’s cross lies the skull of Adam, the first man. According to legend, Adam’s grave was at Calvary and was exposed by the earthquake when Christ died.

The Resurrection

The panel on the right of the predella depicts the Resurrection.  In the centre of this painting, the bright apparition of Christ stands out, emphasized by the darkness of the rocky grotto. The faces of the guards show a range of reactions to the miracle of the Resurrection, from a still sleepy figure gazing in front of him to a soldier rising to his feet in amazement.

The Uffizi Triptych by Andrea Mantegna (1460-1470)

The Adoration of the Magi  known as the Triptych of the Uffizi, is a tempera painting on wood by Andrea Mantegna, completed around 1460 and is now part of the Uffizi collection in Florence. One of the questions regarding this triptych is whether it is one!   The work is composed of three panels which only came together in 1827.  The fact that they then became encased in a nineteenth century ornate frame does not make them part of a triptych and some art historians doubt that Mantegna created them as a triptych or envisaged them to be set up as one in the way they are now arranged.  The three works were commissioned in the for Ludovico III Gonzaga’s private chapel in the Castle of St. George in Mantua.

Ascension of Christ (Detail of the Uffizi Triptych by Mantegna)

The left hand panel of the triptych, known as the Ascension panel, we see a number of saints, gazing upwards at Christ as he floats skywards surrounded by a mandorla of angels. Immediately below Christ stands Mary, who faces towards us in the lower section of the panting, slightly raised on a ledge of rock.

Adoration of the Magi (detail of the Uffizi Triptych by Mantegna)

The central panel of the triptych is the Adoration of the Magi. The three Magi symbolize both the three ages of man and also the three continents which were known at that time, Asia, Europe, and Africa. The adherents of different cultures among the followers of the kings are depicted realistically – they were familiar because of the activities of cosmopolitan Venice, a major trading centre and slave market. Once again we see the mandorla of angels around the Virgin Mary. Mandorla is an Italian word for almonds or almond shaped.   It is a term often used in Christian art when describing an aureole enclosing figures such as Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary

The Circumcision (detail of The Uffizi Triptych by Mantegna)

The panel on the right depicts the Circumcision of Christ on New Year’s Day, eight days after he was born as was written in the bible (Luke 2:21-24):

“… On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.  When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord  (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons…”

On the left of the painting we see Joseph carrying a wicker basket, in which are two pigeons.

St Sebastiano Church, Mantua

Mantegna moved with his family to Mantua at the behest of the Marquis Ludovico III Gonzaga of Mantua.  On many occasions Ludovico had tried to persuade the artist to enter his service.  Finally in 1460 Mantegna was appointed court artist where his salary was seventy-five lire a month, a very large sum of money in those days.  Mantegna was the first painter of any repute to be based in Mantua.  During Mantegna’s long stay in Mantua, he and his family lived near the San Sebastiano church dedicated to St. Sebastian.  Maybe this is what fascinated Mantegna with the saint as he went on to paint three versions of Saint Sebastian.

St. Sebastian by Mantegna (Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna) 1456=59

It has been suggested that the first painting by Mantegna depicting Saint Sebastian was completed around 1459 whilst he was still living in Padua.  A few years earlier many of the Padua citizens had been taken ill, many of whom died. Mantegna contracted the plague virus but he managed to recover from the deadly disease. Saint Sebastian received the widest veneration and was called especially in times of plague as an emergency helper.  It is thought that the portrait of the saint was commissioned by the Padua city elders to celebrate the end of the pestilence outbreak.  Mantegna completed the work in 1459, a year before he left the city for Mantua.. Sebastian is tied to the ruins of a Corinthian column, his body is pierced with numerous arrows.

Rider in the cloud

Look at large white cloud at the top left of the painting. You should just be able to make out the figure of a man astride a horse. According to the Italian art historian Battisti, the theme refers to the Book of Revelation (19: 6-11):

“…Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war…”

The nude figure of the martyr, which resembles a stone sculpture, is placed in front of an antique architectural backdrop, which looks even more “authentic” due to the Greek signature (“the work of Andrea”) on the left edge of the pillar. This first version of Saint Sebastian can be found in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna.

Saint Sebastian by Mantegna (Louvre) (c. 1480)

Mantegna’s second version of his depiction of Saint Sebastian, which he completed around 1480, is now part of the Louvre collection in Paris.  The Louvre’s St. Sebastian was once part of the Altar of San Zeno in Verona. In the late 17th century-early 18th century it was recorded as being in the Sainte Chapelle of Aigueperse, in the Auvergne region of France.  Its presence there is related to the marriage of Clara Gonzaga on February 24th 1482, in Mantua, at the age of seventeen, to Gilbert of Bourbon-Montpensier, who in 1486 succeeded his father as Count of Montpensier and Dauphin of Auvergne.  It remained there for over four hundred years until it was acquired by the Louvre in 1910 part of the art and ancient book collector, Jules Maurice Audéoud’s legacy to the State.

The Archers (detail from the Louvre Saint Sebastian by Mantegna)

The picture depicts the saint with a well sculpted body, tied to the ruins of a Corinthian column and pierced by numerous arrows. We look at him from below which enhances our perception of the strength and power of his figure. Sebastian’s head and eyes are turned toward Heaven which is affirmation of his unwavering Christian beliefs whilst bearing the pain of martyrdom. At his feet are a pair of grim-faced archers.  Their inclusion is intended to create a contrast between the man of steadfast faith, and those who are only attracted by disrespectful and evil pleasures. It is thought that the man with the arrows is Mantegna himself.

Detail of the antique city in the background of the Louvre St. Sebastian by Mantegna

Look at the detail Mantegna has put into the background. The classical ruins are typical of Mantegna’s pictures. The cliff path, the gravel and the caves are references to the complications of trying to reach the Celestial Jerusalem, the fortified city depicted on the top of the mountain, at the right middle-ground of the painting, and described in Chapter 21 of John’s Book of Revelation:

“…Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband…”

Saint Sebastian by Mantegna (Galleria Giorgio Franchetti alla Ca’ d’Oro, Venice) (c.1490)

Andrea Mantegna’s panel depicting Saint Sebastian, now in the Galleria Franchetti at the Ca’ d’Oro, is the last of his three paintings of Saint Sebastian.  This painting, like the previous two, focuses on Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom, in which he is executed by a firing squad of archers who plunged their arrows into his body.  Given that these arrows inflicted numerous wounds all over his body, Sebastian came to be invoked during times of the plague, due to the many body sores that it provoked.  The story goes that Sebastian miraculously survived the execution due to the strength of his faith. He, according to legend,  was rescued and healed by Saint Irene of Rome, who also became a popular subject for 17th-century artists. Shortly after his recovery he went to Emperor Diocletian to warn him about the fate of sinners, and as a result was clubbed to death.

Whereas the first two of Mantegna’s depictions of Saint Sebastian resemble each other in style and represent the saint in a setting of classical architectural ruins, with lush landscapes and blue sky filling the background, this third is more sombre and is in complete contrast with the Montagne’s earlier works featuring the martyred saint. In this version he is silhouetted against a neutral, shallow background, brown in colour.  Look at the facial expression in this version.  It makes viewers much more aware of the pain he is suffering. 


In the lower right corner, an inscription wrapped around a smoking extinguished candle reads


(Nothing is stable except the divine. The rest is smoke.)

The Lamentation of the Dead Christ by Mantegna (c.1480)

I cannot finish this blog about Mantegna without focusing on my favourite work of his, The Lamentation of the Dead Christ which was completed around 1490.  It is one of very few oil on canvas paintings of the period.  It is an almost monochromatic vision of Christ.  The painting has a limited amount of tonal colouring, mainly pink, grey and golden-brown.   The setting of the painting seems to be a morgue-like and claustrophobic space with its cold dark walls.  This poorly lit space intensifies the paleness of the body.  The forceful image is of the body of Christ laid out on a stark and granulated marble slab.  Mantegna has toyed with the rules of perspective making the head large, whereas if the rules of perspective had been adhered to then the head would be much smaller than the feet.  There is an intense foreshortening of the body which makes it appear heavy and enlarged.   

Christ’s suffering, before death, is plain to see.  Mantegna has given us an unusual vantage point.   It places the observer at the feet of the subject and by doing so, adds to one’s sense of empathy. It could almost be described as a gruesome sight.  The face of Christ is lined.  His head of wavy hair rests upon a pink satin pillow.  The wounds seen on the back of his hands are like torn paper, as is the horizontal cut in his side made by the spear. It is almost blasphemous, as here Christ has not risen from the dead and he is like us mortals.  In the foreground are the feet of Christ each with dried puncture marks made by the crucifixion nails.  Look at the skill in which Mantegna has painted the folds of the shroud.

The mourners (detail from The Lamentation over the Dead Christ by Mantegna)

At the left we have three mourners, Mary, Saint John and perhaps slightly hidden by the other two mourners, Mary Magdalene.  Their tear-stained faces are distorted in grief.  These contorted facial features derive from the masks of classical tragedy.  One cannot help but be moved by their expressions.

In terms of Classical art, Andrea Mantegna was one of the greatest of his time.

Pinturicchio . The Master of Frescoes – The Baglioni Chapel

In my last blog I looked at the Pinturicchio frescoes in the Bufalini Chapel and although the artist had painted numerous frescoes in many places of worship, in this blog, I just want to focus on his artistry in the Bagnoli Chapel, part of the Collegiate church of Santa Maria Maggiore, in the town of Spello, Perugia and the frescoes executed by him at the start of the sixteenth century during one of last major commissions.

Datei:Pinturicchio - Christ among the Doctors (detail) - WGA17775.jpg
Troilo Baglino (left), fresco detail by Pinturicchio in the Baglioni Chapel 

Troilo Baglioni was the prior, later bishop and protonotary of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Spello, an ancient town and commune of Italy, in the province of Perugia in east central Umbria. He was in charge of the management of the chancellery of that church and the diocese and it was he, who, in 1500, commissioned Pinturicchio to decorate the walls of the Cappella Bella which later became known as the Baglioni Chapel .  Pinturicchio and his workers set about the task in the Autumn of 1500 and completed the commission in the Spring of 1501.  The paintings, typically for Pinturicchio, were completed in such a short period as he had around him, a well-organized workshop, with other masters painting above his drawings. The finished product ensured his artistic reputation and prominence in Umbria.

Baglioni Chapel

The chapel has a quadrangular floor plan with a cross-vault. The entire chapel, all three walls and the ceilings, are covered in frescoes.  The frescoes are themed stories about the childhoods of Mary and of Jesus. a pictorial account of the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Shepherds, and Jesus at the Temple..

The vaulted ceiling of the Baglioni Chapel

On the vaulted ceiling, we see depicted four Sibyls, female prophets, Tiburtina, Eritrea, Europea and Samia, seated on thrones and flanked by cartouches with prophecies of the coming of Jesus Christ.

As you enter the chapel, on the left wall, there is Pinturecchio’s fresco of the Annunciation, which is set in a large Renaissance loggia.  As we look at it our eyes are drawn through, what is termed, the hortus conclusus (enclosed garden) towards the handsomely and meticulously detailed landscape background.  The two main characters in the fresco are Mary and an angel.  Mary had been reading a book which was on a tall ornate wooden lectern but has now been distracted by the angel, who kneels before her with a white lily in one hand, symbolising  virginal purity.  Above them we see God the Father depicted encircled by angels and giving off a ray of light which incorporates the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove (just above the lectern).

Look to the lower right of this fresco.  What is strange about this fresco is that if you look closely under the small bookshelf, you will see a portrait.  In fact, it is a self-portrait of Pinturicchio, featuring the bejewelled inscription, “BERNARDINVS PICTORICIVS PERVSIN[VS]” referring to Pinturicchio’s birth name of Bernardino di Betto.

The Adoration of the Shepherds by Pinturicchio (1501)

The rear wall of the Baglioni Chapel features the fresco depicting the Adoration of the Shepherds. It is a depiction of an idyllic scene within an extensive landscape and includes a number of  secondary motifs. In the background, we can see the arrival of the camels of the Magi procession.  The setting in the foreground is a grassy area in front of the stable, and a line of shepherds who have come to visit and bring gifts to the mother and the new-born child.  

The Shepherds by Pinturicchio

The three shepherds stand out as being over-sized.   They have expressive and detailed features, after the fashion of early Netherlandish painting which influenced Pinturicchio. Their facial characteristics are in a way crude, almost scowling and differ greatly from anything else in Pinturicchio’s repertoire of figures. The one exception is the young man on the left with a goat. This is depicted with a more idealized beauty, inspired by ancient reliefs with sacrifice motifs.

The central panel of the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van Goes (1472)

Art historians have put down Pinturicchio’s depiction of his “crude scowling” shepherds as being influenced by the figures of the shepherds in the Portinari Altarpiece which was painted by Hugo van der Goes around 1472.

The figures of the shepherds in the Portinari Altarpiece

In the left background of the fresco on the rear wall we see a meticulously drawn town at the foot of a mountain.  To the right we see a temple-like stable with a window through which we can see a mountainous landscape.  On the roof of the stable sits a peacock, a symbol of immortality. 

In the sky above the nativity scene we observe a cluster of angels on a bank of clouds.  They are celebrating the birth of Jesus in song.

On the right-hand wall as you enter the Baglioni Chapel there is a large fresco pictorially recounting the story of the Dispute with the Doctors. .  It is based on an occurrence in the early life of Jesus depicted in Chapter 2 of the Gospel of Luke.  Twelve-year-old Jesus had accompanied Mary and Joseph, and a large group of their relatives and friends to Jerusalem on a Passover pilgrimage.. On the day of their return, Jesus hung back in the Temple, but Mary and Joseph thought that he was among their group and she and Joseph headed back home.  It was not until a day after they returned that they realised Jesus was missing, so they returned to Jerusalem, finding Jesus three days later among a group of philosophers.   

In the background we see the Temple of Jerusalem with its large dome.  The scene follows an arrangement which Pinturicchio had already used in his fresco on the wall of the Bufalini Chapel, which itself originated from a Perugino fresco in the Sistine Chapel, Delivery of the Keys.  At the centre of the depiction stands the Child Jesus who is debating with and surrounded by two groups of philosophers from the Temple of Jerusalem. His books are scattered on the pavement in front of him. By contrast, the richly dressed scholars either clutch their books close to their chests or read aloud from them. The temple can be seen in the background and is characterized by a large dome. The crowd is formed by standard set of characters which includes young spouses, wise men, toothless women and others, all of whom are witnessing the dispute.

On the left of the crowd, dressed in the dark robes of a protonotary apostolic (a prelate who is a member of a college charged with the registry of important pontifical proceedings). It is a portrait of Troilo Baglioni, who commissioned the frescoes for his chapel

[Photo Credits: tyle_r]
Pinturicchio’s frescoes in the Piccolomini Library

Pinturicchio’s many paintings and frescoes can be seen throughout Italy.  Between 1481 and 1482, he worked in Rome, and collaborated with Perugino on the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. From this his career flourished and he worked uninterruptedly in the service of five popes: from Sixth IV to Julius II, passing through Innocent VIII, Alexander VI, and Pius III.  He also received commissions from well-to-do and important clients such as the della Rovere family and Pandolfo Petrucci, the lord of the Italian Republic of Siena.. In Siena, among the many works, he created the extraordinary cycle of the Piccolomini Library in the Duomo of Sienna, and completed frescoes in the chapel of San Giovanni Battista.

Bernardino di Betto (Benedetto), the Italian painter known as  II Pinturicchio dies in Sienna in 1513 aged 61.

Pinturicchio the Master of the Fresco. Part 1.

Over recent months I seem to have concentrated on writing about artists who were practicing their trade during the Victorian period and the first couple of decades of the twentieth century.  Yet, when I look back on my earliest blogs I seemed to have favoured the Dutch and Flemish painters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Today I am going to deviate again and look at the life and work of the fifteenth century Italian Renaissance painter Pinturicchio.  I came across the artist and one of his major fresco commissions when I read the excellent blog io sto a casa, written by Jackie, an American teacher who lives with her Italian husband in Le Marche, Italy. She and her husband are lovers of art and often travel around the country visiting places of interest which hold artistic treasures.  It was she who mentioned the artist Pinturicchio in one of her recent blogs.

2008 Italian postage stamp

Bernardino di Betto was born around 1454 in the Italian city of Perugia.  He was also known by his nickname, Il Pinturicchio, meaning “little painter” because of his small stature.  His parents were a family of artisans, his father being a cloth tanner.  His early life seems to have been filled with unhappiness, compounded by the death of his father from the plague when Pinturicchio, was just a teenager.  His first foray into the world of  fine art came when the talented miniaturist, Giapeco Caporali opened a bottega (a workshop of a major artist in which other artists may participate in the execution of the projects or commissions of the major artist) close to Pinturicchio’s father’s house at Porta Sant’Angelo. Pinturicchio worked there for a time and would take a share of the profits of the work completed in the studio.  In 1481 Pinturicchio joined the painters’ guild in Perugia.  Perugia was at that time experiencing a great artistic fervour and the central Italian city was becoming a renowned hub for artistic activities of which Pinturicchio contributed. Once Pinturicchio had enrolled in the guild of Artists and Painters in Porta Sant’Angelo, Perugia, his output began to be recorded.  He received many commissions and joint commissions for his fresco work.

Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome

Meanwhile, in Rome, the first phase of the work on the Sistine Chapel had been on-going.  The fresco work had been carried out by some of the Italian Masters, such as Botticelli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio, Signorelli,  Cosimo Rosselli and Pinturicchio.  The first phase of this massive undertaking came to an end around 1482 and most of these Italian Masters returned to their home cities.  This is with the exception of Pinturicchio who did not go home but instead remained in the city and set up a workshop. as he could take advantage of the opening left by the other great artists. He then chose a group of Italian painters who had collaborated with him at the papal chapel.  His group contained artists from the many regions of the country who were willing to remain in Rome and work for him.    Having set up this group and with many of the renowned artists having left the eternal city he was awarded his first commission in Rome by Nicolò Manno (Riccomanno) Angeli Bufalini, a consistorial lawyer and one-time bishop of Venafro, for his family chapel which was part of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome, which stands on the Capitalone hill. Pinturicchio’s frescos in the Bufalini Chapel depicted scenes from the life of Saint Bernardino of Siena and Saint Francis. The commission was to remember the reconciliation that took place between the Bufalini family and the Baglioni of Perugia, thanks to St. Bernardino.

Bufalini Chapel ceiling

Pinturicchio and his team set to work on the chapel around 1484.  On the vaulted ceiling there are depictions of the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, each seated on a cloud, in front of a dark blue, star-studded background.  

Bufalini Chapel floor

The chapel itself has a quadrangular base, with the vault and floor decorated with cosmatesque mosaics. The Cosmatesque style takes its name from the family of the Cosmati, which flourished in Rome during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and practiced the art of mosaic.   The inside of the chapel comprises of three sides and the frescoes on the three walls are dedicated to the life and miracles of St. Bernardino of Siena, an Italian priest and Franciscan missionary, who was canonized as a saint in 1450, and who was very popular during the Renaissance.  The frescos also featured two stories of St. Francis.

The back wall of the chapel, the altar wall, is decorated by a fresco entitled The Glory of Saint Bernardino.  It is horizontally divided into two sections.  The lower section depicts San Bernardino standing on a rock with outstretched arms.  His right hand points up to Christ. In his left hand he holds an open book in which one can read:


“Father, I have shown your name to everyone”,

Above him are two angels who are in the process of crowning him.  Either side of him stand two saints,.  On his right is St. Louis of Toulouse adorned in in his solemn episcopal robes and on his left stands Saint Anthony of Padua in a Franciscan habit..  In one of St Anthony’s hands he holds the flame symbolising his piety whilst in the other he holds a book symbolising his knowledge.  The background of this lower section is a landscape with rocks, lakes and mountains, which extends the depth of the space.  This scene is probably one Pinturicchio would have recalled from his homeland.

In the upper part of the fresco we see Christ in the act of blessing.  His figure is encased in a mandorla. The term mandorla means an almond-shaped frame that surrounds the totality of an iconographic figure.  Surrounding Christ are worshiping and music-making angels.

Left-hand wall of the Bufalini Chapel

On entering the Bufalini Chapel, the wall to the left comprises of two scenes one atop the other, divided by a painted frieze. The upper part is a lunette, a half-moon shaped, or semi-circular, arch, which depicts St. Bernardino being penitent before the Porta Tufi in Siena and this fresco shows a young Bernardino’s first hermitage.

Upper lunette

The fresco on the lower part of the left-hand wall is much more interesting.  It depicts the Funeral of Saint Bernardino. 

The fresco on the lower part of the left-hand wall is much more interesting.  It depicts the Funeral of Saint Bernardino.  The setting is a city scene with a chessboard-like pavement.  It is painted using geometrical perspective, which enables the depiction of a three-dimensional form as a two-dimensional image which carefully looks like the scene as visualized by the human eye.  The vanishing point is a building similar to one depicted in Perugino’s painting, Delivery of the Keys, although Pinturicchio has two buildings of different heights at the sides. On the left is a loggia,  a covered exterior gallery or corridor, supported by piers decorated with fanciful gilded candelabra. On the right is a cubic building connected through a double loggia to the landscape and the bright sky in the background.

See the source image
Pietro Perugino’s painting, Delivery of the Keys.(1482)

The foreground is dominated by the Saint Bernardino’s funeral. We see his body laid out on what is termed a catafalque, a decorated wooden framework supporting the coffin of a distinguished person during a funeral or while lying in state. Its presence increases the sense of spatial depth

Riccomanno Bufalini

All sorts of folk, friars, pilgrims and the “common” people approach the body to pay their respect. Look at the tall figure in the left foreground wearing the brown robe, with a fur-lined hood and gloves.  He is Riccomanno Bufalini, the person who commissioned the frescoes.

Sight restored.

The remaining characters we see standing around the coffin often portray a series of miracles attributed to Bernardino during his life.  We see the once-blind man who was healed and given back his sight by the body of Bernardino, standing by the head of the coffin pointing to his eyes.  There is the resurrection of someone possessed by the Devil, the healing of the stillborn baby of John and Margaret Basel, the healing of Lorenzo di Niccolo da Prato, wounded by a bull, and the pacification of the warring Umbrian Bufalini and Baglioni families.

The Blessing
The peacock

The right wall of the Bufalini Chapel features a double mullioned window.   Pinturicchio has implemented an illusionistic perspective, when he painted two imitation symmetrical windows, one depicting a blessing from God the Father and the other featured a peacock which was an early Christian symbol of immortality.

There is also a fresco featuring, on the left, a scene from the life of St. Bernardino of Siena in which we see him receiving the religious habit. It is set in an oblique perspective that exploits the decorated pillars with a grotesques arch. Finally, there is a small scene on the right featuring, in the background, a view of the Verna Sanctuary over a rocky peak which depicts St. Francis in the act of receiving the stigmata, in honour of the Franciscan foundation of the Aracoeli.

Under the real window is an illusory opening depicting five characters: among them is an aged friar, perhaps the convents prior, and a lay figure that resembles him, perhaps an administrator of the basilica.

In the next blog I will be looking at the frescoes by Pinturicchio on the walls of the Baglioni Chapel in Spello.

………………………………to be continued.

The New Year Puzzle

I will start my first blog of 2018 with a question, a puzzle for you to solve.

What is the connection between an anonymous group of feminist, female artists dressed up as gorillas, the twentieth century American author, journalist, and philanthropist, Jane Fortunea and the sixteenth century nun and talented artist, Suor Plautilla Nelli ?

Guerilla Girls poster

The Guerrilla Girls, a play on the word, gorilla, are an anonymous group of feminist activist artists who are dedicated to fighting sexism and racism in the art world. They want to bring to the attention of the public the domination of white males in the art establishment. They only appear in public wearing gorilla masks. It’s important for them to remain anonymous as most of them are practising artists and their use of pseudonyms, instead of using their own names, is so that people focus on what they stand for and not concentrate on their true identity. The group members adopt the names of dead female artists, including Frida Kahlo, Zubeida Agha, Diane Arbus, Georgia O’Keeffe and Rosalba Carriera.

An anniversary recount sticker showing numbers from 1985 and 2015

The Guerilla Girls was formed in New York in 1985, the year after the MOMA,  the Museum of Modern Art  in New York City held a large exhibition entitled An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture.  This international exhibition of contemporary painting and sculpture  inaugurated the newly-renovated and expanded Museum of Modern Art and intended to demonstrate the museum’s commitment to the work of living artists.  This exhibition had been organized by the curator Kynaston McShine, and, according to him, it presented the most important 169 artists in the world at that time. One prerequisite for selection in the survey was that an artist’s reputation had to have been established after 1975.  However, only 13 of them were women, and as for the ‘international’ part of the exhibition title, there wasn’t a single artist of colour due to have their work exhibited. According to the curator the exhibition presented a survey of contemporary art, but largely left female artists out of consideration. To make things worse, Kynaston McShine was quoted as saying:

“…Any artist who wasn’t in the show should rethink his career…”

This disparity and the fact nobody seemed to care, became the impetus for the formation of the Guerilla Girls.

Jane Fortune with her 2013 Emmy Award

The second part of my puzzle was the name Jane Fortune. Jane was born in Indianapolis in 1942. She is a journalist, acting as cultural editor of The Florentine, an English-language newspaper in Tuscany in which she contributed many articles regarding the art and culture of the Tuscan city.

Of equal importance Jane was Founder and Chair of the Advancing Women Artists Foundation (AWA) which is an organisation committed to safeguarding art by women and rediscovering a vital part of Florence’s forgotten cultural and creative heritage. She is a tireless advocate for art preservation.

Invisible Women by Jane Fortune

Jane is also an author of several books, having written about art and the city of Florence, including her very popular 2007 guidebook reflecting on Florentine culture, To Florence, Con Amore: 77 Ways to Love the City. In later books she championed art by female Florentine artists, such as her 2009 book, Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence, in which she talks about how the many paintings by Florentine women of the past lie languishing and deteriorating in basement storerooms of galleries.

Art by Women in Florence by Jane Fortune and Linda Falcone

On a more proactive note, in 2012, she and Linda Falcone, a California-born university professor and member of the Advancing Women Artists Foundation, wrote a guidebook entitled Art by Women in Florence: A Guide through Five Hundred Years, which described where to view artworks by women artists in the public collections of Florence. From this book followed a five-part television documentary, which described the six-year project to research, restore, and exhibit works of art by women in Florence’s museums and storage covering the restoration of works by three artists: Plautilla Nelli, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Irene Parenti Duclos. On June 1, 2013, the documentary won an Emmy Award as Best Documentary in the Cultural/Historical Program category.

Of the award Jane said:

“…Winning the Emmy is a new boost to my project, which aims to restore and exhibit artworks by women in Florence. To achieve these goals, it takes technology and skill. It takes the commitment of the city’s museum directors, its restorers and its citizens in general, who are eager to finally learn more about these lesser-known works…”

To Florence Con Amore – 90 Ways to Love the City
by Jane Fortune

In Florence, she is also on the Board of Trustees of the Medici Archive Project (MAP), one of the world’s leading Digital Humanities research organizations for research on history, art, and material culture in the period of the Renaissance through the Enlightenment. Under the auspices of MAP she has endowed a pilot program dedicated to researching women artists in the age of the Medici. It is the world’s first archival research program dedicated to women artists.

The Florentine – an English language monthly arts magazine

As a philanthropist and art collector (particularly works of women artists), she has served on several museum boards and is currently a member of the Board of Governors of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, a member of the National Advisory Board of the National Museum of Women in the Arts (Washington D.C.), an honorary member of the Dean’s Advisory Board at Herron School of Art and Design, Indianapolis, a founding member of the Women’s Philanthropy Council, Indiana University, a National Advisory Board Member of the Indiana University Museum, Bloomington, IN.

And so, I come to the third piece of the puzzle – Sister Plautilla Nelli. How can a sixteenth century woman have a connection with the Guerilla Girls and Jane Fortune? To find the connection one needs to know more about Sister Plautilla Nelli.

Possible portrait of Plautilla Nelli

Pulisena Margherita Nelli was born into a wealthy family in Florence in 1524. Her father was a prosperous fabric merchant. At the age of fourteen she became a nun at the convent of Santa Caterina da Siena, and took the name Suor Plautilla. Her older sister Costanza, also became a nun and took the name Suor Petronilla.

Saint Catherine by Plautilla Nelli

The convent was managed by the Dominican friars of San Marco, who were led by Girolamo Savonarola, the Italian Christian preacher, reformer, and martyr, who was renowned for his conflict with despotic rulers and a dishonest and immoral clergy. Nelli was heavily influenced by his teachings. Through the words of he encouraged devotional painting and drawing by religious women to avoid sloth and thus the convent Nelli was a member became a centre for artistically-inclined nuns. According to Jane Fortune in her 2010 book Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence, Nelli is looked upon as the first-known female Renaissance painter of Florence and one who was influenced by the work of Fra Bartolomeo.

Lamentation with Saints by Plautilla Nelli

Dr. Catherine Turrill, the American art history professor and renowned expert on Plautilla Nelli, believed that many of the nuns at Santa Caterina were daughters of Florentine artisans, and the convent was known throughout Italy as a place where women could dedicate themselves to art, as well as serving God. Nelli was self-taught, and would spend time copying paintings by the mannerist painter Agnolo Bronzino and the high Renaissance painter Andrea del Sarto but the artist who influenced her the most was Fra Bartolomeo. She drew particular inspiration from the work of Fra Bartolommeo and his pupil Fra Paolino, both from the Dominican monastery of San Marco. After Fra Paolino’s death she was given his collection of drawings by Fra Bartolommeo.

Saint Catherine Receives the Stigmata by Plautilla Nelli

So now you may be a little closer to solving the puzzle. The Guerilla Girls wants greater recognition of the work of female artists. Jane Fortune of the Advancing Women Artists, who has connections with Florence was of the same mind, and Plautilla Nelli was a sixteenth century forgotten painter but there is just one more piece needed to solve the puzzle.

In the March 18th, 2013 edition of the Harvard Art Museums Index magazine, Cheryl Pappas wrote:

“…She [Jane Fortune] heard the call to find works by “forgotten” women artists when she, with help from the Florence Committee of National Museum of Women in the Arts, funded the restoration of a painting by a self-taught 16th-century nun, Suor Plautilla Nelli, who is considered the first woman painter of Florence. When Fortune saw the figures in Lamentation with Saints come to life in the midst of its restoration, she was moved, especially by the women in the painting: “Their tear drops became visible and their emotion touched me. It was then that I knew—Plautilla Nelli deserves to be discovered, studied, and appreciated. I will do all I can to rediscover and protect the works of this incredible woman artist and others like her, who have yet to get their proper due…”

There are over 2,000 paintings, sculptures, and drawings by pioneering women artists, stored in the Florence museum storage facilities which have been overlooked for hundreds of years. They have deteriorated and in urgent need of restoration. The Advancing Women Artists Foundation is committed to safeguarding this art and by so doing, revive an essential part of Florence’s forgotten cultural and creative heritage.

Plautilla Nelli’s painting Last Supper in the restoration lab

In the 1570’s Plautilla Nelli completed her large-scale (6.7metres long) masterpiece depicting the Last Supper. Her depiction of the event was the first done by any female artist and is the only signed work by Plautilla Nelli known to survive.

Detail of left-hand side of Last Supper canvas

Plautilla Nelli completed the work for the refectory of her own convent. However, in the early 1800’s, when Napoleon subjugated the monasteries and convents, the work was rolled up and put in storage for a while. Later it was hung back in the private (not open to the public) refectory at Santa Maria where a small group of Dominican friars would take their meals. However, the currents state of the painting, even after earlier restoration attempts, was causing concern. The Advancing Women Artists Foundation which regularly sponsors the restoration of works by women artists, has now taken on the task of organising the restoration of Nelli’s huge canvas which they hope will be completed in 2018. On completion people will be able to see the restored work at the Museum of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.

As for works by Plautilla Nelli and other female artists of the distant past, things are looking up. In March 2017, the Uffizi Galleries in Florence began a long-term strategy for promoting female artists. One of the first initiatives was the Uffizi exhibition, Sister Plautilla Nelli. Convent Art and Devotion in the Footsteps of Savonarola exhibit, curated by Dr. Fausta Navarro which is devoted to Sister Plautilla Nelli, considered the first female Florentine painter.

If you are still somewhat unconvinced about people’s knowledge of female artists of the past, ask a friend to name five artists of the past and see how many include the name of a female artist.


Happy New Year to you all.

Federico Zandomeneghi – the Italian Impressionist

Lesendes Mädchen (Girl reading) by Federico Zandomeneghi (c.1900)
Lesendes Mädchen (Girl reading) by Federico Zandomeneghi (c.1900)

When I was in Germany, just before Christmas, I bought myself a desk calendar which gave you a new painting every day.  I was fascinated by today’s picture of a young girl reading entitled Lesendes Mädchen (Girl Reading) by Federico Zandomeneghi.  I had never heard of the artist and thought it would be interesting to look at his life and his some of his beautiful works of art. He would become known for his many pastel portraits of ladies and children.

Federico Zandomeneghi
Federico Zandomeneghi

Federico Zandomeneghi was born in Venice in June 1841. He came from a family line of sculptors.  Pietro, his father, was a neoclassical sculptor as was his grandfather Luigi but unlike his father and grandfather Federico, and much to their annoyance, he favoured painting to sculpture.  In 1856, at the age of fifteen, he enrolled on a painting course at the Academia di Belle Arti in Venice and then later studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan, where he studied under the neoclassical-style painter Giralamo Michelangelo Grigoletti and Pompeo Marino Molmenti.  Venice was under Austrian rule when Napoleon was defeated in 1814 and it became part of the Austrian held Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia.   Venice was firmly under the control of Austria and as such the Venetian citizens were conscripted into the army.  To escape conscription, Federico fled his city in 1859 and went to Pavia, where he enrolled at the university.  In 1860, when he was nineteen years of age, he joined the military forces of Guiseppe Garibaldi as one of the volunteers in The Expedition of the Thousand, part of the Risorgimento, the push for Italian unification.  As a Venetian this was looked upon as a kind of treachery. His flight from Venice in 162 to Florence to avoid conscription resulted him being charged, in absentia, with desertion.

Femme qui reve by Federico Zandomeneghi,
Femme qui reve by Federico Zandomeneghi,

As a young aspiring artist Federico wanted to mix with other artists in the Tuscan city and by doing so assimilate their views of art.  One of the favoured meeting places for the artists was the Caffè Michelangelo .  It was here that the Macchiaioli met.  The Macchiaioli, which literally means patch-  or spot-makers, was a  group of rebellious Italian artists based in Tuscany during the second half of the 19th century and was formed more than ten years before the French Impressionists came onto the scene.  They rebelled against academic artistic training and many art historians believe they brought about a breath of fresh air into Italian painting.  They ignored the type of painting which was popular at the time such as Neoclassicism and Romanticism.  They were looked upon as the founders of modern Italian painting.  The Macchiaioli believed that areas of light and shadow, or macchie were the most important parts of a painting and when Italian artists spoke of macchia they were talking about the sparkling quality of a drawing or painting.

The Poor on the Steps of Ara Coeli in Rome by Federico Zandomeneghi (1872)
The Poor on the Steps of Ara Coeli in Rome by Federico Zandomeneghi (1872)

The Poor on the Steps of Ara Coeli in Rome by Zandomeneghi is now housed at the Pinaconteca Brera in Milan.  It is a fine example of verismo the nineteenth century Italian painting style and was a style frequently used by the Macchiaioli.  It is a style of painting we would term as realism.  It features a group of poor people, men, women and children sitting on the steps of Santa Maria in Aracoeli (St. Mary of the Altar of Heaven), one the oldest basilicas in Rome.   


There was a strong connection with French art as many of the Macchiaioli were influenced by the French artists such as Courbet and Corot who belonged to the Barbizon School as well as other nineteenth century plein air painters whose works the Macchiaioli artists were able to see when they visited the French capital.  En plein air painting was at that time a ground breaking method of painting but its proponents believed that it allowed for a new vibrancy and naturalness in the reproduction of light which would have been lost if the painting had been carried out in a studio.   Some of the members of the Macchiaioli, like Federico, had fought alongside Garibaldi in his effort to attain Italian unification.  Many of the works of the Macchiaioli featured grand battles scenes of the Risorgimento as well as landscapes and genre paintings featuring both the bourgeoisie and peasants.

Palazzo Pretorio in Florence by Federico Zandomeneghi (1865)
Palazzo Pretorio in Florence by Federico Zandomeneghi (1865)

Another painting completed by Zandomeneghi whilst he was living in Florence is one of my favourites.  It is entitled Palazzo Pretorio and was completed in 1865.  It can now be found in the Museo d’Arte Moderna, Ca’ Pesaro, Venice.   The work of art was exhibited that year in the rooms of the Società Veneta Promotrice (Venetian Promoter of Fine Arts) which was based in Palazzo Mocenigo at San Benedetto.   The depiction of light and shade we see in the painting was strongly influenced by the Macchiaioli artists of Florence.


Diego Martelli by Federico Zandomeneghi (1879)
Diego Martelli by Federico Zandomeneghi (1879)

Whilst in Florence and through his association with the Macchiaioli artists, Federico Zandomeneghi met the Italian art critic Diego Martelli.  Martelli was a great supporter of the painters of the Macchiaioli and would often invite them up to his large Tuscan estate in Castiglioncello which was an ideal setting for their en plein air painting sessions.  Martelli wrote fervently about realism in art and favoured the works of Gustave Courbet as well as the plein air artists of the Barbizon School.    He made a number of trips to Paris and its thought that he persuaded Zandomeneghi to leave Florence and go to live in the French capital.  Through their correspondence Zandomeneghi introduced Martelli to the works of the Impressionists so much so that it is said that Martelli was one of the first and leading supporters of Impressionism in Italy.

Portrait of Diego Martelli by Edgar Degas (1879)
Portrait of Diego Martelli by Edgar Degas (1879)

Like Zandomeneghi, Martelli became good friends with Degas who painted his portrait in 1879.  The Degas portrait is unusual in as much as the sitter is viewed from above which is somewhat unflattering as it accentuates the corpulence of Martelli.  We see Martelli sitting unsteadily on a small stool.  To his left is a table, scattered on which are numerous objects belonging to the sitter.  The addition of these items was a trademark of Degas’ portraits as he felt it told viewers more about the subject of the portrait.  The painting is now housed in the Scottish National Gallery.

The Good Book by Federico Zandomeneghi (1897)
The Good Book by Federico Zandomeneghi (1897)

In 1874, Federico, now thirty-three years of age, moved to the art capital of Europe, Paris, and little did he know then, he would never return to his Italian homeland.  On his arrival in Paris, as was the case when he arrived in Florence, he wanted to immerse himself into the life of an artist and mix with the artists of Montmartre.   To be an artist in the French capital at this time was a chance to witness the birth of what would later be termed by the art critic, Louis Leroy, as Impressionism.

Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes on Place Pigalle
Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes on Place Pigalle

The year 1874 was the year of the Impressionist’s first annual exhibition in Paris.  Federico would often frequent the Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes on Place Pigalle.  It was here that he first met and befriended Edgar Degas, who was seven years his senior.    It is said that we are often drawn to people who have the same characteristics and the same looks upon life and as such Degas and Federico Zandomeneghi were well matched.  Both were recalcitrant and often boorish and this similarity of behaviour ensured they would remain life-long friends!  Although great friends with Degas, Federico was more influenced by the works of Renoir and Mary Cassatt and the way they portrayed women in their art work.  This was to lead to many of his works featuring females going about with their daily chores or being immersed in reading.  Zandomeneghi liked to portray through his artwork, and like that of the Impressionists, the elegant high society of the French capital but his paintings were not imitations of the Impressionists’ works.  He had his own inimitable style.

Place d'Anvers, Paris by Federico Zandomeneghi (1880)
Place d’Anvers, Paris by Federico Zandomeneghi (1880)

The Impressionists had by 1879 held three annual exhibitions and Degas persuaded Federico to exhibit some of his work at the fourth annual exhibition at the Avenue de l’Opéra, during the months of April and May in 1879.  Besides Federico there were three other “first appearances” exhibiting at the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition, the husband and wife Impressionists Félix and Marie Braquemond  and Paul Gaugin.  Federico went on to exhibit at the fifth (1880), sixth (1881) and the eighth and final exhibition in 1886.  To sell one’s work one has to have a good dealer and through the good auspices of his Impressionist friends Federico was taken on by the gallery owner and art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel who acted as his sole agent.   It was this Parisian art dealer who changed the fortunes of Federico when he exhibited the Italian artist’s work in America.   In the 1890’s, having had to supplement his income from the sale of his paintings by providing illustrations for Paris fashion magazine, once his work was seen in America he was inundated with commissions.  It was around this time that Federico changed the medium in which he worked, now favouring in pastels.

Conversazione interessante by Federioco Zandomeneghi (1895)
Conversazione interessante by Federioco Zandomeneghi (1895)

Zandomeneghi will always be remembered for his female portraiture.  He seemed to concentrate his depictions of women who were mothers going about their everyday life.  He often liked to show in his paintings the ease in which women interacted with each other.  There was a warmth about his pictorial depiction of females and this may be because of the way he was influenced by the works of Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt.  Enrico Piceni,  the Italian writer and art critic who wrote a biography about Zandomeneghi and who, in 1984, wrote a book entitled Three Italian friends of the impressionists : Boldini, De Nittis, Zandomeneghi, wrote of Zandomeneghi’s work:

“…Zandomeneghi knows how to differentiate himself from his closest colleagues, Degas and Renoir, by surpassing the glossy and even fierce chronicle style of the first thanks to adding a warm and affectionate emotional involvement in the subject, and by transferring the deification of the ideal woman typical of the second in a more bourgeois reality interwoven with truth but able to transform a simple story in a tremor of poetry…”

A good example of the way Zandomeneghi depicted a close relationship between two women is in his 1895 work entitled Conversazione interessante (Interesting Conversation).  Before us, we see two women locked in conversation.  There is a gentleness about the scene.  There is no wild animation.  We feel drawn into the scene as a friend who is being admitted into their private world.  Both women are wearing light fashionable wide-sleeved shirts which were all the fashion in the 1890’s.    This painting highlights the beautiful technique Federico was to often use.  There is a lightness of touch and the artist demonstrates an amazing insight in the way he portrays the mood of the sitters.  The two women in the painting are totally absorbed in their conversation.  Their hands touch. They only have eyes for each other in this intimate and yet non-sexual depiction.   The art critic and writer Francesca Dini in her 1989 book,   Zandomeneghi, la vita e le opera, wrote of this work:

“…Conversazione interessante (Interesting Conversation), is among the most famous works produced by the Venetian painter at the beginning of his relationship with Durand-Ruel. The brilliance and chromatic refinement of the composition are emphasized by the balance of the scene and the richness of the materials chosen for the dresses of two young women, who are wearing light shirts with wide sleeves ‘double sboffo’, very fashionable in the last decade of the century. The provenance of the painting is notable as it belonged, among others, to the greatest admirers and collectors of paintings by the artist…”

Federico Zandomeneghi died in Paris on the last day of 1917, aged seventy-six.  It was not until 1914, three years before his death, that he was given his first one-man show which was at the Venice Biennale of that year in his native country.

There were so many paintings by Zandometeghi I could have showcased but I have just chosen some of my favourites but I hope you will search out more of his works.

Dosso Dossi. Part 2 – The tale of the young man who was a famous lady and the Ducal Palace of Ferrara

Dosso Dossi self portrait
Dosso Dossi
self portrait

The first painting of Dosso Dossi I want to showcase is one which is owned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia.  The gallery acquired the painting from a gallery in London in 1965 for £8000.  The title of the oval painting was then said to be Portrait of a Youth.  There was an element of mystery surrounding the art work as the artist of the work was said to be unknown.  It was only in the start of the twenty-first century that the gallery made a painstaking examination of the work during its restoration which would last several years.  The mystery to be solved was two-fold.  Firstly, who painted the work and secondly was the sex of the sitter a male.   The gallery staff looked for clues as to whether the sitter was a young man or a young woman.  In the background, behind the sitter, there is a myrtle bush and in art this was symbolic of Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love and symbolised feminine beauty.  Another clue to the sex of the sitter, according to the gallery’s conservator, Carl Villis, can be found in the inscription on the piece of paper which lies on the balustrade in the foreground.  The translation of which is:

“…brighter is the virtue reigning in this beautiful body…”

Portrait of a Young Man by Dosso Dossi
Portrait of a Young Man by Dosso Dossi

So in the opinion of the conservator the sitter was female.  The next questions to be answered were who was she and who painted the portrait.  After two years of intense scientific analysis and research in Italy, Australia and America the art curator and conservator, Villis came to the conclusion that the female was no other than a young Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI and brother of Cesare Borgia and furthermore the artist was Giovanni di Niccolo de Luteri, or as we now know him, Dosso Dossi.  So why Lucrezia Borgia?  Villis postulated that because the female figure in this painting is holding a dagger the depiction alludes to the Roman heroine Lucrezia, who after being raped by Tarquin, the son of the King of Rome, killed herself with a dagger so as to protect the honour of her family.

1502 coin featuring Lucrezia Borgia
1502 coin featuring Lucrezia Borgia

They also likened the depiction to the 1502 coin which was adorned with Lucrezia’s profile.  Maybe these are good arguments to make Lucrezia the woman in the painting but what made them believe the artist who painted her portrait was Dossi?  The belief that he was the artist followed an analysis of the painting’s pigments and the artistic style which indicated that it was likely to have been painted by Dossi.  Dossi ,if you remember from Part 1 of this blog, came from Ferrara as did Lucrezia.  In 1502 the twenty-two year old Lucrezia married her third husband Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, who later employed Dosso Dossi as the court painter – a coincidence ?  Maybe, maybe not!

National Gallery of Victoria paintings conservator Karl Villis (right) and director Gerard Vaughan stand beside the painting
National Gallery of Victoria paintings conservator Karl Villis (right) and director Gerard Vaughan stand beside the painting

The gallery awaits authentication by external scholars and art history experts and are right to be wary of being too dogmatic with regards their discovery as in 2007 the National Gallery of Victoria was embarrassed after it was revealed that it had wrongly attributed a painting by an unknown Dutch painter to Vincent van Gogh !

Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian (1523)
Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian (1523)

Dosso Dossi was a contemporary of four great High Renaissance Italian artists, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Titian and it is because of one of their famous works of art, Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne that Dossi came to complete his own work, Bacchus in 1524.

In 1523, Titian finished his painting entitled Bacchus and Ariadne which is now housed in London’s National Gallery.  The commission for Titian’s work was one of a cycle of mythological works, which he and Giovanni completed for Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, and it was to be hung in the Camerini d’Alabastro, a private room in the ducal castle.  Originally this part of the commission was given to Raphael who had made plans and sketches for what was to be his Triumph of Bacchus but he died in 1520 and Titian was given the commission to complete.

In the left of the painting we see Ariadne who has been abandoned on this island of Naxos by her lover Theseus, who has sailed off.  The white sails of his boat can be seen in the extreme left background.  In the painting we see Bacchus, the god of wine, leaping energetically from his chariot which is drawn by two large cheetahs.  His followers and fellow revellers appear, emerging from the forest in the right of the picture.  Bacchus is immediately smitten by the sight of Ariadne, who steps back in fear of his sudden arrival.  He promises to turn her into an eight-star constellation, which we see halo-like in the sky, above her head.  This beautiful painting from the Venetian School painter Titian is awash with beautiful colours, blues, reds and browns which enhance the mythological scene.

Bacchus by Dosso Dossi (1524)
Bacchus by Dosso Dossi (1524)

Dosso Dossi was a contemporary of four great High Renaissance Italian artists, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Titian and it is probably due to the popularity of Titian’s work that he was commissioned to copy part of Bacchus and Ariadne, a commission he completed in 1524.  The painting was simply entitled Bacchus and is a copy of the central character in Titian’s painting, with just a few small changes to the background landscape.  The painting probably came about through a commission given to Dossi from an admirer of Titian’s work, which he or she saw when it arrived at Ferrara the year before.

A woman fleeing on a wooded path by Dosso Dossi (c.1542)
A woman fleeing on a wooded path by Dosso Dossi (c.1542)

Another of Dossi’s paintings featuring Ariadne is entitled A Woman Fleeing on a Wooded Path.  This work at one time was thought to have been painted by Dosso Dossi’s younger brother Battista but now is generally believed to have been painted by Dosso himself because of the forms and the drapery, and the detail of the landscape, particularly the buildings in the upper right section.   The female figure has since been identified as being of Ariadne as noted in the lists of paintings by the influential scholar of the Italian Renaissance, the art historian Bernard Berenson.

The Three Ages of Man by Dosso Dossi (c.1515)
The Three Ages of Man by Dosso Dossi (c.1515)

One of Dossi’s most accomplished landscape works was completed around 1515.  It was entitled The Three Ages of Man.   This motif has been painted by many artists including Titian and Giorgione and depicts three pairs of males in three particular stages of their life, infant, youth and old age.  It is an allegorical concept of the cycle of life with depictions of the wonderment of the young child to the earthly pleasures of youth and finally the forlorn and Vanitas-like depiction of ageing men contemplating the end of life.  However there is some doubt whether the painting by Dossi falls into this allegorical category.  It is true there are three pairs of humans of differing ages but in each pairing there appears to be one male and one female.   Look at the two children.  They are connected to the “youthful” pair simply because they are spying on them as they enjoy the pleasures of youth.  He could well be a goat herder as accompanying the amorous couple are a number of goats also watching them intently.  The Italian biographer, historian and contemporary of Dossi, Paolo Givio, wrote that the artist’s works fell into two categories – the ones with serious subjects which he termed justis operibus and his landscape works which he termed parerga, which he says:

“…contain embellishments, intended to simply delight the eye and refresh the spirit without implying any more serious message…”

This painting by Dossi seems to fit into this second category

Much has been said about the ducal palace of Alfonso I d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara and the art that graced the walls of his palace.  In fact, by 1529, he had managed to create the most magnificent private art gallery of his time, including several masterpieces by Titian, hung as an ensemble. The Duke’s gallery, known as the camerino d’alabastro with its alabaster walls and gilded ceiling, contained the finest sculpture and paintings that money could buy. The power and wealth of Duke Alfonso allowed him to commission paintings from the most famous artists of the day. The elderly Giovanni Bellini completed the Feast of the Gods in 1514, which was the last painting he completed before he died. Sadly both Fra Bartolommeo and Raphael died before completing Alfonso’s commissions and so as we saw with the painting Bacchus and Ariadne the Duke turned to Titian who was still only thirty years old and though he was a student of Bellini he was still not famous.

Aeneas at the Entrance to the Elysian Fields by Dosso Dossi (c.1514)
Aeneas at the Entrance to the Elysian Fields by Dosso Dossi (c.1514)

In 1514 Alfonso commissioned Dossi to produce ten paintings for his Camerino d’Alabstro.  These works were to illustrate scenes from the twelve books of Virgil’s epic poem, Aeneid and would be so hung, high up on the walls, so as to imitate a frieze.  The first painting I have featured from this set, which is part of the National Gallery of Canada collection, is entitled Aeneas in the Elysian Fields and it illustrates a scene from the sixth book of the Aeneid.   In the work of art, we see Aeneas in the far left of the painting with his plumed hat, carrying the golden bough, and accompanied by the Cumaean sibyl as they arrive at the Elysian Fields.

Aeneas and Achates on the Libyan Coast by Dosso Dossi (c.1520)
Aeneas and Achates on the Libyan Coast by Dosso Dossi (c.1520)

The second of the three surviving paintings from the “frieze” is entitled Aeneas and Achates on the Libyan Coast.  This work is housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.  The depiction is based on the first book of Virgil’s Aeneid which is all about the story of Aeneas, who after the fall of Troy and seven years wandering, founded a settlement on the Italian peninsula, establishing the Roman state. In Book 1, Aeneas and his faithful companion Achates, having only just started their journey, and are forced to take refuge on the Libyan coast after their ships are wrecked in a storm.

Dosso Dossi worked for the Dukes of Ferrara for almost three decades.  He died in 1542.  His brother Battista who had taken over the mantle of chief court painter to the Duke of Ferrara on his brother’s death, died six years later.

I will leave you with the words from a pre-exhibition write-up that accompanied the 1999 exhibition of Dossi’s works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

“…In Orlando Furioso — the most widely read epic poem of the 16th century — Dosso is listed alongside Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Titian as one of the great figures of his age by the renowned Renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto, who likely admired Dosso’s poetic and subtle — indeed enigmatic — representations of myth and allegory. Dosso’s paintings have long been appreciated as celebrations of pictorial freedom and artistic invention, characterized by a rich palette, brilliant contrasts of light and shadow, and by the enduring echoes of joyousness, wit, and sensual delight. With the devolution of the Ferrarese court into the papal states in 1598, virtually all of Dosso’s oil paintings were dispersed to collections in Rome and Modena, removing them from the elaborate context for which they were created…”

Dosso Dossi. Part 1 – The Constabili Polyptych

In my last blog I looked at the lives of two American landscape artists, Marion and Elmer Wachtel and for many people outside of America these painters may have been completely unknown.  Today in my blog I want to introduce you to a great painter who may also be unfamiliar to many.  Today let me introduce you to the Italian High Renaissance painter Giovanni di Niccolò de Luteri who became known as Dosso Dossi.

The Constabili Polyptych
The Constabili Polyptych

Dossi was born in St Giovanni del Dosso, which is a small village thirty kilometres south west of Mantua.  His actual birth date is something of a mystery with various historical documents and biographers disagreeing, albeit a consensus of opinions puts it at around 1487.  His early upbringing is also somewhat shrouded in mystery.  However we do know Dossi had a younger brother, Battista, who was also a painter but said to be not as talented as his older brother.  We also know that his father, Niccolò de Luteri, was a native of Trentino, an autonomous northern province of Italy, close to the Austro-Italian border.  His father was a member of the Ferrara court of Duke Ercole I d’Este the Duke of Ferrara and later, after his death in 1505, his son Duke Alfonso I d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara.  His role was that of a spenditore, a bursar or land agent for the court and it was the name of the Duke’s property, Villa Dossi, which lent its name to his two sons.

Portrait of Alfonso I by Dosso Dossi (c.1530)
Portrait of Alfonso I by Dosso Dossi (c.1530)

There is much conjecture about Dossi’s early training.  Giorgio Vasari believed Dossi studied under Lorenzo Costa in Ferrara whilst others say he studied in Venice.  Dossi’s seventeenth century biographer, the priest, poet and writer, Girolamo Bruffaldi, wrote in his 1704 book Vite de’ pittori e scultori ferraresi (Biogrpahy of Ferrara artists) that Dossi studied in Rome and Venice.   Records show that Dossi was working for the House of Gonzaga in Mantua in 1512 and two years later was working as a court painter in Ferrara at the court of Alfonso I d’Este, and later his son Ercole II d’Este.  As a court painter Dossi’s time would have been spent decorating the private residences of the Court with large frescoes and paintings, often detailing historical or mythological themes.  Court painters of the Renaissance, like Dossi, would have been asked to provide designs for elaborate tapestries and conjure up theatrical sets and backdrops.  There would have been many portraiture commissions to carry out featuring the Duke and his family as well as portraits of the family members of the wealthy courtiers.

In his early days at court Dossi was sent by the Duke to Venice, Florence and Mantua.  The Duke also sanctioned Dossi and his brother Battista to produce altarpieces and secular works for the local nobility and princely patrons, such as the Duke of Urbino and Cardinal Bernado Bles the prince-bishop of Trent.

Portrait of a Man in a Fur Collar (Antonio Constabili) by Dosso Dossi (c.1520)
Portrait of a Man in a Fur Collar (Antonio Constabili) by Dosso Dossi (c.1520)

One of Dossi’s first tasks as a court painter was a collaboration with the painter, Benvenuto Tisi, known as il Garofalo.  Garofalo, who had been living in Rome, where he had once studied under Raphael, received an invitation to come to Ferrara and complete a commission from the Duke of Ferrara to decorate a small chapel.  On completion of the commission he was approached by Antonio Costabili to decorate an altarpiece.  Antonio Costabili was a Ferrarese soldier, nobleman and diplomat and prominent figure at the court of Alphonso I and was a leading patron of the arts.  The commission taken on by Garofalo and Dossi was the polyptych, which became known as the Costabili Polyptych.  It was for the high altar, which stood at the rear of the chancel, raised above the choir stalls of the Augustinian church of Sant’ Andrea in Ferrara, which was home to the Ordo Eremitarum Sancti Augustini, the order of the Augustinian Hermit monks.   This was an order of monks accepted into the Roman Catholic family by Pope Alexander IV in 1256.

The completion date of this magnificent work is contested by art historians but one clue as to the date is that Vasari wrote that the polyptych was completed prior to the death of Raphael and he died in 1520.  It should be remembered that Vasari, on two occasions, met with Garofalo in the 1540’s and therefore should have had accurate knowledge with regards the completion date of the altarpiece.  Others narrow down the completion date to around 1514.

Constabili Polyptych in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Ferrara
Constabili Polyptych in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Ferrara

The altarpiece is now housed in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Ferrara.  The paintings are still in the original altarpiece’s wooden frame but there has been much work on reconstructing it as it was badly damaged during World War II.  The altarpiece measures 31ft 6 inches high and 19 feet wide (9.6 x 5.8m).

Central Panel of the polyptych
Central Panel of the polyptych

The main central panel measures 174 inches x 96 inches (474 x 262cms) and features the Virgin Mary enthroned with the Christ Child.  Alongside her throne, on the right, is the infant Saint John the Baptist.

Angels and spiritelli
Angels and spiritelli

Above the throne, on either side there are angels and spiritelli.

John the Evangelist
John the Evangelist

On the steps below the throne sits John the Evangelist, cross-legged, pausing from his writing to look upwards towards the Virgin. On the floor besides him is a chalice.  The chalice is often associated with and symbolises John the Evangelist.  It alludes to John being put to the test by the high priest of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. The high priest said to him:

“…If you want me to believe in your god, I will give you some poison to drink and, if it does not harm you, it means that your god is the true God…”

Saint John blessed the cup of poison, neutralizing it and was then able to drink the liquid.

Saint Jerome
Saint Jerome

In the right foreground of the central panel we have Saint Jerome holding an open book whilst his foot rests upon a skull.  In the left foreground of the central panel we have Saint Andrew, the titular head of the church, who holds a cross and points towards the Virgin.

The two side panels of the polyptych depict two further saints.  Saint George, the patron saint of Ferrara, is featured in the lower right side panel whilst Saint Sebastian, the popular saint who was looked upon as a protector of the people against the plague appears in the lower left side panel.

The Spandrels
The Spandrels

Above these side panels there are two spandrels.  A spandrel is the almost triangular space between the left or right exterior curve of an arch and the rectangular framework surrounding it.

Saint Augustine (right spandrel)
Saint Augustine (right spandrel)

Saint Augustine, the patron of the Augustinian order can be seen in the right spandrel dressed as a hermit in the robes of an Eremitani friar with his bishop’s mitre on the floor by his feet and Saint Ambrose appears in the left spandrel with a manuscript resting on his lap.  His demeanour is one of contemplation as one hand rests on his breast as he studies the text.  Both spandrels have in the background an oculus window through which comes the light which illuminates the two saints.

The pediment
The pediment

The resurrected Christ is displayed within the pediment at the top of the polyptych.

This is a truly remarkable work of art.  At first sight it would appear that the Saints that have been depicted were just a random selection but having read Dosso Dossi, Garofalo, and the Costabili Polyptych: Imaging Spiritual Authority by Giancarlo Fiorenza he believes they were chosen very carefully and he goes into great detail in his article about the reasoning.  The article appeared in The Art Bulletin Volume 82, No.2 (June 2000).  It was from this complex article that I got most of my facts about this work but I decided to steer clear of the theories about the inclusion of the saints and other symbolic aspects of the polytypch and will leave you to seek out the article if you want to delve further.

In my next blog I will look at more of Dossi’s paintings and look at one of a young man which is now believed to be a portrait of a famous young woman !

Giovanni Battista Moroni – his religious works

In today’s blog I complete my look at the 16th century Italian painter, Giovanni Battista Moroni, and look at some of his religious works.

Moroni had studied under Alessandro Bonvicino (Il Moretto) and in the 1540’s he eventually rose to become the main studio assistant at his Master’s Brescia workshop.  Moroni went on to ply his trade in Bergamo, his home town of Albino and the town of Trent during which time, the town hosted the Catholic ecumenical Council of Trent.  The first Council being held between 1546 and 1548 and Pope Julius III instigated the Second Council of Trent, which began in May1551 and ended two years later.  During these days Moroni received many commissions to paint altarpieces for the local churches.

The Last Supper by Giovanni Battista Moroni (1566-9)
The Last Supper by Giovanni Battista Moroni (1566-9)

One such religious work was The Last Supper which Moroni completed in 1569.  The setting for the work is a covered logia, which is part of an architectural setting through which we glance out at a distant blue-skied landscape.  The first thing that strikes you about this rendition of the famous religious scene is the man in black who stands behind those partaking in the meal.  We can tell by his dress that he is not one of the Apostles.  He stands behind St John and is acting as a waiter to the diners.  He is the dominant character in the painting but why was he included?  We know the painting was commissioned in December 1565 by the Confraternita del Santissimo Sacramento, a regional Brotherhood of the Blessed Sacrament in the small Bergamo commune of Romano di Lombardia and was not completed until 1569.  There has been much speculation about the identity of the man in black with some people, such as the 19th century Italian art historian, Milesi Locatelli, who in his 1869 three-volume biography Illustri Bergamaschi. Studi critic-biografici,   and more recently Maria Calì in her 1980 book, “Verita” e “religione” nella pittura di Giovan Battista Moroni, both stated that it was the artist himself but why the confraternity would want Moroni to include himself is hard to rationalize.  Simone Facchinetti who co-wrote the book which accompanies the Royal Academy’s Moroni exhibition believes that the man in black is Lattanzio da Lallio, the parish priest of the Romano di Lombardia church at the time of the painting and his position of power over the confraternity and the fact that he was arranging the painting commission with Moroni, may have allowed/asked the artist to have himself depicted in the painting.

My next couple of religious works by Moroni are very interesting.  The depiction in each case is believed to have come from what was taught by Saint Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises, often termed the Ignatian Spirituality.   The Spiritual Exercises are a compilation of meditation, prayer, and contemplative practice developed by St. Ignatius Loyola to help people deepen their relationship with God.  They were a set of Christian meditations, prayers and mental exercises.  When one prayed, St Ignatius believed that one should meditate on a biblical passage so as to bring the person praying closer to God.  He gave precise instructions on the matter of composition or envisioning the place.  The religious composition is the fruit of mental prayer.  It is a sort of vision arising in the mind of the one who is praying.  It is seeing with the eyes of the imagination a physical location in which the thing the worshipper wishes to contemplate is to be found.

A Man in Contemplation Before the Crucifixion with St John the Baptist and St. Sebastian by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1575)
A Man in Contemplation Before the Crucifixion with St John the Baptist and St. Sebastian by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1575)

The first painting is entitled A Man in Contemplation Before the Crucifixion with St John the Baptist and St. Sebastian which was completed by Giovanni Battista Moroni around 1575.  The painting is housed in the Bergamo church, Chiesa di Sant’ Alessandro della Croce.  In this work a man in the foreground has turned towards us and points towards a painted scene of the Crucifixion which is being witnessed by St John the Baptist on the left and St Sebastian on the right.  The latter can be seen holding the arrows shot at him during the first attempt on his life.  Sebastian is often depicted in paintings tied to a tree or a pillar and shot with arrows but according to legend he did not die and was rescued by Irene of Rome, later Saint Irene.  Later, around AD 288, he was clubbed to death for openly criticising the Roman Emperor Diocletian.

A Gentleman in Adoration before the Baptism of Christ by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1555)
A Gentleman in Adoration before the Baptism of Christ by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1555)

The second work depicts a man praying and at the same time concentrating his mind on a story from the Bible, which in this case is the baptism of Christ by St John. What we see before us is what, through deep meditation, the praying man has conjured up in his mind during prayer. The painting is entitled Gentleman in Contemplation of the Baptism of Christ which Moroni completed around 1555.   The young man, with his hands clasped in prayer, stands upright before the biblical scene he is imagining, separated from it by some architectural ruins.  In the background we have a Lombardy landscape and in the middle ground we see the two figures by a stream which almost certainly alludes to the River Jordan where Christ was baptised by John.  The painting is now part of the Gerolamo and Roberta Etro collection.  Gerolamo, an avid art collector, was the founder in 1968 of Etro the Italian luxury fashion house.

The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1545-50)
The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1545-50)

My final offering of a religious work by Moroni is The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine and was completed around 1550.  It is a beautiful and delicate work of art and is housed at the Ashmoleon Museum in Oxford.  In the painting we see a depiction of St Catherine, an early Christian martyr of royal birth, seated next to the Virgin Mary, who cradles the Christ Child.  Catherine is receiving a wedding-ring from Him, which symbolises her spiritual closeness to God.  In her left hand she holds a palm frond which was adopted into Christian iconography to represent the victory of martyrs, a victory for the faithful against those who want to claim their soul.  St Catherine, who died in Alexandria, Egypt, in the early 4th century AD, when she was in her twenties.  She was martyred at the hands of the pagan emperor Maxentius.

Torre civica, Bergamo
Torre civica, Bergamo

The setting for the painting is inside a room, which has a large window, through which can be seen a town.  It is thought that it is the town of Bergamo, as to the left, one sees the town’s Torre Civica, which was built in the twelfth century.  The small oil on canvas painting, which measures 86cms x 68cms, is thought to have been designed for private devotion.  Furthermore the original recipient of the work is thought to have been a young girl, who would then identify herself with the teenage martyr, Catherine.

Giovanni Moroni was part way through a commission to paint The Last Judgement in the church at Gorlago, a commune of Bergamo, close to his home town of Albino.   He never completed the commission as he died in February 1579.  Although his exact birth date is not known it is reckoned he was in his mid-fifties when he died.

The portraiture of Giovanni Battista Moroni

Last week, I went to the Royal Academy which was staging three very different exhibitions.   Each one had its supporters and it was interesting to walk through each and compare the works on display.   I know that is somewhat foolhardy as one would never contemplate and compare the athletic prowess of a baseball star with a soccer star or a football star with and ice hockey player.  Each has a skill of their own and one cannot make a comparison across different sports so I suppose I should not contrast the works of Allen Jones with Anselm Keifer or Giovanni Moroni.  All are so different and it is up to one’s individual taste as to what  one believes is the most beautiful and the most eye-catching.

For me, the choice was a no-brainer.  I have always liked paintings from the 16th and 17th century and I have always admired the genre of portraiture and so my favourite, by far, was the Giovanni Battista Moroni exhibition which is on at the Sackler Gallery until January 25th.  In my next two blogs, I would like to whet your appetite by looking at the life and some of the works of art of one of the greatest Italian portraitists of the sixteenth century and by doing so try and persuade you to visit the wonderful exhibition.

Giovanni Battista Moroni was the son of architect Francesco Moroni and Maddalena di Vitale Brigati.  He was born around 1522 in the Venetian Lombardy region of northern Italy, in the commune of Albino, in the province of Bergamo.  It was a time close to the end of the Italian Renaissance period which had started back in the fourteenth century.  It was an exciting period of cultural change which brought about new styles of art, music, literature, and architecture.  This was a time designated as the Cinquecento also known as High Renaissance period and it was during this time that a secular theme started to manifest itself in the subject for paintings.  Moroni was apprenticed to Alessandro Bonvicino more commonly known as Il Moretto da Brescia who had a studio in Trento which at the time hosted the great meeting of Catholic clergy at the Council of Trent between 1545 and 1563.  For Roman Catholicism, this was It was the most important ecumenical council which had been called to come up with ideas to counter the Protestant Reformation.

The Tailor by Giovanni Moroni (c.1570)
The Tailor by Giovanni Moroni (c.1570)

In this first blog about Moroni I want to concentrate on his portraiture and I have chosen four of my favourite works from the exhibition.  One of his most famous works and considered to be one of the masterpieces of sixteenth century portraiture, is entitled Il Tagliapanni (Portrait of a Tailor), which he completed around 1570.  What is mystifying about this portrait is the fact that the title of the work although telling us this is a portrait of an artisan the costume of the man before us would seem to have aristocratic connotations.   The setting for the portrait is a bare room, which is not well illuminated and which contrasts with the way Moroni has illuminated the head of the tailor form a light source coming from the left of the painting.  The lack of furnishings allows us to concentrate on the subject of the painting.  The figure, who stands by his cutting bench, is the tailor.   He is wearing doublet and hose.  He has a cream fustian jacket and wears full red breeches, which almost, but not quite, hides a similar coloured codpiece.  The colour of the clothing worn by the tailor was a change from Moroni’s normal male portraits as he had, as a rule, had his sitters dress in all-black clothing which was the Spanish fashion-style of male sitters.  Around his waist is a sword belt – another hint of aristocracy.  He looks out at us pensively.  Maybe he just considering carefully what he is about to do.  He has a pair of scissors in his right hand, on the small finger of which is a gold ring set with a ruby.  His left hand spreads out a piece of black cloth which he is about to cut. One can just make out the faint white lines on the cloth which are a guide to the pattern which he is about to cut out.  This is not an impoverished tradesman and much speculation has been made as to who is this man.  Because of the richness of his clothes, some art historians, like Francesco Rossi in his 1991 book Il Moroni, would have us believe that he was an aristocrat who has turned to selling fabrics.  Others believe that not to be the case.  However the manner which the tailor is depicted gives one a distinct impression that the tailor was financially secure.    In the Grazietta Butazzi a leading authority on the history of fashion an article appeared in the 2005 edition on men’s fashion between fifteenth and seventeenth centuries and they were adamant that the style of costume on Moroni’s tailor was not out of place with his professional status as a tailor and that it was similar to garments seen on prints of the time, which depicted men in his trade.

Gian Gerolamo Albani by Giovanni Moroni (1568-70)
Gian Gerolamo Albani by Giovanni Moroni (1568-70)

The next portrait by Moroni, which I am featuring, is of Gian Gerolamo Albani and with it comes an amusing anecdote.  Albani was a powerful politician and military man in the Lombardy Veneto region.   In 1563 he fell from grace and was exiled for five years on the Adriatic isle of Hvar and banished from Veneto .   Gian Gerolamo Albani had had to endure this fall from power following his implication in the murder by Albani’s son of a family member of the rival Brembati family, Achille Brembati.  From Hvar Gian Girolamo moved to Rome and in 1570, at the age of sixty-one, was made a cardinal in the Catholic Church by Pope Pius V. Pope Pius V, who was born Antonio Ghislieri, and served his time in the Catholic Church as an inquisitor, was a friend of Gian Battista Albani and it was Albani that had once saved the life of the future pope.

Moroni favoured his sitters to adopt a three-quarter style profile but in this portrait of Albani he sits directly facing the viewer.   There is an aura of power about this man before us.  He sits upright in a Dantesca chair, book in hand.  He wears a luxurious black robe which is lined with lynx fur, which can also be seen appearing from slashes around the shoulders and cuffs.  This “slash and puff” fashion style will again be seen in the portrait of his daughter, Lucia.  Around his neck, adding an even more prestigious appearance is a gold chain on which hangs the lion of St. Mark, which alludes to Albani being a member of the Knights of the Order of St. Mark, an honorific Order of Chivalry title conferred on him by Andrea Gritti, who was at the time, Doge of the Republic of Venice.  The winged Lion passant  holding a drawn sword in one paw and an open book with the motto Pax tibi, Marce Evangelista meus (Peace to you, Mark, my Evangelist) in the other.  On the reverse there was a portrait of the Doge and St Mark.

And so to the anecdote I mentioned about this portrait.  The seventeenth century Italian art biographer and painter, Carlo Ridolfi, wrote about the origin of this portrait in his 1648 book Le Maraviglie dell’arte: ovvero Le vite degli ’illustri pittori veneti, e dello sato, (The Marvels of art: namely The Lives of illustrious Venetian painters, and the state):

“…Gian Geralamo Albani, a gentleman from Bergamo, a member of the Albani family, finding himself in Venice, sought Titian out to have his portrait painted.  He was asked from which area he came and let it be known that he was from Bergamo.  ‘What’ replied Titian, ‘do you think you will get a better portrait from my hands than you would get in Bergamo from your Moroni?  Best leave this work to him, for it will be more valuable and more distinctive than mine’.  Sig. Albani then returned to Bergamo and told the story to Moroni who produced this stupendous portrait now belonging to Sig. Giuseppe Albani…”

Portrait of Lucia Albani Avogadro ('La Dama in Rosso') by Giocvanni Battista Moroni (c.1555-60)
Portrait of Lucia Albani Avogadro (‘La Dama in Rosso’) by Giocvanni Battista Moroni (c.1555-60)

Whether the story is true or false I will let you decide but Gian Albani must have been already aware of Moroni and his skills as a portraitist as some ten years earlier, Moroni completed a female portrait entitled Portrait of Lucia Albani Avogadro (‘La Dama in Rosso’)She was one of Gian Albani’s daughters.  This is an exquisite work and can now be seen at the National Gallery in London.  The sitter for this work is Lucia Albani  Avogadro an Italian poet.  Lucia was one of seven children of Gian Gerolamo Albani, the head of the powerful Albani family of Bergamo.  This is not just a painting of a beautiful woman but a depiction of and an insight into of the fashion of the time.  Lucia Albani married Faustino Avogadro , her third cousin, when she was sixteen years old.  Her husband was a member of the powerful aristocratic family from Brescia.

She is depicted in three quarter profile seated on a Dantesca chair.  She wears a glittering red brocade dress with an open bodice which was popular in the 1550’s.  The silk was almost certainly given its exquisite colour by the use of the scales of the female cochineal insect from which the carminic acid is derived and which yields shades of red such as crimson and scarlet.   Once again we see the fashionable puff and slash style on the dress around the shoulders and upper chest .  This fashion style was popular with both men and women.  Portraits of Henry VIII often showed him wearing clothes which had the “puff and slash” stylisation.   The “puff and slash” effect was achieved by cutting slashes in the garment and pulling puffs of the undergarments through those slashes.

The lady sits upright  on the chair.  In her left hand is a fan which rests on her lap.  She is bedecked with expensive jewellery, including bracelets with agates, a ring on the finger of each hand, both set with precious stones.  Around her neck is a single strand of pearls which accompany a set of pearl earrings.  Her hair is swept to the back of her head in a most intricate fashion and is held in place by a gold chain with cabochon emeralds. Lucia was not just renowned for her beauty but for her literary skill as a poet but this portrait bears no reference to her literary work, it is simply a depiction of a beautiful lady and alludes to her aristocratic status.

Portrait of Faustino Avogadro by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1555-60)
Portrait of Faustino Avogadro by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1555-60)

My fourth and final offering of portraiture by Moroni has a connection to the lady in the previous work.  The work is entitled Portrait of Faustino Avogadro and is sometimes referred to as The Knight with the Wounded Foot or A Knight with his Jousting Helmet.   Giovanni Battista Moroni completed the portrait somewhere between 1555 and 1560 and is currently housed in the National Gallery in London.  Avogadro stands in front of an old wall, the base of which is made of marble.  There is an element of decay about this backdrop with green vegetation growing out of the cracks in the wall and brown streaks of damp running down across the marble

Faustino is predominately dressed in black.  It is a familiar style of the mid 1500’s.  He wears a high-collared white shirt and short puffed black pantaloons.  Over his shirt we see a torp-coloured jacket and over this, lying open, is a gambeson or arming doublet.  This is a padded jacket which was worn as part of protective armour.  It could be worn separately, or combined with chain mail or plate armour. The garment was made using a sewing technique known as quilting and was made of linen or wool.  In battle, a thrust of the enemy’s sword could penetrate the rings of the chain mail and this often drove the damaged rings deep into the wound. A lightly padded garment, such as the gambeson worn under the chain mail reduced the risk of these types of injuries.

Avogadro’s right hand touches the hilt of his long sword whilst he rests his left arm on his lavishly crested helmet which is adorned with an ostrich feather.  Around him are pieces of armour scattered on the floor, the light glinting on the highly polished surface of the steel pieces.  Besides this being a portrait of an aristocratic gentleman it is a depiction which is testament to his military rank and his involvement in tournament combat.  If one looks closely at his left knee one can see a sort of supporting brace on it which is attached to his left foot.  Some art historians believe this contraption was the result of an injury; hence the painting’s “sub-title” The Knight with the Wounded Foot.  However, Cecil Gould, a British art historian and curator, who specialised in Renaissance painting and once a Keeper and was at one time Deputy Director of London’s National Gallery, wrote in his 1975 National Gallery Catalogues: The Sixteenth Century Italian Schools that the brace we see in the portrait was more likely to be present to help remedy a congenital defect of the ligaments of the left ankle.  One would have thought that such a cumbersome contraption would have put paid to Avogadro’s taking part in tournaments, but apparently not.

Avogadro, like his father-in-law was involved in the deadly feud between the Albani and Brembati families with his servant being sentenced to death for his part in the murder of Count Achille Brembati in 1563.   Following this, Avogadro and his wife Lucia Albani fled their Bergamo home and went into exile in Ferrara to escape the aftermath and consequences of the murder.  A year later Faustino was dead.  It was reported that he fell down a well when he was drunk.  Fell or pushed?  One will never know for sure.  Four years later in 1568, his widow Lucia died, aged 34

In my next blog I will look at some of the religious paintings of Giovanni Battista Moroni.

Domenico Induno

Today I am featuring an artist which many of you, like me, will have not heard of before.  He, you will discover, had an artistic connection with my last featured artist, Francesco Hayez.  He also had another thing in common with Hayez.  He had a fervent belief in Risorgimento, the resurgence of a unified Italy.  The artist in question is the Italian nineteenth century painters, Domenico Induno.

Domenico Induno, who had a younger brother Gerolamo, also a painter, was born in Milan in May 1815.  He began working as an apprentice goldsmith to Luigi Cossa, who, in 1831, convinced by Domenico’s burgeoning artistic talent, persuaded him to enrol on an art course at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan.  Whilst at the Brera he studied under the Lombard sculptor, Pompeo Marchesi and the Italian artist and professor of painting, Luigi Sabatelli.  It was also at the Brera that Domenico Induno studied under Francesco Hayez who had been teaching at the establishment since 1822.  Hayez was a great influence on Domenico and even allowed Domenico to have a studio in the Hayez residence.  Hayez was also able to help Domenico to progress with his artistic career by introducing him to the leading Milanese art dealers and collectors.

The Chaste Susanna by Domenico Induno
The Chaste Susanna by Domenico Induno

It was through the influence of Hayez that Domenico initially concentrated on depictions of biblical stories and depictions of ancient history.  Like Hayez, Domenico was a great believer in Risorgimento (Italian Unification) and he and his brother, Gerolamo, took part in the 1848 Cinque Giorante uprisings in Milan. (see the previous blog with regards Cinque Giorante).  After the failure of the five day uprising and maybe because of their involvement, the brothers went into voluntary exile, initially travelling just across the Italian-Swiss border to Astano in Switzerland where they stayed with a fellow artist Angelo Trezzini and his sister Emilia, later to become Domenico’s wife.  Trezzini had also been a student at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts from 1844 to 1846 and had served his apprenticeship in the same studio as the Induno brothers.

From Astano Domenico Induno moved to Florence but returned to Milan at the end of 1859.  Domenico now concentrated on genre scenes with their powerful depictions of the everyday life of the common folk and the world of the lowly and poor.   He began to participate regularly in the Brera exhibitions and those held by the branches of the Società Promotrice di Belle Arti in Florence, Turin and Genoa.

Pane e lacrime by Domenico Induno (1855)
Pane e lacrime by Domenico Induno (1855)

One of his most beautiful and most moving paintings of this genre was one which he completed around 1854, entitled Pane e lagrime (Bread and Tears).  It is a depiction of suffering and there is an emotional beauty about this work. Yes it is a depiction full of sentimentality and to some it would be denigrated as being mawkish and syrupy but for me it is a painting which depicts the reality of life for the less fortunate.  The setting is a small stone-walled room.  The woman, the mother of the child, is crying as she sits on the bed.  The fire remains unlit and we can tell that the room is cold as on her knees is a muff or hand-warmer which she has been utilising in order to keep her hands warm.  Look at her facial expression.  It is one of unhappiness.  It is one that makes us believe that she is almost about to give up on her life. She is distraught and despondent with her “lot in life”.  She looks to a framed picture on the wall, probably a religious work.  She is beseeching help from the subject of the painting although we are aware that none will be forthcoming.   Before her stands her child clutching a piece of bread, probably the only food he or she has been given.  The painting was bought by Francesco Hayez, who presented it to the Brera in 1854.  The following year it was exhibited at the Exhibition Universelle of 1855 in Paris and in 1891 it appeared in the Induno brothers’ retrospective exhibition in Milan.

The Post Boy by Domenico Induno (1857)
The Post Boy by Domenico Induno (1857)

Another of Domenico Induno’s paintings came up at the Christies London auction in June 2006 and realised £60K, well above its £18K-£25K estimate.  The painting is entitled The Post Boy and we see the main character sitting and relaxing at a table outside a house or inn.  In his left hand he holds his whip with which he controls his horse and carriage and tucked under his left arm is his bugle sounded when he and the post has arrived in town.  In front of him are two young children, the elder of whom , a girl, is listening to his stories, whilst the younger hangs on to her apron.  On the floor we see some small fowl pecking away at some food.

Domenico Induno was a firm advocate of the Risorgismento and the triumphant Unification of Italy, which finally happened in 1861 following the Spedizione dei Mille (Expedition of the Thousand).  This expedition was lead by Giuseppe Garibaldi and with him were 1,000 men, mostly idealistic young northerners.  His troops overthrew the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and by so doing, allowed southern Italy and Sicily to become united with the north. The Spedizione dei Mille was one of the most dramatic events of the Risorgimento.  After this victory, the states of the Italian peninsula were united under king Victor Emmanuel II of the Savoy dynasty and he proclaimed all his territory to be the Kingdom of Italy.  Many artists including the Induno brothers and Hayez pictorially depicted some of the defining moments of the struggle for unification

L’arrivo del Bollettino di Villafranca (The arrival of the bulletin of the peace of Villafranca)  by Domenico Induno (1862)
L’arrivo del Bollettino di Villafranca (The arrival of the bulletin of the peace of Villafranca) by Domenico Induno (1862)

Domenico Induno completed one such painting in 1862.  It was entitled L’arrivo del Bollettino di Villafranca (The arrival of the bulletin of the peace of Villafranca) and can be found in the Museo del Risorgimento in Milan.  The painting was hailed as a great success and was purchased by Vittorio Emanuele II, the king of the unified Italy.  He bestowed on Domenico Induno an order of chivalry known as a Knight of the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus.  There were a number of versions of the painting by Induno but all have one thing in common.  It was all about the people.  It was no grand history painting depicting the witnessing of the agreement between the two emperors.  Induno had once again shown his desire to express the importance of the common people who had had to endure war and now could relax and enjoy peace.  The setting is outside the door of an inn where the reading of the bulletin about the treaty is taking place.    The ordinary people of Villafranca gather around to hear the news about the treaty and the ending of the conflict.

The Return of the Wounded Soldier by Domenico Induno (c.1854)
The Return of the Wounded Soldier by Domenico Induno (c.1854)

Another painting by Domenico Induno combines a genre work with a historical work about the fight for Risorgimento.  It is entitled The Return of the Wounded Soldier and was completed around 1854.  Induno depicts a soldier sitting slumped in a chair at the bedside of his wife.  She, like him, does not seem to be in the best of health.  A crucifix on a ribbo0n hangs above the bed head.  Their young child stands forlornly by her mother’s bedside. Their home exudes an air of poverty.  Paint is peeling off the walls.  Light streams through the open window and illuminates the soldier’s red tunic.  A woman anxiously looks out of the window maybe a doctor has been summoned and she awaits sight of his arrival.   The war has taken its toll on the family and although the soldier has managed to survive the many battles, his and his family’s future looks bleak. This is a genre painting which has a strong element of realism.  This is not a work of art glorifying the Risorgimento but one which pictorially narrates the suffering and the sacrifices made by the ordinary people during such a cause.

Domenico Induno died in Milan in November 1878 aged 63.