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Entries in Italian Painting (14)


Ghiberti: The Gates of Paradise

Lorenzo Ghiberti - Entry into Jerusalem - 1403-24 - Gilded bronze, 52 x 45 cm (inside molding) - Baptistry, Florence, Italy (click photo for larger image)Ghiberti - The Gates of ParadiseThe work featured here is one of the 20 scenes from the life of Christ depicted on the north doors of the Baptistry in Florence. Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) was one of the most important Early Renaissance sculptors; his work and writings formed the basis for much of the style and aims of the later High Renaissance.

Like many of his contemporaries, Ghiberti trained as a goldsmith. His sculpture embodies the lyrical grace and technical perfection associated with that craft, as well as a concern for classical clarity of weight and volume. In 1403, competing against such formidable rivals as Filippo Brunelleschi and Jacopo della Quercia, Ghiberti won his first major commission, the making of the second pair of bronze doors for the baptistery of the cathedral of Florence. He spent more than 20 years completing them, with the help of such students as Donatallo and Paolo Ucello. These artists, as well as Brunelleschi and della Quercia are discussed elsewhere on What About Art?

Michelangelo would later dub the door “The Gates of Paradise” and they have been referred to as such ever since then.


Sofonisba Anguissola: A Life Full of Surprises

Sofonisba Anguissola - Portrait of Elisabeth of Valois (1545-1568) - c. 1599 - Color on canvas - 68 cm (26.7 ″); Width: 54 cm (21.2 ″) - Kunsthistorisches Museum - Vienna, Austria (click photo for larger image)Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) was the first female artist to gain an international reputation. Among female painters, she was unusual in that her father was a nobleman rather than an artist.

While beginning to earn a living, Sofonisba also taught her sisters Lucia, Europa, and Anna Maria to paint. Their humanist father gave the sisters extraordinary classical educations. He promoted them and their work shamelessly, sending Sofonisba's drawings to Michelangelo and eventually securing her service as lady-in-waiting to the queen of Spain, Elizabeth of Valois (1454-68), a position that gave her opportunities for painting formal court portraits that followed the norms for that type of imagery. While in Spain Sofonisba married the brother of the Viceroy of Sicily. Upon his death, she remarried and moved to Genoa and finally to Palermo in Sicily where she retired. She was famously visited by Sir Anthony Van Dyck in 1623, when she was in her nineties.

"Life is full of surprises, I try to capture these precious moments with wide eyes.” - Sofonisba Anguissola


Master of Saint Cecilia: A Mystery

Saint Cecilia Master - Legend of St Francis: 26. The Healing of a Devotee of the Saint - c. 1300 - Fresco, 270 x 230 cm - Upper Church, San Francesco, Assisi (click photo for larger image)There do exist remarkable works of art created by artists whose names we do not know, and whose lives will always remain a mystery.

The Master of Saint Cecilia (active 1300-1320 in Florence) refers to an Italian painter named after the Saint Cecilia Altarpiece housed in the Uffizi. It was originally in the church of Saint Cecilia, destroyed by fire in 1304. Presumably, the artist was a Florentine, but nothing is known about him. Other works have been attributed to him because of their resemblance to the Uffizi work, the most important being the three concluding scenes of the great fresco cycle of the Life of Saint Francis in the Upper Church of San Francesco at Assisi. The painter of these scenes resembles Giotto (discussed elsewhere on What About Art?) in lucidity of presentation and in the solid drawing of his figures. But he is more genial in feeling than Giotto. His figures are more vivacious, and his colors are warmer and sweeter. The completion of the great cycle in the Upper Church would have been entrusted only to an established master. Some critics have attempted to identify the painter of these scenes and the Saint Cecilia Altarpiece with the famous but tantalizingly elusive Buffalmacco (1262-1340), however, there has been no universal agreement among scholars on that suggestion.

The detail featured here is the twenty-sixth of the twenty-eight scenes (twenty-five of which were painted by Giotto) of the Legend of Saint Francis from the Saint Cecilia Altarpiece. The fresco cycle in the Upper Church of the San Francesco at Assisi depicting the Legend of Saint Francis consists of 28 scenes. Although it is debated, the cycle is generally attributed to Giotto and his collaborators. However, Giotto's authorship of the closing scenes in the last bay of the nave are denied and these scenes are generally attributed to the Saint Cecilia Master.


Botticelli: Always a Mystery

Sandro Botticelli - The Mystical Nativity - c. 1500 - Tempera on canvas, 109 x 75 cm - National Gallery, London (click photo for larger image)Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445 - 1510) was one of the greatest Renaissance masters, largely because “…he bridged the gap between the Medieval Gothic style of painting and an emerging Humanist Realism” (The Art Story). He studied under Fra Filippo Lippi, and worked to improve the comparatively soft, frail figural style he had learned from his teacher. To this end he studied the sculptural styles of Antonio Pollaiuolo and Andrea del Verrocchio, the leading Florentine painters of the 1460s. Under their influence, Botticelli produced figures of sculptural roundness and strength. He also replaced Lippi’s delicate approach with a vigorous naturalism, shaped always by conceptions of ideal beauty. All of these artists, including Botticelli, are discussed elsewhere here on “What About Art?”. 

There is no documentary evidence to prove whether or not Botticelli was one of the Dominican monk Savonarola's followers. But certain themes in his later works, such as The Mystic Nativity, are certainly derived from the sermons of Savonarola, which suggests that the artist was definitely attracted by that personality.

Some scholars believe that this painting, the only surviving work signed by Botticelli, was created for his own private devotions, or for someone close to him. It is certainly unconventional, and does not simply represent the traditional events of the birth of Jesus and the adoration of the Shepherds or the Magi. Rather it is a vision of these events inspired by the prophecies in the Revelation of Saint John. 

Botticelli has underlined the non-realism of the picture by including Latin and Greek texts, and by adopting the conventions of medieval art, such as discrepancies in scale, for symbolic ends. The Virgin Mary, adoring a gigantic infant Jesus, is so large that were she to stand she could not fit under the thatch roof of the stable. These are, of course, the holiest and the most important persons in the painting.


Francesco Albani: The Annunciation

Francesco Albani - The Annunciation - n.d. - Oil on copper - 62 x 47 cm. - The Hermitage, St. Petersburg (click photo for larger image)Francesco Albani (1578-1660) was an Italian Baroque painter who was active in Bologna, Rome, Viterbo, Mantova, and Florence. He studied in Bologna with the Mannerist painter Denijs Calvaert before joining the Carracci Academy. While at the academy, he was an enthusiastic pupil. Like so many other artists from Bologna, he moved to Rome to study classical art, which he then applied with zeal to his own work. Albani's classicism can be seen in the altarpieces he painted after returning to Bologna, and in the cycles he painted on mythological subjects. 

Albani almost single-handedly created an appetite for light-hearted, pleasant works that lasted throughout the seventeenth century.

Albani painted many versions of the Annunciation, one of which is featured here.