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Entries in Italian Painting (12)


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.


Amico Aspertini: A Half-Insane Master

Amico Aspertini - Heroic Head - Tempera on wood, 37,5 x 36,5 cm - Christian Museum, Esztergom, Hungary (click photo for larger image)Amico Aspertini (ca. 1475-1552) was an Italian Mannerist painter from Bologna. Giorgio Vasari describes him as having an eccentric personality—in his word “half-insane”. This is revealed in his paintings, which are often bizarre in expression. Aspetini was in Rome 1500-03 and his sketchbooks of Roman remains (British Museum, London) are important sources about contemporary knowledge of the antique.

The monochrome painting featured here, with the stone-like frame, appears as a relief. It is interesting to note that the bust is not in the painted frame, but before it. This was an unusual feature at the time.


Adoration of the Magi by Altichiero da Zevio

Altichiero da Zevio - Adoration of the Magi - 1378-84 - Fresco - Oratorio di San Giorgio, Padua (click photo for larger image)Italian painter Altichiero da Zevio (ca. 1330-ca. 1390) probably came from Zevio near Verona and is sometimes considered to be the founder of the Veronese School. However, most of his surviving work is in Padua, where he had a hand in fresco cycles, intermittently, between 1377 and 1384.

Altichiero's gravity and the solidity and voluminousness of his figures clearly reveal his debt to Giotto’s frescos in the Arena of Padua. But his pageant-like scenes with their elaborate architectural views express the late fourteenth century taste for Gothic intricacy.

The work featured here is located middle right on the entry wall of the chapel.

Altichiero always gave his figures  room to move, as well as a characteristic serenity and deliberate quality. This is strongly reminiscent of Giotto's figural ideal. In this Adoration one can clearly see how Altichiero has combined the Giottesque character of the figures with the penchant for narrative detail that is more in tune with the taste of his own time. He directs the attention of the viewer to the retinue of people from the Orient, to the humble appearance of the stable, and to the clothing, with its often contemporary characteristics. In order to denote the specific locality, the painter allows the walls and towers of Bethlehem to rise beyond the mountains.