Upon the unveiling of the new Leonardo Da Vinci room, Room 35, in 2018, the director of the Uffizi, Eike Schmidt, stated,
The new arrangement has been designed not only to permit a slow, meditated visit, whereby visitors can compare the art and understand the stylistic evolution of Leonardo in his youth, but it is also correct in terms of art history, placing the artist’s works immediately after the rooms dedicated to the Florentine Quattrocento…It is part of a set of changes implemented to adjust the Uffizi to the needs of understanding by visitors as well as adhering to the museum’s educational principles.
The walls were painted grey to both enhance the mediative atmosphere as well as to mimic the church environment for which the paintings were originally meant. On the left is the Baptism of Christ (c. 1480), which was commissioned for San Salvi Church sometime around 1475-78. Leonardo worked on this painting during his apprenticeship with Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio, a Renaissance legend in his own right, although more gifted as a sculptor than a painter. (Verrocchio designed and installed the golden palla (“ball”) on lantern of il Duomo). In fact, due to his background as sculptor and engineer, Verrocchio was a master at conveying movement in his art. Leonardo would adopt his maestro’s skill to transform his own art from intrinsically static into a narrative.
Art historians believe Leonardo painted the angel on the far left of the scene, the body of Christ, and the background. The twisting figure of the angel is typical of Leonardo (one of his many methods to demonstrate movement in his works), as is the angel’s beautiful curls.
In the work, John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and harbinger, performs the first baptism of the Christian faith. He is shown pouring water from the River Jordan on Jesus’ head, as recounted in the Gospels:
4. John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
5. And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.
6. And John was clothed with camel's hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey;
7. And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.
8. I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.
9. And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.
10. And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
11. And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
Mark 1: 4-11 (KJV).
Thus, the Holy Trinity is represented here: God the Father, represented by the arms, Jesus the Son, in the flesh and therefore no representation necessary, and the Holy Spirit, represented, as it so often is, by the dove. The scroll unfurling from John’s hand states, “ECCE AGNUS DEI,” the shortened version of “ECCE AGNUS DEI QUI TOLLIT PECCATA MUNDI” (“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John 1: 29).
The centerpiece of this room is Leonardo’s Annunciation (c. 1472 or c. 1475-78), which is believed to be Leonardo’s first work that he completed single-handedly (although he is believed to still have been in Verrocchio’s employ). Itwas recently restored in 2000, revealing the work’s original luminosity, clarity of detail, and sharp perspective.
Verrocchio’s continuing influence on Leonardo is evident in the shape of the lectern, which is reminiscent of Verrocchio’s design for the tomb of Pietro de Medici, located in the Church of San Lorenzo. Moreover, although the Annunciation is no doubt a masterpiece (and way beyond the bounds of anything I could even dream of producing, as devastatingly evident in every wine and paint night I’ve ever participated in), Leonardo’s youth is discernible due to several anomalies. First, the Virgin’s right arm (the arm reaching towards the lectern) is disproportionately long. Secondly (and hypercritically, but important to point out to demonstrate Leonardo’s exponential growth in his skilled use of light and shadow), Gabriel’s shadow is too dark for dawn, which the restoration revealed was the time of day Leonardo chose to set his scene. Leonardo likely chose dawn to symbolize the Annunciation, i.e. the dawning of Christianity.
The dawn light casts a pale yellow glow on the garden wall and top of lectern, and shadows are seen where the sun light would be blocked. Moreover, the lectern’s side, however, has a blueish tint. This tint signals Leonardo’s bourgeoning interest in refracted light; indeed, Leonardo discerned that white marble sitting outside is lit by refracted light of the sky, not the light of the sun. Leonardo’s detailed observations and scientific acumen is also evident in Gabriel’s wings, which fold realistically, as though they were actual bird wings.
Leonardo purposefully used light and shadows to create plasticity (i.e. the effect of three dimensional volume in a two dimensional space), a technique that would be later be known as chiaroscuro (derived from the Italian word for light, “chiaro,” and dark, “scuro”). To employ chiaroscuro in his works, Leonardo created a tonal range for each pigment that ran from white to black and then coordinated each tonal range with another to ensure that all hues were represented in a single overall light to dark range, creating the effect of shadows. These colors could react uniformly to where the light hit a particular object. For instance, the Virgin’s sash looks further back in the painting than the blue robes despite blue being the darker of the two hues. The previous system, known as the absolute color system, which had been in use since middle ages, involved adding white to a pigment to make the color lighter. Problematically, adding white to pigment dilutes the pigment and therefore does not accurately capture the effects of light on color. Because the darkest tones would be the most saturated with color (since they had less white mixed in), they would the most intense. But in reality, intensity of color corresponds to the amount of illumination and light. Therefore, Leonardo rejected this system and invented chiaroscuro.
Leonardo also used a technique known as sfumata, a method involving the blurring of contours and edges. In pursuit of his scientific studies, Leonardo realized that the eye does not register sharp edges; instead, the human eye blurs edges of objects. Therefore, when drawing, Leonardo did not outline his figures and then fill in the details. Instead, he modeled his figures from space; building their forms from inside out. In his notebooks, Leonardo wrote, “The line forming the boundary of a surface is of invisible thickness. Therefore, O painter, do not surround your bodies with lines.” Leonardo da Vinci, quoted in Isaacson, Walter. Leonardo Da Vinci (Simon & Schuster 2017).
Interestingly, the figures are not the protagonists of the painting; instead, the focus is the mountain in the background. All perspective lines lead to the mountain, drawing the viewer’s eye towards it.
Moreover, it is framed by the trees. One of St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermon on the Annunciation speaks of the “Mountain of Mountains” and the sky giving forth dew, which is received by the Earth (representing Mary’s womb). From this fertilization (i.e. the Annunciation), comes forth Christ, who is spoken of as the Mountain on the Sea.
The final work by Leonardo in this room is the Adoration of the Magi (c. 1481), which was commissioned by the Augustinian monks of San Donato a Scopeto in 1481, but was never finished. It remains – even in its unfinished form – as one of the greatest works of the Renaissance.
Art historian Kenneth Clark called Adoration, “The most revolutionary and anti-classical picture of the fifteenth century.” Kenneth Clark, Leonardo da Vinci (1939). Indeed, Adorations typically contain an ordered, stately procession, with a focus on the Holy Family, who typically wait in a lower corner of the painting. Leonardo throws that convention out completely, giving us a frenzied swirl of activity that surrounds the Christ child, pictured in the center of the work.
These frenzied and emotional figures prefigure mannerism, an artistic style that would become the mainstream in the late Renaissance (about forty to fifty years after this work was commissioned). Typical of Leonardo, the Adoration focuses on the onlookers’ reactions to the Incarnation, part of the reason for the chaos. Leonardo’s notebooks are full of doodles exploring human facial expressions. His notes make clear that his figures’ emotions are paramount and take expression in their movements: “In painting, the actions of the figures are, in all cases, expressive of the purpose of their minds.” Leonardo da Vinci, quoted in Isaacson, Walter. Leonardo Da Vinci (Simon & Schuster 2017). Leonardo even experiments with the placement of the horses. For instance, the horses on the right are actually different potential positioning of one horse:
Leonardo, as was typical, failed to finish this commission; this time, he failed to finish because the Duke of Milan accepted Leonardo’s what essentially plea for employment. Filippino Lippi was asked to replace the unfinished work. Lippi paid homage to Leonardo’s original design:
Rooms 19 through 23 of the Uffizi are known as the Salette (“small rooms”). They were renovated in the early 2010s, reopening in April of 2014. These rooms bring us back to the Italian Renaissance, showcasing Italian artists who originated outside of Florence in a total of 44 paintings. Perhaps the most beautiful works of art are not hanging on the walls, however, but instead are the ceilings themselves, which were painted by Ludovico Buti in the “grottesque” style in 1588.
Grotesques mimicked ancient Roman frescoes, making them all the rage in a time when anything “classical” was considered higher art. In his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Giorgio Vasari, Medici court painter, explains:
The painter Morto da Feltro, who was as original in his life as he was in his brain and in the new fashion of grotesques that he made, which caused him to be held in great estimation … He was a melancholy person, and was constantly studying the antiquities; and seeing among them sections of vaults and ranges of walls adorned with grotesques, he liked these so much that he never ceased from examining them. And so well did he grasp the methods of drawing foliage in the ancient manner, that he was second to no man of his time in that profession.
Giorgio Vasari. Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Studium Publishing.
Originally, these rooms housed the Medici Armory. Thus, some of the decorations on the ceiling are of armor and battle scenes. Sadly, some of the ceiling in Room 21 was damaged during German bombing in World War II in 1944. To commemorate this event, a new design was placed on the ceiling that had been destroyed which depicts the bombing of Florence.
Hall 19. Sienese Artists
The first room in this series, Hall 19, is filled with pieces by Sienese artists. The first, Giovanni di Paolo, painted the Guelfi Altarpiece in 1445 for the Guelfi Chapel in the Church of San Domenico in Siena, also known as the Basilica Cateriniana, pictured below.
Giovanni famously kept Gothic elements present in his artworks, especially visible in the shape of this altarpiece. (By the time Di Paolo produced this altarpiece, it had been vogue for some time to shape altarpieces as a single panel rather than a polyptych.)
Giovanni also depicts the Christ child in the traditional Byzantine manner, i.e., as a miniature adult rather than a baby. Moreover, Giovanni knowingly flouted the newly discovered concepts of perspective that dominated contemporary art in neighboring Florence. The lack of perspective is incredibly evident in his depiction of the angels holding Mary aloft. They are flat, with no depth or shadowing. Rather than use gradient coloring, Giovanni greatly admired Gentile da Fabriano, and used Gentile’s technique of creating light using gold.
Giovanni became famous for his illustrations commissioned for Dante Alighieri’s Inferno and Paradise, themes that he seemingly took to heart, as the predella of this altarpiece suggests.
The globe represents the universe, comprised of a flat Earth, surrounded by concentric circles that represent the four known planets, one of which is the sun, in accordance with Medieval cosmological belief. The enclosing circle represents the constellations of the zodiac. The imagery was likely inspired by the text that Giovanni himself had illustrated: Dante’s Paradiso, Canto XXII, lines 133-5 (the Longfellow translation).
with my sight returned through one and all
The sevenfold spheres, and I beheld this globe
Such that I smiled at its ignoble semblance
Interestingly, Giovanni decided to place Dante’s “lofty wheel” within the Garden of Eden. God is held up by blue cherubim, which are usually associated with Dominican knowledge (as opposed to the red seraphim associated with the Franciscan Order). Such connection is fitting because the work was commissioned for the Dominican church. Unusually, the angel expelling Adam and Eve takes on the naked form of a human.
Another piece of the predella (also located in the Met) depicts Paradiso, the moment when mankind redeems itself and enters into the kingdom of Heaven.
Several saints are identified below:
Giovanni’s open rejection of the perspective trend in Florence creates a rather flat pictorial space, reminiscent of a medieval tapestry, demonstrating that Giovanni wanted to celebrate the pictorial space rather than concentrate on the depth of the depiction.
Another Sienese artist, Lorenzo di Pietro, more commonly known as Vecchietta, was more receptive to the burgeoning Florentine trends. Indeed, Vecchietta was known for his combination of the Sienese tradition with the emerging Florentine humanism. His later altarpieces, including the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints (1457), below, disposed of the traditional polyptych shape in favor of the Florentine pittura quadrata, literally “square painting.”
Vecchietta, however, does retain the gold background and the austere figures commonly seen in traditional Byzantine works.
Hall 20. Mantegna, Bellini and Antonello da Messina
During the late 16th century, the ceiling in Room 20 was repainted to showcase Florentine landmarks, including the Palazzo Vecchio.
Like Room 19, Room 20 showcases Italian Renaissance artists from cities other than Florence. Here, the artwork was painted by the “heavy hitters” of the Venetian 15th century: Mantegna, Bellini and Antonello da Messina.
Andrea Mantegna’s work, known as the Uffizi Triptych, was painted sometime between 1460 and 1464. It is unknown for whom and for where it was commissioned, but because it was painted around the time Mantegna was living at the court of Ludovico Gonzaga in Mantua, some scholars posit that it was painted for Mantegna’s patron, Gonzaga.
The left-hand panel is a depiction of the Ascension of Christ, the middle is the Adoration of the Magi, and the left-hand depicts the circumcision of Christ. Some scholars believe the three panels were not originally conceived as a triptych and instead were meant as three separate pieces.
Mantegna’s depiction of the Adoration is exceptionally notable because it is one of the first known depiction of the Magi as men of different races. Indeed, prior to this piece, Italian painters almost always depicted the Magi as white men, but Mantegna chose in this work, and in his later Adoration painted c. 1430-1506, to depict one of the Kings as African. This depiction of the Adoration would not gain any sort of traction until well into the 16th Century, until such time as it became the convention to depict the Magi as Kings from the three known continents: Africa, Europe, and Asia.
Mantegna has also disposed of the typical crowns worn by the Magi in conventional depictions, and thereby was able to emphasize the gem-laden gifts the Magi present the Christ-child. Melchior, depicted kneeling, presents Christ a vase topped with a pearl. The pearl, known as unio because an oyster can only contain a single pearl at a time, probably refers to the virgin conception of Christ. Melchior’s gift is gold, which represents Christ’s kingship. Balthasar stands behind Melchior holding his gift of frankincense in a vase topped with a sapphire. Sapphires represent heaven/the sky and virtue, which explains why Mary is typically dressed in blue, symbolizing her role as the Queen of Heaven. Frankincense, which moves through the air towards the sky, is used during liturgical practices to convey prayers to Heaven; thus, its association with the sapphire. Gaspar, kneeling behind Balthasar, presents his gift of myrrh, held in a vase crowned with a ruby. Myrrh was used during the embalming process, and therefore symbolizes Christ’s humanity. The vase’s ruby is a symbol of charity and fire, i.e. Christ’s martyrdom, which is only possible due to his humanity.
Each element of Mantegna’s work is meant to reference the Epiphany. Mary and Christ are placed within the mouth of a dark cave, conveying the then popular Epiphany metaphor of light filling darkness. So too the coming dawn.
In the background are the typical exotic animals and dress that routinely crop up in Adorations. Interestingly, the camels are rendered expertly because Mantegna had access to a real life example housed in his patron’s menagerie.
Mantegna was fascinated by classical culture, most likely spurred on by his childhood home of Padua. Padua, once known as Patavium, was very proud of its ancient past as part of the “glorious” Roman Empire. This pride took the shape of an enthusiastic revival of Roman culture in all areas of life, including academia (Padua is home to one of the oldest universities, founded in 1222), names (children were named after Caesar, Hercules, Aeneas, etc. rather than after, as was traditional, saints), arts, etc. Indeed, Mantegna’s (and Padua’s) fascination with Roman culture is evident in the architecture in his paintings. For instance, in the panel depicting the circumcision of Christ, the architecture is reminiscent of an ancient Roman temple.
Another “heavy hitter” of Venice, Giovanni Bellini, known as Giambellino, painted what is known as the Sacred Allegory (sometime between 1487 and 1504). It is considered one of Bellini’s most enigmatic pieces. The shape of the painting suggests that it was meant for a palazzo for private consumption. Some scholars believe it was the painting requested by Isabella d”este for her studiolo in Mantua.
Bellini has placed several saints among others within a hortus conclusus. A hortus conclusus, translated as “enclosed garden,” was a common artistic device used to denote a sacred space. It is believed that the term was derived from Song of Solomon, Chapter 4, verse 12 (“A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.” King James Version). The Virgin Mary and a child whom many scholars believe is Christ, although others believe may be the infant St. John, are the only two seated figures. The other children are placed atop a chequered tile, which some believe is a reference to the Cross.
Some scholars have identified the female figure on the Virgin’s right as the personification of the virtue Hope. She is floating several feet above the pavement, thereby alluding to Hope’s traditional association with elevation. Indeed, Hope is generally depicted either with wings or with her face tilted towards the heavens. Those that buy into this interpretation of the painting identify the other female figure as Faith. Some representations of Faith, as it would seem this one, are depicted wearing a crown in reference to Revelations 2:10, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.” (KJV).
Hall 21. Venetian Artists
Cima da Conegliano’s Madonna and Child, painted around 1504, demonstrates Cima da Conegliano’s typical style in his use of deep blue and red.
Cima represents the bridge between Venetian arts Bellini and sons and Andrea Mantegna and the later Venetians Titian and Giorgione. Like the Bellinis and Mantegna, Cima produced emotional, sacred pictures, but he imbued them with a new sense of naturalism, made possible by the emerging trend of painting with oil paint. Moreover, neither the Madonna nor the Christ-Child is depicted with a halo; instead, the figures are shown as fully human – not divine nor idealized. Behind the figures is Cima’s hometown, Conegliano, which he typically painted as a landscape in his works.
Hall 22. Emilia Romagna
Hall 22 houses paintings from the Ferrara school, including paintings by Cosmè Tura, Ercole da Ferrara, Lorenzo Costa, and Francesco Francia.
Francesco Francia painted this Virgin Enthroned with SS. Francis and Dominic.
Francesco Francia was born in Bologna and trained as a goldsmith, which is apparent in his acute attention to detail in his works, the rigid drapery, and enamel-like surface. He specialized in religious works, particularly in altarpieces with the Madonna and Child and saints, like the one depicted here. The saints depicted with the Virgin are St. Francis and St. Dominic. St. Francis is recognizable by the stigmata (the appearance of the wounds suffered by Christ) on his hands. Interestingly, St. Francis is clean shaven as the fashion had changed during the last decade of the 13th century, when beards became to be thought of as characteristic of the poor, uneducated, and the outcasts of society. His works are also characterized by their gentleness/softness. Indeed, Vasari noted of Francia’s art: “The people, when they beheld the new and living beauty, ran madly to see it, thinking it would never be possible to improve upon it.”
Hall 23. Lombardy.
The final Hall in this series houses works by Lombard painters.
A large painting by an unnamed artist, known only as the Master of the Pala Bertone, painted this Nativity scene.
The Bertone Altar in the church of Sant’Agostino in Chieri is the work of a fascinating and unknown painter of the early sixteenth century active in Piedmont strongly influenced by transalpine painting, i.e., Flemish.
Finally, Boccaccio Boccaccino painted what is commonly known as the Portrait of a Gypsy, although there is no indication of who this woman actually could be.
Her necklace is in the formation of a cross, indicating that she is likely a Christian. The ruby symbolizes love and Christ’s passion. The color of her head scarf, however, indicates that some money went into this painting, as blue was an expensive pigment to use in painting. Boccaccino’s use of the dark background to create depth is a forerunner to its use by later artists such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt, who commonly used the same technique.
Once the home of multiple Leonardo’s, Room 15 of the Uffizi was recently renovated to house Hugo van der Goes’ well known work, the Portinari Altarpiece (c. 1477-1478).
The altarpiece was commissioned by Tommaso Portinari for the main altar of Sant’Egidio, a church connected to the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. Portinari was intimately connected with Santa Maria Nuova because the hospital was founded by one of his ancestors in 1288. Astonishingly, Santa Maria Nuova remains an active hospital to this day and is one of the oldest active hospitals in the world. It is believed to be the hospital where Leonardo da Vinci performed his innovative experimental dissections of human cadavers.
Tommaso Portinari managed the Bruges branch of the Medici bank (located in modern Belgium) where he had access to artists who were operating outside the direct influence of the Italian Renaissance. Unlike their Italian counterparts, northern artists used oil paint as their main medium, as opposed to tempera mixtures. Oil paint took longer to dry than tempera, allowing artists to blend their colors more effectively. Moreover, due to its translucent nature, oil paint enables light to penetrate each layer of paint and reflect those layers back to the viewer, similar to what happens when light enters a prism or a diamond.
Compare the Cardinal of Portugal Altarpiece (left) with the Novitiate Altarpiece (right). The Cardinal’s altarpiece was done in oil paint while the Novitiate was done in tempera. As you can see, the Cardinal’s has a softness to it, which can be attributed to the superior blendability of oil paint whereas the figures in the Novitiate appear more solid and statuesque.
Because of the profound differences seen in oil paint, the Portinari Altarpiece caused a sensation when it finally arrived in Florence in 1483. Indeed, it was to fundamentally change the trajectory of the Italian Renaissance, inspiring famous artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael to use oil as their main medium.
In addition to his use of oil paint, Van der Goes was known for his acute attention to detail, complex landscapes, and superb lighting. Northern artists like Van der Goes were also well known for the extensive use of iconography. Indeed, the central panel of the Portinari Altarpiece is rife with symbolism.
For instance, the abandoned clog by Joseph’s feet communicates to the audience that the figures stand on holy ground; the flowers in the forefront symbolize the impending Passion and humanity’s salvation. In the vase on the right, the seven blue columbines symbolize the seven sorrows of Mary while the three red carnations symbolize both the three bloody nails as well as the holy trinity. Moreover, the glass of the vase symbolizes Mary’s virginity, as St. Bernard notes:
“Just as the brilliance of the sun fills and penetrates a glass window without damaging it … thus, the word of God, the splendor of the father. entered the Virgin chamber and then came forth from the closed womb.”
Meiss, Millard. “Light as Form and Symbol in Some Fifteenth-Century Paintings.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 27, no. 3, 1945, pp. 175–181. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3047010. Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.
The vase on the left symbolizes purity (the white flowers), royalty (the purple flowers), and Christ’s passion (the red flowers) and is particularly noteworthy because it indicates a vibrant trade with Spain; indeed, the vase is what was known as a Spanish albarello vase, a luxury item only available in Bruges due to its status as an international trade hub. The flowers held in the albarello vase not only symbolize Christ’s qualities, but also provide a link to the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, the hospital to which Sant’Egidio was connected because the flowers are herbs and ointments typically used by apothecaries. Moreover, the vases were strategically placed to look as though they were sitting atop the altar once the altarpiece had been installed in its intended location. Placing flowers in front of holy images is a common practice.
Behind the vases is a sheaf of wheat, lying parallel to the Christ child. When the work had been displayed in its intended place above the altar, both Christ and the sheaf would be parallel to the altar, which held the holy communion. According to Catholic rites, the bread blessed during mass transforms into the actual body of Christ. Thus, the placement of Christ parallel to the wheat parallel to the altar with the holy communion visually translates this transformation, know in Catholicism as Transubstantiation.
The entire scene is permeated by angels, who are generally dressed in rich priestly vestments that were common at the time this work was produced. Many of the angels are crowned, and indeed one in particular is crowned with an interesting coronet made out of coral reef. This coronet is likely intended to be an amulet against evil; at the time, red marine material was believed to drive away evil spirits. In fact, such evil does indeed linger over the entire scene in the form of an angel shrouded in black, believed to be (by some scholars) the devil, who of course, was at one time an angel. It is a reminder that the devil always lurks nearby no matter the setting.
In the background of the main panel are the very same shepherds who appear before Mary and Jesus in the foreground. Depicting figures twice to show continuous movement within a single work, a technique known as continuous narrative, was well known in Florence prior to the influence of northern painting, but what sets northern continuous narrative apart is Flemish artists’ ability to use light in such a way as to denote different times of day in a seamless way.
The side panels were actually painted later than the central panel, and so they possess some stylistic differences than the central panel. For instance, the side panels are darker and have less spatial depth.
The right wing of the triptych depicts Portinari’s wife, Maria Maddalena Baroncelli, kneeling next to their daughter, Maria Margherita. Behind the patron’s family stand (in exaggerated stature to denote their importance) the name saints of Maria Maddalena and Maria Margherita, Mary Magdalene and St. Margaret. The saints, however, are transposed: St. Margaret is not standing behind her namesake, but instead is directly behind Maria Maddalena. Her positioning behind the mother of Portinari’s heirs is likely meant to emphasize St. Margaret’s role as the patron saint of childbearing. In fact, studies of the painting have demonstrated that the two saints had been positioned behind their name sakes, but the artist changed his mind and transposed them. The original positioning of the saints explains St. Margaret’s red cloak and loose hair, attributes typical of Mary Magdalene, not St. Margaret.
Maria Maddalena is depicted wearing a necklace of pearls, symbolizing purity, a diamond, symbolizing strength, and a ruby, symbolizing charity.
This necklace is believed to have been actually owned by Maria Maddalena, rather than the artist’s invention, because it appears in another portrait of Maria Maddalena and her husband.
Moreover, it is believed to be the necklace Tommaso Portinari was forced to sell to settle his debt to the Medici; debt he incurred by causing the bankruptcy of the Medici bank he was charged with operating.
On the left side of the panel kneels Portinari and his two sons, Antonio and Pigello. Behind Portinari stands his namesake, St. Thomas the Apostle (identifiable by the spear he holds in his hand), and behind the boys stands St. Anthony the Great, Antonio’s namesake saint. St. Anthony is a plague saint, and therefore has links not just to the Portinari family, but also to the hospital.
The link to childbearing is referenced in this panel as well, via the background scene wherein Joseph tends to a pregnant Mary as they travel to Bethlehem to register for the census ordered by Caesar Augustus.
Northern artists such as Hugh Van der Goes had a massive impact on their Italian counterparts as their work began to drift southward. To emphasize this link, the Uffizi placed Van der Goes’ Portinari Altarpiece next to Botticini Francesco’s Tobias and the Three Archangels (c. 1470).
In this piece, Botticini sticks to the contemporary conventional iconography of the once well known Biblical tale of Tobias and the Archangels from the Book of Tobit. The Book of Tobit is found in the Old Testament Apocrypha (i.e. the collection of works that the Church fathers decided, for one reason or another, to leave out of the accepted Catholic canon). The story is about a young boy named Tobias who is sent by his father Tobit, a blind and devout man, to collect a debt from a family member. Tobias is accompanied on his journey by the Archangel Raphael, who, unbeknownst to Tobias, has taken on the appearance of one of Tobias’ relatives. When bathing on the road, Tobias is almost swallowed by a fish, but Raphael tells him to catch it, which he does. They extract its heart, liver, and gall. Its heart and liver were subsequently used by Tobias to kill demons haunting his future wife and the gall was used to cure his father’s blindness. Because of this story, Raphael was linked with travel and merchants, and the legend eventually morphed into the concept of guardian angels in the 16th century.
But, why did Botticini include the other two archangels, who were not mentioned in the original story? (Michael holds the Sword of Victory and the archangel Gabriel holds the lily he gave to Mary) One scholar has argued that the purpose of the depiction is not to tell the story, but to invoke the idea of guardian angels, and what could be better than having three guardian angels accompany you on your travels?
Botticini was fascinated by this story, painting at least seven versions over the course of his life. In fact, a year or so after this commission, in 1471, Botticini became a member of the confraternity of the Archangel Raphael of the church of Santo Spirito, the church for which this particular version was commissioned.
The last work in this room is Ghirlandaio’s The Madonna and Child adored by St. Zenobius and St. Justus (1479). Domenico di Tommaso Bigordi, known as Ghirlandaio, is primarily known for his narrative frescoes. Flemish influences can be seen in his minute attention to details, but although influenced by the Flemish school, Ghirlandaio never experimented with oil paint, sticking instead with the more traditional egg tempera mixture.
This altarpiece was made for the high altar of San Giusto alle Mura, a church dedicated to St. Justus of Lyons, thus the appearance of a St. Justus in the lower left corner of the work. The pictured St. Justus, however, is not Justus of Lyons, but Justus of Volterra, who was sometimes confused and/or conflated with Justus of Lyons. We know that the pictured Justus is the Bishop of Volterra due to the scene depicted in the predella, discussed below. The saint opposite Saint Justus is Saint Zenobius, a patron saint of Florence. Standing above the Saints are the Archangel Michael, dressed in his conventional armor, and the Archangel Raphael, holding his healing ointment.
Gold is used throughout the piece, but Ghirlandaio did not use the typical gold leaf technique. Instead, he painted thin layers to achieve the shining effect.
Notice the unique frieze of the wall and the Madonna’s throne. It is encrusted with sapphires (symbolizing modesty), rubies (symbolizing charity), emeralds (symbolizing beauty), and pearls (symbolizing purity). Moreover, the Virgin’s broach is a large oval sapphires, surrounded by pearls, clearing marking her as dogmatically virginal.
The baby Jesus holds a crystal globe topped by a pearl encrusted cross. The globe had been a symbol of kingship for centuries, since both the Roman and Byzantine times. A common misconception is that the globe symbolizes the Earth. Problematically, the ancients believed the Earth to be flat, and so they would not have used a globe as a symbol for the Earth. Instead, the globe symbolized the cosmos and universality to the ancients. The added cross references Christ’s spiritual kingship and spiritual universality. The material of the globe, rock crystal, was believed to have healing powers due to its reflective ability. It was also linked with the Baptism of Christ and his incarnation.
Moreover, the globe is a typical attribute of St. Michael, the archangel. Therefore, the globe held by Christ suggests a privileged relationship between the two. The pearls in his girdle remind us of Michael’s angelic chastity, also linking him with the Virgin Mary. Michael, therefore, functions as an extension of both Christ and the Virgin.
The predella, which some scholars believe Ghirlandaio’s younger brother Davide had a major hand in producing, features well-known events from each of the depicted figures’ lives. For instance, the first panel, beneath the archangel Michael, depicts Michael fighting the rebel angels who sided with Lucifer prior to Lucifer’s ultimate defeat.
Next, the panel beneath St. Justus depicts him with St. Clement, offering bread to soldiers. According to Christian belief, the citizens of Volterra was starving because the city was under siege by the Vandals. St. Justus and St. Clement prayed for help, and the city’s granary was miraculously filled. Then, the saints, in accordance with the Christian maxim “if thine enemy hunger, feed him” (Romans 12: 20), gave bread to the Vandals. After such kindness, the Vandals ended their siege and left the city in peace. Ghirlandaio’s depiction slightly deviates from the traditional story, wherein the saints throw the food over the city walls. Ghirlandaio’s version, however, was likely easier to depict and had the added bonus of emphasizing the saints’ bravery.
The center panel depicts Mary’s marriage to St. Joseph, thereby emphasizing Mary’s centrality to Catholic faith. Ghirlandaio depicts Joseph’s branch blossoming, which designated him as Mary’s future husband, and to the left of Joseph, one man is depicted breaking his own branch in frustration at his loss.
To the right of Mary’s marriage is the depiction of the translation of St. Zenobius’ body from San Lorenzo to il Duomo. During the translation, the funeral bier touched a dead tree, and it burst to life. Behind the procession, you can see the Baptistry and the Campanile.
Finally, the panel beneath St. Raphael shows the popular Renaissance subject of Tobias and the fish, discussed above.
To give you some idea of how the altarpiece would have looked, I’ve arranged it as it was intended to be seen below:
The Annunciation of San Martino alla Scala (1481) was commissioned for the Ospedale di San Martino alla Scala, the Florentine branch of the Sienese Ospedale di Santa Maria della Scala, a hospital dedicated to serving pilgrims, tending the sick, and caring for orphans. The work was a fresco, meaning it was painted directly onto wall of the entrance loggia, which explains its relatively chalky coloring. Decorating entrances to buildings with Annunciations had a long tradition in Christendom as a sign of welcome based on the notion that as Christ entered the world through Mary to save humankind from eternal damnation, so too would the pilgrim enter the building to receive safety and shelter.
The Feast of the Annunciation, celebrated on March 25th, was such a favored feast day in Florence that it served as the first day of the Florentine calendar year. And, like most Florentines, Botticelli was fascinated by the subject, painting no less than ten different versions of the event through the course of his life. In this particular version, Botticelli sets his scene in a Renaissance palazzo and uses the tropes conventional of depictions of the Annunciation: the walled garden (hortus conclusus), symbolizing Mary’s separation from the material world; the lilies (held by Gabriel), which symbolize purity; Mary’s blue robe, alluding to her role as the Queen of Heaven; and the central column dividing the space, prefiguring the column of flagellation (the column upon which Christ was flogged prior to his crucifiction). Yet, unlike contemporary Florentine depictions of the Annunciation, the Annunciation of San Martino alla Scala depicts Gabriel hovering, rather than firmly planted on the floor. This artistic choice is likely due to the location of the hospital’s parent hospital in Siena, where it was the norm to have Gabriel floating rather than firm on the ground.
Another work that Botticelli produced around the same time as the Annunciation of San Martino is known as the Madonna of the Magnificat (1481-85). This Madonna is likely the most expensive tondo that Botticelli created (due to the amount of gold it required). It was also one of his more popular works; at least five replicas of it were produced.
Tondos, which get their name from the Italian word rotondo, meaning round, were generally produced for secular settings, particularly the palazzos of wealthy patrons. This tondo, the Madonna of the Magnificat, is named for the eponymous prayer, the beginning words of which are inscribed on the book pictured in the work. The “Magnificat,” also known as the “Canticle of Mary” or “Ode of the Theotokos” appears in the Gospel of Luke 1:46. where Mary, pregnant with Jesus, visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with St. John the Baptist. Mary tells her cousin:
Magnificat anima mea Dominum
et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo
quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes
quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est et sanctum nomen eius
et misericordia eius in progenies et progenies timentibus eum
fecit potentiam in brachio suo dispersit superbos mente cordis sui
deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles esurientes
implevit bonis et divites dimisit inanes
suscepit Israhel puerum suum memorari misericordiae
sicut locutus est ad patres nostros Abraham et semini eius in saecula.
My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;
As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.
This episode is also alluded to on the left page of the pictured book, which is inscribed with the beginning words of the Benedictus (Gospel of Luke 1:68). It was rare for the Virgin to be depicted writing, making this piece all the more interesting. The Virgin is also depicted with a crown made from many small stars, alluding to her title “Stella Matutina” (“Morning Star”). Whereas the angels are depicted with contemporary hairstyles and Christ is holding a pomegranate, known as the fruit of paradise and whose pips symbolize the Passion.
In fact, several years later, Botticelli painted an astonishingly similar work to the Madonna of the Magnificat entitled Madonna of the Pomegranate (c. 1487), where – you guessed it – Christ is depicted holding a pomegranate. (Also, fun fact, the emblem of Catherine of Aragon, the one time Queen of England or Princess of Wales, depending on your point of view on the Great Matter).
Like the Madonna of the Magnificat, this tondo likely hung in a secular setting. Some scholars have argued that the gilded lilies on blue field, which symbolize the alliance between Florence and France, are similar to those that decorate a room in the Palazzo Vecchio and thus it hung there, but there is no definitive proof that it did so.
We have much better information on where Botticelli’s Altarpiece of San Barnaba (Botticelli, c. 1487-89) was located, obviously, the Church of San Barnaba. San Barnaba was erected to celebrate victory over the Guelphs in 1289 on San Barnaba’s feast day, and it was managed by the Guild of Doctors and Apothecaries (Arte de’ Medici e Speziali) and the Augustinian monks.
It was the largest classical Renaissance painting by a Florentine at the time of its production. Beneath the Virgin, Botticelli painted an inscription, which proclaims, “Vergine madre; Figlia Deltvo Figlio” (“Virgin Mother; daughter of thy son”). The phrase was taken from Dante’s Paradise, XXXIII, 1-3 and was used to praise the uniqueness of Mary (i.e. a virgin cannot be a mother; a mother cannot be her son’s daughter). Because Mary both precedes Christ in earth’s chronology, but follows him in terms of spiritual ascension, she is the beginning and end of all things and makes the impossible, possible.
The saints are, from left to right: Catherine of Alexandria, Augustine, Barnabas, John the Baptist, and Ignatius of Antioch, next to whom stands the archangel Michael. St. Barnabas, on Mary’s direct right, is in the place of honor because this piece was intended to be in his church. The saint on Mary’s direct right would normally have been John the Baptist, the older and higher ranked saint in Church hierarchy, but since that position is occupied, he is placed on Mary’s direct left. John is likely included in this altarpiece because he is the patron saint of Florence. St. Augustine is present as the representation of the canons of the church, and therefore Christ is turned towards him and St. Barnabas to signify that it is through St. Barnabas’ church, and the Augustine priests that manage it, that the members receive Christ’s blessing. The archangel Michael’s presence is likely a reference to the Florentine military victory over the Guelphs, the occasion for which the church was built to celebrate. Catherine of Alexandria and Ignatius of Antioch’s presence are likely due to St. Barnabas’ connection with the cities Alexandria and Antioch, where he was active prior to his martyrdom.
Botticelli’s maturing style is evident in the elongated face of Virgin as well as the harsher expression of the figures. Indeed, during his mature period, Botticelli turned away from the sensual and elegant paintings of his past and instead focused on the spiritual. It was around this time that a certain monk by the name of Girolamo Savonarola was becoming popular in Florence. Savonarola was a firebrand monk, who preached against what he considered to be the materialistic upper class, especially against the Medici (although one author has suggested this is because he was not a Medici client and felt himself rebuffed). Botticelli actually gave up painting for a time and some scholars believe he burned some of his more pagan work in what has now become known as the Bonfire of the Vanities. Perhaps due to the inner turmoil he felt as he was drawn towards Savonarola’s teachings against art, Botticelli’s work began to be characterized by frenzied, elongated figures and artificial, abstract backgrounds.
Botticelli’s next painting, the Cestello Annunciation (1489-90), however, retains some of the graceful movement so treasured in his early works. The Cestello Annunciation was commissioned by Benedetto di ser Francesco Guardi for his family chapel in the church of Santa Maria Maddalena de’Pazzi (which, at the time, was known as the church of Cestello).
The composition of the Cestello Annunciation is relatively conventional: Gabriel enters the Virgin’s house, interrupting her reading, to tell her that she is to bear the son of God. Yet, Botticelli reflects the desire for simplicity, as inspired by Savonarola as well as the sparsity of the church of Cestello itself, in the bare furnishings, sober clothing, and limited use of color. The door jam acts as a physical separator between the divine (Gabriel) and the earthly (Mary), emphasizing the idea of conception without physical contact.
San Marco Altarpiece (Coronation of the Virgin) (1490-1492) was commissioned by the Goldsmiths Guild (orefici) for the chapel of their patron saint, St. Eligio, in San Marco. The guild of the orefici (a branch of the Arte della Seta (the Silk Guild), known by contemporaries as the Arte di Por Santa Maria) was responsible for the upkeep of the San Marco.
This altarpiece was unique because it depicted two different episodes in single panel. The upper scene is set against an elaborately decorated golden background which comes into stark contrast with the sparseness of the landscape in the bottom part of the painting; a sparseness that is more typical of Botticelli. In fact, Leonardo da Vinci once wrote of Botticelli:
He who does not care of landscapes esteems them a matter involving merely cursory and simple investigations. So does our Botticelli, who says that such studies are vain, since by merely throwing a sponge soaked in different colours at a wall, a spot is formed, wherein a lovely landscape might be discerned.
Leonardo da Vinci. Trans. by Frank Zöllner, in Sandro Botticelli.
Against this sparse background are depicted St. John the Evangelist, the patron saint of the Arte della Seta, St. Augustine, who is dressed as a bishop, St Jerome, who is dressed as a cardinal and whose writings touch on the event taking place in the clouds, and St. Eligio. St. John is looking towards the Coronation itself, connecting the earthly with the heavenly (sacra conversazione) while his counterpart, St. Eligio, looks out to the viewer, connecting the viewer with the painting.
The last work I want to talk about is called Calumny of Apelles (1495), which was inspired by a work entitled “Slander, A Warning,” by the ancient Greek satirist Lucian. The work describes a painting by the famous Greek artist Apelles and the circumstances of its creation. Apelles had apparently been slandered by a jealous rival to Egyptian King Ptolemy I, but was rescued when a courtier intervened. Subsequently, Apelles painted the event, as Lucian explains:
“On the right sits a man with long ears almost of the Midas pattern, stretching out a hand to Slander, who is still some way off, but coming. About him are two females whom I take for Ignorance and Assumption. Slander, approaching from the left, is an extraordinarily beautiful woman, but with a heated, excitable air that suggests delusion and impulsiveness; in her left hand is a lighted torch, and with her right she is haling a youth by the hair; he holds up hands to heaven and calls the Gods to witness his innocence. Showing Slander the way is a man with piercing eyes, but pale, deformed, and shrunken as from long illness; one may easily guess him to be Envy. Two female attendants encourage Slander, acting as tire-women, and adding touches to her beauty; according to the cicerone, one of these is Malice, and the other Deceit. Following behind in mourning guise, black-robed and with torn hair, comes (I think he named her) Repentance. She looks tearfully behind her, awaiting shame-faced the approach of Truth. That was how Apelles translated his peril into paint.”
Lucian. “Slander, A Warning” Trans. by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler.
Lucian’s quoted writing is what is known as an ekphrasis, i.e. a literary description of a painting. Below is Botticelli’s interpretation of what Apelles’ painting might have looked like:
In Botticelli’s version, King Ptolemy sits atop his throne. He has the ears of an ass, which are being whispered in by the personifications of Suspicion and Ignorance. Approaching the King is Calumny, dragging her victim, Apelles, by his hair. Calumny, meanwhile, is being led by Envy, personified by the man holding the burning flame. Calumny also accompanied by Treachery and Deceit, depicted as beautiful women, who are grooming her hair. In contrast to the beautiful women in colorful and elegant dresses stands Repentance, personified by a woman cloaked in all black. The meaning is clear (although a bit dated and chauvinistic): treachery and deceit are seductively beautiful and will lure you away from Truth, who is the lone nude in the work.
This little picture warns rules of the earth
To avoid the tyranny of false judgment.
Apelles gave a similar one to the king of Egypt;
That ruler was worthy of the gift, and it of him.
The trompe l’œil niches are just as fascinating as the main scene; each depicts an episode from classical mythology, the Bible, history, and literature. Scholars have identified the three statutes in the niches that face the viewer as: the Old Testament King David on the left, Saint George in the middle, and Saint Paul on the right. The statute directly behind King Ptolemy is Judith, with the head of Holofernes at her feet.
Rooms 10 to 14 once served as the upper part of the Medici theatre, but they are now filled with works by one of the Medici’s favorite artists: Sandro Botticelli. The rooms’ design as we see it today is a recent renovation, completed only in 2016. The rooms are meant to trace Botticelli’s development as an artist, which has been typically divided into three major stages: those works where the influence of his teacher, Fra Filippo Lippi, are still evident, those works that were commissioned during his time as a Medici client, and those works that reflect the mystical crisis of the late 1490s. All of his works, however, are defined by elegant lines, elongated, weightless figures, and a certain disregard for anatomical correctness, putting him somewhat at odds with the general movement of 15th century Renaissance art.
One of his first known works, Madonna della loggia (c. 1466), is based on the Byzantine iconography known as Glykophilousa (“Sweet kissing”), wherein the Virgin and Christ’s face are lovingly caressing.
The painting takes its name from the loggia near which Christ and his mother appear to be resting.
Another of his Madonnas, Madonna of the Rose Garden (1469-1470), so named for the pink roses seen behind the Virgin and Child, is a rather conventional Madonna and Child.
Some scholars argue that Madonna of the Rose Garden was completed around the same time as Botticelli’s Fortitude due to the similar backdrop of a coffered arch, but others argue that it was created prior to Fortitude based on the slant of the floor. Indeed, in the Madonna of the Rose Garden, Botticelli strictly adhered to a technique known as central perspective, which allows artists to create three dimensional space on a flat surface. Problematically, however, the blind adherence to the technique causes the floor in the Madonna to look sloped rather than flat. Whereas, in Fortitude, Botticelli was willing to fudge the perspective a bit to make the floor appear more natural.
Regardless, the works are compositionally similar, albeit one secular, the other religious. Botticelli’s choice to place Mary within a rose garden was likely due to Mary’s titles as the “Mystical Rose” and “The Rose without Thorns,” which allude to her immaculate conception. According to Saint Ambrose, the Garden of Eden contained roses without thorns, but upon the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, the roses grew thorns. Because according to Christian belief, Mary was born without sin, i.e. she was immaculately conceived, she is a rose without thorns; thus, Botticelli’s use of the rose motif. Mary is also depicted holding a pomegranate, a device Botticelli would continue to use throughout his career to symbolize the Virgin’s fertility as well as Christ’s Passion.
The St. Ambrose Altarpiece (The Converted Sisters) (c. 1470) is Botticelli’s first known altarpiece. Its name is a misnomer, however, because St. Ambrose is not depicted. It was, however, transferred from the convent of Ambrogio to the Galleria dell’Accademia in 1808 (and from the Galleria to the Uffizi in 1946), which may have given rise to its name. Its other name, The Converted Sisters, was derived from the theory that it was from the convent of the Converted Sisters, but this theory has since been proven wrong.
The saints depicted in this altarpiece are Mary Magdalen (not pictured), John the Baptist (not pictured), Cosmas (not pictured), Damian, Francis, and Catherine of Alexandria. They are positioned, for the most part, according to late Medieval conventions, with Mary Magdalene and St. John the Baptist on the Virgin’s right (in the place of honor). St. John is placed closer to the Virgin than Mary Magdalene due to his role as the precursor to Christ and thus his appearance in the historical record before Mary Magdalene as well as his gender, which was considered superior by both the artist and (at least the male) contemporary viewers. This gendered hierarchy is mirrored on the Virgin’s left side, with St. Francis of Assisi standing closest to the Virgin and St. Catherine on his right. According to convention, however, St. Catherine, should have been placed ahead of St. Francis due to her closer proximity in time to Christ, leading art historians to believe that the altarpiece was intended for a Franciscan-linked location, which would explain his elevation over St. Catherine. That intention would also explain why St. Francis is depicted holding a reed cross, usually an attribute of St. John, and likely introduced here to emphasize St. Francis’ role as St. John’s successor.
The inclusion of Saints Cosmas and Damian have also led scholars to believe that the piece was either commissioned by a member of the Medici family or by the Guild of Physicians and Apothecaries, both groups of which Cosmas and Damian were patron saints. Saints Cosmas and Damian are typically portrayed together, as they were brothers (some sources claim twins). They were closely linked to the Medici, the ruling family of Florence, due to the play on the Medici name (“medici” is the Italian word for “doctors”). Moreover, Cosimo de’Medici, the founder of the dynasty, and his twin brother (who died young) were named after the two saints, making them the patron saints of Cosimo as an individual in addition to their role as his familial patron saints.
The influence of Lippi can be made out in the work’s overall composition as well as in the figures’ expressions:
But, scholars also believe that Botticelli was working under a new teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio (also teacher to Leonardo da Vinci), or at least working within Verrocchio’s orbit, because Fra Lippi had left Florence before the production of this altarpiece. Thus, this piece also reflects Verrocchio’s influence as well, evident in the metallic nature of the robes as well as the figures’ statuesque stances.
Portrait of a Youth with a Medal (1470-75) was once owned by Carlo de’Medici, the illegitimate son of Cosimo “il vecchio” de’Medici, but it is not clear who the sitter may be. Although the most likely candidate seems to be Botticelli’s older brother Antonio based on the sitter’s middle class clothing and his work as a goldsmith, denoted by the coin he holds in his hands, copies of which Antonio would have cast himself while working at the Medici court. Moreover, some art historians have noted the resemblance of the sitter to known self-portraits of Botticelli himself, which would lend credence to the belief that the sitter is his brother. Other possible candidates include Piero de’Medici, a youthful Cosimo de’Medici, or Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’Medici, yet one would expect if the sitter was indeed a Medici, he would have been depicted in the resplendent garments more typical of an upper class family.
What we do know about this picture is that it demonstrates Botticelli’s leadership in contemporary portraiture. Prior portraiture was constrained by the traditional profile pose of the sitter, as exemplified in ancient coins depicting Roman emperors. Botticelli and several other innovative artists began picturing their sitters in three-quarters view, in the example of the Flemish. In fact, Flemish influences had fully penetrated Florentine thought. Compare the background of this work with that of Botticelli’s Florentine teacher, Fra Lippi:
Lippi’s is mystical and fantastic while Botticelli’s is steeped in realism and naturalism, which would become the new norm for portraits. Moreover, Botticelli painted the sitter’s hands, which typically were not included in portraits, but, obviously, the hands are necessary to exhibit the medal, so whether this was deliberately innovative or simply a means to an end is unclear.
The medal itself depicts Cosimo il Vecchio and is inscribed with the words “MAGNUS COSMUS MEDICES PPP,” meaning Cosimo de’Medici the Great, Primus Pater Patriae (First Father of the Fatherland). It is a cast made of pastiglia, not metal, and was either cast from the actual mold that made the real medal, which was cast between 1465 and 1469 to commemorate Cosimo, or from an impression of an already existing medal. To insert the pastiglia into the painting, a hole was cut in the panel, and the cast was affixed to it, making this work a multimedia piece. The medal is held over the heart, an organ associated with memory and sense impressions, and emphasizes the break from tradition and the beginning of a new age by juxtaposing the ancient Roman portrait with the new Renaissance style portrait.
And what could be more emblematic of the Renaissance than one of Botticelli’s best known works, La Primavera (1477-82). La Primavera was commissioned for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, a member of the junior branch of the Medici family, on the occasion of his marriage to Semiramide Appiani in 1482.
It was the largest secular painting done in the Renaissance to date; the prior large scale representations of secular subjects were generally confined to tapestries woven in France and Flanders, which some art historians have argued explains the two-dimensional feel of La Primavera and the lack of linear perspective. Like those tapestries, the scene is sprinkled with flowers upon a dark grassy field.
Unlike most secular tapestries, however, the scene Botticelli chose to depict is thoroughly classical in nature. It is believed to be the story of Zephyrus, God of the West Wind, and the nymph Chloris as retold through multiple sources including, most famously, Ovid’s Fasti. According to the story, Zephyrus kidnaps Chloris, who, at Zephyrus’ touch, transforms into Flora, the latin goddess of the spring, and then marries Zephyrus.
[T]his is what the goddess replied to my questions (while she speaks she breathes from her mouth spring roses): ‘I who am called Flora used to be Chlōris. … ‘It was spring, I was wandering. Zephyrus caught sight of me. I began to leave. He pursues, I flee, he was stronger. ‘Boreas, having dared to carry off a prize from the house of Erechtheus, had given full right of rape to his brother too. The violence, however, he made up for by giving me the name of bride, and I have no complaint in my marriage-bed. ‘Spring I enjoy always, always the year is full of bloom, always the tree has leaves, the ground has fodder. I have a fruitful garden in the fields that are my dowry; the breeze warms it, it’s kept moist by a spring of clear water. This my husband has filled with noble flowers, and he says to me, “Goddess, have control of the flowers.”
Ovid, “Fasti,” Trans. Anne Wiseman & Peter Wiseman.
To modern viewers, the depiction of what really amounts to a violent sexual encounter would not be the most ideal of wedding gifts, but to Botticelli’s contemporaries, it served as a fitting conceit for marriage in 15th century Florence. At the time, women had little to absolutely no choice in husband, just like Flora. Once married, women, like Flora, were supposed to bring forth new life. Notice that no fruit nor blossoms are present in the upper right hand corner of the painting; it is only when Zephyrus touches Chloris and she is transformed into Flora that the trees begin to bear fruit, a nod towards fertility. Moreover, the Zephyrus is placed in front of two laurel trees (laurus nobilis), a reference to bridegroom, Lorenzo (Laurentius) di Pierfrancesco. Allegedly, the goddess Flora is a portrait of Giuliano de Medici’s mistress Simonetta Vespucci, although recent scholarship has questioned that assumption.
To the left of the Chloris/Zephyrus scene is Venus and her son Cupid, flying above her while firing his arrow of love, eyes covered to denote love’s blindness.
Spring comes, and Venus, and Venus’ winged courier Cupid runs in front. And all along the path that they will tread dame Flora carpets the trail of Zephyr with a wealth of blossoms exquisite in hue and fragrance.
De Natura Rerum V.737, Lucretius.
The trees around Venus act almost as a halo, radiating from her figure to create a semi-circle embracing her. Some scholars argue the clearing in the trees represent wings, and one even went so far as to claim that the clearing was a depiction of human lungs, signaling the recent phenomenon of human dissection increasingly practiced by Renaissance artists.
To the left of Venus and Cupid are the Three Graces. The Three Graces were a very popular subject in the ancient sculpting world, as it allowed an artist to show three different vantage points of the human body at once.
Mercury, the leader of the three graces and the messenger of the Gods, is also present; he is identifiable via his winged shoes and his caduceus (staff with serpents winding around it). Mercury was associated with the month of May, due to his mother, Maia, hence his inclusion in a picture depicting the spring. According to Virgil, he was also associated with dispersing the winter clouds: “Shepherding the winds before him with his want, he swam through the murk of the clouds.” Aeneid IV, 242-46.
Nourishing Venus comes, companion to her sister, and is followed by the little loves; Flora offers welcome kisses to her eager husband (Zephyr); and in their midst with hair unbound and bared breasts dances Grace, tapping the ground with rhythmic step.
Poliziano, Angelo, “Rusticus,” as translated by Miles J. Unger in Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’Medici.
Scholars have identified at least 138 species of different plants that have been accurately portrayed, one of which is an orange tree. Oranges were linked with Medici family, and in fact, oranges were commonly known as mala medica or palle medicee. Allegedly, this link had its roots in the belief that an orange grove located in the garden of the old Medici palace could foretell the family’s fortunes. If the orange grove blossomed, so too did the family, but if the orange grove failed to bear fruit, it was said that bad things were in store for the Medici.
Interestingly, the overall composition of La Primavera is likely based on Buonamico Buffalmacco’s Triumph of Death.
Like the figures in La Primavera, the figures here are in an orange grove, standing on meadow punctuated with flowers. Above the figures, winged putti hover, just as Cupid hovers over the gathered figures in La Primavera. Similarly, no fruit is in the top corner (albeit the left-hand corner) of the trees, closest to the figure of death, who is approaching the gathering from a violent scene into a peaceful event – reminiscent of winged Zephyrus, who moves from the violent rape into the peaceful marital scene. Thus, Primavera begins with violence, while The Triumph of Death ends in violence. The theme of each piece is obviously drastically different, but the similarities in the composition are striking.
Interestingly, Flora and Zephyrus feature in Botticelli’s other large-scale secular painting, the Birth of Venus.
e drento nata in atti vaghi e lieti
una donzella non con uman volto,
da zefiri lascivi spinta a proda.
gir sovra un nicchio, e par che ‘l cel ne goda.
and within, born with lovely and happy gestures, a
young woman with nonhuman countenance, is carried on a conch shell, wafted to shore by playful zephyrs; and it seems that heaven rejoices in her birth.
Poliziano, Angelo. Stanzas Begun for the Joust of the Magnificent Giuliano de Medici, as Translated by David Quint.
The title, Birth of Venus, is actually a misnomer, as the episode does not depict Venus’ birth, but instead depicts Zephyrus and his wife Chloris/Flora blowing Venus towards the coast of Cyprus where she is greeted by a young woman, whom scholars believe is either one of the Graces or one of the Horae (also known as the Hours). Behind the Hora, there is an orange grove, but no blooms, indicating that Venus’ arrival is necessary for fertility. This work is first recorded by Giorgio Vasari, who described it as having been owned by the cadet branch of the Medici family since the mid-15th century, which makes sense as the scene depicts oranges, an emblem of the Medici family.
I will sing of stately Aphrodite, gold-crowned and beautiful, whose dominion is the walled cities of all sea-set Cyprus. There the moist breath of the western wind wafted her over the waves of the loud-moaning sea in soft foam, and there the gold-filleted Hours welcomed her joyously. They clothed her with heavenly garments….
Homeric Hymns VI 1-6.
The figures themselves are inspired by classical statues, such as the Venus de’Medici, a Hellenistic marble statue owed by the Medici family and of a iconographic type known as the Venus Pudica (“Chaste Venus”). For an in depth discussion of the Venus Pudica, I highly recommend Mary Beard’s two-part documentary series, The Shock of the Nude.
Despite its classical nature, the overall composition of The Birth of Venus borrows from the scheme commonly used to depict the Baptism of Christ.
Like St. John the Baptist, the Hora steps forwarded with her right arm raised. There are two figures to the left. Venus and Jesus stand still in the center. Thus, rather than a break from gothic tradition and a “rebirth” of so-called lost arts, the Renaissance was really about the fusion of the holy and the profane, the emphasis on community and the elevation of the individual, and science and the arts to create something startling and completely new.
Room 9 of the Uffizi is dominated by a panel depicting the Seven Virtues, the majority of which Piero del Pollaiuolo and his workshop painted (the exception being Fortitude).
Piero del Pollaiuolo and his brother, the better-known (and more celebrated) Antonio del Pollaiuolo, operated a workshop together in Florence, which produced paintings, sculptures, goldwork, and engravings. Their workshop is considered to be one of the most important Florentine workshops of the 15th century due to the brothers’ innovative practices, one of the more gruesome of which was the dissection of human corpses. Human dissection allowed the Pollaiuolo brothers to improve their understanding of the human form by fully appreciating where muscles were located and how they worked. Interestingly, they were dissecting humans a whole generation before Leonardo Da Vinci became famous for doing so, and they perhaps were the source of Leonardo’s interest in the subject. According to Giorgio Vasari, the 16th century art historian and artist, Antonio Pollaiuolo was “the first master to skin many human bodies in order to investigate the muscles and understand the nude in a more modern way.”
The Pollaiuolo brothers were also innovative in their use of the Netherlandish technique of layering pigment to add shadow, known as glazing. Such an innovation was made possible only because of their use of oil paint rather than the tempera (an egg and pigment mixture) used by other Florentine artists. Indeed, when conventional Florentine artists needed to add shadows or highlights to their work, they would either switch colors altogether, a technique known as cangiante, or would add white pigment to their tempera mixture, which lightened, but also slightly changed, the color of the mixture. The Netherlandish style of painting, on the other hand, created shadow via layers of pigment, which allowed the Pollaiuolo brothers to build depth while keeping their colors “pure.” Oil paint also took longer to dry, allowing artists to blend and modify their brush strokes. Although the brothers did not exclusively use oil paint, as is evidenced by the use of tempera in the Seven Virtues, their introduction of oil as a medium for painting had far reaching effects.
Due to the brothers’ long partnership, it has been difficult for art historians to attribute authorship for any particular piece and/or figures within a single piece. Indeed, for many years, art historians believed that the Seven Virtues were done primarily by Antonio, but based on new research, scholars now lean towards attributing the work to Piero, although it is suspected that Antonio helped with some of the detailing. The cycle was commissioned to decorate the audience chamber of the Tribunale della Mercanzia.
The Tribunale della Mercanzia housed a court of appeals with jurisdiction over disputes within the five major merchant guilds (bankers, wool, cloth, silk, and apothecaries; although in practice it also heard disputes within the minor guilds as well). Therefore, if you look closely, you can see the coat of arms of several of the guilds embossed on the façade of the building.
The function of the building as a courthouse was likely the inspiration for the subject matter of the pieces, i.e. the virtues on which courts (should) pride themselves. The subject was even more appropriate because the number of virtues mirrored the number of consuls who presided over the disputes; the consulate was a body of seven judges, one from each of the major guilds, one chosen from the myriad of minor guilds, and a non-Florentine magistrate, who acted as prior, i.e. the head of the consulate.
Public spaces were (and still are) commonly decorated with those principles considered foundational for “good governance.” The reasoning was (and is) twofold: to inspire those governing to reach for loftier ideals and to proclaim to those being governed that the ruling class did in fact practice those lofty ideals. Thus, it acted as both a galvanizing and legitimizing force. Nowhere is this message more overt than in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s fresco in Siena’s City Hall, literally entitled Good Government.
Here, it appears that the Florentine Guilds wanted to send the message that their judges acted as the conduits of the Seven Virtues. Four of the seven, Fortitude, Temperance, Prudence and Justice, were known as the Cardinal Virtues while the other three were known as the Theological Virtues. Interestingly, although the Seven Virtues did not have a set order; the three Theological Virtues did. Charity was always placed at the center, with Faith on her right (the viewer’s left) and Hope on her left (the viewer’s right). According to St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the most prolific of the early Catholic Church Fathers, Charity was the most important of the Virtues, thus the centrality of her position.
Since ancient times, the so-called Virtues had been depicted as women accompanied by different iconography, which was necessary to identify figures in an age when many were illiterate. Thus, we can also identify the Virtues based on their common attributes. Moving from right to left, the first virtue in the series is Fortitude (1470), the first and only panel painted by Sandro Botticelli. Botticelli, still very early on in his career at the time of this commission, was only awarded the commission because of support from Tommaso Soderini, a Medici operative. (The Medici were the de facto ruling family in Florence; Botticelli himself operated within Lorenzo il Magnifico de Medici’s inner circle). Pollaiuolo protested and so Botticelli’s participation was limited to a single panel, that of Fortitude. Interestingly, Leonardo da Vinci’s teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio, also submitted a drawing in an attempt to wrest the commission from Pollaiuolo, but was unsuccessful.
Fortitude is considered by many scholars to be Botticelli’s first masterpiece; the piece in which he “freed” himself from his teacher, Filippo Lippi, and developed his own enduring style.
Fortitude represents strength and perseverance in the pursuit of good. The pearls in her hair and neckline allude to her purity, but also would have served as a mark of aristocratic privilege. Pearls had been banned by Florence’s sumptuary laws (laws which dictated who could wear what; the rules were based on an individual’s rank, social class, and gender), and therefore only the wealthiest could afford to pay the bribe necessary to get an exemption. Despite this clear allusion to Florence, Botticelli shied away from including other “Florentine” references, most glaringly of which is his failure to include the Florentine attributes of Fortitude, i.e. a club and a lion skin (an allusion to the city’s hero, Heracles). Instead, he used her more traditional attributes that would have been recognized outside of Florence: the iron mace, breastplate, and corinthian column upon which Fortitude’s left forearm rests. The omission of the Florentine attributes was likely a nod to the large number of foreign merchants who came to seek justice within the Tribunale della Mercanzia. Thus, Botticelli adopted the more widely used and well-known iconography to ensure all merchants would get the message.
Comparing Botticelli’s Virtue to those of Pollaiuolo, you will notice that Botticelli’s throne is much grander, made so via intricate decorations and detailed design.
Moreover, Botticelli places his Virtue in the foreground, focusing on her figure rather than on the room in which she sits. Temperance, on the other hand, is set further back, placed in the center of a room. Although it is clear that she is the focus of the work, she seems diminutive and more contained when compared to Fortitude. Botticelli achieved this effect by depicting the slope of the floor with a less harsh angle than the technique of central perspective actually demanded. By relaxing the strictures of central perspective, Botticelli avoided one of the technique’s central problems: the creation of a stage-like view of interior spaces. Whereas Pollaiuolo applied central perspective rigorously to all of his panels.
Both women’s faces are shaped with shadow, but the shaping of Fortitude expressions comes off as much softer than the harsher treatment of Temperance’s face. The elaborate gold inlay and jewel encrusted hem on Temperance’s gown and the bejeweled golden bowl and ewer, however, demonstrates Pollaiuolo’s knowledge of goldsmithing and metal work that he learned from his older brother Antonio.
The bowl and ewer symbolize the mixing of hot and cold water to demonstratethe moderation that defines Temperance (1470) (although some claim that Temperance is pouring water into wine, the Uffizi has identified her act as mixing hot and cold water). Pursuant to Renaissance thinking, Temperance was the virtue of self-control and discipline.
Unlike Temperance, however, Faith (1469) occupies more of the space allotted to her panel. Thus, her midsection does not appear as though it has been sucked into the background. Indeed, the background is more constrained, allowing the viewer to focus on the figure of Faith, who is looking towards the heavens, holding the Eucharistic chalice in her right hand and a processional cross in her left, the typical attributes of Faith.
Her robes were inspired by the ecclesiastical ornaments worn by priests at the time, which, as you can see, were opulent. A fact probably not lost on the Florentines nor the foreign merchants; the opulence of the Catholic Church would, in several decades, turn out to be one of the causes of the Protestant Reformation.
Charity (1469) was the first of the virtues to be completed as she was the center of the piece due to her primacy within the set. In fact, this cycle of Seven Virtues was commissioned to replace a pre-existing picture of Charity.
The 15th century concept of charity differs drastically from the modern definition of the word. “Charity” is derived from the latin word “caritas.” In Christian ideology, caritas is the highest form of love, i.e. the love shared between God and man, and the manifestation of that love in the form of man’s love of his fellow man. St. Augustine explained:
Then, after this human love has nourished and invigorated the mind cleaving to your breast, and fitted it for following God, when the divine majesty has begun to disclose itself as far as suffices for man while a dweller on the earth, such fervent charity is produced, and such a flame of divine love is kindled, that by the burning out of all vices, and by the purification and sanctification of the man, it becomes plain how divine are these words, “I am a consuming fire,” and, “I have come to send fire on the earth.”
St. Augustine, On the Morals of the Catholic Church.
Operating under this understanding, classical and early humanist thinkers believed that Charity was central to good governance because the proper function of the law rested with charity.
But the law is good to edify, if a man use it lawfully: for that the end of it is charity, out of a pure heart and good conscience, and faith unfeigned.
The Confessions of St. Augustine, Book XII
Perhaps not surprisingly, one of Charity’s common attributes is a flame, demonstrating God’s love. Pollaiuolo’s Charity is depicted holding such a flame while smaller flames are hinted at on either side of her throne and atop her crown. Speaking of her crown, she is the only Virtue depicted with one, emphasizing her status as chief among the other Virtues. Her eminence is reinforced by her rich velvet gown, not shared by the others, and her deliberate resemblance to the Virgin. This configuration was likely influence by Filippo Lippi’s Novitiate Altarpiece, especially the posture of the child.
Although the children are different in several respects, i.e. they are mirror images, the child’s feet are placed on Charity’s knee while Lippi’s child rests one foot on the throne, etc., Pollaiuolo’s child is more akin to that of Lippi when compared to prior depictions of children. Here, the child is balanced upon his mother’s knee rather than sitting serenely on his mother’s lap, which was the more traditional depiction.
Moreover, Pollaiuolo’s baby is just that: a baby. He does not retain the adult-like qualities of some depictions of the Christ-child, but instead is structured like a real child, baby fat and all.
Unlike Charity, and in fact all of the other Virtues, Hope, is not defined by any attributes. She simply looks towards the heavens.
Hope, to us, has not much place within a legal context, unless you count the hope that all litigants have: to win. Yet, at the time of this painting, Hope was inextricably linked to the law. St. Augustine explains:
[W]e are saved by hope. But hope that is seen is not hope; for what a man sees, why does he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it. [Romans 8:24-25] Full righteousness, therefore, will only then be reached, when fullness of health is attained; and this fullness of health shall be when there is fullness of love, for love is the fulfilling of the law; [Romans 13:10] and then shall come fullness of love, when we shall see Him even as He is. [1 John 3:2] Nor will any addition to love be possible more, when faith shall have reached the fruition of sight
On Man’s Perfection in Righteousness, St. Augustine.
Thus, Hope acts as a conduit for the fulfillment of the law, placing it squarely within the realm of those lofty ideals judges were supposed to keep in mind when arbitrating a dispute.
Justice is depicted within in this series with her traditional attributes: the sword and the sphere.
Prudence also served an important place within Renaissance legal theory. In fact, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine’s theological successor, Prudence is the most important of the Cardinal Virtues, for without Prudence, there can be no other virtue:
Wherefore there can be no moral virtue without prudence: and consequently neither can there be without understanding. For it is by the virtue of understanding that we know self-evident principles both in speculative and in practical matters. Consequently just as right reason in speculative matters, in so far as it proceeds from naturally known principles, presupposes the understanding of those principles, so also does prudence, which is the right reason about things to be done.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part I-II
Although clearly the Florentine Guilds thought differently, as they placed the more traditional primal virtue in the center, Charity.
Prudence’s main attributes are a mirror and a serpent. The mirror was considered a tool that helped one towards knowledge whereas a serpent had been a common symbol of wisdom since ancient times.
Christians appropriated this iconography from Greco-Roman culture. Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, was often depicted with a serpent. In the picture to the left, Athena (picture taken at the Vatican) has a serpent coiling near her feet. The serpent is also an essential attribute of the god Asclepius’s staff, known as the asklepian, and on the caduceus, the staff wielded by the god Hermes.
Another interesting detail of Pollaiuolo’s Prudence is that her veil mimics the shape of an ionic column.
Perhaps Pollaiuolo was inspired by the recently rediscovered work of the ancient scholar and architect Vitruvius (the original source of the so-called Vitruvian man, pictured to the right). According to Vitruvian, the Ionians designed their columns to resemble hair:
[I]n the capital they placed the volutes, hanging down at the right and left like curly ringlets, and ornamented its front with cymatia and with festoons of fruit arranged in place of hair, while they brought the flutes down the whole shaft, falling like the folds in the robes worn by matrons. Thus in the invention of the two different kinds of columns, they borrowed manly beauty, naked and unadorned, for the one, and for the other the delicacy, adornment, and proportions characteristic of women.
Vitruvius: The Ten Books on Architecture. Vitruvius. Trans. Morris Hicky Morgan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. London: Humphrey Milford. Oxford University Press. 1914.
Another Pollaiuolo that I want to talk about is the Cardinal of Portugal’s Altarpiece, so named because it once graced the Cardinal of Portugal’s chapel in San Miniato al Monte.
The chapel was dedicated to James of Lusitania, Cardinal of Lisbon and grandson of King John I of Portugal. James died in Florence in 1459 at a very young age. From left to right, the Saints depicted are St. Vincent, patron saint of Lisbon, St. James the Great (no doubt included as the Cardinal’s patron saint and namesake), and St. Eustace (a martyr of noble blood, perhaps a nod to the Cardinal’s noble birth).
Strikingly innovative is the placement of the saints on a terrace, allowing the background of the altarpiece to depict a landscape. It was only a mere thirty years ago that the Byzantine gold background was still in vogue.
It is also perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the San Miniato altarpiece that the Pollaiuolo brothers were highly influenced by the Netherlandish style. The dark, rich hues of color are a marked departure from the soft pastels of Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi. The Pollaiuolo also departed from typical Florentine technique in their depiction of gold. Generally, Florentine artists were still using gold leaf (i.e.actual gold) in their paintings, but in this altarpiece, the Pollaiuolo produced a golden color by use the Netherlandish technique of glazing.
Compare Gentile da Fabriano’s gold brocade to that of the Pollaiuolo brothers. Fabriano’s technique, known as sgraffito, consisted of applying pigment over gold leaf, pieces of which would be scratched off in a decorative pattern. The Pollaiuolo brothers, on the other hand, painted a brown base in oil, over which they painted the color of the cloth, here blue, and finally they painted yellow thread with yellow oil paint (and in some areas, red oil paint to denote shadows) as a final layer to add the gold brocading. Oil paint’s refractive quality gave their work the shine typical of gold while allowing them to create shadows and depth that was not available when pure gold leaf was used. Thereby, allowing them to create a more naturalistic appearance. The workshop of Pollaiuolo brothers, therefore, can truly be credited as the most important Florentine workshop of the 14th century.
Like Rooms 2 and 3, Rooms 5 and 6 were curated during the 1950s. Unlike Rooms 2 and 3, however, Rooms 5 and 6 house pieces that document the transition from Late Gothic to Early Renaissance art, a period known as International Gothic. As its name suggests, the International Gothic period witnessed a blend of the elegant Gothic style favored in northern European courts with the emerging naturalism seen in Italian art over the 13th and 14th centuries. It is typified by bright, jewel colors, slender, elongated figures, increased interest in the “exotic,” detailed depictions of nature, crowded picture planes, and an increase in the movement of figures’ bodies. The depiction of Mary also changed during this period. Inspired by the chivalric tradition of the north, Italian artists shied away from depicting the Virgin as a homely, formidable matron, choosing instead to show her as the fair maiden so often mentioned in French romances. She was now a beautiful young woman, slender and elegant, dressed in luxurious robes and always gracefully posed.
This work by Agnolo Gaddi was produced during his later years, around 1390, and thus is a transition piece between the Giottesque and the International Gothic.
Gaddi trained in his father’s workshop, alongside his brothers Giovanni and Niccolò. This work’s relatively small size indicates that it may have been part of a predella to a larger altarpiece, which has since been lost. It is unique for its inclusion of a tremendous amount of figures, all with his or her own individual expression. At the foot of the Cross are Mary and St. John, while the unrepentant thief is shown dying on Christ’s left. His soul, in the conventional medieval motif of a newborn, is being taken by the devil. Beneath the impenitent thief are soldiers casting lots for Christ’s tunic.
Perhaps one of the greatest proponents of the International Gothic style was Piero di Giovanni, better known as Lorenzo Monaco (“Lorenzo the monk”), the name he took when he entered the Camaldolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence. It is likely that Lorenzo Monaco got his start doing miniatures in his monastery’s choral books, but he later trained in Agnolo Gaddi’s workshop and became the leading painter in Florence during the first decade of the 15th century. His most celebrated work, Coronation of the Virgin (1414), was commissioned to replace a panel for which Zanobi di Cecco del Frasca (a local banker) had paid for the high altar of Santa Maria degli Angeli. The inscription makes clear that Zanobi di Cecco had donated a painting that the monks at the church wished to replace, but due to the nature of donations at that time, the replacement had to remember the original painting to the viewer. Also according to the inscription, the work was finished in February 1413 (1414 according to the modern calculation of time; Florentines began their year on the 25th of March, the feast of the Annunciation, rather than on the more conventional 1st of January).
The work depicts Jesus crowning his mother Mary, flanked by angels and saints, including (from left to right) St. Benedict, St. Peter, St. John the Baptist, St. John the Evangelist, St. Andrew, and St. Romuald. St. Benedict and St. Romuald are of special note as this altarpiece was destined for a Camaldolese church (and was painted by a Camaldolese monk). St. Romuald was the founder of the Camaldolese Order, a reformed branch of the Benedictine Order founded by St. Benedict. Lorenzo Monaco portrays the two men in white robes because, according to legend, Camaldolese monks adopted white robes after St. Romuald dreamt of men in white ascending the stairway to heaven. Mary is also depicted in white, eschewing her usual blue, to emphasize her relationship with the Camaldolese monks, especially important here due to the placement of this altarpiece at Santa Maria degli Angeli (St. Mary of the Angels).
Like his contemporaries, Lorenzo Monaco practiced a technique known as cangiante, derived from the Italian word “to change.” Cangiante was a technique used to create depth when an artist did not have the tones of color needed to depict shadows. Indeed, at the time, artists used tempera, a mixture of egg yolk, water, and pigment, to create color. This mixture lacked the layering abilities of oil paint (which was to become popular during the mid to late 15th century) meaning that it was very difficult to create shades of a particular color. Thus, rather than use a darker/lighter hue of the original color, the artist would change the color completely to a darker/lighter color. For instance, look at St. Andrew’s robe. Lorenzo Monaco changed parts of the robe from the original yellow to coral when he needed to add depth.
Lorenzo Monaco also created depth in his paintings by adding movement. Indeed, as mentioned above, the International Gothic school placed a higher importance on movement within the painting. Here, for example, Lorenzo Monaco inserted movement via angels swinging censers, giving the work depth, energy, and life.
Lorenzo Monaco’s other work in this room, Adoration of the Magi (c. 1420-1422), done in collaboration with Cosimo Rosselli, also demonstrates his desire to show movement in his paintings. For instance, the figures in the background of this piece are more contorted and elongated in an effort to convey motion. Moreover, the subject matter of this piece is not a static Madonna Enthroned or Coronation. Instead, it is a narrative subject matter, a subject matter wherein travel and motion are intrinsic to its depiction. The Adoration of the Magi tells the story found in the Gospel of Matthew where three wisemen (“Magi”) follow a star, which leads them to the newly born Christ-child. The Adoration became a popular subject during the Fifteenth Century in Florence, in part because its feast day, January 6, was also the day of celebration for Christ’s baptism, an event during which Florence’s patron saint, John the Baptist, was obviously integral (John the Baptist baptized Christ, hence his moniker). This connection between Florence and the Adoration was furthered by the ruling family, the Medici, who closely identified with the cult of the Magi.
Also incredibly innovative is Lorenzo Monaco’s choice to include a receding landscape (albeit a rather fanciful one) as the background rather than the traditional gold. The receding landscape reinforces the notion of travel, as the Magi have no doubt transversed the harsh terrain to place their gifts at Christ’s feet. Interestingly, Lorenzo Monaco also departed from the traditional tricuspid altarpiece shape, instead opting for a rectangle, although he kept the conventional three arches.
A stark contrast to Lorenzo Monaco’s Adoration is Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration (1423), which is generally thought to be the most important example of International Gothic painting in Italy. Not only does Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration retain the traditional tricuspid shape, it is also steeped in realism, as opposed to the otherworldliness of Lorenzo Monaco’s Adoration. The colors, lighting, focus on details, and naturalistic figures of Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration all combine to create a very different picture of the exact same episode. In fact, many scholars argue that it is the first painting in history to use a single natural light source. Yet, like Lorenzo Monaco’s Adoration, the piece brings courtly values and romanticism to the forefront. The Magi are distinctly European and are depicted as traveling on horseback with squires and dogs, resembling a hunting party rather than a weary group of wanderers.
Gentile da Fabriano’s work was commissioned by Palla Strozzi, a Florentine banker, for his family chapel in the Church of Santa Trinita in Florence. The Strozzi family was a chief rival to the Medici, and therefore Palla used the occasion of this commission to show off his wealth and power, hence the heavy use of gold. His desire to “out do” the Medici, as it were, likely informed the subject of the painting; the procession of eastern kings with their retinues gave occasion for Gentile da Fabriano to paint luxurious silks, rich brocades, and “exotic” animals, as the “East” was commonly associated with luxury and splendor at the time.
The altarpiece is centered on “threes.” Indeed, it depicts the journey of the three wise men in three distinct stages, each separated by the arches of the frame. First, the wise men see the star; second, they pause at Herod’s palace; third, they return home. Moreover, the three wise men represent the three stages of life: old age (represented by the kneeling wise man), middle age (the bowing wise man), and youth (the standing wise man). Indeed, Gentile da Fabriano’s style was characterized by patterns and line. He also emphasized varying surface treatments, which created the appearance of thick and luxurious fabric, exceedingly appropriate for the subject matter depicted herein.
Behind the standing wise man is a portrait of Strozzi, holding a falcon, a nod to his family name (strozzieri was the Tuscan word for “falconer”). Many times patrons would include themselves in the works of art that they commissioned. Although, here, rather than include himself as a devout worshipper, as was generally the case in previous work, Strozzi chose to portray himself looking out and connecting with the viewer, as if to say, look at what I – and my wealth – created. Art was becoming less of a means of worship and more a method of displaying power.
The predella (the platform that forms the base of the altarpiece) portrays scenes from Jesus’ childhood, including the Nativity, the Presentation at the Temple (which is actually a modern copy, the original is located at the Louvre), and the Flight into Egypt.
Beginning signs of the Renaissance can be detected in the predella, where Gentile da Fabriano used blue rather than the traditional gold background to depict the sky, thereby showing artists’ new attention to nature that would serve as a foundational element of the Renaissance.
Gentile also included the loggia of Brunelleschi’s Spedale degli Innocenti in the cityscape of the Presentation at the Temple panel.
Rooms 7-8. The Early Renaissance
The next room houses those paintings that began what we now call “The Renaissance.” In these paintings, the focus shifted from the simple act of worship to the more complex question of defining man’s relationship to God.
Tommaso Cassai, better known as Masaccio, is generally believed to be the first “great” painter of the Italian Renaissance. Masaccio was influenced by the great sculptors and architects of his time, Brunelleschi and Donatello, and derived his use of mathematical perspective from their work. Those influences tend to give his work a more formalized and monumental style, which is accentuated by his lack of concern for ornamentation and details, as well as his use of a single source of light. His work Saint Anne Metterza (c. 1424), done in collaboration with Masolino, was originally intended for Sant’Ambrogio Church in Florence; it was commissioned by Nofri d’Agnolo del Brutto, a cloth merchant. Art historians believe that Masolino painted St. Anne and the angels (aside from the angel on the top right), while Masaccio painted Mary and Jesus.
The austerity of the faces is of the Byzantine tradition, but their softness is of the 15th century. The Christ-child is also very 15th century; he is not portrayed as more-or-less a child in adult form, but as a true child. Moreover, his build reflects the emerging influence of classical sculpture.
The term Metterza was derived from the medieval latin word “met,” meaning “the same,” and tertius, meaning “third.” It was used to describe the common iconography of Mary sitting between her mother’s legs and the Christ child sitting between his mother’s legs. The depiction demonstrated St. Anne’s place as third in the hierarchy of the divine family as well as her role as protector of Mary and of Mother Church. It is not for nothing that the silhouette of il Duomo can be made out in St. Anne’s protecting embrace. As il Duomo protects Florence, so too does St. Anne protect Mary.
Although Masaccio’s overall structure was influenced by Brunelleschi and Donatello, you cannot miss Giotto’s influence in the drapery of Mary’s cloak, demonstrating Giotto’s continuing importance, even beyond the Gothic period and into the Renaissance.
The other of Masaccio’s work is located in Room 7 is known as Virgin and Child (Madonna del solletico) (c. 1426-27).
Masaccio himself was also a major influence on artists, including another of Florentine’s most famous artists, Guido de Pietro, better known known as Fra Angelico. Fra Angelico was a brother at the recently constructed San Marco Monastery, which he had a major hand in decorating. Although all of his works are of a religious nature, they took on innovations that spurred what is known as the High Renaissance. Room 7 contains Fra Angelico’s Pontassieve Madonna (c. 1435).
This piece was likely originally part of a larger altarpiece, the side panels of which have since been lost. The work is typical of Fra Angelico, however, as can be seen in the soft features of the faces, elongated fingers, monumental posture, and statuesque folds of cloth. These attributes are echoed in his Coronation of the Virgin (1435), also in Room 7 of the Uffizi.
In Fra Angelico’s Coronation, the angels act as the meditators between the divine company and the human world. Beneath the Virgin and Christ is a mass of winged heads; the blue wings indicate that they are cherubim (as opposed to the red wings of the seraphim; seraphim had red wings to reflect that they were inflamed with the love of God). Also beneath the Virgin are clouds, subtly, yet effectively, enhancing the perspective produced by the foreshortening of the angels in the background. Fra Angelico’s focus on movement goes even further than the motif of the angel swinging a censer and includes angels actually dancing, their robes swishing with motion.
Fra Angelico’s Coronation was commissioned to pair with Lorenzo Monaco’s Adoration, discussed above, in the Church of Sant’Egidio.
Whether to match the shape of its companion piece or to make some other statement, Fra Angelico also did away completely with the tricuspid shape and opted for a fully rectangular altarpiece.
One of Fra Angelico’s most successful successors was Fra Filippo Lippi, who lived from around 1406 to 1469. Filippo Lippi was a frequent house guest of Cosimo de’ Medici. He had been a Carmelite monk, but allegedly left the order after a scandalous affair with a nun. According to Giorgio Vasari:
It is said that he was so amorous, that, if he saw any women who pleased him, and if they were to be won, he would give all his possessions to win them; and if he could in no way do this, he would paint their portraits and cool the flame of his love by reasoning with himself. So much a slave was he to this appetite, that when he was in this humour he gave little or no attention to the works that he had undertaken; wherefore on one occasion Cosimo de’ Medici, having commissioned him to paint a picture, shut him up in his own house, in order that he might not go out and waste his time; but after staying there for two whole days, being driven forth by his amorous—nay, beastly—passion, one night he cut some ropes out of his bed-sheets with a pair of scissors and let himself down from a window, and then abandoned himself for many days to his pleasures. Thereupon, since he could not be found, Cosimo sent out to look for him, and finally brought him back to his labour; and thenceforward Cosimo gave him liberty to go out when he pleased, repenting greatly that he had previously shut him up, when he thought of his madness and of the danger that he might run. For this reason he strove to keep a hold on him for the future by kindnesses; and so he was served by Filippo with greater readiness, and was wont to say that the virtues of rare minds were celestial beings, and not slavish hacks.
Giorgio Vasari. “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.” Studium Publishing.
Lippi’s Coronation of the Virgin (c. 1435), once located on the main altar in Sant’Ambrogio, was produced in collaboration with various artists, including Piero di Lorenzo, Bartolomeo di Giovanni Corradini da Urbino, Fra Diamante, Manno de’Cori, and Domenico del Brilla.
In this Coronation, Lippi includes St. Ambrose and St. Eustace (kneeling with his two sons and wife, Theophista). On the right, in a mantle of red, is the donor, Francesco Maringhi, kneeling next to the inscription, “IS PERFECIT OPUS” (“He finished the work”) whereas some scholars believe the man kneeling in white is St. Benedict and the man next to him is a self-portrait of the artist himself.
Interestingly, Lippi’s focus is on the spectators rather than the actual coronation (unlike the depictions done by Fra Angelico, which centers on Mary and Jesus). Lippi was deeply interested in the individual and would model his angels off young women that he saw in the street. Lippi’s altarpiece moves from the sacred space of the Virgin to the intercessors who traverse between the sacred and the earthly and finally to the patrons who occupy the worldly space. This gradual transition from sacred to the profane mirrored Sant’Ambrogio’s congregation, which included a community of nuns as well as a parish. The community of nuns would identify with the Virgin, who, like them, took a profession of vows constituting a spiritual marriage with God/Christ. The lay members of the parish would identify with the patrons of the painting.
Cosimo de’Medici commissioned Filippo Lippi to paint another altarpiece, known as The Novitiate Altarpiece (c. 1445), for the recently constructed Novitiate Chapel in the Franciscan Basilica of Santa Croce. Lippi paid homage to his patron by including red Medici balls across the top of the frieze and inlaid in the marble. He also included the Medici patron saints, Cosimo and his late twin brother’s namesakes, St. Cosmas and St. Damian (on the left and right of the Madonna, respectively). The other two saints are St. Francis, the patron saint of the church for which the altarpiece was destined, and St. Anthony of Padua, a member of the Franciscan Order.
The architecture is classical in nature, although the classical scallop shell ceilings allude to the Virgin and the divine conception. (Many confuse the concept of “immaculate conception” with the divine conception; the immaculate conception actually refers to Mary’s birth, free of sin, not Christ’s birth, divinely inspired). Scallop shells were often symbols of fertility in ancient times, a meaning which Christians co-opted and subsequently narrowed to signify only the birth of Christ rather than births and fertility in general. Although a single panel, the painting’s three arches recall the polyptych of old wherein the Virgin was physically separated from the saints.
Another great early Renaissance artist, Domenico Veneziano, also moved away from the traditional medieval triptych with his Santa Lucia dei Magnoli Altarpiece (c. 1445). Like Lippi, Veneziano places his Virgin in the same space as the saints (i.e. in a single panel), but still separated by columns.
Additionally, Veneziano emphasizes his innovative attention to architecture by placing his scene in a classical setting, dominated by three arches inlaid with green and rose marble, remenscient of the marble used in the Duomo.
This piece is considered a masterpiece due to the innovative use of light. Indeed, you can see the shadow crossover the Virgin and Child, and St. John the Baptist’s foreshortened foot casts a shadow over the floor. In the foreground are (from left to right) St. Francis, St. John the Baptist, St. Zanobius, and St. Lucia, whose Latin name translates as “light.” Also look at St. John’s subtly defined musculature in his right arm. Such a detail looks much more classical than Gothic.
The predella is distributed between the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, U.K., and the Berlin State Museum in Berlin, Germany. One of the episodes depicted in the predella (and located in D.C.) is Saint John in the Desert.
In this episode, Veneziano depicts St. John exchanging his worldly clothes for a camel shirt. Shying away from traditional iconography of St. John as an old hermit, Veneziano chose to depict him at the moment of his spiritual conversion and thus as a young man in the classical model. Interestingly, this work is one of the earliest known depictions of such a model that would become the norm throughout Renaissance art. The piece, however, still retains several gothic elements, most glaringly of which is the representation of the mountains. They are more symbolic than realistic and are not at all in proportion to St. John.
Another episode (also in D.C.) is St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata.
Here too, the proportions of the figures are not in keeping with the landscape. For instance, look at the small red book next to Brother Leo, St. Francis’ secretary. Yet, the episode demonstrates the growing concern for realistic landscapes and increasing reluctance to depict events “out of time” as they had been so often during the previous centuries.
One of the more recognizable pieces located in Room 8 is the Diptych of the Duchess and Duke of Urbino (Portraits of Battista Sforza and Federico da Montefeltro) by Piero della Francesca (c. 1467-1470). Here at last we come to humanism in its truest form, the celebration of man, in and of himself. In a stark move away from the worship, or at least the pretense of worship, of God, Piero della Francesca focuses this piece entirely on his patron, the Duke Federico da Montefeltro (1422-1482) and his wife, the Duchess Battista Sforza (1446-1472). The piece was part of Vittoria Della Rovere’s dowry for her marriage to Grand Duke Ferdinand II de’Medici. (Vittoria Della Rovere was the daughter of Duke Federico Ubaldo della Rovere, and thus a descendant of Duke Federico da Montefeltro). Interestingly, Duke Federico Montefeltro was actually Lorenzo de’Medici’s godfather (although this did not preclude the Duke from subsequently betraying Lorenzo for Pope Sixtus). Montefeltro received the title of “duke” from his papal overlord after his daughter, Giovanna, married Pope Sixtus’ nephew Giovanni della Rovere and in exchange for his services as condottiere (i.e. mercenary captain).
The Duke and Duchess are depicted in profile, in the Imperial Roman tradition. Yet, Duke Federico is depicted facing left, which is not in strict conformance with classical predecessors, which generally faced right. Some art historians posit that this break with tradition was done to hide the Duke’s missing eye, which he lost fighting in a tournament, while others believe it was intended to allow the couple to face each other. Regardless, this piece is striking due to the attention to the sitters’ features, even the more unattractive features (like the Duke’s broken nose). Some art historians believe that the Duchess’ paleness alludes to her early death (she died in childbirth at age 26). The background is the Marches landscape, over which the Duke ruled and sought to demonstrate his dominance over with this portrait. The pieces were inspired by Florentine perspective and lenticular representation (a painting technique that emphasized depth) used in Flemish painting. It is no wonder that Piero della Francesca was the author of De Prospectiva pingendi, an important treatise on perspective that would influence the artists of the High Renaissance.
Finally, these room also house Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano (c. 1435-1440). The Battle of San Romano was originally supposed to be displayed with two other companion pieces wherein the set of three celebrated the Florentine victory over the Siense in 1432. These pieces were meant to be displayed in a private palazzo, where courtiers, who were enthusiastic readers of chivalric romances, would admire them. Thus, Uccello included decorative details and pageantry sufficient to recall those romances.
On the brown horse on the left of the painting sits Florentine Niccolò da Tolentino, whose long lance unseats the rider of the white horse, Bernardino della Carda, the commander of the Sienese troops. Interestingly, the whole scene, although a battle, is bloodless. Instead, the battle is depicted more like a chivalric tournament/game than a gruelling assault. Uccello elevates the battle to a place of fantasy, celebrating the idealization of war.
The panel in the Uffizi is the middle episode of the cycle. The first episode, below, is located in The National Gallery in London whereas the final panel is located in the Louvre in France.
In 1560, the Duke of Florence, Cosimo de’ Medici (later Grand Duke of Tuscany), commissioned the construction of the Uffizi to house magistrates, seats of the Florentine guilds, and judiciary offices. It is from this function that the building derived its name (“Uffizi” means “Offices” in English). To design and supervise the new building project, Cosimo commissioned Giorgio Vasari, who, for the last several years, had been restructuring and decorating the Palazzo Vecchio, Cosimo’s newly adopted ducal residence. Describing his design for the new building, Vasari is said to have proclaimed:
After Vasari’s death in 1574, the project was finished by Bernardo Buontalenti.
Cosimo’s son and heir, Grand Duke Francesco I, opened the first museum exhibition of the Gallery in 1581. The ceilings of the Gallery were decorated with what was known as “grotesque” motifs, which were inspired by the paintings of the Domus Aurea (Emperor Nero’s former home) and reflected those in the recently renovated Ducal Apartments in the Palazzo Vecchio.
The collection of works built up over successive Medici dukes, each acquiring and adding new pieces to the Gallery. Ferdinando I transferred the Jovian series (a collection of portraits) from the Palazzo Vecchio to the Gallery. This collection was mixed with the Aulica Series, a collection of portraits of the principal members of the Medici family, which was commissioned by Francesco I. The dowry of Vittoria della Rovere, Ferdinando II’s wife, included several Titians and Raphaels that ended up in the Gallery. Cosimo III, the son of Ferdinando II and Vittoria della Rovere, appointed Paolo Falconieri as the curator of Gallery and obtained papal permission to transfer ancient statues from the Villa Medici in Rome (including the Venus of the Medici, the Wrestlers, and Arrotino) to Florence.
Ultimately, Gian Gastone de’Medici died in 1737 with no heirs, and so the Medici family lost their hardwon Grand Duchy of Tuscany to Francesco Stefano di Lorena (the son-in-law of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI). (Gian Gastone was too ineffectual a ruler to secure the title for his closest male relative, Don Carlos, later King Charles III of Spain, who ceded Tuscany to the Holy Roman Emperor in return for the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily). Although Gian Gastone lost the title, his sister, Anna Maria Luisa de’Medici, did manage to hold on to the art collection. But, as it happens, Anna Maria Luisa de’Medici also died with no heirs. Prior to her death, she declared the collection to be “public and inalienable property,” thereby ensuring that it would remain intact and in Florence.
Francesco Stefano’s successor, Pietro Leopoldo di Lorena opened the gallery to the public in 1769. Between 1842-1856, Leopold II commissioned 28 statues for the niches of the pillars on the square. These statues were of Tuscan figures dating from the Middle Ages to the 19th Century.
Room 1. Transition from the 12th Century to the 13th.
This room contains works from the second half of the 12th century through the 13th, i.e. the oldest Tuscan panel paintings that the Uffizi owns. For instance, the 432 Cross of the Uffizi (named for its catalog number) is likely the oldest panel painting owned by the Uffizi (c. 1180). It was painted by an unknown Tuscan artist likely born before 1200.
The panel depicts Christus Triumphans (“Christ Triumphant”), as opposed to Christus Patiens (“Christ Suffering”). Images of Christus Triumphans depict Christ on the cross, but Christ is awake, stoic and without pain. There is a hint of stylized blood falling from where the nails pierce his skin (Christ’s wounds are known as the Stigmata), but otherwise Christ is alive and has therefore triumphant over death. The spiritual has triumphed over the physical.
The apron (i.e. the scenes that run along Christ’s body) is read from top to bottom, left to right. They depict Christ’s Passion: (1.) Christ washing the feet of the apostles; (2.) the kiss of Judas (the moment Judas identifies Christ to the Roman soldiers, who arrest him and eventually crucify him); (3.) the Flagellation (the moment Christ is whipped by the Romans); (4.) the Via Dolorosa (the journey to Calvary, the mountain upon which Christ is crucified); (5.) the Deposition from the Cross (the moment the apostles take Christ’s body down from the Cross); (6.) the Lamentation (the moment the Virgin kisses her son Christ, as he is being placed in his tomb); and (7.) the Resurrection.
Compare the 432 Cross with the later 434 Cross, also known as Crocifisso con Storie della Passione di Cristo (c. 1240):
Christ in the 434 Cross is clearly suffering: his eyes are closed; his brow is furrowed; his body is being pulled down by gravity. This change can be explained by the rise of the Franciscan mendicant order, a religious order that focused on Christ’s humanity and his physical form. Franciscans’ emphasis on Christ’s humanity renewed interest in his suffering on the Cross.
The blood dripping from the Stigmata in the 434 Cross is thicker and less stylized, more human. The new emphasis on Christ’s humanity was a tool that allowed Christians to feel more connected to Christ and gave Christians the ability to empathize with his suffering in order to become closer to God.
Like the 432 Cross, the 434 Cross’ apron also depicts stories from Christ’s passion: (1.) The Sanhedrin Trial (the moment Jesus is brought in front of the Jewish Elders, who send him to Pontius Pilate); (2.) The Mocking of Christ (the moment Jesus is blindfolded and beaten); (3.) The Flagellation, as explained above; (4.) the Via Dolorosa, as explained above; (5.) The Deposition, as explained above; (6.) The Entombment; (7.) The Resurrection (the moment when Jesus’ women followers find his tomb empty; and (8.) The Appearances (the moment when Jesus appears to his apostles).
Unfortunately, the terminals of this Cross (i.e. the traditional depictions that would usually be on the ends of the Cross have been lost.
Also in this room is a Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Angels (c. 1230) painted by an anonymous artist known only as the Maestro del Bigallo.
Room 2. Giotto and the 13th Century.
Since the 1950s, Room 2 of the Uffizi has housed Italian works dating from the 13th century. This room has been dubbed the Sala delle “Tre Maestà” due to the three most famous Madonnas Enthroned of the 13th century. It is these three Madonnas that many art historians harken back to when discussing the origins of the Renaissance and why it began in Florence. The first of the three is Cenni di Peppi’s 12.5 foot Santa Trinita Maestà (c. 1290-1300). Cenni di Peppi, known as Cimabue (translated as “Ox-headed” or “bullheaded,” perhaps indicating that Cimabue was hotheaded or had an aggressive personality; indeed, Dante places him among the proud in purgatory in his Divine Comedy), is viewed as the dividing line between the “old” Byzantine school of art and the “new” European tradition.
The reason for this thinking is epitomized in Cimabue’s Maestà of Santa Trinita (destined for the main altar of its eponymous Vallombrosian church in Florence). This altarpiece fuses the traditional Byzantine style with the emerging naturalism of the Gothic. For instance, Mary is positioned as the Byzantine Virgin Hodegetria, an iconographic depiction of Mary wherein she simultaneously holds the baby Jesus and points to him, indicating that he is the salvation of the world. This depiction is also known as Our Lady of the Way, a title derived from the Greek word “Hodegetria,” translated as “she who shows the way.” It was modeled after a famous icon allegedly painted by St. Luke himself. Also typical of Byzantine paintings is Cimabue’s use of damascene, i.e. the inlay of gold within the robes of the Virgin and Child, the golden background, which was used to signify that this scene took place out of time, and the symmetrical and repetitive figures, and the solemn expressions of the angels. Moreover, the blues and pinks of Mary’s robes are reflected in the wings of the angels, symbolizing her status as Queen of Heaven. But, unlike previous renditions of this subject, Cimabue’s Santa Trinita Maestà is constructed so as to look as though the throne is receding into the background, thereby hinting at the new developments in art that were to become prominent among Florentine painters.
The Christ Child gives a blessing and is adorned with his cruciform nimbus (“ringed cross”), a halo inscribed with a cross. The cruciform nimbus was used to identify figures of the Holy Trinity, especially Christ, in early Christian/Byzantine art. Each bar of the cross in this particular halo is comprised of three dotted lines, symbolizing the dogmas of the trinity, the oneness of God, and the two natures of Christ. Christ’s overall posture, with his right foot propped up, reflects that of his mother, whose right foot is also propped up on a ledge.
Below the scene are several Old Testament prophets, whose placement allude to their role as the foundation of the Church. From left to right they are: Jeremiah, Abraham, David and Isaiah. The prophets also serve a typology role; typology was a common theme in Christian art where an Old Testament figure was paired with and served as a harbinger of a New Testament figure. For example, Jeremiah’s three days spent inside the whale was seen as the precursor to Christ’s three days in the tomb; Abraham’s sacrifice of his son and God’s staying of Abraham’s sacrifice was a parallel to God’s sacrifice of his own son and his resurrection; David’s triumph over Goliath alluded to Christ’s triumph over Satan; and finally Isaiah, like Christ, was to be sacrificed by his father and then saved by God. Moreover, the scrolls in the prophets’ hands also serve as the foundation of the Church, reinforcing the notion that the worshippers and God’s message is part of an all-encompassing plan, as well as foretell the Mary’s role as the Mother of God.
The expressive depiction of these Old Testament prophets as well as detailed personalization in the other figures had not been seen prior to this time. Compare the visages between those in this piece with those in a piece from only 20-25 years earlier.
The faces in the Cimabue are more natural while Saint Veranus’ face (in the altarpiece on the right) seems more fitted to a cartoon. Moreover, notice the differences in spatial depth. The Cimabue creates three dimensions via foreshortening of the angels near the front of the throne while the Saint Veranus altarpiece looks flat. Noticing these differences, Vasari wrote:
Cimabue’s innovations were picked up by his (probable) student, Giotto di Bondone, who went even further and replaced the Byzantine style with a greater sense of naturalism, rediscovered the lost art of perspective, and introduced the concept of narrative painting.
In painting Cimabue thought he held
the field, and now it’s Giotto they acclaim-
the former only keeps a shadowed fame.
Dante's Purgatorio XI, 94-96 (Mandelbaum Translation).
Judging from Dante’s words in his Purgatorio (written around 1314), it is clear that Giotto’s innovative techniques are not only appreciated by us and art historians, but were acknowledged as groundbreaking by his immediate contemporaries.
That very obligation which the craftsmen of painting owe to nature, who serves continually as model to those who are ever wresting the good from her best and most beautiful features and striving to counterfeit and to imitate her, should be owed, in my belief, to Giotto, painter of Florence, for the reason that, after the methods of good paintings and their outlines had lain buried for so many years under the ruins of the wars, he alone, although born among inept craftsmen, by the gift of God revived that art, which had come to a grievous pass, and brought it to such a form as could be called good. And truly it was a very great miracle that that age, gross and inept, should have had strength to work in Giotto in a fashion so masterly, that design, whereof the men of those times had little or no knowledge, was restored completely to life by means of him.
Giorgio Vasari. “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.” Studium Publishing
It was around this time that people’s attitudes towards art was changing as well. During the Medieval period, artists were considered skilled laborers akin to stonemasons or metalworkers. After the advent of Cimabue, however, artists were becoming celebrities. Lorenzo de’Medici even organized a monument to Giotto to stand in the Duomo. Prior to that time, monuments had only been erected for military and literary heroes. Art was, in short, becoming art.
The fascination with Giotto continued well after his death. Indeed, Vincent van Gogh once said of Giotto: “Giotto touched me the most — always suffering and always full of kindness and ardour as if he were already living in a world other than this. Giotto is extraordinary, anyway, and I feel him more than the poets: Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio.” Vincent van Gogh to his brother, Theo van Gogh, as translated by The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
Although Giotto is best known for his tower (pictured left), his Ognissanti Maestà (c. 1310) illuminates the reason for his fame.
The Ognissanti Maestà derives its name, in part, from the positioning of Mary in a throne (maestà is the Italian word for majesty), and in part from its intended location, the Church of All Saints (Ogni is the Italian word for “each” or “all” and so ognissanti may be translated as “all saints”) where it was to be hung above the Umiliati Altar. Due to the position of the Umiliati Altar, it is believed that the altarpiece is meant to be seen from the right, and indeed, if you look at the piece from the right, it takes on a new sense of depth and spatial awareness that it only hints at when viewed headon. It is this spatial awareness that Giotto reintroduced into panel paintings that helped launch the Renaissance and earned him his fame.
Giotto also strayed away from ornamental details to focus on the naturalism of his figures, giving each a different expression full of human emotion. He abandoned the use of stark outlines to define his figures, instead opting for shadow and the graduations of light, thereby ensuring that his figures appeared solid and real. For instance, look at the subtle curve of the cushion that Mary sits atop. The curl of this cushion emphasizes Mary’s presence; her body actually interacts with the other elements of the painting and has an effect on them. He also eschewed the traditional use of damascene to depict light and instead used lighter tones of blue to suggest shifting appearance of light.
Comparing the angels in the Cimabue with the ones in the Giotto, they are placed to fill the space whereas the angels in Giotto appear to stand one next to another in real space.
As for the iconography in this work: Jesus is depicted giving a blessing with his right hand and holding a rolled parchment, a symbol of wisdom, in his left. The white, blue, and gold of Mary’s robes are reflected in the coloring of her throne (as is the red of Christ’s gown); the white alludes to her purity, the blue as her role as Queen of Heaven. The red of Christ’s gown alludes to his passion. The angels at the foot of the throne are offering both roses and lilies. The roses allude to charity, Christ’s passion, and Mary herself, who was and is known as “a rose without thorns,” an epithet which is itself an allusion (to the garden of eden where roses grew without thorns). The lilies allude to purity. The angels on either side of the throne hold a crown and a pyxis, alluding to the human nature of Christ and therefore his ultimate sacrifice. The many saints depicted surrounding the throne allude to the painting’s intended location, All Saints in Florence.
The last Maestà in this room is known as The Rucellai Madonna (c. 1285) by Duccio di Buoninsegna, a painter from Siena. It is the largest painting on wood from the 13th century known to date and was commissioned for the Santa Maria Novella by the Florentine confraternity Compagnia dei Laudesi, a lay fraternity dedicated to singing devotional hymns to the Virgin. Its name was derived from the chapel owned by the Rucellai family where it hung at the end of the 16th century. Like Giotto’s Ognissanti Madonna, this altarpiece is meant to be viewed from the right.
Also like Giotto’s Maestà, the Rucellai Madonna fuses traditional Byzantine aspects (the gold lettering and the construction of the figures’ solemn faces) with the innovative techniques of Cimabue, including the distribution of light and shade to create depth (a technique known as chiaroscuro), draped fabrics, and the foreshortening of objects to make them appear closer to the viewer, seen here in the throne and the slight angle of Mary. Behind Mary, angels hold a banner, emphasizing her status and honor.
This piece, specifically the angels holding up the throne, was likely inspired by the Belle Verrière window located in the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Chartres.
Room 3. Sienese Painting of the 14th Century
Like Room 2, Room 3 was designed and curated during the 1950s. It documents the transition from the 13th century fusion of Byzantine and Gothic into the 14th century “fairytale” esque style, which emphasized courtly elegance and romanticism via multicolored fabrics, elaborate flooring and marble overlay, and increased use of gold leaf. The main proponents of this style were Simone Martini, his brother-in-law Lippo Memmi, and the Lorenzetti brothers, Ambrogio and Pietro.
Simone Martini, sometimes known as Simone Memmi due to his relationship to Lippo Memmi, worked in Avignon, where he met Francesco Petrarca, better known in English as Petrarch, the Italian poet who is often credited as the source of the modern Italian language. Petrarch wrote of Simone:
Per mirar Policleto a prova fiso
con gli altri ch’ebber fama di quell’arte,
mill’anni non vedrian la minor parte
della beltà che m’àve il cor conquiso.
Ma certo il mio Simon fu in Paradiso
onde questa gentil donna si parte;
ivi la vide, et la ritrasse in carte,
per far fede qua giù del suo bel viso.
L’opra fu ben di quelle che nel cielo
si ponno imaginar, non qui tra noi,
ove le membra fanno a l’alma velo;
cortesia fe', né la potea far poi
che fu disceso a provar caldo et gielo
et del mortal sentiron gli occhi suoi.
Petrarch, Canz. 77.
Had Policletus seen her, or the rest
Who, in past time, won honour in this art,
A thousand years had but the meaner part
Shown of the beauty which o'ercame my breast.
But Simon sure, in Paradise the blest,
Whence came this noble lady of my heart,
Saw her, and took this wond'rous counterpart
Which should on earth her lovely face attest.
The work, indeed, was one, in heaven alone
To be conceived, not wrought by fellow-men,
Over whose souls the body's veil is thrown:
'Twas done of grace: and fail'd his pencil when
To earth he turn'd our cold and heat to bear,
And felt that his own eyes but mortal were.
As Translated by Major Robert Macgregor.
Had Polycletus in proud rivalry
On her his model gazed a thousand years,
Not half the beauty to my soul appears,
In fatal conquest, e'er could he descry.
But, Simon, thou wast then in heaven's blest sky,
Ere she, my fair one, left her native spheres,
To trace a loveliness this world reveres
Was thus thy task, from heaven's reality.
Yes—thine the portrait heaven alone could wake,
This clime, nor earth, such beauty could conceive,
Where droops the spirit 'neath its earthly shrine:
The soul's reflected grace was thine to take,
Which not on earth thy painting could achieve,
Where mortal limits all the powers confine.
As Translated by Susan Wollaston.
High praise coming from one of Italy’s foremost writers. Although the portrait Simone painted for Petrarch is lost, his Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus (1333), which he worked on in partnership with Lippo Memmi, may just as easily be described as “one, in heaven alone to be conceived.” The piece was commissioned for the altar of St. Ansanus in the transept of the Siena Cathedral to pair with Duccio’s Maestà, discussed above (it is likely that Martini trained under Duccio).
Like Duccio’s work, this piece emphasizes fluid lines, which give the figures elongated, wiry silhouettes, reminiscent of calligraphic play of line. On one side of the work is the martyr Ansanus (a patron saint of Siena), who bears a banner with Siena’s colors (not pictured here). On the other side is another martyr, who some have identified as Maxima, the wet nurse of Ansanus, or Margaret (the inscription identifying her as Judith has been proven incorrect and not part of the original work). Gabriel points upwards towards the incarnation of the Holy Spirit with one hand, and in the other, he holds an olive branch, a sign of peace. His rippling cloak conveys motion, alluding to both his startling arrival as well as the tension it has caused; indeed, Mary is depicted as recoiling from her unexpected visitor. The vase of lilies at the feet of Mary symbolize her purity.
The Latin streaming from Gabriel’s mouth states, “Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with you” (“AVE GRATIA PLENA DOMINUS TECUM”), and the rest of the prayer is embroidered in Gabriel’s robes.
Martini was interested in colorful patterns, but it was his decorative details that really took off, prompting the development of the school known as the International Gothic, the subject of a later post.
Room 4. Florentine Painting of the 14th Century.
While 14th century Sienese painting was typified by courtly elegance and otherworldly grandeur, 14th century Florentine painting continued, and further developed, Giotto’s 13th century innovations (naturalistic figures, luminosity, and spatial awareness). The major players here include Taddeo Gaddi, Gaddi’s son Agnolo Gaddi, Bernardo Daddi, Pacino di Bonaguida, Giottino, and Giovanni da Milano.
Lippo di Benivieni’s altarpiece (c. 1315), although not found in Room 4 because it was acquired as part of the Contini Bonacossi collection, is more properly discussed among its 14th century Florentine brethren.
Not much is known about Lippo di Benivieni, aside from the fact that he was working in Florence during the 14th century. His skill, however, can be appreciated in this altarpiece.
The expressions, produced via shading, are much more realistic and three dimensional than those produced during the 13th century, although they do retain the austere solemnity of the Byzantine tradition. Lippo also used shading to give three dimensions to the Bishop’s collar, which gives depth to the painting not seen in prior art.
It was Bernardo Daddi, however, who was considered the leading painter in Florence at this time. Daddi was a student of Giotto and like his teacher, he sought to portray his figures as realistic as possible. To do so, he combined Giotto’s innovations with stylistic features from the Sienese school. Daddi’s first dated work is the Triptychwith Virgin and Childbetween St. Matthew and St. Nicholas of Bari (1328) depicts the Virgin Mary with St. Nicholas of Bari on the right and St. Matthew the Evangelist on the left. The work was commissioned by Nicholaus de Mazinghis, which explains St. Nicholas’ appearance in the piece. In the tondos above each figure is Christ giving a blessing.
Daddi’s San Pancrazio Polyptych was likely painted after this Triptych, sometime during the 1330s. (The San Pancrazio Polyptych is mistakenly identified as an Agnolo Gaddi by Vasari).
The Virgin and Child are the principal image, and they are surrounded by St. Pancrazio (who eponymous Church was the home of this altarpiece), St. Zenobius, St. John the Evangelist, St. John the Baptist, St. Reparata, and St. Miniato (from left to right). The predella contains images from the life of the Virgin, demonstrating Daddi’s skill in miniaturist painting. It Daddi’s figure of Mary, however, that demonstrates Giotto’s influence:
The similarities between the thrones is remarkable: each decorated with inlaid marble, each with a delicately decorated ciborium (canopy of state), each surrounded by angels, and each with roses and lilies at the foot of the throne. Yet, the differences between the two are equally astounding. In Giotto’s version, the angels piously face Mary and Jesus, but the angels in Daddi’s version are interacting with each other, creating a narrative image rather than a simple icon to be worshiped. This theme is reflected in the depiction of Mary and Jesus; the Mary and Jesus in Giotto’s version face the viewer, directly connecting with him or her while the Mary and Jesus in Daddi’s version face each other, establishing the mother-child relationship while Baby Jesus reaches towards a flower held by his mother. Rather than a simple icon to be mediated upon or worshipped, Daddi’s version gives human context and emotions to his figures, indicating a move towards the Renassiance and, later, Mannerism, a style focused intensely on emotion.
Also part of the Contini Bonacossi collection, but is better discussed here is Agnolo Gaddi’s Virgin and Child with Ten Angels and the Saints Benedict, Peter, John the Baptist, and Miniatus (c. 1380). Interestingly, this altarpiece is actually a combination of two separate works by Gaddi. The side panels were likely meant for the church of San Miniato in Florence, while the central panel featuring Mary enthroned was a separate piece.
As in this altarpiece, Gaddi’s compositions were characterized by harsh colors, varied visages, and curvilinear contours. To the direct right of Mary is John the Baptist, Florence’s patron saint, recognizable via his animal skin tunic. Next to John is Prince Miniatus, Florence’s first martyr while to the left of Mary is St. Peter, holding a book inscripted with “DOMINE TECUM PARATUS SUM ET IN CARCEREM ET IN MORTEM IRE” (“And he said unto him, Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both into prison, and to death”) (Luke, 22:33). Next to him is St. Benedict, identifiable via his white tunic, which would have been worn by the Olivetan Benedictine monks who lived in the Florentine Benedictine monastery from 1373.
Unlike Daddi’s work, this altarpiece seems to revert back towards traditional motifs: Mary’s throne is flat, evoking the feeling of a casket rather than a chair. Although the two angels in back are interacting, the majority of the figures either look towards the viewer or towards the Christ child in adoration. Moreover, the faces of the figures seem rather generic, harkening back to Byzantine work.
A more recently rediscovered artist, known as Giottino because he was one of the most talented followers of Giotto, painted this final piece known as the Pietà di San Remigio (1360-1365).
Mary is holding her son’s head while two other women kiss the stigmata, the wounds caused during Christ’s Passion, on Christ’s hands. Standing behind Christ and the mourning women are Saints Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and John the Evangelist (not pictured). The women kneeling on the left is one of the patrons of the work. In contrast to the other figures, she is depicted on a smaller scale and wearing contemporary Florentine dress. The work was commissioned for the Church of San Remigio. It is considered a masterpiece due to the expressions of the figures and its psychological insight into the figures’ suffering.
He is not an artist properly so-called, but an inspired saint.
John Ruskin, on Fra Angelico
On the second floor of the San Marco monastery, visitors will find the monks’ dormitories. Each cell, once occupied by a single friar, contains a fresco depicting an event from Christ’s life. Yet, the central focus of the frescoes is not the event, but the witnesses to the event. Indeed, the Renaissance artist Fra Angelico and his team painted each fresco with the intention that the friars emulate the holy witnesses to Christ’s life so that they themselves may be worthy of teaching it. Therefore, the frescoes were simplistic in design, presenting a mental image more akin to icons rather than a full narrative.
For instance, the event depicted in Cell 2 is the Lamentation over Christ, quite literally, the passionate expression of sorrow or grief over Christ’s body. Yet the scene downplays the dramatic trauma of laying Christ to rest via its horizontal construction. Indeed, the only vertical movement is St. Dominic himself, the figure upon whom the viewer is to mediate.
Cell 3 depicts the Annunciation, which looks as though the scene is taking place within the friar’s cell. In fact, the dominant color of the piece is the same as that used in the friar’s cell. No expensive pigments have been used, stressing the austere lifestyle of the friars.
In the left of the work stands St. Peter Martyr, a Dominican Friar himself.
The scene in Cell 6 is, admittedly, slightly more dramatic, with the figure of Christ radiating light in the center. Compare it to Raphael’s Transfiguration, however, and its simplicity is better appreciated.
In Fra Angelico’s version, Saints Peter, James, and John are reacting to Christ, but Mary and St. Dominic are mere observers of the narrative and do not take part. It is therefore Mary and St. Dominic who are the intended focus of the friars’ mediations. Although centered and radiating, Christ’s body is postured in the shape of a cross, becoming a symbol to revere rather than an actor in the narrative and shifting focus back to Mary and St. Dominic.
Included are the floating heads of Elias and Moses. You may notice that Fra Angelico chose to depict Moses with horns. This depiction is based on St. Jerome’s translation of the Hebrew phrase “wēlō’ yāda ‘ki qāran’ ôr pānāyw” found in Exodus 34:29. Jerome translated the Hebrew word “qāran” as “cornuta esset,” rendering the phrase to state (as translated into English) “Moses did not know that his face was horned.” Some scholars argue that Jerome mistranslated the Hebrew word qāran as “horned” when it should have been translated as “rays of light.” Recent scholarship, however, has questioned whether it was really a mistake, arguing that “Jerome was no doubt aware of the metaphysical association of horns with divinity and power in the ancient world in general and the Greco-Roman world in particular, as in the episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (15.565-621) where Cipus looks at his reflection in a clear stream and sees horns springing from his head. When Cipus and his horns are observed by an Etruscan seer, the seer cries out, ‘All hail, O King!’ …” Broderick, Herbert R. Moses the Egyptian in the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch (2017).
In Cell 10 is the depiction of Christ’s Presentation at the Temple. Thanks to recent restoration work, the shell semi-dome has been rediscovered.
This work is one of a few frescoes that do not include St. Dominic as witness, but rather St. Peter the Martyr and a woman some art historians identify as St. Catherine of Siena on the right. Joseph, standing behind Mary, is carrying a basket with two doves, a gift of atonement.
In Cell 26, Fra Angelico returns to horizontal movement as a method of creating simplicity.
Here, Christ is shown standing in his tomb, wounds visible on his hands. Above him are the symbols of his Passion: the lance, the sponge, the cross, and the column. Also above him you see the head of Judas kissing Christ (top left), Peter and the handmaiden (directly beneath Christ and Judas), and the mocking of Christ (top right). Once again, St. Dominic and the Virgin are depicted as witnesses to the scene.
Slightly more action packed are those frescoes now believed to have been painted by Benozzo Gozzoli, including one known as The Kiss of Judas. Missing from this fresco are the usual witnesses, St. Dominic and the Virgin Mary. Instead, the scene focuses on the narrative: Judas and his interaction with Jesus. Also interesting is the inclusion of Judas’ halo, which has been painted black.
Although most art historians agree that Gozzoli so perfectly imitated Fra Angelico’s style that it is hard to tell them apart, there are subtle differences. Those frescoes identified as Gozzoli’s contain more figures, dressed in vibrant colors. Additionally, Gozzoli’s lush landscapes differentiate themselves from those sparse backgrounds seen in the frescoes painted by Fra Angelico.
Like The Kiss of Judas, the fresco in Cell 34 was likely painted by Gozzoli. Here, Mary and Martha serve as models for the friars, fulfilling the injunction to “watch and pray,” whereas the three apostles, languishing in their despair, serve as examples of what not to do.
You can really see Gozzoli’s adoption (and expansion) of Fra Angelico’s innovative use of perspective. Using perspective, Gozzoli was able to depict the wall as though it is jutting out towards the viewer, creating a pronounced three dimensional space. Compare Gozzoli’s use of perspective to that of Fra Angelico:
As in the general composition of the frescoes, Gozzoli’s use of perspective is less subtle, creating a more dynamic and dramatic scene.
Another fresco likely painted by Gozzoli is The Sermon on the Mound. Although the background lacks the lush greenery of The Kiss of Judas and The Agony in the Garden, it is harsher than those painted by Fra Angelico and Gozzoli’s figures wear the same vibrant colored cloths as in his other works.
Again, Judas’ halo is black, but here his face has been obscured, perhaps to avoid “contaminating” the purity of the scene.
Likewise, in The Last Supper, Judas’ face is hidden behind that of the other apostles (he is one of the four kneeling figures in the bottom right hand corner). Odd is also Mary’s placement at the scene. She typically does not show up in Last Supper scenes, as the Gospels make no mention of her being present. Perhaps her inclusion is a return to the focus on the witnesses rather than the narrative.
It is likely that the majority of this fresco was painted by Fra Angelico’s assistants, evidenced by the rather repetitive details of the apostles’ heads, the ambiguity of the apostles’ positions (are they seated or standing), and the distance between Jesus’ outstretched hand and St. John’s mouth. Yet, it is still a fascinating work due to the unknown artists’ inclusion of the windows. The windows in the work reflect the same view that the physical window provides (and would be seen in this photo had it not been so sunny outside).
Fra Angelico’s celebrated Annunciation is also located on the second floor of the monastery. The Annunciation has been dubbed the quintessential Renaissance piece because it combines the three novelties of the 15th century: light painting, classical architecture, and spatial/perspective severity.
Like most Annunciations, Mary is enclosed in a walled garden, reminding viewers that she remains separate from and untouched by the sinful world and evoking the Garden of Eden. She returns Gabriel’s greeting by crossing her arms over her chest, mimicking the angel’s own gesture. Yet, unlike conventional Annunciations of the time, Fra Angelico’s does not contain embossed wording.
Indeed, up until this point, the angel Gabriel was typically portrayed with a ribbon ballooning from his mouth (See detail of the Annunciation by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi, dated 1333). Fra Angelico was one of the first artists to do away with this tradition. (Fra Angelico’s Annunciation is dated c. 1442).
Also unlike other Annunciations, Fra Angelico limits the colors of Gabriel’s wings to those four principals colors he uses in his overall palette (i.e., ocher, vermilion, grayish blue, and blue-green). Here, Mary is almost life-sized, and the small grated window in the background is reminiscent of those window located in the monks’ cells. These aspects combine to achieve the effect that Mary is actually present in the room. The work’s inscription reminds the friars, “When you come before the image of the Ever-Virgin, take care that you do not neglect to say an ‘Ave.'”
Cosimo de’Medici reserved these rooms for himself during the construction of the new monastery, and interestingly, Pope Eugenius IV slept in this cell the night of Epiphany 1443 when he came to consecrate the new church. Notably the consecration occurred on Epiphany, not St. Mark’s feast day, as would have been usual since St. Mark is the patron saint of San Marco Monastery. The Epiphany commemorates the moment when the three Magi come to give Christ their gifts, and it is this event that is frescoed on the wall of Cosimo’s cell.
Perhaps significantly, the Adoration of the Magi was a continual theme of the iconography of the Medici. Indeed, the Medici wished to equate themselves to those princely Magi who bestowed their gifts on Christ by bestowing gifts on the Church. Moreover, the Magi are relatively alone in achieving entrance to the heavenly kingdom while maintaining their wealth. The three generations of kings also paralleled the three generations of the Medici alive at the time (Cosimo, his son Piero, and his grandson Lorenzo). To cement the link, the family paid for lavious processions on the Feast of the Epiphany, which would parade through the city, ending at San Marco. Additionally, Piero de’Medici ignored the conventional practice of waiting only three days between birth and baptism to baptise his son Lorenzo (subsequently known as Lorenzo il Magnifico) on the Feast of the Epiphany. Cosimo and Lorenzo were both members of the Confraternity of the Magi.
Gozzoli painted not only this Adoration for the Medici, but also painted a much grander (and more well known) for the (at the time) newly constructed Medici Palace (now known as the Palazzo Medici Riccardi). (Sandro Botticelli also painted an Adoration for the Medici, now in the Uffizi).
Cosimo de’Medici and the Dominicans came to an agreement in 1441 to build a “public” library within the convent for the use of elite humanists as well as the friars (although touted as a public library, one still needed permission from the library’s trustees to access it).
Cosimo, along with several other humanists, had recently come into possession of the late Niccolò Nicoli’s extensive book collection. Indeed, Nicoli had bequeathed his collection to 16 trustees, including Cosimo, for the purpose of creating Italy’s first public library. Over the years, the library’s collection increased under Cosimo’s careful curation. According to the 15th century poet Ugolino di Vieri, the library contained “so many thousands of volumes written by the Greek and Latin fathers that it could rightly be called the archives of sacred doctrine.” Unfortunately, most of the volumes were transferred to the Biblioteca Laurenziana during the 19th century suppression of the monasteries.
The San Marco Museum occupies part of a complex that has served as the San Marco Monastery since its consecration in 1443. The monastery belongs to the Observant Dominican Order (also known as “The Order of the Preachers” and commonly referred to as “The Black Friars,” derived from their black cloaks as opposed to the white cloaks worn by the Carmelite Order and the grey worn by the Franciscans).
The building was constructed atop the foundations of a medieval Sylvestrian monastery and was paid for by the Medici family, the ruling family in Florence. Cosimo de’Medici (il Vecchio) commissioned Michelozzo, one of the Medici’s favorite architects, to design the new building. It was Cosimo’s intention to relocate the Dominicans of Fiesole to Florence. (Fiesole is a small town about 15 minutes outside of Florence and coincidentally, where my husband and I stayed during our honeymoon).
After the building’s completion, Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, perhaps better known as Fra Angelico, a member of the Order and a friar of the San Marco monastery, was commissioned to fresco the interior.
Fra Angelico was born around 1395 and became a Dominican friar sometime before 1423. His frescoes, intended for the friars’ private use, are typified by sparse settings meant to encourage the friars to focus on the religious purity of the work. Angelico’s frescoes may be seen in sharp contrast to his altarpieces, which were made for public consumption. Indeed, Angelico’s altarpieces reflect the ornate churches for which they were destined; they were more reminiscent of the illuminated manuscripts that he likely decorated while studying in Lorenzo Monaco’s workshop than similar to the frescoes he painted within the monastery.
The Sant’Antonino Cloister is named for St. Antoninus Pierozzi, the first prior of the San Marco Monastery, vicar general of the Dominican Observants, and Archbishop of Florence. It is dominated by Fra Angelico’s fresco of St. Dominic and the Cross.
St. Dominic Worships the Crucifix focuses entirely on the interaction between St. Dominic and Christ, a result achieved by the lack of substantive background. The viewer’s attention is, therefore, drawn towards St. Dominic’s adoration and Christ’s serene acceptance of such. The fresco’s fixation on the communion between Christ and St. Dominic indicates that its purpose was not merely decorative. Indeed, its location within the cloister, generally a place of study and contemplation, affirms that the work was intended to invoke a spiritual response within the friars.
This work also demonstrates Fra Angelico’s important artistic contributions that have inspired some art historians to name him as the first painter of the Renaissance. For instance, instead of the golden background that was common at the time, Angelico chose a natural blue (albeit sparse) sky. Another significant innovation is the realistic, almost portrait-like details of the figures’ faces. Such detail was generally lacking in contemporary painting, as was the technique known as perspective, without which paintings tended to look flat. But here, Angelico used perspective to create space behind the figures, giving the fresco three dimensions and a more realistic feel.
The fresco was set in a marble frame and surrounded by 17th century frescoes when the Fabroni family turned this side of the cloister into their family burial vault. In fact, St. Dominic Worships the Crucifix along with five lunettes were the only frescoes painted in the cloister until the 17th century when the other twenty-two lunettes were decorated with a cycle dedicated to the life of St. Antoninus. The coats-of-arms of the Florentine families who financed the cycle are depicted in the frescoes.
One such lunette depicts the investiture of the saint to the See of Florence.
Perhaps surprisingly, as this painting was completed during the reign of the Medici dukes, is the inclusion of Fra Savonarola on the right. Fra Savonarola, a Dominican monk and a prior of this very monastery (elected in July of 1491), was responsible for the short-lived exile of the Medici in 1494. It is therefore surprising that he should be celebrated in this fresco, especially as he was born only a few years prior to St. Antoninus’ death, making his inclusion anachronistic. Whether included as an act of defiance or simply as an act reverence towards an important member of the monastery, Fra Savonarola’s presence does demonstrate his lasting influence on San Marco and on Florence.
The Pilgrims’ Hospice
The Pilgrims’ Hospice was, as its name implies, used as a reception area for guests (“ospite” is the Italian word for “guest”). The room’s function is reflected in Fra Angelico’s fresco above the door, known as Christ the Pilgrim Welcomed by the Dominicans. Now the room functions as part of the museum, housing the biggest collection of Fra Angelico’s panel paintings.
As I mentioned above, Angelico’s panel paintings are clearly meant for public consumption as compared to his contemplative frescoes located on the monastery’s walls. For instance, compare the cooler palette used in St. Dominic Worships the Crucifix with the warm, rich colors used in his altarpieces.
The Linen-drapers’ Guild commissioned the Linaiuoli Altarpiece in 1433 to adorn their meeting house. Fra Angelico’s attention to light (an innovation of early Renaissance painting) is evident throughout the piece. Moreover, instead of the traditional flat golden background, Fra Angelico inserted a golden drape, creating depth and demonstrating his knowledge of perspective as well as the influence of Masaccio, who is credited as one of the forerunners of the technique.
St. Mark is present both on the interior side of the panels as well as the exterior. “Therefore,” explains Padre Marchese, the 19th century Dominican art historian, “they wished that whether the tabernacle were open or closed, he should be always in their sight.” St. Mark was the patron saint of the Linen-drapers’ Guild.
The frame of this piece was commissioned to Lorenzo Ghiberti, and some art historians posit that he is the influence behind the statuesque bearing of the figures. The Predella depicts St. Peter preaching in the presence of St. Mark (the patron saint of the monastery), the Adoration of the Magi, and St. Mark’s Martyrdom.
This room contains Fra Angelico’s Crucifixion and Saints. Giorgio Vasari, 16th century artist and art historian, tells us:
Unfortunately, the sky in this piece has lost its blue coloring over time and the red used to prep the wall is now visible. The fresco, however, is still impressive.
The main scene is enclosed within a semi-circle, which contains small portraits holding unfurling scrolls. The first scroll on the right, held by the only portrait without an accompanying name, states, “Deus nature patitvr” (“The God of Nature Suffers”), words attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, an Athenian judge and possibly the first bishop of Athens. Allegedly, when Dionysius witnessed the eclipse that followed Christ’s death, he proclaimed, “Aut deus naturae patitur aut mundi machina dissolvitur.” Following the unnamed portrait, from right to left are the portraits of: Daniel, Zechariah, Jacob, David, a pelican feeding its young, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Job, and the Erythrean Sibyl. (The imagery of the pelican feeding its young with its own blood was associated with redemption). Each of their banners are as follows:
“Post edomades VII et LXII occidet XPS.”
“Et post hebdomades sexaginta duas occidetur Christus.”
“And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.”
Daniel 9:26 (KJV)
“His plagatus sum.”
“Et dicetur ei quid sunt plagae istae in medio manuum tuarum et dicet his plagatus sum in domo eorum qui diligebant me.”
“And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.”
Zechariah 13:6 (KJV)
“Ad praedam descende, fili mi! Dominus accubuit ut leo.”
“Catulus leonis luda a praeda fili mi ascendisti requiescens accubuisti ut leo et quasi leaena quis suscitabit eum.”
“Judah is a lion’s whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?”
Genesis 49:9 (KJV)
“In siti mea potaverunt me aceto.”
“Et dederunt in escam meam fel et in siti mea potaverunt me aceto.”
“They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”
Psalms 69:21 (KJV)
“Similis factus sum pelicano solitudinis.”
“Similis factus sum pelicano solitudinis factus sum sicut nycticorax in domicilio.”
“I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert.”
Psalms 102:6 (KJV)
“Vere languores nostros idem tulit et dolores nostros.”
“Vere languores nostros ipse tulit et dolores nostros ipse portavit et nos putavimus eum quasi leprosum et percussum a Deo et humiliatum.”
“Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.”
Isaiah 53:4 (KJV)
“O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite et videte, si est dolor sicut dolor meus.”
“O vos omnes qui transitis per viam adtendite et videte si est dolor sicut dolor meus quoniam vindemiavit me ut locutus est Dominus in die irae furoris sui.”
“Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger.”
Lamentations 1:12 (KJV)
“Exaltavi lignum hile.”
“Et scient omnia ligna regionis quia ego Dominus humiliavi lignum sublime et exaltavi lignum humile et siccavi lignum viride et frondere feci lignum aridum ego Dominus locutus sum et feci.”
“And all the trees of the field shall know that I the Lord have brought down the high tree, have exalted the low tree, have dried up the green tree, and have made the dry tree to flourish: I the Lord have spoken and have done it.”
Ezekiel 17:24 (KJV)
“Qui det de canibus ei ut saturem?”
“Si non dixerunt viri tabernaculi mei quis det de carnibus eius ut saturemur.”
“If the men of my tabernacle said not, Oh that we had of his flesh! we cannot be satisfied.”
Job 31:31 (KJV)
The Erythrean Sibyl holds a banner that proclaims, “Morte morietur, tribus diebus sonno susceptus/ trino ab inferis regressus ad lucem veniet primus” (“He must die, and sleep for three days. On the third day, returning from hell, he will be the first to come to the light”).
The scene itself consists of the typical three crucifixes, with Jesus between the “good thief” Dismas and the unrepentant thief, who allegedly died with his mouth open to utter a final blasphemy. The skull at the base of the Cross alludes to Golgotha (also known as Calvary), translated as “the place of the skull” and so named because it is believed to be the site where Adam is buried.
Beneath the crucifixion gather a venerable group of saints, specifically chosen for their links to either the monastic orders, Florence, or the Medici. These saints surround the Virgin, evidencing the Virgin’s central role in Florentine Civic life, focused on the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The three figures on the far left are Saints Cosmas, Damian, and Laurence. Saints Cosmas and Damian were the patron saints of the Medici (and the namesakes of Cosimo and his twin, who died young) while Saint Laurence was Lorenzo (the elder) de’Medici’s patron saint. Next to the Medici saints are Saint Mark, the patron Saint of San Marco, and John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence. Interestingly, these saints are dressed in colorful garments as opposed to those saints on the opposite side of the cross, who are dressed in whites, blues, and browns. These saints are the founders of the monastic orders, St. Francis, founder of the Friars Minor, Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercian order, John Gualberto, the Vallombrosan Order, St. Benedict, the Benedictine Order, and Romuald, the Camaldolese Order. The contrasting colors demonstrates the city (profane) and the cloister (sacred) uniting around the collective act of venerating Christ.
It would perhaps be prudent to briefly explain some of the differences between the major monastic orders here. The Friars Minor (Franciscans) is a mendicant order founded in 1209 by St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals. The Mendicants lived in abject poverty, surviving solely on the charity of others. Franciscan ideology was focused on mirroring Christ’s life of simplicity and devotion to service.
The Benedictine Order was founded in the 6th century by St. Benedict. The Benedictines emphasized manual labor and daily prayer, in contrast to the Dominican emphasis on preaching/teaching.
The Cistercian Order was an offshoot of the Benedictine Order, founded by Bernard of Clairvaux in 1098 at Citeaux Abbey, France. The Cistercians split from the Benedictines due to perceived laxity, and therefore the Cistercians tended to emphasize extreme simplicity in all things.
The Dominicans followed the rule of St. Augustine. St. Augustine, one of the most well-known of the early Church Fathers, believed that the purpose of cloistered life was to learn and study, which brought the monk closer to God, and to teach through preaching, which brought the community closer to God (thus the order’s formal name, the Order of the Preachers). The Dominican emphasis on teaching engendered the Order’s priorities: theology and intellectual study.
At the bottom of the fresco are influential Dominicans starting in the center with St. Dominic, who is holding the branches of the order, which give birth to the “fruit” (i.e. the other Dominicans).
Upon close examination, each Dominican has rays emanating from his head, demonstrating that they have been blessed; although, some halos have been subsequently added to those Dominicans who have been canonized.
Gruesomely martyred at Antioch via a saw to the center of the head (which he holds in his left hand while holding a palm, the symbol of martyrdom, in his right hand).
Successor to Thomas Aquinas at the University of Paris, where Aristotelianism reigned supreme. His two treatises, De Bono Communi and De Bono Pacis, emphasized the necessity of suppressing individual ambition as a means of achieving civic peace.
Nicholas of Paglia
Allegedly Nicholas joined the Order after hearing St. Dominic preach in Bologna. He served as the third prior provincial of the Roman Province.
Jordan of Saxony
Second Master General of the Order after St. Dominic.
Prior of San Marco and Archbishop of Florence.
Paul of Florence
Served as the Patriarch of Grado (the Patriarchy of Grado was incorporated into the archbishopric of Venice during the 15th century).
Hugh of Saint-Cher
The first Dominican cardinal.
Pope Innocent V
The first Dominican pope.
Founder of the Order.
Pope Benedict XI
Served as Master General prior to becoming Cardinal, then Pope.
Cardinal John Dominici of Florence
Selected by Pope Gregory XII to represent him at the Council of Constance, the Council that ended the Western Schism.
Pietro della Palude (aka Peter Paludanus)
Served as Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Albert the Great
Served as Bishop of Ratisbon, taught and befriended St. Thomas Aquinas, and established the study of nature as a recognized science within the Christian tradition. Thus, he is the patron saint of those who study the natural sciences.
Raymond of Peñafort
Canonized in 1601 and known for the codification of canon law, which was promulgated in 1234.
Chiarito da Sesto
Served as the first Prior Provincial of the Roman Province.
Vincent Ferrer of Valencia
Helped end the Western Schism by persuading King Ferdinand I of Aragon to withdraw his support of Benedict XIII. He is also well known for his conversion of Spanish Jews to Christianity, although there are contradictory accounts (some rather damning) as to the means he used to do so. He was canonized in 1455.
Bernard of Florence
Vignali’s The Good Samaritan hung in the monastery’s Antica Spezieria (Old Apothecary). The Antica Spezieria, founded by St. Antoninus, was famous for its medicines, which were sold to finance the maintenance of the monastery. This painting, dated to around 1630, is believed to have been a gift for the medicines produced during successive waves of plague in the early 17th century.