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Baccio Bandinelli: a rehabilitation

Baccio Bandinelli, self-portrait, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

by Alta Macadam


This exhibition, running at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence until 13th July, is the first ever show devoted to this sculptor, who was of supreme importance during his lifetime in 16th-century Florence, not only for his skill as an artist but also because he was the official sculptor of the Medici. He learnt his art directly from Michelangelo and (the far less well-known) Giovanfrancesco Rustici. Bandinelli’s pupils included Vincenzo de’ Rossi, Ammannati, and his successor as court sculptor for the Medici, Giambologna. The Bargello is therefore the most fitting place to hold this exhibition, since in the first room of the museum, recently rearranged, all of these sculptors are very well represented.


The reason for the notable lack of interest in Bandinelli (1493–1560) until now is probably due most of all to the fact that he was clearly an unpleasant man and jealous of his position as the Medici favourite. In public he was particularly fond of doing down Cellini, whom we know far better through his delightful Autobiography and who was by far the greater sculptor, but who suffered from the success of his rival.


Bandinelli had the grossly mistaken idea to carve a colossal statue as a pair to Michelangelo’s David outside the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio. It is one of the worst sculptures produced in Florence in the 16th century. Representing Hercules and Cacus, the two figures are flabby and in fact border on the ridiculous. Cellini was delighted to point this out to Cosimo I in the presence of Bandinelli, but Cosimo still continued to commission statues from Bandinelli rather than Cellini including, nearly thirty years later, the huge but feeble and languid Neptune for the fountain a few metres away in Piazza della Signoria (it had to completed by his pupil Ammannati after his death). Cellini’s famous Perseus is in the loggia of the same square but its model and original base and exquisite bronze statuettes are preserved in the Michelangelo room where the exhibition begins. Cellini would have been satisfied indeed that these and some of his other superb sculptures are displayed here, establishing his pre-eminence.


Bandinelli’s earliest sculptures in the exhibition include a mutilated classical Mercury from the Louvre, a bas-relief of the Flagellation from Orleans (with a plaster cast of it from the Casa Martelli in Florence) and several red chalk drawings from the Louvre and another from the British Museum. There is also a small relief of the Deposition in gilded and painted stucco from the Victoria and Albert Museum. All these demonstrate clearly Bandinelli’s superb skills as a draughtsman, and also particularly as a sculptor in low relief.


A number of busts by him of his patron Cosimo I are displayed together, including one which he carved for the façade of his own residence in Via Ginori, as a proud statement of his allegiance to the Medici family (now in a private collection it has rarely been seen since its was removed from the house front). Accompanying these works is Cellini’s colossal bronze bust of Cosimo, now even more impressive since, in the new display of the permanent collection here it has been raised higher on a pedestal, and clearly it is a greater portrait of the powerful Duke than any produced by Bandinelli.


Some of Bandinelli’s best marble reliefs were carved for an elaborate new choir he designed for the Duomo, directly beneath the dome, but which was never completed and was ultimately considered unsuitable for the church (it included two entirely nude statues of Adam and Eve which were to flank the altar, and which are on permanent display in this room). Some of the superb original reliefs are on display next to a model of how this ambitious project would have looked: it was to have included some 300 similar reliefs. Bandinelli’s Bacchus is also displayed here, rejoining three other statues on permanent display in this room: Sansovino’s earlier Bacchus; Cellini’s classical Ganymede; and Michelangelo’s David-Apollo, all four of which are known to have been special favourites of the Duke’s, which he kept together in a room of his palace.


The exhibition continues in two small rooms also off the courtyard. Here you can see a series of Bandinelli's exquisite small bronzes, all from the Bargello collection. Seen on their own they confirm his mastery of this genre. All around the walls are examples of Bandinelli’s splendid drawings, many in red chalk, from the Uffizi, including two of his famous patrons Pope Leo X and Cosimo I, clearly drawn from life in the 1540s.


In the last room there is a memorable portrait of the young Bandinelli by an unknown Florentine painter influenced by Andrea del Sarto and a marble relief of a bearded man attributed to Bandinelli, as well as his self-portrait in terracotta dating from around 1557. The show helps reinstates Bandinelli as an artist of great merit, and it is always a delight to return to the Bargello, which is one of the finest museums in Florence and never, for some mysterious reason, over-crowded.


Alta Macadam is the author of Blue Guide Florence.

Uffizi selfies come to Budapest

Self-portrait by Pál Szinyei Merse (1845–1920)
Pál Szinyei Merse’s plein-air rendering of a field of poppies


As part of the Budapest Spring Festival, an unusual exhibition has come to the Budapest History Museum: “Painters in the Mirror”, a display of self-portraits by Hungarian artists from the collection of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The Uffizi has an extensive collection of self-portraits, the largest in the world: over 1,600 of them, of which 24 are of Hungarian artists. They are displayed in the Corridoio Vasariano, a covered walkway built by Vasari in five months to celebrate the marriage of Francesco de’ Medici and Joanna of Austria in 1565. Nearly a kilometre long, its purpose was to connect Palazzo Vecchio via the Uffizi and Ponte Vecchio with the new residence of the Medici dukes at Palazzo Pitti. The Medici family found it particularly convenient in wet weather and it was sometimes used as a nursery for the children of the grand dukes. Elderly or infirm members of the family were wheeled along it in bath chairs. The Uffizi’s collection of self-portraits has been hung here since the early 20th century. The collection was begun by Cardinal Leopoldo in 1664. Having acquired the self-portraits of Guercino and Pietro da Cortona, he went on to collect the ‘selfies’ of some 80 more artists. The collection continues to be augmented.

The first Hungarian self-portrait to enter the collection was that of the elder Károly Markó, a painter of almost Claude-like landscapes who settled near Florence in 1848. The collection continued to expand throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, largely by invitation. The portraits of Rippl-Rónai, István Csók and Pál Szinyei Merse arrived at the Uffizi by this route. The great painter of large-scale historical canvases Gyula Benczúr was also invited to contribute a self-portrait and produced one expressly for the Uffizi. Other self-portraits were acquired by purchase. It was not long before artists eagerly sought to have themselves represented at the Uffizi, and the gallery received numerous offers, some of which it accepted and some of which it did not. Miklós Barabás, considered (at least in Hungary) one of the finest portraitists of his day (1810–98), submitted a portrait (it was submitted, in fact, by his son-in-law) but it was not considered by the board of judges to be of sufficient artistic merit. It was not returned, however, and is still the property of the Italian state, officially entered in the Uffizi’s inventory. It forms part of the current exhibition, hung alongside a charming likeness by Barabás of a young woman in a black dress, painted against a backdrop in the Hungarian—and Italian—national colours of red, white and green.


Self-portraits of Hungarian modern and contemporary artists include Victor Vasarely’s typically optical-illusory upside-down image of himself, and a fine work by László Fehér (b. 1953), who presents a typically hyper-realist image of himself in a small pocket mirror.


Each self-portrait in this interesting and absorbing small exhibition is shown alongside another painting by the same artist which may be taken to be representative of his or her oeuvre. Some of the more memorable pairings include Philip de László’s classic, textbook self-portrait hung next to his stunning likeness of Pope Leo XIII; and Pál Szinyei Merse’s view of himself in a wintry birch forest hung alongside his beautiful Poppy Field, its tall grass and cotton-wool clouds redolent of early summer warmth.

“Painters in the Mirror”, at the Budapest History Museum, runs until 20th July. The collection of the Uffizi is covered in detail in Blue Guide Florence.

Florentine Mannerists at Palazzo Strozzi

‘The Visitation’ by Pontormo, from Carmignano

by Alta Macadam

A major exhibition now running at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence (on until 20 July 2014) is dedicated to two of the most famous protagonists of Mannerism in Italy. It traces the highly individualistic styles of Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, both born in the same year, 1494, and who both started out their careers in the Florentine workshop of Andrea del Sarto. The exhibition's sub-title, ‘Diverging paths of Mannerism’, makes clear the intention is to illustrate the wide differences in style of these two masters. The texts throughout the show often cite Vasari, who first used the term maniera to describe his contemporaries’ way of painting. This ‘mannered’ style, characteristic of the painters who were at work immediately after the great era of Raphael and Michelangelo, was long considered affected and even decadent, but since the 20th century it has been recognised that these 16th-century painters explored new ideas and that their work is often characterised by extreme elegance and refinement.

The visitor is greeted by three huge frescoes from the Santissima Annunziata: on either side of a biblical scene by Andrea del Sarto are the Assumption by Rosso and the Visitation by Pontormo, both of which stand out for their originality. In Rosso’s memorable crowd of Apostles there are numerous different expressions and stances, while Pontormo’s fresco has great elegance and the two central figures portray a touching intimacy.

One entire room is dedicated to portraits by Pontormo. Beside his well-known posthumous ‘official’ Portrait of Cosimo il Vecchio, in his bright crimson cloak, is displayed his much more intimate Double portrait of two friends from the collection in Palazzo Cini in Venice (which is not regularly open to the public so this is a great chance to see this unusual work). It is displayed beside the engaging Young Man from the Palazzo Mansi in Lucca. Two of Pontormo's best male portraits, both sitters shown holding books, are on loan from the National Gallery in Washington and a private collection. Rosso is also given a room of his own to display his portraits: arguably the two most accomplished are those from the Uffizi and the Pitti.

Rosso’s Marriage of the Virgin from San Lorenzo is one of his loveliest altarpieces, crowded and full of colour. Pontormo’s work in the chapel of Santa Felicita, with his famous frescoes, are understandably not present in the exhibition (but can be seen just a few steps away across the Arno), but the lovely little stained-glass window from the chapel and the painted tondo have been brought here so that they can be seen at close range. His Crucifixion, salvaged from a tabernacle near Villa della Petraia and housed in the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, is also on show, and even though greatly damaged it demonstrates his skills in this medium. Pontormo’s small Madonna and Child with the Young St John is here too, from the Corsini Collection (a private collection, the most important to have survived in Florence, but long closed to the public, so this is a welcome opportunity to see it).

Pontormo’s greatest work is the Visitation from the church of Carmignano close to Florence. Mary is shown embracing her older cousin Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist) in the presence of two women looking out of the painting, Mary and Elizabeth's ‘alter egos’. It has been restored for the exhibition and its colour and composition make it one of the masterpieces of 16th-century Italian painting. In the same room is Rosso’s Deposition from the church of San Lorenzo in Sansepolcro, one of his highest achievements (also recently restored so that all the details, some quite bizarre, are far more visible). His small painting of the Death of Cleopatra (now in Braunschweig), the only secular painting he produced before he left Italy for France, is particularly beautifully painted, and this is a rare occasion to see this little-known work.

The last room illustrates Rosso’s activity at the French court of François I in Fontainebleau, where he spent the last years of his life, and includes a magnificent tapestry illustrating the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, made there on a cartoon by Rosso (and now in Vienna).

The curators of the exhibition are Antonio Natali (much-admired director of the Uffizi Gallery) and the art historian Carlo Falciani. The display, by the architect Luigi Cupellini, is excellent, with clear and helpful descriptions (‘textbooks’ are provided in each room to stimulate children’s interest). Dr James M. Bradburne, Director General of the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, is to be congratulated on continuing to produce important and thoroughly enjoyable exhibitions at Palazzo Strozzi. Its programme stands out as the liveliest element in the city’s current cultural scene.

Alta Macadam is the author of Blue Guide Florence, available in both print and digital formats.

Tastes change

Tastes change. “The greater part of the sculptures of the Vatican are dead,” wrote Sacheverell Sitwell in the 1930s. Grand Tourists had once gasped at those sculpted nymphs, gods and emperors. They had sought to procure similar examples for the gardens and galleries of their country seats. How could it be, then, that they stirred so little response in the shingle-headed, Oxford-bagged swells of his own generation? But no. They were dead. “Dead, and it is impossible to see how they can ever come to life again.”

Something similar has happened now with High Baroque painting. “Caravaggio to Canaletto” is a great sweep of an exhibition just closed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. The title was artfully chosen because it names two artists in whom the public has a great deal of interest. And, unsurprisingly, the early rooms (with the nine Caravaggios on loan) and the last room (with the Canalettos) were full. Between the two, great halls were filled with works by scores of other artists, among them Guido Reni, Mattia Preti, Guercino, Carracci, Crespi. But the crowds were much thinner. Just imagine! Guido Reni was once, in the 19th century, one of the reasons why people went to Italy. “Second to nought observable in Rome” is how Browning described Reni’s Crucifixion above the high altar of San Lorenzo in Lucina. Nowadays I doubt many visitors notice that it’s there. It surely doesn’t make it into the Dorling Kindersley Top 10. Shelley was much struck by Guido Reni’s Beatrice Cenci and wrote his first play about the girl’s wretched fate. We’ve lost interest in Guido Reni now. But why does this happen?

The Romantic era, when Shelley was writing, was an age of great ‘sensibility’. Grown men did not think it ninnyish to write about daffodils. The Victorian era that followed was sentimental. A novelist could base his greatness on the creation of a character like Little Nell.

But these things all had their root in the Baroque.

Examine the painting at the top of this post. Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ of c. 1480. In it, we see a dead body, presented without fuss (but with extraordinary technique), with Mary Magdalene’s little jar of embalming oil tucked away at the back and the only emotion coming from the half-shown faces of the three anguished mourners. The spice jar is not just some random touch. It is there to show that the mourners had no idea that Jesus’ body would not decay. They fully believed that they needed to embalm it. This was the end of his life. Their grief is sincere and comfortless and ugly.

Mantegna was a master and his influence on succeeding generations of painters was great. But the two imitators whose works are shown below imitate only the component parts of the scene. They fail utterly to capture its sober and honest spirit. Why? Because their canvases are soaked with stoked up emotion and become pieces of propaganda as a result.

The first one is by a very accomplished artist: Annibale Carracci. It was painted about a century later than the Mantegna. There are no mourners. The focus is on the gory result of a gruesome execution. The nails and crown of thorns are placed beside the corpse, the body itself is liberally spattered with blood. It is very Counter Reformation. The aim is to ramp up the horror, to appeal to people’s guts rather than their brains, to win them to faith through sensation.

The other version (Orazio Borgianni, 1615) is twee. The oil jar has come to the foreground as a show-off example of how well the artist can render glass. Carracci’s nails are retained. But those are not its main faults. The problem is with the mourners. No longer do they keep a respectful distance, half out of the frame, but they clutch intemperately at the body, lean right over it, giving self-indulgent vent to their tears. Emoting. Inviting us all to have a mass cry-in. They are also young and beautiful. A lovely young woman or beauteous boy will pluck at the heart strings much more effectively than a haggard crone. Anyone in the promo business knows that.

Neither Caravaggio nor Canaletto puts this kind of “spin” on their subjects. That is why we like them. I think we are ready to go back to the Vatican sculptures. Cold stone which lets us draw our own conclusions. The High Baroque is too manipulative—and we see enough advertising in our daily lives. Let art be something nobler.

'Art under Attack' at Tate Britain

Reviewers of this exhibition (Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, running at Tate Britain until 5th January) have fretted about whether what it presents is or isn’t true ‘iconoclasm’. I don’t think it matters. The curators make it clear from the outset, on the wall caption that greets you before you even enter the first room: they know full well what true iconoclasm is: it was the fuss that began in 8th-century Constantinople when Leo III ordered the destruction of the icon of Christ which hung over the Bronze Gate. That is one thing. But today we use the word much more loosely, to mean simply ‘breaking the mould’. Of course this can be approached with a responsible intellectual purpose, to question and to elicit answers. Or it can be approached frivolously, for the sheer mischievous hell-raising fun of it, to give the poor old bourgeoisie a fit of the vapours. Iconoclasm can equally be used to mean just ‘not doing things the way they’ve always been done’. Refusing to serve Yorkshire pudding with roast beef might be enough to qualify a chef as an ‘iconoclast’. All these things form part of the exhibition's trail through the history of how works of art in Britain have been attacked, mutilated or otherwise tampered with, and the variety of motives behind it.

'The Risen Christ' panel from Binham Priory. Figure of Christ painted c.1500; overlaid text c.1539.


The first rooms deal with iconoclasm in the original sense of the word: the destruction of religious images deemed idolatrous. The scope of the exhibition does not reach beyond Britain, so we begin with Henry VIII. Whatever one thinks about it—is it sacrilege? Is it unpardonable destruction of lovely works of human hand?—it is tempting to conclude from this display that the reformers carried out a principled operation. They wanted to make it impossible to adore the painted or graven visage, so they scratched out the faces and chopped off the heads. They wanted to replace the visual pictogram of God-as-icon with the appeal to the intellect of God-as-the-Word, newly available in English translation for all to understand. A panel from the famous rood screen from Binham Priory, Norfolk, illustrates this superbly: an image of the Risen Christ was whitewashed over and replaced with text from Cranmer’s Bible. Now the whitewash is flaking away and we can see the coloured icon underneath. But the reformers didn’t indulge in wanton destruction. By the time Cromwell comes on the scene, though, a thuggish element has emerged. We read stories of stained-glass windows being taken down for zealous prelates to trample to smithereens in public acts of toeing the new line. Politics have surged on stage and personal agendas are coming to the fore: the prelates want preferment; they want to curry favour with the new ruling elite. Not only is there a kind of glee behind the smashing and hacking, but a feeling of calculation.


This is one face of political iconoclasm. But in the next room we see another: iconoclasm as a form of mass protest. An equestrian statue of the monarch is daubed in spots to make it ridiculous and impossible to respect; a pillar with Nelson on top of it is blown to smithereens in Ireland. We’ve not seen this before. Up until now, icon-smashing has taken place by official diktat (as the iconoclasm of Communism was later to do); it has been iconoclasm as political repression, the smashing of other people’s totems as a form of intimidation and a symbol of who calls the shots. Now we see icon-smashing as a vehicle for the people’s voice.


What comes next is what the curators have termed ‘aesthetic iconoclasm’: tampering with works of art (or craftsmanship) in order to make a ‘statement’. Artists traditionally have striven to make coherence out of chaos: the avant garde practitioners whose (often paltry) efforts we are shown here seem to be doing their best to make chaos out of what had once been order: the burst-apart chair; the disembowelled piano. What does this say about the psyche of the 20th century? One thing it says is that these are personal affirmations. This kind of icon-breaking is carried out neither by governments nor by the masses but by individuals, who in some cases are simply mutilating things that they don’t happen to like. The display throws up plenty of questions for our pluralistic age. How are we to tolerate each other with no central control of what we believe in or approve of? Do we even have universally recognised icons any more? Is it OK to throw a can of paint over the result of someone else’s freedom of expression because personally we find it ‘offensive’? Do artists have a responsibility to society? And if so, what is it?

The exhibition doesn’t answer these questions. But they are valid questions to have asked. The best thing in the last part of the show is Douglas Gordon’s burned poster of Warhol’s screen prints of Queen Elizabeth II. For this is destruction of a twofold icon: a Warhol work of art and Her Majesty the Queen, a beautiful young monarch. And here the exhibition comes full circle. We are back to the Virgin Mary, to an image of a reverend figure insulted and abused. Gordon himself described his work as ‘homage to Warhol and an act of desecration’.


The exhibition itself, in a way, leads us from order into chaos. It functions as a microcosm of what iconoclasm does when it takes a hammer to a work of art. The clarity of the narrative begins to waver after the first rooms, with their impeccable presentation of historical iconoclasm, through the turmoil of the political rooms to the utter muddle of the aesthetic rooms—but we live in a muddled age, so the progression works. It mirrors humanity’s own progression from a world of centrally-imposed certainties to one of democratically enhanced confusion. In the room that deals with the suffragettes’ attacks on works of art, we learn all about Mary Richardson and her butchery of the Rokeby Venus: she swung her knife at a beautiful painted woman in protest at the way Emmeline Pankhurst, ‘a beautiful living woman’, was being treated in prison. There is a lovely irony in this. Because of course the Rokeby Venus presents us with the ultimate iconodule or worshipper of icons: Venus gazes at herself in a looking glass: this is a goddess adoring her own image. Mary Richardson may not have thought of that. Wyndham Lewis’s response in Blast, which the exhibition is careful to remind us of, was patronising, perhaps, but apt: ‘Leave art alone, brave Comrades! In destruction, as in other things, stick to what you understand.’

The Rokeby Venus: iconodule.

Renaissance art from Florence to Paris and back

Self-portrait by Nélie Jacquemart

by Alta Macadam

A small but very choice exhibition has come to Florence from the Jacquemart-André Museum in Paris (runs until 31st December). It is housed in the Villa Bardini, one of the city's most recent exhibition spaces, home also to a museum of the huge collection that was put together by the art dealer Stefano Bardini in the 1870s and 1880s.

From the entrance you make your way through the villa garden, designed around a central staircase flanked by beds where the plants are changed according to the season, and box hedges. The grottoes and wall fountains produce a pleasing sound of water which melts into the peaceful tones of birdsong. The garden is in the very heart of Florence and the truly magnificent, unique close-up view of the city is its most spectacular feature.

It is particularly fitting that the exhibition from the Jacquemart-André should be exhibited here since Edouard André and Nélie Jacquemart both knew and corresponded with Stefano Bardini and purchased some Renaissance works from him in the 1880s. Edouard died in 1894 and it was Nélie who created the famous Italian Renaissance section of their renowned Parisian museum (she herself was a skilled painter, and her self-portrait from 1880 is also on display here).

All the paintings in the exhibition are of very high quality (and nearly all of them are in very fine frames, mostly original). The portrait of a lute-player by Francesco Salviati could be taken at first glance for a Pontormo: it is a magnficent painting, memorable too for the prettily striped cloth in the foreground. Mantegna’s Ecce Homo (c. 1500) is one of the treasures of the collection. Cima da Conegliano’s Madonna and Child includes a lovely landscape, and the Madonna is dressed in a magnificent red, blue and golden cloak. The loveliest of three works attributed to Botticelli is the smallest, a Madonna and Child which, although damaged, reveals the master’s skill in the delicate rendering of the Madonna’s hair, veil and halo. Another famous work is Paolo Uccello’s St George and the Dragon: the thin beast is full of character, though it is perhaps the walled garden in the background which is the most interesting part of the work.

Other paintings by less well-known artists, but all of extreme interest, include a tiny Narcissus (by an early 15th-century Umbrian artist); a portrait of a man in profile, one of the best works by the Dalmatian artist Giorgio Culinovic known as Schiavone, dated 1504; a crowded processional scene attributed to Verrocchio and his workshop; and a tiny painting of Christ of the Apocalypse by Zanobi Strozzi (unfortunately damaged). A charming scene of a birth by Scheggia is set in a pink and grey house and shows a group of six men approaching the bedside bearing gifts (mostly welcome food!). This was clearly a desco da parto, a circular ‘tray’ presented to a mother after childbirth (and traditionally used for her first meal). Many such deschi have survived, some of them painted by the best artists of the day.

Interspersed amongst the paintings are some exquisite small sculptures, including a small bronze Hercules and the Centaur by Giambologna, a tiny bronze plaque of Judith and the Head of Holofernes by Riccio, and a rectangular relief in bronze of the Martyrdom of St Sebastian by Donatello (especially interesting for its unusual iconography).

This exhibition is well worth visiting, both for its superb works as well as for the setting of the villa itself on its garden hillside in the very centre of Florence. And you can leave by the door on Costa San Giorgio and walk a few metres up that lovely old walled lane to the Forte di Belvedere, which has recently been reopened to the public after many years of closure. It provides another celebrated viewpoint of the city.

Alta Macadam is the author of many Italian Blue Guides, including Blue Guide Florence

International Gothic at the Uffizi

International Gothic in Florence, 1375–1440 (and Paolo Uccello’s “Battle of San Romano” restored). Alta Macadam reports on an exhibition at the Galleria degli Uffizi, open until 4th November

This large exhibition is a sequel to one held in 2008 entitled “The Legacy of Giotto. Art in Florence, 1340–75” and, given the longer time span that it covers, is perhaps rather less coherent than the previous show. Many artists have been included in an attempt to bring together different strands of artistic development in the city, and at times the sequence is rather confusing. The greatest artists usually connected to the movement known as International Gothic—Lorenzo Monaco and Gentile da Fabriano—are represented with only one work each. However, the exhibition has provided the opportunity for some important loans from abroad and it also gives prominence to many works in Florence and its environs little known to the general public, or not generally on view.

The earliest works include a Madonna and Child by Niccolò di Pietro Gerini from the lovely church of San Martino a Mensola (a few hundred metres below Villa I Tatti), which is displayed with its original side panels of four saints from the nearby church of San Lorenzo beside the castle of Vincigliata (the Italian state purchased them for the Uffizi last year). In the same room are two delightful wooden reliquary busts dating from the 1380s, one of St Andrew, also from the church of San Martino a Mensola (but up until now not on view there) and the other of a companion of St Ursula from the (little-visited) Museo di Santa Maria Novella. Another early piece of sculpture from the same period is a charming little sitting lion inpietra forte which was once just one of some twenty lions in the Loggia della Signoria, but for years has been hidden away in the over-crowded rooms of the Museo di Firenze Antica in the convent of San Marco. Another piece of early sculpture which has never before been prominently displayed is the very fine statuette of a prophet made for the Duomo by Lorenzo di Giovanni and which now belongs to the Bargello. Lorenzo’s father, Giovanni d’Ambrogio, is also well represented by two statues of the Annunciation made for the tympanum of the Porta della Mandorla of the Duomo (uncovered just a few months ago after many years of restoration). The virile classical head of the Madonna is particularly striking, showing the influence of Humanism. Also in a transitional style from the Gothic is the fine Annunciation from the Galleria dell’Accademia by the Master of the Straus Madonna (here tentatively identified with Ambrogio di Baldese). It has an unusual background with an open door as well as an interesting frame.

In the largest room in the exhibition no fewer than three of the huge original statues from the exterior of Orsanmichele are displayed. The curators had the good idea to add to the explanatory panel here that these are normally on show, together with all the other original statues from the exterior tabernacles, in the Museo di Orsanmichele (open every Monday), since this remains unjustly one of Florence’s least visited museums. The Orsanmichele statues chosen for the exhibition include the St Peter made for the guild of butchers, which has represented one of the most puzzling problems of attribution for generations of art historians. On this occasion both Ciuffagni and Donatello have been discarded in favour of a tentative suggestion that Brunelleschi’s hand may be detected, but in the end it has simply been attributed to an anonymous master called the “Maestro di San Pietro di Orsanmichele”. Also for some reason displayed in this room is one of the most lovely paintings in the entire exhibition, the littleAnnunciation from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Formerly thought to be by the Sienese artist Pietro di Giovanni d’Ambrogio, it is here firmly attributed to Paolo Uccello. Gothic in spirit with a gold ground, this is a fascinating work, with the Madonna elegantly dressed in a robe matching the bright blue colour of the loggia. Another beautiful painting here, which is much better known, is Lorenzo Monaco’s Adoration of the Magi from the Uffizi. The exquisite fresco from Empoli of Christ in Pietà by Masolino is very well chosen, and this very important artist is also represented in a later room in the exhibition with his splendid painting of St Julian, dressed in crimson, from the Museo Diocesano di Santo Stefano a Ponte in Florence (a marvellous opportunity to see this work, as the museum is almost always closed).

A small room is devoted to the desert fathers known as the Thebaids (they lived in the desert around Thebes in Egypt), a subject which fascinated the painters of the time. Here the nine fragments from the Kunsthaus in Zurich by a Camaldolese monk called Giuliano Amadei are particularly interesting. However, the better known painting from the Uffizi collection of the lives of these early ascetics is displayed here without an author, and indeed the suggestion that it could even have been painted as late as the 18th century.

In the section entitled “The Sumptuary Arts”, there is a remarkable reliquary from the Badia di San Salvatore a Settimo, on the banks of the Arno west of Florence. Also from outside Florence, and little known to the general public, there is a very beautiful Madonna and Child enthroned with six Angels, dating from around 1424 by Arcangelo di Cola da Camerino (from the church of Santi Ippolito e Donato in Bibbiena in the Casentino).

Another room displays a very rare miniature portable altar from a private collection. In the form of a little shrine, it is simply decorated outside with green and white geometrical forms which recall the exterior of the Baptistery and San Miniato al Monte, and inside has paintings in watercolour on paper of the Madonna and Child with angels and (on the doors) the two patron saints of travellers (St Nicholas and St Julian). Given its size and fragility, it is extraordinary that it has survived for nearly six hundred years. It is attributed to the Master of the Sherman Predella, an anonymous master named from a small panel in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts which is fittingly displayed here beside it. This exquisite work is not in fact a predella but a panel with three scenes (the Martyrdom of St Agnes, the Flagellation of Christ with the Virgin swooning, and the penitent St Jerome) against a particularly remarkable background of dunes with a rough sea beyond, beneath a night sky. It includes a loggia which has decorations similar to the green lozenges painted on the exterior of the little portable altar.

The exhibition continues in the opposite wing of the Uffizi. The paintings here include a curious very small portrait of a young man from the Alana collection in New York attributed doubtfully to Masaccio, and two panels from the Quaratesi polyptch of St Nicholas in the Vatican by Gentile da Fabriano who is, perhaps surprisingly, not otherwise present in the exhibition. A fresco by the little-known painter Francesco d’Antonio di Bartolomeo from the church of San Niccolò Oltrarno representing St Ansanus is particularly delightful. An unusual painting which used to serve as the front of a wedding-chest representing an allegory of the Seven Liberal Arts by Giovanni del Ponte has been lent by the Prado in Madrid. There is also a Madonna and Child with saints and angels by the same artist from the little-visited church of San Salvatore al Monte, in its original frame. Numerous illuminated liturgical and devotional books, including a missal from Milan illustrated by Fra Angelico, accompany the paintings and sculptures. Two wooden Crucifixes are displayed opposite each other, one by Donatello from the convent of Bosco ai Frati in the Mugello and the other by Michelozzo from the church of San Niccolò Oltrarno.

The glorious conclusion of the exhibition is the Uffizi’s Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello, just restored. Now called The Unhorsing of Bernardino Ubaldini della Carda, Commander of the Sienese Troops (and illustrated at the top of this piece), it was the central one of the three famous panels commissioned by Ludovico Bartolini Salimbeni to commemorate the battle fought in the lower Valdarno in 1432 in which the Florentines were victorious over the Sienese (the other two panels are in the National Gallery of London and the Louvre). Lorenzo the Magnificent confiscated all three paintings from Salimbeni’s sons in 1484 so that he could enjoy them in his bedroom in Palazzo Medici. The original colours, with oranges and reds dominating, have been restored and the entire painting is now much more legible in all its extraordinary details. Multi-media supports and a video explain all its intricacies and the play of perspective used by Uccello, who was one of the last great painters in the Gothic style but whose works also show that he fully understood the significance of the arrival of the new Renaissance spirit in painting.

Luca Signorelli on exhibition in Umbria

Luca Signorelli (c.1441–1523) was born in Cortona, Tuscany, close to the Umbrian border. It is with Umbria that he is always associated, for his masterpiece in the cathedral of Orvieto and for the fact that the town of Città di Castello proclaimed him a citizen in 1488. This year his work is being celebrated in no less than three venues in Umbria (Perugia, Orvieto and Città di Castello), until 26 August (the last retrospective exhibition dedicated to this major central Italian artist was in 1953).

Perugia: The exhibition in Perugia (at the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria) has a very large number of works, collected together for the first time from museums all over the world, as well as a superb selection of Signorelli’s graphic output (many from the British Museum and the Louvre), which shows that he was also an outstanding draughtsman.

The show opens with one of the greatest works by Signorelli’s master, Piero della Francesca, the Madonna di Senigalliafrom the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino. Visitors can also see another masterpiece by Piero just a few rooms away in the same gallery, the Sant’Antonio polpytych (particularly memorable for the top panel of the Annunciation).

Signorelli’s early period, showing the strong influence of Piero, is documented by a number of works—some of them of doubtful attribution, although the lovely Madonna and Child with three angels from Christ Church, Oxford, seems to reveal the artist’s own hand. The single predella panel from the Louvre, of the Birth and Naming of St John the Baptist, is an exquisite work. The two small panels from the (dismembered) Bichi altarpiece with superbly painted male nudes from Toledo, Ohio, are particularly fascinating and unusual. A number of Signorelli’s famous tondi of the Madonna and Child are included, the best perhaps being those from the Uffizi and Pitti in Florence. There is a tiny portrait of a boy from Philadelphia, which is particularly intriguing even though it seems to have been rather over-restored. The four predella panels of the Life of the Virgin formerly beneath the superb Annunciation from the Pinacoteca in Volterra (also on show) have been reunited for this occasion: two are from a private collection in Scotland; one from Richmond, Virginia; and the last from the National Gallery of Washington. The men just killed by the dragon in the foreground of the St George from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam recall the male nudes in the Cappella Nova in Orvieto. The Madonna and Child on a decorative gold ground from the Metropolitan Museum in New York is particularly poignant, as we know that Signorelli gave it to his daughter Gabriella in 1507.

Orvieto: The exhibition here is understandably much smaller since of course the great attraction is the Last Judgementcycle of frescoes in the Cappella Nova in the cathedral, which has been given longer opening hours for this occasion (the extraordinary video with details of Signorelli’s wonderful frescoes can only be viewed at the Perugia exhibition). His monumental Mary Magdalene, which belongs to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, is the most important work on exhibition there, but it is also particularly interesting to be able to visit the newly restored Albèri library with its very unusual frescoed decorations carried out around the same time that Signorelli was at work next door in the cathedral. Here is displayed a controversial double portrait (including a self-portrait) frescoed on a terracotta tile (its attribution to Signorelli has been under discussion for decades but recent research carried out for this exhibition suggests it is, indeed, an autograph work).

Città di Castello: Later works are exhibited here, and in particular the two masterpieces owned by the Pinacoteca Comunale: a processional banner and the Martyrdom of St Sebastian. The visit also provides the opportunity to explore the lovely villages in the upper Tiber valley and the little oratory just outside Morra which was in part frescoed by Signorelli.

The Perugia exhibition in particular is well worth travelling from afar to see as it provides a remarkably complete documentation of this great artist’s ouput, an artist who so often seems to be well ahead of his contemporaries in his exploration of the human figure and whose work always contains an element of intriguing eccentricity.

Reviewed by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Central Italy, Blue Guide Tuscany, Blue Guide Rome, Blue Guide Concise Rome, Blue Guide Florence, Blue Guide Venice.


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