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Selectivity at the Uffizi

Talking to a friend a few weeks ago, he mentioned that he was about to go back to the Uffizi with a grandchild and would be showing him just five paintings there. A method of ensuring not only his full attention but also his appreciation. I can only imagine what a memorable occasion that will be for the child.

 

Returning myself to the gallery the other day, I took the lift up to the first floor, and on the stair landing, outside the entrance to the Prints and Drawings Room, a little room exhibits just one work owned by the Uffizi, (and it will be kept there until 30th April). This is a large triptych signed and dated 1461 by Nicolas Froment, a little-known artist from Picardy, much influenced by the Flemish school. It came to Italy because it was commissioned by Francesco Coppini, Bishop of Terni, probably while he was in Flanders. Born in Prato, Coppini had a distinguished early career as a lawyer and diplomat, and Leon Battista Alberti dedicated his De Iure to him in 1437. He was sent to northern Europe by Pope Pius II and when in England, as papal legate, he attempted to interfere in the War of the Roses. When he sided with Edward of York, who was crowned king in 1461, against the House of Lancaster, the pope promptly disowned him and he was defrocked when he returned to Rome.

 

Meanwhile the painting seems to have reached Pisa by 1465, but just what happened to it afterwards is not known: we next have news of it in the Franciscan monastery of Bosco ai Frati in the Mugello (apparently a gift from a Medici). When the monastery was suppressed by Napoleon it came to Florence, joining the Uffizi collection in the early 19th century, attributed to an anonymous German painter. It is only since 1878 that Froment has been identified as the French master of this triptych as well as that of the Burning Bush painted for René of Anjou in 1478 (and now in the cathedral of Aix-en-Provence).

 

Today it has been wonderfully restored and is especially interesting for its subject matter, since it shows not just the central Raising of Lazarus, but also, on the left, the scene before the miracle, when Martha informs the Saviour that her brother is dead (the figure of Martha is the most memorable of all the figure studies in the painting) and, on the right, the Saviour seated at table after performing the miracle, having his feet anointed by Mary Magdalene. Lazarus (still with his beard and moustache, but now looking much better, dressed in blue) is sharing the meal. In this panel the fascinating details include a formal garden outside the window, and, on the table, a succulent roast chicken flavoured with herbs, a segment of pear with a fly settled on it, and a salt cellar. Judas (with a little fluffy dog at his feet) is the ugly disciple pointing at Mary, and Peter is the one cutting a slice from a loaf of bread by holding it and drawing his sharp knife towards himself (a gesture still sometimes to be seen at an Italian picnic). The central panel, with its lovely Gothic gilded fretwork, includes a self-portrait of the artist looking at us, and an amusing ‘courtier’ elaborately dressed trying to survive the stench coming from the decomposing body of Lazarus (who certainly looks as if he has indeed ‘returned from the dead’).

 

The triptych of three oak panels was made so that it could be closed, and on the panels of the door Coppini kneels before the Virgin.

 

On the wall of the room, a video illustrates details from the under-drawing, which was found through reflectography during restoration, and shows where the artist had second thoughts and altered his original design. The presentation is accompanied by an excellent little catalogue in Italian and English.

 

To learn about a painting’s history, and the technique used in producing it, apart from the name of the author and the subject matter, adds so much to its interest and increases one’s appreciation. It seems a very good idea to provide visitors with an in-depth study of one painting in this way, and hopefully it will encourage people to become more selective in what they choose to see among so many masterpieces in the gallery.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

News from Florence: Giovanni dal Ponte

There is a very interesting small exhibition (on until 12 March) at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence dedicated to the little-known painter Giovanni dal Ponte (or Giovanni di Marco di Giovanni, 1385–1437/8). It is introduced with a stunning triptych by him of the Coronation of the Virgin (illustrated above), which belongs to the Accademia Gallery and has been restored for the occasion. The white mantle of the Virgin is memorable, and St Ivo, in his pink robes and red beret (he was the protector of judges and lawyers), makes a rare appearance together with three other saints. Numerous other works by dal Ponte have been collected together here from churches in Florence and Tuscany as well as from the Prado, the National Gallery of London, the Fogg Art Museum and private collections in Hartford, Connecticut and Philadelphia.

Giovanni’s place amongst the Florentine artists of ‘late Gothic Humanism’ is explored and illustrated with some of the best works produced by his immediate predecessors and illustrious contemporaries: a triptych from Würzburg by Gherardo Starnina; an exquisite Madonna and Child with two angels, one of Fra’ Angelico’s earliest works from Rotterdam; and the little gilded bronze door of a tabernacle with Christ Blessing by Lorenzo Ghiberti. This is also the occasion to see together two small works painted around 1426 by Masolino and Masaccio, both of saints holding swords: Masolino’s St Julian in different tones of red comes from the closed Museo Diocesano in Florence, and Masaccio’s St Paul from the Museo di San Matteo in Pisa. Despite their dimension and subject matter, they both illustrate the extraordinary skills of these two masters.

The predella and cusps from Giovanni dal Ponte’s triptych of St John the Evangelist, purchased by the National Gallery of London in 1857, is particularly interesting for the scene of two disciples distributing alms before being converted and baptised by the elderly St John the Evangelist. The disciples are seen taking their clothes off as they wait at the well. In the central predella panel of St John at Patmos, four angels are struggling with lions while he is stretched out asleep on a rock, and a dragon blows fire in a starry sky.

In the last room there is a marriage chest (cassone) with suitable painted scenes in a ‘Garden of Love’, of particular interest as this has remained intact as a piece of furniture (almost all other cassoni were broken up in later centuries when their principal painted panel was removed to be sold). It is preserved in the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris. Also here are the surviving panels from Giovanni’s Polyptych of St Peter: Four Saints from the Museo Bandini in Fiesole and its predella from the Uffizi, here reunited for the first time.

The exhibition is accompanied by an excellent catalogue, complete with index.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

More than just the David

Although Michelangelo’s David is today considered the most important single art object to be seen in Florence (or possibly one of three, along with Botticelli’s Spring and Birth of Venus in the Uffizi), it was largely ignored by visitors up until around 1860, soon after which it was brought inside from Piazza della Signoria to be protected in a specially-built ‘tribune’ in the Galleria dell’Accademia. By 1868 Baedeker had decided it merited a star, and in the 1903 edition of the guide it had become ‘celebrated’.

 

Today one has the impression that very few tourists are prepared for the many treasures to be seen at the Galleria dell’Accademia, which are of quite another character from Michelangelo’s (now ‘famous’) David. These range from 350 plaster models from the studio of the 19th-century sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini; the collection of musical instruments made by the last Medici and the Lorraine grand dukes, considered one of the most important in Italy (where you can also listen to recordings); Florentine paintings from the time of Giotto up to the 16th century; a large group of paintings by Michelangelo’s close contemporaries; and exquisite individual works such as Giovanni da Milano’s Man of Sorrows (1365). The new director, Cecilie Hollberg, seems to have every intention to steer visitors to all the different parts of the gallery, not just the hall with Michelangelo’s Slaves and St Matthew, and the tribune with his David.

 

One could almost wish the arrangement of the galleries could be reversed, since at present visitors can be disorientated by the itinerary imposed: you start in the large room of 15th- and early 16th-century paintings with the plaster model made by Giambologna for his Rape of the Sabines in the Loggia della Signoria. Off this is the museum of musical instruments, after which you pass through the gallery with Michelangelo’s great works. From the tribune with the David there are conspicuous signs to the exit which is routed through the gift shop. But you also pass three rooms of the earliest paintings and this is also the way to the stairs (and inconspicuous lift) to the top floor, where there are paintings dating from 1370 to 1430.

Some of the most interesting works it would be a great pity to miss on the race to the David and then out, are described below:

 

Close together on the entrance wall of the first room are two paintings dated around 1460: the so-called Cassone Adimari (which may have been a bed-head or a wainscot) with brightly coloured, elegant scenes of a wedding pageant by Masaccio’s younger brother, Lo Scheggia; and, in great contrast, a very dark painting of The Thebaids thought to be by Paolo Uccello. Other curious scenes exist of these desert fathers, who lived around Thebes in Egypt, including one in the Uffizi which is attributed in situ to Fra’ Angelico (even though some art historians have suggested it could have been painted in the 18th century). Also hung on this wall are two beautiful Madonnas by Botticelli dating from the following decade.

 

Among the well-labelled paintings by Michelangelo’s Florentine contemporaries, one of the most curious (it hangs on the end wall to the right of the David) is the crowded Allegory of the Immaculate Conception, the best work of the eccentric painter Carlo Portelli (signed and dated 1566 on the stool on the left). The iconography is unique, with the graceful, naked Eve portrayed prominently below the Madonna (the new ‘Eve’), while Adam is shown still asleep. At the time the nudity of Eve caused a scandal and she was given a fur coat to restore her modesty. This was finally removed in a restoration in 2013.

 

The Salone is filled with the 19th-century sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini’s models for his works in marble. This huge, well-lit hall was formerly the ward of the hospital of San Matteo (a little painting by Pontormo shows the room at that time). The extraordinary collection of models (often more interesting than the final marble versions) is arranged more or less as it was left in Bartolini’s studio. The works include serried ranks of some 250 busts: a group of them (on the right and left of the entrance) record the English visitors to Florence who asked Bartolini if they could sit for their portraits (many of these are unique, as the whereabouts of the marble versions, which ended up in private collections in Britain are often no longer known). This is not the case with his well-known portraits of Byron and his mistress Teresa Gamba Guiccioli (there are marble versions both in the National Portrait Gallery in London and in the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Palazzo Pitti). The son of a Tuscan blacksmith, Bartolini spent time in Paris where he worked in the atelier of David and met Ingres, who later painted two portraits of the sculptor. By the time of his death in 1850, he had become the best-known sculptor in Italy. There is an excellent website with a database still in progress.

 

In the three rooms of the earliest paintings is Giovanni da Milano’s moving Man of Sorrows (beneath the window in the room on the left) and works by other followers of Giotto (and even a fresco fragment with a shepherd and goats attributed to the master himself).

 

The very peaceful upper floor is a place to savour, away from the crowds. There are even comfortable places to sit down (totally absent on the ground floor). The display is excellent and the extraordinary colourful altarpieces, especially those by Lorenzo Monaco and (on the end wall of the main room) a Coronation of the Virgin by the less well-known Rossello di Jacopo Franchi present a magnificent sight. Here too is an extraordinarily beautiful embroidered altar-frontal from Santa Maria Novella, signed and dated 1336 by a certain Jacopo di Cambio, with scenes from the life of the Virgin decorated with numerous birds. There is a small study room on this floor where you can consult catalogues, also online.

 

The Gallery has space for small exhibitions, always worth seeing, and usually connected to the permanent collection (in 2015 there was an exhibition of all the paintings known by Carlo Portelli).

 

So far this year there has been no queue to enter the gallery, but when the crowds begin in March you should book online. NB: All other booking websites charge more and should be avoided. You can also book by telephone, T: 055 294883. When in Florence you can also buy your ticket and book a visit directly opposite the entrance to the gallery at the bookshop and café called myaccademia.com for the same price as at the gallery ticket office itself (the other ticket offices in this street charge more).


It is worthwhile remembering that throughout the year the gallery is almost always much less crowded in the late afternoon (and in the height of the season it can sometimes have extended opening hours).

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

The formidable Empress Matilda

Who was Matilda of Canossa? Last year, the Casa Buonarroti in Florence housed an exhibition dedicated to her, a woman who might seem to have little to do with the great sculptor who once owned the house that is now a museum to his memory. But the connection becomes clear when we are reminded of Michelangelo's concern to prove that he was descended from an important family. He chose for his ancestors no less than the Canossa. Surviving letters from Michelangelo to his nephew, reminding him of this connection, prove his determination to establish this link. Amusingly enough, a letter even survives from a certain Count of Canossa to Michelangelo confirming their illustrious—if fictitious—parentage.

 

Matilda (1046–1115) is still one of the most famous women in history, and the 900th anniversary of death was celebrated in 2015 in various towns of Italy. The Italian expression andare a Canossa is still sometimes used to signify an action which involves great humiliation. For it was Matilda who, in her impregnable castle of Canossa, south of Parma, in 1077, proudly received the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, after he had waited outside the walls, barefoot in the snow in one of the bitterest winters on record, to ask her to intercede on his behalf with her great friend Pope Gregory VII to lift his excommunication.

 

But her story begins much earlier. Parchments bearing her signature survive to this day, her name written in a bold hand: Matilda dei Gratia si quid est. Quite simply: 'Matilda who by the Grace of God is who she is'). Matlida’s father, Boniface, Margrave of Tuscany, administered vast territories in Italy on behalf of the Holy Roman Emperor. When he was killed, his wife Beatrice took over from him together with her daughter Matilda (then only aged six). By feudal law women were not allowed to inherit, so this action naturally led to disputes but Matilda managed to hold onto the land after her mother's death. She allied herself with the pope and encouraged his independence, too, from the Holy Roman Emperor. To uphold her claim she used laws set down in the Justinian Code, since that great Roman emperor had established that female heirs had the same rights as male. Matilda employed distinguished jurists to study Justinian's Digest concerning civil laws (which he laid out in just 27 brief and memorable sentences), including the fundamental concept that "all men are equal".

 

Matilda spent her life founding or restoring cathedrals and churches in Italian territory (she is credited with some 100 such works) and facilitated travel between them, as well as building a circle of walls around Florence to keep the emperor out. She transferred her powers as ruler to the towns of Florence, Pisa and Lucca, and saw to it that the feudal claims of the Holy Roman Emperor over the people on Italian territory were extinguished. In effect she also helped to diminish the emperor's secular power over the papacy, and supported Pope Gregory VII in his reforms (and formally left her lands to the papacy). As a young woman she often travelled with the Pope through Italian territory (her detractors suggested she was his concubine), and she promptly abandoned not one but two husbands when they took refuge with the Emperor. Indeed, the history of Italy’s free communes can with some justification be traced to her.

 

A contemporary biography of Matilda was written by a monk from Canossa called Donizone. It has delightful illustrations showing Matilda enthroned and very much in command. Another extant manuscript shows her with Anselm, Bishop of Canterbury. On her death she was buried in the monastery church of San Benedetto Po but in 1634 Urban VIII decided to transfer her remains to St Peter's. He made history when he did so, as Matilda was not only the first woman but the first lay person, neither pope nor saint, to be buried there. Bernini designed the statue for her tomb. Her monument is mentioned in Blue Guide Rome and the ruins of her castle at Canossa feature in Blue Guide Emilia Romagna; but she will certainly get a stronger billing in the other Blue Guides to Italy from now on. One can only admire Michelangelo for choosing this Grancontessa as his ancestor.

by Alta Macadam

The new Museo degli Innocenti

The long-awaited new museum of the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Piazza Santissima Annunziata in Florence finally opened last month. Its most famous works of art, the enamelled terracotta medallions which Andrea della Robbia added in 1487 to Brunelleschi's portico in the piazza, are currently exhibited at eye level since their restoration. The babies in swaddling clothes in roundels about a metre in diameter are wonderfully made, all ten of them with outstretched arms but each with highly individual expressions. The swaddling bands of the boys are unravelled. This is a unique chance to see these masterpieces close up, as it is planned to return them to their original positions outside.

 

The museum space has been expanded into the basement of the building where the history of this remarkable Institute is clearly recorded (also with the help of video installations). Opened in 1445, it was the first foundling hospital in Europe, where destitute mothers could take their babies (leaving them at a special window under the portico, without being seen) The babies were then given out to wet-nurses, and when weaned could return to live here. The orphanage was recognised in later centuries as one of the most up-to-date institutions of its kind. One of the most touching parts of the museum is a room where cupboards have been installed with 140 little drawers which you can open one by one to see the identification tags left with the babies by their mothers in the hope that one day they would be able to be reunited with them. These anonymous 'messages' take the form of jewels, keepsakes, notes, pieces of cloth, rosary beads, coral, etc., and all of them were carefully preserved in the Archive of the Institute under the name of the child given to him or her when they entered the Innocenti.

 

On the ground floor is the exquisite 15th-century oblong cloister (derived from designs by Brunelleschi) next to the larger cloister decorated in the following century. The works of art are still exhibited in the long gallery once used as a day nursery on an upper floor. The masterpieces here are Luca della Robbia's white enamelled terracotta Madonna and Child and Domenico Ghirlandaio's painting of the Adoration of the Magi, which includes two of the "Innocenti" foundlings in the foreground. There is access to the roof terrace, once used for drying laundry and subsequently for the nurses and children to take the air, and now a delightful café. All the new stairs and constructions in the museum are in good taste (except perhaps for the golden entrance and exit in the Piazza).

 

Since the reopening of the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo last year, the reopening of this museum is a significant event, demonstrating that Florence is now at the forefront of museum design.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence

Jesters at the Court of the Medici

Front view of Bronzino's double portrait of the Medici court dwarf Baccio di Bartolo (1552).

A delightful small exhibition at Palazzo Pitti in Florence (until 11th September) of genre paintings and portraits from the mid-16th century to the early 18th illustrates the protagonists of the comic, sometimes bizarre side of court life in Florence in those years, which was otherwise locked away from public view. Visitors are asked to be prepared to see the ironic humour in the works displayed. The new director of the Gallerie degli Uffizi (which now includes all the museums in Palazzo Pitti), Eike Schmidt, plans this as one of a series of exhibitions of works from the gallery’s important deposits (which include some 1,200 paintings) that will give curators a welcome opportunity to study them and restore them. Schmidt gave due credit to the late Marco Chiarini, for many years director of the Galleria Palatina, for having planned the exhibition (the lovely small catalogue is dedicated to his memory). Schmidt also invited the President of the Italian association dedicated to those affected with achondroplasia (the condition which causes dwarfism) to speak at the opening and he gave a moving account of how 'diversity' can be equated with value.

 

The exhibition occupies a suite of rooms on the landing known as the Andito degli Angiolini, below the entrance to the Galleria d'Arte Moderna, and has excellent labelling together with some delightful quotes from the literature of the times, including Castiglione and Bernardo Ricci ('......everyone needs happiness and laughter'). It takes up just five well-arranged small rooms. The importance of comedy and laughter to the Medici is illustrated by the official court painter, Suttermans’s portrait of the court jester. There are also portraits of six jolly members of the ducal household in the servants' hall after a hunt; as well as a remarkable painting of two elderly peasant women, one holding a duck and one a basket of eggs, accompanied by a black page with a pearl earring (the label records that the names of all three of these people are known to us since they frequently appear in Ferdinando II's account books). Other well-known painters of the time whose works are included in the exhibition include Anton Domenico Gabbiani (a portrait of four Medici servants), Cesare Dandini (a young shepherd with a hornpipe) and Niccolò Cassano (two court jesters from Prince Ferdinando's inner circle dressed as huntsmen). But the most important painting is Bronzino’s well-known portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici's favourite dwarf, Baccio di Bartolo (ironically nicknamed after the giant Morgante), painted on both sides so seen both from front and back, and which includes extraordinary botanical details.

 

The exhibition also includes paintings by lesser-known masters such as Faustino Bocchi, who was at work in the late 17th century (a delightful, playful painting of dwarves bathing beneath huge passion flowers; and a queen riding a cat cheered on by a crowd of dwarves). There are also paintings by unknown artists, of which one of the most memorable is the portrait from the first half of the 17th century of a player of the ball game known as pallottola: the protagonist is shown dressed in magnificent breeches as he tosses the ball beneath his leg. Although not strictly related to the theme, the superb painting by Joseph Heintz the Younger entitled Orpheus in the Underworld has been included as it was owned by the Medici and shows the astonished young hero standing in a magical setting with creatures all around him in a performance which, as the label suggests, is reminiscent of a modern-day musical.

 

The exhibition extends into the Boboli Gardens, where the sculpture of the nude Morgante riding a tortoise is one of Florence's most famous statues (it is by Valerio Cioli and dates from around 1564; his statue of another dwarf, Pietro Barbino, made around the same time, can be seen in the Kaffeehaus, which has been opened specially for the exhibition). They are just some of the many statues of peasants, players and jocose figures which adorn the beautiful gardens behind Palazzo Pitti.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

Secret delights of Florence: the Bellini private museum

Archive view of the Arno looking west. Museo Bellini is further downstream on the left bank.

Almost the first house you come to on the peaceful Lungarno Soderini (which skirts the Arno as it flows downstream away from the centre of Florence) is the Museo Bellini, in a charming small building designed at the turn of the last century by the eccentric architect Gino Coppedè for Luigi Bellini, the most famous collector and antiquarian in a family still dedicated to this activity (and who still live here). A wisteria in the garden climbs all the way along the front across the little balcony. It was built specifically to house the Bellini collection, put together by generations of the family since the mid-18th century (and is connected to their residence by a spiral stair). The interior is filled with many precious works of art: paintings and sculptures; genuine, unrestored 15th- and 16th-century furniture; majolica and works by the Della Robbia, and small bronzes. The present Luigi Bellini tells of travels in Italy with his father when just a young child: while waiting outside a house while a transaction was underway he would open his bag and play with the small bronzes he found there.

 

The property is much larger than it appears from the river front: it stretches all the way back to Borgo San Frediano, and the rooms get older as the property recedes. The oldest part, Palazzo Soderini, dates from the 15th century or even earlier.

The atmosphere is unforgettable and it seems almost superfluous to name some of the treasures, or to be too fussy over the attributions (perhaps sometimes over-ambitious) and dates. But to give an idea of the diversity, there are paintings by Bronzino, Suttermans, Luca Carnevalis (a view of Venice), Guidoriccio Cozzarelli (two gold-ground panels with saints), and even a little private altar of the Madonna with the standing Child attributed to Fra' Angelico (the doors of the tabernacle are opened for you). But it is perhaps the Cupid and Psyche, thought to be by Rubens, which is the most striking painting of all. The painted wood sculpture includes two beautiful pieces by Francesco da Valdambrino, and there is a splendid collection of small Renaissance bronzes (some of them charmingly displayed in a 16th-century sacristy cupboard). There is also a painted papier-mâché bust of a female saint showing affinities with Donatello and a female bust in wood (which still has its real lace bonnet intact) probably by Neroccio di Bartolomeo Landi (this, together with other pieces, was purchased in an early 20th-century sale at Palazzo Davanzati).  A very fine polychrome stucco bas-relief of the Deposition is given to the hand of Bandinelli. The majolica comes from the best known manufactories in Italy and there is very rare early Hispano-Moresque lustreware.

 

The rooms are dimly lit, some of the walls lined with velvet, others with lovely tapestries, and there are worn carpets underfoot. The atmosphere is that of a treasure-trove of other days when collecting was an art performed by connoisseurs who, one feels, surely purchased objects for their intrinsic beauty rather than their monetary value.

 

NB: Visits to the museum are by previous appointment. T: 055 214031

or contact through www.bellinmuseum.org.

 

After the visit it is worth continuing along the Lungarno as far as the piazza in front of the church of San Frediano in Cestello (open 9.30–11.30 & 5-6.30): after rain the sound of the waters of the Arno as they flow over a dyke in the river are reflected off the bare façade. The interior is interesting for its late 17th- and early 18th-century painted decorations and a lovely polychrome wood statue of the Madonna (all described in Blue Guide Florence). From here there is a charming view of the humble houses and terraces of the district of San Frediano in the Oltrarno.

 

by Alta Macadam. Alta is the author of many Blue Guides to Italy. She is currently working on a new edition of Blue Guide Rome.

St Francis in Florence

Trial by Fire before the Sultan, on loan from the Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

For anyone in Florence, there are only a few more days left to catch this important exhibition at the Galleria dell'Accademia (closes 9th November) dedicated to art inspired by Italy’s most famous saint. Unfortunately it has limited space and the crowds of visitors who come to the Accademia just to see Michelangelo's David produce an atmosphere anything but an inducement to a peaceful quiet study of the pieces on exhibition—but don’t be put off!

 

The first exhibit is an ivory horn which almost certainly belonged to Francis himself. Tradition says that it was given to him by the learned Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, an extremely cultured man, whom Francis is known to have met on his visit to Egypt during the troubled times of the Fifth Crusade. Francis had sailed from Ancona in 1219 and was in Egypt that summer and managed to obtain an audience with the Sultan who received him kindly and with due respect in the presence of his most learned councillors. It was at this meeting that Francis walked across fire unscathed (trial by fire was recognized as a means of solving disputes), but the costly gifts the Sultan offered to Francis were all refused except this hunting horn, since Francis had seen its utility when in Egypt and decided he could use it when back in Italy to call his brothers to prayer. It became one of the most precious relics associated with him (today it is  preserved in Assisi). The silver mount was added some hundred years after the saint’s death.

 

A simple 13th-century bronze reliquary chest from Ognissanti in Florence, which once contained the habit Francis was wearing when he received the stigmata at La Verna, is displayed beside the horn (part of the habit, after many vicissitudes, is supposed to be that preserved at La Verna today). The V& A have lent a precious little 14th-century seal which depicts the vision of a Englishman, Aimone (Haymo) born in Faversham (Kent), who had a vision in 1222 of Francis lowering his knotted girdle to two fishermen in a boat (the scene is charmingly depicted on the seal). As a result Aimone became a Franciscan and his fame was such that he even succeeded Fra' Elia as minister general of the Order in 1240 and remained in Italy, where he died four years later.

 

The main part of the exhibition is naturally devoted to images of St Francis and this is an opportunity to see the numerous different ways he was portrayed from the 13th to the 15th century. One of the earliest and most important paintings, dating from c. 1230, is from Pisa showing Francis surrounded by six scenes of his miracles by Giunta Pisano (properly called Giunta di Capitino), who worked for the Franciscans for some 30 years. Dating from around 20 years later, the painting of St Francis with eight stories from his life is a well-known work from Pistoia (where the Franciscans were established by 1232), and has many similarities with the earlier panel. A series of paintings all dating from the mid-13th century show Francis surrounded by little scenes from his life. Another familiar mid-13th century icon of the saint is that first produced by Margarito d'Arezzo and five of these are displayed together: Francis is depicted standing in his habit with a hooded cowl holding a book, and showing the signs of his stigmata. This became a prototype and many replicas were made (as well as fakes) of this image. But the most striking portrait of St Francis is that by the great painter Cimabue, dating from 1280 and still preserved in Assisi: it shows the poverello standing and bare-headed in a simple pose holding a book bound in red. This is generally considered to be one of the most authentic portraits to have survived from this time.

 

After Francis received the stigmata from the Cross, painted Crosses naturally became very popular and were always in need to decorate Franciscan churches. Beautiful examples in the exhibition include one (c. 1236, now in Assisi) of the three still extant signed by Giunta di Capitino. Another one from Faenza is by a master named the ‘Maestro dei Crocifissi Francescani’ because he became so well known for Crosses like this one.

 

The rule of the Order sanctioned by Honorius III in 1223 specified that the friars should also be concerned with preaching to the Saracens and non-Christians. Some of the friars' travels through Asia as far as China, and the history of their encounter with the Mongols, are documented in the excellent catalogue. The Franciscans also have a centuries'-old role as custodians of Christian sites in the Holy Land (by 1348 we know that 20 Friars Minor were living in Bethlehem). On display from their museum in Jerusalem are sculptural fragments, antiphonals, pilgrims' lamps and ampullae for Holy Oil, and a crosier in gilded copper with enamel decoration. Inscriptions in Arabic have been lent by another Franciscan Museum on Mount Tabor in Galilee. But these pieces only underline how little we know in Europe about the Franciscans in the East.

 

Later works include an exquisite small Crucifixion painted by Ugolino di Nerio (from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) and a superb large Maestà (c. 1320) by a painter who is known as the ‘Maestro di Figline’ from this work and which is here because it shows St Elizabeth of Hungary and St Louis of Toulouse (who is trampling his crown underfoot), both of them Franciscan saints, suitably dressed in the Franciscan habit. This comes from the small Tuscan town of Figline and is one of the most beautiful paintings in all Italy of its date. Another lovely painting on display, but dating from the late 15th century, is St Francis receiving the Stigmata by Bartolomeo della Gatta (from the little town of Castiglion Fiorentino on the southern border of Tuscany), which shows the saint in the presence of the astonished Fra' Leone, in a beautiful rocky landscape recalling La Verna with a barn owl looking on as the golden stigmata descend from the  Cross in the sky to end in bright stars (instead of the more usual macabre 'holes') on the saint's hands and feet. La Verna (described in detail in Blue Guide Tuscany and Blue Guide Central Italy) in the Casentino near Florence was where Francis received the stigmata in 1224.

 

There is also a room devoted to works made for Florence's great Franciscan church of Santa Croce. These include the little painted panels in gilded quatrefoil frames which were once part of a huge sacristy cupboard and which illustrate the life of Christ in parallel to that of St Francis. These are now preserved in the Galleria dell'Accademia itself, although four of them were lost to Munich and Berlin in the 19th century and only one has been lent for the exhibition (but it is the one which shows the Trial by Fire before the Sultan). Also here is the fascinating fresco which was detached from the first cloister of the church and is of particular interest because it includes one of the very first views of the Baptistery beside the old façade of the Duomo, but is here because it portrays the arrival of the Friars Minor in Florence in the winter of 1209 led by the first follower of St Francis, Fra' Bernardo da Quintavalle: the group of Franciscans are shown refusing charity from officers in the cathedral who have failed to recognize them. For this occasion the fresco has been given a new attribution to the little-known Pietro Nelli.

 

Arguably the most beautiful of all paintings of St Francis (which includes 20 stories from his life) has also been brought here from Santa Croce (the Bardi Chapel). Dating from the 1240s, it provided the most complete illustration of episodes in the saint's life before Giotto's frescoes in the upper church in Assisi, and includes the scene of him preaching before the Sultan and a group of Muslims in their turbans, as next to the more familiar scene of him preaching to the birds. Its attribution to Coppo di Marcovaldo, the most important painter in Florence before Cimabue, is now generally accepted, and seems more than ever likely now the panel has been beautifully restored especially for this exhibition.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence and many other Blue Guides to Italy. For details, see here.

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