This important painting, entirely documented as a commission from Prince Leopoldo de’ Medici, was the subject of a publication in 2010: G. Pagliarulo & R. Contini, Agostino Melissi. The Pietà for Leopoldo de’ Medici (1647), Paris, Galerie G. Sarti, bilingual Italian/English edition, 69 pp.
The following text is an abridged version of this volume.
Oil on canvas – 36½ x 61½ in. (93 x 156 cm).
Signed and dated on the back of the canvas.
Prince Leopoldo de’Medici for the San Paolo Company in Florence.
Private collection, France.
– F. Baldinucci, Notizie de’professori del disegno da Cimabue in qua, Florence, 1681-1728, réed. Florence, F. Ranalli, 1846, vol. IV, p. 318.
– R. Contini, in Il Seicento Fiorentino. Arte a Firenze da Ferdinando I a Cosimo III, exhibition catalogue (Florence, Palazzo Strozzi, 21 dec. 1986 – 4 may 1987), Cantini, Florence, 1986, vol. Biografie, p. 124.
– G. Pagliarulo, Dipinti fiorentini del Seicento per la Compagnia di San Paolo di Notte, in « Paragone », n° 471, 1989, p. 65.
– G. Pagliarulo & R. Contini, Agostino Melissi. The Pietà for Leopoldo de’Medici (1647), Paris, Galerie G. Sarti, 2010.
The Pietà in the Sarti Gallery is a rare work for the Florentine Seicento and it sums up the quietly retro state of grace of the local school just before the mid-century mark.
We won’t find anything better in Agostino Melissi,[…]unless we shift over to the excellence of his graphic oeuvre.
We will yield to the evidence that different facets of style could coexist at the same moment – a banal but necessary assertion for an understanding of how a supremely talented draughtsman could achieve consistency and true excellence in translating his designs into paint on a limited number of occasions.
[…] the newly-rediscovered Pietà: a painting that far surpasses not only the standard, elevated as that is, and the more than worthy qualitative level of its author, but those of the entire Florentine Seicento.
(translated from Italian)
Fate has decreed that a newly-emerged, important painting by Agostino Melissi should fill a lacuna in the reconstruction of the seventeenth-century decoration of the Compagnia di San Paolo di Notte in Florence. In the records of that confraternity, preserved in the Florentine State Archives, I discovered many years ago a detailed description of a pictorial cycle inaugurated on January 24 1633 and consisting of nine canvases with scenes from the life of Saint Paul, entrusted to seven protagonists of contemporary Florentine painting. [i] Apart from publishing this dispersed decorative cycle, 2 of which I was able to identify several canvases, I brought to light a document regarding another commission dating from the decade that followed, which had also been mentioned by Filippo Baldinucci. 3 This was an autograph receipt of 1647 by Agostino Melissi, the pupil of Giovanni Bilivert, in which he declared he had been paid for a picture of Christ between the Virgin and Saint John, painted by him for the confraternity’s altar – an illustrious commission, since (as Baldinucci underlined) Prince Leopoldo de’ Medici, the future cardinal, was behind it. Unexpectedly, I am now able to identify this work – of which all trace had been lost for over three centuries – with the Pietà finally presented here.
We owe to Roberto Contini the first reconstruction of Melissi’s artistic career, in the biography written for the catalogue of the historic exhibition of 1986 on the Florentine Seicento, 4 in which Melissi appeared not solely as draughtsman 5 but also as painter.
After the 1986 exhibition, Melissi’s critical fortune was further defined in various publications 6 that cast light on his limited and not yet fully established catalogue.
The re-emergence of the Pietà, certainly one of the most important commissions given to the young Melissi, reveals him to be among the finest in treating the poetics of emotion, and gives back to us a painting that – as far as we can tell – was the masterpiece of his formative years, when he was already on the path to early maturity.
Melissi trained in Matteo Rosselli’s workshop, the most varied and lively in Florence, hosting Giovanni da San Giovanni, Jacopo Vignali, Domenico Pugliani, Francesco Furini, Lorenzo Lippi, and Volterrano, among others. He then settled in the workshop of Bilivert, until his master’s death in 1644.
We now come to the passage in Baldinucci that relates to our painting:
“In 1646 he painted a Dead Christ, the Virgin Mary and Saint John lit from below, a painting which during Lent is always displayed on the altar of the confraternity of San Paolo; and he did this on the orders of the Most Serene Prince and later Cardinal Leopoldo”. 7
Let us return in our imagination to the nocturnal atmosphere of the brotherhood’s meeting held by the Compagnia di San Paolo, also known as the Buca di San Paolo, one of the four Florentine lay confraternities that were distinct from other nocturnal associations for the practice of spending the night in their meeting-place, usually during the night between Saturday and Sunday. This was a confraternity particularly tied to the Medici since the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent, 8 and the bond extended to the seventeenth-century years in our purview.
It is worth re-reading Melissi’s autograph receipt, which validates the reference in Baldinucci and adds further detail : 9
“26th day of August 1647
I, Agostino Melisi, have received from Sig. Francesco Rucellai, superintendent of the Compagnia di S. Pavolo di Notte, twenty ducats for having made a Pietà with the Virgin and St. John who supports the Dead Christ, to be placed below the altar of our Company, and in witness thereof I, the aforementioned Agostino […] one of the brothers of the said Company attest with my own hand 20 scudi – ”
The document therefore allowed us to establish the date of execution of the painting to before August 1647, which means only a slight shift in the biographer’s date of 1646 – and we should bear in mind that according to the Florentine calendar, the year 1646 extended to 25 March 1647. With this there also emerged a hitherto unknown piece of biographical information: by his own admission, Agostino was a member of the Compagnia di San Paolo di Notte. The fact that he belonged to this devotional group might certainly reflect profound religious motivations, but perhaps also a shrewd professional strategy, allowing him to come into contact with potential patrons among the nobility and wealthy bourgeoisie that frequented this milieu..
An important detail, derived from Melissi’s receipt, regards the destination of the painting, recorded by Baldinucci on the altar of the company, but in realilty was placed under the altar table during Lent, which explains its horizontal format.
The definitive proof that the new painting is indeed the one documented in Melissi’s receipt, and cited by Baldinucci, emerged during recent conservation. The back of the canvas was found to bear an inscription that removes any trace of doubt:
FU FATTO NEL TEMPO . CHE . . SER° . PRINPE.
LEOPOLDO MEDICI . L ANNO 1647 . CHE . ERA .
GOVERNATORE . E PRORE. FRANCO RUCELLAI.
FATTO DA AGOSTINO MELISI 1647.”
MADE DURING THE TIME THAT … THE MOST SERENE PRINCE
LEOPOLDO MEDICI . THE YEAR 1647 . WAS
GOVERNOR, AND FRANCESCO RUCELLAI WAS SUPERINTENDENT.
MADE BY AGOSTINO MELISI 1647.”)
The painter’s name appears in its original form, “Melisi”, which he himself used in the autograph receipt, and the date 1647 corresponds precisely to that of the document. As in the passage by Baldinucci, the Most Serene Prince Leopoldo is mentioned, and we are informed that at that time he held the post of Governor of the Compagnia di San Paolo di Notte. This is valuable confirmation of Baldinucci, who stated that the commission of the painting was by the will – “per ordine” – of the Medici Prince. The inscription also records that the superintendent was Francesco Rucellai, to whom (as we have seen) Agostino refers in his recipt of payment.
With the painting itself before us, we may finally verify the existence of preparatory drawings which until now were only hypothetical, some with conflicting opinions.
It can be confirmed that a compositional study by Melissi in Copenhagen 10 is related to the Pietà for Leopoldo; this is a very light drawing in red chalk of a figure lying horizontally and another barely perceivable one in a supporting pose. This identification was made by Roberto Contini11 and subsequently endorsed by me. 12
Another of Contini’s intuitions hits the mark: 13 he hypothesised a connection with the Pietà, still untraced at the time, for a drawing in the Louvre, inv. no. 566 verso, with a study for the bust of Christ and the supporting hands of Saint John, and a splendid separate study for the head of Christ. The sheet is certainly by Melissi, even though Catherine Monbeig Goguel 14 recently preferred to maintain the traditional attribution to Bilivert. Accepting the hypothesis that connects the drawing with the Pietà, Goguel believes that Melissi would have used a pre-existing drawing by his master. I would say, conversely, that its graphic qualities lead us convincingly to Melissi, as further confirmed by the studies for the head of an old man and a hand on the recto, whose destination is unknown. The precise correspondence between drawing and painting only becomes clear once the sheet is viewed vertically (rather than horizontally, as it has been reproduced thus far). Contini recognised another meditation on the head of Christ in a sheet of great quality in the Uffizi (no. 2199 S), which I agree in connecting with the Pietà painted for Leopoldo, notwithstanding the tonsure visible on the model, if I am not mistaken. One could imagine that Melissi asked a religious man to pose for him.15
It is the figure of Christ, as we know it now from the painting, that triggered the visual link with a drawing I have long believed to be by Melissi in the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Mass., filed – significantly – under Carlo Dolci, as an eighteenth-century annotation on its verso states,16 and which I can now connect with certainty to the newly-emerged canvas. This new drawing is striking for the ambivalent complexity of its handling: light and incisive, fluid and segmented, and with hatching that is either broad, parallel, or minutely cross-hatched. Here the visual field is limited to the legs, feet, the left hand resting on the thigh, and the small loose piece of loincloth, wrapping itself across the right leg, which would then find its painted equivalent in a refined silky aqua tone. The two separate studies at upper right and lower left display the artist’s search for minimal variants.
Recalling Melissi’s own words, let us now reconstruct the elevated point of view, as required by the painting’s position when it was exhibited below the altar of the Oratory of the Compagnia di San Paolo. Surprisingly, Agostino seems almost to be seeking something close to Caravaggesque painting in the specific directional light and anti-conventional veracity of the Virgin’s face – a lighting effect that certainly struck Baldinucci too, as his description reveals: “a Dead Christ, the Virgin Mary and Saint John lit from below”.17 The scene is imagined as an exterior and is set against an impenetrable night sky, barely alluded to by the diminutive moon at upper right and by some cloud profiles disclosed by lunar reflection. Lying on a surface covered by the pure, white shroud that defines the foreground, the body of Christ offers itself to the eyes of the lay brothers for whom the image was made, among them Leopoldo de’ Medici.
Theatrically, Agostino presents the Virgin open-armed, like an actress on a proscenium, lit from below. His attention to effects of illumination was perhaps mindful of the profound symbolic meaning that light had in a place of devotion dedicated to Saint Paul – the saint who had lost his sight and then regained it, with a new spiritual significance, after his conversion.
Defined by clear shadows, the red of the dress and deep blue of the cloak emit a pure glow against the white of the winding-sheet and the pallid flesh of Christ’s body, which emanates its own phosphorescent light. Bilivert’s teaching still guides Melissi, but the pupil outdoes him in his search for a more truthful and humanly approachable definition of Christ’s lean face, tenderly marked by rivulets of congealed blood, coalescing with the tawny beard and hair that falls in soft tangles of ringed locks, like those of his master. The same human empathy recurs in the figure of Saint John, tensed in supporting the effective weight of Christ’s bust, and blood-filled with the exertion, thus lending more emotion to how the reddened hands stand out from the pallor of the nude, bloodless body. The figure of John, arranged in the upper left corner, comes alive through hand gestures and in the palpitation of the face, certainly modelled on Bilivert’s types, with eyes veiled by shadows that allude to weeping. And tears of crystal fall from the eyes of Mary, frozen in the unusual expression of noble tragedy, that of a heroine of a nineteenth-century melodrama. Here, in the Madonna, the handling – smooth, compact, polished, liquid – and the way the face emerges from the great blue shadow of the mantle that cloaks her forehead, seems to anticipate an interest, apparently irreconcilable with his initial training with Bilivert, in the analytical language of Carlo Dolci, his contemporary. This interest was perhaps stimulated by the admiration he had for the facial specificity of the figures found in Dolci, whose language was necessarily more sustained and humanitarian, and to which Agostino also sometimes adhered. Such a fascination with Dolci was not without enduring echoes in his painting, as already recognised and noted by Contini, 18 and which became stronger in later years, but which we can with some surprise now trace back to the 1640s.
However, it is undeniable that Bilivert’s mark is the dominant one here, and his art lies behind the striking description of the objects arranged on the sheet. Metallic gleams of light describe the sharp profiles of the pincers, the hammer, the nails – ancient forms, unchanged in history – with an unsettling objectivity, a sort of magic Realism. Agostino attentively spots the nails and crown of thorns with blood, but does not dwell on the marks left by the Passion on Christ’s body, almost as if to maintain its beauty, so carefully studied in his drawings.
(translated from Italian)
1 The nine scenes of the Pauline cycle were divided between Giovan Battista Vanni (the author of no less than three canvases), Cesare Dandini, Baccio del Bianco, Ottavio Vannini, Lorenzo Lippi, Matteo Rosselli and Jacopo Vignali.
2 G. Pagliarulo, “Dipinti fiorentini del Seicento per la Compagnia di San Paolo di Notte”, in “Paragone”, 471, 1989, pp. 53-71.
3 F. Baldinucci, Notizie de’ professori del disegno da Cimabue in qua, Florence, 1681-1728; ed. F. Ranalli, Florence, 1845-1847; photographic reprint, ed. P. Barocchi, Florence, 1974-1975, IV, 1846, p. 318.
4 See R. Contini, in Il Seicento fiorentino. Arte a Firenze da Ferdinando I a Cosimo III, exh. cat. (1986-1987), Florence, 1986, Biografie, pp. 123-126.
5 See R. Contini, in Il Seicento fiorentino cit., Disegno/Incisione/Scultura/Arti minori, pp. 319-321, nos. 2.288, 2.290; C. Pizzorusso, in Il Seicento fiorentino cit., Disegno/Incisione/Scultura/Arti minori, pp. 319-320, nos. 2.287, 2.289.
6 See R. Contini, Bilivert. Saggio di ricostruzione, Florence, 1985, ad indicem and p. 83; “La Pittura del Seicento ad Arezzo e nel territorio aretino”, in La pittura in Italia cit., I, p. 358, pl. 526; G. Pagliarulo, in Il Seicento fiorentino cit., Pittura, pp. 252-254, no. 1.120; A. Matteoli, “Per Agostino Melissi: una pittura, disegni, documenti”, in “Bollettino d’Arte”, LXXIII, 52, 1988, pp. 39-42 ; C. Caneva, in Arte e restauri in Valdarno, exh. cat. (Figline Valdarno), Florence, 1991, pp. 14, 73-74, no. 15, fig. 16 on p. 48; M. Mojana, Orazio Fidani, Milan, 1996, p. 138, no. 62.
7 F. Baldinucci, Notizie de’ professori cit., IV, 1846, p. 318.
8 See L. Sebregondi, “Lorenzo de’ Medici confratello illustre”, Archivio Storico Italiano, 552, 1992, p. 338.
9 A.S.F., Compagnie Religiose Soppresse, 1580, Ricevute 1564-1699, unnumbered folios ; cf. G. Pagliarulo, Dipinti fiorentini del Seicento cit., p. 65.
10 Copenhagen, Kongelige Kobberstiksamling, Mag. VIII MNO/19 verso.
11 R. Contini, in Il Seicento fiorentino cit., Biografie, p. 124.
12 G. Pagliarulo, Dipinti fiorentini del Seicento, cit., p. 65.
13 R. Contini, in Il Seicento fiorentino cit., Biografie, 1986, p. 124.
14 See C. Monbeig Goguel, Musée du Louvre cit., pp. 125-126, no. 99.
15 The drawing (black and red chalk with white chalk heightening, 144 x 159 mm.), described as a depiction of a friar in the catalogue of the Santarelli drawings, was published with the traditional attribution to Bilivert by Anna Matteoli, who suggested the figure could be identified with Padre Pietro Bini, the founder of the order of the Filippini, and in this case too the reproduction was incorrectly rotated (A. Matteoli, Una biografia inedita cit., pp. 337, 356 note 66, figs. 15-16). Roberto Contini, who kindly pointed out the connection with the head of Christ in the Pietà, proposed Melissi’s authorship some time ago (cfr. R. Contini, Bilivert cit., p. 116, no. 55).
16 See A. Mongan and P.J. Sachs, Drawings in the Fogg Museum of Art, Cambridge, Mass., 1940, I, pp. 130-131, no. 248: black and red chalk with white chalk heightening, 222 x 292 mm., Inv. 1932.224, Charles A. Loeser Bequest.
17 F. Baldinucci, Notizie de’ professori cit., IV, 1846, p. 318.
18 With regard to the late altarpiece in San Pietro al Terreno: see R. Contini, in Il Seicento fiorentino cit., Biografie, p. 126; idem, Un pittore senza quadri cit., p. 5.