ANTONIO DI DONNINO DEL MAZZIERE
(Florence, 1497 – 1547)
Oil on wood panel, 32 5⁄8 × 20 in (83 × 51 cm).
The back of the panel bears the number 87 in white paint.
The powerful graphic tension of this Crucifixion lends added drama to the twisting bodies and heightens the pain of the moment in which Christ’s head finally falls; the same holds true for the spasm of the two thieves, their contorted forms tied to improvised crosses, like trees whose branches have been stripped and violently torn away. The scene is set against a rugged and mountainous landscape, wrapped in a wintry atmosphere, with a silent city spreading out from imposing Northern-looking towers, in the narrow space that remains between the left cross and the edge of the composition. The sky above is veined with clouds which have frozen into a support for two sorrowful, weeping Angels, while a flash of acid light, pale in peach and sulphur tones – almost a cosmic dawn – ruptures the sky to announce redemption from sin.
Each of these stylistic elements display the artist’s continuous and almost programmatic adherence to modes of painting originating from north of the Alps, especially German art, which became fashionable in Florence during the 1520s.This was a passion that took on the dignity of a modern, updated language in a city still mired in Savonarola’s legacy and touched by powerful apocalyptic sermons which had been outlawed in 1517; a language that formed its origins in some passages of Andrea del Sarto’s frescoed Stories of Saint Filippo Benizzi in Santissima Annunziata, quickly becoming widespread in some of the more important and experimentally-minded Florentine workshops. It would be impossible here to follow the development of a style which during the first three decades of the 1500s achieved almost competitive status with respect to the art of Lucas van Leyden and Dürer, through the study of their prints, which had reached the city in copious numbers. The Florentine artists who were defined as “eccentrics” by Federico Zeri represented the most avant-garde element in the city, notwithstanding the fact that Vasari scorned their creative choices in the 1568 edition of his Lives of the Painters, having taken on the task of defending the Tuscan identity of the arts within the Florentine Academies and promoting a national system of style. As proposed by Zeri, this group of painters, defined by their unconventional behaviour and aversion to the composure of Raphaelesque Classicism, included pioneers of the movement which used to be called “Mannerism” but is now referred to as the “maniera moderna”: the Master of the Kress Landscapes (later identified as Giovanni Larciani), Francesco Ubertini, known as il Bachiacca, the Master of Serumido, and Antonio di Donnino del Mazziere – not such well-known names – as well as artists of the calibre of Pontormo. The latter was also touched by the German vogue, above all in the frescoes of the Certosa del Galluzzo, where Dürer’s prints provided an exclusive compositional model but also lay at the roots of an expressive idiom regarded as the most suited to the representation of potent human and religious passions.
It is precisely to Antonio di Donnino del Mazziere, one of the rarest and most unusual artists of that circle that we must attribute this powerful picture, which becomes emblematic of one of the most experimental periods of Florentine and indeed Italian painting of the 1500s. Since the reconstruction of his oeuvre by Federico Zeri not much has been written about him, and most of that has focused on establishing a plausible body of work, or on his biography, a very fragmentary one notwithstanding Vasari’s account of his training with Franciabigio, and the nineteenth-century contributions of Gaetano Milanesi. The hand of Antonio di Donnino is evident in this Crucifixion if one compares the facial profiles, painted with brushstrokes that seem frayed and overlapping, creating a sfumato effect distantly indebted to Leonardo da Vinci, with those in one of his few documented works, the Adoration of the Shepherds in the Picture Gallery in Castiglion Fiorentino.
The face of Saint Joseph, or those of some of the grim-looking bearded shepherds, could almost pass for those of the profile of the thief on the left, or that of Christ himself. The way hair is painted, too, and how locks are modelled as curly or wavy, but also unkempt and ragged, is identical to that found on the heads of the old, dishevelled men in the Story of Joseph in the Borghese Gallery, the Preaching of the Baptist, or the privately-owned Story of Abraham and Isaac, published by Federico Zeri. Beyond these, further similarities with Antonio di Donnino’s work will become clear if we compare the thorny, contorted shrubs, also ultimately derived from Leonardo, by way of Piero di Cosimo, which always enliven our artist’s pictures, with the wooden trunks of this Crucifixion. Trees and bushes with bizarre trunks, sharply outlined against the sky, appear in the small panels with the Stories of Narcissus and Apollo and Daphne in the Galleria Corsini and in a private collection ; and subtly-highlighted twisted branches close off the scene in the Diana and Actaeon, also in private hands.
The closest parallels are with the Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand in the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno in Florence. The martyrs’ crosses in that stark, rocky landscape are made of the same spiny-branched, windswept tree-trunks of the three crosses in our panel. Yet if the Ten Thousand Martyrs is often dated to the mid-1530s, by direct comparison with the Adoration of the Shepherds in Castiglion Fiorentino, the draughtsmanship and pictorial quality of our Crucifixion prompt us to date it at least a decade earlier, juxtaposed with the Stories of Narcissus and Apollo and Daphne in the Galleria Corsini in Rome, which scholars usually place at the start of the 1520s, given its clearly enduring rapport with Franciabigio, by whom Antonio di Donnino was trained, presumably in about 1515. Nonetheless, the harshness of how the tree-trunks are drawn, and the powerfully Northern European idiom of this Crucifixion, invite us to date it to the mid-1520s, when German style even put an exclusive hold on Pontormo, whose frescoed Stories of Christ’s Passion in the Certosa were based, as we have said, on Dürer.
In this panel by Antonio di Donnino del Mazziere the emphatic, incisive anatomy of the muscles on the right-hand thief appears to combine the stimulus of Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina with the anatomical deformities of the great master from Nuremberg, who was so dear, in the Florence of the 1520s, to the century’s most anxiety-ridden generation. This is an important addition to our awareness of how the stylistic language of the North was received in Florence during the first and most experimental phase of the “maniera moderna”.