CECCO DI PIETRO
(Pisa, documented from 1364 to 1399, † before 1402)
Tempera on panel, gold ground.
67,3 x 46,2 cm (26 ½ x 18 3/16 in.).
Vienna, Liechtenstein Museum, Auf Goldenem Grund, 12 dec.-14 april 2009 (exhibition catalogue under the direction of J. Kräftner, p. 41, n° 13).
A quite imposing figure looking irritated, draped in his apostolic garments – a red-orange tunic and a blue cloak (today darkened) with a mauve lining – is painted sitting at his desk, represented with realism while sharpening the tip of his quill pen, a not very conventional occupation ; he indeed holds it in his left hand, while in his right he grasps the scraper, covered with silver leaf. On his desk top lie an open book, still unblemished, with two manuscript clasps, a small pair of scissors and an inkwell. The identity of the saint, obviously one of the four evangelists, in the absence of his living attribute, was probably indicated by an inscription on the lower edge of the original frame. It is not uncommon to find a depiction of an evangelist holding his pen in the air but it is rarer that he be caught in a daily gesture such as this.
The underlining of the clear contours and the rejection of a three-dimensional rendering characterize the last period of the painter Cecco di Pietro – a sort of Orcagna of Pisan painting, with a long career and in a prestigious position – who would appear to be the author of this work. It can be compared to a panel of the same subject with a pointed shape in the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh1, representing St. Jerome in his study, with a similar cubist destructuration of the architecture. The simplified definition of the volumes is very abstract, but one should notice the fillets of light that follow the relief, the intentional differentiation between the ochre colour of the dais and the desk and the grey-green of the back, and even the illusion of a foliate relief in the middle of the panelling behind the saint. Cecco di Pietro had worked around 1370 with Francesco Neri da Volterra and assimilated his taste for full and dilated volumes. The grumpy expression that is set on the face, with a piercing glare, may have been subsequently influenced by the works that Antonio Veneziano left in Pisa during the penultimate decade of the century and which, with their grandiose neo-Giottesque character, influenced other painters, like Angelo Puccinelli from Lucca.
The moderate mannerisms with which the white highlights are articulated on the carefully separated wavy curls of hair or on the crests of the cloth folds, are typical of Cecco di Pietro: we see here these kinds of comma shapes characteristic of his style, combined with finer brushstrokes that resemble scratches, like those visible on the shoulder of the evangelist. A similar painting technique can be found just as easily in the St. Jerome from Raleigh quoted above as in the predella panels from the Agnano polyptych (Pisa, Museo Nazionale di San Matteo). Concerning the mantle, one notices the unusually strong mannerisms, in particular the lower extremity of the cylinder-shaped folds that appear to correspond to the little jutting out semi-circular part of the dais.
The picture presents a gold ground of which the originally trapezium-shape, that was modified, corresponds to the design of the frame in style. The gold leaf is worked in an oblique pattern with a wide mesh, obtained with lines of punches, inside which are seven-petals rosettes also made with simple punches, that are identical to those standing out on the entirely grained halo. The motif obtained, a diagonal trellis, compressed and elongated to achieve lozenges, had a remarkable success in Late Gothic painting and that of the early Renaissance in Liguria, with imitations also in the Piedmont and in Lombardy, while it is absolutely unusual in Tuscany. As we know, many Pisan painters settled in Genoa between the 14th and 15th centuries and it should therefore not be excluded that the roots of this motif could in reality be Pisan, where one may remember, as a noble prototype, the Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas, painted shortly after 1324 by Lippo Memmi for Santa Caterina and which has a gold ground engraved with a pattern of interlocking discs.
Because of its dimensions and format, this picture cannot be the lateral panel of a polyptych: it is not tall enough and too wide. It was probably part of the upper register of a large sized polyptych, crowned with a supplementary series of pointed panels, positioned on the upper narrowed part. This evangelist is turned towards our right and the architecture of his study is also constructed with a lateral installation. It is likely that he was part of a series of the four evangelists and that he was therefore on the left. The way of placing such a series of four in the upper register of a polyptych is rather common (over and above the quoted polyptych by Taddeo Gaddi in Pistoia, there are various other Sienese examples by Andrea di Bartolo and Martino di Bartolomeo). It is less common on the other hand that these evangelists appear not in half-length, but full-length, and that they show such a great originality (let us remember, however, the Venetian polyptych by Michele di Matteo in Sant’Elena) 9. Unfortunately il is not for the moment possible to link this panel to other elements, but it is important to remember that many works by Cecco di Pietro, that are mentioned in the archives, appear today to be lost10.
Extracts from the study of Andrea De Marchi