GIOVANNI DEL BIONDO
(Documented from 1356 to 1398)
Saint John the Evangelist surmounted by Saint Margaret;
Saint Peter as Pope surmounted by Saint Ursula;
Virgin and Child surmounted by a Blessing Christ;
Saint Bartholomew surmounted by Saint Catherine of Alexandria;
A Sainted Pope (Calixtus?) surmounted by Saint Lucy.
Dated 1371. (inscription at the base of the central panel: ANNO . DOMINI . MILLE . C.C.C. LXX.I .)
Tempera on poplar panel – 133 x 45 cm ( main panel) and 123 x 42 cm (lateral panels)
Dr Röhrer, Ammersee;
Otto Henkel, Wiesbaden;
Private collection, Germany.
By 1969 and until recently on long-term loan to the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt (according to Offner, under Literature, 1969).
– R. Offner, “A Ray of Light on Giovanni del Biondo and Niccolò di Tommaso”, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, VII, July 1956, p. 189.
– R. Offner and K. Steinweg, A Critical and Historical Corpus of Florentine Painting, New York 1969, Section IV, vol. V, part 2, pp. 59-60, reproduced pl. XXVI-XXVI 3.
– Miklós Boskovits, Pittura Fiorentina alla Vigilia del Rinascimento, Florence 1975, p. 310.
– E. Skaug, “Punch marks – what are they worth? Problems of Tuscan workshop interrelationships in the mid-fourteenth century: the Ovile Master and Giovanni da Milano”, in H. W. van Os and J. R. J. van Asperen de Boer, eds., La pittura del XIV e XV secolo, il contributo dell’analisi tecnica alla storia dell’arte, Bologna 1983, p. 282, detail reproduced in fig. 24.
– E. Skaug, Punch Marks From Giotto to Fra Angelico, Oslo 1994, vol. I, p. 201.
It is remarkable, and rare, to come across a large, securely-dated fourteenth-century polyptych (1371), in its entirety – albeit without its predella – and available for public or private purchase. We owe the correct association of this astonishing liturgical object with the painter Giovanni del Biondo, a native of the Casentino who became a Florentine citizen in 1356, to Richard Offner, the first scholar to draw our notice to these impressive panels (Offner 1956, 1969).
Until now little or nothing was known about when this altarpiece was painted, or where it originally stood, and the iconography offers no valid clues regarding its provenance; in fact none of the saints can be tied to a monastic order or specific patronage.
The Virgin and Child – the latter holding a goldfinch to symbolize his Passion – are flanked on each side by the ecclesiastical authority of a Sainted Pope. The one on the left was originally conceived as a Sainted Bishop, and then, probably at the request of the patrons, turned into a Saint Peter; on the other side, the Pope might be identified as Calixtus. One is paired with an Evangelist (Saint John), the other with an Apostle (Saint Bartholomew). The seal on the back of the panel with Saint Bartholomew, presumably from the 19th century, offers no useful evidence of provenance; it simply states that it was sold with the blessing of the Florentine authorities. The same side of the panel has a drawing of a female profile which clearly corresponds with the profiles of saints and angels found in Giovanni del Biondo’s early works (for instance, the Angel of the Annunciation sold at Sotheby’s New York on 8 June 2008).
The identification of the saints here comes mostly from their type, attribute, or (in the case of the saints on the lateral panels) inscribed name. However, the Popes need some further comment since the inscription for the one on the Virgin’s left is not entirely decipherable, whereas the one on her right – holding keys and therefore clearly Saint Peter – was, as we have pointed out, not originally conceived as the Prince of the Apostles, but as a Bishop saint. As a matter of fact the keys in his right hand, defining him as Saint Peter, are a later addition, applied over an effaced bishop’s crozier. During this alteration the artist must also have forgotten to paint one of the saint’s gloves in white, colouring it in a greyish tone. The reasons for this fundamental iconographic revision are not clear and may have been caused by a change in the destination of the altarpiece while it was still being executed. At present we may only speculate about the patron’s original intentions, when the saint was conceived as a Bishop. The type of elderly man with white hair and beard, robed in precious liturgical dress, could correspond with one of the most prominent patron saints of Florence, Saint Zenobius, who was later depicted by Giovanni del Biondo in a panel for the Florentine cathedral. No less speculative, for a time, was the identification of the second Pope saint, formerly identified by scholars, though without any solid argument, as Gregory the Great. Now, conservation has brought to light part of the inscription below the figure of this Pope, which can be read as [CA]LISTO PA[PA], indicating his probable identity as Saint Calixtus.
The absence of monastic saints in the altarpiece’s iconography, and the strong accent on ecclesiastical power manifested in the two Popes flanking the Virgin, might indicate that it originally stood on the high altar of a parish church, and was therefore produced outside a monastic context.
Until the recent restoration (2013-2014) of this relatively little known work, the question of dating had remained inconclusive, although most scholars, ranging from Richard Offner (1956, 1969) to Miklós Boskovits (1978), had used their perceptive connoisseurship to date it to between 1370 and 1375.
Their conclusions turned out to be correct, given the newly-emerged evidence of the inscription, albeit abraded, on the base of the main panel, fairly easily readable as ANNO . DOMINI . MILLE . C.C.C. LXX.I. and thus confirming the date in the early 1370s proposed by earlier scholars. Within Giovanni del Biondo’s career, this date marks an interesting moment, not free from some artistic contradictions of its own.
A close examination of the style of this altarpiece reveals a strong adherence to the art of his most important mentors, Nardo di Cione and Andrea di Cione (Orcagna) which already appears during his early collaboration with Nardo on the Strozzi Chapel frescoes in Santa Maria Novella (c. 1354/1357). At the same time we notice what appears to be a nostalgic, archaic return to even older artistic formulas, conceived as early as the 1330s and 1340s by Bernardo Daddi, Giovanni del Biondo’s putative first master, and even by Pacino da Bonaguida.
This was not solely due to the sense of ornament, as it is reappears here on the dalmatics worn by the Popes, which parallel features found in Bernardo Daddi and subsequent works by Nardo di Cione and Orcagna, but is also true for certain elements, particularly the stylized eyes, their searching gaze rendered with an extreme almond-shaped outline.
The sturdy articulation of the saints’ voluminous bodies, which makes them appear as if they wanted to break free from the frames in which they are confined, is clearly indebted to the massive figural repertory of the Orcagna workshop. Within this Orcagnesque tradition Giovanni del Biondo infuses his impressive figures with a highly energetic force, although in some cases this seems to come across, superficially, as expressive of a mood of grumpiness. All this is achieved, however, by an extremely refined pictorial culture and material softness articulated by soft chiaroscuro brushstrokes. This is best seen in the firmly-shaped blue robes of John the Evangelist and Bartholomew, the beautiful changeant tones of Calixtus’ yellow dalmatic, or – in an even more refined manner – the dresses of the female saints in the gables, which in the case of Saint Ursula’s yellow dress are modulated into blues shades in the darker zones. The subtle tonal changes recur with extreme softness in the modelling of the faces, where gentle, dark shading carefully defines the eye sockets or cheek cavities, at the same time lending the faces an enamel-like effect that moderates their otherwise sculptural articulation. These qualities, as well as a strong feeling for ornamental details, best seen in the rich, gold-embroidered hems of the dalmatic and golden brooch that fastens the dress, are clearly indebted to Giovanni’s artistic mentors and companions, the workshop of the Orcagna brothers. As Erling Skaug noted in 1983, it hardly comes as a surprise to find that our picture also contains ornamental features shared by Orcagnesque painters, that is, the tooled decoration of the haloes, which were pressed into the soft gold ground with the same tools used in the Orcagna workshop. They seem to have been passed on to this workshop by Giovanni da Milano in the 1360s, who had brought them to Florence in 1363 from the Sienese painter’s compagnia headed by Bartolomeo Bulgarini. These tools were used by Giovanni del Biondo and others from the Orcagna circle (including Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci) from the mid-1360s to about 1375, confirming the date on our altarpiece, 1371.
The fact that this was taking place within the workshops of the Orcagna and their colleagues, such as Giovanni del Biondo himself and Don Silvestro, is of some interest for the artistic development of this milieu. After the deaths of both protagonists, Nardo di Cione (c. 1366) and Andrea di Cione (1368), there seems to have been an artistic change of direction within this milieu, which aimed for an increasingly refined and at the same time more linear, dynamic painterly style, with a distinctly Gothic flavour.
This taste seems to have appeared in Florence as early as the 1360s through Giovanni da Milano, who, as we pointed out, must have brought the Sienese tools to the Orcagna workshop. He must also have made the artists of the Orcagnesque milieu more sensitive to these refined artistic solutions. One of the protagonists in the spread of this trend was Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci, who – probably trained at a certain stage of his career in Siena – had a particular affinity for Sienese artistic expression and iconographical inventions.
This factor might give us a clue as to why Giovanni del Biondo, in spite of his massive figures, adopts a more linear style than usual in this 1371 altarpiece. Towards 1370 and without his recently-deceased artistic mentors, Giovanni del Biondo must have taken his art towards new shores. As we can see from a comparison with a stylistically closely related and more or less contemporaneous Madonna in a Swiss private collection, and the dated (1372) Virgin of the Tosinghi Spinelli altarpiece in Santa Croce in Florence, the Virgin and Child in the altarpiece before us reveals more linear features, as if the painter wanted to assimilate some of the Sienese refinement into his otherwise sculptural art.
This tendency is best exemplified in his female figures, especially the saints on the gables, which are probably some of his most delightful creations – not only in this altarpiece but within his whole oeuvre around 1370. They reveal a similar artistic expression as the female saints in Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci’s paintings and miniatures of the period. This is most evident if we compare Giovanni’s female saints in our altarpiece with those by Don Silvestro in the choir-book dated 1371 (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Corale 2) which he decorated for his fellow brethren in Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence, a traditional artistic stronghold for the painters of the Orcagna milieu.
This particular phase of his career must have also been the moment when the youngest of the Orcagna brothers, Jacopo di Cione, started heading towards an evidently more precious goal – the world of Gothic elegance – a goal that Giovanni del Biondo, still rooted in an art paradoxically combining massive sculptural forms with luminous colourism and lush decorative effects, would never reach. Nevertheless, by 1370, Giovanni del Biondo must have been an accomplished painter, much in demand in Florence and its environs, and drawing the attention of his younger colleagues to his art.
This is best seen if we compare the Saint Peter in our altarpiece with a Bishop saint (Milan, Museo Diocesano, Crespi Collection) painted a year earlier by the young Cenni di Francesco for the church of San Cristoforo a Perticaia in Rignano sull’Arno, where we find a search for similar figural types, slightly grumpy in spirit and sharing a sense of exceedingly rich decorations.
Notwithstanding his prolific and highly successful career, Giovanni del Biondo was not to be a part of the future developments in Florentine late Trecento painting, even though, as we have pointed out, he was by no means unaware of the innovations in Florentine art, which aimed for a world of pronounced Gothic elegance. This tendency was fostered, starting around 1370, by his fellow painters Jacopo di Cione and Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci, who both paved the way, together with Agnolo Gaddi, for the creation of a greater Gothic refinement. This change of direction would find its ultimate fulfilment in Lorenzo Monaco’s highly graceful and vibrant creations.
Even if Giovanni del Biondo sought as early as 1373 to assimilate these new Gothic tendencies into his art, best seen in his Coronation of the Virgin in Fiesole Cathedral (1373), he essentially adhered to his traditional formula of a grand monumentality attenuated by gorgeous ornamentation – the legacy he had received from Bernardo Daddi and the Orcagna family.
Prof. Dr. Gaudenz Freuler