BARTOLOMEO DI PIERO AND PIERO DI LORENZO
(also known as the Master of 1416)
The Virgin and Child with Saints John the Baptist and Nicholas of Bari and two Angels
Tempera on panel, gold ground
56 11/16 x 283⁄8 in (144 x 72 cm); painted surface 35 13/16 x 187⁄8 in (91 x 48 cm)
London, collection of Paul Ackermann (before 1965); London, Sotheby’s, 24 March 1965, lot 110 (as Lorenzo di Niccolò); Germany, private collection.
Intended for private devotion, this panel represents the Virgin Enthroned with the Child, with two Angels supporting a sumptuous cloth of honour. The little Christ Child stands on his mother’s lap, in mid-turn, resting his right hand on Mary’s dress and holding up his ultramarine blue mantle with his left. Flanking the Holy Couple, in the foreground, are the standing figures of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Nicholas of Bari. At the top of the panel, within the spandrels, two flying Angels support a three-lobed depiction of the Imago Pietatis. Recent conservation has removed spurious additions to the frame – no doubt created during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and which weighed down the structure – making it possible to retrieve a good deal of the original carpentry, marked by Ghiberti-inspired framing, slender and arching upwards.
In 1968 the panel, which had belonged to Paul Ackermann, was correctly attributed by Federico Zeri to the Master of 1416, an anonymous artist active during the early years of the fifteenth century in Florence. The Italian scholar reconstructed his oeuvre by assembling a group of works around the Virgin and Child between Saints Peter, John the Baptist, Anthony Abbot and Julian in the Accademia Gallery in Florence, bearing the date 1416 at the bottom of the panel. The close ties with the oeuvre of Lorenzo di Niccolò, immediately noticed by Zeri, prompted some scholars to ascribe the group to the latter in his late phase. However, it seems likelier that the works grouped under the heading “Master of 1416” should be given instead to Lorenzo’s nephew Bartolomeo di Piero, who in 1412 gained membership of the Arte dei Medici e degli Speziali and is documented as very active in Florence until 1427, but by whom no secure work is known. Working alongside him, after a few years, was his cousin Piero, the son of Lorenzo di Niccolò, born in 1398 and a member of the same corporation in 1422.
Half a century later, Zeri’s reading of this work seems perfectly valid: the painting is intimately connected with the art of Lorenzo di Niccolò and partly indebted to that of Spinello Aretino, but already open to “an accentuated rhythmic cadence” resonating with the International turn taken by Florentine painting of those years, fostered by the return to Florence of Starnina, and by his dialogue with Ghiberti and Lorenzo Monaco. Zeri promptly recognised the central group in our panel as a literal adoption of a motif employed several times by Lorenzo di Niccolò in later works such as the polyptych in the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Virgin and Child recently on the New York Art market, and a panel of the same subject in a Florentine private collection, all painted around 1412, the year in which he was last recorded. Moreover, the gable of our panel is also explicitly indebted to works by Lorenzo such as the Reliquary of Saint Nicholas in the parish church at Buggiano Alto. Such precise citations not only provide a particularly useful chronology in the practically date-less catalogue of the 1416 Master – structured solely around his namepiece and the Cross in San Jacopo in Campo Corbolini, recorded by a ruined inscription as dating from 1413 – but offer invaluable validation that this body of work can be identified as the oeuvre of Bartolomeo di Piero and his cousin Piero di Lorenzo; and these citations can be explained through a family workshop practice, as found repeatedly in fifteenth-century Florence (e.g., the Bicci, Rosselli, Ghirlandaio and del Mazziere shops).
Our panel should thus be dated to the beginning of the 1410s, in full accordance with the painting of Lorenzo di Niccolò, as also seems to be suggested by the full, well-calibrated sculptural volumes, still in dialogue with Spinello Aretino, who later tended more towards thinner forms and a more explicitly graphic manner. Spinello is evoked here in the profiles of the Angels, who are modelled with slender brushstrokes that polish their faces and closely resemble the singing Angels kneeling in the foreground of the Virgin and Child in Glory with Saints Jerome, John the Baptist, Paul, and James the Greater, and musical and adoring
Angels in the Lindenau Museum, Altenburg, one of the earliest works in the catalogue of the Master of 1416. It is with this panel, datable to about 1405, that we find further parallels: in the metallic effects of light that slips over the drapery, like the highlighting used by Lorenzo di Niccolò at the beginning of the century; and in the wavy mantle of the Baptist, very close to that of Saint James in the Altenburg picture, and identical in its deep folds and the sinuous fall of its golden hems – another tribute to the art of Spinello. Yet compared with the panel in Germany, the immediacy visible in the Child’s expression reveals a smiling, lively humanity that belongs to a new artistic manner originating in the exotic language of Starnina and in the unbridled rhythms of his painting, and in that of Lorenzo Monaco, which must have been the catalyst for the achievement of such novelty. This stylistic climate is immediately recalled by the brilliant palette, with its play of acute chromatic contrasts, and by the folds of the blue robe worn by the Christ Child, which are more accentuated with respect to its other iterations by Lorenzo di Niccolò.
The lavish drapery behind the Virgin and Child, skilfully decorated with a motif of mirrored birds and others with outspread wings, reflects the finest tradition of mid-to-late Trecento Florentine painting, originating in the Orcagna workshop. It also echoes the taste for exquisite refinements generated by the new international climate of those years, taking immediate root in the surface ornaments so loved by Agnolo Gaddi, Gerini and especially Spinello (fig. 10). Among the works assembled in the corpus of the Master of 1416, perhaps only the Virgin of Humility formerly with Spink in London has a goldsmiths’ sensibility equal to the one displayed in our panel. Here, mordant gilding embellishes the necklines of the robes of the Child and the Virgin, and the ample braid of Saint Nicholas’ chasuble, as well as the elegant geometric and plant motifs on the red floor. The latter, empirically foreshortened towards the centre of the image, look forward to the interest in the more attentive, credible descriptions of space which appear in the years that followed, ranging across the 1410s and 1420s, such as the Saints James, Michael the Archangel, John the Baptist and a fourth Saint (this last figure is hard to identify) in the Czartoryski Museum in Cracow, the Virgin in Glory with saints in the Galerie Sarti, and the Madonna del latte frescoed on the inner façade of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence.