The Master of Marradi
(active in Tuscany in the late 15th and early 16th centuries)
Tempera on wood panel,
27 3/8 x 47 1/4 in (69.5 x 120 cm).
The work is a depiction of a battle drawn from Ancient Roman history, as indicated by the acronym S.P.Q.R. (Senatus PopulusQue Romanus) spread in gold lettering across the pennants raised by two mounted knights in the middle ground at left and right, and by the inscription CAESAR IN[sic]PERATOR MASS[sic]I[MUS] on the praetorium – clearly represented to the left of the main scene – which enable us to recognize the subject as an event in the life of Julius Caesar. However, the indeterminate nature of the depiction, which may have sought to evoke the description of a combat during the civil war with Pompey, makes precise identification difficult.
On the right, the composition is closed off by hilly terrain and a rocky outcrop that enclose the area behind a group of stationary horsemen, arranged diagonally, their helmets sparkling and their visors closed. Opposite, to the left, armed men on rearing horses launch themselves into the fray in the middle of the scene, described with evident delight and thus lending freshness of vision to the poses and varied gestures of the protagonists – for example, the knight in black armour, gold ornament and plumed helm being thrown off his horse, already tumbling backwards; or further back, the knight in steely armour and red cape, ready to strike a blow with his mace, held in both hands. The same lively approach appears in the foot soldier with a pointed profile and ruddy cheeks, dressed in a blue doublet and red and white hose, seen striking the horse of his adversary, which is cloaked in a rich red caparison decorated with a scalloped gold pattern; and in the two little figures fighting in the foreground, just behind the black horse with fine orange trappings, shown moving sideways to avoid two fallen men. On the ground near them lies a shield, identical to the one held by the young swordsman interacting with a foot soldier in profile, dressed in pink livery.
The painting is in good condition, and it has authoritatively been recognized by Everett Fahy as a work by the Master of Marradi, an anonymous painter active between the last quarter of the fifteenth century and about 1515. His profile was initially established by Wilhelm Suida, who recognized that the basic elements of his language were indebted to Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, and who attributed to him a panel with the Death of Caesar now in the Spencer Museum of Art (University of Kansas) in Lawrence, Kansas, and two others with Stories of Nebuchadnezzar in the High Museum of Art (Kress Collection) in Atlanta, which had earlier been variously associated with Jacopo del Sellaio and Bartolomeo di Giovanni. Because of the presence of a temple of Apollo in one of the Atlanta panels, Suida christened the artist the Master of the Apollini Sacrum.
It was Federico Zeri who succeeded in considerably expanding the painter’s oeuvre, adding to the Kress pictures a Virgin and Child Enthroned with Angels in the church of San Lorenzo at Cortine, near Barberino Val d’Elsa, which he connected with a coherent group of five paintings, all executed for the Vallombrosan abbey of Santa Reparata al Borgo, near Marradi, between Florence and Faenza, and which he considered preferable as eponymous works. With customary lucidity, Zeri recognized the artist’s evolution in the shadow of Ghirlandaio, expressed essentially through draughtsmanship (“chiave essenzialmente disegnativa”), and that his language, in the wake of Botticelli, was subsequently enriched by rhythmic passages and a marked preference for the contoured and curvilinear (“fatti ritmici, con una spiccata preferenza verso moduli conchiusi e curvilinei”), later tending towards a certain complacency and Peruginesque affectation.
The rich body of work assembled by Zeri was then further expanded by Everett Fahy, who reaffirmed the painter’s status as a “close follower of Domenico Ghirlandajo”, underlining the role he played as a specialist in works intended for domestic settings, cassoni and spalliera panels – like Bartolomeo di Giovanni – inspired by episodes from ancient history and brought to life in modern dress, as in our Battle.
To judge by its significant vertical height, the panel must originally have been a spalliera that was historiated, and it no doubt formed part of a series of narrative episodes painted on other panels of similar dimensions, connected by wainscoting. Such ensembles, often arranged in tandem with wedding chests, were generally intended as decoration for bedsteads or the walls of a bridal chamber, a place that served as a specific setting for this kind of adornment. Giorgio Vasari approvingly speaks of similar “ornamenti da camera, che in que’ tempi, magnificamente si usavano”, made by “i più eccellenti pittori” of Quattrocento Florence. Suffice it to consider how Botticelli’s workshop busied itself fulfilling similar requests from the 1470s onwards, including the “molti quadri di noce per ricingimento e spalliera” for Giovanni Vespucci’s room in his Florentine palazzo in the Via dei Servi, or the four panels with the Story of Nastagio degli Onesti painted in 1483, under the aegis of Lorenzo the Magnificent, on the occasion of Giannozzo di Antonio Pucci’s wedding to Lucrezia di Piero di Giovanni Bini. Similar tasks were undertaken collaboratively, not only by many of the leading followers of Ghirlandaio – among them the Master of Marradi – who were true specialists in this genre, such as Biagio d’Antonio, Jacopo del Sellaio and Bartolomeo di Giovanni, but also by prominent artists such as Filippino Lippi and Piero di Cosimo, who were compelled to form major partnerships so as to satisfy particularly ambitious requests. An exemplary instance of the latter is provided by the series of Stories of Joseph commissioned by Pierfrancesco Borgherini in 1515 for the wedding of his son with Margherita Acciaiuoli, which was to involve Andrea del Sarto, Francesco Granacci, Bachiacca and the young Pontormo.
But the most illustrious precedent for our painting is certainly the series of three panels painted by Paolo Uccello with episodes from the Battle of San Romano, commissioned by Lionardo di Bartolomeo Salimbeni, an avid supporter of the Medici; the pictures are now divided between the National Gallery, London, the Musée du Louvre, Paris and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It is precisely to the panel in Florence – at least in an ideal sense – that the Master of Marradi’s Battle refers in the passage with the unhorsing of the knight, shown here already falling backwards, and prominently placed almost in the middle of the painting.
With respect to other treatments of the same subject, painted after Uccello towards the middle of the century, our panel shows a more evolved organization of space that came with an awareness of the spatial and compositional advances of the 1460s and 1470s devised in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio in the Via dell’Agnolo. These achievements were the result of Verrocchio’s optically-founded naturalism and graphic tension, and led to some exquisite examples of his own, such as the cassone fronts in the Musée Jacquemart-André with the Battle of Pydna and the Triumph of Aemilius Paulus, recognized as his by Michel Laclotte and Luciano Bellosi, in which the numerous armed figures readied for battle, and the followers of Aemilius Paulus in the companion panel, are skilfully arranged in the open spaces they occupy. A similar search for narrative clarity, entirely consonant with Verrocchio’s experimental approach, was taken up in Botticelli’s workshop, no doubt favoured by the intense dialogue between the master and his pupil Filippino Lippi. This greater sense of compositional balance, which Biagio d’Antonio immediately made his own, followed by Jacopo del Sellaio and Bartolomeo di Giovanni, also informs our picture, in which the Master of Marradi surpasses the paintings of the preceding generation – that of Scheggia, and of the collaborators Apollonio di Giovanni and Marco del Buono, whose work was marked by surface perspective and purely decorative concerns (“prospettiva tutta riportata in superficie ad intento di estrema decorazione di un unico piano cromatico”). Yet the Master must certainly have been aware of the widespread demand for these paintings, as is suggested by a specific detail – the overturned white horse in the foreground, which is a literal borrowing of a motif that recurs several times in the oeuvre of Apollonio and Marco, for example on the front of the wedding chest with the Battle between Athenians and Persians in the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, painted in 1463 for the wedding of Caterina Rucellai and Pier Francesco di Paolo Vettori. However, the reinterpretation of the motif in our panel is more mature and rigorous in its attention to the foreshortening of the fallen knight (absent in the earlier depictions), the back of whose armour is described in some detail, thus offering an apparent echo of the corresponding passages in works by the young Ghirlandaio (the Saint Barbara in Cercina, and the panel in the Museo Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon) and Cosimo Rosselli (the altarpiece from Santissima Annunziata now in the Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence).
What strikes one in our painting is the varietas in the description of the horses’ poses in the thick of battle, and the attention paid to trappings and armour, all described in painstaking detail and with liquid, free brushstrokes that render the shine on the bridles and animals as well as streaks of light on the shiny suits of armour and elaborate helms, such as the one worn by the copper-coloured warrior at left, with a winged dragon on it. A very similar helm appears on the head of the soldier arresting Christ in the panel with the Betrayal formerly in the Farmacia di San Marco in Florence and now in the storerooms of the Uffizi, painted by the Master of Marradi in the late 1490s, with attire already used by Biagio d’Antonio in the right-hand soldier of the same episode in the background of Cosimo Rosselli’s Last Supper fresco in the Sistine Chapel. The painter’s attentiveness to effects of light, which comes from the left, recalls the optical approach of the Flemish painters and was no doubt influenced by Ghirlandaio and Perugino’s passionate meditation on the works of Hugo van der Goes and Hans Memling, which were well known in Florence. The airy landscape behind the battle is also indebted to the Flemings, and in the distance at right this reveals the shores of a lake, its water rippled by the breeze, and, more centrally, a turreted city. Beyond the gentle slopes, a plain is punctuated by trees with compact foliage, touched by light in the manner of Ghirlandaio, whose approach is also echoed in the forms of the isolated mountains, vertically brushed with white highlights of the sort one sees in the backgrounds of the older master’s frescoes in the Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella.
This kind of gradual distancing of the landscape recurs in the panel with the Stories of Griselda formerly in the Bagatti-Valsecchi collection in Milan, in which our Master shows the best of his talent, on a level with the Sarti Battle. In the foreground of the picture before us, the two fallen figures, the two locked in combat and the other two standing on the right resemble the soldiers painted by the Master on the front of the forziere with Stories of Romans and Sabines, published by Schubring when they were in the collection of Lord Crawford, and now at Harewood House near Leeds, in the collection of the Earl of Harewood. The sugary, grace-filled manner and affected, slightly swaying motions of the latter reveal the influence of Perugino, closely resembling the dapper, dancing figures in the Stories of Nebuchadnezzar with which Suida had begun the reconstruction of the Master’s oeuvre.
The complex arrangement of horses in the Battle is very similar to the unruly train of the Magi behind the Virgin in the Adoration of the Magi (whereabouts unknown), which has recently been linked to a dossal with Stories of the Virgin which included the panels with the Birth, Betrothal and Presentation in the Temple (Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André), the Presentation of the Virgin (Geneva, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire), and an Annunciation identified by Federico Zeri in a Milanese private collection, datable to the first half of the 1490s. In my opinion this dating is confirmed by the similarity of the standing figure of the Virgin and the Saint Catherine of Siena painted by the Master of Marradi for the Strozzi chapel at Lecceto, near Lastra a Signa, shortly after 1485, when Ghirlandaio was also working in the church there. Zeri noted that the dossal scenes reveal a careful, conscious archaism, deliberately reviving the rigorous Marian scheme of Taddeo Gaddi in Santa Croce, and apparently reflecting the spiritual preoccupations of fin-de-siècle Florence. Such ideas are expressed even more clearly in our Master’s work for the Badia di Santa Reparata al Borgo, near Marradi, painted in 1498 for Tommaso Adimari, with the systematic adoption of a gold ground – in the same years in which Filippino Lippi was painting the altarpiece for the Valori chapel in San Procolo in Florence.
However, the Adoration of the Magi does not contain the archaic elements noted by Zeri in the other three scenes of the dossal, compared to which the principal figures are slightly out of scale; its connection with this group should therefore be revised. Originally the painting was wider: at some unknown date two sections were sawn away from the sides of the panel, and then glued together, but in the wrong order, forming an independent but entirely incoherent work, formerly in the collection of the Earl of Ellesmere at Bridgewater House. This is unequivocally proved by the continuation into the lateral sections of the thatching and architecture of the hut painted in the main panel, as well as the youngest King’s crown, just removed by him, which extends from the right edge of the Adoration to the left of the panel formerly at Bridgewater House, where one can also see part of the red robe and blue cloak of the young king kneeling to the lower right of the Holy Family.
Now that the original form of the Adoration of the Magi can be appreciated, we can see how the central scene is indebted to the works of Botticelli and Ghirlandaio painted in the 1480s, such as the Uffizi tondo (1486), once owned by Giovanni Tornabuoni, or the Innocenti altarpiece (1488), and with respect to these its dating cannot be very different – that is, a few years before the Sarti Battle. To my mind, a dating to the 1490s for our panel is also suggested by its resemblance to the tondo with Stories of Judith and Holofernes (Pisa, Museo Nazionale di San Matteo), generally dated to before 1490. Both works show the painter dwelling on the description of dress and armour, worn by diminutive figures in accentuated contrapposto poses, and the treatment of atmospheric landscape, which in the Pisan tondo includes a rocky outcrop behind the soldiers that closely resembles the one on the right side of our picture.
It should be pointed out here that the Battle is almost identical in height to a panel with the Last Scenes from the Life of Julius Caesar, formerly in the collection of Lord Lee of Fareham, and which appeared on the American art market in the 1960s, but whose present whereabouts are unknown. The scene is set in Rome – one can recognize the Aurelian walls, the Pyramid of Cestius, Trajan’s Column and perhaps the church of Aracoeli on the Capitoline Hill – where Caesar, having fulfilled his religious obligations, meets Artemidorus, who (according to Plutarch) attempted in vain to warn him of the conspiracy. The painting must have been cropped on the right, where Caesar’s arrival in the Senate and his murder would have been depicted, as in the panel with the same scenes in Lawrence, Kansas; the source for both was a composition earlier adopted by Apollonio di Giovanni on the cassone front now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The subject, then, was an illustration of the final episode of a narrative cycle dedicated to Stories of Caesar, to which our Battle also probably belonged, as suggested not only by the similar dimensions and related subject but also by stylistic similarity; and I believe that this last parallel is clear from a comparison of the finely-attired figures in the dictator’s retinue and the two soldiers with shields on the right of our composition.
Here one sees the distant arrival of an army, the siege of a turreted city and the consequent triumph of a general, with a procession moving through the right side of the composition. But it is hard to recognize its protagonist as Caesar, given the full beard that defines him – a feature never recorded in the early sources; on the contrary, they all describe him as clean-shaven, except for when he learned of the death of Titurius Sabinus and the massacre of fifteen cohorts in the winter headquarters at Aduatuca by Ambiorix, prince of Eburones, and decided not to shave before taking vengeance.