Paolo da Visso << Back

(active in Umbria and the Marches between 1438 and the 1460s)

Front panel of a cassone with three episodes from Boccaccio’s Teseida.
a. The Triumph of Theseus over Creon, tyrant of Thebes, with the Theban prisoners
Arcite and Palamon following on foot.
b. Arcite and Palamon before Theseus.
c. Arcite and Palamon notice Emilia from the prison window, and fall in love with her.

Circa 1440.

Tempera, gold and pastiglia on wood panel. 65.5 x 153 cm (253⁄4 x 601⁄4 in.).

Provenance :
– Claude Lafontaine, Paris.
– Paris, Palais Galliera, Primitifs italiens et flamands, objets d’art de haute époque, provenant pour partie de l’ancienne collection Claude Lafontaine…appartenant à divers amateurs, auction of 11 April 1962, lot 18.

Literature :
– Ellen Callmann, in Beyond Nobility. Art for the Private Citizen in the Early Renaissance, exh. cat., Allentown, PA, 1981, pp. 1-2 and 7.
– Paul F. Watson, Preliminary List of Subjects from Boccaccio in Italian Painting, 1400-1550, “Studi sul Boccaccio”, XV, 1985-1986, p. 157.
– Andrea de Marchi, in Girolamo di Giovanni, Il Quattrocento a Camerino, exh. cat, Artelito Camerino, 2013, pp. 105-107, n° 11, reproduced p. 107.

Exhibition :
Allentown, Pennsylvania, Allentown Art Museum, Beyond Nobility: Art for the Private Citizen in the Early Renaissance (catalogue by E. Callmann), 18 September 1980 – 4 January 1981, pp. 1-2, n° 1 and p. 7, n° 6, ill. p. 1.

The subject of this cassone – recognized by Federico Zeri in a letter of 24 March 1976 – appears in a number of the oldest Florentine cassoni, produced by the so-called Master of Charles III of Durazzo, whose work launched a new genre in late fourteenth-century Florence: the wedding chest painted with literary or historical narratives, broadly drawn from the Italian poems of Boccaccio, which became extraordinarily popular. These three episodes were complemented by another three that constitute the tale’s tragic and moving conclusion, with the duel between the two knights who are both in love with Emilia, Arcite and Palamon, and the surrender of the bride by the dying winner Arcite to his friend and defeated rival Palamon. The framing, composed of mixtilinear four-lobed medallions set within rectangular fields bordered by dentils, is original and bears no relation to the kind found in Florence and generally throughout Tuscany. The oldest Florentine historiated cassoni do have mixtilinear medallions, but they are defined by the extent of the pastiglia and spread along a more horizontal format, which was to evolve during the Quattrocento into unified, continuous narration. The atypical character of these framing elements must be explained by a different geographical context, where the production of painted marriage chests, and their formal types, are less well known to scholarship. We are certainly not in Sienese territory, as Ellen Callmann suggested (in Beyond Nobility. Art for the Private Citizen in the Early Renaissance, exh. cat., Allentown, 1981, pp. 1-2, 7, with a dating to the mid-1400s; followed by Paul F. Watson, “Preliminary List of Subjects from Boccaccio in Italian Painting, 1400-1550”, Studi sul Boccaccio, XV, 1985-1986, p. 157). One can understand why the work was considered a product of fifteenth-century Verona (with a generic reference to the circle of Pisanello) when it was offered for sale from the collection of Claude Lafontaine (Paris, Palais Galliera, 11 April 1962, lot 18), which is the first certain mention of the painting; such a classification was suggested by the intensely secular and narrative tone of the narration.

The showy depiction of costume – belted smocks, slit at the sides and with short, fur-lined short skirts, headgear that swells out at different levels or spreads with wide, undulating brims – reflects what was fashionable around 1440. Undulating broad-brimmed hats are found in Pisanello’s Virgin and Child between Saints Anthony Abbot and George, painted in the early 1440s (London, National Gallery) and in the cassone with Stories of Saint John Chrysostom in the Galleria Estense in Modena, a work of Ferrarese character datable to about 1440. But such a fashion was not the sole prerogative of Northern Italy – indeed, we find identical headgear in the Funeral of Saint Francis by the Umbrian-Marchigian painter Bartolomeo di Tommaso da Foligno in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, another work dating from the early 1440s; thus we should not be misled by this secular tone.

In a Veronese or even Ferrarese painter one might have expected a greater application of incised metals, and architectural details with more Venetian-style perforation. Instead, architecture is reduced in essence to a series of cubes articulated by sharply-contrasting light and shade, and characterized by cavities, rhomboid supports, smooth mouldings, simple consoles and coffered ceilings. This architectural language, with a strong emphasis on a pink tonality in the central scene, was a familiar idiom among several Marchigian painters in the wake of Pietro di Domenico da Montepulciano and Bartolomeo di Tommaso da Foligno, who was trained in Ancona in the 1420s. There are significant resemblances, for example, between the scene with the Triumph of Theseus and a work by Giacomo di Nicola da Recanati (a pupil of Pietro di Domenico), the enchanting Stories of Saint Elpidius in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris (circa 1430), both in the discursive approach to setting and in the vertically-stacked marine landscape. Theseus’ palace, in the second scene, has a roof edged by pediments with inflexed arches – a schematic translation of the monumental alcove in the Vision of Innocent III, part of the Stories of Saint Francis by Giotto in Assisi (a more feeble translation of the same model, better known in the Marches than in Verona, recurs in the two Stories of Saint Flavian by Giacomo di Nicola in the Musée du Petit Palais, Avignon, from the predella of the polyptych of 1443 in Recanati Cathedral).

The curved faces are more tapered than those we find in Giacomo di Nicola, and the figure types are generally more delicate and sharp-edged. The energy of certain passages, as in the description of the young man dressed in red, seen from behind, with one leg up on a bench as he ties his falcon to its perch, could bring to mind Bartolomeo di Tommaso himself; yet these threadlike silhouettes, as loose-limbed as puppets, are more slender and hesitant, and to my mind more suited to a painter influenced by him and by Pietro di Domenico, such as Paolo da Visso. Paolo was active between Norcia and Camerino, in the pivotal area between Umbria and the Marches, but also in San Ginesio and Ascoli Piceno.

He favoured mixtilinear motifs in the elaborate platforms supporting the thrones of his Madonnas, and in the frescoed vaulting of San Niccolò in Valcaldara he placed Christ and the Evangelists within elongated four-lobed mixtilinear medallions that resemble those we see on the cassone, where these forms are enriched by two inflexed arches above and below, broadly speaking Adriatic in taste (the lunette of Paolo’s quadrangular altarpiece in the Pinacoteca Civica in Ascoli Piceno sits within an inflexed arch, but one can think of numerous examples in this context, for instance the mixtilinear frame with an inflexed pinnacle of the Crucifixion by Nicola di Ulisse, formerly in the Spinelli collection in Florence). Parallels with Marchigian art can also be found in the delicate pastiglia foliate decoration – an equivalent of the scroll motifs painted in architectural interstices by the Salimbeni – which also appear in Paolo’s mural paintings; this is especially so in the work of Pietro di Domenico da Montepulciano (who must be ruled out as the author of this work, datable through costume style to about 1440, when he had been dead for some time).

Few examples of Paolo da Visso’s work survive on large-scale panels (the triptych divided between Avignon and Prague; another, formerly in Paris in the collection of Felix Labat, and now dismembered; the polyptych of Nocelleto in the Museo di Castelsantangelo sul Nera; and the Ascoli altarpiece, mentioned above), to which one can add the rare small devotional panels first published by Zeri (“Aggiunte a Paolo da Visso”, in Diari di lavoro 2, Turin 1976, pp. 51-54). The limp Gothicism that shapes the yielding pleats of ample clothing – for example in a predella with the Funeral of the Virgin, or in the small Sterbini Crucifixion – may be compared with the drapery worn by Emilia as she sits crouched in the garden at the far right here. Although the authorship may not be absolutely secure, the milieu is surely evident: the Marches, not the Po Valley. The Teseida cassone thus enables us to cast new light on late Gothic cassoni in the Marches, whose types are substantially unknown to us – not least because scholarly inertia has decreed that painted wedding chests should derive only from well-known cities such as Florence, Siena or Verona.

Andrea De Marchi