SANTE DI APOLLONIO DEL CELANDRO
(documented in Perugia between 1475 and 1486)
The Virgin and Child
Tempera on wood panel – 28 1⁄4 x 21 1⁄2 in. (71,5 x 54,3 cm) with the original frame
Roma, Jandolo e Tavazzi, 5 April 1907, n° 871
Roma, Castellani collection,
Berlin, F. von Stumm collection,
London, T. J. Taon collection,
London, Christie’s, 24 November 1967, lot 59 (as Antoniazzo Romano), London, Sotheby’s, 12 May 1976, lot 91 (as Fiorenzo di Lorenzo), Italy, private collection.
F. Todini, La Pittura Umbra dal Duecento al primo Cinquecento, Longanesi, Milan, 1989, tome I, p. 67 and tome II, p. 478, n° 1107 (as Fiorenzo di Lorenzo)
The Virgin Mary is dressed in an unusually purple-toned veil and wears a red robe, belted below her breasts, and an ample blue cloak. With her right hand she supports the Christ Child, who is turned in three-quarter profile, his right leg hanging, and depicted while gazing at the beholder; he stretches his arm around the neck of his mother.
The recent conservation of the panel by Loredana Gallo has allowed for a complete recovery of the drapery and hands of the Virgin, which were concealed behind repainting carried out between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; these were eliminated during the present cleaning. Conservation also established that the frame, too – consisting of two pilasters and surmounted by a plain entablature – is to a great extent original. Along the base, on the pedestal, treatment revealed an inscription that had been covered by spurious decoration; as Matteo Mazzalupi pointed out to me, specific details of the inscription indicate its original status. The base bears the words “AVE REGINA CELORUM” (Hail, Queen of Heaven) and the date 1486, with a figure 4 formed with a very high horizontal cross-stroke and a sloping figure 8, both of which are entirely typical of the Renaissance period.
This painting was first published by Filippo Todini with an attribution to the prolific Perugian painter Fiorenzo di Lorenzo, whose language evolved in the wake of his younger contemporaries Perugino and Pintoricchio; his style shows close affinities with that of Antoniazzo Romano. Relatively recently, however, some significant archival discoveries have made it possible to recalibrate Fiorenzo’s oeuvre, removing from it certain works hitherto regarded as key to his career. Among these is the triptych with the Virgin and Child with Saints Mustiola, Andrew, Peter and Francis from the Confraternita della Giustizia, by the Porta Santa Susanna in Perugia. This painting, now in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, was long attributed to the painter, but as Michael Bury brought to light, it is documented in 1475 by a payment to the partners Sante di Apollonio del Celandro and Bartolomeo Caporali. The fact that the Trittico della Giustizia is quite distinct from the style of the latter, whose works throughout the 1460s reflect his keen attentiveness to Benozzo Gozzoli, has thus enabled scholars to resurrect Sante di Apollonio del Celandro, a painter recorded with great praise in the documents but until recently a painter without an oeuvre.
Since the time of Umberto Gnoli, scholarship has associated the Triptych with the Virgin and Child with Saints John the Baptist, Bartholomew, Francis, Bernardino, and a donor (London, National Gallery), a work clearly by the same hand and very close to the painting in Perugia, of which it repeats certain details such as the haloes composed of incised rays within a disc, echoing Gozzoli, and ample drapery with multiple folds. However, the metallic sheen in the London painting is slightly toned down, surfaces are more polished and figures are more slender, suggesting a later date.
It was this comparison with the painting in the National Gallery that recently prompted Irene Sbrilli to also ascribe our panel to Sante di Apollonio. She noted the parallels between the rounded faces of the two Virgins, their eyelids similarly designed with sinuous black lines, as well as clearly-outlined thin eyebrows and straight noses with dark nostrils. Mouths are fleshy and tight-lipped, cheeks are enlivened by a slight blush, and chins are gently pronounced. The diaphanous clarity of light is also analogous. The veil worn by our Virgin, unusually purplish, spirals around in a very similar way to the form (albeit more metallic) of the mantle of both Saint Peter in the Trittico della Giustizia in Perugia and the Baptist in the London altarpiece.
Our painting shows a more mellow language and a quality of tenderness absent from the two triptychs mentioned above. This difference, slight but evident, could have been caused by the decisive impact of the art of Perugino, “excellentissimo pictor e famosissimo in tota Italia”,8 which became ever more influential during the 1480s. Besides, Sante di Apollonio must to some extent have come to grips with Perugino, replacing him in the initial execution of the Decemviri altarpiece, which was commissioned from the latter in 1483. In fact, when Perugino left Perugia without having worked on the altarpiece, the Priors entrusted Sante with it, who in turn left it unfinished, only completing its gable because he died during the second half of 1486, at which time he held the post of Camerlengo dell’arte.9
Our panel, painted in that very year, represents the painter’s last phase, reflecting how he gradually approached the language of Perugino and matured towards a more fluid and delicate handling of paint, moderating the pungency and metallic effects of works from the preceding decade.