Matteo Cesa

(Belluno c. 1435 - 1511/12)

Birth of the Virgin and Presentation at the Temple; Funeral of the Virgin, c. 1485 - 1490

tempera on panel, 33 x 43,2 cm (12.99 x 17.01 inches)

  • Reference: 719
  • Provenance: Sargnano (Belluno), Parish of Santa Maria; London, Charles Fairfax Murray Collection; Florence, Volterra Collection; Rome, Raul Tolentino Collection; New York, John Fiske Collection; Dieren (Gelderland, Netherlands), Katz Gallery.
Literature:

F. Zeri, Antonio Rosso da Cadore: una serie e alcuni problemi, in “Antologia di Belle Arti”, IV, 1980, pp. 141-144; M. Lucco, Un esercizio di filologia: l’autore del trittico di San Nicolò a Padova, in “Bollettino del Museo Civico di Padova”, LXXII, 1983, p. 195, nota 24; Id., Belluno, in La pittura nel Veneto. Il Quattrocento, edited by M. Lucco, Milan 1990, II, pp. 583-584; G. Della Vestra, Matteo Cesa ricomparso in un’asta a Milano, in “Archivio storico di Belluno, Feltre e Cadore”, 1995, 292, pp. 204-205; M. Tamassia, Collezioni d’arte tra Ottocento e Novecento. Jacquier fotografi a Firenze 1870 – 1935, Naples 1995, p. 162, nn. 56598, 56616; L. Sartor, Matteo Cesa e Antonio Rosso e la pittura bellunese del secondo Quattrocento, in A nord di Venezia: scultura e pittura nelle vallate dolomitiche tra Gotico e Rinascimento, A.M. Spiazzi et alii, ed., exhibition catalogue (Belluno, Palazzo Crepadona, 30/10/2004 – 22/2/2005), Cinisello Balsamo 2004, pp. 111-133; L. Sartor, in A nord di Venezia: scultura e pittura nelle vallate dolomitiche tra Gotico e Rinascimento, edited by A. M. Spiazzi and G. Galasso, exhibition catalogue (Belluno, Palazzo Crepadona, 30/10/2004 – 22/2/2005), Cinisello Balsamo (MI) 2004, pp. 194, 196-197.

Bologna, Alma Mater Studiorum, Fondazione Federico Zeri, Fototeca: folio 0296 (Pittura italiana sec. XV. Venezia, Treviso, Bassano, Udine, Cadore, Friuli, Tolmezzo), dossier 9 (Rosso da Cadore, Antonello da Serravalle, Anonimi friulani sec. XV), plates nn. 25639, 25643.

Descriptions:

The two panels represent three scenes from the Story of the Virgin: the first, divided by a partition wall, displays the Birth of Mary on the left and the Presentation at the temple on the right; in the second, the Funeral, eleven apostles are depicted in prayer. The compositions have different settings – a domestic interior for the Nativity, a presbytery of a church for the Presentation, a chapter hall for the Funeral – yet they all share the chromatic reference of the ‘pietra serena’ wall, the pink marble pavement and the wooden barrel vault (both in the antechamber in which Joachim welcomes the priests in the first painting, and in the hall where the funeral takes place in the second).

Based on their close homogeneity, the two panels were connected to the same polyptych: from a known Adoration of the Magi – published by Gabriella Della Vestra as a work of Antonio Rosso da Cadore[i] -, previously in the collection of Countess Margherita Gallotti Spiridon in Rome, Federico Zeri[ii] recovered most of the panels of this monumental altar ‘machine’. Zeri gathered our two paintings in a conspicuous nucleus including: a panel previously in the Harry Harris Collection in Rome with the Journey towards Bethlehem and the Nativity of Christ; the aforementioned Adoration of the Magi, previously in the Spiridon Collection; another panel from the Harry Harris Collection with Angels Handing Mary the Palm of the Annunciation – a subject that is quite rare in Italian painting, also know as the ‘Second Annunciation’ – and the John the Evangelist Receiving the Palm Branch; lastly, a panel with the Madonna with Child, transferred on canvas, previously in the Frederick Mont Collection in New York, likely the main panel of the altarpiece. Zeri supported Della Vestra’s attribution of the Spiridon Collection panel to Antonio Rosso da Cadore, whom he believed was the author of this particular altarpiece. The peculiarity of this work lays in the representation of some iconographic subjects rarely depicted in Italy – such as the Second Annunciation and the Virgin Giving John the Evangelist the Palm Branch – and foremost in the original layout of the panels.  Instead of placing the predella below the main panel, there were two narrative bands, on the left and on the right, each with three panels displaying scenes one on top of the other. It was Zeri’s belief that this layout – utilised in other XV century works in Veneto, as attested by the monumental Altarpiece of Santa Lucia di Quirizio da Murano, today at the Pinacoteca dell’Accademia dei Concordi in Rovigo[iii] – was designed to divide the narrative of the Stories of the Virgin in two clearly distinct periods: Mary’s childhood and youth in the three panels on the left, with the Nativity of Mary and the Presentation at the temple, the Journey to Bethlehem, the Nativity of Christ and the Adoration of the Magi; and her maturity in the three panels on the right, with the Second Annunciation, the John the Evangelist Receiving the Palm and the Funeral, two of which have a known location.

Our two panels were located, respectively, at the top of the left band and in the middle of the right band: this theory has been confirmed by the discovery of documents relating to the altarpiece in which Mauro Lucco[iv] has identified that it is also mentioned in the XVII century on the occasion of the bishops’ pastoral visits to the church of Santa Maria in Sergnano, near Belluno. Furthermore, this discovery connected this altarpiece to a 1865-66 drawing by Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle, when it was still located on the high altar of the church[v]: we know from the notes that the XIX century critic and art connoisseur wrote on this sketch that three panels remain unknown: the two on the sides of the capstone – Lucco believes the Coronation of the Virgin, published by Della Vestra and attributed to Antonio Rosso[vi], is the main panel – and the one Zeri places at the bottom of the right band, likely representing the Virgin handing the girdle to saint Thomas. The XIX century accounts citing the polyptych all refer to Matteo Cesa[vii]; as a consequence, both Mauro Lucco[viii] and Gabriella Della Vestra[ix] reconsidered their original opinions. All the polyptych panels, except ours – which were reproduced in the long essay written by Luigi Sartor in the catalogue reconstructing the work –, were displayed in the important 2004 exhibition at Palazzo Crepadona in Belluno, verifying and substantiating the attribution to the painter from Belluno[x].

The artistic profile of Matteo Cesa was fully reconstructed thanks to the over fifty-year long study of the documents regarding the second half of the XV century art commissions in Belluno: despite Virginio Doglioni’s hypothesis[xi], he did not train in his father’s workshop, since several documents report that Donato, the father, was a blacksmith and there are no mentions of him being an artist. He likely derived his sources from Venice, as Belluno did not have large workshops until the last decade of the century. As Mauro Lucco correctly stated, Cesa’s works are unlikely to be datable to before the 1470s, although the painter was born around 1435 – as attested by Sergio Claut’s document research – and was still alive in 1510. Since his was not born into a family of artists, the beginning of his career must have been very difficult, and when his artistic activity was first mentioned in 1469, Matteo was already in his thirties and still collaborated in unimportant decorations of the Cathedral of Belluno.  We know of the late beginning of his career only from the notes of chroniclers and travellers of the XVII century, amongst all, Cavalcaselle: his drawings allowed the identification of not only the Sargano polyptych, but also of the altarpiece of the church of San Nicolò in Caleipo (another town near Belluno). The Madonna of the main panel[xii], today displayed alone at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, is considered the oldest work that survived the diaspora of Belluno at the end of the XIX century. It reveals the painter’s considerations on the models of Giovanni Bellini and Antonello da Messina (especially on Antonello da Messina’s 1475-76 Altarpiece of Saint Cassiano) and, as a consequence, has to be dated to the end of the 1480s. The polyptych with the Enthroned Madonna and Child with Saints Andrew, Apollonia, Catherine of Alexandria and Francis, also in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, reveals instead a language that is closer to the Paduan shapes of Mantegna. These are evidences of a master who is still defining his manner; in the following decade he adopts Venetian formal approaches, with precise connections to Giovanni Bellini and Alvise Vivarini’s altarpieces and polyptychs.

The polyptych in Sargnano dates to the mid-1480s, not far from the triptych with the Enthroned Virgin and Child with Saints Lucy (?) and Sebastian of the church of Santa Lucia in Cet (near Belluno). In this phase, the painter’s Venetian models are joined by the suggestions of various artists, including Jacopo da Valenza, documented in Belluno from 1486. As revealed in our panels, the adhesion to the language of the Spanish master allows Cesa to adopt narrative skills that are far from the synthesis of a Bellini stylistic approach. The domestic setting of the scenes recalls the past Flemish impressions that united the Mediterranean into a single cultural atmosphere.

Our paintings are illustrated in Marilena Tamassia’s volume featuring images of artworks that the photographers Giuseppe and Vittorio Jacquier took at the end of the XIX century in Florence and Rome[xiii]. At the beginning of the XX century, they were part of the Roman collection of the art dealer Raoul Tolentino. After two successful auction sales in 1924[xiv] and 1927[xv] in New York (attributed on both occasions to Bartolomeo Vivarini), the panels reappear in the 1930s at the Gallery of Nathan and Benjamin Katz in Dieren (Rheden, Netherlands). After the two Jewish brothers quickly escaped in Switzerland in 1942, the location of our panels and of the rest of their sumptuous collection remained unknown for over thirty years.



[i] G. Della Vestra, in I pittori bellunesi prima dei Vecellio, edited by G. Della Vestra and D. De Paoli Benedetti, Venice 1975, pp. 51, 244, n. 97.

[ii] F. Zeri, Antonio Rosso da Cadore: una serie e alcuni problemi, in “Antologia di Belle Arti”, IV, 1980, pp. 141-144.

[iii] M. Lucco, in Catalogo della Pinacoteca della Accademia dei Concordi di Rovigo, edited by P. L. Fantelli and M. Lucco, Vicenza 1985, pp. 28-29.

[iv] M. Lucco, Un esercizio di filologia: l’autore del trittico di San Nicolò a Padova, in “Bollettino del Museo Civico di Padova”, LXXII, 1983, p. 195, nota 24.

[v] Venice, Marciana Librery, ms. It. IV. 2031, folio 1, folder A, p. 14r. Cavalcaselle’s drawing is published in S. Claut, G. Tomasi, Notizie sui pittori bellunesi: Andrea de Foro, Bartolomeo da Torino, Giovanni da Cividal, Matteo Cesa, Iacopo da Valenza, Antonio Rosso, Antonio da Tisoi, Paolo da Tisoi, Iseppo da Cividal, Giovanni Gobelli, Battista da Cavessago, Teodoro da Cavassico, in “Archivio storico di Belluno, Feltre e Cadore”, 2003, 321, p. 26.

[vi] Della Vestra cit., 1975, pp. 239-240.

[vii] On these references, see L. Sartor, in A nord di Venezia: scultura e pittura nelle vallate dolomitiche tra Gotico e Rinascimento, edited by A. M. Spiazzi and G. Galasso, exhibition catalogue (Belluno, Palazzo Crepadona, 30/10/2004 – 22/2/2005), Cinisello Balsamo 2004, pp. 190, 192-193.

[viii] M. Lucco, Belluno, in La pittura nel Veneto. Il Quattrocento, edited by M. Lucco, Milan 1990, II, pp. 583-584.

[ix] G. Della Vestra, Matteo Cesa ricomparso in un’asta a Milano, in “Archivio storico di Belluno, Feltre e Cadore”, 1995, 292, pp. 204-205.

[x] Sartor ibidem, 2004, pp. 190-197, n. 24.

[xi] V. Doglioni, Un codice del 1458 del pittore Matteo Cesa e alcuni suoi disegni. Notizie sulla famiglia Cesa, sulla vita e sull’arte di Matteo, in “Archivio storico di Belluno, Feltre e Cadore”, 1957, 138, pp. 5-9.

[xii] L. Sartor, Matteo Cesa e Antonio Rosso e la pittura bellunese del secondo Quattrocento, in A nord… ibidem, 2004, pp. 112-113.

[xiii] M. Tamassia, Collezioni d’arte tra Ottocento e Novecento. Jacquier fotografi a Firenze 1870 – 1935, Naples 1995, p. 162, nn. 56598, 56616.

[xiv] New York, American Art Galleries, 22-26 April 1924, nn. 822, 883.

[xv] New York, American Art Galleries, Sale Collection Fiske, 26-30 April 1927, nn. 939-940. 

Biography

A painter from Belluno, born around 1435, he documented from 1458. The son of a blacksmith – the original theory that the father worked as a painter has been rebutted –, if his collaboration in 1468 on the unimportant decorations of the Belluno Cathedral is to be trusted, he had a late start to his artistic career, when he was already in his thirties. His known works are dated to between the 1470s and the first decade of the XVI century, a period of time in which he is often mentioned in documents for his social importance in the life of the city – to the point that, when Belluno was occupied by the Imperial troops of Maximilian I of Habsburg in July 1509, Cesa was appointed with three other ambassadors to plead for the preservation of the self-government statutes of the city. Focusing on his artistic activity, his early works reveal the discontinuous influence of both Venetian and Paduan models. Since the 1480s, in the same years of Antonio Rosso da Cadore’s arrival in Belluno and the stay of Jacopo da Valenza, his style adopts authentic and recognisable features. In a series of remarkable altarpieces – including the triptych of the church of Santa Lucia in Cet and the dismembered panel previously on the high altar of the church of Santa Maria in Sargnano – Cesa’s first model is Alvise Vivarini, also active in Belluno from the 1480s with the large altarpiece of the church of Santa Maria dei Battuti; yet, our painter mitigates the great synthesis of Vivarini’s style with a more approachable and narrative manner, bringing him close to Jacopo da Valenza and to the harmonic contamination between cultures of the end of the XV century in the inland cities of Veneto.

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