Agnolo di Taddeo Gaddi
(Florence recorded from 1369 – Florence 1396)
Madonna and Child, 1370 - 1375
tempera on panel, gold ground, 48,5 x 38 cm (19.09 x 14.96 inches)
- Reference: 808
- Provenance: Santa Maria Novella, Florence (?); Private collection, Florence
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A.Tartuferi, The Early Career of Agnolo Gaddi and a New Madonna and Child, Milan, 2021
Zeri Photographic library
The earliest work by Agnolo Gaddi to have come down to us is in all likelihood a triptych – or possibly originally a five-part polyptych – comprising a Christ Blessing and a St. Peter now owned by the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze but formerly the property of antique dealer and collector Carlo De Carlo, to which we should add a St. John the Baptist now in a private collection. The extremely high quality of these panels points to an artist capable of subtle, meticulous draughtsmanship who was also adept at defining his forms with precision and delicacy. The stylistic features of his vocabulary appear to hark back to the Florentine artistic circle whose most important players were painters of the calibre of Nardo di Cione, the Master of San Lucchese, the young Giovanni Bonsi, Giotto di Maestro Stefano known as Giottino and to some extent also Giovanni da Milano. I believe we can also confirm that the panels were painted between 1365 and 1370, in other words towards the start of Agnolo's career as an artist, for as have seen, he was working alongside his elder brother in the Vatican in 1369 (1).
The connection between these paintings and the lunette with a fresco of the Madonna and Child with St. Peter and St. Augustine at the southern end of the second cloister in the convent of Santo Spirito in Florence, known as the Ammannati cloister, appears plausible on the basis of substantially matching and demonstrable stylistic features. Vasari describes the work at some length in his Lives of the Artists: «And because he used to work by caprice, now with more zeal and now with less, working in S. Spirito, also in Florence, within the door that leads from the square into the convent, he made in fresco, over another door, a Madonna with the Child in her arms, and S. Augustine and S. Nicholas, so well that the said figures appear as if made only yesterday». The fresco was already known to the pioneers of modern Italian art history as long ago as the mid-19th century: it was engraved by Giovanni Rosini in his Storia della pittura italiana and mentioned by the commentators in the Le Monnier Vasari, while the Milanesi Vasari even highlights the art historian's iconographical confusion between St. Peter and St. Nicholas (2). The great art historian Cavalcaselle identified the fresco as the work described by Vasari, but above all, he confirmed its attribution to Agnolo, while W. and E. Paatz mentioned the painting in the location described by Vasari but claimed that by their day it was no longer traceable (3). At an unspecified moment and for reasons unknown to us, the fresco must have been detached using the stacco a massello method, removed from the lunette it occupied which was probably close to the entrance leading into the convent from Piazza Santo Spirito, and moved to its present position in Santo Spirito's second cloister adjacent to the entrance to the Corsini Chapel (4).
A comparison between the St. Peter in the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze Collection and the figure of the same saint in the Santo Spirito lunette is decisive. I would stress here again with the utmost conviction, that the strong cultural and stylistic affinity between the two figures extends well beyond their iconography to touch features and stylistic details of crucial importance: the left hand holding the book in the panel painting quite astonishingly foreshadows the right hand holding the keys, the saint's attribute, in the fresco. The two hands' design and construction are virtually interchangeable and even the softness with which the drapery of the saint's tunic is rendered shows an unquestionable similarity. The Santo Spirito fresco confirms the originality and the considerable quality achieved by the last scion of 14h century Florence's most famous dynasty of painters, but more than anything, it reveals his ability to engineer a fully-fledged change of course in the art world of his day. For Agnolo Gaddi, the five years that elapsed between the Santo Spirito lunette and the altarpiece now in the Galleria Nazionale in Parma, dated 1375, was to be a period of immense professional growth and of equally intense creativity.
This hitherto unpublished Madonna and Child distinguished by its tender luminosity enshrines to perfection the best qualities of the painter's early career. Unfortunately, the panel has quite obviously been shorne on all sides, even in its upper pinnacle as we shall see below. The painting originally presented the figure of the Virgin in her entirety seated on a throne, while the sides must have been abundantly shorn if we consider the course of the decoration on the upper border, which hints at considerable expansion particularly in the lower part of the panel. A label on the back contains three lines of text which are difficult to read and can be deciphered only in part: «: “a 6 di Novembre /A Giovanni Giusti Speziale lire Novantadue / fo saldo della c(era) somministrataci per la Purificazione /dell'anno1805. Portò detto conti come da sua ricevuta» ["on 6 of November / To Giovanni Giusti Apothecary lire Ninety-two / in settlement of the w(ax) delivered to us for the Purification / in the year 1805. He brought said accounts as per his receipt"], yet it has allowed Annamaria Bernacchioni to suggest an engaging and absolutely plausible reconstruction of the painting's history in early 19th century Florence. The painted surface may be said to be in good condition overall, despite a few more pronounced instances of abrasion here and there, particularly in the area of the Christ Child's neck and hair, yet the young Agnolo's qualities as an artist shine through very clearly in the painting thanks largely to the extremely prudent cleaning performed by Loredana Gallo.
The painting belonged to a private collection in Florence at least since the late 1960s, and as far as I am aware it has never been the object of a critical appraisal, yet it is recorded in a valuable photograph in Federico Zeri's archive (no. 1945) in a considerably earlier condition, prior to the most recent reduction of its upper part. In the two triangular portions left after an initial shearing of the support and before their further removal, one could distinctly make out the surviving fragments of the lower part of two figures, probably the Virgin and St. John grieving at the foot of the Cross, against a rocky backdrop. The surviving parts of their respective garments can clearly be seen spread out on the ground – in traditional blue for the Virgin's mantle on the left and in red for St. John's tunic on the right – thus suggesting that the two figures were shown seated on the ground, an iconography seen in numerous other works of the period. It is of considerable significance that one of the closest examples of that iconography can be found in a splendid panel painted by the Master of the Madonna della Misericordia, in other words Giovanni Gaddi, now in the Royal Collections of England (inv. no. 1219) in Hampton Court, depicting the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Eight Saints, with the Redeemer Blessing with the Announcing Angel and the Virgin Annunciate in the lower register and the Crucifixion with Mourners Seated on the Ground in the pinnacle, without any clear separation from the main field other than the latter's stamped decoration (5). The picture in the Fototeca Zeri tells us beyond all doubt that the two parts removed were not later additions or the product of squaring but part and parcel of the selfsame panel as the Madonna and Child, because one can detect no visible break between the painted surface of the rocky landscape of Calvary and the stamped gold background of the field depicting the Madonna and Child. And this is further borne out by the fact that the craquelure is distributed identically in both fields.
The motif of the stamped decoration at the edge is absolutely identical to that adorning the three pinnacles of the Parma altarpiece, which prompts the suggestion, albeit couched in all due caution, that the original compositional structure of the altarpiece to which our Madonna belonged was earlier than that of the painting for Santa Maria Novella by several years. If that were indeed the case, then the work would have been an even closer instance in time, of the artist's subscription to the innovative solution devised by Andrea Orcagna in the Strozzi Altarpiece of 1354–7, with the depiction of a single space in the main register, while in its upper part the works maintains the pinnacled arrangement of the various elements in the composition (6).
Yet the more traditional hypothesis continues to be highly likely, in other words that the Madonna and Child was the central piece in a triptych or polyptych divided into panels, akin to the piece now in the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore which matches it to perfection in stylistic terms. Yet the most convincing stylistic comparison in absolute terms (despite the difference in technique) has to be between the face of the Virgin frescoed in the lunette in the second cloister of the former convent of Santo Spirito in Florence and the face of the Virgin in our panel. The two figures' "Morellian" features literally overlap: the very thin eyelashes, the cut of the eyes and the nose, not to mention the design of the prolabium and mouth which are absolutely identical. This suggests that the two pictures were painted very shortly one after the other, prompting me to posit a date of 1370 or just after. We have no concrete evidence allowing us to point to any particular area of patronage for the altarpiece to which our painting belonged, but it may well have been one of Florence's more important churches. And indeed an area of patronage of that nature is corroborated first and foremost by the extremely important destination of the works mentioned hitherto that are closest to our fragment, namely the Augustinian convent of Santo Spirito and the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella. Personally, I am inclined to favour the Dominican church as the hypothetical patron of our altarpiece which we may imagine was very closely associated with the Strozzi Vault, possibly sitting close to the entrance, and was above all very closely connected with it in iconographical terms, given the scene of the Crucifixion that is likely to have formed the upper part, which would thus offer a direct link with the Lamentation over the Dead Christ frescoed on the back wall of the vault. Also, as far as we can tell from the surviving fragment, the altarpiece's relatively small size would appear to be more in keeping with the potential destination I surmise. But of course, we cannot rule out the possibility that it may have come from the church of Santa Croce, where Agnolo worked extensively at a much later stage in his career when he painted his vast fresco cycles in the Castellani Chapel with Stories and Figures of Saints – datable to some time after 1383 – and in the chancel chapel with his celebrated Legend of the True Cross generally thought to have been painted c. 1385–7.
The throne on which our Virgin is seated harks back to the purest tradition of Giotto and echoes, for example, the throne in a stained-glass window in the Chapel of St. Louis in Santa Croce, in the depiction of the Madonna Enthroned designed by Taddeo Gaddi and made, as an inscription on the glass itself tells us, by «frater ubaldus de vitro e frater gherardinus pillecti de florentia», two master glaziers who were clearly also Franciscan friars (7). The Christ Child's clear gesture of affection as he clings to his Mother's neck and seeks to touch her cheek with his face is found in numerous instance of Agnolo's work. This depiction of affection echoes the exhortations of the Blessed Giovanni Dominici (c. 1357–1419), a great Dominican preacher who was immensely popular in Florence in the last quarter of the 14th century and who explicitly urged artists to depict intensely affectionate subjects for young people's edification (8). Yet the most stringent comparison appears to be with a small altarpiece painted a few years later, which an autograph note penned by Federico Zeri on a photograph in his photographic library tells us belonged to the Contini-Bonacossi Collection in Florence at the time, although by 1968 it was in a private collection in Rome (9). Several details in the two paintings correspond exactly, for example the fingers on the Christ Child's right hand peeping out from behind the Virgin's neck, the cloth wrapped around his waist and his left foot visible immediately below his mother's right hand.
The extraordinary artistic talent and strongly innovative character of Agnolo Gaddi's youthful career, confirmed by the Madonna and Child illustrated here, can be seen at the same level in the surviving fragments of the major fresco decoration that once adorned the former convent of San Domenico del Maglio in Florence – first attributed to him by Boskovits – to which payments made to the painter in 1376 refer and which thus represents his earliest recorded work (10). In my view, this cycle, which may have been his first major commission in the field of monumental decoration, concludes the group of works attributable to Agnolo Gaddi's early career.
In the course of the subsequent phases in Gaddi's artistic career, which lie outside the time frame established for this paper, the artist consolidated his prominent position on the art scene in late 14th century Florence both through the production of numerous altarpieces for the city's leading churches and with a large number of works intended for private devotion, for which he often had to rely to a large extent on the assistants working in his highly organised workshop.
Yet it was primarily in the large fresco cycles in Santa Croce, in the chancel chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine with the Stories from the Life of the Virgin, now lost but described by Vasari (11), and with his frescoes with Stories from the Life of the Virgin and of the Holy Girdle in the Chapel of the Holy Girdle in Prato (12) that he passed on the constituent elements of the Late Gothic style in painting to his direct successors, Lorenzo Monaco, the Master of the Strauss Madonna (probably Ambrogio di Baldese), Bartolomeo di Fruosino and many others, up to and including the painters of Late Gothic Humanism such as, for example, Giovanni Toscani, Masolino, Ventura di Moro and others. In conclusion, however, it is worthwhile underscoring the primary importance of his youthful work in promoting a genuine change of course in the direction of a new artistic vocabulary capable of conveying human affection and Christian devotion in a closer, more joyful manner, as we can see very clearly in the Madonna and Child under discussion here.
(1) A. Tartuferi, Un’ipotesi di lavoro per gli esordi di Agnolo Gaddi, “Arte Cristiana”, CIV, N. 897, 2016, pp. 429-434.
(2) A. Tartuferi, Una nota per l’esordio di Agnolo Gaddi, “Antichità Viva”, XXXV, 4, 1996, pp. 3-7. G. Vasari, Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori, ed. G. Milanesi, vol. I, Florence 1878, p. 635; G. Rosini, Storia della pittura italiana, vol. II, Pisa 1840, p. 166; G. Vasari, Le Vite…, ed. V. Marchese, C. Pini, G. Milanesi, vol. II, Florence 1846, p. 152 note 4; see also G. Vasari, Le Vite…, ed. R. Bettarini – P. Barocchi, vol. II, Commento, Florence 1969, p. 629.
(3) J. A. Crowe - G.B. Cavalcaselle, A new History of Painting in Italy from the second to the sixteenth century, vol. I, London 1864, p. 472; G. B. Cavalcaselle - J.A. Crowe, Storia della pittura italiana dal secolo II al secolo XVI, vol. II, Florence 1883, p. 195 and note 2.
W. and E. Paatz, Die Kirchen von Florenz, vol. V, Frankfurt-am-Main 1953, pp. 154 and 201 note 265.
(4) See Tartuferi 1996, p. 5, fig. 3; Ibid.L’arte dell’età gotica, in La chiesa e il convento di Santo Spirito a Firenze, ed. C. Acidini Luchinat, Florence 1996, pp. 49-51, figs. 1-4.
(5) For the painting see S. Chiodo, Painters in Florence after the ‘Black Death’: the Master of the Misericordia and Matteo di Pacino, “Corpus of Florentine Painting”, Sec. IV, Vol. IX, Florence 2011, pp. 304-306, pl. L.
(6) For Andrea Orcagna's Strozzi Altarpiece now see Ravalli 2015, pp. 161-164, 168, 180, rightly highlighting the importance of the harbingers of this structural and compositional themes that can be found in Siena.
(7) A. Ladis, Taddeo Gaddi. Critical Reappraisal and Catalogue Raisonné, Columbia & London 1982, p. 132; J. Tripps, Le vetrate dipinte della Cappella Maggiore, in C. Frosinini, Agnolo Gaddi e la Cappella Maggiore di Santa Croce a Firenze. Studi in occasione del restauro, op. cit. 2014, pp. 138-139.
(8) Boskovits 1975, pp. 81, 85; for the lyrical tone of Giovanni Dominici's sermons, see D. Coppola, La poesia religiosa del secolo XV, Florence 1963, pp. 60-66; G. Festa, Giovanni Dominici e i primi conventi dell’osservanza domenicana in Italia, “Memorie Domenicane”, N.S. XL, 2010, pp. 113-128.
(9) Fototeca Zeri, item no. 1943.
(10) See Boskovits 1975, pp. 119, 234 note 142, 298; for documents testifying to the payments made to the artist in 1376, see Labriola 1998, p. 144. My gratitude to Andrea De Marchi for supplying me with the photographs published here.
(11) For the lost frescoes in the Carmine, see A. Tartuferi, Le testimonianze superstiti (e le perdite) della decorazione primitiva (secoli XIII-XV), in La chiesa di Santa Maria del Carmine a Firenze, ed. L. Berti, Florence 1992, pp. 168-169.
(12) For this cycle see Various Authors, La Sacra Cintola nel Duomo di Prato, Prato 1995, in particular the essay by M. Ciatti entitled Gli affreschi della Cappella della Cintola, pp. 163-223.