Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni

(Active in Florence, recorded from 1369 – 1415 Florence)

Portable Tabernacle, 1375-1380

Tempera on panel, gold ground, 77 x 73,5 cm (30.31 x 28.94 inches)

  • Reference: 811
  • Provenance: Florence, private collection
  • Note:

    No Italian Export License


L. Venturi, Pitture dal Trecento all’Ottocento, in Collezione d’Arte del Barone Alberto Fassini, vol. 1, Milan-Rome, 1930, Pl. VI
M. Boskovits, Pittura fiorentina alla vigilia del Rinascimento, 1370-1400, Florence, 1975, pp. 78, 285 and pl. 87
R. OffnerA Legacy of Attributions, “Corpus of Florentine Painting - Supplement”, ed. H.B.J. Maginnis, New York, 1981, p. 53
F. Botto, La Trinità all’altare di Santa Trinita a Firenze. Un caso di studio. in “Arte Cristiana”, CVII, N. 913, 2019, pp. 282-291

Zeri  Photographic Library 
n. 2874


Cenni di Francesco was a Florentine painter and illuminator who joined the Arte dei Medici e Speziali (the Guild of Physicians and Spice Merchants) in March 1369. He is likely to have received his artistic training at the hands of masters forged in the mould of Orcagna active in the third quarter of the 14th century, such as the Master of the Misericordia (probably Giovanni Gaddi), Matteo di Pacino and Giovanni del Biondo. Cenni's earliest work was once attributed to artists whom scholars variously dubbed the "Master of the Kahn St. Catherine" (Berenson), the "Rohoncz Orcagnesque Master" (Offner) and the "Master of San Cristoforo a Perticaia". It is primarily thanks to the research conducted by Federico Zeri (1963, p. 255, note 5) and Miklós Boskovits (1968, pp. 273-276; 1975, pp.285-294) that we can now identify the pieces attributed to these fictitious figures as Cenni's earliest work. His first work that can be dated with certainty is a dismembered polyptych painted for the church of San Cristoforo a Perticaia (Rignano sull'Arno, near Florence), of which a Madonna and Child Enthroned with St. Christopher and St. Margaret dated 1370 has survived in situ, while a further panel depicting a Sainted Bishop, almost certainly St. Leolinus (Tartuferi 2011, pp.34-35), is now in the Museo Diocesano in Milan. As Cenni's career progressed, we find him subscribing with conviction in the final two decades of the 14th century to the Late Gothic tendency promoted by Agnolo Gaddi, developing an artistic vocabulary at once charming and instructive that won instant favour with patrons, as we can see from the catalogue of his surving paintings – now numbering close to ninety, and which also include several instances of illumination, an area in which he was to dabble only sporadically. 

The finale phase of his career is introduced by a tritptych from the church of San Giusto a Montalbano now in the Museo di Arte Sacra di Montespertoli (near Florence), dated 1400, but his best-known commission was for frescoes with Stories from the Life of the Virgin and the Legend of the True Cross in the Oratory of the Cross in the church of San Francesco in Volterra, signed and dated 1410, which echo the vast fresco cycle of the same subject with which Agnolo Gaddi decorated the chancel chapel of Santa Croce in Florence. 

Cenni's predilection for devising elaborate architectural settings and his unflagging interest in the most detailed aspects of the fashions of his day, in the natural aspects of landscape and even in the fauna populating it (Chiodo 2009) impart a freshness to his narrative talent and testify to the importance of his role in spreading the Late Gothic style in the region. He is likely to have died shortly after 1415, when he was still a member of the Compagnia di San Luca (Jacobsen 1997, p. 518). 

Portable Tabernacle. With doors open, central panel: Madonna and Child Enthroned with Sixteen Saints and Two Female Donors; above, Triandric Trinity with St. Peter and St. Paul; left-hand door, top to bottom: Announcing Angel; the Archangel Raphael Joins Tobias and Sarah in Marriage; St. Anthony the Abbot, St. Christopher and St. Onouphrius; right-hand door, top to bottom: Virgin Annunciate; an Augustinian Saint, a Sainted Bishop, St. Peter Martyr; Noli me tangere. 

With doors closed, left-hand door: Christ the Man of Sorrows with the Symbols of the Passion and St. Mary Magdalen (?) Before the Tomb; right-hand door: Crucifixion with the Virgin, St. Mary Magdalen and Mary the Wife of Cleophas (Clopas).
Tempera on wood, with doors open, 77 x 73.5 cm.; with doors closed, 77 x 35.7 cm. 1375–80 

Inscriptions: on the open book at the top of the central panel, above the Trinity, the Greek characters Alpha and Omega, partly abrased (Jn. Apocalypse 1:8). On the tablets above the two crosses in the two scenes visible with the doors closed, the traditional letters «I.N.R.I» appear in both as «I.R.N.I», which at first sight might appear to be an error but is in fact correct if read from right to left in the Hebrew manner. On the plinth at the base, in gilded letters on a blue ground: «AVE· MARIA·GRATIA·». 

The portable altar has a rich and very varied iconography which also raises a number of interesting questions. The main theme that instantly draws the observer's attention is the depiction, in the pinnacle of the central panel, of the Holy Trinity in the form of tres vires, a reference to the story in the Bible of God's appearance to Abraham in the shape of three men (Gen. 18:1-6). An authoritative line in Christian exegesis interpreted this episode as the Old Testament foreshadowing the triple deity revealed in Christ (Botto 2019, p. 289, note 2) and on that basis the story enjoyed a certain popularity as an iconographical theme in several parts of Italy, particularly in the 14th century. As Boskovits pointed out (1975, p. 78), Cenni shows his respect for his audience here by endeavouring to make the significance of a complex iconography as clear as possible thanks to the truly entertaining detail of the Prophet Simeon and the Prophetess Anna waving their arms about to underscore the importance of the scene taking place above their heads. The accurate identification of the large array of saints in the central part of the panel is tricky in almost every instance on account of the absence of specific attributes or of useful details in their attire, but the identification of the pair situated upper right as St. John the Baptist and St. Andrew appears more straightfoward, as does the identification of the young sainted deacon in the foreground as St. Lawrence – the book he is carrying seems to have a gridiron, the instrument of his martyrdom, on the front cover – in the process of introducing the young and very elegantly clad female donor. Another interesting question is raised by two young people dressed in exactly the same fashion, genuflecting in the left foreground behind another female donor who appears to be wearing the apparel of a member of the Dominican Third Order or the habit of a nun of the Servite Order (Dal Pino 2000, pp. 386-388). The two young people sport two halos circled in black and mordant-gilded without any underlying primer and thus largely faded, allowing the tunic of the saint behind them, most probably St. Julian, to show through. These two young men, possibly members of a confraternity, must originally have been part of the small group of donors together with the nun in front of them and the young woman on the right who is genuflecting and being introduced by St. Lawrence. The two young men, who are being introduced by St. Julian, were probably interpreted as a twin pair of saints, along the lines of St. Cosmas and St. Damian or St. Nereus and St. Achilles, only at a later date and for reasons unknown to us, and promptly received two very obviously bogus halos. 

Boskovits (1975, p. 285) identifies the central scene with the marriage of two young people on the left-hand door as the Marriage of St. Cecilia, yet in that iconography an angel is usually shown placing a wreath of flowers on the heads of Cecilia and of her husband Valerian while here, on the other hand, the angel has a diadem on his head and is dressed very sumptuously, suggesting that he may well be an archangel. Thus the scene should perhaps more accurately be interpreted as the Archangel Raphael Joining Tobias and Sarah in Marriage, the most symbolical and recapitulatory episode in the biblical Book of Tobias focusing on the exaltation of Christian marriage. This identification is in fact also confirmed by Federico Zeri (no. 2874 in his Photographic Library), although he attributes the triptych to the so-called Master of the Rinuccini Chapel, in other words to Matteo di Pacino as we shall see below. In any event, in connection with this scene it is worth shining the spotlight on its astonishing stylistic proximity with St. Catherine of Alexandria Enthroned with St. Cosmas, St. Damian and Two Female Donors formerly in the Kahn Collection in New York and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (inv. 1982.35.1), which shares with our tabernacle both the attribution to Cenni di Francesco and a date of c. 1375–80. Yet this intriguing tabernacle's iconographical peculiarities do not end here, because the two scenes painted on the back of the doors, which can be seen when the doors are closed over the central panel, also display a number of rather rare features. 

The customary depiction, on the back of the left-hand door, of Christ the Man of Sorrows emerging from the tomb with the symbols of his Passion in the background – a very popular subject on both panel and fresco in Tuscany at the turn of the 14th century – is differentiated in our case by the rare presence of an adoring female figure with a halo, swathed in a shroud on the left. In all likelihood this is a rare, indeed a very rare, image of St. Mary Magdalen, who appears symmetrically and in an almost identical position at the foot of the Cross in the Crucifixion painted on the back of the right-hand door. This depiction assigns absolute importance to the figure of St. Mary Magdalen: she is present at the foot of the Cross at the moment of Jesus' death, together with the Virgin and with Mary the wife of Cleophas and mother of St. James the Lesser (Jn. 19:25; Mt. 27:56), another fairly rare presence in iconographical terms. Moreover, St. Mary Magdalen is not merely present, she is facing Christ the Man of Sorrows and is swathed, like him, in a shroud. The extremely strong emphasis laid on the figure of the Magdalen would therefore appear to suggest that the tabernacle was commissioned by a confraternity named after her.

The tabernacle has come down to us in what is a satifactory condition overall. In the oldest photographs we have of it, for instance those in the archive of the “Corpus of Florentine Painting” (see Botto 2019, fig. 18), we can still see the original frame with gilded leaves, notching in the base and on the inside of the pinnacles, and spiral columns also on the doors. The photograph published by Boskovits (1975, pl. 87) no longer shows the gilded leaves on the outside of the pinnacles. The central panel has minor vertical craquelure passing in front of the figure of St. Peter genuflecting in the left-hand pinnacle, brushing the Virgin's left side and running through the middle of the female donor in a nun's habit. Both doors' lower edges show 'striped' retouching of about a centimetre and a half probably caused by the removal of the frame. The same retouching is to be found on the back of the doors, at the base of the two scenes with Christ the Man of Sorrows and the Crucifixion. The entire upper part of the tabernacle was in silver gilt, remants of which can still be made out in particular in the central triangle of the left-hand door. Both doors are adorned with dense punch marks with traditional motifs such as six-petal rosettes and trilobate arches widely used in Florentine painting of the period. The painted surface appears to be in good overall condition. 

The tabernacle was published for the time by Adolfo Venturi (1930, pl. VI) in a catalogue of Baron Alberto Fassini's collection in Rome with an attribution to a follower of Taddeo Gaddi, thus with a correct identification of its Florentine origin. It was also known to Richard Offner, who attributed it to the so-called “Rohoncz Orcagnesque Master”, although the attribution was published many years later (Offner-Maginnis 1981). As we have seen, Boskovits (1968) subsequently attributed the entire group to Cenni di Francesco, but Federico Zeri (Zeri Photographic Library no. 2874) classified it under the so-called Master of the Rinuccini Chapel, whom Luciano Bellosi (1973) identified as the Florentine painter Matteo di Pacino. We have to admit that in the course of his early career Cenni did indeed display certain similarities, including of a structural nature, with the work of this minor Florentine painter, yet Matteo was never at any point in his career to look beyond the confines of Orcagna's vast circle. 

The correct assignation of the tabernacle to Cenni di Francesco's youthful period is the work of Boskovits (1975), who published it when it was still in the private collection in Bergamo that it had joined c. 1969. The painting has been more recently reproduced (Botto 2019, p. 291, note 43) in a study devoted primarily to the iconographical theme of the Trinity on the altar, yet with a date of c.1390–1400 which seems frankly too late. 

The tabernacle, now in a private collection in Italy, is one of the most significant works to have survived from Cenni di Francesco's earlier career, particularly since it documents his early rejection of the rigid stylistic and compositional formulae embraced in the broad ranks of Orcagna's followers, a move that was to prove popular with a fair number of patrons until the turn of the century. In this painting, other the other hand, which I think can be dated to the second half of the 1370s, Cenni shows that he promptly seized on the novel elements which Agnolo Gaddi had introduced onto the art scene in Florence at the beginning of that decade. The clarity with which he orders his numerous scenes, his soft and luminous palette, his figures and drapery in which they are swathed, achieved with a soft yet confident hand, but above all his fresh and lively narrative talent all point to the influence of that most promising of Taddeo Gaddi's sons who made such a decisive contribution to the spread of the Late Gothic style in the last quarter of the 14th century and attracted such a substantial number of followers while doing so. 

As mentioned earlier, an interesting stylistic comparison for the tabernacle under discussion here may be made with the St. Catherine of Alexandria Enthroned with St. Cosmas, St. Damian and Two Female Donors formerly in the Kahn Collection in New York and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (inv. 1982.35.1), while the artist's close bond with religious confraternities is confirmed by a fine Christ the Man of Sorrows with Two Flagellants formerly in a private collection in Cologne that sits well with the Christ the Man of Sorrows on the left-hand door of our tabernacle, even if it is somewhat later in date, towards the turn of the 14th century. 




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