Antonio Benedetto degli Aquili, called Antoniazzo Romano

(Rome c. 1435 - 1508)

Madonna and Young Saint John the Baptist, c. 1495 - 1500

tempera on panel, 57 x 35,5 cm (22.44 x 13.98 inches)

  • Reference: 717
  • Provenance: Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts, (inv. n. 1A), ante 1917 USA, MacDuff Collection (?), 1949 Sotheby & Co., London, Catalogue of important old master painting, including The Madonna and Child with St. John by Jacopo Bassano, 27/3/1968, lot 59 London, Tobias and Fisher, 1968 Milan, Private collection
Literature:

P. J. Gentner, Madonna and Child with St. John, in “Bulletin of the Worcester Art Museum”, VIII, 1917, 2, pp. 27-28G. H. Edgell, Fogg Art Museum. Collection of mediaeval and renaissance paintings, Cambridge (Massachusetts) 1919, p. 157R. Henniker Heaton, Worcester Art Museum. Catalogue of paintings and drawings, Worcester (Massachusetts) 1922, p. 163B. Berenson, Italian pictures of the Renaissance. A list of the principal artists and their works with an index of places, Oxford 1932, p. 29R. Van Marle, The development of the Italian schools of painting, XV, The Renaissance painters of Central and Southern Italy, The Hague 1934, p. 265B. Berenson, Italian pictures of the Renaissance. A list of the principal artists and their works, III, Central Italian and North Italian schools, London 1968, I, p. 18G. Noehles Doerk, Antoniazzo Romano. Studien zur Quattrocentomalerei in Rom, Könisberg 1973, p. 199, n. 49, tav. 41BF. Zeri, Italian paintings in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore 1976, I, p. 164G. Hedberg, Antoniazzo Romano and his school, New York 1980, pp. 261-262, n. 214A. Cavallaro, Antoniazzo Romano e gli antoniazzeschi. Una generazione di pittori nella Roma del Quattrocento, Udine 1992, p. 242, n. 103, fig. 181A. Paolucci, Antoniazzo Romano. Catalogo completo dei dipinti, Florence 1992, p. 110A. Cavallaro, Antoniazzo Romano, pittore “dei migliori che fussero allora in Roma”, in Antoniazzo Romano Pictor Urbis 1435/40 - 1508, by A. Cavallaro e S. Petrocchi, exhibition catalogue (Rome, Palazzo Barberini), Cinisello Balsamo 2013, p. 47, note 97.

Bologna, Alma Mater Studiorum, Fondazione Federico Zeri, Fototeca: busta 0248 (Pittura italiana sec. XV. Lazio. Scuola di Antoniazzo Romano), fascicolo 3 (Antoniazzeschi 2), scheda n. 21513.

Descriptions:

The Child leans on two silk cushions set against a marble balustrade – in front of a luxuriant landscape with the Italian Apennine mountains coming out of the horizon; He blesses the devotees with his right hand, while stretching out the other towards His mother’s joined hands, tenderly looking at her in a quiet conversation. The Virgin is immersed in the prayer of worship, while Saint John the Baptist engages the viewer by looking directly at them; with his absorbed and tranquil disposition he becomes an eternally appropriate model devotion for daily prayer.

The critical history of this panel is remarkable: mentioned for the first time in a note written by Philip J. Gentner – the first director of the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts – for the museum’s July 1917[i] bulletin, it had most likely been purchased in the same year; in this early phase – the museum had been established in 1898 – a considerable number of artworks were collected every month. In the note Gentner definitively attributes the panel to Antoniazzo Romano and, following the prevalent trend of those years in the critical debate on the painter, highlights the Umbrian derivation of the artist’s manner and especially the style in this painting. The decisive reason for his attribution is the definition of the landscape behind the three figures: Gentner believes that Antoniazzo was influenced by first-hand contact with Pietro Perugino’s works (and this is why he suggests the artist stayed in Perugia at a mature age), rather than by his connection with the masters of the more traditional Umbrian art – Bartolomeo Caporali and Fiorenzo di Lorenzo, regularly mentioned as the Roman painter’s main sources since Crowe and Cavalcaselle’s Storia della pittura in Italia[ii]. These clearly are the main arguments which Roberto Longhi would inveigh in 1927 in his famous essay In favore di Antoniazzo Romano[iii]. It is the idea of a minor artist, who spread and further promoted a Lazio language that had already other masters in Umbria, Tuscany and Romagna had already been experimenting.  The view that he was incapable, therefore, of autonomously developing his style – the argument that was behind Adolfo Venturi’s severe criticism of Antoniazzo’s value[iv] – was entirely overturned by Longhi’s exegesis. His belief was that the monumental structure of Antoniazzo’s figures points out the artist’s intimate connection with his city, a “minor Cavallini” of the XV century, and that the similarities with artists from other schools of the same period can be explained by the fact that Rome had become a pole of attraction for Umbrian and Tuscan painters, and that, therefore, the relation between Antoniazzo and the greatest representative of the artistic tradition of the XV century in Rome is a mutual artistic exchange of equal artistic importance.

Following the 1917 note, the painting was mentioned again as a work by Antoniazzo in the 1922 catalogue of the Worcester Art Museum[v]. Berenson (1932) included it in his Indici as a study for the panel of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore (inv. 37,685) [vi], and later Van Marle (1934) agreed with the scholar[vii]. In 1973 Gisela Noehles Doerk questioned the attribution, for the first time, in her Ph.D. thesis at the University of Münster[viii]: the scholar is the first to define a homogeneous group of panels depicting the Madonna, Child and Saint John the Baptist, represented in the same pose behind a marble balustrade. According to Noehles Doerk the only authentic painting of this group is the one of the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge (Massachusetts, inv. 1924.23), a panel that had been already drawn into play in Philip Gentner’s note[ix]; she believes that the other panels are all more or less accurate derivations of this prototype.

Meanwhile, the Worcester Art Museum sold the panel in 1949 to a certain MacDuff, about whom details are scarce. In 1968, the painting reappeared in a Sotheby’s auction in London and was sold to the Tobias&Fisher gallery[x] who owned it briefly. The quality of the picture published in 1917 and the one published on the Sotheby’s catalogue, both available today in the photographic database of the Fondazione Federico Zeri in Bologna[xi], is far from optimal. In particular, the landscape seems much more compressed than what we can see today after the fine cleaning of these last years. It does not come as a surprise that art historians, who had only been able to evaluate the panel through these photographs, could have doubted of the quality of the artist and, at times, considered the versions in museum collections, of course easily accessible, to be of a higher importance.

In his 1980 Ph.D. dissertation at the New York University, Gregory Hedberg re-examined the group considered by Gisela Noehles Doerk; according to the young scholar, a panel in a London private collection, known through an image published in the Burlington Magazine in 1961[xii] and later included by Francesco Negri Arnoldi in Antoniazzo’s mature activity[xiii], could be identified as the prototype of the composition[xiv]. Therefore, Hedberg believes that the panels in Cambridge and Baltimore, ours, which was previously part of the Worcester collection, and others (Lille, Musée des Beaux Arts, inv. 992; Avignon, Musée du Petit Palais, inv. 20272; Pasadena, Norton Simon Museum, inv. F. 1965.1.057.P; previously New York, Parke Bernet Gallery) could all be workshop versions of a composition made at the end of the century, when Antoniazzo’s inventions were already widely present thanks to his industrious atelier. In the great 1992 monograph, Anna Cavallaro basically agreed with Hedberg’s thesis maintaining that the only authentic painting was in London, dated to around the mid-1490s, the same years of the Madonna with Child in the Museo Civico in Viterbo (1497), while amongst the various versions[xv] our panel was considered as a work by an anonymous painter of the Umbrian school (an opinion already expressed by Federico Zeri in 1976[xvi]). Yet, the scholar corrects herself in the first monograph exhibition on the artist, displayed at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica of the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. In the catalogue, while writing about Antoniazzo’s atelier in the via della Cerasa (now known as the via Pozzo delle Cornacchie near the Piazza Rondanini), Cavallaro suggests that the various panels drawn from the same cartoon are not organized in a strict hierarchy[xvii]. She believes that they should all be considered as “paintings made by the workshop”, obviously including the master as one of the workshop’s figures. Keeping in mind the amount of commissions of Antoniazzo’s atelier, especially in the most successful period of his career, it is logical to suggest that the artist worked alongside many collaborators – such as his son Marcantonio – whose talent, by that time, must had reached its highest development. In a note written in September 2014 Cavallaro finally states that the panel belonging to a Milanese private collection, which she had analysed in person for the first time – and especially examined before and after its cleaning–, is an authentic painting due to the high quality of the execution, the innovative presence of the landscape and, a decisive aspect, the preliminary underdrawing – a prerogative that excludes that this could be a workshop copy.

The Umbrian feature of the landscape and the physiognomies, especially the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist’s, derives from Antoniazzo’s connection in Rome with Pietro Perugino and Bernardino Pinturicchio. Perugino is active in Rome between 1479 and 1482, at first working on the decoration of the Chapel of the Conception in the Basilica of St. Peter’s in the Vatican and later on the decoration of the walls of the Sistine Chapel; it is the beginning of a long relationship between the painter and the city. Bernardino di Betto, also known as Pintoricchio, is among his collaborators on the decoration of the Sistine Chapel: contrary to his master, he settled in the city to become the painter of preference for papal commissions for over a decade, until the mid-1490s. The new style, brought to Rome by Umbrian masters, led to a precise formal evolution of Antoniazzo’s manner: his figures lose their solemnity to become more down to earth. The “minor Cavallini”, as defined by Longhi, progressively abandons the spirit of the icon in favour of more natural light and shapes, already tending towards the great manner of the XVI century. We easily observe this process in the works of the last decade of the century: by comparing the Peruginesque gentleness and brightness of a signed and dated 1494 masterpiece such as the Madonna of the Musée de Tessè in Le Mans with the much more severe attire of the Virgin of the panel of the Auditors in the Library at the Appartamento Nobile Pontificio, painted no more that four years before, we can clearly notice how Antoniazzo’s painting was undergoing a real evolution. The profile of the Madonna in our painting derives from the Virgin’s features in the famous Nativity – today part of the collections of the Duomo in Civita Castellana – dated to around 1475 and therefore twenty years earlier than ours[xviii]. Yet the close, half-length perspective makes the subject of our panel more approachable: in the altarpiece in Civita Castellana the painting is structured as a mystic vision, as portentous and distant as a miracle. On the contrary, our devotional panel displays the mood of an intimate conversation between the feelings of a devoted patron and the protagonists of the scene. In comparison with the versions in London, Cambridge, Baltimore and Pasadena, the presence of the landscape, which does not push the figures towards the front as the gold background, but carefully inserts them in a micro-cosmos filled with natural light, becomes part of the structure of the composition by increasing its sense of tender indulgence. Therefore, we are able to state that the other panels are the result of a simplification of the composition of a prototype and, as a consequence, our painting can easily be identified as this prototype – and the trace of the preliminary underdrawing is the evident counter-evidence of this statement.

Even if its historical value has been outlined, this panel remains a masterpiece of familiarity and affability, a coherent example of the tender and pleasing style of Italian art of the late XV century that Pietro Perugino influenced. It further confirms that at the end of the century Antoniazzo was far from being an artist that clung to the art movements of the tradition, as Venturi claimed; on the contrary, he definitely participated in a fundamental passage in the history of art in Rome, in the years that would have led in just a decade to the perfection of Raphael and Michelangelo.



[i] P. J. Gentner, Madonna and Child with St. John, in “Bulletin of the Worcester Art Museum”, VIII, 1917, 2, pp. 27-28.

[ii] J. A. Crowe, G. B. Cavalcaselle, A new history of painting in Italy from the IInd to the XVIth century, III, London 1966, pp. 167-168.

[iii] R. Longhi, In favore di Antoniazzo Romano, in “Vita Artistica”, II, 1927, 11-12, pp. 226-233.

[iv] A. Ventura, Storia dell’arte italiana, VII, La pittura del Quattrocento, Milan 1913, 2, pp. 257-259.

[v] R. Henniker Heaton, Worcester Art Museum. Catalogue of paintings and drawings, Worcester (Massachusetts) 1922, p. 163.

[vi] B. Berenson, Italian pictures of the Renaissance. A list of the principal artists and their works with an index of places, Oxford 1932, p. 29.

[vii] R. Van Marle, The development of the Italian schools of painting, XV, The Renaissance painters of Central and Southern Italy, The Hague 1934, p. 265.

[viii] G. Noehles Doerk, Antoniazzo Romano. Studien zur Quattrocentomalerei in Rom, Könisberg 1973, p. 199, n. 49.

[ix] As Gentner, also George Harold Edgell believed this panel to be an authentic version of the  panel in Cambridge: G. H. Edgell, Fogg Art Museum. Collection of mediaeval and renaissance paintings, Cambridge (Massachusetts) 1919, p. 157.

[x] Gregory Hedberg reconstructed the passages between one collection to the other.

[xi] Università degli Studi di Bologna, Fondazione Federico Zeri, Fototeca: busta 0248 (Pittura italiana sec. XV. Lazio. Scuola di Antoniazzo Romano), fascicolo 3 (Antoniazzeschi 2), scheda n. 21513.

[xii] “The Burlington magazine”, CIII, 1961, 4, p. XXXV.

[xiii] F. Negri Arnoldi, Maturità di Antoniazzo, in “Commentari”, XVI, 1965, pp. 225-244 (pp. 236, 238, fig. 16).

[xiv] G. Hedberg, Antoniazzo Romano and his school, New York 1980, pp. 167-168, n. 58.

[xv] A. Cavallaro, Antoniazzo Romano e gli antoniazzeschi. Una generazione di pittori nella Roma del Quattrocento, Udine 1992, pp. 239-243 nn. 97-104, 107.

[xvi] F. Zeri, Italian paintings in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore 1976, I, p. 164.

[xvii] A. Cavallaro, Antoniazzo Romano, pittore “dei migliori che fussero allora in Roma”, in Antoniazzo Romano Pictor Urbis 1435/40 – 1508,  by A. Cavallaro and S. Petrocchi, exhibition catalogue (Rome, Palazzo Barberini), Cinisello Balsamo 2013, pp. 20-47 (pp. 37-38, 47 note 97).

[xviii] I. Faldi, in La pittura viterbese dal XIV al XVI secolo, by I. Faldi and L. Mortari, exhibition catalogue (Viterbo, Museo Civico), Viterbo 1954, p. 39.

Biography

Born in Rome into a family of artists – his father Benedetto is assumed to have been a procession banner painter at the time of popes Martin V and Eugene IV – Antonio Aquili was autonomously active from the first half of the 1460s. The painter’s training, gained in his hometown through contact with Angelico and Benozzo Gozzoli’s 1450s texts on painting, was enriched by the Tuscan style and deeply influenced by the perspective painting of Piero della Francesca – also active in Rome for pope Pio II in 1459. From 1464 Antonio – who signed with the nickname “Antoniatius Romanus” – was involved with his workshop in all the great decorative sites promoted in Rome during the 1470s and 80s: from the decoration of the chapel of Cardinal Bessarion in the church of SS. Apostoli to the frescoes of the Sanguigni Chapel in Sant’Apollinare, to the creation of the “company” with Melozzo da Forlì for the commission of the frescoes of the Biblioteca Segreta and the Biblioteca Pontificia in the Vatican Palaces. Throughout the same years, Antoniazzo became Rome’s most sought-after painter of Marian images – especially around the Jubilee of 1475 – and medieval themes, increasingly in demand (such as the iconography of the Holy Face derived from the ancient icon of the chapel of the Sancta Sanctorum in the Church of Saint John the Lateran). Antoniazzo became the painter of the liturgical solemnity and of the return to the tradition of the original Christianity, in a slight controversy against the laic feature of the Neoplatonic Florentine Renaissance that tended towards paganism. His compositions, often displaying few monumental figures, show the artist’s expertise in the usage of the perspective and his connection with the great sculptors active in the same years (see the similarities with Andrea Bregno). Yet, from the end of the 1480s, the prevailing mood in his works derived from the Umbrian school of Pietro Perugino and especially Bernardino Pintoricchio a style that becames more apparent in the following decade. This was the most successful phase of his workshop: Antoniazzo acted as a skilled entrepreneur, working on several commissions at the same time and delegating the translation of the preparatory cartoons into paintings to his pupils, who were often artists of equal artistic importance. Antoniazzo died in Rome on 17 April 1508.

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