Master of Palazzo d'Arco (Fra Battista Spagnoli, called Battista Mantovano)
(Mantua, documented between 1447 and 1516)
Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Mary Magdalene, c. 1490 - 1500
tempera on panel, 93 x 44,9 cm (36.61 x 17.68 inches)
- Reference: 718
- Provenance: Rome, Art Market, Italy, Private collection
Bologna, Alma Mater Studiorum, Fondazione Zeri, Fototeca: folder 0260 (Pittura italiana sec. XV. Verona. Anonimi), dossier 1 (Anonimi veronesi sec. XV: soggetti sacri 2), nn. 21652-2653.
The two panels, sections of a dismantled polyptych, depict Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Mary Magdalene on a black background, both in three-quarter view. We can recognize the former from the palm branch of martyrdom, from which two red shoots are growing, and the wheel on which she leans her left hand; and the latter from the jar of ointment on the book. Their expressions are thoughtful and melancholic, revealing the introspective and rapt nature of these two ‘portraits’.
Two images of our paintings were in the photographic archive of Federico Zeri, who classified them as the works of a XV century Veronese anonymous painter and indicated their presence on the Roman antique market at the beginning of the 1980s. Mauro Minardi and Mattia Vinco[i] attributed them to the Master of Palazzo d’Arco, likely identifiable as Battista Spagnoli, also known as Battista Mantovano, one of the most fascinating artists during the spiritual awakening Italy experienced in the last two decades of the XV century.
A Carmelite friar by the age of sixteen years old and prior general of the order in the last period of his life, Battista Spagnoli is venerated in the Catholic Church after Pope Leo XIII confirmed his beatification on 17 December 1885. In addition, he is known for his significant vast poetic production in Latin, amongst the greatest in this field during the Italian Renaissance[ii]. Next to Battista Spagnoli’s theological and literary works, Andrea De Marchi intuited and outlined his activity as a painter[iii], supported by documents, and the stylistic nucleus previously assigned to the conventional name of the Master of Palazzo d’Arco was attributed to our painter. The Master of Palazzo d’Arco, so named for one of his most remarkable works, the Christ before Pilate now in the Museo of Palazzo d’Arco in Mantua, was influenced by Antonio della Corna and the Mantuan works of Mantegna’s workshop dated to the end of the century.
Because of the complex chronology, it might be useful to retrace the artist’s timeline, starting with some consistently illuminating considerations by Federico Zeri[iv]. Through the analysis of two small panels – with Last Supper and the Capture of Christ, today in the Altemps Collection in Rome – the Roman scholar identified a nucleus of six panels (amongst which the aforementioned painting of Palazzo d’Arco); it was his belief that they could be connected to the same antependium and suggested to attributing them to Antonio Della Corna, Lombard master active in the decoration of the Sforza Castle in Milan and, with Vincenzo Foppa, in the territories of Cremona and Brescia. This was a much more convincing attribution than the previous one to Girolamo da Cremona, the miniature painter[v]. Yet, in a contribution on the painter, Alessandro Galli suggests the existence of a figure close to Antonio who had been more influenced by Mantegna’s works in Mantua than by Vincenzo Foppa[vi], and identifies him as the Master of Palazzo d’Arco. A series of previously unattributed paintings, was assigned to our master, including the six panels gathered by Zeri, the two compartments with Saints Anthony and Paul and Saints Bernardino and Jerome, at the Pinacoteca Malaspina in Pavia, and a lunette with a Pietà, now in the Frankfurt Städelsches Kunstinstitut. De Marchi adds to the stylistic nucleus the detached fresco with the Madonna of Mercy with Saints Albert of Trapani and Angelus of Licata, previously in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Parma and today at the Galleria Nazionale, along with other paintings. In his essay on the fresco in Parma, the scholar mentions two ancient inscriptions on the reverse of the panel in Frankfurt: “Battista Mantovano Carm. /pittore e poeta sacro (?) / 1503” (“Battista Mantovano Carm. /painter and holy poet (?) / 1503”) and “Baptista Spagnoli Mantuanus / pinxit” (“painted by Baptista Spagnoli Mantuanus”)[vii]. It was the scholar’s belief that these pivotal inscriptions confirm what Ippolito Donesmondi wrote in 1616: that the famous painter Battista Spagnoli, theology professor at the Studio in Bologna, was also an “intendentissimo di pittura” (“the most expert in painting”) and that “veggonsi opere eccellenti in questa professione da lui fatte” (“one can see excellent works having been done by him”)[viii]. As it is unlikely that the inscriptions on the Frankfurt painting refer to spurious information, even if they date back to the beginning of the XIX century, the group of paintings assigned to the name of the Master of Palazzo d’Arco can also plausibly be assigned to the Carmelite friar, confidant and friend of Isabella d’Este and of the intellectuals living at court with the Marquise of Mantua, including Pietro Bembo, Giovanni Pontano, Pico della Mirandola and Andrea Mantegna.
The proximity to Mantegna represents the most important aspect of our master’s style: in what we know as his early works[ix], he reveals his knowledge of the Ovetari Chapel in Padua and the spatial solutions Mantegna adopted in the San Zeno Altarpiece in Verona. Later, references to Venetian painting, particularly to Giovanni Bellini, appear alongside the models of Andrea’s works in Mantua, as visible in the aforementioned Pietà in Frankfurt. Our paintings can be dated to around 1490, in-between the panels of the Pinacoteca Malaspina and the painting in Frankfurt: probably closer to the latter, as Mauro Minardi suggests.
Mattia Vinco fascinatingly compares our Saints with the paintings in Pavia: they all reveal a similar graphic quality in the clothing and the monumental deference in the depiction of the figures, motionless wax statues rather than human bodies, symbols of devotion rather than approachable figures. Yet, as Edoardo Villata correctly suggested[x], in the paintings of the Pinacoteca Malaspina the Master of Palazzo d’Arco still admires the Paduan and Veronese works of Mantegna, while the most direct inspiration for our panels were the – few – female figures depicted in the canvases of the Triumphs of Caesar that Andrea started painting in 1485. In this case, despite the clear mention, the artist does not manage to portray the same smoothness, therefore revealing a more archaic structure. The author perfectly understood the value of being in contact with the greatest artist of his time; in our panels, Battista Spagnoli reveals the same attitude displayed by Virgil and Petrarch in his Eclogues: they are unapproachable models, and hence sources of inspiration. If in the panels of the Altemps Collection, completed in the same period, the references to Mantegna are almost identically reproduced, our panels reveal a rather temperamental influence: the saints come out on the black background and are isolated for our contemplation. The plastic conception of shape, which Mantegna drew from Donatello and ancient reliefs, becomes an instrument of doctrine in our paintings suggesting that the theologian has overlapped the artist in this panel.
[i] Verbal communication.
[ii] On the historical figure of Fra Battista Spagnoli and his literary production, see L. Pescasio, Battista Spagnoli detto “Il mantovano”, Suzzara 1994. See also the long introduction, written by Alberto Cavarzere and Guglielmo Bottari, to the volume: Battista Spagnoli: Alfonsus. Studio sul poema con edizione critica, edited by D. Marrone, Verona 2013.
[iii] A. De Marchi, in Galleria Nazionale, Parma. Catalogo delle opere dall’Antico al Cinquecento, edited by L. Fornari Schianchi, Milan 1997, pp. 97-99, n. 93.
[iv] F. Zeri, Studies on Italian paintings, II, in “The journal of the Walters Art Gallery”, 1966-67, pp. 48-59.
[v] Evelyn Sandberg Vavalà is behind the previous attribution: cfr. Zeri cit, 1966-67, p. 54
[vi] A. Galli, Antonio Della Corna e il maestro di Palazzo d’Arco, in “Arte cristiana”, 1995, 769, pp. 278-280.
[vii] De Marchi cit., 1997, p. 98. De Marchi states that the lunette in Frankfurt was attributed to the Master of Palazzo d’Arco by Luciano Bellosi. On the painting and the inscription, see: J. Sander, Italienische Gemälde im Städel 1330 – 1550. Oberitalien, die Marken und Rom, Mainz 2004, pp. 142-149.
[viii] I. Donesmondi, Dell’historia ecclesiastica di Mantova, II, Mantua 1616, pp. 121-122.
[ix] Amongst his early works, Galli mentions the two panels from the Wildenstein Collection in New York, drawn, in his opinion, from the Stories of Saint James of the Ovetari Chapel. Galli cit., 1995, pp. 278-279.
[x] E. Villata, Maestro d’Arco, in Musei Civici di Pavia. La Pinacoteca Malaspina, edited by S. Zatti, Milan 2011, p. 232.
It was Alessandro Galli who identified this master in a study dedicated to the Lombard painter Antonio della Corna, an important figure of Renaissance art in the Po valley, active in Milan, in the decoration of the Sforza castle, and in the territories of Mantua, Brescia and Cremona. In the rich oeuvre assigned to this artist, some paintings were substantially unrelated to the manner of Vincenzo Foppa, Antonio’s main model throughout his activity, and decisively closer to the formal style of the works of Mantegna and his workshop in Mantua. It was Galli’s belief that this stylistic group had to be assigned to an anonymous painter active between the last quarter of the XV and the first years of the XVI century, named after what the scholar believed to be his most significant panel: the Christ Before Pilate in the collection of the Museo di Palazzo d’Arco in Mantua. Based on an apocryphal inscription on the reverse of the Pietà of the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt, which Galli had previously attributed to the Master of Palazzo d’Arco, Andrea De Marchi – who attributed to him the detached fresco with the Madonna of Mercy with Saints Albert of Trapani and Angelus of Licata, today in the Galleria Nazionale of Parma – identified the master as Battista Spagnoli, the famous theologian and scholar also referred to as Battista Mantovano, mostly known for his rich poetic production in Latin. According to contemporary chroniclers, Battista Spagnoli was also a good master of painting and some of his impressive works were likely displayed in Mantua for a certain period of time. Although De Marchi’s attribution has not been unanimously accepted, we are in favour of it, as it is supported by the documented relationship between Spagnoli and Mantegna, clearly visible in the respect for the latter’s masterpieces revealed in the self-confident and valuable works of the former.