Tommaso Garelli

(Bologna, documented between 1450 and 1495)

Saint Roch, c. 1455 - 1460

tempera on panel, gold ground, 108 x 51 cm (42.52 x 20.08 inches)

  • Reference: 723
  • Provenance: Private collection

A full-length Saint Roch leans upon his pilgrim’s staff and intensely stares towards the viewer. With his bare leg, his thigh wrapped in a bandage, and his resigned gaze, the saint is a perfect example of Christian pietas and, as such, becomes a remarkable incentive for prayer.

The cult of Roch, born into a noble family in Montpellier and a pilgrim in Italy during the second half of the XIV century, became popular, especially in Northern Italy, while the saint was still alive, and rapidly spread immediately after his death. He was considered the patron of plague-sufferers due to the reliefs and miraculous cures he was believed to have performed, in a time when outbreaks had become a sad yet common event and the memory of the 1347-48 Black Death was still alive throughout Europe. After being infected while nursing the sick near Piacenza, in his usual iconography he is represented suffering from a plague bubo on his thigh. After being wrongly arrested as a spy in wartime, the saint died in a prison in Voghera, where he was held for five years.  It was there that he underwent long fasts and deprivations, thereby increasing his reputation as the protector of the anguished, another sort of Francis, despite living a century and a half later[i].

Giacomo Alberto Calogero and Mauro Minardi attributed our panel, published here for the first time, to the Bolognese painter, Tommaso Garelli[ii].  It is a great addition to the oeuvre of the relatively unknown artist, frequently mentioned in documents, but substantially neglected by Bolognese artistic literature until the end of the XIX century. Only Carlo Volpe and Daniele Benati’s interest and the intuitions of Luciano Bellosi and Miklós Boskovits have allowed Garelli to emerge amongst the protagonists of the Bolognese artistic environment right after the mid-XV century.  Luckily, this can be further appreciated today thanks to Giacomo Calogero’s recent precise research into the artist’s catalogue[iii]. Since 1450, Garelli is documented in Bologna as magister pictor: experienced in the city’s institutional environment – he was appointed on several occasions as the ‘Massaro della Quattro Arti’ (saddlers, glovers, swords and shields makers, and painters) – he was regularly involved in the preparation of banners and furniture for religious ceremonies, a sign of the Bolognese authority’s recognition of this artist. In 1458, he completed a tabernacle in the church of San Michele in Bosco, where he painted other works that are now lost; five years later, he painted the Madonna and Child for the tabernacle of the façade of Palazzo d’Accursio – later replaced with Niccolò dell’Arca’s Madonna di Piazza. The personal and then artistic relationship with Marco Zoppo can be traced to the first half of the 1460s. As can be observed in the works Garelli painted over these years, the artist progressively opened his style to the models of the Veneto. He focused on those masters who had left works in Bologna such as Antonio and Bartolomeo Vivarini – the creators of the impressive 1450 polyptych previously on the high altar of the church of San Girolamo della Certosa and today in the Pinacoteca Nazionale – and especially Donatello, true source of inspiration for paintings of single figures.

In 1970, Wanda Bergamini assigned to Garelli, as Carlo Volpe suggested, a series of ten small compartments with figures of Saints[iv], preserved in the Museo di Santo Stefano in Bologna. In the catalogue of the 1978 exhibition of drawings from the Uffizi Gallery created during Ghiberti’s time (and after), Luciano Bellosi suggests a connection between some sheets, collected in a Taccuino, displaying studies drawn from the bronze doors Donatello made for the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo in Florence, and these ten figures of saints[v]. Besides finally defining the drawings’ correct attribution – an argument that Longhi and Berenson had debated in the past[vi] –, Bellosi’s exceptional discovery gave a modern interpretation to the oeuvre of an author that was still considered at the time an epigone of the Late Gothic in Emilia. In Florence, Garelli studied Donatello in depth and reinterpreted his style through the suggestions of the works of Marco Zoppo, who in turn had trained by studying Donatello’s Paduan works[vii]. Throughout the activity of our Bolognese painter, we notice a progressive reflection over the plastic surface of the figures in the background. Visible in the famous Polyptych of the Santa Brigida chapel in San Petronio – dated 1457 from an inscription, which is today lost, but reported by Malvasia – there is still a shyness and calligraphic discretion that bring our master close to the models of Giovanni da Modena and, especially, Michele di Matteo[viii]. Our painting, probably completed during the same years as the aforementioned polyptych and the panel with the Baptism of Christ now in the Pinacoteca Civica “Domenico Inzaghi” in Budrio[ix] – and scholars agree upon this dating– reveals a sort of melancholy for the wavy and a small mannered patterns of the Late Gothic, as clearly visible in the panel of the Madonna and Saints of the Compagnia dei Lombardi in Santo Stefano in Bologna, which can probably be dated to the first lustre of the 1450s, despite the inscribed date of 1466. Nonetheless, the artist’s mastering of the figure’s location in the space is perfectly visible in our panel: the gold-ground, limited to the upper part – on the bottom the light ochre defines the setting on a rocky surface – and the definite shadows of the outlines, allows the clear figure of the saint to fully surface.  The folds of his clothing feature a plastic thickness as well, and could suggest a logical precedent in the figures of Donatello’s Door of the Apostles, which, as previously stated, Garelli would have studied. Lastly, the panel of The Alana Collection in Newark (Delaware), with Saints John the Baptist and Paul, an entirely elegant Renaissance work, is a coherent reflection on the influence of Marco Zoppo’s Bolognese works – amongst all, the polyptych of the San Clemente chapel in the Collegio di Spagna. According to Mauro Minardi’s reconstruction, the Alana panel was part of the same polyptych of the aforementioned Saints, today at the Museo di Santo Stefano – and the figure of Saint Roch, originally located on the far left of the predella of this polyptych, inside a false niche, can be easily compared with our painting[x].

Our Saint Roch attests to the painter’s progressive awareness of shape and space, an evolution from Garelli’s training, still connected with the style of the International Gothic, and to his maturity as a successful artist, representing the city of Bologna in the second half of the XV century. This balance between ancient and new, which we can appreciate in our painting and in other works by Garelli, such as the aforementioned Budrio panel and the beautiful canvas of the Compagnia dei Lombardi, is the most suggestive aspect of our painting. With his pathetic, yet composed gaze, Saint Roch brings us into a fabled ‘somewhere else’, hence the persistence of the gold-ground, while his shadow, properly visible upon the ground, offers the sign of an unprecedented historical consistence, which is leading the way to the Mantegnesque impressions of the Renaissance in the Po Valley.

[i] On the historical figure, the cult and the iconography of Saint Roch see the various contributions on the volume Il cammino devozionale di San Rocco in Italia. Storia, arte, tradizione, edited by G. P. Casadoro, Venice 2015.

[ii] On the figure of Garelli and his notable documentary citations, see F. Filippini, G. Zucchini, Miniatori e pittori a Bologna. Documenti del sec. XV, Bologna 1968, pp. 158-165. Furthermore, see S. Brevaglieri, Garelli, Tommaso, in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, 52, Rome 1999, pp. 283-285.

[iii] G. A. Calogero, Tommaso Garelli nel Rinascimento bolognese, in “Nuovi studi”, 18, 2012, pp. 83-99; Id., Intorno ad un polittico di Tommaso Garelli: qualche precisazione e una nuova aggiunta, in “Paragone”, 138, 2018, pp. 25-36.

[iv] W. Bergamini, Dipinti appartenenti alla Compagnia dei Lombardi, in La Compagnia dei Lombardi a Bologna. VIII centenario 1170-1970, Bologna 1970, pp. 145-163.

[v] L. Bellosi, in I disegni antichi degli Uffizi. I tempi di Ghiberti, exhibition catalogue (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi), Florence 1978, pp. XXVII, 81-89, nn. 87-99.

[vi] Regarding the Uffizi Taccuino, in 1903 Berenson assigned it to the group of Andrea del Castagno. In 1940, Longhi shifted the attribution to Giovanni di Piamonte, Piero della Francesca’s collaborator in the Arezzo cycle. Solicited by his collegue and rival, Berenson suggested the name of Giovanni di Francesco. On the history of the Taccuino, see the long essay written by Giovanni Agosti in the exhibition catalogue on the Renaissance paintings in the area of the Po Valley: B. Berenson, The Drawings of the Florentine Painters, London 1903, II, p. 34, nn. 661-669; R. Longhi, “Genio degli anonimi”: Giovanni di Piamonte?, in “Critica d’arte”, 1940, 23, pp. 97-101; B. Berenson, I disegni dei pittori fiorentini, Milan 1961, I, pp. 46-47, II, p. 125, nn. 661-668; G. Agosti, in Disegni del Rinascimento in Valpadana, edited by G. Agosti, exhibition catalogue (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi), Florence 2001, pp. 84-90, n. 3.

[vii] The 11F. sheet of the Taccuino reveals the date 1467. The dating, approved by Benati and Agosti, has been questioned with undi arguments, by Calogero, who preferred date the drawings to the end of the 1460s: D. Benati, La pittura rinascimentale, in La Basilica di San Petronio in Bologna, Milan 1984, II, p. 145. Agosti cit., 2001, p. 88; Calogero cit., 2012, pp. 90-91.

[viii] Calogero cit., 2012, pp. 87-89. On the connections between Garelli’s polyptych of San Petronio and the final expressions of the Late Gothic in Bologna, see M. Minardi, in The Alana Collection. Italian paintings and sculptures from the fourtheenth to sixteenth century, edited by M. Boskovits, Florence 2011, p. 276.

[ix] D. Benati, in I dipinti della Pinacoteca civica di Budrio. Secoli XIX – XIX, edited by D. Benati and C. Bernardini, pp. 92-93, n. 3.

[x] Minardi cit., 2011, pp. 272-278, n. 39; C. Cavalca, La pala d’altare a Bologna nel Rinascimento. Opere, artisti, città, Cinisello Balsamo 2013, p. 333, n. 18; Calogero cit., 2018, pp. 29-31. 


Documented as magister pictor beginning in 1450, the Bolognese artist Tommaso Garelli soon became a major painter in Bologna. He held institutional roles within the city administration – on several occasions he was appointed ‘Massaro delle Quattro Arti’ – and the banners and furniture for liturgical celebrations commissioned by Bolognese institutions, all attesting to his prominence. Few works remain of his early activity, yet the paintings at our disposal still reveal the influence of the Late Gothic and the experience of Giovanni da Modena and Michele di Matteo’s Bolognese works. In the mid-1450s, he progressively approached the models of Marco Zoppo – with whom we know Garelli had also a personal relationship, being the godfather of his daughter – allowing Garelli to study the masters who had trained in Padua. Garelli’s interest in Donatello, the model par excellence of Paduan Renaissance,  goes beyond his works in the Veneto: a famous Taccuino, today at the Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe of the Uffizi Gallery, which Bellosi attributed to Garelli, confirms the painter had stayed in Florence on several occasions to carefully study the reliefs of the bronze doors of the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo, made by Donatello around 1430. Garelli’s compositions progressively reveal a more definitive notion of space, at first in the Polyptych of the Santa Brigida chapel in San Petronio, then in the beautiful panel with the Baptism of Christ of the Pinacoteca in Budrio, reaching a more decisive reflection on the plastic quality of the shapes in the compartment with Saints John the Baptist and Paul, part of the Alana Collection in Newark (Delaware) – previously part of a large polyptych – a work that fully displays the Renaissance style in Veneto.


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