Antonio da Viterbo the Elder

(Rome, third quarter of XV century)

The Four Doctors of the Church, c. 1450 - 1455

tempera on panel, gold ground, 147 x 65 cm (57.87 x 25.59 inches)

  • Reference: 725
  • Provenance: Rome, Collezione Del Drago, Bologna Private collection

C. Volpe, Una ricerca su Antonio da Viterbo, in “Paragone”, 253, 1971, pp. 48-49, pl. 42, II; A. Sbrilli, Antonio da Viterbo, in La pittura in Italia. Il Quattrocento, edited by F. Zeri, II, Milan 1987, p. 564; F. Zeri, Diari di Lavoro 3, Un Santo Volto di Antonio da Viterbo, in “Paragone”, 445, 1987, p 19; S. Petrocchi, Artisti viterbesi del Quattrocento a Roma: da Antonio a Lorenzo da Viterbo, in “Studi Romani”, LV, 2007, p. 358; Id., in Antoniazzo Romano Pictor Urbis 1435/40 – 1508, edited by A. Cavallaro and S. Petrocchi, exhibition catalogue (Rome, Palazzo Barberini), Cinisello Balsamo 2013, p. 70.

Bologna, Alma Mater Studiorum, Fondazione Federico Zeri, Fototeca: envelope 0249. Pittura italiana sec. XV. Viterbo, plate 1. Antonio da Viterbo, essay 19593


The four Doctors of the Church stand alongside one another in a setting that is both carefully detailed in the lower composition – with meticulously rendered grass -, and abstracted in the upper the gold background, against which the figures’ profiles are portrayed. The confident distribution of the bodies’ volumes and the succession of the four aligned heads – three are looking in the same direction, while Saint Ambrose whispers to Jerome – recall the reliefs of late antiquity, with the saints depicted as Roman heroic figures.

Beginning from the left, Saint Gregory the Great was a descendant of the senatorial family of the Anicii and was elected pope in one of the most critical phases of Roman civic history; Augustine of Hippo was considered the most important philosopher of Western culture in the time between Aristotle and the late Middle Ages; Aurelius Ambrosius, Bishop of Milan, was a descendant of the senatorial families of the Aurelii and the Simmaci; Jerome, the Latin translator of the Old Testament, was one of the greatest authors of IV century Roman Literature. Therefore, the four Doctors of the Western Church, proclaimed in 1298 by Pope Boniface VIII – who, un-coincidentally with this political move, highlighted the central significance of Rome and, therefore, the Pope, as opposed to the lesser Council, within the history of Christianity -, appear as aristocratic figures of the Roman Imperial years. They exude an authoritative rather than devotional nature, representing the excellency of classical culture and the importance of the transition from Roman to Christian civilisation. First philology and then figurative arts began to rediscover antiquity, and the Doctors of the Church became one of the most represented themes in Italian and, later, European painting. Our panel, which was undoubtedly the right panel of a triptych, is one of the most precious documents of this iconographic success in the art of Central Italy.

The painting was published in 1971 by Carlo Volpe and, due to its style and indisputable arguments, attributed to the early activity of Antonio da Viterbo[i]. Federico Zeri confirmed this attribution in one of the brief essays of the third section of the famous Diari di lavoro[ii]. Both Volpe and Zeri agreed on the dating of the panel to the second half of the 1450s, close to the triptych, signed and dated 1451 (or 1452), with the Christ the Redeemer with Saints Peter and Paul – painted in Rome and today in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Capena –, considered to be the first work of the artist’s stylistic journey[iii]. Giovan Battista Cavalcaselle’s incorrect reading of the inscription[iv], which led the scholar to date the Capena panel to 1402 – also confirmed and supported by Raimond Van Marle[v] – had previously caused a discrepancy in the historic exegesis of the master’s activity: the artist was both constrained to such an early chronological reference, while revealing a style that reflected the features of the Umbrian manner of the mid-century, and, in particular, its reliance on the models of Bartolomeo di Tommaso. It is thanks to Federico Zeri[vi], and later Italo Faldi[vii] and Carlo Volpe, that Antonio da Viterbo’s activity was brought back to its correct chronology, between circa 1450 and 1475, and his oeuvre of panels and frescoes became one of the highest examples of the early Renaissance in the region between the Apennine Mountains and Rome. Highlights of his activity are the frescoed figures in the intrados of the baptistery of San Paolo fuori le Mura in Rome and the scenes of the Crucifixion and the Deposition in the former monastery of Santa Francesca Romana[viii]. Also included are a small number of panel paintings, of remarkable quality, among which are the Enthroned Madonna and Child in the church of San Biagio in Palombara Sabina[ix] and Saint Vincent Ferrer in the church of San Biagio in Tivoli[x]; on the contrary, Zeri’s attribution of the Holy Face in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum is uncertain. Our panel is the only work still in a private collection – since the Crucifixion and the Sorrowful, which Volpe (questionably) assigned to Antonio, is more likely to be a typical work by Nicola di Ulisse da Siena[xi]. Our artist, therefore, is a protagonist of painting in Rome through the delicate transition from the Late Gothic to the early Renaissance; he was certainly connected to the Order of Saint Benedict and, in particular, to the abbey of San Paolo, under whose authority were the villages where his works are located today. Considering that the Capena panel is the only dated work, the chronological order that Zeri suggested and Petrocchi recently confirmed[xii] is nonetheless reliable: from an Umbrian environment (his greatest influence was Bartolomeo di Tommaso da Foligno, as previously mentioned) Antonio increasingly adhered to the refined figurative language of Benozzo Gozzoli. As observed in our panel, his first works are the most sincere and authentic of his poetics, with an outline that properly highlights the volumes and lingers in the careful depiction of the folds of the clothes, as in Bartolomeo di Tommaso’s works. Our panel, very close in time to the Capena triptych, as noticed by Petrocchi[xiii] and verbally confirmed by Mauro Minardi, reveals a new relation with the expressive sharpness of Bartolomeo di Tommaso, and the significant unity with the manner of Nicola da Siena, as perceived by Minardi (in his introduction to his catalogue he suggests that our panel was painted in Rome). Gozzoli’s stylistic influence is still missing in our panel; however, it appears in the aforementioned Saint Vincent Ferrer in Tivoli, datable to after 1455 (the year of the saint’s canonization), and in the Roman frescoes, which can be dated to the second quarter of the mid-1460s.

Our panel, therefore, is a precious document of a continuity, not only in Antonio’s style but also in that of the Roman Early Renaissance: at the beginning of the 1450s, despite the death of Bartolomeo di Tommaso and the diffusion of his language to Le Marche and Abruzzo, the artists who remained in Rome continued to adhere to the manner of the great Umbrian master; our panel represents the highest development of the Late Gothic that would leave clear traces also in Rome, slightly before the appearance of a ‘classicist’ avant-garde that would progressively predominate through the works of Antoniazzo Romano and Melozzo da Forlì.

[i] C. Volpe, Una ricerca su Antonio da Viterbo, in “Paragone”, 253, 1971, pp. 44-52.

[ii] F. Zeri, Diari di lavoro 3: un affresco del 1312 tra Lazio, Umbria e Toscana; un’ipotesi per Bitino da Faenza; un ‘Santo Volto’ di Antonio da Viterbo; ricerche nella collezione Perkins, in “Paragone”, 445, 1987, pp. 13-27.

[iii] On the Capena triptych see: S. Petrocchi, in Il ‘400 a Roma. La rinascita delle arti da Donatello a Perugino, edited by M. G. Bernardini and M. Bussagli, exhibition catalogue (Rome, Museo del Corso, 29/4-7/9/2008), Milan 2008, II, pp. 132-133, 216-217, n. 132 (with previous bibliography.).

[iv] G. B. Cavalcaselle, J. Crowe, Storia della pittura in Italia dal secolo II al secolo XVI, IV, I pittori contemporanei ai fiorentini ed ai senesi del secolo XIV e prima parte del secolo successivo nelle altre provincie d’Italia, Florence 1887, p. 341.

[v] R. Van Marle, The development of the Italian schools of painting, VIII, Gentile, Pisanello and late Gothic painting in Central and Southern Italy, The Hague 1927, pp. 439-440.

[vi] F. Zeri, La mostra della pittura viterbese, in “Bollettino d’arte”, XL, 1955, pp. 85-91 (87-88).

[vii] I. Faldi, Pittori viterbesi di cinque secoli, Rome 1970, pp. 16-19.

[viii] The decoration of the walls of the church of San Biagio in Corchiano, near Viterbo, has been recently rightly queried: S. Petrocchi, Artisti viterbesi del Quattrocento a Roma: da Antonio a Lorenzo da Viterbo, in “Studi Romani”, LV, 2007, pp. 360-362.

[ix] L. Mortari, Opere d’arte in Sabina dall’XI al XVII secolo, exhibition catalogue (Rieti, Museo Civico, ***??), Rome 1957, p. 27, n. 9.

[x] S. Petrocchi, in P. D’Achille, S. Petrocchi, “Limes” linguistico e “limes” artistico nella Roma del Rinascimento, in Storia della lingua e storia dell’arte in Italia. Dissimmetrie e intersezioni, acts of the congress (Rome, 30-31 May 2002) edited by V. Casale and P. D’Achille, Florence 2004, p. 117; Id., in Antoniazzo Romano. Pictor Urbis. 1435/40 – 1508, exhibition catalogue (Rome, Galleria Nazionale di Palazzo Barberini, 1/11/2013 – 2/3/2014) edited by A. Cavallaro and S. Petrocchi, Cinisello Balsamo 2013, pp. 70-71.

[xi] Volpe cit., 1971, pp. 49-50, tavv. 44-45. The attribution to Antonio, supported by Zeri, cit., 1987, p. 20 nota 4, has been modified in favour of Nicola da Siena by F. Todini, La pittura umbra dal Duecento al primo Cinquecento, I, Milan 1989, p. 249.

[xii] Petrocchi cit., 2007, pp. 357-360.

[xiii] Petrocchi cit., 2007, p. 358.


The painter is considered the most talented master in Lazio in the mid-XV century; yet there is only one documented work: the triptych, signed and dated 1451, depicting Enthroned Christ the Redeemer in throne with Saints Peter and Paul, today in the church of San Michele Arcangelo in Capena, not far from Rome. From this very valuable document, Federico Zeri, Italo Faldi and Carlo Volpe undertook on several occasions the construction of the profile of this master. Likely born before 1430, Antonio da Viterbo reveals his adhesion to the style of the masters of the Apennine Mountains in his early activity: in particular, the impressions drawn from the works of Bartolomeo di Tommaso da Foligno are present in his manner. In the Capena triptych, in the frescoes of the intrados of the baptistery of San Paolo fuori le Mura and in the scenes painted in the refectory of the former monastery of Santa Francesca Romana, Antonio clearly reiterates the models and the poetics of the Late Gothic – elevating it to an unprecedented quality in Rome –, although in those years Angelico and Benozzo Gozzoli had already displayed the formal features of the new style of the Renaissance in the frescoes of the Niccolina Chapel in the Vatican. In the altarpiece with the Enthroned Madonna and Child and in the church of San Biagio in Palombara Sabina, painted around 1460, Antonio’s style develops towards the examples of Tuscan painting: it becomes more solemn, yet loses a touch of expressivity and wit. Following what was, by then, the painting trend in Rome, Antonio, without renouncing to the usual frontal feature of the portraits, highlights the monumentality of his figures, inaugurating the classicist years that would become popular in Rome from 1470.


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