(Arezzo, c. 1346 – 1410)
St. John the Evangelist, 1382-1387
tempera on panel, gold ground, 97 x 27,5 cm (38.19 x 10.83 inches)
- Reference: 812
- Provenance: Private collection
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M. Ferretti in Antichi Maestri Pittori. Quindici anni di studi e ricerche, exhibition catalogue ed. G. Romano, Turin 1993, pp. 54-67
E.S. Skaug, Punch Marks from Giotto to Fra Angelico, Oslo 1994, p. 279; A. Labriola, La Decorazione Pittorica, in L’Oratorio di Santa Caterina. Osservazioni storico – critiche in occasione del Restauro, ed. M. De Vita, Florence 1998, pp. 51 - 59
S. Weppelmann, Spinello Aretino e la Pittura del Trecento in Toscana, Florence 2011, pp. 178 - 180
A. Bresciani, Spinello di Luca detto Aretino, Florence, 2021, ill. 47
Active for some forty years in his native Arezzo as well as in Florence, Lucca and Pisa in the decades astride the late 14th and early 15th centuries, Spinello Aretino is one of the central players in the transition from the manner of the second half of the 14th century to the Late Gothic style. Vasari included a biography of him in his Lives of the Artists but it was not until the work first of Miklos Boskovits and then of Stefan Weppelmann in the past fifty years that the artist acquired a profile and his career was reconstructed with scholarly accuracy.
As Everett Fahy, another great student of 14th century Tuscan painting, wrote in A Madonna by Spinello Aretino (“Cleveland Museum of Art Bullettin” 1978, pp. 261-267): “In recent studies of late fourteenth century Italian painting, the reputation of few painters has gone up more than Spinello Aretino’s. No longer classified with the conservative followers of Orcagna, he is now estimated as a first-rate talent and credited in part with the reform that paved the way in Tuscany for the flourishing of the International Gothic style”.
Spinello embarked on his career in Arezzo some time in the mid-70s, his first known work being a fresco dated 1377 which originally stood above the tomb of Clemente Pucci in the cloister of Sant'Agostino in Arezzo and which is now in the Museo Diocesano. In 1380 he moved from Arezzo to Lucca where he soon became one of that city's most active painters, Luca Spinello commissioning from him two major altarpieces that were to have a huge impact on the younger generation of local painters such as Angelo Puccinelli and Giuliano di Simone.
Towards the end of the decade Spinello moved again, this time to Florence where he was a member of the Arte dei Medici e degli Speziali (the Guild of Physicians and Spice Merchants) by 1387. It was here, in the Sacristy of San Miniato al Monte, that he painted his first true masterpiece consisting of frescoes datable to 1388 depicting Stories from the Life of St. Benedict. The extraordinarily lively scenes occupying two registers are extremely rich in anecdotic detail, reflecting a taste light years away from Giotto's brevitas. In his early years in Florence Spinello also produced numerous panel paintings, long interpreted on the basis of Vasari's opinion as examples of late "Giottoism" when in fact, as modern scholarship has pointed out, their suffused sweetness is more reminiscent of the style of Bernardo Daddi.
The panel under discussion here belongs to this same period. Put up for auction by Sotheby's in Monaco in 1987 together with the preceding lot consisting of a Madonna and Child that was clearly part of the same polyptych, the panel was acquired by antique dealer Giancarlo Gallino who showed it at an exhibition in his gallery in Turin in 1987, commissioning a study from Massimo Ferretti. Ferretti identified another two panels from the polyptych, a St. Augustine and a St. Dominic auctioned by Semenzato in Milan on 23 November 1989 (lot 10), thus succeeding in proposing a virtually complete hypothetical reconstruction of the polyptych.
According to his reconstruction, the centre was occupied by the Virgin with the Christ Child upright on her knees, with St. John the Evangelist to her left and St. Dominic beside him. The place of honour on the Virgin's right, which is important also on the grounds that it might indicate who commissioned the polyptych, was occupied by a panel that has yet to resurface, while St. Augustine appeared on the far left. We do not know whether the polyptych also had a predella either with stories from the Life of Mary or stories relating to the saints in the panels above, as was frequently the case.
The work's original destination is unknown but the presence of St. Dominic, albeit not in the place of honour, suggested to Stefan Weppelmann that the polyptych may have been painted for a convent of the Dominican order. At any rate, we are close in time to the San Miniato frescoes and can probably restrict the timeframe to the second half of the 1380s. St. John with his sweet and somewhat melancholic air, with the moiré pink of his mantle juxtaposed with the pistachio green of his evangelion and his tunic, already partakes of the new taste, of the search for a new elegance and a more complex manner, for the highly sophisticated forms and lines that just such artists as Spinello and Agnolo Gaddi were to promulgate in Florence in the following decade, paving the way for that "Waning of the Middle Ages" that was to mark the first quarter of the 15th century in Florence with the masterpieces of Gentile da Fabriano, Lorenzo Monaco and Lorenzo Ghiberti.