Antonio Vivarini

(Murano c. 1418 – before 1484 Venice)

Christ the Man of Sorrows, c. 1440

Tempera on panel, gold ground, 30 x 23 cm (11.81 x 9.06 inches)

  • Reference: 818
  • Provenance: Private collection
  • Note:

    No Italian Export License

Literature:

E. M. Dal Pozzolo, Un Cristo passo di Antonio Vivarini, in “Arte documento”, 14, 2000, pp. 54-57, fig. 1

Zeri Photographic Library
no. 23751

Christ is portayed in a half-figure pose rising from the tomb. Behind him, the black horizontal arm of his cross breaks the continuity of the gold ground lengthwise. The pained expression, closed eyes and blood flowing copiously from his wounds imbue the picture with a strong and at the same time deeply human pathos. 
This precious panel, an important example of the transition in Venetian culture from the Late Gothic to the Early Renaissance style, has been known to scholars for over half a century. It was purchased from the Galleria Lorenzelli in Bergamo c. 1960 and it is perfectly plausible that that was the occasion on which it was seen by Federico Zeri, who attributed it generically to the workshop of Antonio Vivarini[1]. Enrico Maria Dal Pozzolo devoted a monographic article to the painting in 2000, arguing that it may originally have been the upper central cusp of a polyptych which Antonio and Bartolomeo Vivarini painted for the church of San Francesco in Padua in 1451[2]. While Dal Pozzolo failed to pursue the hypothesis in any depth, it is nevertheless an extremely interesting suggestions because it alludes to a long-unresolved issue in art history, which is the influence of Paduan culture on the Vivarini workshop's formal premises and, in particular, on the artistic personality of Antonio[3]. According to Dal Pozzolo, the panel under discussion in this paper is a very reliable test case for understanding the extent to which Antonio – the oldest member of the Vivarini family of painters and undoubtedly the one most closely bound to the tradition of the early Quattrocento – intrinsically subscribed to the humanist mood which was spreading throughout the Italian peninsula by the mid-15th century. Now, while not disputing Dal Pozzolo's scholarly suggestion, a formal analysis of our painting and a close comparison of it with Antonio's work after 1450 – particularly the work he produced in conjunction with his brother Bartolomeo and in which the influence of Donatello and Mantegna is most clearly marked – prompts the consideration that our Christ the Man of Sorrows should be linked to an earlier phase in the artist's career, and that the painting reveals a formal approach still very much imbued with the features of Late Gothic culture.
In a famous essay penned in 1975, Federico Zeri largely reconstructed the polyptych for the high altar of San Francesco in Padua[4], the second altarpiece commissioned from Antonio Vivarini for this church after an altarpiece he painted in conjunction with Giovanni d’Alemagna for a side chapel, now in the Národní muzeum in Prague[5]. 18th century sources[6] tell us that the polyptych comprised two registers of figures surmounted by a cusp depicting Christ the Man of Sorrows. Zeri appears to question the hypothesis that this cusp should be identified as the cusped panel now in the Národní muzeum (inv. no. O 11949, DO 858) – along with another four panels that can be attributed with certainty to the altarpiece painted in 1451[7] – because in his view it fails to achieve the quality of execution found in the other panels. Dal Pozzolo reiterated Zeri's doubts regarding the Prague Christ the Man of Sorrows, suggesting that there is unquestionably a more convincing formal affinity between the polyptych's surviving panels and the panel formerly in the Galleria Lorenzelli. Yet he also pointed out that the late 18th century scholar Giovanni Maria Sasso, in describing the altarpiece (whose poor condition had caused it to be removed to a room adjacent to the church quire in the 17th century), speaks of a Christ the Man of Sorrows in a niche "serving as a cusp"[8], yet there is no trace of such a niche here. Moreover, the remarks made by Sasso (and by other commentators before him) regarding the San Francesco altarpiece's poor state of preservation appear to be totally at variance with the perfect condition of the panel under discussion here. So it is plausible to suggest that the cusp of the San Francesco polyptych is neither the Prague painting nor our own. And as we mentioned earlier, this suggestion is borne out by a formal analysis of the picture.
In the work that Antonio Vivarini produced in Padua around 1450, he appears to be falling under the growing influence of his brother Bartolomeo, who was considerably younger (aged barely 20) but who was already his assistant in the first project in the Ovetari Chapel in the church of the Eremitani. Thus Bartolomeo trained as a master in the style of the Florentine Renaissance which had reached the Veneto several years earlier, first with Donatello in Padua and then with the young Andrea del Castagno in Venice. At a time when Antonio already had the makings of a mature artist with a style echoing that of Niccolò di Pietro and more especially of Michele Giambono, Bartolomeo appeared to embrace Donatello's novel approach to perspective with a greater awareness, to the point where in the altarpieces he painted with his brother – from the Certosa Polyptych in Bologna to a later polyptych for the Convent of Sant'Eufemia on the island of Rab – he is the driving force in the pair (Roberto Longhi remarked in 1960 that "Antonio's role" in the Bologna polyptych "boiled down to very little"[9]). Thus when Bartolomeo took over as assistant from Giovanni d'Alemagna, Antonio's brother-in-law who died in 1450, the elder Vivarini's style tended to play down the linear component of Gothic memory, turning instead to the novelty of perspective as he energetically endeavoured to keep up with the times (in this connection, note the sculptural character, resting heavily on chiaroscuro, of the figures of the saints in the Rab Polyptych[10]). There is, however, no trace of this new course in our panel. Christ's profile, carved in a silhouette whose formal elegance is in no way diminished by the expressiveness of his grief, is a far cry from the stern, vigorous synthesis of Donatello's Dead Christ on the Altar of the Saint in a celebrated panel that was subsequently to inspire both Bartolomeo Vivarini and Andrea Mantegna. The sinuous figure in our painting, his arms outstretched and crossed as though in the form of a slender calligram, is considerably closer in terms of its formal conception to the Christ the Man of Sorrows that Antonio painted in the upper register of the polyptych for the Euphrasian Basilica in Poreč – a model that also inspired the expedient of the red sarcophagus from which the Redeemer's bust is emerging[11]. So we are in effect looking at a decade earlier, c. 1440. In this period Antonio Vivarini was seen in Venetian art circles as a bearer of clear innovation, albeit in the furrow of tradition. His imagination must have been fired by the frescoes of Gentile da Fabriano in the Doge's Palace, and probably also by early contact with the approach to perspective being developed in Florence. Indeed it is no mere coincidence that Roberto Longhi posits a spell in Venice for Masolino da Panicale – a painter whom he associates precisely with Antonio Vivarini on account of his personality suspended between two different eras while partaking of both[12] – from 1425 to 1427. Certainly, by comparison with the more eloquent Gothic pathos in similar subjects painted by Michele Giambono (for example a Christ the Man of Sorrows with St. Francis of Assisi now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York[13]), our panel reveals an expansion of linear rhythm that imbues the grieving figure with a more peaceful and silent character. Without betraying his fondness for the jewel-like handling of light and colour typical of 14th and early 15th century Venetian painting – the body of Christ highlights the impression of the support's glowing richness – Antonio Vivarini becomes a spokesman in this panel for a change already taking place and so the painting acquires the value of a rare testimony to a changing era.

 


[1] The attribution may be deduced from the file in which Zeri placed the picture of the painting in his photographic library: Bologna, Alma Mater Studiorum, Fondazione Federico Zeri, Photographic Library: envelope 0279 (Pittura italiana sec. XV. Venezia. Antonio Vivarini, bottega e problemi), file 3 (Antonio Vivarini: problemi, bottega ecc.), entry no. 23751.
[2] E. M. Dal Pozzolo, Un Cristo passo di Antonio Vivarini, in “Arte documento”, 14, 2000, pp. 54-57.
[3] For Antonio Vivarini's work in Padua and his relations with patrons and artists see V. Buonocore, Per l’attività padovana di Antonio Vivarini, in “Arte cristiana”, 2008, 848, pp. 331-340.
[4] F. Zeri, Antonio e Bartolomeo Vivarini: il polittico del 1451 già in San Francesco a Padova, in “Antichità viva”, XIV, 1975, 4, pp. 3-10.
[5] Inv. nos. O 11983-7 DO 895-9. O Pujmanovà, Italian painting c. 1330 – 1550. National Gallery in Prague. Collections in the Czech Republic, Prague 2008, pp. 200-201.
[6] G. B. Rossetti, Descrizione delle pitture, sculture, ed architetture di Padova. Con alcune osservazioni intorno ad esse, ed altre curiose notizie, Padua 1765, pp. 166-167; P. Brandolese, Pitture, Sculture, Architetture a altre cose notabili di Padova, Padua 1795, pp. 248-249.
[7] Pujmanovà op. cit., 2008, pp. 198-199.
[8] Sasso's essay has been published in R. Callegari, Scritti sull’arte padovana del Rinascimento, Udine 1998, pp. 286-324 (p. 314).
[9] R. Longhi, Un’eventualità relativa alla ‘Madonna’ precedente, in “Paragone”, 123, 1960, pp. 32-33.
[10] R. Pallucchini, I Vivarini (Antonio, Bartolomeo, Alvise), Venice 1962, p. 110, n. 100.
[11] C. Cavalli, in I Vivarini. Lo splendore della pittura tra Gotico e Rinascimento, ed. G.D. Romanelli, exhibition catalogue (Conegliano, Palazzo Sarcinelli, 20/2 – 5/6/2016), Venice 2016, p. 130, n. 1.
[12] R. Longhi, Lettera pittorica a Giuseppe Fiocco su “L’Arte del Mantegna”, in “Vita artistica”, I, 1926, 11, pp. 127-139.
[13] K. Baetjer, European paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art by artists born before 1865, New York 1995, p. 67.

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