Giovanni di Tommaso Crivelli

(active in Umbria, third quarter of XV century)

Trajan's Triumph, c.1470

tempera, punched pastiglia on panel, gold ground , 40 x 120 cm (15.75 x 47.24 inches)

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Giovanni di Tommaso Crivelli

(active in Umbria, third quarter of XV century)

Trajan's Triumph, c.1470

tempera, punched pastiglia on panel, gold ground , 40 x 120 cm (15.75 x 47.24 inches)

Re: 748

Provenance: Private collection


This unpublished nuptial cassone front panel depicts a very common subject in the illustration of classical themes aimed at the decoration of cassoni, used for home furnishings, both in Tuscany and the Veneto sphere, but it would appear that no examples exist in the realm of Quattrocento Perugia.

A cortège consisting of four figures on horseback, several soldiers and other characters following on foot, among whom two ladies, files down from right to left.  In view of the elegance of his clothes, the gentleman opening the procession on the left displays the greatest status: a page, in fact, holds the reins of his horse and a lady in the foreground, with her head veiled, addresses him pleading. This detail allows us to link the subject to a specific episode, that of the Story of Trajan and the Widow: the latter, who had lost her murdered child, suddenly stopped the army of the Emperor, about to leave for war, asking Trajan for justice for the loss she had suffered. 

In the Middle Ages, the main sources of this legend – the Dialogues by Saint Gregory the Great, the Legenda Aurea by Jacopo da Varazze and a passage from Dante’s Purgatory (X, vv. 73-93) – and the ones that followed, reveal several versions of this event; according to the main one, the son of Trajan himself had killed the boy. Although this last episode is not included in the present panel, even though it often appears in the representation of this story, the young fop closing the cortege on the right, flanked by a bouncing dog, may well be the son of the Emperor. 

In canonical representations, the “young widow” (as defined by Dante) is almost always veiled, as in the present cassone, wearing black clothes that remind us of her condition; in this panel, dark colours are employed for horse harnesses and overall their “heraldry” stamping (obtained with silver foil), as well as the weapons of the soldiers and the socks of the page to the far left. The will to differentiate has affected the image of the lady, who wears gold, just like all the other characters. 

The generosity shown by the figure on horseback while he answers to her pleas and there being several warriors around them confirm that this is Trajan’s story, narrated by the artist somewhat freely, transposing the ancient episode in an atmosphere of a courtly parade, with a group of acolytes immediately after the first figures, looking like accessories (in the centre, one of them holds a cup, followed by a lady with a “saddle” headwear.) The right side of the panel does not represent a different tale; the author of this cassone - Giovanni di Tommaso Crivelli, known as The Master of the Campana Annunciation – in fact separated the various stories he depicted on cassoni with frames, while the scene is paraded uninterrupted here. The fact that the young man to the far right indicates a point outside of this representation may suggest that the story continued along this side. This is merely an assumption and, at any rate, the panel would have hardly extended further horizontally. Since cassoni were usually commissioned for a wedding, being based on the combination of two objects, it is in any case probable that the story continued on an unknown fragment, which may have shown the merry end with Trajan granting the dowry to the widow, giving her his son, in exchange for her dead one.    

In the words of Salvatore Settis, we may remember that if Trajan’s story is found so often on wedding cassoni, it will be because of its popularity and its wide dissemination in texts and images as well; it may also be because the events narrated lend themselves to the illustration of topical stories of men and women, which were adequate for weddings, when a couple is about to start a family. On this matter, whether the cassoni were commissioned by the groom or the family of the bride bears no relevance: the values represented and submitted by order of the groom or the father of the bride are identical – or at least they can be. In the figure of Trajan, these values represent justice and Dante’s much praised humility, but also a complete control of the family and the children, balancing the exercise of authority and the disposition for forgiveness; in the figure of the widow, the natural bent of the woman for maternity.  

The scene is depicted in close-up, in front of an architectural forestage, whose upper proportions have been restored following some damage to the wooden support, as is the case with other ones on the lower edge of the scene, caused by the intense thinning it was subject to in the past. 

As already mentioned, the cassone was executed by Giovanni di Tommaso Crivelli –known as Master of the Campana Annunciation– a leading figure in the production of this type of artefacts in Perugia in the second and third quarter of the Quattrocento. The exhibition L’autunno del Medioevo in Umbria, organised in Umbria (2019) shed some light on his copious activity in this field, defining a character that is different from the figure held responsible for many of his achievements, that is Mariano d’Antonio, who launched the major representative of the early local Renaissance, Benedetto Bonfigli, and the Master followed in his footsteps. Alongside cassoni, which may be fully intact or dismembered, a small part of which is in Umbria (three are at the National Gallery of Umbria in Perugia), the anonymous painter produced several exquisite small format paintings. The work we owe the Master’s baptism to is the Annunciation, formerly in the Campana Collection, at the centre of a recently reassembled small triptych, kept at the Musée du Petit Palais in Avignon, a work poised between memories of late Gothic culture in Perugia and Bonfigli’s early updates on terminology. As Andrea de Marchi initially suggested, we may identify the Master with Giovanni di Tommasino Crivelli, documented in Perugia from 1434 until his death in 1481. The latter often worked at Perugia Cathedral, which hosts a fresco portraying Saint Bernardino attributable to the Master of the Campana Annunciation, and also with the young Bonfigli in the 1440s, with whom the anonymous artist displayed a rich relationship of figurative exchange. 

As can be seen in the present cassone, the Master of the Campana Annunciation models all the elements of the composition in his chests with chalk in relief, veiling them with variably operated golden and silver paint, only defining the faces with tempera painting, marked by features that tend to be easily recognisable. The relief silhouettes of tender, rounded profiles have an accurate equivalent in the ones that can be seen in the Tale of the Golden Eagle, portrayed in the facade of the Umbria National Gallery. The ladies in the centre reiterate the facial features of the Virtues included at the far ends of the cassone in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt, or of Lucretia in the chest of the Warsaw Museum. In the face of the left groom we find, a few years later, the physiognomy of the angel of the Annunciationof the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, one of the earliest works by the artist that is known to us. Trajan’s face seems to be echoed in the acolytes to the left of the Nuptial Cortège at the Botticelli Gallery in Florence, the only cassone carried out by the artist, we can associate a reference date to, that is 1452. The types of horses – some with their mouths open, mostly in profile and covered by caparisons – are often replicated by the Master in war scenes, triumphs and the heralds that are sometimes portrayed on cassoni front panels. In the workshop of the artist, the use of chalk moulds and matrixes that refer to this type of images must have been established, and they were used in a serial fashion in the decoration of similar handicrafts.  

In addition to morphologic reliefs, the golden surface craftsmanship leads to the name of the probable Crivelli: the clothes of the figures feature a dense, even weave with stamps that give gold a vibrant consistency, mostly following a vertical development, as is observed in the aforementioned Warsaw and Frankfurt cassoni, and also in the one in the Perugia National Gallery, depicting the Stories of Lucretiaagain. 

According to research,  we can thus link the present work with a specific phase in the artistic production of the Master. The already mentioned Perugia cassone, dated around 1470, does not feature a pair of Virtues (or squires on a horseback) anymore, next to the story depicted on the front, set within multi-lobed arches, as was the case in the Warsaw and Frankfurt works, but it ends with the same pilasters similar to palm trees, which blossom into pseudo-Corinthian capitals, that feature in the present Stories of Trajan. The departure from late Gothic-inspired typologies in favour of novelties of this kind, stirred by the ornamental repertoire of Benozzo Gozzoli and Bonfigli, marks an evolution, as far as Renaissance is concerned, of the solutions put in place by the Master in the layout of his cassoni. Traces of such a renewal can also be seen in the more slow-paced rhythm imposed by the story, that is the will to cram the scenes less and sensibly mitigate that sense of horror vacui that features in ancient artistic productions. It becomes even more blatant in the architectural lexicon adopted in the buildings in the background, featuring wide round-arch arcades, separated by pilasters and capitals, and by sequences of four-cornered windows on which small, classically-inspired tympanums rise.

These buildings are meticulously dotted in the profiles of their individual architectural elements, thus indicating an absolute faithfulness with the enforcement procedures of previous works (on this matter, see the citadel in the background of the Stories of Lucretia in the Warsaw chest; fig. 20), and yet the taste is by now consistent with the one that can be seen in Perugia in the early 1470s and represented on the philological and antiquarian level by Pietro Perugino and collaborators in the Stories of Saint Bernardino from 1473 (in particular the episode depicting the Restoration of Sight to a Blind person).  

Giovanni di Tommasino Crivelli, known as the Master of the Campana Annunciation, was old when the Perugia figurative culture put in place this radical conversion: his decorative flair, his obsessive manipulation of the golden foil, looking for faint dazzles, his fable taste with which he transforms the legends of heroines, ancient triumphs and stories, the gentle, slightly dreamy atmosphere of his wedding processions - all these elements shape the intense fascination of his art – hint that he always remained one of the most fervent exponents of the twilight of late Gothic culture in Perugia and a strong supporter of that civilisation of gold, lavished in late Medieval painting.