Fontana + The GothicNew York
Pair of Reliefs of Saint Dominic and Saint Francis, c. 1500
ProvenanceWidener Estate, Palm Beach, Florida
Art market, United States
D. Lucidi in G. Gentilini, T. Mozzati, D. Lucidi and M. Zuria, Glazed. The Legacy of the Della Robbia, exh. cat. Sotheby’s, New York, 2016, pp. 24–29, 127–29, no. 4.
These roundels contain a pair of sensitively rendered portrait busts, modelled in high relief and set against vivid blue backgrounds, which portray Saint Francis of Assisi (1181/1182–1226) and Saint Dominic of Guzmán (1170–1221), the founding fathers of the two most prominent mendicant orders, the Franciscans (Friars Minor) and Dominicans (Order of Preachers). Dressed in the habits of their respective orders, both are represented with a dignity befitting all’antica portraiture, with pensive expressions. Francis’ face is defined by soft modelling and is animated by curls of hair and a sinuous beard; he wears a humble ash-grey habit, following the earliest Franciscan tradition, with its accompanying broad-collared hood. Dominic appears youthful and is also tonsured; he is robed in a thick black mantle, a symbol of penitence, worn over the white robe of his order.
Portrait busts modelled in high relief in terracotta were ubiquitous in the Renaissance owing to the renewed taste for antique models in the refined cultural circles of Italian courts, which included a vast array of ancient Roman portraiture and also coins. Such images, often set within stone frames or surrounded by abundant vegetal garlands, and frequently executed in pairs or series, often represented the idealised features of emperors, men of letters and ‘uomini illustri’ (illustrious men) of the ancient world. Designed to complement architecture, such roundels were often installed on the façades of Italian palazzi or in the spandrels of their porticos and loggias, their imagery intended to inspire emulation on the part of contemporary civic leaders. During the last decade of the fifteenth century, such works, which were a specialty of the Della Robbia workshop, came to inspire a flourishing production of roundels bearing the images of apostles, prophets, evangelists, doctors of the Church and saints to serve a similar purpose in ecclesiastical contexts, mainly chapels and cloisters. One significant example is the scheme of sixty-six medallions executed by Giovanni della Robbia in 1522–23 for the Chiostro dei Monaci at the Certosa del Galluzzo just outside Florence.
The present roundels were acquired by their last owner from the Widener Estate in Palm Beach: they presumably came from Il Palmetto, the sumptuous Renaissance-style villa built in 1930 by the architect Maurice Fatio for Joseph Early Widener (1871–1943), a celebrated art collector and early benefactor of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The villa was sold in 1951 and later restructured in 1999 after a period of progressive decay. Having appeared on the American art market in 2015, the roundels were securely attributed to the sculptor Benedetto Buglioni, and should be regarded among his most important works in the period around 1500.
Buglioni is believed to have been trained in the art of clay modelling in the famous workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio at the end of the 1470s, and likely completed his artistic training in the studio of Andrea della Robbia, where he became a trusted collaborator. By the 1480s he had already launched into the independent production of glazed terracotta, rivalling that of Andrea and earning the appreciation of a substantial and distinguished group of patrons, including the Florentine church of Santissima Annunziata, the cathedral of Pistoia, Pope Innocent VIII and Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent and future Pope Leo X. One of the leading Florentine artists of his day, Buglioni was included alongside Andrea della Robbia, Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Giuliano da Sangallo on the committee assembled in 1504 to decide on the placement of Michelangelo’s David in the Piazza della Signoria.
Significant comparisons to our roundels, as is usually the case with Buglioni’s oeuvre before about 1510, can be found in important works by Andrea della Robbia. Parallels in type can be identified in numerous effigies set in roundels, like the celebrated Young Lady in the Museo Bargello in Florence, or the Young Apostle (also known as Saint Ansanus) in the Museo Bandini in Fiesole. In terms of form and iconography, two reliefs depicting Saint Francis and Saint Bernardino of Siena in the Museo Civico di Palazzo Schifanoia a Ferrara might be mentioned. Another useful point of comparison is the lunette executed by Andrea in about 1495 for the portico of the Spedale di San Paolo in Florence, with the Meeting and Embrace of Saint Francis and Saint Dominic, an event which according to some hagiographic sources took place on the Aventine Hill in Rome in 1220; the subject alluded to the reconciliation of the two Mendicant Orders in Florence, sought by the city’s bishop Antoninus, and by Savonarola, and perhaps also motivated the unusual pairing of portraits seen in the present pair of roundels.
At the same time, Buglioni’s style is fully distinct from that of the Della Robbia, and is defined by a clear, summary sense of volume in both anatomy and drapery, the use of a shinier, less opaque glaze, a greater liveliness of chromatic juxtaposition and by the accentuated pictorial qualities of the surfaces. The faces of the present two saints, economical in their modelling, their smooth surfaces grooved by subtle projections of hair and beard and enlivened by delicate, painterly eyes and eyebrows, described with fleeting black brushstrokes, find good parallels with other works by the artist of the period. These include the Young Saint John the Baptist in the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in Krefeld, and the Young Baptist, Saint Romulus and Saint Stephen in the Museo di Arte Sacra in Cavriglia. They are also comparable to the faces of Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence in the Sacra conversazione now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Saints Jerome and Nicholas in the large altarpiece from Cortona in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, dated 1502, and with Saints Anselm, Lawrence, Julian and Augustine in the two altarpieces in the Collegiata at Empoli, formerly in Santa Maria a Ripa, of around 1500–5. All have the same concise treatment of costume, with heavy fabric traversed by linear loops, as our Saints Francis and Dominic.
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