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Cavallini

Pietro Cavallini was the leading painter in late medieval Rome. Biographical information is extremely scarce, but he was probably born towards the middle of the thirteenth century. The theory that he belonged to the de’ Cerroni – an old Roman family that lived in the vicinity of San Pietro in Vincoli – is based on a legal document discovered in Roman archives at the beginning of the twentieth century. (It identifies the artist with a Petrus dictus de Cavallinus de Cerronibus who witnessed a deed of sale in October 1273.) Cavallino (‘Little Horse’) was possibly a nickname.

According to Ghiberti and Vasari, Cavallini’s many works in Rome included vast fresco cycles of Old and New Testament scenes for the nave of San Paolo fuori le Mura, frescoes of giant figures of the Evangelists for the Old St Peter’s, a fresco cycle of the Life of St Francis for San Francesco a Ripa, frescoes covering most of the interiors of San Crisogono and Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, and mosaics for the façade of San Paolo and for the apse of Santa Maria in Trastevere. Most of these works have been destroyed; the chief survivals are the mosaics in Santa Maria in Trastevere and fragmentary frescoes in Santa Cecilia.

Cavallini is documented in 1308 at the court of Charles II in Naples, where he was paid a sum of thirty ounces of gold and provided with a house and an annual pension of two ounces of gold ‘for as long as the king wishes’. While none of his works in the city is documented or mentioned in early sources, modern criticism has attributed frescoes in several Neapolitan churches to him or to his workshop or following. Vasari says that Cavallini also worked at Florence, Assisi and Orvieto, but his attributions to him in these places are entirely unreliable. Cavallini was still active, working on mosaics for San Paolo fuori le Mura, in about 1330. He probably died at a great age in the 1330s or 1340s, and was buried in San Paolo, an unprecedented honour for an artist.

Until the turn of the twentieth century, no paintings by Cavallini were known to have survived. The prevailing view of his art was derived from Vasari, who places him too late in his Lives and claims that he was a disciple of Giotto, who was actually some twenty or thirty years his junior. The discovery of the Santa Cecilia frescoes led to a reappraisal. Cavallini’s art is now seen as a climax of an artistic revival in Rome that started slightly before Giotto and included the reinvention of the technique of true fresco. All his recorded works were in fresco or mosaic, and there is no evidence that he practised panel painting.


Assisi. San Francesco. Upper Church.
The possibility that Pietro Cavallini worked at Assisi has been much discussed. Early sources shed no light on the problem. (Vasari says that Cavallini painted in the north transept of the Lower Church, but seems to have confused Cavallini with Pietro Lorenzetti.) The cycle of thirty-four frescoes (many very damaged) from Old and New Testament history, above the St Francis cycle in the nave of the Upper Church, were ascribed by Vasari to Cimabue, but are now thought to be by painters of the Roman School, possibly including Jacopo Torriti and Pietro Cavallini. More controversial is the theory that Cavallini worked on the famous St Francis cycle, traditionally attributed to Giotto. After close technical study, Bruno Zanardi (2002) concluded that three different workshops were involved, but ascribed a large part of the cycle to a team of painters led by Cavallini.

Naples. San Domenico Maggiore. Cappella Brancaccio (2nd chapel on right of nave).
Frescoes: Crucifixion; Scenes from the Lives of St John the Evangelist, St Andrew and the Magdalen.
In the large Crucifixion on the left wall, St Dominic, the Virgin, St John the Evangelist and St Peter Martyr stand at the sides of the cross. On the wall above are two scenes from the Life of St John the Evangelist: St John boiled in Oil (in the lunette) and St John ascending to Heaven. The end wall shows scenes from the Life of St Andrew: the Calling of St Andrew and St Peter (to left of window); St Andrew before the Roman Proconsul Aegeas (right of window); the Crucifixion of St Andrew and Ravishing of Aegeas by a Devil (bottom right); and a Miracle of St Andrew (left). (The miracle of St Andrew occurred when a devil disguised himself as a beautiful woman in order to seduce a bishop; St Andrew appeared posthumously as a pilgrim to expose the devil and deliver the bishop from temptation.) The right wall shows two scenes from the Life of the Magdalen: the Magdalen receives Holy Communion from an Angel (in the lunette) and Noli me Tangere. A third scene on this wall – Supper in the House of the Pharisee – is almost completely destroyed. 
The frescoes were probably commissioned by Cardinal Landolfo Brancaccio, who died at Avignon in October 1312 and whose coat-of-arms appears on the vaulted ceiling. Previously concealed by whitewash, they were only fully revealed when the church was restored during the 1950s. They were not attributed to Pietro Cavallini until 1969, when Ferdinando Bologna published his monumental I Pittori alla Corte Angiolina di Napoli. Cavallini is documented at Naples in 1308-9 working for Charles II of Anjou, who funded the construction of the great Dominican church and convent. The attribution has had a mixed reception. It was supported by Pierluigi Leone de Castris, who (in his Arte di Corte nella Napoli Angiolina (1986)) also ascribed to Cavallini the fragmentary figure of St Anthony Abbot in the fourth chapel on the right of the church, as well as some fragmentary frescoes, similar in style, in the Cappella Tocco (or Sant’Aspreno) of Naples Cathedral. Other writers have assigned the San Domenico frescoes to an unknown follower of Cavallini or of Giotto. Restored in 2011-12.

Naples. Santa Maria Donnaregina Vecchia.
Frescoes: Last Judgement; Scenes from the New Testament; Episodes from the Lives of St Elizabeth, St Catherine and St Agnes.
The extensive but much damaged and restored frescoes are in the old monastic church (behind the seventeenth-century baroque edifice), which was built in the early years of the fourteenth century under the patronage of Queen Mary of Hungary, consort of Charles II of Anjou. Following a similar general scheme to Cavallini’s frescoes in Santa Cecilia at Rome, they represent the Last Judgement on the back wall, paired figures of full-length prophets and apostles on the walls of the presbytery, scenes from the Lives of SS. Catherine of Alexandria and Agnes on the south wall, scenes from Christ’s Passion and from the Life of St Elizabeth of Hungary on the north wall, and fragments of angelic choirs on either side of the triumphal arch. They may have been completed by 1316 (when the Pope issued indulgences to visitors to the church) or 1318 (when altars had been erected and mass was being said). They were rediscovered under limewash in 1864, after the convent was closed. Once regarded as works of Giotto’s followers or of the Sienese school, they were attributed to Cavallini by Adolfo Venturi in his Storia dell’Arte Italiana (1901). Much of the work appears to have been done by assistants or followers, and there have been differing views on which parts (if any) Cavallini might have executed himself. (Hetherington (1979) attributed only the upper part of the Last Judgement, showing the Virgin robed with the sun, to Cavallini. A number of other writers, including Tomei (2000), have seen the master’s hand in some of the figures of prophets and apostles.) The frescoes were painted a secco (ie. on dry plaster), and the monochromatic appearance of many areas can be explained by the loss of surface pigment. The reddish colouration may have been caused by scorching in a fire of 1390-91. There were major restorations in 1928-34 and 1981-86.
The deconsecrated church is open only occasionally (for exhibitions). The frescoes can be viewed properly only from the nuns' choir, reached through the buildings of the former convent.

Rome. Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.
Last Judgement. Fresco.
The fresco – the upper part of a Last Judgement – was discovered by Federico Hermanin in 1900 on the inside façade of the old church, behind a gallery that had been built in 1527 and screened in for the benefit of the enclosed order of nuns of the adjoining convent. It represents the enthroned Christ, surrounded by angels in the centre, with the Virgin and John the Baptist and rows of apostles solemnly seated at the sides. Below, angels guide the Saved towards Christ and push the Damned into Hell. According to Ghiberti and Vasari, Cavallini’s frescoes originally filled the whole interior of the church. They were partly destroyed in the eighteenth century. A few fragments remain of Old and New Testament subjects on the nave walls, including an Annunciation and a large St Christopher on the right wall. The frescoes were dated 1293 by Hermanin on the grounds that Arnolfo di Cambio completed a ciborium for the church in that year. The Last Judgement was restored in 1980. It can only be seen from the Nuns’ Choir (which was previously accessible only briefly to the public on Sunday mornings but is now open daily).

Rome. San Crisogono. Apse.
Madonna and Child with St James and Chrysogonus. Mosaic.
Vasari says that Cavallini painted frescoes in the church, but there are no early references to this mosaic. The presence of St James (whose relics are preserved in the church) and of St Chrysogonus makes it virtually certain that it was made for the church. Perhaps originally part of a tomb, it appears to have been placed in its current position – in the centre of the apse – when the church was restored in the seventeenth century. It is attributed either to Cavallini’s school or to Cavallini himself as an early work.

Rome. San Giorgio in Velabro.
Apse fresco. 343 x 525.
This damaged and partly repainted fresco (the bottom part is a nineteenth-century restoration) represents Christ in the centre, holding a scroll in his left hand and raising his right hand in benediction, between the Virgin and St George with a white horse (left) and St Peter and St Sebastian (right). It is normally dated around 1296, when Jacopo Stefaneschi was made cardinal deacon of the church. The figure of St George resembles that on Arnolfo di Cambio’s marble ciborium (dated 1293) in Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. The fresco was described in the seventeenth century (by Torrigo) as a work of Giotto, and this attribution persisted until the nineteenth century. It was attributed to Cavallini tentatively by Crowe and Cavalcaselle (1864) and then more firmly by Federico Hermanin (1902) after his discovery of the Last Judgement in Santa Cecilia. The attribution was subsequently sometimes doubted (perhaps partly because of the fresco’s bad condition), but was accepted in the monographs by Hetherington (1979) and Tomei (2000). The fresco was restored in 1996, as part of a major restoration of the church after damage from a car bomb in July 1993.

Rome. Santa Maria in Aracoeli.
Left Transept. Madonna and Child with Saints. Fresco.
Vasari says that Pietro Cavallini painted in the Aracoeli, and documents in the archives confirm that Cavallini worked in the church. The fresco is over the beautiful Cosmati tomb of Cardinal Matteo di Acquasparta, the Franciscan philosopher, at the end of the left transept. The Madonna is flanked by St John (or Matthew) and St Francis, who introduces the tiny kneeling figure of the deceased. In the apex of the arch is a roundel of Christ Blessing. The cardinal died in 1302, and the fresco was presumably painted a few years later. It was not mentioned by Ghiberti or Vasari, and was attributed to Cavallini only in 1904 (by Toesca). Hetherington (1979) thought that it was by an assistant, following Cavallini’s design.
Right transept. Madonna and Child. Fresco.
In 2000, remains of late thirteenth-century frescoes were discovered behind an altarpiece and nineteenth-century decoration in the Cappella di San Pasquale Baylon. The Madonna and Child on the right wall – the main surviving fragment of what must have been a whole cycle – appears to have been a frescoed altarpiece. The half-length Virgin is represented before a curtain of gold brocade, holding the fair-haired Child who blesses the viewer, and flanked by St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist. Other fragments include a red medieval tower, convincingly rendered in three-dimensions. After extensive restoration, the Madonna was put on public display in 2004. It is remarkably well preserved. The style of the fresco fragments resembles that of Cavallini’s Last Judgement in Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. The presence of the two St Johns suggests that the cycle may have been commissioned by Senatore Giovanni Colonna, a benefactor of the church.

Rome. Santa Maria in Trastevere.
Life of the Virgin. Mosaics.
The six panels, below a twelfth-century mosaic in the semi-dome of the Virgin Enthroned, represent the Birth of the Virgin, the Annunciation, the Birth of Christ, the Magi, the Presentation and the Assumption. In the drum of the apse, SS. Peter and Paul present the donor, Bertoldo Stefaneschi, to the Virgin in a rainbow-patterned roundel; beneath the Latin prayer (‘Oh Virgin, who chastely received our Lord in the womb and who testifies over the centuries to the virginal name of mother, look with pity onto the contrite souls of thy children’) is the family coat-of-arms. Beneath each scene is a Latin verse composed by the donor’s brother, Cardinal Giacomo Gaetano Stefaneschi. The mosaics are praised by Ghiberti, who said he had ‘never with regard to murals seen any other more skilful in that material’. They are often said to have been dated 1291, but the evidence for this is not very satisfactory. (The Roman numerals ‘MCCLCI’, later supposed to be a misreading for ‘MCCXCI’, were recorded in 1857 beneath the Nativity scene, but subsequent investigations have failed to discover any traces of a date.) Some modern critics have argued, on grounds of style, that the mosaics could be a little later than the fresco of the Last Judgement (of around 1293?) in Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. Though not entirely free from restoration, the mosaics are exceptionally well preserved. They were cleaned after the Second World War and again in the early 1990s. .

Rome. San Paolo fuori le Mura.
Remains of mosaics.
Cavallini designed the mosaics for the façade of the basilica, with figures of St Paul, the Virgin, John the Baptist and St Peter between the windows and Symbols of the Four Evangelists above. The mosaics were already very damaged before the 1823 fire, which virtually destroyed the basilica. They were detached after the fire and reset on the inner face of the triumphal arch inside the church. The mosaics were commissioned by Pope John XXII in 1325 and were financed by offerings at the high altar of the basilica for the next five years.
Busts of Popes. Four detached frescoes, each about 69 in dia.
Cavallini’s frescoes of Old and New Testament scenes in the nave (dating from about 1277-85) were destroyed by the 1823 fire. Their appearance is recorded by watercolour copies made in the 1630s for Cardinal Francesco Barberini and now in the Vatican Library. Below the biblical scenes were a series of papal portraits in roundels. Four of these (thought to represent Anacletus, Sixtus I, Telesphorus and Hyginus) were removed from the south side of the nave after the fire and roughly transferred to canvas. They are now preserved in the museum (Pinacoteca delle Basilica Ostiense). Two are particularly damaged; those of St Anacletus and St Sixtus are the best preserved.

Rome. Vatican Grottoes.
Madonna della Bocciata’. Detached fresco.
A damaged fragment in a Cosmatesque frame. The Virgin was probably enthroned originally, and there was a donor (missing apart from one extended arm). The fresco was painted in a portico of the Old Peter’s, between the Ravenna Door and the Door of the Dead. It takes its name from a miracle that is said to have taken place in 1440. After a drunken soldier, furious after losing at bowls, threw a ball at the Virgin’s face, drops of blood fell from her cheek onto the pavement below. (The mark is still visible on her left cheek.) The image was saved when the portico was restored in 1574 and transferred to the grottoes in 1608. It has been in its present location – called the Chapel of the Madonna della Bocciata after the fresco – since 1636. It was once ascribed (on Vasari’s authority) to Simone Martini, but is generally now given to Pietro Cavallini or (more usually) his workshop.