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Orcagna

Andrea di Cione; Orcagna is probably a corruption of Arcagnuolo (‘Archangel’), a nickname acquired from his home in the parish of San Michele. He was the most important Florentine painter, sculptor and architect of the mid-fourteenth century. Vasari says that he was taught by the sculptor Andrea Pisano. A date of birth of about 1308 has been deduced from Vasari’s statement that he lived until the age of sixty; but Vasari almost invariably exaggerates the longevity of his subjects and a later birth-date (perhaps 1315-20) seems more likely. He is first recorded in 1343, when he executed a work (now lost) for the Compagnia di Gesù Pellegrino in Santa Maria Novella, and he was admitted to the guild of the Medici e Speziali in 1343-44. In 1350 he was commissioned to decorate the choir of Santa Maria Novella, but his frescoes were apparently damaged by lightning as early as 1358 and were finally destroyed when Ghirlandaio painted his famous cycle. His only surviving documented painting is the altarpiece in the Strozzi Chapel of Santa Maria Novella, which was commissioned in 1354 and is dated 1357. This grave, formal and rigidly symmetrical altarpiece has little sense of spatial depth or of volume or movement in the figures, and represents a break with the naturalistic, two-dimensional and dynamic style of Giotto and his immediate followers.

In 1356 Orcagna was appointed capomaestro (head architect) of Orsanmichele, and his main work in sculpture is the great marble tabernacle there, which is dated 1359. In 1359/60 and 1362 he visited Orvieto, where he was capomaestro of the cathedral and supervised the restoration of the mosaics on the façade. In September 1367 he contracted to paint the altarpiece of St Matthew for Orsanmichele (now in the Uffizi); but, as he was sick, it was completed by a younger brother Jacopo di Cione (active 1362-98). He died, it seems, in 1368.

Another brother Nardo (active 1343-65) was also a painter. According to Ghiberti, he painted the frescoes in the Strozzi Chapel of Santa Maria Novella, and around a dozen panel pictures have been ascribed to him largely on the strength of stylistic affinities with these frescoes. His style seems to have remained more Giottesque than Orcagna’s.

The extreme scarcity of Orcagna’s authenticated works, combined with the considerable number of Florentine paintings of the period that are more or less Orcagnesque and the likelihood of workshop collaboration in many cases, makes his œuvre hard to define. Critical opinion has varied considerably over the years. In 1962, Robert Offner allowed Orcagna just three paintings (the Strozzi Altarpiece, some fragments of frescoes at Santa Croce mentioned by Ghiberti, and a minor panel at Baltimore). The 2000 German monograph by Gert Kreytenberg gives him thirteen pictures (including an altarpiece dated 1336 at San Giorgio a Ruballa that is alternatively attributed to Maso di Banco and two panel paintings that are still in private hands).


Amsterdam. Rijksmuseum.
Triptych. Wood, 146 x 120.
The centre panel shows the Virgin nursing the Child. Two kneeling angels present vases of flowers. The Redeemer, blessing and holding a book, is in the pinnacle. The wings represent Mary Magdalene, holding a banderole and jar of ointment, and St Ansanus, as a youthful knight with martyr’s palm. The gold ground is so worn that the foundation of red bole shows through in many places and the Virgin’s blue mantle is restored, but the figures are in generally good condition. According to the inscription running along the base, the triptych was painted in 1350 for Tommas Baronci. It is almost certainly the altarpiece documented as painted for Baronci’s chapel, dedicated to Sant’Ansano, in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore at Florence. The chapel was frescoed with scenes from the life of the Apostle Thomas (exposed in the late nineteenth century but then covered up again). Nothing is known of the subsequent history of the triptych until 1924, when it was sold in New York as a work of Orcagna’s brother Nardo di Cione. It was bequeathed to the Rijksmuseum with the important collection of early Italian pictures assembled by the Amsterdam surgeon Otto Lanz. The collection was subsequently ‘sold’ to the Nazis, but was returned to the Netherlands after the War. The triptych was exhibited in museums in The Hague and at Utrecht, before being transferred to the Rijksmuseum. The attribution to Orcagna was first proposed in 1930 by Bernard Berenson. It was later disputed – most notably by Robert Offner, who (in a 1962 volume of his monumental Corpus of Florentine Painting) gave the triptych to an unknown follower of Nardo di Cione, dubbed the ‘Master of the Lucchese Altarpiece’. The attribution to Orcagna was revived by Miklós Boskovits, who published an important (but controversial) reappraisal of the painter’s work in the May 1971 Burlington Magazine.

Bagno a Ripoli (near Florence). San Giorgio a Ruballa.
Madonna and Child with Saints and Angels. Wood, 225 x 136.
The two saints (identified by inscriptions) are Matthias and George. A tiny ecclesiastic kneels as donor. Dated 1336. The picture, still in its original frame, stands over an altar on the right. In the past, it has been called a work of Bernardo Daddi or of an anonymous ‘Maestro di San Giorgio’. More recently, it has been associated with Maso di Banco, perhaps the greatest of Giotto’s immediate followers. An attribution to Orcagna, as perhaps his earliest surviving work, was made in 1984 by Luciano Bellosi (Prospettiva). It was accepted by Gert Kreytenberg in his 2000 monograph, but remains controversial. The panel was exhibited, after restoration, at the Uffizi in 2008 (the Legacy of Giotto) with an attribution to Maso di Banco.

Baltimore. Walters Art Museum.
Crucifixion. Wood, 20 x 15.
The upper part of a small vertical panel, which is thought originally to have formed the right wing of a portable triptych. The missing lower part of the panel showed the Virgin and St John the Evangelist standing by the sides of the cross; the tops of their haloes are just visible at the bottom edge. The figure of Christ is well preserved; but the gold background is very worn and the red foundation shows through. Acquired in 1905 from Federico Pedulli of Florence by Judge and Mrs Jacob M. Moses of Baltimore. Given to the museum in 1964. One of only two panel paintings accepted as Orcagna’s by Offner (1962), who dated it around 1355-60 and ascribed the two hovering angels to an assistant. The attribution was endorsed by Federico Zeri in his 1976 museum catalogue but rejected by Kreytenberg in his 2000 monograph.

Florence. Uffizi.
Saint Matthew. Triptych: each panel 291 x 89.
On 13 September 1367 Orcagna was commissioned by the Arte del Cambio (Guild of Money Changers) to paint the altarpiece for a pilaster at Orsanmichele. As he was ill, his brother Jacopo di Cione promised in August 1368 to finish the work. The extent of Orcagna’s participation is therefore uncertain. St Matthew is represented full length in the centre panel; in the side panels are four legends from his life: the saint is called by Christ to be an apostle; the saint tames the dragons sent by the soothsayer; he restores to life the son of Egippus, King of Ethiopia; and he is beheaded. The device of the Arte del Cambio – coins on a red background – is represented in the four medallions of the wings; the two medallions of the central panel show angels with a palm and crown. The triptych was in church of Santa Maria Nuova until 1860, and was later in the hospital’s picture gallery, which was acquired by the Uffizi in 1909.

Florence. Accademia.
Triptych: Descent of the Holy Spirit. Wood, 195 x 287.
The subject is unusual for an early Florentine altarpiece. The middle panel shows the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove upon the Virgin, who is apparently hovering in the air. The twelve apostles are arranged with strict symmetry: six surround the Virgin in the middle panel and three are shown kneeling in each of the two side panels. All have ‘cloven tongues of fire’ above their heads. Almost certainly the picture of this subject seen by Vasari on the high altar of the ancient little church of Santi Apostoli, and ascribed by him to Spinello Aretino. It was later in the Badia of Florence (Bonsi Chapel), where it was described as a work of Orcagna by Crowe and Cavalcaselle (1864). Transferred to the Accademia in 1939. It was ascribed by Offner to an unknown follower (christened the ‘Pentecost Master’ after this picture). But the later tendency – since Boskovits’ more expansionist view of Orcagna’s œuvre was published in 1971 – has been to see it as an important late work of Orcagna himself (mid-1360s). A restoration of 1771 was recorded in an inscription (now removed). The frame is incomplete.
Madonna with Angels and Saints.
An altarpiece in five parts, the centre panel (127 x 57) representing the Madonna flanked by two music-playing angels and the four side panels (104 x 37) representing SS. Nicholas, Andrew, John the Baptist and James. Probably painted for the Palagio Chapel, founded in 1353, in the church of the Santissima Annunziata. The chapel was dedicated to St Nicholas and frescoed by Taddeo Gaddi with scenes from the saint’s life. The altarpiece was transferred to the Accademia in 1810. Once often ascribed to a close follower (eg. the ‘Pentecost Master’) but now generally classed as a work of Orcagna himself. .

Florence. Palazzo Vecchio.
Expulsion of the Duke of Athens. Detached fresco, 290/260 in dia.
A giant St Anne, enthroned as Protector of Florence, presents the banner of the city to a company of kneeling knights and touches the battlements of a miniature Palazzo Vecchio. On the right, an angel holding a column expels Walter de Brienne, Duke of Athens, from the throne. The tyrant clutches in his arms a hideous creature, representing Treason, and tramples on symbols of Justice and Law (a pair of scales, book, broken sword and banner). This damaged frescoed roundel came from Florence’s prison, Carcere delle Stinche .The prison was burnt down during the 1343 uprising that deposed the Duke, and the fresco may have been painted during the subsequent rebuilding. The prison was demolished in 1833 and rebuilt as a theatre and concert hall. The fresco remained on the stairway of the Teatro Pagliano (later Teatro Verdi) until the 1950s, when it was restored and transferred to the Palazzo Vecchio. It was ascribed at one time to Giottino, who Vasari says painted a fresco of the same subject for the Palazzo del Podestà (Bargello), and there were later attributions to Maso di Banco and to Jacopo di Cione. An attribution to Orcagna does not seem to have been suggested until 1975 (by Boskovits).

Florence. Santa Croce. Museo dell’Opera.
Fragments of frescoes.
The colossal fresco (about 7 x 18½ metres) was painted on the right wall of the nave. It depicted the Triumph of Death, the Last Judgment and the Inferno, the three scenes being divided by two painted twisted columns. The fresco was surrounded by a decorative border with floral designs and small scenes in medallions. It was largely destroyed in the sixteenth century when the present altars were erected by Vasari. In 1911 parts of the Triumph of Death were found behind the fifth altar. One depicts a group of crippled beggars who call on death to release them from their suffering. Another shows a pile of corpses. In 1942 fragments of the Inferno were discovered behind the fourth altar. All six surviving pieces were detached from the wall and restored in 1958. They were restored again after being completely submerged in the floods of November 1966. The fresco is not documented but is mentioned as a work of Orcagna by Ghiberti and Vasari. Once thought to reflect the horrors of the Black Death of 1348, it has been dated as early as 1344-45 by Boskovits (1971) and most subsequent writers.

Florence. Santa Maria Novella.
Strozzi Chapel. Altarpiece. Wood, 275 x 295.
This splendid altarpiece, rich in colour and gold, is the only panel painting certainly by Orcagna. It was ordered in 1354 by Tommaso di Rossello Strozzi, and is signed and dated 1357. Christ, seated in a mandorla of cherubs’ heads, gives a book (inscribed with quotations from Revelation and Kings) to Thomas Aquinas with his right hand and the keys to St Peter with his left. St Thomas is introduced by the Virgin and St Peter by the Baptist. The angels kneeling in the foreground play bagpipes and a portable organ. On the far left stand Michael the Archangel (a vanquished demon at his feet) and St Catherine (with her wheel), and on the far right St Lawrence (with his gridiron and martyr’s palm) and St Paul (with his sword). The ground is represented as an orange-red carpet patterned in gold. The three panels of the predella are probably the best-preserved parts of the altarpiece. They show Thomas Aquinas in ecstasy celebrating mass, St Peter walking on the water, and St Michael weighing the soul of a departed king. The unusual last scene is believed to represent the story, told in the Golden Legend, of the saving of the soul of the Emperor Henry II by his gift of a gold chalice to Bamberg Cathedral, and was probably intended to draw a parallel between the emperor’s redemptive donation and Tommaso di Rosello’s gift of the altarpiece. The frame, with five curiously shaped gables, dates only from 1862, but is a replica of the original.
According to Ghiberti, the frescoes in the chapel (the Last Judgment on the back wall, Paradise on the left wall and Inferno on the right wall) are by Orcagna’s brother Nardo di Cione. Vasari attributes them to Orcagna ‘in conjunction with his brother’, but modern scholars have tended to agree with Ghiberti.
Cloisters (Ubriachi Chapel). Heads of Prophets and Saints.
Orcagna’s workshop frescoed the Cappella Maggiore (choir) of Santa Maria Novella with scenes from the lives of the Baptist and the Virgin. A sixteenth-century chronicle cites a date of 1350 for the frescoes, which were allegedly damaged by lightning in 1358 and later by water leaking through the choir roof. They were replaced by Ghirlandaio’s famous cycle, depicting the same subjects, in 1485-90. During restoration work in 1940-44, 35 heads of Old Testament prophets and of saints were discovered under the ribs of the vault. These appear to be by several hands, including Orcagna himself and possibly Nardo.

Florence. Santo Spirito. Ex-Refectory.
Last Supper. Fresco, about 13 x 11 metres.
Ghiberti states that Orcagna decorated the refectory of the former Augustinian convent (now the Fondazione Salvatore Romano). The Last Supper is almost ruined (the centre was destroyed to build a door). Above is a huge, crowded Crucifixion. The frescoes, which probably date from the 1350s or early 1360s, appear to be the work of two or three different artists, possibly including Orcagna himself and Nardo. The upper part has been recently ascribed (by Kreytenberg) to the workshop of Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

Florence (northern outskirts). Santa Marta a Montughi.
Crucifixion. Detached fresco, 320 x 240.
The Magdalen embraces the cross and the grieving Virgin and St John kneel at the sides. The edges of the fresco are broken and extremely irregular, and some of the upper part is lost (including the ends of Christ’s arms, the top of his head and most of two flying angels catching his blood in dishes). The fresco is still displayed over the high altar of the Benedictine monastic church. It was discovered in 1960, restored in 1966 and attributed to Orcagna in 1971 (by Miklós Boskovits in the Burlington Magazine). It may have been painted around 1342-43, shortly after the church was founded.

New Haven. Yale University Art Gallery.
St John the Baptist. Wood, 113 x 51.
The panel is damaged by a vertical crack through the centre, but is otherwise in good condition. The left wing of a triptych. The other wing, representing St Paul, is also at Yale. Both panels were among the many early Italian pictures acquired by James Jackson Jarves in Florence in the 1850s, when he was US vice-consul. They were already attributed to Orcagna when Jarves’s collection was sold to the university in 1871. The attribution subsequently oscillated between Orcagna and his brother Nardo di Cione. The gallery currently attributes the St John the Baptist to Orcagna and the St Paul to Nardo. The central panel of the triptych, probably a Madonna Enthroned, has not been identified.

New York. Metropolitan Museum (Lehman Collection).
Crucifixion. Wood, 138 x 82.
This peaked panel, originally the central pinnacle of an altarpiece, is still exhibited with the attribution to Orcagna and assistants proposed by Robert Lehman in his 1928 catalogue to his father’s collection. Many other attributions have been made, but the one now generally favoured is to Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci, a painter and illuminator at the Camaldolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli. The six small panels of half-length angels (25 x 10/13) framed with the Crucifixion were probably pinnacles from another altarpiece; they have been attributed to Jacopo di Cione.

Washington. National Gallery.
Madonna of Humility. Wood, 141 x 69.
The Virgin is seated on a cushion on the marble floor. The child, lying across her knees, reaches up for a breast. Adoring angels appear at the sides. Overhead, God the Father dispatches the dove of the Holy Spirit. This monumental, well-preserved panel may date from the very end of Orcagna’s career. The execution has sometimes been ascribed to Jacopo di Cione. Masolino may have used the picture as a model for his Madonna in Munich. Acquired by the American investment banker Philip Lehman in Florence in the 1920s and given to the National Gallery by Samuel H. Kress in 1945. The panel has been damaged by a vertical split on the left, but is otherwise in good condition