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Altichiero

He is called simply Altichiero da Verona in old records; his full name is sometimes taken to have been Altichiero Altichieri, but there is no contemporary evidence for this. There is an old but unsubstantiated tradition that he was born in Zevio, a small town near Verona. He is documented in March 1369 as already a practising painter living in the parish of Ferraboi in Verona (the area between the amphitheatre and the modern corso). His frescoes of the Jewish Wars of Titus and Vespasian described by Vasari in the Scaligeri palace in the city were destroyed by the early eighteenth century.

By the mid-1370s, Altichiero was working in Padua, and his major surviving works are two well-documented cycles of frescoes there. The cycle in the great pilgrims’ church of Sant’Antonio (Il Santo) was painted in collaboration with another artist – probably Jacopo Avanzi. It was completed in 1379 and the cycle in the neighbouring Oratorio di San Giorgio in 1384. Newly resplendent after restoration, the two cycles are of considerable beauty and originality, with a spatial clarity and narrative power worthy of Giotto, soft gorgeous colour, persuasive portraiture, delightful anecdotal detail and elaborate late Gothic architectural settings.

Two other frescoes have been attributed to Altichiero. A Coronation of the Virgin on the tomb of Diamante Dotto (died 1371) in the church of the Eremitani in Padua was destroyed in 1944. A large votive fresco in the Cavalli Chapel in the church of Sant’Anastasia in Verona could have been painted either before Altichiero’s move to Padua or after his presumed return to his native city. Altichiero is documented as having painted altarpieces, but no surviving panel paintings can be attributed to him with absolute certainty. He is recorded as dead in April 1393.


Padua. Basilica of Sant’Antonio. Chapel of San Giacomo.
Frescoes.
The chapel, located in the right transept and now rededicated to San Felice, is constructed like a small loggia, with five Gothic arches supported by red marble columns. Measuring about 16.5 metres long and 7.75 metres wide, it has been described (by Crowe and Cavalcaselle) as the ‘noblest monument of the pictorial art of the fourteenth century in North Italy’.
On the arcaded back wall, a panoramic Crucifixion is visible across the nave of the church. In the central arched section, the crucifixion is watched by a packed crowd of spectators, priests and mounted soldiers. Angels wail and the Magdalen clasps the foot of the cross. On the right, soldiers cast lots for Christ’s clothes. On the left, the group of the swooning Virgin and Three Maries is almost lost among the crowds milling outside the walls of Jerusalem. Horsemen ride to and fro along the road, an old woman bursts into tears, two mothers with young children pass the time of day, workmen with a ladder and an axe return through the city gate, and a dog laps water from a drain. Above the tombs in the two end bays are frescoed lunettes showing a Pietà (left) and the Risen Christ with Two Angels (right).
On the upper tier of the walls are eight lunettes showing episodes from the Life of St James the Great. The scenes, taken from the Golden Legend, start on the left wall and read right to left around the chapel. They represent: the magician Hermogenes plotting against St James and summoning up demons; the saint turning the demons against Hermogenes, who burns his magic books and is baptised; the execution of St James on the orders of King Herod; the saint’s body being transported to Spain in a rudderless boat guided by angels and arriving at the castle of Queen Lupa; the disciples of St James being sentenced to prison; an angel liberating the disciples and then saving them from drowning after they fall from a bridge into the river; the taming by the sign of the cross of wild bulls drawing the carriage with the saint’s body (with the delightful detail of children climbing onto a window ledge to watch); and the baptism of Queen Lupa, who converts her castle into a church dedicated to St James. The cycle is continued on the lower part of the left wall with three episodes from the Battle of Clavigo, fought in 843 A.D. by the Spanish King Ramiro against the Moors: St James appears to the King in a dream and promises victory in battle (left); the King describes his dream to his council of elders (middle); and St James intervenes in the battle, causing the walls of the besieged city to fall (right). The Council scene contains portraits of members of the Paduan court, including Petrarch and Lombardo della Seta on the left. The lilies of the House of Anjou emblazoned on King Ramiro’s throne in the Council scene and on his surcoat in the Battle scene help to identify him as a portrait of King Louis of Hungary (Padua’s ally in its conflict with Venice).
The votive fresco on the right wall shows the donor Bonifacio Lupi di Soragno (who was a soldier and diplomat in the service of Francesco da Carrara, the lord of Padua) and his wife Caterina dei Francesi being presented to the enthroned Virgin and Child by their name-saints James and Catherine. In the twelve sections of the starry vault are roundels with Prophets, Evangelists and Doctors of the Church.
The commission is documented with unusual completeness. The chapel was designed in 1372-77 by Andriolo and Giovanni de’ Santi of Venice, who were also responsible for the sculptural work. The considerable sum of 792 ducats was paid to Altichiero in May 1379 for his work in the chapel and its sacristy. According to literary sources (beginning with Michele Savonarola in the mid-1440s), the chapel was painted partly by a Bolognese painter called Jacopo Avanzi or Avanzo. Modern criticism attributes five of the lunettes (the first four and the sixth) and two bays of the vault to this other painter and the rest of the chapel to Altichiero. The scenes attributed to Avanzi tend to be darker in colour and harder in execution.
The frescoes were damaged in 1749 by a fire, which caused the lead on the dome to melt and run down into the chapel below. Previously extremely dirty, they were completely restored in the late 1990s. The sacristy frescoed by Altichiero was probably destroyed in 1624 when the present Chapel of the Cross was erected.


Padua. Oratorio di San Giorgio.
Frescoes.
According to the inscription above the entrance, the simple Romanesque chapel was founded in 1377 by Raimondino dei Marchesi Lupi di Soragna as a sepulchral chapel for himself, his family and their descendants. The interior is completely covered with frescoes.
On the two end walls are scenes from the life of Christ: the Annunciation (in the lunette), Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, Flight into Egypt (the upper part lost) and Presentation in the Temple on the entrance wall; and a large Crucifixion, with the Coronation of the Virgin above in the lunette, on the altar wall.
On the left wall are six episodes from the Legend of St George: he slays the dragon; he baptises the King of Silene; he drinks the poison given to him by the Magician Anastasius but escapes unharmed; he is rescued by angels from torture on the wheel; he causes the Temple of Apollo to collapse; and he is beheaded. Above the last two scenes is a votive fresco showing nine knights and a woman being presented by their patron saints to the enthroned Virgin and Child.
Along the upper course of the right wall are four scenes from the Life of St Catherine of Alexandria: she refuses to worship a pagan idol; she converts the pagan philosophers, who throw their books into the fire; the wheel on which she is tortured is miraculously broken; and she is beheaded. The first two scenes are badly damaged by damp. The lower course shows four scenes from the Life of St Lucy: she is brought before the judge Paschasius; she is miraculously rendered immobile when her persecutors attempt to drag her to a brothel with the help of a team of oxen; she is miraculously saved from burning in oil but is killed by knives; and she is mourned at her funeral.
On the window splays: saints and angels; and on the barrel vault: busts of Prophets, Evangelists and Doctors of the Church (some very damaged, others completely gone). Altichiero also painted the tomb of the patron Raimondino Lupi, who (like his brother Bonifacio Lupi) was a soldier of Francesco da Carrara. The tomb was demolished in 1582 and only specks of colour remain on the fragments of sculpture from it that survive (against the left wall).
There are many apparent portraits in the narrative scenes. Few have been positively identified; but the darkly dressed figure on the extreme right of the Funeral of St Lucy, standing above the now illegible signature, may be a self-portrait.
The oratory was built by May 1378. Altichiero’s frescoes were commissioned by 30 November 1379 (when Raimondino Lupi died) and were completed by 30 May 1384. Some early literary sources (including Vasari) ascribed them partly to Avanzi. But only Altichiero’s name appears in the documents, and recent critics generally agree that, unlike the frescoes in the Santo, they were painted in a more or less homogenous style. They were whitewashed in Napoleonic times, when the oratory was used as a prison, and uncovered in 1837. Restored in the late 1990s.

Padua. Eremitani. Sacristy.
Madonna and Child. Detached fresco, 62 in dia.
This damaged tondo was probably cut from a larger fresco over a tomb.
Altichiero also painted frescoes – a Coronation of the Virgin and an Annunciation – around a tomb in the Dotto Chapel of the church (right of the choir). These were destroyed in 1944 by the same bomb that largely destroyed Mantegna’s frescoes in the adjacent Ovetari Chapel. (They are illustrated in the 1968 edition of Berenson’s Italian Painters.)

Padua. Sala dei Giganti.
Portrait of Petrarch. Fresco.
The room is now incorporated into the university buildings in the Corte Capitaniato. Originally called the Sala Virorum Illustrium, it was decorated – probably in the 1370s – with representations of the thirty-six heroes from antiquity featured in the De Viris Illustribus compiled by Francesco Petrarch and Lombardo della Seta. The room also included portraits of the two authors on either side of a widow. After fire damage in the early sixteenth century, the frescoes were covered over in 1539-40 when the room was repainted by Domenico Campagnola and Stefano dell’Arzere. Only the patch of plaster with the portrait of Petrarch reading in his study survives from the original decoration. The background, with a mountainous landscape viewed through a window, was repainted in the sixteenth century. Since Petrarch lived nearby in his country home at Arquà in the early 1370s, it is conceivable that the portrait was done from life.

Richmond. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Triptych. Centre panel, 32 x 22; side panels, 31 x 10.
The Crucifixion in the centre; St Anthony Abbot and St Catherine with a female donor on the left; and St Jerome and St James with a male donor on the right. The face of the female donor has been scraped away, but the small triptych is otherwise in good condition. It is the only panel painting now generally accepted as Altichiero’s. (The attribution was made in 1958 by Giuliano Briganti in Paragone; it has to be taken with some reserve, as the triptych is so very different in scale and technique to Altichiero’s frescoes.) The triptych once belonged to Crown Prince Clemens of Bavaria, and was possibly painted for the Wittelsbach rulers of Bavaria, who had links with the Scaligeri rulers of Verona. Acquired in 1959. Restored in 1981 (when the damaged figure of the female donor, previously covered by repaint, was brought to light).

Verona. Sant’Anastasia. Cavalli Chapel.
Votive fresco. 535 x 366.
The chapel is the one furthest right in the sanctuary, and the fresco is high up on the right wall. In a magnificent Gothic chamber, three donor knights are being presented by Saints George, Martin and James the Great to the Virgin and Child, who are enthroned in a tabernacle. The knights’ surcoats and shields are emblazoned with the Cavalli heraldic lion, and their helmets (hung on backs or placed on the ground) are decorated with horses’ heads. The date of the fresco is uncertain. It has sometimes been considered one of Altichiero’s last works, painted in the late 1380s. However, it has recently been dated much earlier – before the mid-1370s, when the Cavalli appear to have broken with the ruling Scaligeri and left Verona following the death of Cansignorio della Scala. The bottom right-hand corner of the fresco was lost when the tomb of Federigo Cavalli (died 1390) was erected. The other frescoes in the chapel are also of the fourteenth century but are by other hands.