< Back

Pisanello

Antonio Pisano, or Pisanello. He was wrongly called Vittore by Vasari, and his real name was discovered only in 1908. He was born in or shortly before 1394, the son of a prosperous Pisan father (Puccino di Giovanni di Cereto) and a Veronese mother (Isabetta). His name is derived from his father’s birthplace, and he was either born in Verona or moved there at an early date. Nothing is known for certain of his training. The old theory that he was a pupil of Stefano da Verona is now doubted (Stefano, a painter of French origin, does not seem to have settled in the city before 1425). He was more probably a pupil of Gentile da Fabriano, whom he succeeded as the major Italian exponent of International Gothic.

Pisanello kept up his association with Verona for most of his life, but he was often employed elsewhere. In about 1415-19, he worked as a young artist with Gentile da Fabriano on frescoes in the Doge’s Palace in Venice; their work in the Sala del Gran Consiglio was covered with frescoes painted by Alvise Vivarini in 1479. He is mentioned in Mantua in 1422 and worked there for the Gonzaga in 1424-25. In 1431-32 he was in Rome finishing Gentile’s frescoes in San Giovanni Laterno; these were destroyed in Borromini’s seventeenth-century remodelling of the basilica. From 1433 to 1438 he was back in Verona, where he painted the celebrated fresco of St George and the Princess in Sant’Anastasia. In May 1439 he is documented as working again in Mantua. At this time, the Marquis of Mantua Gianfrancesco Gonzaga was fighting for Milan against Venice, and Pisanello became embroiled in the conflict. Declared a rebel by the Venetians, he became persona non grata in his hometown of Verona. He was later employed at the Este court at Ferrara, and was also in Milan (where he painted frescoes of hunting, fishing and tournament scenes in Pavia castle, which were destroyed during the siege of 1527). In 1448-9, he became court artist to Alfonso V of Aragon, King of Naples, with a large stipend of 400 ducats a year, but he is not known to have undertaken any major painting commissions for the king. He died, probably in Rome, between July and October 1455.

Pisanello’s rare surviving paintings evoke the princely pomp and chivalric culture of the courts at which he worked. Only seven are undisputed: two portraits (which are among the earliest in Italian painting); two exquisite (but heavily restored) little religious panels in London; two damaged frescoes in churches in Verona; and an unfinished fresco cycle, rediscovered in Mantua in the late 1960s. However, some 400 drawings by Pisanello or his workshop are preserved (many in the Louvre). These include many studies of plants, grass and trees, horses and greyhounds, birds and butterflies, drawn with a naturalist’s accuracy of observation, often highly finished and sometimes delicately coloured. Pisanello is now most famous as the virtual originator of the Renaissance medal.


Bergamo. Accademia Carrara.
Portrait of Leonello d’Este. Wood, 28 x 19.
Leonello’s distinctive profile is delineated against a rose hedge. One of only two painted portraits to have survived from the many Pisanello is known to have painted of rulers, soldiers and humanists. Leonello, a great patron of learning and the arts, was Marquis of Ferrara from 1441 to 1450. He was also portrayed by Pisanello in six portrait medals. Comparison with a portrait by Giovanni da Oriolo (National Gallery, London) suggests that Pisanello has idealized his profile by reducing the size of his nose and chin. A contemporary sonnet by Ulisse degli Aleotti describes a portrait of Leonello that was painted by Pisanello in rivalry with Jacopo Bellini. It is uncertain whether this portrait (which in the opinion of Leonello’s father Niccolò III, was surpassed by Bellini’s picture) is the one at Bergamo. The Bergamo portrait is very damaged, and the background has now darkened almost to black. It was one of at least five paintings acquired in the late 1850s from the Costabili collection at Ferrara by the English collector Alexander Barker. It entered the Accademia with Giovanni Morelli’s bequest in 1891.

London. National Gallery.
Madonna with Anthony Abbot and St George. Wood, 47 x 31.
St Anthony, in hermit’s hood and cloak, holds a staff and his bell to ring for alms; a boar at his feet symbolises the demon of sensuality he has vanquished. St George wears a fashionable straw hat with two little feathers. One interpretation sees the two saints as representing the contrast between the monastic (or contemplative) and the courtly (or active) ways of life. The signature (centre bottom), originally green but now discoloured to brown, is treated to look like a clump of plants. The picture’s original owner is unknown. St George was the patron saint of both Mantua and Ferrara, which would suggest a Gonzaga or Este provenance, while St Anthony was Pisanello’s name saint, suggesting that the artist could conceivably have painted it for himself. Another intriguing idea (suggested in the catalogue by Luke Syson and Dillion Gordon of the 2001-02 Pisanello exhibition in London) is that the panel was painted for the marriage in 1441 of Francesco Sforza (who was devoted to St George) and Bianca Maria Visconti (whose family was devoted to St Anthony and whose family emblem was the blazing sun). The picture was bought by Sir Charles Eastlake in about 1860 from the Costabili collection – the major collection of early paintings in Ferrara. It was very damaged, and Eastlake had it restored by Giuseppe Molteni, Director of the Brera. Molteni is said to have been so pleased with his work that he considered changing his first name to Vittore (then believed to be Pisanello’s Christian name). Little of the final paint layer is original. The Virgin's gold disc, most of the background foliage and St George's hat were reconstructed by Molteni, and the saint's silver armour was completely renewed; but the restorer is alleged to have followed Pisanello’s forms quite faithfully. Molteni's additions have not been removed by subsequent restorations, and the panel remains in essentially the state that he left it. The frame, in which are inserted casts of two of Pisanello’s medals, was made for Eastlake in Milan.
Vision of St Eustace. Wood, 55 x 66.
Cut down considerably at the top (an old copy suggests that there was originally a stretch of blue sky above) and extensively repainted. Sometimes called ‘St Hubert’: the same story of a huntsman who converted to Christianity after seeing a stag with a crucifix between its antlers is told both of St Eustace and St Hubert. The forest background (which has darkened considerably with time) is alive with animals and birds (deer, a hare, a hoopoe, kingfisher, swan and stork, herons and pelicans, and a bear in a cave). Several different breeds of hunting dog are shown, including greyhounds, spaniels and possibly an alaunt (a huge dog used for hunting wild boars, wolves or bears). Real gold (renewed) has been used for the saint’s spurs, hunting horn and horse’s harness, and gold leaf for his tunic. The saint, finely dressed in contemporary courtly attire, might be a portrait of the patron. The gold and the blue hat have been taken as tentative evidence of an Este commission, as these were the family’s chief heraldic colours; but the Gonzaga and Filippo Maria Visconti have also been suggested as possible patrons. The picture was once attributed to Albrecht Dürer, and was recognised as Pisanello’s by Bode in 1885. It is often considered to be roughly contemporary with the Sant’Anastasia frescoes (middle or late 1430s). Purchased by the National Gallery from the Earl of Ashburnham in 1895.

Mantua. Palazzo Ducale. Sala del Pisanello.
Tournament Scenes. Fragmentary frescoes.
The Sala del Pisanello (formerly Sala dei Principi) is a large reception room (17½ x 9½ x 6¾ metres) on the piano nobile of the palace. The mural was rediscovered only in 1966-72. Left unfinished by Pisanello, it remains mainly underdrawings (sinopie), only one wall reaching its final paint layer. Only a portion has survived. The subjects are taken from a thirteenth-century French Arthurian romance, Lancelot, which tells of a great tournament held at the castle of King Brangoire, who had summoned one thousand knights to compete for the hand of his daughter and other damsels. The literary source can be identified with certainty from inscriptions that name five of the knights who distinguished themselves at the tournament. The mural is not documented, and dating it has proved controversial. It was argued at first (by Paccagnini in 1972) that it was commissioned around 1447-48 by Ludovico Gonzaga. However, it was judged much earlier by both Miklós Boskovits (1988) and Luciano Bellosi (1992), who found stylistic similarities with the San Fermo fresco of 1426. Yet another theory is that the frescoes were left unfinished in 1442, when Pisanello was unable to stay in Mantua for political reasons. The heraldic crest repeated in the upper border has been interpreted as the ‘SS collar’ of the English House of Lancaster (which was awarded to Gianfrancesco Gonzaga) or the Order of Our Lady of the Swan (which was founded in 1440 by Elector Frederick II of Brandenberg, the uncle of Ludovico’s wife Barbara). After the arrival of Mantegna as court painter, Pisanello’s frescoes must have seemed old-fashioned; and in 1471 Niccolò d’Este asked permission to turn the room into a kitchen for his staff.

Paris. Louvre.
Portrait of an Este Princess (?). Wood, 42 x 30.
The young woman is depicted in profile against a background of flowers (pinks and columbines) and butterflies. This portrait, which is much better preserved than Pisanello’s only other surviving portrait at Bergamo, was acquired by the Louvre in 1893 from the Felix Bamberg collection. It was once attributed to Piero della Francesca; the attribution to Pisanello was made by Venturi late in the nineteenth century. The two-handled vase embroidered on the sleeve is an emblem of Leonello d’Este. The sprig of juniper (ginepro in Italian) stuck into the dress just in front of the left shoulder suggests that the sitter could be his sister Ginevra d’Este, who died in 1440 at the age of twenty-one, poisoned, it was thought, by her husband Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta. However, this identification is far from certain, and other candidates include Ginevra’s twin sister Lucia (who married Carlo Gonzaga in 1437), Margherita Gonzaga (Leonello d’Este’s first wife, who married in 1435 and died in 1439) and Margherita’s younger sister Cecilia (who is represented in a portrait medal by Pisanello dated 1447). It has been suggested that the portrait was posthumous, the butterflies alluding to the departed sitter’s soul.

Rome. Palazzo Venezia.
Head of a Woman in Courtly Costume. Fresco, 24 x 17.
A scratched and stained fragment, made up of small pieces of fresco mounted on a plaster base, showing the head of a woman in three-quarter profile. Acquired by the Italian State in 1922 from the Simonetti collection, and attributed to Pisanello since the museum catalogue of 1947. It could have come from the basilica of San Giovanni in Laterno in Rome, where Pisanello completed Gentile da Fabriano’s cycle of frescoes in the nave in 1431-32. The cycle was destroyed when the church was remodelled in 1646.

Verona. Castelvecchio.
Madonna della Quaglia’. Wood, 67 x 44.
The Madonna, seated in a garden, is crowned by angels; a quail (which gives the picture its popular title) stoops in the foreground. The little panel (probably part of a small domestic altarpiece) was once considered Pisanello’s earliest surviving work and dated about 1420. The attribution was based on (alleged) similarities with the fresco of 1426 at San Fermo. The picture has also been given to Stefano da Verona (a painter of French origin who worked first in Milan and then in Verona). But the most recent attribution is to the Lombard painter Michelino da Besozzo (whose only surviving signed work is a Mystic Marriage of St Catherine in Siena). Acquired in 1869 with the collection of Cesare Bernasconi of Verona. The painting was one of seventeen works stolen from the museum in November 2015. The stolen paintings were recovered some six months later by Ukrainian border guards, who found them buried in shrubbery on a little island in the River Dniester (near Odessa).

Verona. Sant’Anastasia.
Saint George and the Princess. Fresco, 223 x 620.
The historical St George was martyred around 303 under Diocletian, but there is no known authority earlier than the eleventh century for his fight with the dragon, which was popularised through the Golden Legend. In the right-hand portion of the fresco, St George meets the regally-dressed Princess of Trebizond, who has been sent to be sacrificed to the dragon. On the left side of the arch, the dragon lurks on the edge of the lake, surrounded by the bones and bodies of previous victims. Bottom right is the coat-of-arms of the Pellegrini family, with the image of a pilgrim on a shield. The fresco was painted above the arch outside the family’s chapel (to the right of the sanctuary). It was executed only partly in true fresco on wet plaster: it was elaborated a secco, when the plaster had dried, and much of the final detail and ornament have scaled off. Damaged by water seepage at the end of the nineteenth century, it was detached in 1891 (left side) and 1900 (right side) and restored. Previously shown in the sacristy, it has recently been restored to its original position. According to Vasari, Pisanello also frescoed figures of St Eustace stroking a brown and white dog and of St George sheathing his sword after his triumph, but no trace of these figures remain. A large number of drawings are connected with the fresco, including famous pen and ink studies in the British Museum, the Frick Collection and the National Gallery of Scotland for the pair of hanged men dangling from gallows outside the city gates. The fresco is not documented, but is thought to have been painted in about 1436 (the date of a contract with Michele da Firenze for the terracotta decoration of the Pellegrini Chapel).

Verona. San Fermo Maggiore.
Annunciation. Fresco, 850 x 550.
The fresco of the Annunciation, in two triangular sections, is a background decoration of the Brenzoni tomb, representing the Resurrection of Christ, carved by the Florentine sculptor Nanni di Bartolo (Il Rosso), a pupil of Donatello. On the left, Gabriel, holding a stem of white lilies, bows before an open portal; on the right, the Virgin prays at a lectern in an elaborate Gothic house. Above, in the side pinnacles, are full-length figures, also frescoed by Pisanello, of the archangels Raphael and Michael in fictive niches. Pisanello’s signature (‘PISANUS PINSIT’) is bottom right, beneath the Virgin. Like the St George and the Princess in Sant’Anastasia, the painting was executed only partly in true fresco and was finished a secco – which helps to account for its damaged condition. It is probably Pisanello’s earliest surviving painting. An inscription on two pieces of stone (now in the Museo Civico at Verona) gives the date of the monument as 1426. The monument was commissioned by Francesco Brenzoni, acting as executor for the will of his father Niccolò (who died in May-July 1422, leaving the huge sum of 900 ducats for the project).