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Castagno

Andrea di Bartolo di Simone di Bargiella, called Andrea dal Castagno from his place of birth (‘Chestnut Tree’) near Scarperia, in the Mugello, north-east of Florence. He was also nicknamed Andreino degli Impiccati (‘of the hanged men’) from some frescoes of political rebels he painted on the walls of the Bargello after the Battle of Anghiari in 1440. He was born in about 1419 (not 1390 or 1410 as once supposed), the son of a farmer. According to Vasari, he was a protégé of Benedetto de' Medici, a Florentine aristocrat with estates in the Mugello, who brought him to Florence and placed him with 'one of the masters who were then most highly regarded'. There is no agreement as to whom that master might have been.

Castagno was in Venice in 1442 where he signed and dated some frescoes with the otherwise unknown Francesco da Faenza. On 30 May 1444 he was admitted into the Arte dei Medici e Speziali, the painters’ guild of Florence. In 1451-53 he worked on the lost cycle of frescoes of the Life of the Virgin in the choir of Sant’Egidio; these had been started by Domenico Veneziano in 1439-45 and were completed by Baldovinetti in 1461. In 1454 he was in Rome, where he (and six assistants) were paid (14 October) for work in the Vatican Palace. He was only in his late thirties when he died, probably of the plague. He was buried on 19 August 1457, just a few days after his wife, in the church of Santa Maria de’ Servi.

His reputation was blackened by Vasari, who portrayed him as a jealous and violent man who murdered his rival Domenico Veneziano (who in reality outlived him by four years). His principal works are frescoes in Florence. These show the influence of Donatello, powerful draughtsmanship, and an uncompromising realism, with sinewy and strongly sculptured figures. Very few undisputed panel pictures have survived. (Panel paintings formerly attributed to Castagno at London (National Gallery), New York (Frick Collection and Metropolian Museum) and Edinburgh (National Gallery) are now usually ascribed to Francesco Botticini, a Florentine painter of the next generation.) 


Berlin. Gemäldegalerie.
Assumption of the Virgin. Wood, 150 x 158.
The Virgin, seated in a mandorla of reddish gold clouds, is carried upwards by four angels from her empty tomb filled with roses and lilies. The knightly St Julian stands on the left, holding a sword. St Minias – a legendary Armenian prince venerated as Florence's first Christian martyr – is on the right, gazing up at the Virgin. In 1910 Count Gamba proved that the picture, which had previously had various attributions, is the high altarpiece commissioned from Castagno on 20 November 1449 for the church of San Miniato fra le Torre in Florence. The rector, Leonardo di Francesco de’ Falladanzi da Orte, paid 104 lire for it on 20 April 1450. The style is more linear, the figures less rugged and heavily modelled, than in other works of Castagno, such as the Sant'Apollonia frescoes. The colour is unusually rich and deep. The church of San Miniato fra le Torre (which was in the area now occupied by the central Post Office) was deconsecrated in 1785 and demolished towards the end of the nineteenth century. The picture was part of the enormous collection (some three thousand works of art) amassed by the English merchant Edward Solly during the Napoleonic Wars and sold en bloc to the Prussian state in 1821.

Florence. Uffizi.
Famous Men and Women. Frescoes (transferred to canvas), each about 250 x 155.
The nine full-length figures represent three soldiers (Pippo Spano, Farinata degli Uberti and Niccolò Acciaiuolo), three Florentine poets (Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio) and three heroines (the Cumaean Sybil, Ester of the Old Testament and Tomyris, the legendary queen of the Massagetae). The figures were commissioned by Filippo Carducci to decorate the loggia of his villa (later the Villa Pandolfini) at Legnaia, just outside Florence. The frescoes must have been completed before 1451, when the villa was sold. The figures were arranged in three groups of three, as though they were standing in niches in the wall. On another, shorter, wall was a Madonna and Child between figures of Adam and Eve. Five of the six heads of men appear to be actual portraits based on earlier likenesses. The Ester is a half-length fragment. The paintings were discovered under whitewash in 1847 and acquired by Grand Duke Leopold II, who had them removed from the walls. The detached frescoes were formerly housed in the Castagno Museum at Sant’Apollonia and (before 1891) the Bargello. Transferred to the Uffizi in 1969. The frescoes are now displayed in the ground floor gallery (not always open) that incorporates the old church of San Pier Scheraggio.
Madonna and Saints (‘Pazzi Madonna’). Detached fresco, 290 x 212.
The fresco is from the chapel of Andrea Pazzi’s castellated villa of Trebbio, between Molin del Piano and Santa Brigida. The villa continued to belong to the Pazzi family until about 1860. The fresco was detached from the wall in 1930, and until 1974 was in the Palazzo Contini Bonacossi in Florence. St John the Baptist stands on the left and St Jerome on the right. The little boy on the left is believed to be Renato Pazzi (born in 1442); he wears a silver pendant of a swollen sail, which was the emblem of his godfather Rene d’Anjou. The girl on the right is probably his sister Oretto (born in 1437). The circle in the upper part of the fresco probably contained a God the Father in a mandorla. The fresco is sometimes ascribed to an assistant of Castagno. (The Contini Bonacossi pictures, which were transferred to the Uffizi from the Pitti Palace in 1993, have not yet been integrated into the general collection and can been seen only on special guided tours.)

Florence. Sant’Apollonia (Castagno Museum).
On the end wall of the refectory of the former Benedictine convent, Castagno painted the Last Supper, with three scenes from the Passion above: the Crucifixion, Deposition and Resurrection. Castagno worked in the refectory in June-October 1447. The patron is likely to have been one of the abbesses of the time: either Cecilia di Pazzino Donati (who commissioned the building of the great cloister in 1441-42 and was abbess until at least 1445) or Apollonia di Giovanni Firenze (abbess by 1447). Soon after the frescoes were painted, the convent became a closed order, and the paintings were not seen by Vasari or other early writers. After the convent was deconsecrated in the nineteenth century, it was used for military stores, and access was difficult until 1891, when the refectory and surrounding rooms were acquired to create a public museum.
The magnificent Last Supper (470 x 975) is Castagno’s most famous work. It was painted in thirty-two sections, and probably fewer days of work. The scene is set in a fictive room with marble-panelled walls, chequerboard ceiling and tiled roof. Judas, alone on the far side of the table, is a caricature of evil, with pointed ears and a hooked nose. He holds the 'sop' (piece of bread dipped in the dish) which Christ had given to him. The other apostles are identified by labels on the step of the platform on which the table stands. The ends of the bench on which the apostles are seated are adorned with bronze statues of sphinxes or harpies. The panels on the back wall represent specific types of marble (dark green serpentine, red porphyry, explosively patterned cipollino rosso or africano, Tuscan black bardiglio cappella, veined red breccia pavonazzo from Ezine (in modern Turkey) and grey-blue bardiglio di carrara). The Last Supper, which has been cleaned three times since 1952, is well preserved.
The three Passion scenes (450 x 980) have been badly damaged by water seeping through the roof and have lost much of their colour. They were discovered under whitewash in 1890 and detached from the wall in 1953, revealing well-preserved sinopie beneath. The Resurrection is likely to have influenced Piero della Francesca’s masterpiece at Sansepolcro. Castagno's representation of the risen Christ as a beardless youth is most unusual; it might be intended to suggest his divine nature, as Son of God, while the bearded Christ in the Last Supper represents his human side.   
Dead Christ and Angels. Detached fresco, 283 x 330.
This badly abraded fresco was originally in the lunette over the door of the cloister. It is likely to have been painted around the same time as the frescoes in the refectory.
Crucifixion. Detached fresco, 270 x 347.
The muscular crucified Christ is flanked by the grieving Virgin and St John the Evangelist. At the sides, in white Camaldolese habits, are St Benedict (patriarch of Western monasticism) and St Romuald of Ravenna (founder of the Camaldolese Order). The sculptural, powerfully modelled figures are set against a blue-black sky (representing perhaps the 'darkness over all the earth'). This large frescoed lunette was painted not for the convent of Sant’Apollonia but for the Camaldolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, adjoining the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. (It was in the fifth cell of the second cloister, above the garden.) It was removed from its original position early in the twentieth century and is badly damaged. Vasari mentions it as an early work. Another, earlier, fresco of the Crucifixion from Santa Maria degli Angeli is now in the administrative offices of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova.

Florence. Cathedral.
Niccolò da Tolentino. Fresco, 833 x 512.
Niccolò Mauruzi della Stracciola was a mercenary, who was employed by Florence from 1426 and became the Republic’s commander-in-chief in 1431. He won a major victory against the Sienese and Milanese forces at the Battle of Romano in 1432. He died in 1435, a prisoner of Filippo Maria Visconti. The commemorative fresco was ordered as a companion to Uccello’s Hawkwood of 1436. It was paid for between 19 October 1455 and 1 March 1456. It was a cheap substitute for a marble monument which had originally been planned. While the commission constrained Castagno to follow the form of Uccello's Hawkward, his fresco is more dramatic and shows the influence of Donatello's great bronze equestrian statue of the Gattamelata at Padua. On either side of the sarcophagus youths hold shields with the arms of the condottiere (Solomon’s Knot) and the symbol of Florence (a rampant lion). The Hawkwood and Niccolò da Tolentino were restored by Lorenzo di Credi in 1524. They were restored again by Antonio Marini in 1842 – when they were detached from the wall, transferred to canvas and rehung on the west wall of the cathedral. They were replaced on the north wall in 1947.
Deposition. Stained glass window, 480 in dia.
The construction of the eight circular windows in the drum was completed in 1431, and the glass was designed from 1438 to 1444. Three of the designs were made by Ghiberti, three by Uccello, and one each by Donatello and Castagno. Castagno received payment for the design of the Deposition, on the northernmost window of the drum, in February 1444. The window was executed by the glass painter Bernardo di Francesco (called ‘dei Vetri’). Restored in 2007-8.

Florence. SS. Annunziata.
The Trinity with St Jerome and Two Female Saints. Fresco, 300 x 179.
The two female saints have been identified either as Mary Magdalene and Mary of Egypt or as Paula (abbess of a convent Jerome had founded in Bethlehem) and Eustochium (her daughter). The fresco was commissioned by Girolamo Carboli, patron of the chapel (second on the left of the church), which appears to have been completed by Michelozzo in 1450. It is mentioned by Vasari in the 1550 edition of the Lives but was no longer visible at the time of the 1568 edition. It was discovered only in 1899, under a picture by Bronzino.
Saint Julian. Fresco, 210 x 178.
The saint, arms crossed on his chest, receives absolution from the youthful, beardless Saviour holding a globe. The fresco was discovered in 1902, behind an altarpiece by Carlo Lotto. The lower part (with the hunting dog admired by Vasari) was destroyed in the sixteenth century when an altar was placed in front of the fresco. Like the St Jerome, the fresco must date from after 1450, when the first two chapels on the left were finished. It was commissioned by Piero da Gagliano, a merchant and banker.
Castagno also painted frescoes of Lazarus, Martha and Mary Magdalene in the chapel of Orlando de’ Medici (fifth on the right). These are mentioned by Vasari, and recorded in documents showing they were paid for in July-August 1455.

Florence. Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. Sala della Presidenza.
Crucifixion. Detached fresco, 335 x 285.
Christ, life-size, is crucified between the Virgin and St Benedict and John the Evangelist and St Romuald, with the Magdalen at the foot of the cross. One of two frescoes of the Crucifixion painted by Castagno (early in his career Vasari tells us) in the Camaldolese convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli, adjoining the hospital. It was discovered under whitewash in 1871. Originally in the first cloister, it has been detached and is now housed in the offices of the Presidenza. The bottom part of the fresco was damaged by fire in 1953. It has been considered Castagno’s earliest surviving work – earlier than the frescoes dated 1442 at Venice (San Zaccaria).
The frescoes painted by Castagno in Santa Maria Nuova – scenes from the Life of the Virgin in the choir of the chapel of Sant’Egidio (1451-53) and a Last Supper in the refectory (1457) – are lost.

London. National Gallery.
Crucifixion. Wood, 29 x 35.
Probably a panel from the predella of an unknown altarpiece. Another panel, representing the Resurrection, is in the Frick Collection, New York. A Last Supper at Edinburgh may also be from the same series. An attribution to Castagno was widely accepted at one time (eg. by Adolfo Venturi, Roger Fry and Bernard Berenson), but more recent critics have expressed doubts. Both the London and Frick panels have sometimes been considered late works of an assistant of Castagno or early works of Francesco Botticini. (The present National Gallery label is: 'Possibly by Francesco Botticini'.) The Crucifixion was bought in 1882 from Charles Fairfax Murray for £137.

New York. Frick Collection.
Resurrection, Wood, 29 x 34.
From the same series as the Crucifixion in London and (probably) the Last Supper in Edinburgh. Ascribed to Castagno in the museum catalogue, but often now considered the work of an assistant or of Francesco Botticini. Once owned by the Florentine dealer Constantini and later a Dr Werner Weisbach of Berlin; acquired by the Frick in 1939.

Venice. San Marco. Cappella dei Moscoli.
Death of the Virgin. Mosaic.
One of a series of mosaics, depicting the Life of the Virgin, in the barrel vault. The Birth and Presentation of the Virgin on the left wall are signed by the Venetian artist Michele Giambono. The Death of the Virgin is more Florentine in style. The monumental arch recalls the architecture of Brunelleschi, and mathematical perspective is used to depict the arcaded street in the background. The design of the mosaic was attributed to Castagno by Henry Thode in 1898. An alternative attribution to the young Mantegna, proposed by Fiocco in 1927, has lost support. The apostles on the right seem to be by a different hand, and have been attributed to Giambono (or Jacobo Bellini). Castagno’s design is likely to date from around 1443; work on the mosaics is known to have been in progress in 1444-1449.

Venice. San Zaccaria. Cappella di San Tarasio.
God the Father and Saints. Frescoes (figures about 176 high).
The frescoes are on the vault of the original choir (now transformed into a chapel). Painted in the seven curved triangular sections between the ribs, they represent John the Baptist, the Four Evangelists, God the Father and St Zacharius. They were discovered only in 1923, and cleaned in the 1950s. An inscription reveals that they were painted in 1442 in collaboration with a certain Francesco da Faenza. They are Castagno’s earliest dated works. The putti and heads of prophets and saints on the soffit of the chancel arch are by another hand.

Washington. National Gallery.
Triumph of David. Leather, 116 x 77/41.
The shepherd boy David is posed heroically by a stream, preparing to swing his loaded sling. Goliath's severed head, lying on the ground with a stone embedded in the brow, is very like that in Donatello's marble David in the Bargello. This oddly shaped (trapezoidal) painting on leather is a rare surviving example of a painted ceremonial shield, of the sort carried in processions before jousts or tournaments. Once ascribed to Antonio Pollaiuolo. The attribution to Castagno was made by Berenson in the second edition of his Florentine Painters (1899). Usually considered a relatively late work, painted around the time of the Berlin Assumption (1449-50). The influence of Donatello seems obvious; but it have been suggested that David’s striding pose is derived from a classical statue (the Pedagogue from the Hellenistic group of the Niobids in the Uffizi, one of the statues of the Dioscuri on the Quirinal or the famous Apollo Belvedere in the Vatican). Bought in Italy by William Drury Lowe in 1852 for £6 13s. It remained for many years in the Drury Lowe collection at Locko Park, Derbyshire. Bought at Agnew’s in 1913 by Peter A. B. Widener, who bequeathed it to the National Gallery.
Portrait of a Man. Wood, 52 x 39.
One of the earliest surviving Italian portraits to show the sitter in three-quarter view rather than in profile. It is from the Galleria Torrigiani in the Piazza de’ Mozzi, Florence, and is traditionally thought to represent a member of the Del Nero family, who originally owned the palazzo. The attribution has oscillated between the Pollaiuoli and Castagno. The attribution to the Pollaiuoli is traditional and was accepted by Crowe and Cavalcaselle. The attribution to Castagno was made by Berenson in the first edition of his Florentine Painters (1896). Berenson later changed his mind twice, reattributing the portrait to Antonio Pollaiuolo in 1932 but then returning it to Castagno in the final 1963 edition of his Lists. Miklós Boskovits, in the 2003 catalogue of the fifteenth-century Italian paintings at Washington, ascribes it to Piero Pollaiuolo.