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Baldovinetti

Alessio (or Alesso) Baldovinetti was born in about 1425-26 of a patrician Florentine family. He registered in the artist’s guild, the Compagnia di San Luca, in 1448. His earliest documented work (now lost) was an altarpiece of 1450 for the Pieve di Borgo Lorenzo in the Mugello. He seems to have worked with Fra Angelico in the early 1450s, and also collaborated with Domenico Veneziano and Andrea Castagno. His naturalistic and detailed treatment of landscape, probably inspired by Netherlandish paintings, seems deeply to have impressed the Pollaiuolo brothers (and may even have influenced Leonardo). It is seen to best advantage in a fresco of the Nativity in the courtyard of Santissima Annunziata and a Madonna in the Louvre, which include remarkable panoramas of the Val d’Arno.

Baldovinetti’s memoirs (Libro di Ricordi) show how varied his commissions were. As well as altarpieces and frescoes for churches, they included cartoons for stained glass and wood inlay (intarsia), and the decoration of bedsteads and furniture, marriage chests (cassoni) and ceremonial shields. He also revived the art of mosaic, which had almost died out in Florence, and wrote a treatise (now lost) on the subject.

Vasari describes Baldovinetti’s tendency to experiment with colour and medium. His experiments with the technique of mural painting were unfortunate, and all his substantial body of work in fresco is either badly damaged or completely lost. An Inferno commissioned in 1454 for the Ospedale degli Innocenti is gone. Also lost is the series of frescoes in the hospital church of Sant’Egidio that he finished in 1460-61 in succession to Domenico Veneziano, Piero della Francesca and Andrea Castagno. The famous Nativity fresco in the Annunziata, painted in 1460-62, is largely ruined by damp and scaling.

Baldovinetti’s rare surviving paintings mainly date from the 1450s or 1460s. The last thirty years of his life were taken up with the decoration of the Cappella Maggiore of Santa Trinita (only traces of the frescoes remain) and the restoration of mosaics in the Florentine Baptistery and the façade of San Miniato al Monte. He died on 31 August 1499, and was buried in his own tomb in San Lorenzo.


Bergamo. Accademia Carrara.
Self-Portrait (?). Fresco, 23 in dia.
According to an inscription on the back, this is a self-portrait taken from the angle of the choir of Santa Trinita at Florence when Baldovinetti’s frescoes there were destroyed in 1760. It was among the pictures bequeathed to the Accademia by the famous art historian Giovanni Morelli in 1891.

Florence. Uffizi.
Madonna and Child with Saints. Wood, 174 x 166.
Painted for the chapel of the Medici villa at Cafaggiolo, rebuilt in 1451 by Michelozzo for Cosimo il Vecchio. The Madonna is enthroned on a precious Anatolian carpet. Cosmas and Damian (left, with John the Baptist) are patron saints of the Medici, while Lawrence and Julian (right, with Anthony Abbot) are namesakes of the brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano. SS. Francis and Dominic (smaller than the standing saints) kneel in the foreground. The altarpiece, showing clearly the influence of both Fra Angelico and Domenico Veneziano, is considered an early work, and could have been commissioned in 1453 to mark the birth of Piero the Gouty’s second son Giuliano. The composition owes much to Fra Angelico’s San Marco Altarpiece of 1438-40. Transferred from the villa to the Uffizi in 1796.
Annunciation. Wood, 167 x 137.
Baldovinetti seems to have been more concerned with elegance than correctness of anatomy, and Gabriel and Mary have inordinately small heads and long slender bodies. Mary’s graceful pose, as she turns from reading at the tall lectern, recalls that in Donatello’s Cavalcanti Annunciation at Santa Croce. The fruit trees and cypresses behind the high wall belong to Mary’s enclosed garden, symbolising the Immaculate Conception. Painted for a confraternity, the Compagnia di San Giorgio. Long lost, it was found in 1862 at a convent annexed to a disused church on Costa San Giorgio. It was brought to the Uffizi in 1868. Attributed by Vasari to Pesellino; Crowe and Cavalcaselle were the first to recognise the hand of Baldovinetti. Probably comparatively early (about 1457). Restored in 2011.

Florence. Accademia.
Trinity. Wood, 238 x 284.
Two angels, floating on clouds in the upper corners, draw back curtains to reveal The Trinity – represented by Christ on the cross with the dove of the Holy Spirit hovering above and the massive figure of God the Father enthroned behind. A mandorla of cherubs frames the heavenly vision. St Benedict (with a scourge of birch twigs) and St Giovanni Gualberto (with tau cross) kneel in the bottom corners. The picture is very damaged by old restorations. It replaced Cimabue’s famous Maestà (now in the Uffizi) over the high altar of the church of Santa Trinita. It was commissioned on 11 April 1470 by Bonigianni Gianfigliazzi (a famous leader of the Florentine army and gonfaloniere of the Republic in 1467 and 1470) and was finished by 8 February 1471. Baldovinetti received 89 large gold florins in payment. The picture was transferred to the Accademia in 1808, when the Vallombrosan monastery attached to Santa Trinita was closed.

Florence. Museo di San Marco.
Marriage at Cana; Baptism; Transfiguration. Wood, each 39 sq.
Three of thirty-five scenes, which were painted to decorate the doors of the silver chest in the church of Santissima Annunziata. The other scenes are by Fra Angelico and his workshop. Crowe and Cavalcaselle recognised that the three scenes were not by Angelico, and Berenson attributed them in 1902 to the youthful Baldovinetti. They are probably his earliest attributable works (early 1450s?). The chest was moved from the church to the Accademia in about 1785 and sawn apart in 1814.
Crucifixion with St Antoninus. Canvas, 276 x 147.
St Antoninus, founder of the San Marco convent, kneels at the foot of the cross, adoring the crucified Christ. Originally a processional standard (gonfalone). The top, initially square, has been given an arched shape and the picture has been fitted into a fine late fifteenth-century frame. Typically for a church standard, it was thinly painted on a canvas with little preparation (primitura), and the colour has dulled and greyed. Sixteenth-century writers (Albertini and Vasari) ascribed it to Piero or Antonio Pollaiuolo. It disappeared from view until the turn of the twentieth century, when it was found in a corridor linking the convent with the church of San Marco. It was re-attributed to Baldovinetti on its rediscovery, and the museum retained this attribution until recently (naming the little room in which it was shown the Sala di Baldovinetti). The new attribution is to Francesco Botticini (an eclectic Florentine painter of the next generation). Judgement on authorship is made the harder by the picture’s sorry condition.

Florence. Duomo.
New Sacristy.
Intarsia on cupboards.
We know from his journal (the Ricordi) that in 1463 Baldovinetti was paid three large florins for a cartoon for the Nativity, which was executed in intarsia by Giuliano da Maiano. The composition closely resembles that of the Annunziata fresco of 1460-62. Baldovinetti also supplied several other designs, and coloured the heads in scenes designed by the goldsmith Maso Finiguerra.
North aisle.
Portrait of Dante. Linen, 232 x 290.
The poet, dressed in the simple red robe of a citizen and crowned with laurel, stands outside the walls of Florence. In his left hand, he holds an open volume of the Divina Commedia, which emits rays of light to illuminate the city. With his right hand, he gestures towards the three realms of afterlife described in the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Behind high gates, devils lead the naked Damned down into the circles of Hell. In the centre distance, the mountain of Purgatory rises in seven terraces, where the sins of pride, anger, envy, sloth, avarice, gluttony and lust are punished. On the summit, Adam and Eve stand in Earthly Paradise. Above, the celestial spheres revolve as the ‘eternal wheels’ of Heaven turn. This famous picture, which replaced an earlier Dante (now lost) of 1429, was long ascribed to Orcagna in old guidebooks. Documents published in 1839-40 show that it was designed by Baldovinetti and painted by Domenico di Michelino. The work was commissioned by the Opera del Duomo on 30 January 1465 and finished by 19 June of the same year, when it was valued by Neri di Bicci and Baldovinetti (who raised Michelino’s fee from the 100 lire originally agreed to 155 lire).

Florence. Sant’Ambrogio. Left wall.
Virgin in Glory with Four Saints and Eight Angels. Wood, 258 x 200.
The altarpiece was ordered in 1470 by Domenico Maringhi, the prior of Sant’Ambrogio, and completed by 1473. It originally had a tabernacle in the centre containing a miraculous chalice, around which Baldovinetti painted the Holy Spirit and Angels (above), St Catherine and John the Baptist kneeling on the left, and St Lawrence and St Ambrose kneeling on the right. After the chalice was moved to Mino da Fiesole’s sculptured tabernacle (left of the high altar), Baldovinetti was commissioned in 1485 to fill up and repaint the vacant space in the panel with a Nativity of the Virgin. He sub-contracted this task to his pupil Graffione, who painted the Virgin in a mandorla of flames in the middle of the picture.

Florence. SS, Annunziata. Courtyard (left of the entrance to the church).
Nativity. Fresco, 400 x 430.
Baldovinetti’s best-known work. Financed by a legacy of one Arrigo Arrigucci. It was commissioned for the price of 20 florins on 27 May 1460 but still unfinished in 1462. It is remarkable for the beautiful extended landscape of the Arno Valley. Vasari might have been thinking of this fresco when he wrote that Baldovinetti ‘loved to paint landscapes, and he drew them after nature, exactly as they are. That is why you can see in his pictures rivers, bridges, rocks, grass and fruit trees, roads, fields, towns, castles, stretches of sand, and an infinite number of other things’. The landscape and sky were painted in true fresco, but where the colour was applied a secco (as for the hands and drapery) it has scaled off, revealing the underdrawing. Vasari says that Baldovinetti believed that using a novel medium – a mixture of egg yolk and heated varnish – would protect the painting from damp; but ‘whereas he thought he had discovered a rare and most useful secret, he found himself deceived’. The composition of Baldovinetti’s fresco may have been influenced by a frescoed lunette of the Nativity painted by Uccello for the cloister of San Martino alla Scala. (Uccello’s ruined fresco was discovered under whitewash in 1952 and is now on deposit, with its sinopia, at the Uffizi.)

Florence. Santa Croce. Pazzi Chapel. Choir.
Stained Glass Window.
It is known from his Ricordi that Baldovinetti prepared cartoons for stained glass, including windows at Santa Trinita at Florence, San Martino at Lucca and Sant’ Agostino at Arezzo. The window in the Pazzi Chapel was attributed to Baldovinetti by Herbert Horne in the June 1903 Burlington Magazine. It portrays St Andrew, in honour of Andrea Pazzi who commissioned the chapel, with God the Father in the occhio above. It probably dates from about 1472. Restored in 2001.

Florence. San Miniato. Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal.
Annunciation and Frescoes.
The Annunciation is on the left wall of the chapel, above the empty throne facing Antonio Rossellino’s beautiful marble tomb. It is painted not in fresco but on horizontal oak planks fixed to the chapel wall (though the garden with cypress and cedar trees in the lunette above is in fresco). The colour has peeled off in places (particularly on the Angel Gabriel’s gilded mantle) and areas were left bare after a restoration of 1972. The frescoes in the cupola and spandrels, which have also suffered from scaling, represent (life-size) the Evangelists and Four Doctors of the Church seated on clouds, and eight half-length Prophets. (It has been suggested that the prophet dressed in the white robe of the Camaldolese Order is a posthumous portrait of Ambrogio Traversi. Traversi, a general of the Camaldolese, was a renowned Greek linguist who worked for the union of the Western and Eastern Churches.) Both the Annunciation and the frescoes were ascribed by Vasari to Piero Pollaiuolo, while Albertini in Memoriale, published fifty years earlier, gave them to Baldovinetti. That he was right and Vasari wrong is proved by documents discovered in 1906, which show that the work was assigned to Baldovinetti by Bishop Alvaro in 1466 and finished in 1473.

Florence. Santa Trinita. Choir.
Traces of Frescoes.
In the vault Four Patriarchs (Moses, Abraham, Noah and David) are just still visible, and in the lunettes bare traces remain of scenes of the Sacrifice of Isaac and Moses receiving the Tables of the Law. These scanty surviving fragments were discovered under whitewash in 1890-7. The frescoes in the chapel were commissioned by Bonigianni Gianfigliazzi on 1 July 1471, and Baldovinetti promised to finish them in five to seven years for two hundred gold ducats. In the event, they took twenty-five years to complete, and were valued in January 1497 by Benozzo Gozzoli, Perugino, Filippino Lippi and Cosimo Rosselli at one thousand gold florins. The frescoes represented Old Testament scenes, with many portraits of contemporaries according to Vasari (including Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici, Luca Pitti and Filippo Strozzi the Elder). As at SS. Annunziata, Baldovinetti used only true fresco for laying-in, and for the detail applied pigment mixed with egg yolk and hot varnish. Already in Vasari’s day the colour ‘had begun to flake away in many places’, and the frescoes were largely destroyed in 1760 when the walls of the chapel were covered in stucchi. A fragment that was saved, said to be a self-portrait, is in the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo. Baldovinetti also designed (1465) the stained glass window, which was reglazed in 1616.

Florence. San Niccolò Sopr’Arno. Sacristy.
Assumption of the Virgin (Madonna della Cintola’). Frescoed lunette.
St Thomas, kneeling before a sarcophagus filled with roses, receives the girdle from the Virgin, who ascends to heaven in a mandorla held up by cherubim and flanked by angels. The date 1450, painted on the sarcophagus, is not original and may be too early. The fresco, set into the lunette of a Renaissance aedicule, is not documented or noted by Vasari. It has been variously ascribed to Baldovinetti, Piero Pollaiuolo, the young Domenico Ghirlandaio and Ghirlandaio's school.

London. National Gallery.
Portrait of a Lady. Wood, 63 x 41.
The sitter is shown almost to the waist, sharply silhouetted against a flat grey-blue background. Her profile is strikingly distinctive, with a very prominent nose, strong chin, and high forehead accentuated by a shaved hairline. Her elaborately dressed blond hair is adorned on top with a rich jewel of large pearls. The pattern of three palm leaves and two other leaves (or feathers) on the pale yellow sleeve is probably the armorial device of a noble family (either the sitter’s own or of that into which she was about to marry). It has been suggested that the device is that of the Galli family of Urbino and that the sitter is Francesca degli Stati, the second wife of Angelo Galli, who was a poet and important administrator at Federico da Montefelto's court. The portrait is in good condition, though the flesh colour is worn and the green underpainting shows through it. The frame is original. Little is known of its history. It was purchased by the National Gallery from a Florentine dealer in 1866 for £160 as a portrait by Piero della Francesca of a Contessa Palma of Urbino. Attributions followed to Uccello in 1883 (Morelli) and Domenico Veneziano in 1897 (Bode). Both these attributions, particularly that to Uccello, continued to find adherents through the first half of the twentieth century. The attribution to Baldovinetti was made by Roger Fry in the March 1911 Burlington Magazine. Originally favoured mainly by British and American critics, it now appears to be widely accepted. Evidence is limited however, as there are no other panel portraits by Baldovinetti to provide stylistic comparison. The pointillist technique is interesting, with clusters of minute white dots used to suggest highlights and mould volumes.

Notre Dame (Indiana). University. Snite Museum of Art.
Annunciation. Wood, 36 x 30.
This small, damaged panel was formerly in private collections in Budapest and Rome. It was acquired by Kress in 1942 and allotted to the Notre Dame University in 1962.
When it first came to the United States in 1940, it was attributed to Baldovinetti by R. W. Kennedy (Arts in America). Mrs Kennedy thought it was an early work, possibly from the now-lost Sant’Ansano Altarpiece of 1450 (Baldovinetti’s earliest recorded independent commission). The attribution was accepted, for example, by Berenson in the final (1963) edition of his Florentine Painters. But, in her catalogue of the Kress Italian pictures, Shapely took the view that ‘the poor condition has left insufficient evidence on which to base a definite attribution’. There is suspicion that the painting was restored to look like a Baldovinetti (as was the case with a Madonna, also acquired by Kress, that is now in the Washington National Gallery with an attribution to Pier Francesco Fiorentino). Now classed as ‘attributed to Baldovinetti’ (Kress Foundation) or ‘style of Baldovinetti’ (Snite Museum).

Paris. Louvre.
Madonna and Child. Wood, 104 x 76.
The Virgin, half-length, adores the baby, who sits on the marble parapet before her, holding up one end of his swaddling cloth (perhaps an allusion to his burial shroud). Behind her is a wide vista of the Arno Valley – with winding streams and roads, an arched bridge, pools, cypress trees, tiny farms, and hills fading into the distance. Bought by the Louvre from the Duke de la Trémoïlle in 1898 as a picture by Piero della Francesca. Some thirty years earlier, when the picture was in the Duchâtel collection in Paris, Crowe and Cavalcaselle had already attributed it to Baldovinetti. It probably dates from the 1460s. Somewhat restored.

Paris. Musée Jacquemart-André.
Madonna and Child. Canvas, 88 x 73.
The Virgin, half-length, adores the baby, who lies swaddled across her lap. The picture closely resembles the one in the Louvre, although the landscape is not as remarkable. The same type of Virgin is also found in Baldovinetti’s altarpiece in the Uffizi. Bought by Madame Edouard André from Baldovintti’s descendants in 1891 (through Stefano Bardini). It appears to be one of Baldovinetti’s better preserved pictures.