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Antonio and Piero Pollaiuolo

Florentine School. They were brothers. Their family name was Benci; Pollaiuolo means poultry seller, which was their father’s business. Antonio, the eldest son, was probably born in 1431. According to Vasari, he was articled to a goldsmith named Bartoluccio Ghiberti, and then worked as Lorenzo Ghiberti’s assistant on the second Baptistery Doors (the ‘Gates of Paradise’). By the late 1450s he was already receiving major commissions as a goldsmith, and by 1464 he was running his own workshop in Via Vacchereccia (near the Mercato Nuovo). Piero, the youngest son, was born in about 1441, and is said by Vasari to have learnt painting in the workshop of Andrea Castagno. He received commissions as an independent master, but also assisted, or collaborated with, Antonio. Very little is known of a third brother, Salvestro, who also worked in the family workshop. As well as goldsmith work, the workshop produced bronze sculpture, painting in fresco and on panel, processional banners, designs for embroidery, and engravings.

There are several well authenticated pictures by Piero: three of a series of Seven Virtues in the Uffizi are documented as painted in 1469-70; a portrait of Galeazzo Maria Sforza in the Uffizi is recorded as Piero’s in a Medici inventory of 1492; and an altarpiece at San Gimignano is signed and dated 1483. But there are no documented or signed pictures by Antonio. It is difficult to distinguish their separate styles, but it is usual to attribute the best work to Antonio. Vasari says that he was one of the first artists to study anatomy through dissection, and works such as the painting and bronze of Hercules and Antaeus and the famous signed engraving of the Battle of the Nude Men show a fascination with the problems of representing the naked human figure in violent action. The Pollaiuoli were among the first Italian painters to use a primarily oil medium rather than egg tempera. Unlike Flemish painters, who built-up paint layers slowly in thin translucent glazes, they applied the oil medium thickly, with unusual boldness and freedom.

Both Antonio and Piero left Florence for Rome in about 1484 to execute the bronze tomb of Sixtus IV for St Peter’s. This tomb is their masterpiece. On its completion in 1493, they started work on a second papal tomb, for Innocent VIII. Both brothers died in Rome: Piero in or shortly after 1496, Antonio on 4 February 1498. They were buried there in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli (where there is a small monument to them just inside the door).


Assisi. Basilica of San Francesco. Museo del Tesoro.
Altar Frontal.
Embroidery, 84 x 380. 
Pope Sixtus IV (Francesco della Rovere) kneels in prayer before his name-saint Francis, who displays the stigmata in his right hand and and holds a cross with his left hand. The oak leaves, arranged in intricate symmetrical patterns at the sides, are the motif of the Della Rovere family. This precious embroidery, wrought in gold, silver and silk thread, was donated to the Basilica of San Francesco by Sixtus IV. The donation could have been made in 1473 (when there is a record of such an item in an inventory of the sacristy), in 1476 (the 250th anniversary of St Francis's death) or in 1478 (the 250th anniversary of the saint's canonization). The design was first attributed to Antonio Pollaiuolo in 1906 (by Adolfo Venturi). The faces were drawn in ink directly on the silk. Sixtus IV's portrait seems to have been taken from his coronation medal, cast in 1471.     

Berlin. Gemäldegalerie.
David. Wood, 46 x 34.
The pose of the youthful David, standing astride the head of Goliath, may derive from Donatello’s St George from Orsanmichele. The head may be a portrait (Maud Cruttwell (1906) saw a resemblance with Botticelli’s Man with a Medal in the Uffizi). The tiny panel was purchased by the Berlin Museum in 1890 from the famous Florentine dealer and antiquarian Stefano Bardini. It was ascribed to Piero Pollaiuolo at first, but is now usually regarded as a comparatively early work of Antonio (mid-1460s?).
Portrait of a Young Woman. Wood, 51 x 35.
The young woman, still in her teens, wears a sumptuous dress with gold-brocaded crimson velvet sleeves and a white silk overdress with a pomegranate pattern. She is seen on a marble balcony against a blue sky with wispy traces of cloud. This famous profile portrait has had an extraordinary number of different attributions. When first recorded in the Earl of Ashburnham’s collection, it was ascribed to Botticelli. When it was purchased by the Berlin Museum in 1894, it was ascribed to Piero della Francesca. In 1897 it was ascribed by Wilhelm Bode to Domenico Veneziano, and it retained this attribution in gallery catalogues until 1968. During the course of his long career, Berenson gave it successively to Verrocchio, Baldovinetti and Piero Pollaiuolo. An attribution to Antonio Pollaiuolo was first proposed in 1911 by Adolfo Venturi. For almost all recent critics, the question has narrowed down to ‘Antonio or Piero Pollaiuolo?’
Annunciation. Wood, 150 x 174.
The Angel kneels before the Virgin in a room of palatial splendour (but faulty perspective), with elaborately decorated pilasters and glowing marble panels on the walls and floor. Through the left window is a landscape with a distant view of Florence and through the right window a view of the Arno Valley. To judge from its size, this well-preserved picture was probably an altarpiece, but its original location is unknown. It was acquired by the Berlin Museum in 1821 with the Solly collection, where it was ascribed to Antonio Pollaiuolo. It is now given largely or wholly to Piero. It probably dates from the 1470s.

Boston. Gardner Museum.
Portrait of a Woman. Wood, 48 x 30.
The sitter, who wears a plain white band round her head, has no jewellery and is dressed and coiffed more simply than the sitters of other female profile portraits attributed to the Pollaiuoli. It has been suggested that she could have been the model for Beata Fina in Piero’s Coronation in San Gimignano. The loosely-painted portrait has been much cleaned and restored. The pale blue-green background, in particular, is very worn (dark blue overpaint was removed in 1947-48). It has been suggested that it was not a conventional portrait but could have formed part of a decorated piece of furniture. Once in the possession of the famous Florentine dealer Stefano Bardini, it was sold by Duveen (through Berenson) to Mrs Gardner in 1907. Berenson initially attributed it to Antonio, but it is now given to Piero.

Cleveland (Ohio). Museum of Art. 
Battle of the Nudes. Paper, 40 x 60. 
This large copperplate engraving, prominently signed on the tablet attached to the tree on the left, is Antonio Pollaiuolo's only surviving print. It is probably both his most famous work and the most famous print produced in Renaissance Florence. Ten muscular nudes fight ferociously with swords, daggers, battleaxes, bows and arrows, and a heavy chain. The background is a dense tangle of grapevines, olive trees and corn. The subject, called by Vasari simply 'a battle of nudes all girt around with a chain', is uncertain. It has been suggested that a Roman gladiatorial combat is represented. Literary subjects have also been proposed (such as the fight between the armed men that sprouted from the dragons' teeth sown by Jason). But it is possible that no specific subject was meant and the nudes were intended to be simply a source of figure studies for the Pollaiuolo workshop. The engraving is usually dated around 1470, though a much later dating has also been proposed on the argument that the print draws on a Roman marble group (Three Satyrs fighting a Serpent) excavated in 1489. The Cleveland print was bought in 1967 from the Prince of Liechtenstein's collection. It is the only known first-state impression. Some fifty other impressions, printed from the reworked plate, exist. Many major museums (including the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Louvre, Uffizi, Metropolitan Museum and Albertina) have an example.   

Florence. Uffizi.
Altarpiece of Three Saints. Wood, 178 x 173.
The altarpiece was painted for the sepulchral chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal in the church of San Miniato at Florence. It was finished by 20 October 1466, when the final payment was made. It represents the three patron saints of the dead cardinal – James (holding a baton and wearing a felt hat decorated with the usual scallop shell), Eustace (dressed aristocratically in an ermine-lined tunic over a doublet with gold-brocaded sleeves) and Vincent (in a red deacon’s habit decorated with pearls and precious stones). Vasari describes the picture as a work of collaboration between Antonio and Piero; modern criticism has usually detected Piero’s hand in the figure of St Eustace. It was brought to the Uffizi in 1800 because of concern at its condition. It has suffered serious flaking because of the use of a badly primed oak support, and was restored in 1994. The splendid frame, with the coat-of-arms of the Cardinal of Portugal in enamelled brass, was carved by Giuliano da Maiano.
Virtues. Six panels, each about 167 x 88.
The panels show life-size female figures, each enthroned within a niche, representing Prudence, Charity, Justice, Hope, Faith and Temperance. A seventh in the series, representing Fortitude, is by Botticelli. The panels were painted for the Arte della Mercanzia in the Palazzo della Signoria, where magistrates sat for cases arising from commercial disputes. The Charity, the first of the series to be executed, was ordered on 18 August 1469. It was finished by 18 December 1469, when Piero Pollaiuolo was awarded the commission to paint the remaining six figures at a price of twenty broad florins each. The commission was won in spite of competition from Verrocchio, who submitted a design for the figure of Faith. Two figures were to be completed every three months; but the timetable seems to have slipped and the second and third pictures, Faith and Temperance, were not paid for until 2 August 1470. Although the panels were ordered from Piero alone, the Prudence has sometimes been ascribed to Antonio. The panels were transferred to the Uffizi by 1717. Prudence (the only one painted over a thin ground rather than directly onto an unprepared panel) is the best preserved; the others were so damaged by scaling that they were considered unfit for exhibition in the nineteenth century. The face of Faith was reconstructed in a 1998 restoration, and the Charity was restored in 2001-2. On the back of the Charity is a full-scale charcoal and white lead drawing, formerly ascribed to Antonio, of the entire figure.
Portrait of Galeazzo Maria Sforza. Wood, 65 x 43.
The cultured, but extravagant and dissolute Galeazzo Maria (1444-76) was the eldest son of Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti (whom he probably poisoned). He was Duke of Milan from 1466 until 1476, when he was murdered in church by three conspirators. The gold fleurs-de-lis embroidered on his doublet allude to the alliance between the Sforza and the French royal house formed by Galeazzo's marriage to Bona of Savoy (sister-in-law of Louis XI). The pointing gesture with the gloved right hand may be intended to convey a princely authority. The portrait is listed with a valuation of 10 florins in the 1492 inventory of the Palazzo Medici as ‘the head of Duke Galeazzo by the hand of Piero del Pollaiuolo’. It is likely to have been painted in 1471 when Galeazzo Maria visited Florence. Unusually for a picture of this date, it has been painted directly in oil on the cypress panel (rather than in tempera on a gesso ground), and is poorly preserved. It was cleaned in the mid-1990s.
Portrait of a Woman. Wood, 55 x 34.
This picture is also in poor condition, and appears to be substantially repainted. The identity of the sitter is unknown, though it has been claimed that she resembles Duchess Bona of Savoy, consort of Galeazzo Maria Sforza. When the portrait came to the Uffizi from the Pitti Palace in 1861, it was ascribed to Piero della Francesca. It is one of a group of female profile portraits, attributed to Domenico Veneziano by Bode (1897) and to Verrocchio by Berenson (1901), that are now given to Antonio or Piero Pollaiuolo.
Labours of Hercules. Two tiny panels.
One tiny panel (17 x 12) illustrates an episode from the Second Labour of Hercules. Wearing the skin of the Nemean lion as a cloak and its gaping jaws as a helmet, he attacks the Hydra with his club. The landscape of the Arno Valley extends into the distance. The other tiny panel (16 x 9) illustrates an episode from the Eleventh Labour. Hercules, returning from the Hesperides, was confronted by the giant Antaeus, who was invincible as long as part of his body touched the earth. Hercules is shown killing the giant by holding him above the ground and crushing him in a bearhug. The seacoast and Apuan Alps are visible in the distance.
We know (from a letter written by Antonio Pollaiuolo himself in 1494) that in about 1460 he and Piero painted three huge canvases of the Labours of Hercules for the Medici Palace. These are lost. The panels in the Uffizi are probably miniature replicas, by Antonio himself, of two of them. They may date from the mid-1470s. When first recorded in a 1609 inventory of the Palazzo Gondi, they were framed together as a folding diptych (the smaller Hercules and Antaeus has presumably been trimmed). Antonio also executed a little bronze of Hercules and Antaeus which is in the Bargello. The panels disappeared in 1944 when German soldiers were moving a store of pictures from a Florentine villa, where they had been kept for safekeeping. They came to light some twenty years later, in 1963, when they were discovered in the possession of a German waiter living in Pasadena.

Florence. Pitti.
Saint Jerome. Wood, 40 x 26.
The attribution of this strikingly realistic, bust-length head has been much disputed. In the 1646 inventory of Cardinal Carlo de’ Medici’s pictures in the Casino on the Via della Scala, it is listed as by Pollaiuolo (without specifying whether Antonio or Piero was intended). Twentieth-century critics have proposed a remarkable number of different attributions, including Bartolomeo della Gatta, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Domenico Veneziano and the young Leonardo. In 1990, Luciano Bellosi proposed Verrocchio, and this attribution is accepted in the latest (2003) gallery catalogue. However, the traditional attribution to (Piero) Pollaiuolo was upheld by David Brown (1998).

Florence. Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
Life of the Baptist. Embroideries.
The twenty-seven needlework panels were designed by Antonio Pollaiuolo and stitched in silk and gold thread. They decorated liturgical vestments of white brocade (a chasuble, cope, dalmatic and tunicle), which were commissioned by the Arte di Calimali (Cloth Guild) for the Florentine Baptistery and worn on high feast days. Antonio was paid 90 florins for his designs on 9 August 1466 and a further 90 florins in 1480. An international team of up to eleven craftsmen worked for many years on the embroideries (final payment was not made until 1487), and the total cost was enormous: 3179 florins, 7646 lire, 10 soldi and 8 denari. The vestments remained intact until the 1730s, when they had decayed so much that it was decided to detach the embroidered panels. A major restoration of the embroideries was due to be completed in 2015.

Florence. Museo Bardini.
Saint Michael. Canvas, 175 x 116.
Identified with a double-sided banner mentioned by Vasari as painted for the Confraternity of Sant’Angelo, attached to the church of San Michele in Arezzo (‘an oil painting on cloth, with a Crucifix on one side, and on the other a St Michael in combat with the dragon’). The banner is said to have been sold to the Aretine lawyer Francesco Rossi in the eighteenth century. The St Michael entered the Museo Bardini in 1924. Much restored, it has sometimes been considered an original work of collaboration between Antonio and Piero, sometimes a work of Antonio, sometimes a work of Piero, and sometimes a copy (possibly commissioned as a replacement by the confraternity itself).

Florence. San Miniato. Portugese Chapel.
Fresco of Angels.
In the lunette above the altarpiece of Three Saints (a modern replica: the original is in the Uffizi) is a fresco, usually attributed to Antonio, of two foreshortened flying angels pulling back curtains. It was probably painted in 1466. The red-lake drapery, which was probably painted a secco, has scaled away.

Florence (Arcetri). Villa La Gallini.
Dancing Figures. Fresco.
The villa is in the Pian de’ Giullari above San Miniato al Monte. It was owned by the patrician Lanfredini family, which had strong links to the Medici. The fresco represents a dance of five male and female figures, two-thirds life size, with festoons of fruits and plants above and a series of painted arches below. It was discovered under whitewash in 1897, and immediately recognised by Mary Berenson as the work of Antonio Pollaiuolo. It is painted not in buon fresco but a secco, and is in poor condition: the outlines of the figures and faint indications of an architectural design are all that remain. The central part has been lost because of the construction of a door. Restored in 1996-97.

London. National Gallery.
Martyrdom of St Sebastian. Wood, 292 x 203.
The saint is circled by six archers, firing their arrows or loading their crossbows, the poses of the three on the left being turned around and repeated in the three on the right. The stupendous panoramic landscape – a vast plain with mounted knights and rivers and roads winding to distant mountains – resembles the Arno Valley, but the little town in the distance is probably meant to represent Rome. The large picture was the altarpiece of the Oratory of San Sebastiano (one of whose relics was an arm bone of the saint), attached to the church of the Annunziata at Florence. The earliest sources (Billi, the Anonimo Magliabechiano and Albertini) all ascribed it to Piero Pollaiuolo. However, Vasari says that it was painted by Antonio Pollaiuolo in 1475 for Antonio Pucci for 300 scudi. Modern critics usually see the hand of both brothers (Antonio is likely to have been responsible for the muscular crossbowmen, whereas the St Sebastian was probably Piero’s work). According to Vasari, the head of St Sebastian is a portrait of Gino di Lodovico Capponi. The Pucci emblem, a Moor’s head, appears in the roundels of the triumphal arch. The picture was sold (in violation of Tuscan law) by the Marchese Roberto Pucci to the National Gallery in 1857 for the high price of 3000 gns. As in other paintings by the Pollaiuoli, the thick application of oil paint has resulted in surface wrinkling and cracking, and the green glazes in the background have discoloured.
Apollo and Daphne. Wood, 30 x 20.
Daphne, praying to be delivered from the pursuing Apollo, is transformed into a laurel tree – her arms have already stiffened into branches and her left leg has taken root. The tiny panel is sometimes thought to have decorated a small chest or formed the cover of a portrait or book, but there is no evidence that it was anything other than an independent work of art. It is almost universally attributed to Antonio Pollaiuolo, and is often considered a relatively early work. It was acquired in Rome by William Coningham in 1845 and bequeathed to the National Gallery by William Ellis in 1876.

Milan. Museo Poldi Pezzoli.
Portrait of a Young Woman. Wood, 46 x 33.
The sitter’s elaborately dressed hair is tied with blue and gold braid and ornamented with strings of seed pearls. This enchanting and well-preserved profile portrait came from the Palazzo Borromeo at Milan. An inscription formerly on the back, but now effaced, stated that the sitter was the wife of Giovanni de’ Bardi. It has been suggested that another famous profile portrait, in the Berlin Gallery, represents the same woman slightly younger. Like other Florentine female profile portraits, the picture has had many previous attributions. It was ascribed to Piero della Francesca in the 1879 Poldi Pezzoli inventory. Bode (1897) proposed Domenico Veneziano and Berenson (1901) Verrocchio. Gustavo Frizzoni (1900) and Maud Cruttwell (1906) seem to have been the first to suggest Antonio Pollaiuolo – an attribution that is now widely accepted (though Piero Pollaiuolo has been favoured by the Poldi Pezzoli Museum).

New Haven. Yale University Art Gallery.
Hercules, Nessus and Deianeira. Canvas (transferred from panel), 55 x 81.
The subject is unusual in early Renaissance painting. The centaur Nessus offered to carry Deianeira, daughter of Oeneus and wife of Hercules, across the swollen stream of Evenus. But when they reached the other bank he tried to rape her, and Hercules killed him with a poisoned arrow. In the background, the landscape of the Arno Valley with the walled city of Florence in the distance. The figure of Hercules is closely related (in reverse) to the bowman on the left of the engraving of the Battle of the Nudes. The picture, probably a cassone or spalliera panel, is usually attributed to Antonio Pollaiuolo, though some critics have seen in it the collaboration of Piero. It was acquired in Florence in the 1850s by James Jackson Jarves, who sold his huge collection of early Italian pictures to Yale in 1871. It was transferred from panel to canvas in 1867 and is much damaged. (There are paint losses scattered across the river represented in the lower part; Deianeira's body and raised arms and Hercules' loincloth are partly reconstructed; and the whole surface has been abraded by repeated cleanings.) There were major restorations in 1915, 1954-64 and 1998. 

New York. Metropolitan Museum.
Portrait of a Young Lady. Wood, 49 x 35.
This very damaged and partially repainted picture is attributed to Antonio or Piero Pollaiuolo on the basis of the similarity with the female profile portraits at Florence (Uffizi), Milan (Poldi Pezzoli) and Berlin. (The necklace and pendant appear identical to those in the Uffizi portrait.) Little original paint remains on the dress, but the face and hair are better preserved. Cleaning has revealed the original blue background, which was covered over with oil paint. The sitter somewhat resembles Marietta Strozzi, as she appears in a marble bust by Desiderio formerly at Berlin. Until 1938 the portrait was in the collection of Lord Wemyss at Gosford House, Scotland. When it was bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum by Edward Harkness in 1940, it was so heavily repainted that some experts considered it a fake.

San Gimignano. Sant’Agostino (high altar).
Coronation of the Virgin. Wood, 290 x 230.
The kneeling figures are Beata Fina (the virgin heroine of the town), Beato Bartolus (who was buried in the church) and St Augustine (left) and SS. Geminignus, Jerome and Nicholas of Tolentino (right). Signed by Piero and dated 1483, and therefore probably Piero’s last major commission before his departure for Rome to assist Antonio on the papal tombs. According to a seventeenth-century source, the altarpiece was painted for Fra Domenico Strambi (called Il Dottor Parigiano from his theological teaching in Paris), who commissioned Gozzoli’s frescoes of the Life of St Augustine in the choir of the church. Exhibited for a hundred years in the Collegiata at San Gimignano, it was returned to Sant’Agostino in the 1950s. It has lost its original frame. Restored in 1999, when discoloured varnish was removed.

Staggia (near Siena). Museo Pollaiuolo (next to Santa Maria Assunta).
Elevation of Mary Magdalene. Wood, 201 x 165.
The haggard saint, wrapped in her own hair, emerges from her cave in the rock and is carried upwards by angels to receive the wafer of the sacrament. From the Chapel of the Magdalen in the church of Santa Maria Assunta at Staggia. The chapel, to the right of the high altar, was built by Ser Bindo d’Agnolo Grazzini, a Florentine notary, who had a special devotion to the Magdalen. There are no early references to the picture, which was first recognised as a work of the Pollaiuoli in 1905 by Bernard Berenson, who attributed its design to Antonio and execution to Piero (and mistakenly identified the subject as St Mary of Egypt). Most recent critics have given the entire picture to Antonio. It is usually considered an early work (late 1450s?), and was clearly influenced by Donatello’s famous wooden statue of the Magdalen, carved before 1455 for the Florentine Baptistery. It has been damaged by over-cleaning (the restorer, Domenico Fiscali, taking away all oil passages which he mistakenly thought were not original). It was removed in the early 1950s when the church was renovated, and was for some years in the cathedral at Colle di Val d’Elsa. It was returned to Staggia in 1976, and is now housed in a special museum.

Turin. Galleria Sabauda.
Tobias and the Angel. Wood, 187 x 118.
The subject is from the Book of Tobit (included in the Latin Old Testament but relegated to the Apocrypha of the English Protestant Bible). Tobias is shown with his protective angel Raphael on the journey to distant Media, where he had been sent by his father Tobit to collect a debt. Tobias carries the fish he had caught from the River Tigris, while Raphael holds a box containing the ointment made from the fish's entrails and used to cure Tobit's blindness. Paintings of this subject were quite common in Florence at this time. (There are other well-known, almost contemporary examples by Verrocchio's workshop (London), Filippino Lippi (Washington) and Francesco Botticini (Uffizi).) They were probably votive images, commissioned by those seeking protection on a journey or a cure for blindness. The large Pollaiuolo picture is from the guild church of Orsanmichele, where Vasari saw it hanging on a pillar. It was later transferred to the assembly room of the Capitani above the church. Vasari ascribed it to Piero, but it is usually considered a work of collaboration between the brothers and dated around the middle or late 1460s. By the eighteenth century, it was in the possession of the Tolomei family in their house in Via de’ Ginori, Florence, and later their palazzo in Siena. It was acquired by the Galleria Sabauda in 1865 from the collection of Baron Garriod.

Washington. National Gallery.
Portrait of a Man. Wood, 52 x 39.
A clean-shaven, bare-headed man of perhaps thirty is shown half-length and three-quarters face, looking towards the viewer with a proud, almost menacing expression and clasping the hood of his red tunic with his right hand. The blue sky is overpainted and a vertical crack passing through the right side of the face has been restored. This strikingly realistic portrait is from the Galleria Torrigiani, on the Via de’ Bardi in Florence, where it was recorded from the mid-nineteenth century as a work of Antonio Pollaiuolo. It was sold in about 1896 to Charles Fairfax Murray, and passed through the collections of Rodolphe Kann of Paris and John Pierpont Morgan of New York, before it was acquired in 1935 by Andrew Mellon and donated to the Washington Gallery. It has often been attributed to Andrea Castagno – first, it seems, by Bernard Berenson in his 1899 Florentine Painters. Berenson subsequently changed his mind twice, returning the portrait to Antonio Pollaiuolo in his 1932 Lists but then reverting to Castagno in his final 1963 edition. The attribution is still contested. In the 2003 catalogue of fifteenth-century Italian paintings at Washington, Miklós Boskovits ascribes the portrait to Piero Pollaiuolo as a work of the early or mid-1460s. But the National Gallery has retained an attribution to Castagno.