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Melozzo da Forli

Melozzo degli Ambrosi, born at Forlì in the Romagna, not far from Ravenna. According to his epitaph in Santissima Trinita at Forlì, he was 56 years and 5 months old when he died on 8 November 1494, implying that he was born in June 1438. His early life is obscure. It was long held that he was either a pupil of Piero della Francesca or trained in his circle, but there is no proof of this. His master was possibly rather the local painter Ansuino, who had worked in Padua with Filippo Lippi and Andrea Mantegna. Melozzo may have been in Rome as early as about 1461 when, according to an anonymous epigram, he was asked by Alessandro Sforza, Lord of Pesaro, to make a copy of a Madonna in Santa Maria del Popolo supposedly painted by St Luke. (Melozzo’s copy has sometimes been identified with a picture in the Palazzo Comunale at Montefalco.) It has been postulated that in the 1460s and early 1470s he worked at the court of Federico da Montefeltro in Urbino, where he would have come into contact with Piero della Francesca.

However, the first definite fact about Melozzo’s career is that in January 1477 he was employed by Sixtus IV in the Vatican Library. Most of his frescoes there have perished, but the group portrait of Pope Sixtus IV Appointing Platina (successfully detached in the early nineteenth century and now exhibited in the Vatican Pinacoteca) is considered Melozzo’s masterpiece. The Pope made him his official painter (pictor apostolicus); but for some reason – possibly because he was busy with other commissions – Melozzo was excluded from any share in the prestigious Sistine Chapel wall frescoes of 1480-81. For the Pope’s nephew Girolamo Basso della Rovere, Melozzo painted frescoes (still intact) of Angels and Prophets in the dome of one of the sacristies at Loreto. For another nephew, either Cardinal Pietro Riario or Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, he painted a fresco of the Ascension in the apse of the Basilica dei Santi Apostoli at Rome (of which some significant fragments survive in the Vatican Pinacoteca and the Quirinale Palace). Melozzo is known to have painted two other fresco cycles for churches in Rome – one for Santa Maria in Trastevere and the other for Santa Maria Nuova in the Forum – but both are completely lost. After the death of Sixtus IV in 1484, Melozzo is likely to have returned to the Marches. In February 1493 he is documented at Ancona, where he decorated a room in the Palazzo degli Anziani. These frescoes are lost, as is the ceiling he decorated later in 1493 with his pupil Marco Palmezzano in the Feo Chapel of San Biagio e San Girolamo at Forlì, which was destroyed by a German bomb in 1944.

Famous in his lifetime for his mastery of perspective, Melozzo’s works are now extremely rare. His only certain paintings are in fresco, although several works on panel or canvas have been attributed to him. A number of pictures formerly ascribed to him are now given to Antoniazzo Romano (fl. 1460-1508), who worked closely with Melozzo in Rome.


Florence. Uffizi.
Annunciation. Two panels, each 116 x 60.
The two panels have been cut down at the top and repainted in oil. On one is the Angel Gabriel with an incomplete, headless figure of St Benedict or St Prosdocimus on the back; on the other is the Virgin with an incomplete figure of John the Evangelist (?) on the back. The panels were probably originally organ doors. They were acquired by the Uffizi in 1906 from the Florentine dealer and restorer Luigi Grassi, and are said to have belonged to the Guarini family of Forlì. The two saints’ heads, which were presumably cut out to make them separately saleable, have not been discovered. The attribution is not certain.

Forlì. Pinacoteca.
Il Pestapepe’. Detached fresco, 152 x 95.
Il Pestapepe means ‘peppergrinder’, and the very damaged and repainted fresco represents a grocer’s assistant energetically pounding spices in a huge pestle with an equally large mortar. It was originally a sign on the outside wall of a shop, where it is first recorded (as a work of Melozzo) in 1657. It was removed from the wall in 1817 and transferred to the Scuola di Belle Arti in 1861. The attribution is no longer universally accepted.

Loreto. Basilica of Santa Casa (Sagrestia di San Marco).
Angels and Prophets (vault); Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem (wall).
The only one of Melozzo’s fresco cycles that remains intact in its original spot. In each of the eight segments of the Gothic vault is represented, in deep, vivid colours, an angel holding one of the instruments of the Passion and, beneath, a prophet seated on the cornice holding a tablet inscribed with his name and a passage from his writings. On the walls below, conceived as an open arcade, there were originally seven scenes from Christ’s Passion. The only scene – Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem – that survives was ascribed at one time to Melozzo’s pupil Marco Palmezzano. (It was long supposed that Melozzo never completed the Passion cycle, but an account of the paintings at Loreto written in 1841-42, but discovered only comparatively recently, claims that the other scenes were whitewashed over because of their poor condition. The walls have been probed for traces of original painting, but none has been discovered.) The frescoes are undocumented. They were almost certainly commissioned by Girolamo Basso della Rovere, whose coat-of-arms (with a garland of oak leaves) adorns the centre of the vault, and are presumed to have been done sometime after 1477, when Girolamo was made a cardinal. Some writers believe that they were completed by the early 1480s, others that the work was done after 1488, when the main roof of the church was finished. The frescoes were restored in 1991, when soot, lime deposits and earlier repainting were removed.

Madrid. Prado.
Angel Musician. Fresco, 63 x 52.
Allegedly a fragment from the huge fresco of the Ascension that decorated the apse of Santi Apostoli at Rome. It is not known how the fragment came to the Prado. Its authenticity has recently been doubted (by Tumidei in Prospettiva (1988)).

Rome. Vatican Pinacoteca.
Sixtus IV Appointing Platina. Detached fresco, 370 x 315.
The earliest surviving ceremonial papal portrait of the Renaissance. It shows Sixtus IV appointing the humanist Bartolommeo Sacchi, better known as Platina, Prefect of the Vatican Library in 1475. Platina points down to an inscription praising the Pope’s building works. The four others present cannot be identified with certainty, but all are likely to be nephews of the nepotistic pontiff. The man in cardinal’s robes standing between the Pope and Platina has been identified either as Giuliano della Rovere (the future Julius II) or Pietro Riario (the Pope’s favourite nephew, who died prematurely in 1474). The other tonsured young man, standing in profile on the Pope’s right, has been variously identified as Cardinal Raffaello Riario (best known for building the enormous Palazzo della Cancelleria on the present Corso Vittorio Emanuele), Pietro Riario or Giuliano della Rovere. The two men in secular dress, standing on the left behind the kneeling Platina, are probably Girolamo Riario (later Prince of Forlì) and Giovanni della Rovere (Prefect of Rome). During restoration in the late 1980s, it was discovered that there had originally been a seventh portrait that was subsequently erased. The fresco – recorded in an entry for 15 January 1477 in one of Platina’s account books – was painted for one of the rooms (the Biblioteca Latina) of the Vatican Library, which then occupied four rooms on the ground floor of the palace of Nicholas V, beneath the Borgia Apartments. It was located between two windows, which opened out onto the Cortile del Belvedere. In partnership with the local artist Antoniasso Romano, Melozzo also painted in one of the adjoining rooms (the Biblioteca Secreta), receiving payment for work done there in June 1480. Nothing remains of these frescoes. The Sixtus IV Appointing Platina remained in situ until 1821, when it was removed from the wall and transferred to canvas.
Angel Musicians, Apostles and Cherubs. Fragments of frescoes.
Fourteen fragments of the fresco of the Ascension painted for the apse of the Basilica dei Santi Apostoli. According to Vasari, the fresco was commissioned by Cardinal Pietro Riario, Sixtus IV’s favourite nephew who died in 1474. However, modern writers have generally assumed that the apse was painted during the renovation of the church ordered by Cardinal Riario’s successor Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere (later Julius II). The fresco was almost certainly finished by 1 May 1481, when Sixtus conducted a ceremonial Mass in the church. It remained intact until 1711, when the tribune was enlarged by Carlo Fontana and the old apse destroyed. The surviving fragments were sawn off the wall by Giuseppe Chiari. The Apostles, Angels and Cherubs were given to the Vatican, while the largest fragment, representing Christ in Glory, was sent to the Palazzo del Quirinale. The Vatican fragments were first placed in the Belvedere (in the area now occupied by the Museo Gregoriano Etrusco), then moved later in the eighteenth century to one of the octagonal rooms in the dome of St Peter’s, transferred thence to the Sala Capitolare of the sacristy, and finally installed in the Pinacoteca in 1932. Restored in 1982, when heavy regilding on the angels’ haloes was removed. Over a door in the Vatican Library, there is a painting of Sixtus V proclaiming St Bonaventura Doctor of the Church in Santi Apostoli which shows Melozzo’s fresco in its original position in the apse of the church.

Rome. Palazzo del Quirinale.
Christ in Glory. Detached fresco (half-way up the grand staircase).
The central section of the huge apse fresco painted, probably between 1474 and 1481, for Santi Apostoli. Vasari describes how the fresco originally appeared: ‘The Ascension of Jesus Christ, in the midst of a choir of angles who are leading Him up to Heaven, in which the figure of Christ is so well foreshortened that He seems to be piercing the ceiling, and the same is true of the angels, who are circling with various movements through the spacious sky. The apostles, likewise, who are earth below, are so well foreshortened in their various attitudes that the work brought him much praise’.

Rome. Basilica of San Marco.
St Mark the Pope; St Mark the Evangelist. Canvas, each 195 x 118.
St Mark the Pope hangs in the chapel to the right of the high altar. St Mark the Evangelist is in the sacristy. Ascribed to Perugino or to the Venetian School in old guidebooks, the two canvases were first attributed to Melozzo by Schmarzow in his 1886 book on the artist. They are possibly the two sides of a banner listed in a church inventory drawn up in 1481. Evidently early works, they may date from about 1470 when the church was remodelled, and may have been commissioned by Pope Paul II, who was formerly cardinal-priest of the church. Damaged and repainted.

Urbino. Galleria Nazionale.
Salvator Mundi. Canvas, 62 x 55
Very damaged: the hand holding the orb and the entire background is lost. From a church near Urbino, where it is said to have been used as a notice board. Published in 1914 (by Lionello Venturi) as a work of Melozzo da Forlì, and generally accepted as such for many years. In the 1980s it was reattributed by the museum to the Milanese painter Bramantino. The old attribution was reinstated for a time, and the picture was included as a work of Melozzo in the 2011 exhibition devoted to the artist at Forlì. But a new attribution has now been made to Bartolomeo della Gatta – a Camaldolese monk, who assisted Perugino and Signorelli on the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, worked as a miniaturist at the court of Federico da Urbino, and eventually became Abbot of the convent of San Clemente at Arezzo.