Domenico VenezianoHis name implies that he or his family were from Venice, but his early life is a complete mystery. He is first recorded in April 1438, when he wrote from Perugia to Piero the Gouty, son of Cosimo de’ Medici, asking for employment. According to Vasari, he painted frescoes in the Baglioni Palace in Perugia. From 1439 to 1445 he was painting frescoes in the choir of Sant’Egidio in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. Piero della Francesco was his assistant. The two collaborated again at Loreto, according to Vasari, but their work on the ceiling of the sacristy was interrupted by the plague (which was at Loreto from 1447 to 1452). All these frescoes are lost.
Domenico seems to have worked very slowly, and his principal surviving work is the Saint Lucy Altarpiece (main panel in the Uffizi and predella panels in Berlin, Cambridge and Washington). Payments are documented in 1447-48 for a pair of chests (cassoni), ordered by the Florentine silk merchant Marco Parenti for his marriage to Caterina Strozzi; but no panels from these have been identified. There is evidence (from a Medici inventory of 1492) that Domenico also painted portraits. A number of famous female profile portraits formerly ascribed to him at Berlin and elsewhere are now generally given to Antonio or Piero Pollaiuolo, but a pair of damaged male profile portraits at Washington and Norfolk (Virginia) and another male profile portrait at Chambéry are still sometimes accepted as his. Three Madonna panels, a tondo, a ruined fresco removed from a street tabernacle and another detached fresco are the only other known survivals of his work.
The myth, related by Antonio Billi and retold by Vasari, that he was murdered by Castagno was exploded in the nineteenth century by the archivist Gaetano Milanesi, who discovered that Domenico died four years later than Castagno in 1461. He was buried on 15 May in San Pier Gattolino. His rare pictures are remarkable for their mastery of perspective, and subtle use of colour and treatment of light. Two are signed; but none is documented or dated, so a reliable chronology has been hard to establish.
*Martyrdom of St Lucy. Wood, 25 x 29.
The Roman consul Paschasius orders the execution from a balcony on the right. The small panel, acquired by the Berlin Museum in Italy in 1841-42, was shown by Wilhelm Bode in 1883 to be part of the predella of the altarpiece painted for Santa Lucia dei Magnoli in Florence. The other four panels of the predella are divided between Cambridge and Washington. The Berlin panel has been cropped and is slightly smaller than the others. The predella may originally have been painted on a single plank of wood, with the scenes separated by pink borders as though seen through openings in a base of marble. It has been recomposed twice – first in London in 1930 for the Italian Exhibition at Burlington House and then in Florence in 1992 for the exhibition Una Scuola per Piero at the Uffizi. The Berlin panel was on the extreme right, below the figure of St Lucy in the main panel.
*Adoration of the Magi. Wood, 84 in dia.
This well-preserved circular picture is usually identified with the ‘tondo two braccia wide with the Story of the Magi’ listed in a Medici inventory of 1494 with an attribution to Pesellino (though the measurements do not tally very well, as one braccia is about 60 cm.). In the third quarter of the nineteenth century it was in the London collection of Alexander Barker with attributions to Filippo Lippi and Benozzo Gozzoli. After its acquisition by the Berlin Museum in 1880, it was ascribed for a time to Pesellino. The name of Domenico Veneziano seems to have been suggested first by Berenson (the Golden Urn, 1898). The figure to the right of the second Magus has been identified as Piero de’ Medici. The expansive and detailed landscape background, with fields and vineyards, shepherds with their flocks, castles and a corpse hanging from a gibbet, seems to show Flemish influence. Usually regarded, on grounds of style and costume, as a very early work (late 1430s?), though it has also been dated as late as around 1450. Along with the Adoration of the Magi attributed to Fra Angelico and/or Filippo Lippi at Washington, it is believed to be the earliest surviving painted tondo.
Bucharest. Art Museum.
‘Madonna of the Rose Bower’. Wood, 86 x 57.
Red and white roses traditionally symbolise Christ's Passion and the Virgin’s purity. The rose bower might also allude to the enclosed garden (hortus conclusus) of the Song of Solomon. This beautiful but damaged picture is considered one of Domenico’s earliest surviving works (mid-1430s?). The influence of Donatello has been seen in the lively Child (perhaps inspired by the dancing putti on the singing gallery carved for Florence Cathedral) and the robust proportions and pose of the Virgin (somewhat recalling the Pazzi Madonna at Berlin). The picture’s history can be traced back only to 1877, when it was in the collection of the German consul Felix Bamberg at Brussels. In 1879 it was acquired by King Carol I of Romania. The panel has been damaged by a vertical split; the flesh tones (especially the Virgin’s face) are abraded; and the green of the grass and foliage and the blue of the sky and Virgin’s mantle have darkened.
Cambridge. Fitzwilliam Museum.
*Annunciation. Wood, 27 x 54.
Originally the central panel of the predella of the St Lucy Altarpiece, the main panel of which is in the Uffizi. It has been cut down by about 6 cm on the left, removing a leg of the chair and disturbing the symmetry of the composition. The small colonnaded courtyard is drawn in careful perspective, and the picture surface is marked with numerous incised lines. The enclosed garden with its fastened gate, visible through the central arch, symbolises the Immaculate Conception.
*A Miracle of St Zenobius. Wood, 27 x 33.
The saint restores to life a widow’s son who had been trampled to death in the Borgo Albizzi. The Borgo is shown as it was in Domenico’s day, with the church of San Pier Maggiore (now demolished) in the background. The composition is related to that of a bronze relief by Ghiberti (completed in 1442) on the shrine of St Zenobius in Florence Cathedral. Like the Annunciation, the panel was part of the predella of the St Lucy Altarpiece. (It was to the right of the Annunciation and beneath the figure of St Zenobius in the main panel.) The two panels were probably bought in Florence in about 1815 by Joseph Fuller of Chelsea; they were bequeathed by his son in 1909.
Chambéry. Musée des Beaux-Arts.
Portrait of a Young Man. Wood, 47 x 36.
The inscription 'EL FIN FA TUTTO' (literally 'the end makes all') is obscure and has been variously interpreted as meaning 'the ends justify the means', 'all's well that ends well' and 'death is the great leveller'. (On the last interpretation, the inscription is likely to be commemorative – suggesting either that the portrait was posthumous or that the inscription was added after the sitter's death.) The portrait is one of a number of bust-length Florentine panel portraits, probably all dating from the second quarter of the fifteenth century, showing turbaned men against plain backgrounds. The others are the Matteo Olivieri at Washington and the companion Michele Olivieri in the Chrysler Museum at Norfolk (usually now attributed to Domenico Veneziano), the Portrait of a Young Man in the Gardner Museum at Boston (sometimes attributed to Masaccio) and the Portrait of a Young Man at Washington (also sometimes attributed to Masaccio). LIke these other portraits, the Chambéry panel has a long and varied attributional history. An attribution to Uccello (first proposed in 1927 by Roberto Longhi) had sustantial support for a time. Masaccio (proposed in 1932 by Bernard Berenson) was the main alternative candidate. The attribution to Domenico Veneziano was tentatively made in 1959 (by Enzo Carlì in his monograph on Uccello) and argued more forcefully in 1997 (by Miklòs Boskovits in the July-August issue of the Italian journal Arte Cristiana). It has now been adopted by the museum. The portrait was among more than a hundred paintings donated to the town of Chambéry by Baron Hector Garriod (died 1883). It was stolen from the museum in January 1999 but found abandoned in a nearby car park just nine days later.
**Madonna and Child with Saints. Wood, 209 x 213.
The Madonna and Child are flanked by the patron saints of Florence. The muscular John the Baptist, clad in camel skin and holding a slender cross, points towards the Christ Christ, and St Zenobius, in sumptuous bishop's vestments, raises his hand in blessing. St Francis stands on the left, lost in the scriptures, and St Lucy, in profile on the right, holds a martyr's palm and a plate with her two plucked-out eyes. In the background is a raised arcade or rood screen of arches supported on slender columns, through which is viewed an apse open to the sky with the tops of orange trees visible above the walls. The floor, tiled in a hexagonal pattern, is rigorously foreshortened. Signed on the lower step of the throne with the words: ‘O Mother of God have mercy on me’.
The picture is remarkable for its unusual combination of blond colours, delicate pinks and greens and blues. It was painted for the high altar of the ancient little Olivetan church of Santa Lucia dei Magnoli in the Via de’ Bardi. (St Francis is said to have visited a leper colony near the site of the church, and this might explain the saint's presence in the altarpiece.) The walls of the chapel had already been frescoed by Bicci di Lorenzo with scenes from the life of St Lucy. Vasari says that the altarpiece was painted shortly before Domenico’s death (in 1461), but modern critics have usually dated it around the mid-1440s. Because of a misreading of Vasari, it was ascribed for centuries to Castagno, and it was only in the early nineteenth century that the signature was deciphered and the picture was returned to its rightful author. The picture may have been commissioned by or for the Uzzano, a rich merchant family who were patrons of the high altar of Santa Lucia.
The altarpiece probably remained in situ until the early eighteenth century, when it was moved to the sacristy and then to the third altar on the right of the nave. It was badly restored after it was brought to the Uffizi, without its predella, in 1862. (The distinguished Italian art historian Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle complained that it had been subjected to 'so disgraceful a cleaning and to so many retouchings as to lose much of its quality'.) The five predella panels are now divided between Berlin, Cambridge and Washington. All the surviving panels of the altarpiece were brought together for an exhibition at the Uffizi in 1992. The main panel, which was restored in 1962 and 1996, was under restoration again in late 2020/early 2021 to prevent cracking along the joins in the wooden support.
Florence. Santa Croce. Museo dell’Opera.
*St John the Baptist and St Francis. Detached fresco, 194 x 108.
The fresco was originally in the Cavalcanti Chapel, located towards the end of the right aisle of Santa Croce. It was on the right wall, formed by the back of the early fourteenth-century tramezzo (rood screen) that once divided the church. The low viewpoint suggests that it was placed high, the lower edge perhaps two metres or more above the floor. When the tramezzo was demolished in 1566 during Vasari’s remodelling of the church, the fresco was saved with its support, and inserted into the side wall, to the right of Donatello’s Annunciation which had been left in situ. It was transferred to the museum after flood damage in 1966. Sixteenth-century writers ascribed the fresco to Piero Pollaiuolo (Albertini) or Castagno (Billi, the Anonimo Magliabecchiano and Vasari). The attribution to Domenico was made in 1873 by Bode, and has been widely accepted. The two full-length figures closely resemble the St John and St Francis in the St Lucy Altarpiece, but appear rather older and more rugged. The fresco is usually dated to the 1450s, and often considered Domenico’s latest surviving work. There are various reasons why the Cavalcanti family should have chosen these two saints as the subject of the fresco. John the Baptist was the patron of Florence and the name saint of Giovanni di Amerigo Cavalcanti, whose three sons were patrons of the chapel. While Francis could have been included simply because Santa Croce is a Franciscan church, the saint might also refer to the patrons’ grandmother Francesca Acciaiuoli, who left an annuity of one hundred florins for the friars to hold remembrance services for the family.
Florence. Cenacolo di Sant’Apollonia.
Fragments from a fresco of the Marriage of the Virgin.
A section of the sinopia shows a human figure, sketched as if naked, and meticulously drawn perspectival lines. A strip from the bottom of the painted fresco shows just the feet of some figures, above simulated marble panelling. These scanty fragments were salvaged in 1938-39 from the west wall of the choir of the small church of Sant’Egidio in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. The wall was frescoed in 1439-45 by Domenico Veneziano (assisted by Piero della Francesca and Bicci di Lorenzo) with three scenes from the Life of the Virgin (the Meeting at the Golden Gate; Birth; and Marriage). Alesso Baldovinetti completed one of the scenes in 1461, and Andrea Castagno painted three companion scenes on the opposite wall. The frescoes were partly destroyed as early as 1594, when the choir was renovated.
Florence (Settignano). Villa I Tatti.
*Madonna. Wood, 86 x 62.
The seated Child reaches eagerly up to take a sprig of tiny pears from the Virgin's fingers. The background is incised and stamped in gold to resemble precious damask. Berenson acquired the picture in 1900 from the Marchesa Marianna Paulucci Panciatichi Ximenes d'Aragona, a Tuscan aristocrat and distinguished naturalist. He took it as his fee when he was invited to value the old and famous collection of paintings in her palazzo on the Borgo Pinti, Florence. (Officials at the Uffizi tried to block the acquisition, but eventually settled for an agreement that gave the family half the profits should the painting ever be sold.) In the Panciatichi collection, it was described as a work of Piero della Francesca. Berenson attributed it to Alessio Baldovinetti at first, although Crowe and Cavalcaselle had already tentatively suggested the name of Domenico Veneziano in the German version of their History of Painting in Italy. The picture is exceptionally well preserved. Berenson gave it pride of place in his collection, hanging it in his study against a panel of green silk. In his 1980 monograph, Hellmut Wohl called it 'one of the most beautiful devotional pictures of the Quattrocento'. It has been tentatively suggested that the picture could have been painted for a member of the Florentine Peruzzi family, whose crest incorporates golden pears.
Le Mans. Musée de Tessé.
Saint Jerome. Wood, 65 x 51.
The saint, wearing his cardinal's scarlet robes and with his tasseled hat hanging from the capital on the right, stands in a curved niche writing in a book. The picture was given to the Louvre in 1938 by the widow of the Paris-based American painter Walter Gay. It was placed on loan with the Le Mans museum in 1956. The attribution to Domenico Veneziano is fairly recent and has not won general support. It was made by Luciano Belllosi in 1992, when the picture was included in the Una Scuola per Piero exhibition held at the Uffizi. The museum has retained the old attribution to Baldassarre di Biagio – a minor fifteenth-century Florentine painter, active chiefly at Lucca.
London. National Gallery.
Madonna and Child. Fresco (transferred to canvas), 241 x 121.
The Virgin, larger than life-size, is seated on a throne inlaid with marble decoration ('Cosmati work'). The naked Christ Child, standing on her knee, raises his right hand in blessing. The dove of the Holy Spirit hovers overhead, released by a foreshortened God the Father, who has golden rays coming out of his mouth. Signed on the steps of the throne. The fresco is very damaged, the canvas showing through in places. It was originally in an outside tabernacle attached to a house on the Canto de’ Carnesecchi, near the Piazza Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Vasari says that the tabernacle was painted in Domenico’s ‘first days’ in Florence and ‘before he had done anything else’ (though modern critics have dated it variously between 1430 and 1455). The tabernacle was probably made for Bernardo di Cristoforo Carnesecchi, a rich merchant, who built the house in the 1430s to rent out to members of the court of Pope Eugenius IV (then resident in Florence). The fresco was bought from the Marchesa Marianna Ventura by Prince Ercole Pio di Savoia in 1851, and removed from the wall and transferred to canvas in the same year. Acquired in 1865 for £320 by Lord Lindsay, whose son presented it to the National Gallery in 1886.
Two Heads of Saints. Fragments of fresco (transferred to tile), each 45 x 35.
Originally the heads of full-length figures at the sides of the Madonna and Child. (The remaining parts of the two figures, being 'almost destroyed by time', were left on the wall when the fresco fragments were detached.) The bearded saint with the book may be Benedict. The other saint, clean-shaven and with short hair, could be Nicholas of Tolentino. The two heads are almost entirely repainted – though the original outlines appear to have been followed. The blue backgrounds are later additions. Bought by Sir Charles Eastlake in 1862 for £27 10s each.
Norfolk (Virginia). Chrysler Museum.
Michele Olivieri. Wood, 48 x 34.
There is a companion portrait of Matteo Olivieri (Michele’s father) in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. The inscriptions identifying the sitters are old, though not necessarily original. If they are genuine, the portraits could not have been done from life (since Michele, who appears a mere youth, was born in the 1370s). The portraits were often attributed to Uccello at one time. The attribution to Domenico was first proposed by Berenson in the 1932 edition of his Lists. It is often accepted, although both portraits are in poor condition and they have sometimes been considered studio works or copies. Miklós Boskovits (in an entry in the 2003 catalogue of the fifteenth-century Italian paintings at Washington) thinks they are rather by an artist from Filippo Lippi’s circle, such as the young Francesco Pesellino or the ‘Master of the Castello Nativity’. Formerly in the J. D. Rockefeller collection, New York; acquired in 1975.
Washington. National Gallery.
*Madonna and Child. Wood, 83 x 57.
The Virgin and Child are shown against a bush of red and white roses, symbolising Christ's Passion and the Virgin's purity. The attribution is established by the resemblance to the Madonna in the St Lucy Altarpiece. It has been unanimously accepted since the picture first came to notice in the Italian Art exhibition in London in 1930. The picture seems to have been owned, in the early nineteenth century, by the aristocratic Anglo-Irish inventor Richard Lovell Edgeworth of Longford, Ireland. It was inherited by his daughter, the novelist Maria Edgeworth, and remained with the Edgeworth family until the 1920s, when it was sold to the German dealer Julius Böhler. Acquired by Samuel H. Kress from Duveen in 1936. In a restoration of 1991-92, a grey-violet loincloth (possibly painted by Domenico himself) was removed from the Child, who now appears naked.
*St John the Baptist in the Desert. Wood, 29 x 33.
The young Baptist sheds his worldly clothes and puts on the camel skin prepared for him by angels. The pose of the beautifully painted nude youth may derive from a Roman sarcophagus showing Hercules and Diomedes in combat. The panel was discovered by Bernard Berenson in the early 1900s and was once in his own collection at Settignano. It was given by his wife Mary to a wealthy young American Carl H. Hamilton, with whom she had formed a romantic attachment. (When Berenson heard of the gift, he flew into ‘an unreasonable and undignified rage’.) It was acquired by Kress in 1942.
*St Francis receiving the Stigmata. Wood, 27 x 31.
St Francis, kneeling on the mountainside at La Verna, receives the stigmata (wounds in his hands, feet and side) from a winged seraph appearing in the sky in the form of the crucified Christ. Brother Leo, the eyewitness of the miraculous event, shields his eyes from the radiance. Berenson (1925) was the first to recognise that this panel and the St John the Baptist in the Desert were parts of the predella of the St Lucy Altarpiece. They were on the left, beneath the figures of St Francis and the Baptist in the main panel. They were probably left in the little church of Santa Lucia dei Magnoli when the main panel was taken to the Uffizi in 1862. The St Francis receiving the Stigmata was bought by Alessandro Contini Bonacossi (on the recommendation of Roberto Longhi) in 1921 from the dealer Julius Böhler of Munich and acquired by Kress in 1933. Other parts of the predella are at Berlin and Cambridge. Both Washington panels are somewhat abraded and retouched (in both cases, the sky has been repainted).
Matteo Olivieri. Fabric (transferred), 48 x 34.
Transferred from panel in the 1920s and badly abraded in places. This portrait, and its (somewhat better-preserved) companion of Michele Olivieri in the Chrysler Museum at Norfolk, are the only portraits now widely attributed to Domenico. The 2003 catalogue of the fifteenth-century Italian paintings in the gallery classes it simply as ‘fifteenth-century Florentine school’. Once owned by Stefano Bardini, the famous Florentine antiquarian and collector; bought by Duveen in 1924; and exhibited, as part of the Mellon collection, at the National Gallery since 1941. The gilded ‘Renaissance’ frame with sgraffito decoration is not original but was made in about 1927-28 by Duveen's Italian framemaker, Ferruccio Vannoni.