CastagnoAndrea 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 the small church of Sant’Egidio, which functioned as the chapel of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. The cycle, commissioned by the Portinari family, had been started by Domenico Veneziano in 1439-45 and was completed by Baldovinetti in 1461. It once surrounded Hugo van der Goes's famous Portinari Triptych (now in the Uffizi) and was destroyed in the seventeenth century.
There is contestable evidence – the record of a payment to 'Andreino da Firenze' for work in the Vatican Palace – that Castagno was in Rome in 1454. 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 posthumous 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).
At least two thirds of Castagno's paintings mentioned in early sources are lost. His principal surviving works are frescoes in Florence: the Niccolò da Tolentino in the Cathedral; the Famous Men and Women (rediscovered in 1847 and now at the Uffizi); the Passion cycle at Sant'Apollonia (largely inaccessible until 1891); and two frescoed altarpieces at Santissima Annunziata (hidden behind later pictures until the turn of the twentieth century). The frescoes show the influence of Donatello, powerful draughtsmanship, and an uncompromising realism, with sinewy and strongly sculptured figures. There is a documented altarpiece at Berlin, but very few other undisputed panel pictures survive. (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.)
*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.
*Famous Men and Women. Frescoes (transferred to canvas), each about 250 x 155.
Three of the men represented are Florentine soldiers: Pippo Spano (who fought the Turks as a condottiere in the service of King Sigismund of Hungary); Farinata degli Uberti (who spared the city of Florence after the defeat of the Guelphs at Montaperti in 1260); and Niccolò Acciaiuolo (who served the Angevin KIngs of Naples as both banker and soldier). The other three men are the major Tuscan writers of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance: Dante (whose Divine Comedy was written in Tuscan dialect); Petrarch (known today for his sonnets, but esteemed by contemporaries for his study of Roman literature and history); and Boccaccio (remembered for the earthy tales of the Decameron, written in Tuscan, but also, like Petrarch, a pioneer of humanist scholarship). Five of the six men's heads appear to be actual portraits based on earlier likenesses. The three women represented are heroines of classical myth, the Old Testament and ancient history: the Cumaean Sibyl (who holds a book of Sibylline prophecies and points towards Heaven); Queen Esther (the beautiful Jewish wife of the Persian King Ahasuerus); and Tomyris (the legendary Queen of the Massagetae, who defeated and killed the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great).
The nine larger-then-life-size figures decorated the loggia of a villa (later the Villa Pandolfini) at Legnaia, just outside Florence. The frescoes were presumably commissioned by Filippo Carducci, the villa's owner, who died in 1449, or a member of his family, and they are assumed to have been completed before October 1451, when the villa was sold. The figures were arranged along a single wall in three groups of three. Eight are full-length, and were shown as though standing in niches of coloured marble separated by classical pilasters. The Esther is half-length and was situated above a central door.
The frescoes were rediscovered under whitewash around 1847, when the villa was owned by the Marchese Giorgio Teodoro Trivulzio. They were successfully detached from the wall by the Emilian restorer Giovanni Rizzoli using the new strappo technique (which involved removing the paint layer alone by gluing a canvas onto the surface of the paint, peeling the paint off, and then reattaching it to a new canvas support). They were sold in 1852 to Leopold II of Tuscany, stored initially at the Uffizi, and then housed in the Bargello and (after 1891) the Castagno Museum at Sant’Apollonia. They were removed from the Castagno Museum after the 1966 flood and transferred to the Uffizi in 1969. The frescoes are now housed in the ground floor gallery that incorporates the old church of San Pier Scheraggio. (Since 2004, that part of the Uffizi has not generally been accessible to the public.)
The Dante was restored in 2021 for the exhibition held in Forlì to mark the 700th anniversary of the poet's death. Restoration of the other frescoes is planned to follow.
Some other remains of Castagno's decorations in the former loggia of the Legnaia villa survive in situ. On the short wall at one end, there are frescoes (uncovered in the early twentieth century) of the Madonna and Child, in a lunette above a door, between full-length figures of Adam and Eve. The Madonna and Child and figure of Adam are ruined, but the Eve is largely intact.
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. Two plunging, upside-down angels hold up a richly patterned cloth of honour behind the Virgin and Child. St John the Baptist stands on the left and St Jerome on the right. The little boy on the left, holding a vase of flowers, 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, holding a wreath, is probably his sister Oretta (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 were transferred to the Uffizi from the Pitti Palace in 1993, but have only been integrated into the general collection since March 2018.)
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.
*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. The frescoes were cleaned in 2000 and again in 2022.
Deposition. Stained glass window, 480 in dia.
The dead Christ, lying across the Virgin's knees at the foot of the cross, is mourned by four Holy Women (including the fair-haired Magdalen kneeling on the left), Nicodemus (holding a lily and gazing towards heaven) and Joseph of Arimathea (holding Christ's right arm and kissing his fingers). 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 of 50 lire for the design of the Deposition, on the northernmost window of the drum, on 26 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 (detached), 300 x 179.
An ecstatic St Jerome, holding the bloody stone with which he had been beating his breast in penitence, sees a vision of the Trinity above his head. An acutely foreshortened crucified Christ is supported by God the Father, while the dove of the Holy Spirit hovers over his head. Jerome's lion roars at the vision. The two heavily draped female saints, formerly identified as Mary Magdalene and Mary of Egypt, are probably 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. Castagno's frescoed altarpiece 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. The lower part of the fresco was damaged by the 1966 flood. When, during the subsequent restoration, the fresco was lifted from the wall, a sinopia was revealed differing markedly in composition from the finished fresco.
Saint Julian the Hospitaller. Fresco, 210 x 178.
The mythical St Julian killed his own parents when he was deceived by the Devil into thinking they were his wife and another man in bed. He is represented, arms crossed on his chest, receiving absolution from a youthful, beardless Saviour holding a globe. In the upper right background, he prays at his parents' tomb. The hospital for the poor he built in penance is shown to the left. The fresco was discovered during building work in 1857 behind an altarpiece by Johann Carl Loth (Carlo Lotto) and uncovered in 1903. The lower part (with the hunting dog admired by Vasari) was destroyed either in the late seventeenth century, when the whole chapel was remodelled in an extravagant Baroque style, or in 1857, when the present altar was constructed. 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 di Filippo da Gagliano, a merchant and banker. Restored in 1954 and cleaned in 1998.
Loth's painting of the Death of St Joseph has been recently returned to the chapel, and Castagno's fresco is now again normally hidden. (The altarpiece has been fitted with a hinge, allowing the fresco to be shown on request.)
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.
Rome Vatican. Bibliotheca Graeca.
Painted architectural decorations.
The case for attributing these classicizing, illusionistic architectural decorations to Castagno was made by Toby Yuen in the 1970 Burlington Magazine. It is documented that on 16 October 1454 'm[aestr]o Andreino da Firenze pint[ore]' and six assistants were paid 15 ducats and 4 bolomini for seventy-six days work in the Vatican Palace. However, 'Andreino da Firenze' is not necessarily Castagno, and the record of payment does not specify whereabouts in the Vatican the work was done. Horster (1980) agreed with Yuen's attribution. Spencer (1991) was doubtful. As no figures are represented, any judgement on grounds of style is very difficult.
Venice. San Marco (left transept). Cappella dei Mascoli.
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 (pointing and holding his usual scroll); the Four Evangelists (Matthew with a diminutive angel, Mark with his lion, Luke with his bull and John with his eagle); God the Father (blessing and holding an orb); and St Zacharias (father of the Baptist). The frescoes were 'discovered' only in 1920 (when they were published by Giuseppe Fiocco in the weekly Florentine art and literary magazine Il Marzocco). An inscription reveals that they were completed in August 1442 and executed by Castagno (Andras de Floretia) in collaboration with a certain Francesco da Faenza (Franciscus de Favetia). They are Castagno’s earliest dated works.
While Castagno is generally thought to have been largely responsible for the vault frescoes, the putti and busts of Old Testament Prophets and St Benedict on the soffit of the chancel arch are usually assumed to be mainly the work of the otherwise unknown Francesco da Faenza. (The prophets – Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, Daniel, Hosea, Abraham and David – display scrolls with identifying inscriptions, while St Benedict holds a scourge of birch twigs.)
The chapel is exceedingly damp (at high tide salt water floods the crypt below), and the frescoes, unsurprisingly, are in poor condition. There were restorations in 1929, 1955-56, 1970-71 and 1994. A new restoration was underway in 2023.
Washington. National Gallery.
*Triumph of David. Leather (mounted on wood), 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 large, oddly shaped (trapezoidal) painting on leather is a rare surviving example of a painted ceremonial shield. The patron and reason for the commission are unknown, but the shield was presumably made for a public celebration of some kind. Held on the arm by a leather sleeve, it may have been carried before a joust or tournament or during a religious procession or parade. The representation of David on a shield may allude to a prayer attributed to King David himself: 'He is my shield, and the horn of my salvation' (II Samuel 22: 3).
The painting, once ascribed to Antonio Pollaiuolo, was first attributed to Castagno by Bernard Berenson in the second edition of his Florentine Painters (1899). It is usually considered a relatively late work, painted around the time of the Berlin Assumption (1449-50). It has been suggested that David’s striding stance is derived from a classical statue. (Similarities of pose have been observed with the Apollo Belvedere in the Vatican, the Pedagogue from the Hellenistic group of the Niobids in the Uffizi and the Dioscuri on the Quirinal, but only the last of these famous antique marbles was known when Castagno was painting.)
The David was bought in Italy by William Drury Lowe in 1852 for £6 13s. It remained in the Drury Lowe collection at Locko Park, Derbyshire, until 1912, when it was sold to Agnew’s for £2,000. It was acquired the following year by the Philadelphia businessman Peter A. B. Widener, whose son, Joseph E. Widener, donated it to the National Gallery in 1942. There are some paint losses, particularly in the blue sky, which are concealed by retouching. The varnish has greyed, and the colours would originally have appeared brighter. The poplar panel on which the leather is mounted has been thinned and cradled to correct warpage.
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.