Apollonio di Giovanni (Italian, Florence 1415 [or 1417] - 1465 Florence)
Battle between the Athenians and the Persians, Cassone Panel, 1463
Tempera and oil with gold and silver leaf on wood
Inscriptions: far left, TEMI...; left, PERICLES; center, CIMON; right, SERSES
16 1/4 x 60 3/4 in. (41.2 x 154.3 cm)
R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund, 1943
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This decorative cassone painting represents the invasion of Greece by Xerxes in the early 5th century B.C., as imagined by a fifteenth-century Florentine. Although now somewhat abraded, the painting was once resplendent with brilliant hues, as well as tooled silver and gold leaf. The first cassone panel to be securely connected to the shop of Apollonio di Giovanni and Marco del Buono [Giamberti], it has since been attributed to Apollonio alone.
In fifteenth-century Florence the most successful shop for cassone painting was that of Marco del Buono and Apollonio di Giovanni. The records from their shop survive and show that paintings were made there for over 170 pairs of cassoni.1 Stechow (1944) determined from the coats-of-arms present in the Oberlin painting that it must have been commissioned in conjunction with a wedding of members of the Rucellai and Vettori families. Only one marriage between the families occurred in the fifteenth century: Caterina Ruccellai married Piero Francesco di Paolo Vettori in 1463. An entry in the account book of Marco del Buono and Apollonio di Giovanni records a commission on their behalf and states that the price was 50 florins. The date and price of the Oberlin panel is thus recorded.2
The Rucellai and Vettori were both important Florentine families. Caterina's father, Giovanni Rucellai (1403-1481), was a patron of the architect Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), and a key ally to the Medici. The bridegroom, Pietro di Francesco Vettori, was ambassador to Ferdinand of Aragon in Naples in 1489, and in the same year became governor of San Miniato al Tedesco; he too was an ally of the Medici. Caterina Rucellai and Pietro Vettori had three sons, one of whom, Francesco (1474-1539) became a major statesman and historian in the early sixteenth century.3
The Oberlin panel depicts the defeat of Xerxes and the Persians at the hands of the Athenians, who are led by Cimon, Themistocles, and Pericles; these dramatis personae are identified on the panel by inscriptions. Although the image was inspired by the battles between the Persians and Athenians at Salamis and Marathon in the early fifth century B.C., it is not a literal recounting of these events--Pericles, for instance, had no role in the Persian Wars. It is likely that the immediate source for the representation is not Herodotus or another classical author, but rather Boccaccio, who relays the tale of Xerxes in De casibus virorium illustrium (1335-74) as a cautionary exemplum of hubris.4 Such images of the defeat of Persians and/or Turks increased in popularity in late fifteenth-century Italy, no doubt as a response to the sacking of Constantinople in 1453 and the threat of invasion of Italy by the Ottomans.5
The Oberlin panel first surfaced at the sale of the Toscanelli collection in Florence in 1883 (see Provenance). It was one of six paintings, two front panels and four end panels, that had been detached from a pair of cassoni. The other front panel in the set (lot 58) featured The Triumph of Themistocles and Cimon; this work was unfortunately destroyed during World War II.6
The two end panels, or testate, that came from the same cassone as the Oberlin panel are described in the 1883 sale catalogue (lot 57) as follows: 1) two mounted knights in combat, while a young couple on horseback watches, the lady of the couple holding a falcon perched on her hand; and 2) five horsemen fighting before a castle at whose window appear a king, a queen, and a young girl. The testate belonging with the now lost panel (lot 58) depicted: 1) a young couple in a chariot with a canopy, followed by two Moors on horseback; and 2) three women collecting fruits and flowers and in the background a building with two persons at the window.7 Thus, on both cassoni, the front panel depicted a scene from classical history while the side panels represented incidents from contemporary chivalric literature. The combination of chivalric and classical may seem surprising today, but it was a standard element of the culture of the early Renaissance.8
Although the painting had previously been considered a joint workshop production, Gombrich determined that Apollonio di Giovanni rather than Marco del Buono was the sole author of the Oberlin panel, based on two considerations.9 First, the style of the picture is wholly consistent with a group of works by an artist who at the beginning of this century was known variously as the Dido Master or the Virgil Master. The key works in this group are a pair of cassone fronts with scenes from the Aeneid, now in the Yale University Art Gallery (Jarves Collection); and an illuminated manuscript of the Aeneid in the Biblioteca Riccardiana, Florence. Second, Gombrich discovered that the Florentine poet and chronicler Ugolino Verrino praised Apollonio di Giovanni specifically for his representations of scenes from the Aeneid. It therefore seems all but certain that Apollonio di Giovanni should be identified with the Virgil Master, and that this master was the artist of the Oberlin panel.
Apollonio di Giovanni di Tommaso was born in Florence in 1415 or perhaps 1417. In 1442, he joined the doctors and apothecaries' guild (to which artists also belonged), and in 1443 he became a member of the painters' professional association, the compania di San Luca. He and Marco del Buono [Giamberti] (1402-1489) formed a partnership by 1446, and together they ran the most successful shop for cassone painting in fifteenth-century Florence. Apollonio was also active as a manuscript illuminator and fresco painter. He died in Florence in September 1465.
Callmann, Ellen. Apollonio di Giovanni. Oxford, 1974.
Callmann, Ellen. In The Dictionary of Art. Edited by Jane Turner. Vol. 2. London and New York, 1996, pp. 228-29.
Collection Pier Francesco Vettori, Florence (1464-?)
Collection Giuseppe Toscanelli, Pisa
Sale G. Toscanelli, Florence, 5-8 April 1883, lot 57 (as from the Villa della Magia)
A. Werner, Vienna
Collection E. Weinberger, Vienna 1923-29
Sale E. Weinberger, Vienna, 22-24 October 1929, lot 456 (as by the "Anghiari Master")
With Paul Drey Gallery, New York, from whom purchased in 1943
Schubring, Paul. Cassoni, Truhen und Truhenbilder der italienischen Frührenaissance. Leipzig, 1915, pp. 111, 282, 430ff., nos. 277-79.
Stechow, Wolfgang. "Marco del Buono and Apollonio di Giovanni, Cassone Painters." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 1 (1944), pp. 5-21.
Gombrich, Ernst H. "Apollonio di Giovanni: A Florentine cassone workshop seen through the eyes of a humanist poet." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 18 (1955), pp. 16-34. Reprinted in idem, Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance. London, 1966, pp. 11-28.
Stechow, Wolfgang. Catalogue of European and American Paintings and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College. Oberlin, 1967, pp. 7-9, fig. 1.
Watson, Paul. "Apollonio di Giovanni and Ancient Athens." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 37, no. 1 (1979-80), pp. 3-23.
Degenhart, Bernhard, and Annegrit Schmitt. Corpus der italienischen Handzeichnungen, 1300-1450. Vol. 2. Berlin, 1968, pp. 561-65.
Callmann, Ellen. Apollonio di Giovanni. Oxford, 1973, pp. 2, 3, 16, 20-23, 26, 33, 45, 49, 50, 56-57, 61-62, 71, cat. no. 8, pls. 2, 52, 135, 143, 232, 246.
Kanter, Laurence B. Italian Paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston I: 13th - 15th Century. Boston, 1994, p. 152.
Originally a panel on the front of a cassone, the painting was probably cut down when it was removed. The 4.2 cm-thick wood support is poplar, most probably Populus Alba, commonly known as white poplar.10 There is a 1.2 cm-wide strip of wood (0.32 cm thick) applied to the front of the panel all along the perimeter.
The paint is tempera and oil applied over a gesso ground with possible glazes in an oil medium. The pigments include azurite, lead yellow, copper green, vermilion, and madder. Some armor, now black with oxidation, is almost certainly in silver leaf, which was applied over a red bole. Gold leaf is also present on the trappings on the horses and armor.
There are many small and large losses of ground and paint, some of which have been filled and inpainted. There are several horizontal splits in the wood support as well as slight damage to the wood from worming.
1. Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Florence: MS Magliabechiano, XXXVII, 305; published most recently in Ellen Callmann, Apollonio di Giovanni (Oxford, 1974), app. I, pp. 27-79; previously published, with errors, by Paul Schubring, Cassoni, Truhen und Truhenbilder der italienischen Frührenaissance (Leipzig, 1915), pp. 430ff.
2. Wolfgang Stechow, "Marco del Buono and Apollonio di Giovanni, Cassone Painters," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 1 (1944), pp. 5-21. Ellen Callmann (Apollonio di Giovanni [Oxford, 1974], p. 26) notes that this price was higher than usual in the shop.
3. Wolfgang Stechow, "Marco del Buono and Apollonio di Giovanni, Cassone Painters," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 1 (1944), pp. 11-13.
4. Ernst H. Gombrich, "Apollonio di Giovanni: A Florentine cassone workshop seen through the eyes of a humanist poet," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 18 (1955), pp. 16-34; reprinted in Ernst H. Gombrich, Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (London, 1966), pp. 22-23.
5. For a different view, see Ellen Callmann, Apollonio di Giovanni (Oxford, 1974), p. 50.
6. A pre-World War II photograph of this lost work is published in Ellen Callmann, Apollonio di Giovanni (Oxford, 1974), pl. 53.
7. Callmann discovered paintings featured in a sale at Sotheby's London, 30 June 1965, that she suggests probably represent these testate; their locations are now unknown, but she publishes the photographs in Apollonio di Giovanni (Oxford, 1974), cat. no. 20, pl. 117-21.
8. Andrew Butterfield, "Social Structure and the Typology of Funerary Monuments in Early Renaissance Florence," RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 26 (Autumn 1994), pp. 47-67.
9. Ernst H. Gombrich, "Apollonio di Giovanni: A Florentine cassone workshop seen through the eyes of a humanist poet," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 18 (1955), pp. 16-34; reprinted in Ernst H. Gombrich, Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (London, 1966), pp. 11-28.
10. See letter in museum files dated 4 September 1997 from George Bisacca, Paintings Conservation Department, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, to Jenny Wilker. We would like to thank Mr. Bisacca for performing an analysis of a sample of the wood, and also Andrea Chevalier, Paintings Conservator, Intermuseum Laboratory, for obtaining the sample.