Neri di Bicci (Italian, Florence 1419 - ca. 1491 unknown)
Altar Wing with Five Saints, ca. 1445
Tempera and gold on panel (poplar)
48 5/8 x 32 1/4 in. (123.5 x 81.9 cm)
Kress Study Collection, 1961
An altarpiece fragment from SS. Annunziata, one of the most prominent churches in Florence, Neri di Bicci's Five Saints documents a moment of transition between late Gothic and early Renaissance style in Florentine painting. It is among the earliest known works by this prolific artist, who would come to dominate the more conservative trends in Florentine art patronage during the third quarter of the fifteenth century.Arrayed in two rows across a fictive tile pavement are five full-length standing saints facing to the right. In the front row (from left to right) are Saints Margaret, identified by her attribute of a dragon coiled at her feet, John the Baptist, identified by his hair shirt and banderole inscribed "Ecce Agnus Dei" (Behold the Lamb of God), and James Major, identified by his pilgrim's staff and cockle shell. In the second row, filling the two arched cusps at the top of the panel, are Saints Bernard, identified by his Cistercian habit, and Matthew, identified by the open volume of Gospels that he holds.
A companion panel in the Galleria dell 'Academia, Florence,1 identical in size and shape to that at Oberlin, represents Saints Francis, Philip, Catherine, Albert the Great, and Jerome, similarly arrayed in two rows on a fictive tile pavement but facing left instead of right. These two panels formed the left and right (respectively) lateral wings to an altarpiece, the central panel of which was identified by Federico Zeri as a Madonna and Child Enthroned with Four Angels, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.2
Werner Cohn (1956) first recognized the Oberlin and Academia panels as surviving fragments of the altarpiece formerly in the Villani di Stoldo chapel in SS. Annunziata, Florence. His identification is based on the provenance of the Academia panel from that church and on the coincidence of the identities of the saints with the names of Jacopo Villani, his wife Margherita, and their six sons (Giovanni, Matteo, Bernardino, Filippo, Girolamo, and Alberto), as well as the dedication of the chapel to Saints James, Francis, and Catherine as specified in the will of the chapel's patron, Jacopo di Giovanni di Matteo Villani.3 A drawing of the elevation of the chapel made in 1675,4 showing the altarpiece in situ, confirms this identification, as well as the association of the Boston Madonna as the central panel of the complex.
Parronchi (1964) has identified the Oberlin and Academia panels instead as parts of the former high altarpiece of SS. Annunziata, commissioned from Ventura di Moro in 1449 to replace an earlier altarpiece--ascribed by Ghiberti in his Commentari to Taddeo Gaddi (ca. 1300-ca. 1366)--and removed in turn in 1505 to make room for the Deposition altarpiece by Filippino Lippi and Pietro Perugino (ca. 1445/50-1523).5 This identification may be dismissed on the basis of attribution (Ventura di Moro is now known to be a wholly distinct artistic personality),6 and on the exact conformity of the paintings' iconography with the specifications of Jacopo Villani's will.
The date of the Oberlin/Boston/Academia altarpiece may be deduced on circumstantial grounds as between 1444, when the Villani acquired rights over the chapel of Saint James in SS. Annunziata, and 1454, when Jacopo Villani's testament was drafted. As the testament endows the chapel and obliges his heirs to say mass there on the feasts of Saints James, Francis, and Catherine, but makes no mention of ordering a painted altarpiece, it must be presumed that the painting already existed at that time. Nor is there mention of the altarpiece in Neri di Bicci's Ricordanze, which begins in 1453. Stechow and Kanter both favor a date early in this period on stylistic grounds, seeing the strong influence of Neri di Bicci's father, Bicci di Lorenzo, on the figure style and spatial structure of the paintings.7 A date before 1450 may also be indicated by the inclusion of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in the Oberlin panel, instead of Saint Bernardino of Siena, as patron of Bernardino di Jacopo Villani. Though widely venerated earlier, Saint Bernardino was canonized only in 1450.
Born in 1419, Neri di Bicci inherited from his father, Bicci di Lorenzo (1373-1452), and grandfather, Lorenzo di Bicci (ca. 1350-2d decade, 15th century), one of the most successful and longest continually operative commercial workshops in Florence. Neri's earliest signed and dated work, at Canneto in the Val d'Elsa, is of 1452, the year of his father's death, but he may have been the actual if not the titular head of the family workshop for as much as a decade before that. His Gothic style appealed to the conservative taste of Florentine patrons and accounted in large part for the success of his family's workshop from the end of the fourteenth century, although he had introduced decorative and architectural motifs into his compositions derived from the leading artists of his time, such as Michelozzo, Fra Filippo Lippi (ca. 1406-1469), and Fra Angelico (ca. 1400-1455). Neri di Bicci's last dated painting, an altarpiece in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena, is of 1482. He may have continued to paint for a decade or more after that, but no notice of him later than 1491 has been preserved.
From 1453 to 1475, Neri maintained a workshop diary (Libro di Ricordanze) which documents an astonishing number of commissions for altarpieces and frescoes as well as painted household and luxury goods such as candelabra, coats of arms, wooden angels and crucifixes, stucco madonnas, tapestry designs, shop signs, etc., and lists no fewer than nineteen assistants who worked for him. The Libro di Ricordanze is an invaluable source of information on the system of Florentine workshop production in the fifteenth century, on the procedures of art consumption, and on the nature of the Florentine art market at the time. Art historians have traditionally regarded the Libro di Ricordanze as Neri di Bicci's most important work. His numerous surviving paintings, however, reveal him to have been an exceptionally accomplished craftsman and an able draftsman and colorist, if not an artist of singularly inventive inspiration.
Santi, Bruno, ed. Neri di Bicci: Le Ricordanze. Pisa, 1976.
Frosinini, Cecilia. "Il passaggio di gestione in una bottega pittorica fiorentina del primo '400: Bicci di Lorenzo e Neri di Bicci, 2." Antichita Viva 26, no. 1 (1987), pp. 5-13.
Santi, Bruno. In The Dictionary of Art. Edited by Jane Turner. Vol. 22. London and New York, 1996, pp. 797-803.
Villani di Stoldo chapel, SS. Annunziata, Florence, until 16889
Pinacoteca Vaticana, before catalog of 1870 (?)
Collection Sterbini, Rome (?)
Collection Newman, Florence (?)10
Collection Contini-Bonacossi, Florence
Collection Samuel H. Kress, New York, 1933
Given to the museum in 1961
Atlanta, High Museum of Art, 1932. An Exhibition of Italian Paintings from the Collection of Samuel H. Kress. October (traveling exhibition concluded at Charlotte, N.C., Mint Museum of Art,1935.) Cat. p. 14.
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, 1941-52. Permanent exhibition.
Del Migliore, F. L. Firenze citta nobilissima. Florence, 1684, p. 282.
Tonini, P. Il Santuario della SS. Annunziata di Firenze. Florence, 1876, p. 132.
Berenson, Bernard. Pitture italiane del rinascimento. Milan, 1936, p. 333.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Preliminary Catalogue. 1941, no. 235.
Paatz, W. and E. Paatz. Die Kirchen von Florenz. Vol. 3, Frankfurt, 1952, p. 76 n. 248.
Cohn, Werner. "Notizie storiche intorno ad alcune tavole fiorentine del trecento e quattrocento." Rivista d'arte 31, ser. 3, vol. 6 (1956), pp. 61-65.
Stechow, Wolfgang. "The Samuel H. Kress Study Colleciton Catalogue." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 19, no. 1 (Fall 1961), pp. 9-13.
Stechow, Wolfgang. "Neri di Bicci: A Correction." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 19, no. 2 (Winter 1962), p. 102.
Casalini, Eugenio-Maria. "Una tavola di Taddeo Gaddi già alla ss.ma Annunziata di Firenze." Studi storici sull'Ordine dei Servi di Maria 12 (1962), pp. 61-63, 67-69.
Berenson, Bernard. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance, Florentine School. Vol. 1, London, 1963, p. 156.
Parronchi, A. Studi su la dolce prospettiva. Milan, 1964, p. 131 n.
Shapley, Fern R. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: Italian Schools XIII-XV Century. Vol. 1. London, 1966, pp. 112-13.
Stechow, Wolfgang. Catalogue of European and American Paintings and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College. Oberlin, 1967, pp. 117-18, fig. 8.
Zeri, Federico. "Neri di Bicci: Reintegrazione di un dipinto già nella SS. Annunziata di Firenze." Antologia di Belle Arti 4, nos. 13/14 (1980), pp. 131-33.
Early Italian Paintings and Works of Art 1300-1480. Exh. cat., Matthiesen Fine Art Ltd., London, 1983, p. 49.
Sutton, Denys. "Piety and Restraint: Two Centuries of Italian Art in London." Apollo 118 (1983), p. 99.
Frosinini, Cecilia. "Il passaggio di gestione in una bottega pittorica fiorentina del primo '400: Bicci di Lorenzo e Neri di Bicci, 2." Antichita Viva 26, no. 1 (1987), pp. 7, 13.
Kanter, Laurence B. Italian Paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston I: 13th - 15th Century. Boston, 1994, pp. 147, 149.
Santi, Bruno. In The Dictionary of Art. Edited by Jane Turner. Vol. 22. London and New York, 1996, p. 798.
Thomas, Anabel. "Neri di Bicci's Assumption of the Virgin for S. Trinita, Florence: Squaring the Pyramid," Apollo 146 (August 1997), p. 46.
The painting is in remarkably good condition. There is a vertical split to the right of center of the panel, and another approximately 2.5 cm (1 inch) from the left edge; losses associated with these areas have been filled, inpainted, and/or regilt. There are several small holes in Saint Margaret's face, in the back of Saint John's head and in the halo just above his shoulder; and minimal scattered losses from flaking. The gold ground of the background is well preserved, but gilding in the floor is abraded, revealing the red bolus, and much of the mordant gilt decoration at the edges of the draperies has been lost. The tempera paint is applied with thin, hatched strokes; building up of layers permitted some areas of wet-in-wet modeling. Glazes are applied in broader strokes, using an oil or resin medium.
The panel was cradled in 1934; in 1961, the vertical members of the cradle were thinned to allow the wood greater movement. The painting was cleaned in 1961, and the losses filled and inpainted. The original frame and spandrel decorations have been removed. The present frame is slightly wider, and exposed edges of the panel have been filled and inpainted.
1. Tempera on panel, 123.5 x 81.9 cm, inv. 3470.
2. Tempera on panel, 155.9 x 93.6 cm, inv. 1983.300; F. Zeri, "Neri di Bicci: reintegrazione di un dipinto gia nella SS. Annunziata di Firenze," Antologia di Belle Arti 4, nos. 13/14 (1980), pp. 131-33; Laurence B. Kanter, Italian Paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston I: 13th - 15th Century (Boston, 1994), pp. 147-49.
3. Werner Cohn, "Notizie storiche intorno ad alcune tavole fiorentine del trecento e quattrocento," Rivista d'arte 31, ser. 3, vol. 6 (1956), pp. 61-65. Cohn incorrectly transcribed the text of Villani's testament to suggest that his chapel was dedicated to SS. James, Mark, and Catherine, leaving Cohn unable to account for the presence of Saint Francis in the foreground of the Academia panel. The correct text is reprinted in Eugenio-Maria Casalini, "Una tavola di Taddeo Gaddi già alla ss.ma Annunziata di Firenze," Studi storici sull'Ordine dei Servi di Maria 12 (1962), p. 67 n. 33.
4. Published in Eugenio-Maria Casalini, "Una tavola di Taddeo Gaddi già alla ss.ma Annunziata di Firenze,"Studi storici sull'Ordine dei Servi di Maria 12 (1962), p. 68. The altarpiece was removed from the chapel in or shortly after 1688; see Provenance and note 9 below.
5. Alessandro Parronchi, Studi du la dolce prospettiva (Milan, 1964), p. 131.
6. For Ventura di Moro, known to Parronchi only through documents, see Ugo Procacci, "Di Jacopo d'Antonio e delle compagnie di pittori del Corso degli Adimari nel XV secolo," Rivista d'arte ser. 3, vol. 11 (1961), pp. 52-53, and Laurence B. Kanter, Italian Paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston I: 13th - 15th Century(Boston, 1994), pp. 138-41, 149. Casalini believed that the altarpiece shown in the 1675 drawing of the Villani di Stoldo chapel was that attributed by Ghiberti (Commentari, ed. O. Morisani , pp. 34-35) to Taddeo Gaddi; Eugenio-Maria Casalini, "Una tavola di Taddeo Gaddi già alla ss.ma Annunziata di Firenze," Studi storici sull'Ordine dei Servi di Maria 12 (1962), pp. 61-63.
7. Wolfgang Stechow, Catalogue of European and American Paintings and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin, 1967), pp. 117-18; and Laurence B. Kanter, Italian Paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston I: 13th - 15th Century (Boston, 1994), p. 149.
8. This biography is reprinted with the permission of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from Laurence B. Kanter, Italian Paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston I: 13th - 15th Century (Boston, 1994), p. 147.
9. The altarpiece was removed from the chapel in or shortly after 1688, when patronage rights passed to the Guadagni family, and reinstalled in the Capitolo de'Macinghi in SS. Annunziata. In 1700 it was transferred to a room next to the upper sacristy in the church, and from there to the stanza della Barberia (a newly built dormitory room) two years later. In 1706 it was moved to the stanza del Professato where it remained until at least 1765. It is not listed among the paintings collected from the monastery in 1789 and exhibited in the Gallery established in the atrium of the Annunziata library. See E. M. Casalini, "Per una tavola di Taddeo Gaddi gia all'Annunziata," Studi storici sull'Ordine dei Servi di Maria 12 (1962), pp. 61-63.
10. The presence of the Oberlin panel in the Vatican, Sterbini, and Newman collections is reported in The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Preliminary Catalogue, 1941, no. 235, but is unconfirmed.