PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED EAST COAST COLLECTION
F. Harck, in Archivio Storico dell'Arte, 1889, vol. II, p. 206;
Crowe and Calvacaselle, History of Painting in Italy, 1908, vol. III, p. 90, note 8;
B. Berenson, Catalogue of the Johnson Collection, 1913, p. 54, under cat. no. 94;
A Commemorative Catalogue of the Exhibition of Italian Art, Royal Academy, 1930, Lord Balmiel, K. Clark and E. Modigliani, eds., 1931, vol. I, p. 16, cat no. 41;
C. Brandi, "An Unpublished Reliquary of Francesco di Vannuccio", in Art in America, December 1931, XX, pp. 41-42, 47, reproduced figs. 3-4;
R. Offner, "The Works and Style of Francesco di Vannuccio", in Art in America, April 1932, XX, p. 89 and note 1, pp. 109-112;
C. Brandi, "Francesco di Vannuccio e Paolo Giovanni Fei", in Bullettino Senese di Storia Patria", n.s., IV, 1933, p. 31;
B. Berenson, Central and Northern Italian Schools, 1968, p. 145, reproduced plate 382;
J. Richards, "Francesco di Vannuccio," in Grove Dictionary of Art, vol. 11, 1996, p. 697.
As much a sumptuous and rich object as a painting, this exquisitely preserved and beautifully decorated reliquary exemplifies the elegant and refined taste of late trecento Siena. The center is painted with a finely rendered depiction of the Madonna of Humility, the Virgin seated on the ground holding the Infant Christ, who is dressed in a gold chemise elaborately patterned with stippled decoration. Surrounding this central image is a series of fifteen small compartments, each glassed over with a small piece of verre eglomisé decorated with alternating golden bursts of light and floral motifs, these of course to hold the holy relics for which the object was intended. The surface is covered with foliate gilt pastiglia throughout, as is the base, which is again painted by the artist with three emotive figures of the Imago Pietatis flanked by the Virgin and Saint John. Finally, even the reverse of the panel and the stand were made to resemble a piece of precious porphyry.1 It is no doubt its preciousness as an object to which the good condition of this reliquary is due, first venerated and treasured as a special object of devotion by its original owners, and subsequently as a work of art by more modern collectors.
The body of work which has been attributed to Francesco di Vannuccio is very small, and has been centered on a few pictures, most particularly on the signed and dated panel in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin (inv. 1062B). Rather than a small devotional work as was much of the artist's output, the Berlin panel is in fact a processional standard, with a painted image of the Crucifixion with Donor Figures on one side, and on the other the enthroned Madonna and Child with Saints rendered on glass in reverse. The date has been somewhat damaged, but it appears to read 1380, thus giving at least one fairly secure chronological point of reference for the artist. Various scholars have added to this picture a number of other paintings on stylistic grounds, and a cohesive and rather beautiful corpus has been ascribed to the artist.2 The present reliquary was recognized as a work of Francesco di Vannuccio as early as 1889 by Fritz Harck while it was in the Kauffman collection when he acknowledged its relationship with the Berlin processional Crucifixion. His attribution has been universally accepted since, and thus has formed part of the nucleus of works that Offner and other scholars used to define the artist further. Cesare Brandi, in fact, used it as the basis on which to attribute another reliquary panel by the artist in Museo Civico, Montepulciano.3
While secure documentary evidence of Francesco di Vannuccio's life and career has remained somewhat confused, his body of work does reveal a defined and individual artistic personality.4 Most of his works, like the present example, are highly finished and small in scale, clearly meant for a private and discerning clientele; triptychs, diptychs, and small panels predominate in the catalogue of the artist's works, with a few notable exceptions. While certainly aware and reactive to his contemporaries and rivals, the most important influence on the artist's style appears to date from decades earlier, and was drawn from the late work of Simone Martini. This is certainly most evident in his love of pattern and decoration, and highly keyed coloration, all within the Sienese tradition of painting in direct descent from Simone. Perhaps less obvious are the emotive qualities in Francesco di Vannuccio's work which appear also to derive from this same source. The serenity of the Madonna and Child in this reliquary belies a whistful and elegant quality in marked contrast to the knotted and distressed figures of the Virgin and Saint John in the roundels on its base.5 These figures are shown pulling at their garments, their faces contorted in anguish, expressive forms which can be seen in other works by Francesco such as the two small panels of the Crucifixion, one formerly in the Kaulbach collection, Munich, and another in the Johnson collection, Philadelphia. That the artist took such care with the more incidental figures displays his abiding interest in emotion and psychological insight that are expressed throughout his oeuvre and which ultimately find their source in Simone's work.
Please note that this reliquary has been requested for an exhibition on Renaissance Siena due to be held at Santa Maria della Scala, Siena, from March 26 to July 10, 2010.
This Property is sold in co-operation with the heirs of A.S.Drey of Munich.
1. Such attention to detail and richness of effect is seen in much of Francesco di Vannuccio's work. The reverse of a panel of the Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist (one half of a diptych) in the Johnson Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia (inv. 94) is similarly painted with as Strehlke notes for that panel "unusual care, with a reddish brown layer spattered with white and glazed with red lake, and then spattered again (see C.B. Strehlke, Italian Paintings 1250-1450, 2004, p. 144)".
2. Cesare Brandi and Richard Offner were to the first to attribute a number of works to the artist (see C. Brandi "An unpublished reliquary of Francesco di Vannuccio" , Art in America, vol 20, no. 1 (Dec. 1931) pp. 38-48 and "Francesco di Vannuccio e Paolo di Giovanni Fei." Bullettino senese di storia patria, vol. 4 (1933), pp. 25-42; R. Offner, "The Works and Style of Francesco di Vannuccio," Art in America, vol. 20, no. 3 (April 1932) pp. 89-114)
3. Although of similar format, the Montepulciano reliquary is in less good condition, It has lost its base, which the present example has unusually retained, as well as the delicate glass inserts (see C. Brandi, 1931 op. cit).
4. It has been difficult to connect references in period documents with the artist with certainty. A certain Francio di Vannuccio was registered in the painter's guild in Siena from its inception in 1356. Various commissions for this artist are recorded in Siena and its environs, but it has not been possible thus far to connect any of these references with extant work with any certainty. Alternately, it has been proposed that Francesco di Vannuccio can be identified as the Francesco di Vannuccio Martini which enrolled in the Siena painter's guild in 1389.
5. In a transcript of an unpublished lecture given at the Frick Library on April 27, 1927, Richard Offner discussed this reliquary and noted exactly these qualities: "In this Madonna there is a livelier, and at the same time more ingenuous and innocent, expressiveness than is usual in Sienese Madonnas of this period, whose expression is more calmly collected, more mystical, more austere. The Child is round faced and truly child-like; He too differs from the usual representations in contemporary Sienese work. Francesco di Vannuccio seldom lapses into the conventional, in fact...The little figures in the medallions at the base are the closes to the figures seen in the Crucifixions"
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