PROPERTY FROM A EUROPEAN PRIVATE COLLECTION
With Salocchi, Florence;
Private collection, Genoa, by 1957;
Thence by family descent.
U. Procacci, 'Opere inedite alla Mostra del Tesoro di Firenze Sacra', Rivista d'Arte, XV, 1933, p. 238–40 (as Maestro del Bambino Vispo);
M. Boskovits, La pittura fiorentina alla vigilia del Rinascimento, 1370–1400, Florence 1975, p. 36, reproduced in black and white, fig. 473 (as Master of the Straus Madonna);
R. Fremantle, Florentine Gothic Painters from Giotto to Masaccio; a guide to painting in and near Florence; 1300 to 1450, London 1975, p. 309, no. 632 (as Master of the Straus Madonna).
Roberto Longhi first identified a group of works by this hand,2 later amplified by Offner. Boskovits regarded the Master of the Straus Madonna as one of the most eminent exponents of late Gothic art in Florence. From their studies emerged a homogenous group of paintings defined by the stylistic elegance of the master's Florentine cultural sphere. Among the most individual painters of the period, the Master of the Straus Madonna responded both to Agnolo Gaddi and to the young Lorenzo Monaco, with whom he worked. In the first decade of the Quattrocento, his paintings also show an awareness of Starnina's production and he would prove influential on Masolino and his generation. Only two works can be securely dated and ascribed to him. The first is a Man of Sorrows, at the National Museum, Warsaw, inscribed with the date 1405; and the second is the polyptych of San Donato in the Museo Diocesano di Santo Stefano al Ponte in Florence. It is on the basis of documents analyzed by Chiodo for the commission of the latter that she has been able to identify the Master of the Straus Madonna as Ambrogio di Baldese.3
The iconography of the Madonna and Child at the centre of this devotional work is that of the Madonna del Latte, or nursing Madonna, a relatively uncommon subject in Florentine painting at this date. Strikingly vivid details include the flexed foot of the Christ Child and his hands cupped around his mother's breast. The motif of the breast-feeding Madonna is integrated here within a sacra conversazione. They appear before a company of four saints, of which three are readily identifiable: Saint John the Baptist; the hermit Saint Anthony Abbot, here accompanied by a pig, an animal whose lard was reputed to cure St Anthony's fire; and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, who rests her hand on the spiked wheel of her martyrdom. The fourth saint has been tentatively identified as Saint Christina,4 but neither of her attributes – a millstone, instrument of her torture by drowning, or an arrow – are included. The figure represented is more likely to be Saint Margaret, depicted here holding the martyr's cross, and often the companion of Saint Catherine.
This sacra conversazione combines vibrant colours – orange and yellow in particular – within a design of subtle refinement. For the background of the painting a rich all-over pattern of animals and birds is adopted. The floral carpet is also densely patterned. Similar motifs are found in a Madonna del Latte with Saint John the Baptist, Saint Anthony of Padua, Saint James the Greater and Saint Francis; its current whereabouts are not known but photographs of it are held at the Fototeca of the Biblioteca Berenson, Florence.5 The latter shares the same compositional elements as this painting, arranged in a similar way. The figures too are painted with longish oval faces and narrow features characteristic of this master. Common to both is the arresting figure of Saint John the Baptist – his robe and hair rendered with distinctive wavy lines.
Both Sonia Chiodo and Carl Strehlke independently believe the present work to be by the Master of the Straus Madonna, so too Gaudenz Freuler following first-hand inspection of the painting; we are grateful to them all for their comments. In its graceful composition and richly patterned surface, this painting represents a superb example by the master more properly known as Ambrogio di Baldese.
1. Procacci 1933, pp. 238–39: 'una bellissima delicata tavoletta'.
2. R. Longhi, 'Ricerche su Giovanni di Francesco', Pinacotheca, vol. 1, July–August 1928, pp. 34–38; revised as 'Me Pinxit' e quesiti caravaggeschi, 1928–1934, Florence 1968.
3. For a summary of his activity and for reproductions of these paintings, see S. Chiodo, 'Pittori attivi in Santo Stefano al Ponte a Firenze e un’ipotesi per l’identificazione del Maestro della Madonna Straus', Paragone, 49, March 1998, pp. 48–79, in particular figs 44 and 45. We are grateful to Carl Strehlke for pointing out Chiodo's article.
4. Fototeca Zeri, no. 10092.
5. Tempera on panel, arched top, 77 x 47 cm.; New York, Christie's, 15 January 1985, lot 44, formerly in the Moss collection, New York.
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