Master of the Osservanza
- Master of the Osservanza
- The Flagellation
- inscribed and dated 1441: Questa et lentrata et luscita della generale cabella del comuno di Siena altempo degli egregij et / honorevogli cittadini Filippo di pietro del giorgi[e]ra [ch]amarlengo Nicholo di griffolo da litiano / Urbano giovanegli Antonio di iacomo del golia Giovanni dandrea dicino executori di cabella / e di Guccio di petro menghini scriptore cominciato a di po di gennaio. 1440 finito a di ultimo / di giugno. 1441. et di sere Anbrugio dandrea bonegli loro notaro.
- Gabella panel, tempera and gold on poplar panel
- 45 x 30.5 cm.; 17 ¾ x 12 in.
His daughter, Gabriele Neven DuMont (1899–1978), Cologne;
Thence by descent to the present owners.
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, on loan since 1968 (inv. dep. 321; bears Gemälde-Inventar 1925 label on the reverse).
J. Pope-Hennessy, ‘Current and Forthcoming Exhibitions’, The Burlington Magazine, no. 607, vol. 95, October 1953, p. 346 (as wrongly ascribed to Pietro di Giovanni d’Ambrogio);
E. Ruhmer, ‘Tavolette di Biccherna’, Die Kunst und das schöne Heim, 1958, no. 7, p. 242 ff. (as by an anonymous artist in the circle of Sassetta);
G. von der Osten, ‘Berichte aus Westdeutschen Museen, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum Köln’, Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch, vol. 30, 1968, pp. 387–88 (as Sienese, 1440/41);
B. Klesse, Katalog der italienischen, französischen und spanischen Gemälde bis 1800 im Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne 1973, pp. 99–100, reproduced fig. 20 (as Pietro di Giovanni);
L. Borgia et al., Le Biccherne: tavole dipinte delle magistrature senesi (secoli XIII–XVIII), Rome 1984, p. 25, no. 54, p. 148, reproduced in colour on p. 149 (as Maestro dell’Osservanza);
R. Budde, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, Munich 1993, pp. 20–21, reproduced in colour on p. 21 (as workshop of the Master of the Osservanza);
R. Budde and R. Krischel, Das Wallraf-Richartz-Museum: Hundert Meisterwerke von Simone Martini bis Edvard Munch, Cologne 2001, p. 56, reproduced in colour on p. 57 (as workshop of the Master of the Osservanza);
A. Tomei (ed.), Le Biccherne di Siena: Arte e Finanza all’alba dell’economia moderna, exhibition catalogue, Rome, Palazzo del Quirinale, 1 March – 3 April 2002, p. 37 (as Maestro dell’Osservanza);
S. Sonntag and A. Blühm, Wallraf das Museum, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud, Cologne 2013, p. 23, 26, reproduced in colour p. 27 (as workshop of the Master of the Osservanza);
D. Sallay, Corpus of Sienese Paintings in Hungary, 1420–1510, Florence 2015, p. 80, note 7 (as Master 158).
Biccherne and gabelle are small painted panels originally created as covers for official documents of the city state of Siena between the mid-thirteenth century and the last quarter of the seventeenth century. Responsible for all state expenditure, the Biccherna was the chief financial office of Siena, its name supposedly a derivation from the imperial treasury of the Blachernae Palace at Constantinople. The term biccherna has been adopted also to designate painted covers connected with other civic offices of Siena, principal among them the Gabella Generale, or tax office, albeit that the Magistracies of the Biccherna and Gabella differed in purpose; the former registered all income and expenses, while the latter, born within the Biccherna but independent by the early Trecento, recorded taxation on all forms of commercial transaction. Although this painting was described as a biccherna panel when it was first exhibited in Cologne in 1953, it is in fact a gabella.1
The coats of arms of the officials responsible for presenting the accounts are emblazoned on the covers of biccherne and gabelle panels. The term of their appointment was short – six months – in order to safeguard against corruption and malpractice. At the end of each term in office, the working accounts were transferred to parchment registers for inspection by the Consiglio Generale of Siena. Covers such as this one were made for the official presentation to the council of each volume. Most Biccherna and Gabella covers are held in the Archivio di Stato, Siena, although a small proportion is now dispersed in private collections and museums, making this work a great rarity.
As well as being of socio-historical importance, the covers serve as a unique visual record. In the words of Pope-Hennessy, they ‘provide a review of Sienese painting in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries’.2 The earliest surviving example dates from 1258 (the 1257 cover is lost) and shows what was to become the standardised image of the chamberlain (camarlingo), the man responsible for expenditure on behalf of the Comune, at work at his desk.3 Albeit that the compositional arrangement of the covers altered little – a figurative scene placed above the officers’ coats of arms and below it, beneath the leather strap that bound the front and back covers together, an inscription with their names and the date – over time the imagery became more varied. The Gabella extended the range of possible subject matter. Devotional imagery was introduced, as well as allegorical subjects with a political or historical message. One of the best examples of this is the gabella cover representing Buon Governo painted in 1344 by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.4
Nearly a century later in 1441, one of the most arresting covers of all was created: this Flagellation. The painting is a work of compositional sophistication and visual impact. In the monograph devoted to biccherne it is described as ‘one of the panels of the highest artistic value preserved outside Italy’.5 The scene depicts the episode of the scourging of Christ that is mentioned with singular brevity in all four Gospels. Framed by an area of gilding in the shape of an arched tabernacle, Christ receives the strokes from two soldiers ordered by Pontius Pilate to administer the punishment. Christ is aligned with the central axis and placed in isolation against the column to which he is bound. His tormentors’ poses are near mirror images of one another. The artist has orchestrated the various elements with consummate skill; even the coats of arms are executed in an elegant manner not always evident in other gabelle.
The value of the covers as historical documents is borne out by the dates on the panels, as well as by the possibility of identifying the coats of arms that proclaim the identities of prominent members of Sienese society. These have yielded invaluable information on the social framework of this city state. On the Flagellation, the seven coats of arms of elected representatives correspond in order with the names cited in the inscription. Listed from left to right, ranked by their importance, they have been identified as follows: Del Gorgiera (camerlengo); Incontri, Giovannelli, Del Golia and Giovanni di Andrea di Cino, the four enforcement officers (esecutori); Menghini, the scribe (scriptore); and, in the lower right corner, Bonelli, their notary (notaio).6 The latter’s coat of arms is missing its lower half, a clear indication that the bottom edge of the panel was cut. The refined execution of punchmarks on this gabella’s gilded border, with its pattern of eight-pointed stars held within octagons, runs continuously along three sides and presumably would have continued also along the bottom edge.
The highly inventive design of this gabella panel covers the period from 1 January 1440 (1441 new style) to the end of June 1441 and is datable to that year. Published in Oertel’s exhibition catalogue of 1953 as a work by Pietro di Giovanni d’Ambrogio, that attribution was rejected by Pope-Hennessy in his review of the exhibition but maintained by Klesse in her 1973 catalogue of the collection.7 Some years before, Ruhmer had associated the panel with Sassetta’s circle.8 It was Carli in his study of artists of biccherne covers who, in developing this suggestion, proposed the Master of the Osservanza as the artist responsible for The Flagellation.9 To the same master, Graziani had attributed the gabella panel of 1444 that depicts the Archangel Michael fighting the dragon.10 We are grateful to Gaudenz Freuler for endorsing the attribution of this gabella panel to the Master of the Osservanza on the basis of a photograph.
The Master of the Osservanza has been described as ‘unquestionably one of the outstanding Sienese artists of the second quarter of the fifteenth century’.11 The name of the painter derives from a triptych in the Church of the Osservanza outside Siena.12 The triptych, which was painted for San Maurizio, Siena, has on it an inscription and a date of 1436, which refers to the date of the chapel's foundation rather than the year it was painted. Longhi was the first to group together works by the Master, drawing together paintings formerly given to Sassetta and Sano di Pietro, among others.13 The artist has variously been identified as Sassetta (by Pope-Hennessy, Cavalcaselle and initially Berenson); as the young Sano di Pietro (by Brandi, Berenson, Boskovits and more recently De Marchi);14 and least convincingly of all as Francesco di Bartolomeo Alfei.15 Graziani's rather tentative proposition that the Master of the Osservanza might be identified with Ludovico (Vico) di Luca, a documented assistant of Sassetta, was seen as the most likely hypothesis until recently.6 In 2011, however, documentary evidence relating to an altarpiece of the Nativity of the Virgin at Asciano was published by Falcone identifying its creator – the Master of the Osservanza – as the young Sano di Pietro.17
1. Pope-Hennessy was the first to point this out in his review of the 1953 Cologne exhibition; see Pope-Hennessy 1953, p. 346.
2. J. Pope-Hennessy, ‘An Exhibition of Biccherna Covers’, The Burlington Magazine, no. 572, vol. 92, November 1950, p. 320.
3. Borgia et al. 1984, p. 42, no. 1, reproduced in colour on p. 43.
4. Borgia et al. 1984, p. 96, no. 28, reproduced in colour on p. 97.
5. Borgia et al. 1984, p. 148.
6. For a description of their coats of arms, see Borgia et al. 1984, pp. 339, 349–351 and p. 355.
7. Pope-Hennessy 1953, p. 346; Klesse 1973, pp. 99–100.
8. Ruhmer 1958, p. 242 ff.
9. E. Carli in Borgia et al. 1984, p. 25.
10. A. Graziani, ‘Il Maestro dell’Osservanza’, Proporzioni, II, 1948, p. 87, reproduced fig. 106. Borgia et al. 1984, p. 150, no. 55, reproduced in colour on p. 151.
11. K. Christiansen in Painting in Renaissance Siena 1420–1500, exhibition catalogue, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 20 December 1988 – 19 March 1989, p. 99.
12. Reproduced in C. Alessi and P. Scapecchi, ‘Il Maestro dell’Osservanza: Sano di Pietro o Francesco di Bartolomeo?’, Prospettiva, vol. 42, 1985, p. 18, fig. 9, and a detail on p. 24, fig. 16. The predella is in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena.
13. R. Longhi, ‘Fatti di Masolino e di Masaccio’, in La Critica d’Arte, vol. 5, nos 3–4, 1940, pp. 188–89.
14. C. Brandi, Quattrocentisti senesi, Milan 1949, pp. 69–87.
15. Alessi and Scapecchi 1985, pp. 13–37; Alessi and Scapecchi substantially postdate his activity.
16. Graziani 1948, pp. 75– 88. Christiansen tentatively agreed with the identification put forward by Graziani, seeing it as the most likely solution (see Christiansen in New York 1988–89, p. 100) but Machtelt Isräels has more recently noted that Vico is an unlikely candidate on the basis of documentary evidence (see M. Isräels, Sassetta’s Madonna della Neve. An Image of Patronage, Leiden 2003, p. 29, note 75).
17. M. Falcone, ‘La giovinezza dorata di Sano di Pietro: un nuovo documento per la Natività della Vergine di Asciano’, in Prospettiva, 138.2010, 2011, pp. 28–48.