With Salocchi, Florence, by 1967;
In the collection of the father of the present owner by 1968;
Thence by inheritance.
F. Zeri, ‘Aggiunta ad Alvise Vivarini’, in Antichità viva, 1976, XV, 1, pp. 3 ff.;
J. Steer, Alvise Vivarini. His art and influence, Cambridge 1982, pp. 12–13, 130–31, 140, cat. no. 13, p. 142, reproduced p. 211, plate 2.
The youngest member of a family of painters, Alvise Vivarini sought to modernise the tradition initiated by his father Antonio and uncle Bartolomeo. A significant part of family workshop production consisted of tiered polyptychs in elaborately carved Gothic frames. Using gesture and pose Alvise’s images of saints – of which Saint Ursula is a prime example – succeed above all in conveying a vibrant physicality.
The counterparts to Saint Ursula comprise a Saint John the Baptist in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid;2 a Saint Louis of Toulouse formerly on loan to the University Museum, Göttingen, and now at the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin (fig. 1);3 and a Saint Mary Magdalene also in that collection.4 Zeri suggests it seems likely that all four panels belonged to the Solly collection before the Mary Magdalene and the Saint Louis were sold to the Prussian Government in 1821. As Zeri has shown, all four figures were originally full-length. Of the four, all but one – the Saint Mary Magdalene – has been cut down. The proportions of Saint Ursula’s rounded top, which is original, are approximately the same as those of the Mary Magdalene panel.
The arrangement postulated by Steer has Saint Ursula and St John the Baptist to the left and right on the outer panels, with Saint Mary Magdalene and Saint Louis on either side of a centrepiece consisting of a lost Madonna. Steer emphasises the similarity between such an arrangement and the figure panels of the intact polyptych painted by Alvise for the Franciscan convent of Montefiorentino, Pian di Meleto, near Urbino, The Madonna enthroned adoring the Child with four Saints (Galleria nazionale delle Marche, Urbino), a work signed and dated 1476.5 In Steer’s view the Saint Ursula and her three companions, all of the same high quality, are the only surely identifiable works of Alvise that may predate the Montefiorentino polyptych. Albeit that he cannot agree with Zeri that they are as early as 1470–72, Steer advocates a date before 1476;6 as such Saint Ursula serves as an important milestone in the artist’s earliest chronology.
Steer recognises in the four panels, which he terms the ‘Zeri polyptych’, a more linear figural style than those in the Montefiorentino polyptych and in this respect their style is closer to Bartolomeo Vivarini. He notes in the two male saints a strongly dynamic energy reminiscent of Mantegna's Santa Giustina altar, and discusses the intensity of Saint Ursula’s inner state, characterising her image as one of ‘great human power’. In pose and rendering Saint Ursula exemplifies Alvise’s concern with the projection of volume in space. Brightly illuminated from the left, the figure creates an impression of a vivid three-dimensional presence, enhanced by the gilded gesso around her. Such contrasts of light and shade may reflect Alvise’s awareness of contemporary sculpture.
1. In 1967 Zeri attributed the panel to Andrea da Murano, revising his opinion the following year to Alvise Vivarini, with a date of c. 1470–75 (see Fondazione Zeri photo archive).
2. Inv. no. 426 (1930.123); 48.5 x 33.5 cm.; the gold background is damaged and has been filled in at the corners obscuring the original curved top; see Steer 1982, p. 142, no. 17, reproduced p. 214, plate 5.
3. Nr. 1152; 64.2 x 36.9 cm.; the original gold ground and its irregular semicircular top was barely discernible when published by Steer; see Steer1982, p. 131, no. 6, reproduced p. 213, plate 4. Pallucchini was the first to link Saint Louis of Toulouse to Saint John the Baptist; R. Pallucchini, I Vivarini, Saggi e studi di storia dell’arte, 4, Venice 1962, pp. 57, 132, fig. 229.
4. Nr. 1563; 114.5 x 37.8 cm.; Steer 1982, pp. 130–31, no. 5, reproduced p. 212, plate 3.
5. 165 x 238 cm.; Steer 1982, pp. 149–50 , no. 25, reproduced p. 207, plate 1.
6. In his article of 1975 Zeri had proposed a dating between 1470 and 1474, revising it the following year to about 1470–72; see Zeri 1976, pp. 4–5.
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