While the solid figure and sober face of the Virgin betrays the strong influence of the types created by Pietro, details such as the red Byzantine maphorion covering the Virgin’s head and her gold jewellery reveal equal awareness of some archaic features of Ambrogio’s otherwise innovative works. Biagio may have modelled his Madonna on a lost painting by Ambrogio similar to his Louvre Madonna (fig. 1), and also drew inspiration from Pietro’s Madonnas from the 1340s, such as the Madonna Loeser. The close comparison with the Lorenzetti Madonnas from the 1340s suggests that the artist had recently completed his training with the masters and that the present lot is an early work of Biagio.
Biagio’s artistic language is similar to that of two other followers of the Lorenzetti: Niccolò di Ser Sozzo (documented 1340 – 1363), who, as forthcoming research by Gaudenz Freuler has revealed, was trained in the Lorenzetti studio, and Luca di Tommè (active 1356 – 1389). However, Niccolò transformed his style in the 1340s after establishing his own studio; his hardened forms and pronounced facial features are foreign to the present painting’s softness. Yet all three of the Lorenzetti’s students began with the same Madonna type based on Pietro and Ambrogio’s models when depicting the subject. A further correspondence between Biagio and the artists in this group comes from the punch tools used on the panel’s gold ground: a small five-petaled rosette and a slightly more complex diamond shaped rosette.1 Both tools were used in the workshops of Pietro Lorenzetti and Niccolò di Ser Sozzo, indicating that Biagio worked closely with both artists. The collaboration and sharing of tools may have resulted from the outbreaks of the plague in 1348 and 1363 that killed half of Siena’s population and that forced artists to team up for certain commissions.2
First mentioned by Ettore Romagnoli in 1835,3 Biagio fell into oblivion until 1981, when Gaudenz Freuler deciphered his signature ([BIAGIO] DI GH [OR]O GHESSI) on a faint inscription of his dated (1368) frescoes in the choir-chapel of San Michele in Paganico. Freuler reconciled this signature with the only document citing the artist’s full name, Blaxius Gori Ghezzi, establishing the basis for his oeuvre, to which he added some remarkable fragments under the arch of the chapel of the bell tower in Sant' Agostino in Siena.4 Since then, Biagio’s corpus has been expanded to include the dated (1363) frescoes on the walls of San Mamiliano, a Virgin and Child on panel, now in the Salini collection in the Castello di Gallico in Asciano, and two further panels with images of Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Lawrence in a private collection.5 The most recent rediscovery of an impressive Glory of Christ’s Passion and the Eucharist on the eastern wall of the church Santa Maria delle Grazie in Montalcino, to be published shortly by Freuler, will demonstrate Biagio’s capacity to visualize complex theological issues in an original and succinct manner.6
The Virgin and Child, presented here for the first time, is probably the most important addition to Biagio di Goro’s corpus, due to its high artistic quality and its perspective into an early moment of his career, when he was still under a fresh impression of the painterly world of Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti. Comparing the face of the present Madonna with the faces of the Salini Madonna and St. Catherine (fig. 2), they are all articulated with a combination of soft tonal changes to create plasticity, such as in the cheeks, and energetic graphic strokes, such as in the eyebrows. Other similarities among Biagio’s figural types are elongated necks, almond-shaped eyes with pupils and irises placed at one side, elongated eyelids, slim noses, and slightly protruding chins. A reliable assessment of the painter’s chronology is hampered by Biagio’s relatively small output and by the existence of only two dated frescoes from the midpoint of his career. As is suggested by the artist’s combination of archaic features drawn from Ambrogio’s models with en vogue costume ornamentation from Pietro’s paintings of the 1340s, the present lot can be placed in an early phase of Biagio di Goro’s career, probably sometime between 1350 and 1360.
The astonishing Virgin and Child offered here is not only a key painting in Biagio di Goro’s oeuvre, but also one of the most significant Madonnas created at the beginning of the second half of the 14th century by a highly inventive artist in the immediate following of the Lorenzetti. We are grateful to Prof. Dr. Gaudenz Freuler for attributing this painting to Biagio di Goro Ghezzi, and for invaluable assistance with the research and cataloguing of this lot. A full expertise report by Prof. Dr. Freuler is available.
1. E. Skaug, "Punch marks - what are they worth? Problems of Tuscan workshop interrelationships in the mid fourteenth century: The Ovile Mater and Giovanni da Milano", in H.W. van Os & J.R.J. van Asperen de Boer (eds.), La pittura nel XIV e XV secolo. Il contributo dell’analisi technical alla storia dell’arte, vol. 3, Bologna 1983, no. 147, no. 117.
2. See P. Palladino, Art and Devotion in Siena after 1350, San Diego 1997; J. Steinhoff, Sienese Painting after the Black Death. Artistic Pluralism, Politics and the New Art Market, New York 2006.
3. E. Romagnoli, Biografia de’ Bellartisti Senesi, mss. Biblioteca Comunale di Siena, vol. III, Siena 1835, pp. 261-266.
4. G. Freuler, "Die Fresken des Biagio di Goro Ghezzi in S. Michele in Paganico", in Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, XXV, 1981, pp.31- 58; G. Freuler, Biagio di Goro Ghezzi a Paganico, Florence 1986.
5. A. Bagnoli, "Nuovi affreschi di Biagio di Goro Ghezzi", in Hommage a Michel Laclotte. Etudes sur la peinture du Moyen Age et de la Renaissance, Milan/Paris 1994, pp. 68-77; G. Freuler, "L’ eredità di Pietro Lorenzetti verso il 1350: Novità per Biagio di Goro, Niccolò di Sozzo e Luca di Tommè", in Nuovi Studi, vol. 4, 1997, pp.15; G. Freuler, in L. Bellosi (ed.), La collezione Salini. Dipinti, sculture e oreficerie dei secoli XII, XIII, XIV e XV, 2009, pp. 218-221; G. Freuler, "Biagio di Goro Ghezzi", in Dalla tradizione gotica al primo Rinascimento, Florence 2009, pp. 64-77.
6. G. Freuler, Biagio di Goro Ghezzi un degno seguace di Ambrogio e Pietro Lorenzetti, in preparation.
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