Florence – Uffizi Gallery – The Early Masters

THE farthest room of the suite parallel with the first corridor contains the works of some of the earliest painters of the Tuscan school.

To the right of the entrance is an altar-piece by Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), which is supposed to have been painted. for the chapel of the Palazzo Riccardi, originally Medici, and built by the first Cosimo for himself and his family. The Virgin is seated in a window, from whence there is a pleasing. landscape of rocks and trees, a winding river and the seashore; two boy angels bring the Infant Christ to his mother; she is seen in profile, and her face is that of a fair young girl, who gazes down at the angels, whilst the Child extends His arms to her ; one of the angels looks back laughing.’ Fra Filippo was early left an orphan, and was adopted into the Monastery of the Carmine at Florence, where he became a monk. He was a painter of very original genius, and the best colourist of his day, besides being remarkable for his careful drawing ; his pictures, like those of his contemporaries, are, however, often wanting in relief. Although the heads here have no idealistic beauty, the artist has given such a tender expression and youthful freshness to his representation of the Virgin that the composition has a charm of itself apart from perfection of form.

Above this altar-piece is a circular picture by Lorenzo Credi (1459-1537), the Madonna worshipping the Child. The figures are large in proportion, the Child round and plump : the coin-position is Leonardesque in treatment ; the colouring soft, but somewhat feeble, owing to the absence of relief.’ An angel sustaining the kneeling St. John is very graceful, and the attitude and countenance most reverential.

Next to this is another circular picture of the Madonna and Child, surrounded by angels, the work of Sandro Botticelli (1447-1510). There is a naïveté and grace as well as religious feeling in this painting, peculiar to the master, and the extremities are more elegantly formed than is usual with Botticelli; The eager face of an angel telling the glad tidings to a listening companion, and the rapt, reverential look in the rest,. who appear to sing hymns of praise, form a beautiful contrast with the still sad countenance of her ` whose heart is pierced’ ; there is a lassitude of hopeless grief in her features, which seems to anticipate sorrow, but which hardly belongs to the joyful Mother of the new-born Saviour. She holds the Child tenderly ; in Him the innocence of infancy is blended with, the dignity of the prophet. The colour is clear, but paler than is usual with Botticelli.

Below is an Annunciation, brought from the Monastery of Monte Oliveto near Florence ; some attribute this picture to Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, the nephew of Domenico ; others, with more probability, assign it to Lorenzo Credi, and. others again, to Leonardo da Vinci. But so feeble a production is hardly worthy of any of these great masters. The chief merit lies in the pleasing landscape background, and in the expression of the angel’s face ; the whole picture, especially the head of the Virgin, has undergone such severe treatment by the hand of the restorer, that it is hardly possible to judge of what its merits may have been.

A circular picture of the Holy Family beside the Botticelli is by Luca Signorelli (1441–1523) the pupil of Piero della Francesca. The Madonna is reading ; the Christ, seen in profile, with averted head, appears to listen, whilst looking at St. Joseph, who kneels before the Madonna and Child. The subject is grandly and powerfully treated, and the composition original ; the picture has, however, been much injured, and the glazes on the flesh have been destroyed.

A fine Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Angelico da Fiesole (1387–1455) is generally removed from its place by the copyist. The singular delicacy of colour and pure atmosphere through-out arrest the attention of every visitor. The artist, Fra Angelico, painted this picture for the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova of Florence, and it was only brought to the Uffizi in 1825. The figures are painted on a gold ground, with engraved lines, to represent rays, or the effulgence of a supernatural light. The Virgin bends to receive the crown ; the head of the Christ is feeble, and these two figures, though dignified and graceful, are the least successful part of the picture ; the principal charm consists in the exquisite beauty, the pure and tranquil joy, which seems almost to breathe in the slender and delicate forms of the angels, who float rather than walk through the mazes of the mystic dance. If music and painting were ever allied, their union is expressed in this lovely and harmonious painting ; the celestial beauty above and around is in some measure shed on the crowd of spectators, saints, and holy personages, whose grand and noble countenances still bear the impress of their earthly bodies ; among them are seen kneeling angels belonging to the heavenly choir ; some with harps and others swinging censers.

Fra Angelico, or more properly Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, was born in a Tuscan village of the province of Mugello. He was christened Guido, but took the name of Giovanni when he entered a Dominican monastery, still existing, half-way between Florence and Fiesole, where his piety and wonderful skill in the delineation of celestial beings obtained for him the title of Angelico—the angelic. So fully was he convinced of his own inspiration, that, beginning to paint with prayer, he never retouched or altered his works. Living in an age when the sciences of drawing, perspective, and anatomy were still in their infancy, Fra Angelico was not in these respects superior to his contemporaries ; but his creative fancy and deep religious sentiment, with the purity and sanctity of his life, enabled him to produce works of such exquisite delicacy, grace, and loveliness, that they seem to realise—as far as human means can realise—all our conceptions of a world of spirits. Making use of colour for shade, Fra Angelico appears to shun all approach to darkness ; whilst in subjects requiring various distances, he produces an atmosphere bathed in a heavenly light.

On the wall next that of the pictures described, is an altar-piece by Giovanni da Milano, who lived in the fourteenth century, and was one of the most eminent artists of the Giottesque school. Although a native of Milan, Giovanni learnt his art in Florence, and was so highly esteemed by his contemporary, Taddeo Gaddi, that Taddeo, on his deathbed, committed to him the instruction of his son. Giovanni aimed at combining the tenderness and grace of the Siennese, with the dramatic power of the Florentine. This altar-piece is divided into ten compartments, five large and five small. The saints in the upper tier are St. Catharine and St. Lucia, St. Stephen and St. Lawrence, the Baptist and St. Luke, St. Peter and St. Anthony, St. James and St. Gregory ; below, are virgins, saints, martyrs, apostles, patriarchs, and prophets. Tranquil dignity in the sacred personages, with an appropriate tone of colour, prevails throughout this picture, which was painted for the Church of Ogni Santi (All Saints) of Florence.

Beneath this altar-piece is a predella for a large picture by Jacopo da Casentino, a contemporary of Giovanni da Milano. In the centre, St. Peter is distributing ecclesiastical preferments ; a figure to the left of the saint, dressed in black, is probably the portrait of the donor. In the compartment to the left of the spectator, St. Peter is led out of prison by an angel ; to the right is his crucifixion. There is great variety in the heads and in the action of the figures, though, according to Cavalcaselle, `the value of this piece lies chiefly in a lively colour and flowing drapery, which reveal the master of Spinello.’ At either end, in small compartments, apostles are introduced. Jacopo was a native of the Casentino, a wide valley enclosed between the mountains which lie behind Vallombrosa. Here Taddeo Gaddi, when employed to paint the chapels of Cristoforo Landino (the ancestor of the celebrated Greek scholar of the same name), discovered the talent of Jacopo, and bringing him to -Florence, instructed him in his art Jacopo afterwards founded the Guild of Painters, who placed them-selves under the patronage of the Virgin, St. Zenobius, St. John the Baptist, and St. Luke. The two last are introduced together in one compartment of Giovanni da Milano’s altar-piece. Jacopo shared with Gherardo Starnina the honour of instructing the great Aretine painter, Spinello.

The Annunciation, by Sandro Botticelli, is painted in distemper with the same pale colour observable in the circular picture by him in this room. The Virgin looks round from the prayer-book before which she had been kneeling, and with eyes cast down, and her hands raised in a gesture of wonder, she appears to deprecate the honour intended for her. The angel, just alighted, kneels in a reverential attitude before the Handmaid of the Lord. A cool and pleasant landscape, with a river, fields, a city, and a tall tree in the foreground, are seen from the open window. In the predella is a painting of the Saviour rising from the tomb, with the handkerchief of St. Veronica, bearing the impress of His face. At either corner are shields with a greyhound rampant, the arms of the Castiglione family, for whom the picture was probably painted.

A grand and finely-coloured picture next the window, of three saints, is by Sebastiano Mainardi, a scholar of Domenico Ghirlandaio, who was living in 1487. The central figure is St. Stephen, the first martyr, holding the palm branch ; the expression of his head is very fine, and the hands are beautifully painted. He stands in a niche, and on each side are other niches, with St. Peter and St. James bearing his pilgrim staff. The predella below, by Fra Angelico, was intended for a large altar-piece, which was executed for the Guild of Flax Merchants.

In the centre of the predella is the Adoration of the Magi, in which the Virgin is especially lovely ; to the left is St. Peter preaching and St. Mark looking up in devout admiration, whilst writing his Gospel to the dictation of his brother apostle ; to the right is the death of St. Mark. According to the legend Mark was converted by St. Peter, and became his favourite disciple ; he founded the Church of Alexandria, but the heathen reviled him as a magician, and, during the feast of Serapis, they seized and dragged him through the streets, till he perished miserably ; a dreadful tempest of hail and lightning fell upon his murderers, by which they were dispersed and destroyed. The heathen are distinguished by the Gentile banner bearing the scorpion. The sad and wondering expression of two of the disciples, who contemplate the body of St. Mark, is admirably’ given ; the colour, as ‘usual with Fra Angelico, is exquisitely delicate and pure.

Prudence near the door, by Antonio Pollajolo (r429-1498), is one of a series of pictures representing the Virtues, which this artist, with the help of Botticelli, painted for the Tribunal of the Mercanzia, in the Piazza della Signoria : Prudence, a noble figure, is seated under an arch of coloured marbles, with a serpent in one hand, a mirror in the other ; a pale-green drapery, arranged in formal, though majestic folds, is spread over her knees ; her attitude is calm and unconstrained. The drawing is simple and firm, with a careful attention to the finish of the dress and ornaments ; the hands are finely executed ; the shadows clear and delicate—light upon light. ‘ The draperies are among the best executed by the Pollajoli, and cleverly define the forms. The drawing is bold and strongly marked, the flesh tints bright and clear. The whole is evidently coloured with tones moistened with an oil medium.

A more remarkable work by Antonio Pollajolo is a large picture representing three saints : St. James, between St. Eustace and St. Vincent. They stand on a floor of variegated marbles ; the hat of St. James, encircled with jewels, is on the ground ;. the outline of the figures is sharply defined against a pale sky and landscape. The drawing is vigorous and correct ; the heads are painted in distemper, whilst an oil medium has been used for the dress ; the rich stuff and jewels being in relief, from the thick impasto of the colours. The minute finish of detail recalls the goldsmith’s work for which the Pollajoli were famous. This picture was painted in 1470 for the altar of the Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal in San Miniato al Monte.

Fortitude, by Botticelli, was intended to complete the series of the Virtues, on which the Pollajoli were engaged. There is less simplicity and majesty in this composition than in the Prudence of Antonio Pollajolo ; but the colour and the chiaroscuro are rich and fine. The extremities of the figure are too coarse, but there is dignity and thoughtfulness in the face ; the mouth is firm, the eyes clear, and the action of the hands, grasping the mace, correspond well with the idea conveyed by the countenance ; the union of feminine gentleness and masculine strength recalls the Christian type of Fortitude, clothed in the armour of righteousness.

A Madonna, also by Botticelli, was painted at a period when he was endeavouring to imitate the manner as well as apply the technical treatment of the brothers Pollajoli. The Virgin is seated beneath an arch, through which is seen a rose garden. The Child is in a natural posture ; He raises to His mouth the seeds of the pomegranate fruit, which He holds in his other hand, whilst gazing in His mother’s face, who looks down on Him with a sweet sad smile ; the drapery and accessories are drawn with care, and the colour is full and rich.

The portraits of Federigo di Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino,, and of his wife, Battista Sforza, are by Piero della Francesca (1416-1492). Piero was from Borgo San Sepolcro, but studied under the Pollajoli, and having earned a reputation in Florence, he was invited to the Court of Urbino in 1469 ; Giovanni Santi, the father of Raffaelle, defrayed the cost of the journey. The genius as well as scientific attainments of Piero della Francesca exercised a beneficial influence on the youthful Raffaelle, and Piero became also the instructor of Luca Signorelli, of Cortona. His portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino are commended by Cavalcaselle—’ Nothing can exceed the Leonardesque precision of the drawing, or the softness and fusion of the impasto.’ The painting has, however, suffered from cleaning, as on a nearer inspection it can be perceived that the hair of the Duchess is in some parts almost rubbed away. It is in the form of a diptych, and within the two doors are allegories, representing on one side Federigo in a triumphal car, on the other Battista, with similar accompaniments ; a charming landscape forms the background in both. This painting is the more interesting from the history of the persons represented. The ancestors of Federigo were the two Montefeltri, father and son, who are mentioned by Dante in his ‘ Inferno’ and ‘ Purgatorio,’ and whose descendants still possess land in the Roman states.

Federigo was distinguished as a soldier and as a patron of art and letters. The depression in his nose was caused by a wound received in battle. He was created Duke of Urbino by Sixtus IV., when the Pope’s nephew, Giovanni della Rovere, married Federigo’s second daughter. His wife, Battista Sforza, was celebrated for her learning as well as beauty, but died at the early age of twenty-six, leaving an infant son, Guidobaldo, who succeeded to the dukedom on the death of his father. Two striking portraits of Federigo and Battista, in marble relief, are now in the Museum of the Bargello, as well as a bust of Battista taken after death ; both of these give a higher idea of her beauty than the picture by Piero della Francesca.

A predella, by Luca Signorelli (1441-1523), represents the Annunciation, the Worship of the Shepherds, and the Adoration of the Magi. A beautiful landscape background connects the three. The Angel of the Annunciation, with wings closed, but his drapery still agitated by his flight, appears to have just descended upon earth ; his countenance is radiant with joy, as he bears the lily to the Virgin, who, with her head bent and her hands clasped, listens attentively. Each scene tells its own story, and the face of the Virgin is the same throughout, varying only with the different emotions caused by the event. In the Adoration of the Magi she is very beautiful ; the youths in attendance on the kings, wear the party-coloured tight-fitting garments of the Florentine young men of fashion at the time Luca Signorelli painted; a warm green tone prevails throughout the picture.

We have thus before us the works of three painters who succeeded one another; Pollajolo, Piero della Francesca, who studied under the Pollajoli, and Signorelli, the pupil of Piero della Francesca ; and we can trace the same precision and care in the drawing, but with increased freedom in the younger painter. His colours are less gaudy, and he dwells more on the expression of his subject than on display of skill in representing jewellery and fine clothing.

The Saviour appearing to the Magdalene is by Lorenzo Credi (1459-1537). The head of Christ is feeble, the expression of the Magdalene sweet and earnest ; the details, as well as the landscape background, are highly finished. The Saviour and the Magdalene, or the Woman of Samaria (sup-posed by some to be the same person), is also by Lorenzo Credi. The Saviour, seated on the wall, looks down compassionately, and points to Himself ; His hands are beautifully drawn and coloured, though the head again is feeble.

Between these two pictures is Perseus liberating Andromeda from the Sea Monster, by Piero di Cosimo (1462-1521), of whose pictures we have already seen examples in the corridor. This painting was executed for Filippo Strozzi, the founder of the Strozzi family. His descendant, Giovanni Strozzi, presented it to Sforza Almeni, the chamberlain of Duke Cosimo I., who held it in high estimation. According to Vasari, ` Piero di Cosimo never painted anything better, for it is impossible to conceive a sea-monster more whimsically imagined than this, nor a more resolute attitude than that of Perseus, who strikes at him in the air with his sword. Here is Andromeda bound, divided between fear and hope, of a most fair countenance ; and here, in the foreground, are many people collected in various and strange costumes, playing on instruments and singing, among whom some laugh and rejoice at the liberation of Andromeda, whose faces are truly divine. The landscape is beautiful, and agreeable in colour, and the gradation of tints and soft effects in this work is conducted with great care.’

Another predella is attributed to Francesco di Giorgio (1439-1502), a Siennese artist, better known as an engineer and architect. Cavalcaselle observes that, `he seems to have combined most of the Siennese characteristics of his time, with a fancy akin to that of Botticelli, and a fashion of drapery like that of the Pollajoli. He inherited defects already conspicuous in Vecchietta (see Corridor), such as slender, withered, and angular figures, the action of which is rendered in an awkward and often pompously-affected manner.’ The subject of this predella, which was painted about 148o, is taken from the life of St. Benedict; the architectural background is drawn with neatness, and there is a careful attention to detail displayed in the hooks behind the windows for holding back the outer blinds, the ring on the wall, the cat, the dog barking, &c. ‘ St. Benedict, as a boy, is on his way to the desert, and is followed by his nurse, Cyrilla, who borrowed from a neighbour a wooden trencher, which she accidentally broke; not being able to replace it, she was in great distress, until St. Benedict restored it by his prayers. In the compartment on the left, St. Benedict is tempted by devils in the desert ; on the right, he is visited in his Monastery of Monte Cassino by Totila, the king of the Goths.

The Annunciation is by Lorenzo Credi. The Virgin is kneeling at her prayers, when the Angel appears beckoning with one finger, and holding the lily ; her countenance is full of soul ; the head, figure, and drapery of the angel are drawn with the utmost precision.

The Adoration of the Magi is by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494), the greatest master of his age, in whose school Michael Angelo and other celebrated artists were formed. Ghirlandaio began life as a goldsmith, and his skill in the manufacture of golden garlands obtained for him this cognomen, as his real name was Bigordi. He always painted in distemper, and, though the style of colour peculiar to Florentine artists of the period is conspicuous in his works, he did not adopt the new method of an oil medium. Ghirlandaio followed in the steps of Baldovinetti. In this Adoration of the Magi he has introduced a light landscape background, with the view of a seaport ; the distance, well preserved, is seen through arches resting on pilasters with rich decorations. Beneath a roof constructed within the arch are the ox and ass of the Bethlehem stable ; a group of soldiers stand near, and behind are the shepherds, to whom an angel is bringing the glad tidings. On the right stands a group of spectators—apparently portraits—who converse together ; the attendants of the three kings, with their horses, fill the intermediate space. Neither the Madonna nor the Child has any beauty, and the figure of Joseph is the least successful part of the picture. The three kings, as well as the spectators nearest the Holy Family, kneel in worship ; one of the kings kisses the Child’s foot ; a second, looking back, connects the outer world with the scene within the picture ; the third and youngest, from whose head a Moorish attendant is removing the crown, resembles the angels of the Annunciation, as usually painted by Ghirlandaio. The great merit of the picture is the perfect truth to nature in the action of the figures, and the manner in which the pervading idea affects, in different degrees, those near and those far removed from the new-born Christ. The drawing is careful, though the animals are badly executed. The violent reds scattered throughout the picture give it a spotty appearance, though the colour is other-wise harmonious, as well as clear and bright.

Over the door is a Holy Family by Raffaellino del Garbo (1466–1524); a feeble picture, hardly deserving a place in this room.

At the opposite end of the room, between the windows, is a piece of old furniture, painted by Matteo Pasti of Verona, in the manner of Dello Delli (1404–1464), an artist who spent most of his life in Spain. On one side is the Triumph of Religion, with the Triumph of Death below; on the other, the Triumph of Fame and the Triumph of Love. The whole is a combination of quaint fanciful compositions and strange allegorical figures, some of which may be esteemed worthy of praise, such as the female who represents Fame, looking upwards with lips apart, and the angels in the allegory of Religion, who seem to float in mid air.