This triptych consists of two laterals with paired saints and a central panel with the Madonna and Child. All three panels are topped with similar triangular gables with a painted medallion in the center. The reduction of a five-part altarpiece into a simplified format with the external profile of a triptych may have been suggested to Florentine masters as a consequence of trends that appeared towards the end of the fourteenth century: a greater simplification in composition and a revival of elements of painting from the first half of the Trecento. Agnolo Gaddi followed this trend in several of his works. He demonstrates this in the three panels being discussed here by his deliberate revival of motifs that had been abandoned by most Florentine painters since the mid-fourteenth century. To present the Madonna seated on a throne of Giottesque type, instead of concealing the structure of the throne with a gold-embroidered cloth of honor as in most paintings realized by masters in the circle of Orcagna, was a sort of archaism at this time. Agnolo scrupulously describes this seat and at the same time exploits its form to create three-dimensional effects. Yet these archaizing motifs are combined with more forward-looking features. Gaddi’s progressive adjustment to the innovative late Gothic taste of his time is thus attested by various aspects of the triptych, such as the pastiglia decoration in the gables, the now lost decoration of the frame, the rich orientalizing carpet that covers the floor, and even the crowded composition of the central panel.
Lionello Venturi published this triptych in 1931 under the name of Gherardo Starnina. This attribution was based on the now discarded theory of scholars who had tried in the first three decades of the century to reconstruct the oeuvre of a putative disciple of Agnolo Gaddi, to whom the conventional name “Madonnenmeister” or “Compagno d’ Agnolo” was given and who was later identified with Gherardo Starnina. However, Bernard Berenson recognized that a good part of the work given to the “Compagno d’Agnolo” belongs to Agnolo himself. The studies of Ugo Procacci on Starnina finally put the proposed identification to rest, though it continued to enjoy residual credit for some time to come. In the National Gallery of Art, the altarpiece was cataloged as a work by Agnolo Gaddi, and since the 1960s, art historians have unanimously accepted this attribution.
The present writer proposed that Agnolo Gaddi’s altarpiece might have been executed for the sacristy of the church of San Miniato al Monte (Florence), of which the Alberti were patrons and for whose decoration Benedetto di Nerozzo Alberti left funds in his will of 1387. The reasons adduced at that time in support of such a hypothesis were, it must be admitted, not quite convincing: referring to the inscription in Saint Benedict’s book to the “admonition” (an administrative sanction by the Florentine government) against Alberti in 1387 and his subsequent exile is open to question. Furthermore, I erroneously asserted that Saint Giovanni Gualberto was represented in the painting. The saint to the right of the Virgin is, in fact, Bernard of Clairvaux, but the presence of this saint in the altarpiece is actually a further argument in support of a provenance from the sacristy of San Miniato. Saint Bernard was the patron Saint of Benedetto Alberti’s son Bernardo, who in his will dated 1389 left money for masses to be celebrated annually pro anima dicti testatoris (for the soul of the said testator) in the family chapel in San Miniato, which had evidently already by that date been consecrated. The representation of Saint Andrew, who was the patron saint of a predeceased son of Benedetto Alberti, also links the altarpiece to the sacristy of San Miniato. As to the fourth saint, Catherine of Alexandria (standing on a broken wheel), she was evidently much venerated in Benedetto’s family. This is proved by the fact that, in his will of 1387, he bequeathed money for the decoration of an oratory near Florence (Santa Caterina dell’Antella) dedicated to the martyr saint of Alexandria (and decorated by a cycle of frescoes illustrating scenes from her life by Spinello Aretino); additionally, his son Bernardo wished to build a monastery and a church in her honor. The Alberti family’s veneration of Saint Catherine may have been based on the popular etymology of her name (catherine = catenula) diffused by Jacopo da Varazze in Legenda aurea, with reference to the chain represented in the Alberti coats of arms.
Although the provenance from San Miniato remains a hypothesis, it still seems to me a quite plausible one that, if correct, would give us the certainty that by 1830 the triptych was still on the altar of the sacristy. An altarpiece can apparently be seen still in situ in a sketch of the sacristy’s altar wall [fig. 1] made in that year by architect Christoph Robert August Roller (1805–1858), in his Tagebuch einer italienischen Reise (Castle Museum Burgdorf, Burgdorf, Switzerland). Unfortunately, the sketch, to which Stefan Weppelmann kindly drew my attention, is very small and certainly not sufficient for the identification of the triptych in the Gallery. What may be said for certain is only that an altarpiece composed of five panels stood on the altar of the sacristy of San Miniato in 1830, but by 1836 this altarpiece was no longer there, as Stefan Weppelmann rightly observed. It was removed and sold presumably by the Pia Opera degli Esercizi Spirituali, which had owned the furniture and decorations of the church since 1820.
As for its date, the Gallery’s first catalog (1941) cautiously suggested “the last quarter of the XIVth century,” while the volume devoted to the Duveen Pictures (1941) proposed an approximate date of c. 1380. More recent publications in general support a time frame within the 1380s, although without explaining the reasons for this proposal. Arguing for a provenance from the sacristy of the Florentine church of San Miniato al Monte, Miklós Boskovits (1975) attempted a more precise dating shortly after the codicil dated 1387 was appended to the testament of Benedetto di Nerozzo degli Alberti, its putative patron. For his part, Bruce Cole (1979) stylistically linked the Gallery triptych with the cycle of frescoes in the choir of Santa Croce in Florence, for which he proposed a date of execution in the years c. 1388–1393. Given the lack of securely datable panels by Gaddi, with the exception of the composite altarpiece of the Cappella del Crocifisso, still in the church of San Miniato, various scholars have attempted to construct a chronology for the artist based on an analysis of the punched decoration of his work; however, this effort has failed to yield any precise indication for the Washington altarpiece other than a vague association with a relatively late phase in the painter’s activity.
In the course of his career, especially between the 1380s and the early 1390s, Agnolo Gaddi produced a number of polyptychs, now in part dismantled and dispersed, of which at least the surviving central panels propose a composition close to that of the triptych discussed here. I refer in particular to Madonna and Child with Eight Angels (now united with laterals that did not originally belong to it) in the Contini-Bonacossi bequest to the Uffizi, Florence; Madonna and Child Surrounded by Eight Angels in the church of San Lorenzo at Borgo San Lorenzo; the triptych in the Staatliche Museen of Berlin, in which six angels are placed around the throne and a further pair are in the gable; and Madonna and Child Flanked by Twelve Angels, now in a private collection in Milan. None of these is securely dated, but the Berlin triptych can in all probability be identified with that formerly on the altar of the Nobili chapel in Santa Maria degli Angeli, which bore the inscription “An D 1387 Bernardus Cini de Nobilibus fecit fieri hanc cappellam.” This gives us a useful point of reference not only for defining a chronological sequence of the paintings in question but also, as we shall see, for the dating of Gaddi’s great cycles of Florentine frescoes. Another chronological point of reference, albeit an approximate one, is 1383, the date of the testament of Michele di Vanni Castellani, in which he made bequests for the construction and decoration of a family chapel in Santa Croce, the chapel that would later be frescoed by Agnolo Gaddi. The style of this decoration suggests a period of execution not much later than the will; indeed, most art historians tend to place the execution of the cycle in the years immediately following 1383.
Although successive restorations have now made it difficult to assess, the Borgo San Lorenzo panel seems the earliest of the group. It was perhaps painted even before the frescoes in the Castellani chapel, with which it has affinities in its use of dense shadows in modeling, in the rigid profiles of the angels, and in the deeply channeled and brittle-looking folds of their garments. Between that work and the Nobili triptych now in Berlin can be placed both the Madonna of the Contini-Bonacossi bequest (it too now altered by retouches) and the triptych in the Gallery. In contrast to these latter two, the animated composition of the panel destined for the Nobili chapel seems to represent a further step forward, in the direction of the more dynamic compositions and the more delicate modeling that characterize the painter’s final phase, to which the above-mentioned Madonna surrounded by twelve angels now in a private collection can, I believe, be ascribed.
If such a chronological sequence of the altarpieces executed by Agnolo in the 1380s is plausible, the Gallery triptych ought to date to a period slightly preceding 1387—that is, slightly preceding the execution of the other and more important enterprise promoted by Benedetto di Nerozzo Alberti, the frescoing of the choir in Santa Croce. Various similarities can be identified between passages of that cycle and the Washington triptych, in confirmation of the chronological proximity of the two works: the bust of Saint Andrew [fig. 2] recurs, in similar form, in the scene of the Making of the Cross [fig. 3], in the group of spectators to the extreme right of the fresco, while analogies can also be identified between the other saints of the triptych and the busts of the prophets inserted in the ornamental friezes that articulate the chapel’s decoration. Close similarities have also been observed between the lateral saints of the Gallery triptych and the fragments of an altarpiece now in Indianapolis. We have no secure evidence to help us date these fragments, probably the remains of the decoration of the lateral pilasters of a polyptych roughly contemporary with, or perhaps slightly later than, the triptych being discussed here. In conclusion, therefore, the Washington altarpiece exemplifies a stage in the artist’s career in which he embarked on the gradual discovery of the innovative features of late Gothic art. This led him to develop greater elegance in poses, more delicate and harmonious arrangement of draperies, and more spontaneous vitality in the conduct of the angels thronged around the sides of the throne as if drawn magnetically to the child. A clear sign of the innovations of the phase in which Agnolo painted the frescoes in the choir of Santa Croce is also the artist’s polychromy: abandoning the somber palette of previous works, he now prefers or utilizes combinations of delicate pastel colors.
Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)
March 21, 2016