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Master of the Griselda Legend

Umbrian-Sienese, active early 1490s

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Three panels in the National Gallery, London, illustrating a novella from Boccaccio's Decameron[1]--the story of that insuperable exemplar of female virtues, Griselda, the wife of Gualtieri, marquis of Saluzzo--are the name-piece of this anonymous artist, whose profile is still the subject of scholarly debate. The reconstruction of his oeuvre began in the years around the turn of the twentieth century, when some scholars recognized the Griselda painter's hand in a number of dispersed panels representing paragons of fidelity, chastity, and self-sacrifice,[2] which had previously been connected with Luca Signorelli[3] or his nephew Francesco.[4] Later various other works were connected with the Griselda Master, but only a birth salver representing a bacchic scene, formerly in the Zoubaloff collection in Florence, is convincingly by his hand.[5]

The first to trace a profile of the anonymous artist were De Nicola and Berenson;[6] De Nicola was also able to identify the patron of the heroes and heroines cycle as almost certainly a member of the Piccolomini family, thus establishing the probable destination as one of the family palaces in Siena. This circumstance and the participation of Sienese masters in the series suggested that the painter was also from Siena;[7] but some scholars consider him to be of Umbrian origin and training, and there is even a proposal to detect his hand alongside that of Signorelli and Bartolomeo della Gatta in the stories from the life of Moses frescoed on the walls of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. According to another hypothesis, the works attributed to the Griselda Master are in reality the product of a certain phase in the work of Bartolomeo della Gatta or of the late quattrocento Sienese painter called the Maestro dei Putti Bizarri.[8] Yet neither of these artists ever reaches the point of being mistaken, or almost so, for Signorelli, as is sometimes the case with the Master of Griselda.

For the moment Signorelli remains the central point of reference for the anonymous artist. Not only does the latter imitate Luca's free and easy brushwork, he also re-proposes the gravity of gesture and elegance of pose seen in Signorelli's work, along with his dark, gloomy shadows. The fact, too, that the Master of Griselda, while borrowing Signorelli's compositional formulas with such easy confidence, modifies and over-emphasizes them, seems to point to a long acquaintance with the master's style. It is very likely that in the years around 1490 the Master of Griselda was in Signorelli's workshop and that he had received his training there. It should be emphasized, however, that the Griselda Master is not simply an imitator of Signorelli, but an artist with a strong personality in his own right who, although moving within Signorelli's stylistic orbit, uses a highly original, refined, and fluent language charged with great expressive force. [This is the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]

[1] See Tutte le opere di Giovanni Boccaccio, ed. Vittore Branca, 12 vols. (Milan, 1976), 4: 942-954. On the panels with stories of Griselda (nos. 912-914), see Davies 1961, 365-367.

[2] Cruttwell 1899, 117, first recognized the hand of the painter of the Stories of Griselda in the Tiberius Gracchus in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest (no. 64); the same proposal was advanced shortly thereafter by A. Venturi 1900, 238, who enlarged the artist's brief catalogue with other paintings from the series of heroes. Both scholars considered these pictures to be products of Luca Signorelli's workshop. On this series see also the entries in the NGA' systematic catalogue of its 15th century Italian paintings.

[3] Claudia Quinta was attributed to Signorelli probably from the time it was acquired for the Timbal collection in the mid-nineteenth century. If the NGA's Joseph is, as seems very likely, the panel sold in 1863 at the Davenport Bromley sale, it bore an early attribution to Signorelli (see Picture Sales 1863, 160). The Alexander today in the Barber Institute (Birmingham) was shown at the Exhibition of the Work of Luca Signorelli and His School, Burlington Fine Arts Club, London, 1893 (see page xv of the catalogue); the Tiberius Gracchus in Budapest is still quoted by Pigler 1967, 646-647, as a painting from Signorelli's shop; and the Artemisia in Milan was catalogued by Antonio Morassi (Il Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milano [Milan, 1932], 10, 27) as Signorelli's own work.

[4] Crowe and Cavalcaselle, Italy, 3 (1866): 33, suggested connecting the Tiberius Gracchus in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest (no. 64) with the activity of Francesco Signorelli.

[5] This painting was first assigned to the artist by De Nicola 1917, 227 note 9, and published many years later by Alberto Martini ("Precedenti del manierismo," Arte figurativa 7, no. 6 [1959]: 36) with the same attribution. It is debatable, instead, whether or not the artist was responsible for the execution of a part of the stories of Moses frescoed by Bartolomeo della Gatta and Signorelli in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, as Longhi 1964, 5-8, proposed. Some other attributions set forth in recent years must be rejected, in the opinion of Miklos Boskovits, because of stylistic incompatibility. He refers, for example, to the three panels Faith, Hope, and Charity in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, attributed to the artist by Vertova 1984, 200-212, and discussed by Laurence Kanter in Exh. cat. New York 1988, 346-351, who considers them to have been done by the Griselda Master and Pietro di Domenico in collaboration. To Boskovits, Pietro di Domenico seems the most probable author of all three paintings. Roberto Bartalini, in Exh. cat. Siena 1993, 410-413, hypothesizes that the anonymous artist painted the background landscape in a relief of the Madonna and Child in the church of San Leonardo at Montefollonico (Torrita di Siena). Boskovits is of the opinion that the analogies are not close enough to confirm the attribution.

[6] De Nicola 1917, 224-228, and Berenson 1930, English ed., part 3 (1931): 17-22.

[7] Berenson 1930, part 2: 753, who posited Signorelli's direct intervention in the execution of various panels, considered the Master of Griselda to be "one of his Sienese assistants, trained in the traditions of Neroccio and Benvenuto [di Giovanni]." The circumstance that the activity of this anonymous painter represents a brief, isolated episode in the history of Sienese painting, may suggest, on the contrary, that he was a foreigner to Siena, active there only briefly.

[8] See Roberto Longhi, "Un intervento raffaellesco nella serie 'eroica' di casa Piccolomini," Paragone 15, no. 175 (1964): 5-8, and Alberto Martini, "The Early Work of Bartolomeo della Gatta," AB 42 (1960): 141. For the identification of the Griselda Master as the Maestro dei Putti Bizzarri, see Alessandro Angelini, "Intorno al Maestro di Griselda," Fondazione di Studi di Storia dell'Arte Roberto Longhi, Firenze, Annali 2 (1989): 5-15. See also his later contribution (in Exh. cat. Siena 1993, 424-427), where the scholar hypothesized an identification of this anonymous artist as the modest Girolamo di Domenico. But precisely because of the mediocre level, all things considered, of this artist's work the proposal is not convincing to Miklos Boskovits, who wonders if the Maestro dei Putti Bizarri might not be instead Ludovico Scotti in his early phase.

Artist Bibliography

Berenson, Bernard. "Quadri senza casa: Il Quattrocento senese." Parts 1,2: Dedalo 11, no. 10 (March 1930): 627-646; 11, no. 11 (April 1930): 735-767. English ed. "Missing Pictures of 15th Century Siena." Part 3: International Studio 98 (April 1931): 17-22.
Tátrai, Vilmos. "Il maestro della storia di Griselda e una famiglia senese di mecenati dimenticata." Acta Historiae Artium 25, nos. 1-2 (1979): 26-66.
Kanter, Laurence B. "Master of the Griselda Legend." In Painting in Renaissance Siena, 1400-1500. Exh. cat. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988: 344-351.
Bellosi, Luciano, ed. Francesco di Giorgio e il Rinascimento a Siena, 1450-1500. Exh. cat. Chiesa di Sant'Agostino, Siena. Milan, 1993: 462-468, 524.
Kanter, Laurence B. "Rethinking the Griselda Master." Gazette des Beaux-Arts 6th ser., 142 (February 2000): 147-156.
Boskovits, Miklós, and David Alan Brown, et al. Italian Paintings of the Fifteenth Century. The Systematic Catalogue of the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 2003: 496-497.

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