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Members' Research Report Archive

Castagno's Crime: Andrea del Castagno and Quattrocentro Art

Anne Dunlop
, Tulane University
Samuel H. Kress Senior Fellow, 2012–2013

The head, shoulders, and chest of a man wearing a deep rose-red garment fills this vertical portrait painting. His body is angled slightly to our left, and he looks directly at us from the corners of his eyes. His brown hair falls across his forehead, sweeps down over his ears, and curls gently at the nape of his neck. His eyebrows arch over brown eyes, and he has a long, angular nose. His upper lip is full, and his mouth is closed. He has high cheekbones and a cleft in his chin. The high collar is a black band over the voluminous red garment, which falls in pleats or folds down his chest. His right hand, on our left, lifts to clutch the fabric near his chest, in the lower left corner of the painting, and he wears a gold ring on his pinky finger. The background behind the man fades from dark aquamarine blue across the top to pale arctic blue at his shoulders, which span the width of the composition.

Andrea del Castagno, Portrait of a Man, c. 1450, tempera on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.17

According to Giorgio Vasari, the Florentine painter Andrea del Castagno (c. 1419–1457) was an exceptional artist, a constant innovator, and a cold-blooded assassin. In both editions of Lives of the Artists, Vasari claimed that Andrea had murdered his fellow painter Domenico Veneziano (c. 1410–1461) because Domenico had brought the secret of oil painting to Florence, and Andrea was jealous of his success. He pretended to befriend Domenico, learned his secrets, and then struck him dead in a dark street. Only Andrea’s deathbed confession, Vasari wrote, revealed the crime.

It was established in the nineteenth century that Domenico Veneziano actually outlived Andrea del Castagno by four years, and the few surviving documents on Andrea suggest an uneventful life. He was notably successful in his short career, working mostly in Florence for the elite circles around the Medici. Yet Vasari’s tale is suggestive: what exactly was the nature of his supposed crime against art? As a Samuel H. Kress Senior Fellow, I have been working on a book manuscript on Andrea, and my research takes Vasari’s tale as its starting point: despite his undoubted success, the painter’s many innovations were often artistic dead ends. To show Saint Jerome’s interior vision (Santissima Annunziata, Florence), for instance, Andrea took an image of the Trinity by Masaccio (1401–1428), rotated it ninety degrees, and had it emerge in a burst of blood red from Jerome’s head, with Christ cut in two like a magician’s dummy. On a parade shield in the National Gallery of Art collections, the Biblical shepherd boy David has already slain and decapitated Goliath, and yet he continues to swing—apparently at the viewer. This experimentation has also made Andrea’s work hard to date or place: until quite recently, his portrait of an unknown man, also in the National Gallery of Art (c. 1450) was attributed to Piero Pollaiuolo (c. 1443–1496) and dated two decades after Andrea’s death.

My research has had two goals. The first is to reexamine the painter’s work. Andrea del Castagno is a central figure of the Italian Renaissance and appears in every survey textbook on the period. Yet the last full monograph on him was published by Marita Horster in 1980 and was based on research published thirty years before. More fundamentally, however, I am using Andrea’s work to think through the visual and conceptual shifts in painting in mid-Quattrocento Florence, a place and space in which the idea of painting as an imaginative undertaking—an art form—was itself slowly coming into being. Important recent studies and theorizations of this moment have been driven, as I am driven, by the need to think through our own visual system by exploring its roots and genesis. Andrea del Castagno was part of the pivotal generation between Donatello (1386–1466), Masaccio, and Masolino (c. 1383–c. 1447) in the early century and Leonardo (1452–1519),  Raphael (1483–1520), and Michelangelo (1475–1564) at the end of it. His work engaged with the central issues of Quattrocento art, from how to adapt one-point perspective to real-world viewing conditions to the problematic relation of “modern” art to tradition. In my work on Andrea, I want to explore the contradictions and limits of this emerging visual system through a particular position and practice within it.

I have divided my time at the Gallery between research and writing. Before arriving at CASVA I had gone through the documents and archival sources on the artist and examined and photographed all his surviving work. The Gallery holds works not only by Andrea but also by many of his contemporaries, including Domenico Veneziano.  I have been able to examine the two paintings by Andrea himself, and access to the library and the collections has allowed me to sort out what we actually know about the painter and the painting, as opposed to what has been passed down in the literature. I will finish the year with a first draft of the manuscript in hand, and I am especially grateful for many conversations with National Gallery of Art conservators and with my colleagues at CASVA on topics ranging from the use of oil paint by Piero della Francesca to the emergence of the “modern” artist. It will be a richer book because of these exchanges.

Andrea del Castagno
Italian, 1419 - 1457
Andrea del Castagno
Portrait of a Man
c. 1450