Adoration of the Madonna and Savior Child by angels, Saint Catharin of Alexandria, and John the Baptist
This small painted panel with a small Maestà has recently be rediscovered after being in the possession of the German miniature painter August Grahl (1791-1886) and later included in the collection of his Düsseldorf born great grandson Otto Sohn-Rethel (1887-1949), who was also a gifted painter. Eventualy the panel came through German private ownership into the hands of the current owner.
Recently, due to a publication on the completed restauration of the five-fold altarpiece of the Madonna and Child and the Saints Mary-Magdalene, John, Bartholomew, and Venantius in the Pinacoteca Civica Bruno Molajoli, this interesting panel was briefly referred to and included in an art historical analysis (Mazaluppi 2017). This was not an entirely new discovery, because the American art historian Richard Offner (1889-1965), at that time a leading expert on early Italian painting, labeled an old photograph of this painting in his private photo collection with Allegretto Nuzi. Thus, this picture has already been attributed to the painter from Fabriano since the midst of the 20th century. This conviction was recently joined by Matteo Mazzalupi (2017), who attributed this panel, that has been cut off on all sides, to Allegretto Nuzi as one of his late works. In that connection he also considered three more panels with depictions of Christ’s youth, that came from the side panels of the altarpiece (Matteo Mazzalupi 2017).
The reconstruction of the small altarpiece, would resemble a small wing altar from a Swiss private collection, first presented by myself on an exhibition in the Villa Favorita in Lugano in 1991 (Freuler 1991, p.194-196, fig.2). In an ideal reconstruction we imagine in the wings a (lost) annunciation similar to the Swiss triptych whilst in the lower part scenes of Christ’s youth are placed from the birth to the adoration (or alternatively Christ’s baptism). The cycle would continue after the Annunciation on the left wing with the Adoration of the newborn Savior (Vienna, Liechtenstein Museum). Furthermore it would show the Flight to Egypt (Vienna, Liechtenstein Museum), whereas the offer at the Temple (Elmira (NY), Arnot Museum of Art) and a hitherto unidentified panel with the Adoration of the Kings or the Baptism of Christ are presumed to complete it. In this ideal constellation a triptych with an adjusted height of ca. 50-55 cm would originate.
Although the delineation of the faces of our painting and the top layer of the figures have faded a little over time and the modeling has by now lost some of its plasticity, the painting’s legibility is still ensured. At the same time there is no doubt on the authentic authorship of Allegretto Nuzi regarding this Maestà.
In the past the art history regarded the painter born in Fabriano merely in connection with 14th century paintings from Florence. This point of view doesn’t serve the artist right and neglects both Allegretto Nuzi’s complex character and the refinement of his painting. This comprehension springs primarily from the biography of the artist, first documented as early as 1346 in Florence, where he entered the lay brotherhood “Compagnia di San Luca”, that was connected to the painters of Florence. His name, “Allegrettus Nuccii de Senis”, also appears in the register of foreign members of the Arte dei Medici e speziali in Florence, a guild that also incorporated the painters. The indication ‘de Senis’, that suggests an origin of Sienna, needs some clarification. It is not to be believed that there is another “Allegretto Nuzi” that would stem from Sienna, because it is certain that it concerns Allegretto Nuzi from Fabriano here, who, apparently, just wandered in from Sienna to settle in Florence. That also clarifies that Allegretto Nuzi stayed in Sienna for a while before he took up his Florentine activities, and made himself acquainted with the artistic conditions of that city as well. Allegretto Nuzi’s early working life, therefore, is truly developed in the two most important artistic cities of Tuscany. We still can assume that the Fabrianese left his home town already a fully trained artist, before he travelled to Sienna and Florence. As a matter of fact, the roots of his art intertwine obviously with the work of a number of painters that worked in Fabriano, in particular the master of Sant’Emiliano and the master of Campodonico, who left remarkable work in the abby of San Biagio in Caprile, and that of Santa Maria d’Appennino, as well as in the church Santa Maria Maddalena in Fabriano. These two masters truly created a basis of an original Frabrianese artistic tradition. On the substrate of these masters, that picked up the early characteristic Giotto interpretations of Rimini and synthesized them with the painting tendencies flowing in from Assisi to give the Tuscan art an authentic local touch, Allegretto Nuzi was shaped. The development of Nuzi is not yet fully retraced, but recent research by Andrea di Marchi and Matteo Mazzalupi (2017) has revealed many new insights in the work of our painter. It remains a fact that Nuzi quite obviously was a receptive character, who incorporated foreign experiences intelligently and distinctively in his own work, thus securing not to fall prey to the tendency of becoming a provincial epigone of his great Tuscan contemporaries, but – as befits a true artist – connecting their imagery and style to form a highly original and at the same time subtle visual language. Apparently, Allegretto Nuzi was very selective in picking his inspirational sources, because he only conceives the best of his time, when around 1345 he moves his sphere of activity to the Tuscan centers of art. In the forefront of his interest were Pietro and Abrogio Lorenzetti and Lippo Memmi from Sienna and Bernardo Daddi, Maso di Banco, and Andrea Orcagna from Florence.
One of Nuzi’s presumably earliest works, the Polyptychon in the John G. Johnson Collection in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, already shows the artist’s manifold of inspirational sources and his autonomous handling of these. The five-part altarpiece of half-figures, a common Tuscan archetype of the period, of which he might have seen Maso di Banco’s altarpiece in the Vettori chapel of the Santo Spirito in Florence (fig. 4, 8) and the polyptychs of Bernardo Daddi as well as of Pietro Lorenzetti in Sienna, reflects in the altarpiece in the National Gallery in Washington DC (fig. 5, 6) and clearly shows Nuzi’s perceptiveness for the influence of his Tuscan contemporaries. For instance the figure of Mary Magdalene (fig. 7) shows Nuzi’s remarkable ability to merge the various models he is acquainted with into his very own art style. His central figure of Mary Magdalene is appearing with a red dress and long open blond hair (fig. 7) similar to her representation of Maso di Banco in the altarpiece of the Santo Spirito (fig. 8); unlike this one she has pulled the cloak over her head like on Pietro Lorenzetti’s painting in Washington (fig. 9) and has a more sturdy build like in the example of Siena as well as a more restraint pose. This way she is similar to the strictly frontal version of Pietro Lorenzetti. Overall, Nuzi’s Magdalene appears as the synthesis of the two Florentine and Sienese models, with which the painter at the same time maintained his artistic independence. This comparison has revealed the maturity with which Nuzi converted his examples into his own imagery. Furthermore, the archival documentation unequivocally proves Allegretto Nuzi’s presence in Sienna and Florence since 1345-1348 before he returns to Fabriano in 1348 or 1350 when he is appearing in local records again. It might be expected that he sporadically has returned to Tuscany after he settled in Fabriano again. The Maestà at hand (fig. 1, 10), and also the scenes from Christ’s early life that presumably have been in the wings, offer themselves to assign Nuzi’s Tuscan experience. Again, the artist demonstrates his original ingenuity when processing the artistic work of his contemporaries. Especially the art from Siena, where he allegedly came from when he had moved to Florence, has been a significant source of inspiration. Indeed, the small Maestà can unmistakably be traced back to Florentine models, not only from Bernardo Daddi, but clearly also from other painters like the maestro of San Martino alla Palma (fig. 21) and finally Maso di Banco (fig. 9). This is particularly clear in comparison to the Maestà that has also been attributed to Andrea Orcagna, in San Giorgio a Ruballa of 1336 by Maso Banco (fig. 9) of which the vertical precept a throning Madonna with two flanking saints in the foreground and two angels in the background has been seized by Nuzi (fig. 10). This preference for Florentine concepts in his presentation of a Maestà also shows in a very similar painting in the collection of the Petit Palais in Avignon (fig. 22), that reveals an increased verticality in the conception, like the Maestà in the church of San Martino alla Palma (fig. 21) of whom the master, that is obviously a Florentine artist indebted to Bernardo Daddi, is called after this work of art. But also for the small picture at hand, Nuzi wouldn’t have been true to himself, if he hadn’t reflected on the Florentine models and brooded on different artistic solutions, to arrive at his own imagination and to realize it adequately. In this process the work of Pietro Lorenzetti appears especially convenient, because there is no doubt that Nuzi convoluted Lorenzetti’s Maestà of 1340 for the San Francesco in Pistoia (Florence Galleria della Uffizi, fig. 11) in the creation of our painting.
Obviously, the angel pairs at the side dressed in blue (fig. 10, 13) appear as citations from Pietro Lorenzetti’s 1340 Maestà from the San Francesco in Pistoia (fig. 11, 12), where the angels in the back row are accurately represented in their mental posture. In contradiction to other similarly captured angels in the context of Tuscan Maestà representations, like those in Maso di Banco’s Maestà in San Giorgio a Ruballa, the angels here are not depicted as in silent conversation with each other; they are rather directing their full attention to the divine intimacy of Mother and Savior-child. With the angels seized from Lorenzetti and figuring as emblem, and the renunciation of Lorenzetti’s front pair of angels, Nuzi has opened up his composition and at the same time grants his actors a wider range of motion and the general composition an enhanced lightness. All attention in Nuzi’s painting is conveyed to the divine pair. Similar to Pietro Lorenzetti’s representation, where the pair of angels, standing directly behind the throne and look out of the image and try to involve the spectator into the scene, the devout observer is invited – albeit in another way – to take part in the meditation, namely through the emblem of John the Baptist who is pointing to the future Savior and his mother, thus communicating directly with the observer. This might be the explanation of Nuzi’s (fig. 10, 13) use of Pietro Lorenzetti’s angels in the background and his renunciation of the heavenly beings in the foreground directly looking at the beholder. The well anchored presence of the imaginery of the Sienese painter in the conscience of Allegretto Nuzi is also visible in the Adoration of the Shepherds in the Liechtenstein collection in Vienna (fig. 17), allegedly part of the left wing of our little altarpiece (fig. 1). The image type here presented is not corresponding with the common representation of the Birth of Christ in Florence, but latches on to a lost prototype conceived in the vicinity of the brothers Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti, similar to the in 1330-1335 painted panel of Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Städelmuseum in Frankfurt (fig. 14). This lorenzettian artistic pitch appears in an array of variations during the 14th century, and can be traced back since the reception of the Catalan Ferrer Bassa in San Miguel in Pedralbes (1345/46, fig. 15), through Luca di Tommè (USA, private collection, ca. 1360, fig. 16), Bartolo di Fredi (1388), and Andrea di Bartolo (Siena Pinacoteca Nazionale, ca. 1400, fig. 16), just to mention some examples (G. Freuler 1986, p. 56-60), in large quantities. This goes for details like the gable roof over the grotto, the shepherds that have hastened to the Savior Child and have kneeled in devout adoration, or the attentively upward looking sheepdog, that appear in differing variants in this kind of paintings.
We would be jumping to conclusions, if we would interpret all the here observed appropriations from the Sienese art by Allegretto Nuzi in such a way that our little wing altar could be linked chronologically to his assumed activity in Siena in 1345-1346. The Sienese imagery would accompany Allegretto Nuzi all the way through his entire artistic work and creative incitement, which leads to a comparison of his Diptych of a Madonna and Child and the Man of Sorrows in the John G. Johnson collection in Philadelphia (fig. 20) and Simone Maritini’s little altar with a comparable pictorial theme in Museo Horne in Florence (fig. 19). Nuzi’s panels derived from a Sienese diptych (Carl Strehlke, 2004 p. 33-36) are conceived around 1366, in a period when he is long time back in his hometown Fabriano. His Tuscan experiences will stick to the artist’s mind for the rest of his life, and can still be perceived in his late work. This also applies to his impressive Maestà in the Musée du Petit Palais in Avignon (fig. 22), although this work has been unexplainably attributed to Fransescuccio di Cecco (M. Laclotte, E. Mönch, 2005, p. 106). Marcelli and Mazzalupi, however, have legitimately claimed the attribution of this work to Allegretto Nuzi (Fabio Marcelli, 2004, p. 79, Mazzalupi 2017), that to my opinion should be registered as later work from the period 1365-1370. As recently pointed out by Angelo Tartuferi (Tartuferi 2005), this vertically shaped Madonna image emphatically resembles the Madonna of the Maestro of San Martino alla Palma in the church with the same name in Florence (Scandicci) (fig. 21), that presumably was painted around 1346, which is the exact moment when Allegretto Nuzi arrived.
With the panel in Avignon, Nuzi’s pronounced preference for materiality, presented in the here compared images through superabundant representations of gold embroidered brocades, is preeminently connected. The gold embroidered patterns cover, like a tapestry, the garments, the cloak, and the cloth with oriental gold brocades hung over the throne. These textile tendencies in Allegretto Nuzi’s work reflect the development in Florentine painting, as it, since the late work of Bernardo Daddi, and subsequently in the workshop of the brothers Cione (Andrea Orcagna, Nardo di Cione) can be seized in commensurate form and technical agility. As opposed to the work of Florentine painters, the oriental patterns of the textiles are depicted rather flat, similar to the work of the Venetian Trecento painters (Lorenzo Veneziano, Guglielmo Veneziano fig. 24) who worked in the Marches. Regarding Allegretto Nuzi this could very well indicate a perceptiveness for the work of Venetian painters working in his vicinity. Although, concerning our little Maestà, the exact determination of the date of creation is not entirely unerring, and the chronology of the work of Nuzi is still very uncertain, there are indications that, like the assumed kindred paintings (fig. 2), the work is created around 1370 in Fabriano. This postulation is further reaffirmed by the stylistic proximity to a dated Madonna of 1327 in the Galleria Nazionale in Urbino (fig. 25).