National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 5, 1981-1982

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Lotto di Giovanni Salviati and
The Virgin and Child with Saints
by Benozzo Gozzoli
in the National Gallery of Canada

by Pierre Hurtubise, O. M. I.

Article en français

Pages  2  |  3 

The altarpiece of the Virgin and Child with six saints by Benozzo Gozzoli (fig. I) was bought in 1866 by the prominent artist and collector Johann Anton Ramboux, who was Keeper of the Municipal Museums of Cologne. The painting was auctioned in 1867 shortly after Ramboux's death, and purchased by the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne. It was sold by the Museum in 1943 and bought by the National Gallery of Canada in 1952. Ramboux attributed the altarpiece to Benozzo, and all subsequent scholars have agreed. Neither where Ramboux bought the painting, nor its history prior to the purchase is known.

This painting poses significant problems, not the least of which is the date of execution. At first glance, there seems to be no mystery, since the painting's inscription states very clearly: QVESTA TAVOLA FV FORNITA.ADI.X.XVII. DIMARZº. Mº. CCCCº. LXXIII. This would lead us to conclude that it was completed and delivered on 27 March 1473. But the matter is not that simple. The first question that arises is whether the dating was in accordance with the Florentine or the Pisan calendar, for although both calendars began the year on 25 March, in the style of the Incarnation, the Pisan calendar was one year ahead of the Florentine. Thus, 27 March 1473 in Pisa was 27 March 1472 in Florence, while 27 March 1473 in Florence corresponded to 27 March 1474 in Pisa. This difference may seem trifling, but since Benozzo worked in both Florence and Pisa, it is important to know which calendar was used to date each of his works, in order to avoid confusion as to date and painter.

From 1467 to 1494, at least, Benozzo lived and worked in Pisa, and it is therefore very likely that the painting in question was done there. This should incline us to be1ieve the painting was dated in accordance with the Pisan calendar .However, the possibility remains that the work was intended for a Florentine client or was done in the vicinity of Florence, and that the dating was therefore Florentine as well.

Where and for whom was the painting actually executed? One theory is that it was commissioned by the Compagnia de' Fiorentini of Pisa for their church in that city. Vasari made specific mention of works done by Benozzo for that church. (1) When the building was demolished in the early part of the sixteenth century, (2) these works were probably moved and eventually scattered; this would explain the fate of this painting and the mystery still surrounding the first two centuries of its existence. This theory seems to be supported by the second part of the painting's inscription: ALTE[M]PO DELMAGNIFICO HVOMO L[O]TTº DIGIOVAN[N]I SALVIATI CA [PITAN]º. DI[GNJ]SS[I]Mo. Lotto di Giovanni Salviati was captain of Pisa's citadel at the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Because he was an important figure, charged with exercising Florentine authority in Pisa, it is easy to imagine him supporting, or even initiating the Compagnia de' Fiorentini's undertaking.

All these elements give credence to the above-stated theory. However, one serious difficulty remains. Lotto di Giovanni Salviati was captain in Pisa from 30 November 1476 to 30 May 1477. (3) The date in our inscription, however, is March 1473 - at least three years before Salviati's term in Pisa. There are three possible explanations for this discrepancy: 

(1) the painting was not done for a Pisan institution or patron, or, at least, was not intended for that city; 

(2) the date on the painting is incorrect; 

(3) the reference to Lotto di Giovanni Salviati is unrelated to his term as captain in Pisa, and is perhaps merely a tribute to his prestige in that city.

Since Lotto Salviati served as captain only once - and that was in Pisa during the period which concerns us - the first and third explanations seem unsatisfactory. The alternative is to accept that the inscription's author or authors were very poorly informed, had no notion of time or space, or had no idea what they were doing. There is really only one solution to the dilemma: to conclude that they erred and that the inscription should read XXVII DI MARZO Mo. CCCCº. LXXVII or LXXVIII ( depending on whether the calendar used was Florentine or Pisan) instead of Mº. CCCCº. LXXIII. But how could this error have occurred?

Let us consider two hypotheses. On the one hand, it may have been made inadvertently by the artist himself or someone else whose task it was to do the inscription. However, it is difficult to believe that no one at that time would have recognized the mistake and sought to have it corrected. On the other hand, the error may have been due to a misapprehension long after, either on the part of the inscription's author or authors (assuming that the inscription was added later - for example, when the painting was moved after the Compagnia de' Fiorentini church was destroyed early in the sixteenth century), or on the part of restorers lacking knowledge or skill (assuming that there had always been an inscription, which had deteriorated and therefore had to be at least partially redone or retouched). We have little evidence to support the last two hypotheses, but we feel that this is the area to which research should be directed. In addition, the coarse and inelegant form of the inscription especially when compared with inscriptions on other altarpieces by Benozzo, encourages the suspicion that the lettering was not merely retouched (as were the figures above), but is very possibly a later addition. One thing is certain: it is difficult to see how the date now inscribed on the painting could be correct. (4)

Whether the painting was commissioned by Lotto di Giovanni Salviati, or merely executed under his patronage or protection, will probably remain an enigma. However, we know that he must have been a person of consequence and prestige to be cited - especially in these terms - in the inscription beneath Benozzo's painting. All of which leads to the inevitable question: Who was Lotto di Giovanni Salviati?
Next Page |  born about 1408

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