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

Annual Bulletin 5, 1981-1982

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Ugolino di Nerio: Saint Anne and the Virgin

by Laurence B. Kanter

Pages  1  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7 

From this point in his career, Ugolino's characters assume a stronger dramatic flavour, probably under the increasing influence of Pietro Lorenzetti. He achieves also a stronger three-dimensionality, partly due to more ambitious torsions in the design of his figures, partly to a greater sensitivity to nuance in surface modelling and sfumato lighting effects. Perhaps paradoxically, Ugolino exhibits at the same time a more exquisite sense of pattern and linear refinement in place of his earlier concern with simple shapes and volumes. The pictures in which this first becomes apparent are the three surviving lateral panels from the Santa Croce alterpiece (fig. 6), now in Berlin, (18) and the almost contemporary Ricasoli polyptych (fig. 7) at Brolio in Chianti. (19) In the latter it might be argued that only the central Virgin and Child, the Baptist, and perhaps the Saint Peter are wholly autograph. Only these panels reveal Ugolino's sophistication of handling as well as his design, while the Saints John the Evangelist and Paul are less inspired and drier in execution. In the centre panel, the Christ Child is shown crossing His legs, with His robe falling across His thigh in remarkably deep folds, more suggestive in their destiny and fluidity of the whorls in a sea shell than of the behaviour of real cloth. He pulls at His mother's veil with an energy that seems almost to pull her head down towards Him. The Baptist and Saint Peter are the same dark, tense figures as in the Santa Croce alterpiece. In both of these altarpieces, a simple arched panel shape has been abandoned in favour of the more fashionable ogival arch. Both altarpieces, furthermore, have introduced a complexity in the design of haloes lacking in the earlier Polyptych 39 (fig. 5) at Siena. In the Berlin panels (fig. 6), the rosette and leaf-shaped punches that were used in Siena have been arranged to fill five concentric bands of decoration. At Brolio (fig. 7) the artist reverted to three bands of decoration but expanded them into more elegant and complex patterns reminiscent of the engraved designs of his earliest haloes.

Another Saint John the Baptist, now at Poznan, (20) is easily recognized as a slightly earlier version of the same figure in the Santa Croce or Brolio altarpieces. He is cropped a little shorter at the waist, his draperies are more simplified, and his left arm is drawn parallel to the picture plane, where his later counterparts have more ambitiously foreshortened arms and sharply turned wrists. The relative frontality of the Poznan Baptist recalls the figures in Polyptych 39 at Siena, and the smoother, more planar rendering of his facial features is more like that of Saint Francis from Polyptych 39 than it is like the exaggerated detail of any figure in the Santa Croce or Brolio altarpieces. Similar also to Polyptych 39 are the round arch of the Poznan panel, though in its present state it has been slightly truncated, and the punched floral motifs against a stippled ground in the halo.

The Poznan Baptist would appear to occupy a chronological mid point between Polyptych 39 and the Santa Croce altarpiece. This impression is confirmed by two other panels which may be associated with it as parts of the same dismembered altarpiece. One of these, a Saint Andrew in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Califomia (fig. 9), has long been recognized as belonging with the Poznan panel. (21) In expression it approaches the dramatic intensity of the Santa Croce saints, and like them Saint Andrew's halo is composed of five concentric rings of geometric decoration. A third panel from this altarpiece, previously unpublished, (22) represents a female saint holding a lily, possibly Saint Eustochium (fig. 10). The condition of this panel, whose extensive and crude repaints are apparent even in photograph, does not permit any stylistic deductions beyond the observation that the figure repeats, almost literally, the cartoon of an earlier figure of Saint Catherine by Ugolino, now in Urbana, Illinois, at the Krannert Art Museum. (23) The panel with Saint Eustochium (?) is almost exactly the same size as the Poznan and Oetty panels and like them terminates in a rounded arch, slightly truncated. The saint's halo, with a twisting vine running along the centre, is a slightly more advanced form of those appearing in Polyptych 39, and makes use of the same rosette and three-petalled leaf punches employed there, in the Santa Croce altarpiece (fig. 6), in the Ricasoli pentaptych (fig. 7), and in the Ottawa Saint Anne. The pattern on Eustochium's (?) robe is a variant of that on the dress of the young Virgin at Ottawa or on the mantle of the Christ Child in the Tadini Madonna (fig. 3). (24)

The Getty / Poznan altarpiece is likely to shortly predate those from Santa Croce and Brolio in Chianti. The picture that must shortly postdate them now hangs behind the high altar of the Church of the Misericordia at San Casciano (fig. II). The size and gabled shape of this panel suggest that it was conceived as an independent image, but it is flanked in the church today by two exactly contemporary panels also by Ugolino, a Saint Francis and a Saint Peter (fig. 12) in half-length. (25) The gabled panel shows the Virgin, full-length, seated on a throne of inlaid marble, with the Child supported on her left arm and a donor kneeling before her at the right. The cartoon of the Child is similar to that used earlier in the Tadini Madonna, but the treatment of the figures is even more stylized than in the Brolio polyptych. The sharp folds of the Child's cloak and tunic are resolved into pure pattern, and both figures are delineated with a roundness and calligraphic exaggeration unequalled in any previous picture, in fact surpassed in only one later: the triptych from San Giovanni d'Asso (fig. 13), now part of the Contini-Bonacossi bequest at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. (26) In this last, the quality of caricature latent beneath Ugolino's emotional sensitivity has been unleashed. The decorative overstatement of every line - in folds of drapery, curls of hair, or creases of skin - nearly obscures the underlying Ducciesque inspiration. In the Palazzo Pitti today, Ugolino's San Giovanni d'Asso triptych hangs opposite his Tadini Madonna in the same room. The two Madonna and Child compositions are based on closely similar cartoons, and were painted by the same artist, yet they seem worlds apart from each other. The one is redolent of the grace and majesty of Duccio, the other is as raucous as a work by the Ovile Master near mid-century. (27)

The Tadini Madonna and the San Giovanni d'Asso triptych mark the poles of Ugolino's stylistic development. Where in this long sequence does the Ottawa Saint Anne belong? The round faces of both the mother and daughter and the Virgin's stylized curls and elaborately patterned dress could only have been painted after the Brolio Madonna, where in fact the pose of the child is repeated in that of the Infant Christ, with His legs crossed and His right hand reaching for His mother's veil. The two figures differ only in that the young Virgin in Ottawa looks out to her left and brings her left arm further across her body than does the Brolio Christ Child. (28) The fully modelled Saint Anne strongly recalls the Madonnas from Brolio and San Casciano, whose postures she echoes as well. Saint Anne's halo duplicates almost exactly the design of that of the Madonna from San Casciano and, finally, the San Casciano and Ottawa panels are, with one exception, the only extant panels by Ugolino in which he decorated the margins of the gold ground as well as the haloes with tooled punches.

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