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 

The one exception, the only other panel by Ugolino with tooled margins, is a bust of Saint Matthew in the Robert Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (29) This panel (fig. 14) has been cut on all four sides, but fragments of an original moulding survive at the upper left corner and, faintly visible beneath modern regilding, at the upper right. The low curvature of these mouldings indicates that the panel once terminated in a trilobe arch precisely as does the Ottawa Saint Anne. The punching still clearly visible at the upper left of the Lehman panel corresponds exactly to that along the edges of the Ottawa panel, and the stamped haloes of the young Virgin and of Saint Matthew, though employing some different tools, are closely related in design. Judging by the angles of the fragmentary mouldings in both pictures, the original height of the Lehman panel can be estimated at about 66 cm and its width at about 40-42 cm, while the Ottawa panel would have measured about 88 cm high by about 52-54 cm wide. The proportions between these two panels would then have corresponded to those between the central and lateral panels in a great number of other Sienese altarpieces. In addition, the Saint Matthew and the Saint Anne must have been painted at about the same time. Physiognomic similarities to the Evangelist from the Brolio polyptych suggest a similarity of date for the Saint Matthew, but the Brolio Evangelist was evidently painted by an assistant with a harder, more linear touch than is apparent in the Lehman panel. The Brolio Saint Peter provides a closer analogy, as does the Saint Peter from San Casciano. The conclusion seems inescapable that the Lehman Saint Matthew and the Ottawa Saint Anne once formed part of the same altarpiece, and that this altarpiece was painted sometime after the pentaptych at Brolio in Chianti and before the three panels at San Casciano.

Is it possible to know more precisely when this might have been? The Church of the Misericordia, formerly Santa Maria al Prato, at San Casciano is said to have been founded in 1335 by the Dominicans from Santa Maria Novella in Florence. It has been inferred that Ugolino's three paintings there were transferred from the mother house, since he is not thought to have been active at so late a date and since Vasari claims to have seen an altarpiece by him in Santa Maria NoveIla. (30) Vasari also claims, however, that Ugolino died only in 1339, (31) and the San Casciano panels are in fact amongst his latest works. Vasari is notoriously unreliable in such matters, but there are other reasons as well for believing that these pictures are works of the fourth decade, thus lending credence to Ugolino's reputed death date and helping by implication to date the Ottawa Saint Anne.

On the pulpit at San Casciano is a marble relief of the Annunciation carved by Giovanni di Balduccio, a Pisan sculptor active in Florence around 1330. Sometime before 1339 he left Florence for Milan to carve the Arca of Saint Peter Martyr in Sant'Eustorgio, which is dated by inscription to that year. Of all the sculptor's known works, the Annunciation most resembles certain figures at the top of the Arca of Saint Peter Martyr, and it might thus be presumed to have been carved immediately before his departure for Milan, most likely about 1335. (32) Also in the Misericordia at San Casciano is a painted Crucifix by Simone Martini and his shop which can reasonably be dated c. 1335. Its closest parallel among Simone's works is to be found in the three saints in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, which have recently, and correctly, been dated just prior to Simone's departure for Avignon in 1336. (33)

That Ugolino's San Casciano panels might also date to this moment is made plausible by a consideration of his career in general. Two of his very earliest altarpieces include representations of Saint Louis of Toulouse, and for that reason must have been painted after 1317, when the saint was canonized. One of these is the Clark polyptych at Williamstown. The other survives incomplete, but the panel of Saint Louis of Toulouse from it, now in the California Palace of the Legion of Honor at San Francisco, (34) is almost certainly earlier than its counterpart in the Clark polyptych. If, then, the latter dates closer to 1320, as seems likely, Ugolino's Polyptych 39, Poznan / Oetty altarpiece, Santa Croce and Brolio altarpieces must have been painted later in that decade, if not, as may have been the case for the Brolio altarpiece, in the first few years of the decade following. Under these circumstances, a date much earlier than 1335 for the San Casciano panels seems unlikely.

The coincidence of so many nearly contemporary great works of art being found in a small provincial church is too enormous to consider an historical accident, especially as they are also contemporary to the reputed founding of the church. It would be reasonable to conclude that they were planned as part of an initial campaign of decoration, probably in the years 1334 to 1336, rather than that they were transferred to the church piecemeal from other locations. The presence of a donor kneeling before the Virgin in Ugolino's panel is entirely consistent with such an hypothesis, on the basis of which he may someday be identifiable.

If the Ottawa Saint Anne and the Virgin is then to be dated shortly before 1335 and after 1330, as seems probable, it assumes a greater importance in the history of Sienese art. Ducciesque painting is usually assumed to have run its course by 1320. Simone Martini and Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti are thought to have completely dominated the following three decades of painting in Siena, their disciples the decades following those. The Ottawa Saint Anne is a document of the survival of an older and more conservative tradition well into the period of its supposed decline. The astonishing quality of the picture, furthermore, stands as a testimony to the continued vitality of that tradition.

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