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

Annual Bulletin 5, 1981-1982

Annual Index
Author & Subject

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.

Pages  1  2  |  3

We know that he was born about 1408, the eldest of a family of seven boys, five of whom lived to adulthood. (5) His father, Giovanni di Forese Salviati, belonged to Florence's political élite and was, evidently, highly esteemed and respected in the city. He was in the Signoria five times: as prior in 1406, 1411, and 1415, and as gonfalonier in 1426 and 1433. (6) In 1429, he was made captain of Livorno. (7) In the 1427 catasto, his taxable fortune was assessed at 4 879 florins; this means that he was among the city's wealthy patricians. (8) In 1403, he married Valenza de' Medici, daughter of Vieri, one of Florence's most powerful bankers in the late fourteenth century. (9) It therefore comes as no surprise that he was among Cosimo the Elder's right-hand men in 1434. In marrying Valenza de' Medici, he was also in a way espousing the Medici cause. Until he died, shortly after 1450, he continued to perform various duties for the Commune and the Medici - these two, under the circumstances, were practically one and the same. (10)

Lotto, as well, was a "Medici man," thus following in his father's footsteps. He was prior in 1446 (11) and subsequently served at least five times (in 1452, 1458, 1466, 1471, and 1480) in the various balìe set up by the Medici. (12) The Medici knew that they could count on him. Consequently, he was called upon to serve in various capacities outside Florence: he was podestà of Val d'Ambra in 1445, captain of Castrocaro in 1454, and podestà of Monte Lupo in 1464 and of Colle in 1471, (13) before he went to Pisa, as already indicated, in 1476 to take up the prestigious office of captain of the new citadel there. It is therefore not surprising to find his name at the bottom of Benozzo's painting, if only as a chronological bench mark.

In contrast to his father, who does not seem to have been involved in business (at least, his name does not appear in the registers of the major guilds of the period), Lotto became interested, though rather late in life, in the manufacture of woollens. We know that in 1467 he registered, along with his brothers Vieri, Marco, Forese, and Bartolomeo, and his son Lorenzo, in the Arte della lana of Florence. (14) He appears not to have been a very successful businessman, however. In the 1469 catasto, his taxable fortune was estimated at 856 florins, but his expenses and debts were so large - over 1 200 florins -that he was declared exempt from taxes. (15) His brothers Marco and Vieri, who were even more impoverished, were also exempted. (16) (Bartolomeo and Forese were probably already dead.) This was indeed a contrast with their father's relative prosperity some thirty or forty years earlier. It should be pointed out that in 1464-1465 Florence suffered a terrible crash in which many important families lost much of their wealth.

Lotto and his brothers were not necessarily ruined - people at that time already knew how to "doctor" tax returns - but they must certainly have wondered about their future. Presumably, the friendship and protection of the Medici became more desirable and indispensable than ever. Consequently, the numerous responsibilities they were given during that period, probably owing to this friendship and protection, must have been particularly welcome, as sources not only of prestige, but also of income, since it was possible at the time to live - quite well, in fact - off the state in Florence.

Although we do not know exactly when Lotto di Giovanni Salviati died, it was most likely shortly after 1480.(17) He had married Alessandra Masini (or Masi? (18) ) -who was probably also from a family connected with the Medici - and they had four sons, one of whom, Lorenzo (already mentioned), won renown like his father in service to the Commune (prior, 1486 and 1496; gonfalonier, 1501; captain of Pistoia, 1521). (19) Another, Mathias, became a Dominican in 1492. (20) Lotto's brother, Vieri, was considered a gifted humanist and was included by Vespasiano da Bisticci in his gallery of portraits of the fifteenth century. (21)

The subject of the painting commissioned from Renozzo, whether by Lotto Salviati himself or by the Florentine "nation" under Lotto, contains no surprises. It was a popular subject and a number of other works of the same type by Renozzo exist. (22) The question remains whether Lotto Salviati's patronage had any bearing on the choice of subject or, more especially, the details thereof. The choice of holy figures in the painting corresponds so closely to one the Salviati family itself might have made that we can confidently conclude that more than coincidence was involved.

In placing on one side of the traditional Virgin and Child, Saint John the Baptist, Saint Gregory I, and Saint Dominic, and on the other side, Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Julian, and Saint Francis, Renozzo was paying tribute to protectors who had long been part of the Salviati family's religious universe. The names of Saint John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence, and Saint John the Evangelist, also a Florentine favourite, appear frequently in inscriptions on the family's account books. (23) Held in almost equal regard were Saint Dominic and Saint Francis, founders of orders with which the Salviati family had particularly close associations. The Salviati lived near Santa Croce, the centre of Florentine Franciscanism, and it was in this church that they buried their dead; they regularly visited San Marco, and it was to this convent, decorated by Fra Angelico (who was, by the way, Renozzo's master), that they went, especially in the second half of the fifteenth century, to seek refuge or spiritual refreshment, drawn by the reputations of Saint Antonino and later Savonarola, who were among the most celebrated Dominicans.

At first glance, Saint Gregory and Saint Julian are less familiar. The name "Gregorio" was not used in the family, and we know of no special veneration of this saint in Florence. However, the artist may have been alluding to the close ties of some Florentines - the Salviati in particular - with the Radia in Florence: Gregory I was, after all, a major figure in Benedictine history. As we have noted, the inclusion of Francis and Dominic served to illustrate the family's association at that time with Santa Croce and San Marco. (24)

The inclusion of Saint Julian, however, is more easily explained. There were a number of "Giulianos" in the family and, more importantly, there was in Florence a younger brother of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Giuliano de' Medici, whose friendship and favours were sought by the Salviati. Indeed, Renozzo's model for this Saint Julian may well have been Giuliano de' Medici himself; if so, we would have to assume that he was making reference to a double patronage - that of the Medici here on earth and Saint Julian, soldier and martyr and one of their protectors and intercessors, in heaven. (25)

Nothing but hypotheses? No doubt. Yet they correspond so closely with what we know of the Salviati or at least of Florentine piety at the time, that we feel they are, until such a time as there is evidence to the contrary, by far the most plausible. It appears more than mere chance that Lotto Salviati's name is inscribed at the bottom of Renozzo's painting. We believe that, this being the case, the theory that the painting was intended for the Florentine church in Pisa and our hypothesis about the dating of the work should be given even more serious consideration. Let us hope, nonetheless, that new documents will one day provide more certainty on both of these points.

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