Painted about 1290, this charming painting is typical of the simply shaped panels that served as altarpieces before the advent of the multi-panel Gothic polyptych. The artist was a modest follower of Cimabue who, in his engaging way, attempts to keep pace with the innovations of Duccio and Giotto. The Child’s gesture—"as if he wanted to distract [his mother] from her melancholy" (Hans Belting)—occurs in French Gothic ivories and has "been transferred from the iconography of love to that of religious motifs." Another scholar notes that the artist’s work—populist in character—begs to be interpreted in human rather than purely artistic terms.
The Master of Varlungo is the name attached to a group of pictures apparently dating from the last two decades of the thirteenth century. His eponymous work is a fragmentary Madonna and Child in the church of San Pietro a Varlungo, Florence. He was memorably defined by Roberto Longhi (1948) as one of the principal pupils of Cimabue and among the first painters in Florence to respond to the early work of Giotto. Most scholars agree with this evaluation and have noted a relationship of the MMA panel to a Madonna and Child by Cimabue in the church of Santa Maria dei Servi, Bologna. As in that work, the Virgin sits at an angle on the throne, with one foot higher than the other, and the standing child, actively posed on his mother’s lap, reaches up to caress her cheek—a gesture found also in a fragmentary Madonna and Child that is thought to be among the earliest works by Giotto (Pieve di San Lorenzo, Borgo San Lorenzo, Florence). Hans Belting (Likeness and Presence, 1990, trans. Edmond Jephcoff, 1994, p. 224) has noted that this kind of gesture by the Christ child—"as if he he wanted to distract her from her melancholy"—occurs in French Gothic ivories and "has been transferred from the iconography of love to that of religious motifs." It has also been noted (Parenti 2004) that the veil of the Virgin falls in vertical folds that may reflect the work of Duccio (the Rucellai Madonna in the Uffizi, Florence, painted in 1285 for Santa Maria Novella). Previtali (1967) has remarked on the combination of a populist taste for bright colors as well as a sense of irony and the ability to hide a complex culture beneath the appearance of simplicity. He suggests that the master is among the first Florentine painters whose work invites consideration in human rather than purely artistic terms. These traits are well in evidence in the Metropolitan’s picture, not only in the pose of the child and wide-eyed gaze of the Virgin but the left-hand angel whose nose is incorrectly drawn. The picture may date to about 1290.
Although Tartuferi (1987) proposed that the Metropolitan picture belonged to a subgroup he christened the Pseudo-Master of Varlungo, he has since (2010) reconsidered this position.
The panel is cut along the bottom, but otherwise preserves its original raised frame. The silvered background has oxidized. Although the picture is said to have come from the convent of Santa Croce in Florence, an inscription on the reverse of a photograph at the Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies in Florence indicates that it came from San Miniato.
[Keith Christiansen 2011]
?convent of Santa Croce; [Paolo Paolini, Florence, ?by 1916–at least 1919]; Philip Lehman, New York (by 1928–d. 1947; cat., 1928, no. II); his son, Robert Lehman, New York (1947–49)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Florentine Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum," June 15–August 15, 1971, no catalogue.
Florence. Galleria dell'Accademia. "L'arte a Firenze nell'età di Dante (1250–1300)," June 1–August 29, 2004, no. 20 (as by the Master of Varlungo).
Robert Lehman. The Philip Lehman Collection, New York: Paintings. Paris, 1928, unpaginated, pl. II, attributes it to the Florentine school of about 1285.
Evelyn Sandberg Vavalà. L'iconografia della Madonna col Bambino nella pittura italiana del dugento. Siena, 1934, pp. 66, no. 195, observes its close relationship to the Madonna and Child in the church of Santa Maria dei Servi, Bologna, attributed here to Cimabue.
Roberto Longhi. "Giudizio sul Duecento." Proporzioni 2 (1948), p. 48, fig. 35, attributes it to the Master of Varlungo whom he considers a student of Cimabue.
Edward B. Garrison. Italian Romanesque Panel Painting. Florence, 1949, pp. 32, 44, no. 24, ill., attributes it to the Master of Varlungo, dating it 1285–90; observes considerable damage and retouching throughout.
Dorothy C. Shorr. The Christ Child in Devotional Images in Italy During the XIV Century. New York, 1954, p. 118, ill. p. 124, attributes it to the Master of Varlungo and says that the tunic slipping off the Child's shoulder is a motif borrowed from Duccio.
Carlo Lodovico Ragghianti. Pittura del Dugento a Firenze. Florence, 1955, p. 127 [see Ref. Zeri and Gardner 1971], accepts the attribution to the Master of Varlungo, dating his activity between 1290 and 1310.
Ferdinando Bologna. La pittura italiana delle origini. Rome, 1962, p. 130 [English ed., 1964, p. 105], erroneously as still in the Lehman collection, New York; attributes it to the Master of Varlungo, observing the combined influence of Cimabue and Duccio.
Giovanni Previtali. Giotto e la sua bottega. Milan, 1967, pp. 30, 136 n. 104, calls it a work by the Master of Varlungo, and rejects Garrison's dating [see Ref. 1949]; notes a similarity in the Child to a Madonna and Child in the Contini Bonacossi collection, Florence.
Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Florentine School. New York, 1971, pp. 11–12, ill., attribute it to the Master of Varlungo and date it about 1290; discuss the artist's dependence on Cimabue and suggest the influence of the young Giotto.
Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 137, 311, 608, as by the Master of Varlungo.
Anna Maria Maetzke, ed. Arte nell'Aretino: recuperi e restauri dal 1968 al 1974. Exh. cat., church of San Francesco, Arezzo. Florence, 1974, pp. 34–36, mentions it in relation to a Madonna and Child from the church of Santa Maria in Stia, and accepts the attribution to the Master of Varlungo.
Luiz C. Marques. La peinture du Duecento en Italie centrale. Paris, 1987, pp. 195–96, 287, fig. 243, attributes it to the Master of Varlungo and dates it early 1280s.
Angelo Tartuferi. "Dipinti del Due e Trecento all mostra 'Capolavori & Restauri'." Paragone 38 (March 1987), pp. 51–52, 58–59 n. 23, pl. 59, rejects the attribution to the Master of Varlungo; discusses the Giottesque qualities that it shares with an altarpiece with Saint Michael the Archangel formerly in the Fiammingo collection, Rome, and a Madonna and Child in the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven; suggests calling the artist of these three works the Pseudo-Master of Varlungo, active at the end of the thirteenth century, and notes Filippo Todini's agreement with this change in attribution.
Angelo Tartuferi. La pittura a Firenze nel Duecento. Florence, 1990, pp. 64–65, 113, fig. 231 [similar text as Ref. Tartuferi 1987], attributes it to the Pseudo-Master of Varlungo, an anonymous painter of the last decade of the thirteenth century
Daniela Parenti et al. inL'arte a Firenze nell'età di Dante (1250–1300). Ed. Angelo Tartuferi and Mario Scalini. Exh. cat., Galleria dell'Accademia. Florence, 2004, pp. 8, 63, 118, 120–21, no. 20, ill., attribute it to the Master of Varlungo and date it about 1285–95; state that it was with the dealer Paolo Paolini in Florence between 1916 and 1919; note that a photograph in Berenson's collection (Villa I Tatti, Florence) is inscribed "Ex S. Miniato?".
Angelo Tartuferi inGiotto e il Trecento: "Il più Sovrano Maestro stato in dipintura". Ed. Alessandro Tomei. Exh. cat., Complesso del Vittoriano, Rome. Milan, 2009, p. 75, assigns it to the late period of the Master of Varlungo, along with the Madonna and Child at Yale and the work formerly in the Fiammingo collection, Rome [see Ref. Tartuferi 1987].
Angelo Tartuferi inArte a Figline: dal Maestro della Maddalena a Masaccio. Ed. Angelo Tartuferi. Exh. cat., Palazzo Pretorio, Figline Valdarno. Florence, 2010, p. 105.