This imposing, well-preserved mural is an early work by Ghirlandaio, one of the most popular painters in late-fifteenth-century Florence and a master of the fresco technique. Its provenance is unknown, and the tradition that it decorated a chapel in the church of San Miniato fra le Torri in Florence is probably wrong: that fresco was described by early writers as about twice the size and was attributed to the Pollaiuolo brothers.
In true fresco technique, pigments mixed with water are applied directly on a fresh (or fresco) plaster wall. As the plaster sets, a chemical reaction occurs whereby the pigment particles become locked into the wall, giving the work great durability. In the fifteenth century, the design for a fresco was often executed with a red pigment, known as sinopia, on a preparatory layer of coarse plaster ("arriccio"). Over this was laid just the amount of finely ground plaster ("intonaco") that could be painted in a single day. Our fresco comprises seven such sections, or "giornate", which closely follow the contours of the figures and drapery.
The painting is in exceptionally good condition. Many details, especially in the landscape, were added after the plaster had dried. Such "a secco" details have usually fallen away.
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Fig. 1. Diagram of fresco showing "giornate"
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This well preserved and impressive image is The Met’s only Renaissance fresco. When it was given to the Museum in 1880 by Cornelius Vanderbilt, it was associated with a fresco by Antonio del Pollaiuolo recorded by Vasari and other early writers on the façade of the church of San Miniato fra le Torri in Florence. Berenson (1932) recognized that it was, instead, an early work by Ghirlandaio—it must, indeed, date around 1472–75—and this view is now universally accepted (see Cadogan 2000). However, the idea persisted that it was in some way dependent on Pollaiuolo’s lost fresco, which was considerably larger. The damage in the lower portion of the fresco is suggestive of a work that may, like Pollaiuolo’s, have decorated the exterior of a church, beneath a portico that left the lower portion vulnerable to the weather. For this reason, an alternative tradition that the fresco comes from a chapel in the Michelozzi villa in Florence, and that it was kept in storage at the Galleria degli Ufizzi for several years before it was purchased by Cornelius Vanderbilt, is worthy of consideration (see Art-Journal 1880, Berenson 1896, The Met 1905, and Bernath 1912).
In true fresco technique, pigments mixed with water are applied directly on a fresh (or fresco) plaster wall. As the plaster sets, a chemical reaction occurs whereby the pigment particles become locked into the wall, giving the work great durability. In the fifteenth century, the design for a fresco was often executed with a red pigment, known as sinopia, on a preparatory layer of coarse plaster (arriccio). Over this was laid just the amount of finely ground plaster (intonaco) that could be painted in a single day. Our fresco seems to comprise six such sections, or giornate, which closely follow the contours of the figures and drapery (see fig. 1 above for a diagram).
The fresco was removed with part of the wall and is in very good condition. Many details, especially in the landscape, were added after the plaster had dried. Such a secco details have usually fallen away.
Frescoes of Saint Christopher were especially popular among merchants, since Christopher is the patron saint of travelers.
Keith Christiansen 2011
Inscription: Inscribed (on globe held by the Infant Christ): ASIA / AFRIHA / [E]VROPA
?chapel of the Villa Michelozzi, Florence; Cornelius Vanderbilt, New York (1880)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Florentine Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum," June 15–August 15, 1971, no catalogue.
"Art Notes." Art-Journal, n.s., 19 (1880), pp. 351–52, attributes it to Pollaiolo [sic] and notes that it is said to have been taken from the wall of a chapel that belonged to the Michelozzi family in the church of San Miniato fra le Torri, Florence [see Notes]; states that it had been "kept in the lower rooms of the Uffizi Gallery at Florence" before it was bought by Vanderbilt as a gift to the MMA.
F[ritz von]. Harck. "Berichte und Mittheilungen aus Sammlungen und Museen, über staatliche Kunstpflege und Restaurationen, neue Funde: Aus amerikanischen Galerien." Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft 11 (1888), p. 73, attributes it to Antonio del Pollaiuolo.
B[ernard]. Berenson. "Les peintures italiennes de New-York et de Boston." Gazette des beaux-arts, 3rd ser., 15 (March 1896), pp. 199–200, identifies it with the fresco on the façade of San Miniato fra le Torri mentioned by Vasari [see Notes]; attributes the design to Antonio del Pollaiuolo and the execution to Piero.
Bernhard Berenson. The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance. New York, 1896, p. 125, lists it as by Piero del Pollaiuolo.
Bernhard Berenson. The Drawings of the Florentine Painters. London, 1903, vol. 1, pp. 25–26, considers it a replica on a smaller scale of the fresco from San Miniato fra le Torri; believes Antonio del Pollaiuolo supplied the cartoon, but states "the ear and the hand, and draperies on the chest, would point to Piero".
Catalogue of the Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1905, p. 139, no. 22, as "cut from the walls of the Chapel of the Michelozzi Villa in Florence"; attributes it to Antonio del Pollaiuolo.
Wilhelm Bode. "Review of Cruttwell 1907." Burlington Magazine 11 (June 1907), p. 181, attributes it to the "Siennese-Umbrian school".
Maud Cruttwell. Antonio Pollaiuolo. London, 1907, pp. 162–65, pl. XXXV, considers it a replica by Piero of Antonio's fresco on the façade of San Miniato fra le Torri.
William Rankin. "Corriere da Nuova York." Rassegna d'arte 8 (March 1908), p. IV, accepts the attribution to Piero.
Edward Hutton, ed. A New History of Painting in Italy from the II to the XVI Century.. By [Joseph Archer] Crowe and [Giovanni Battista] Cavalcaselle. Vol. 3, The Florentine, Umbrian, and Sienese Schools of the XV Century. London, 1909, p. 387, lists it as by the Pollaiuoli.
Langton Douglas, ed. A History of Painting in Italy: Umbria, Florence and Siena from the Second to the Sixteenth Century.. By Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle. Vol. 4, Florentine Masters of the Fifteenth Century. London, 1911, p. 234 n. 1, calls it an early Umbrian picture, rejecting the attribution to the Pollaiuolo brothers and noting details that recall the work of Fiorenzo di Lorenzo.
Adolfo Venturi. Storia dell'arte italiana. Vol. 7, part 1, La pittura del quattrocento. Milan, 1911, p. 570, identifies it as the fresco by Antonio on the façade of San Miniato fra le Torri.
Morton H. Bernath. New York und Boston. Leipzig, 1912, p. 70, fig. 72, attributes it to Piero and claims that it was still in the chapel of the Michelozzi villa about 35 years earlier (1877).
Bryson Burroughs. Catalogue of Paintings. 1st ed. New York, 1914, pp. 210–11, attributes it to the school of Antonio del Pollaiuolo.
Raimond van Marle. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. Vol. 11, The Hague, 1929, pp. 392–94, fig. 241, identifies it as the fresco from San Miniato fra le Torri; attributes the design tentatively to Antonio, the execution to Piero, and notes the influence of Verrocchio.
Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford, 1932, p. 225, lists it as an early work painted in great part by Domenico Ghirlandaio.
F[rida]. Scho[ttmüller]. inAllgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 27, Leipzig, 1933, p. 215, suggests that it may be an Umbrian copy after the San Miniato fresco.
Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti. "La giovinezza e lo svolgimento artistico di Domenico Ghirlandaio." L'arte 38 (May 1935), pp. 360, 363–64, fig. 24, considers it an early work by Domenico Ghirlandaio.
Bernhard Berenson. Pitture italiane del rinascimento. Milan, 1936, p. 194.
Harry B. Wehle. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Italian, Spanish, and Byzantine Paintings. New York, 1940, p. 44, ill. p. 43, attributes it to a follower of Antonio del Pollaiuolo, and calls it a fifteenth-century copy after the San Miniato fresco; states that it was formerly attributed by the museum to Domenico Ghirlandaio.
Ruth Wedgwood Kennedy. "Review of Wehle 1940." Art Bulletin 24 (June 1942), p. 195, calls it "Domenico Ghirlandaio's youthful adaptation of the famous figure by Antonio Pollaiuolo on the façade of San Miniato fra le Torri".
Attilio Sabatini. Antonio e Piero del Pollaiolo. Florence, 1944, p. 95, observes similarities to the work of Antonio del Pollaiuolo and rejects the attribution to Domenico Ghirlandaio.
Sergio Ortolani Ulrico Hoepli. Il Pollaiuolo. Milan, 1948, p. 159.
Walter Paatz and Elisabeth Paatz. Die Kirchen von Florenz. Vol. 4, Frankfurt am Main, 1952, pp. 298, 301 n. 11, call it a smaller copy of the San Miniato fresco and question the attribution to Piero del Pollaiuolo.
Josephine L. Allen and Elizabeth E. Gardner. A Concise Catalogue of the European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1954, p. 78.
Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Florentine School. London, 1963, vol. 1, p. 76, as Francesco Sassetti and his son Teodoro.
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. 128–29, ill., attribute it to Ghirlandaio, date it about 1475, and state that it "must have decorated a church façade in Florence or in the neighborhood"; suggest that the composition may derive from Antonio del Pollaiuolo's destroyed fresco on the façade of San Miniato fra le Torri, and observe the influence of Castagno in certain passages.
Everett Fahy. "Florentine Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum: An Exhibition and a Catalogue." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 29 (June 1971), p. 436, ill., attributes it to Ghirlandaio.
Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 82, 388, 605.
Mirella Levi d'Ancona. The Garden of the Renaissance: Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting. Florence, 1977, p. 541.
Leopold D. Ettlinger. Antonio and Piero Pollaiuolo. Oxford, 1978, pp. 163–64, under no. 41, states that it "has nothing to do with the lost [fresco] by the Pollaiuoli" from San Miniato, thus rejecting the idea that it is a scaled-down copy.
Howard Hibbard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980, pp. 236–37, fig. 421.
Alessandro Angelini in "'Domenico Ghirlandaio 1470–80'." Domenico Ghirlandaio: restauro e storia di un dipinto. Exh. cat., Figline Valdarno. Fiesole, 1983, p. 12, ill. p. 17, attributes it to Ghirlandaio and dates it immediately before 1475, comparing it to the fresco of the Madonna and Child with Saints Sebastian and Julian in the church of Sant' Andrea a Brozzi, San Donnino (near Florence).
John Pope-Hennessy. "Roger Fry and The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Oxford, China, and Italy: Writings in Honour of Sir Harold Acton on his Eightieth Birthday. Ed. Edward Chaney and Neil Ritchie. London, 1984, p. 231.
Alessandro Conti. Storia del restauro e della conservazione delle opere d'arte. Milan, 1988, p. 315, attributes it to Ghirlandaio.
Katharine Baetjer. European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Artists Born Before 1865: A Summary Catalogue. New York, 1995, p. 26, ill.
Jean K. Cadogan. Domenico Ghirlandaio: Artist and Artisan. New Haven, 2000, pp. 40, 42, 48, 57, 196–97, no. 4, fig. 26 (color), calls it an early work by Ghirlandaio, compares it to other frescoes by the same artist, and dates it about 1472; believes the source for certain elements may have been the lost Pollaiuolo fresco from San Miniato fra le Torri.
David Alan Brown inItalian Paintings of the Fifteenth Century. Washington, 2003, p. 302.
Andrea Staderini inThe Alana Collection. Ed. Sonia Chiodo and Serena Padovani. Vol. 3, Italian Paintings from the 14th to 16th Century. Florence, 2014, pp. 82, 85, fig. 12a.
Caroline Elam. Roger Fry and Italian Art. London, 2019, pp. 54, 67 n. 130.
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