Although from Milan, Giovanni was primarily active in Florence, where the refined naturalism of his figures was influential. This lunette-shaped picture dates from the 1360s and was probably set into an arch above a tomb. It shows the deceased husband and wife welcomed into heaven by the Christ Child. Two realms overlap: the sacred and the temporal, making the illusionistic ledge, the disparity in figure scale, and the clasped hands resonate with meaning. The surface is badly abraded, but the head and right hand of the Madonna give a good idea of the subtlety of Giovanni’s painting.
The Artist: One of the leading painters in mid-fourteenth century Italy, Giovanni da Milano was trained in Lombardy, where he developed a style of soft delicacy and precise observation of the natural world. It was his great achievement to combine these traits with the rigorous sense of structure we associate with painting in Florence, where much of his activity was centered. Mid-century Florentine art was dominated by the sculptor-painter Andrea di Cione, better known as Orcagna. He rejected the fluid space and deep humanity found in the work of Giotto in favor of a more constricted, cubic space inhabited by stern figures. This style has been described as ritualistic and authoritarian—a revival of a medieval world view. However, there can be no denying that a more rigorous pictorial unity was achieved: austere and abstract, but possessing an almost tactile physicality. Giovanni da Milano brings to this austere art a subtle use of color and a feeling for sensuous beauty that have reminded some critics of the work of Simone Martini, and an acute observation of nature: "a harmony between sacred and profane poetics" (Roberto Longhi, the greatest twentieth-century critic of Italian art).
Giovanni da Milano’s life is not well documented. He was from Caversaccio, near Como, and probably moved from Lombardy to Florence a few years before 1346, when the name of "Johannes Jacobi de Commo" is listed together with other foreign artists liable to be expelled from Florence. As "da Milano" he was recorded in the matriculations of the Arte dei Medici e Speziali, between 1358 and 1363, and in a third document from 1363, when he owned three plots of land in the surroundings of Florence. In 1366, he and his sons became Florentine citizens. Together with other Florentine painters, in 1369 Giovanni was appointed to work in the Vatican; his work there does not survive (see Alberto Lenza, "Appendice documentaria su Giovanni a Milano," in Giovanni da Milano, exh. cat., Florence, 2008, pp. 297–306).
Giovanni signed only two works: a polyptych for the Spedale della Misericordia in Prato (now in the local museum), probably dateable shortly after 1355; and the Pietà from the church of San Girolamo alla Costa (but perhaps originaly for the nearby church of San Giorgio alla Costa), of 1365 (now in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Florence).
The Painting: The provenance of this damaged but outstanding work is not known. However, its shape and iconography strongly suggest that it was part of an architectural complex and either ornamented the lunette above a door or, more probably, a niche above a tomb. The Virgin, who holds a lily (a symbol of her purity), stands behind a ledge or parapet on which her infant son stands. Two donors—presumably husband and wife—kneel on the parapet in adoration or supplication. The Virgin and Christ Child turn towards the male and the child grasps his praying hands, an action that may signify that he is deceased and is, in effect, being welcomed into heaven. The parapet thus has both an illusionistic effect, linking the picture to its architectural surround, and an iconographic one (for a discussion of the parapet, see Schmidt 2005).
The style and date of the work have been much discussed, as has its relation to Sienese painting and, more specifically, to the work of Simone Martini. Certainly the elegance of the figures and the elaborate tooling of the gold remind one of the work of Simone (for a discussion of the motif punches used by Giovanni, see the essay by Skaug in Parenti 2008, pp. 103–13). Whether this was the result of a trip to Siena or to Avignon, where Simone was active after 1336, remains a matter of conjecture. The extraordinary naturalism in the description of the stem of lilies and the marvelously articulated right hand of the Virgin and the transparency of her veil are usually understood as part of Giovanni’s Lombard heritage and were important for the development of Florentine painting. There are very few fixed dates marking Giovanni’s career and this work has been placed as early as about 1360 and after about 1365. In the one case the point of comparison is the large altarpiece by Giovanni for the church of Ognissanti in Florence (Uffizi, Florence); in the other, it is the cycle of frescoes he did in the Rinuccini Chapel in Santa Croce (see Parenti 2008 for a full discussion of these issues).
The picture has, unfortunately, suffered a good deal, but the flesh portions of the Madonna and Child are relatively well preserved.
[Keith Christiansen 2011]
General Charles Richard Fox, London; William Fuller Maitland, Stansted House, Essex; [Georges Brauer, Florence, until 1907; sold to MMA]
Milan. Palazzo Reale. "Arte lombarda dai Visconti agli Sforza," April 1–June 30, 1958, no. 53.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Florentine Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum," June 15–August 15, 1971, no catalogue.
Florence. Galleria dell'Accademia. "Giovanni da Milano: capolavori del gotico fra Lombardia e Toscana," June 10–November 2, 2008, no. 25.
Osvald Sirén. "Art in America: Trecento Pictures in American Collections—II." Burlington Magazine 14 (December 1908), p. 194, pl. IV, attributes it to Giovanni da Milano.
Osvald Sirén. Giottino und seine Stellung in der gleichzeitigen florentinischen Malerei. Leipzig, 1908, p. 91, fig. 23, as by Giovanni da Milano.
R[oger]. E. F[ry]. "On a Semi-circular Panel of the Madonna and Child with Donor on Either Side, by Giovanni da Milano." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 3 (January 1908), p. 11, accepts Sirén's attribution to Giovanni da Milano.
"Purchases." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Annual Report, 1907 (1908), p. 58, as attributed to Giovanni da Milano.
Catalogue of the Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1911, under Addenda, September and October 1907, Gallery 11, as attributed to Starnina.
Pietro Toesca. La pittura e la miniatura nella Lombardia, dai più antichi monumenti alla metà del Quattrocento. Milan, 1912, p. 226, doubts the attribution to Giovanni da Milano.
Wilhelm Suida inAllgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Ulrich Thieme and Fred C. Willis. Vol. 14, Leipzig, 1921, p. 129, lists it among the controversial attributions to Giovanni da Milano.
Raimond van Marle. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. Vol. 4, Local Schools of North Italy of the 14th Century. The Hague, 1924, p. 240 n.2 (continued from p. 238), calls it a work of the school of Giovanni da Milano
Lionello Venturi. Pitture italiane in America. Milan, 1931, unpaginated, pl. C, accepts Sirén's attribution to Giovanni da Milano.
Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford, 1932, p. 244, as by Giovanni da Milano.
Lionello Venturi. Italian Paintings in America. Vol. 1, Romanesque and Gothic. New York, 1933, unpaginated, pl. 123, accepts Sirén's attribution to Giovanni da Milano.
Bernhard Berenson. Pitture italiane del rinascimento. Milan, 1936, p. 210.
Harry B. Wehle. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Italian, Spanish, and Byzantine Paintings. New York, 1940, pp. 13–14, ill., as by Giovanni da Milano; doubts that it was originally part of an altarpiece, suggesting instead that it was "placed above a tomb, or set into a wall or a large piece of furniture in a sacristy".
Alessandro Marabottini. Giovanni da Milano. Florence, 1950, pp. 71–72, 122, pl. XI, attributes it Giovanni da Milano and suggests that it was painted in Florence between 1365 and 1369.
Pietro Toesca. Il Trecento. Turin, 1951, p. 766, attributes it to Giovanni da Milano, dating it shortly before 1365 along with the artist's polyptych in the Museo Civico, Prato; notes relationships with Sienese painting.
Dorothy C. Shorr. The Christ Child in Devotional Images in Italy During the XIV Century. New York, 1954, p. 84 n. 2, states that the pose and gesture of the Christ Child are rare in Florentine painting, but related to those of the Infant in Simone Martini's Maestà (Palazzo Pubblico, Siena).
Franco Russoli inArte lombarda dai Visconti agli Sforza. Exh. cat., Palazzo Reale. Milan, 1958, p. 22, no. 53, pl. XXVIII, as by Giovanni da Milano.
Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Florentine School. London, 1963, vol. 1, p. 89, pl. 278.
Liana Castelfranchi-Vegas. Giovanni da Milano. Milan, 1965, unpaginated.
A[lessandro]. Marabottini. "Una crocifissione di Giovanni da Milano e i soggiorni del pittore in Toscana e in Lombardia." Commentari, n.s., 16 (January–June 1965), p. 31, includes it in a group of pictures that he dates between about 1363 and 1369.
Miklós Boskovits. Giovanni da Milano. Florence, 1966, pp. 17, 33, observes the similarity between the Madonna in the MMA panel and the Saint Catherine in the Prato polyptych, dating the two works to the same period of the artist's career.
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. 33–34, ill., date it to a late period of Giovanni da Milano's career, noting the influence of the Sienese school; suggest that it was originally placed over a tomb or doorway
Everett Fahy. "Florentine Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum: An Exhibition and a Catalogue." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 29 (June 1971), p. 433, ill.
Miklos Boskovits. "Notes sur Giovanni da Milano." Revue de l'art no. 11 (1971), p. 57, groups it with works that he dates to the early 1360s.
Mina Gregori. "Giovanni da Milano: storia di un polittico." Paragone 23 (March 1972), pp. 4, 24 n. 4.
Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 89, 313, 533, 605.
Luigi Cavadini inGiovanni da Milano. Ed. Luigi Cavadini. Valmorea, Italy, 1980, pp. 26, 48–49, no. 6, ill., notes the influence of Simone Martini, suggesting that Giovanni da Milano may have visited Avignon.
Carlo Volpe. "Il lungo percorso del 'dipingere dolcissimo e tanto unito'." Storia dell'arte italiana. Vol. 5, pt. 2, v. 1, Turin, 1983, p. 301.
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. 237.
Enza Biagi inLa pittura in Italia: il Duecento e il Trecento. Ed. Enrico Castelnuovo. revised and expanded ed. Milan, 1986, vol. 2, p. 577, implies a date between 1360 and 1365.
Erling S. Skaug. Punch Marks from Giotto to Fra Angelico: Attribution, Chronology, and Workshop Relationships in Tuscan Panel Painting. Oslo, 1994, vol. 1, pp. 182, 185; vol. 2, punch chart 6.11, identifies punch marks that it shares with works of Florentine and Sienese painters of the period.
M[ina]. Gregori inEnciclopedia dell'arte medievale. Vol. 6, Rome, 1995, p. 734, mentions that it was probably made for a tomb.
Mojmír S. Frinta. "Part I: Catalogue Raisonné of All Punch Shapes." Punched Decoration on Late Medieval Panel and Miniature Painting. Prague, 1998, pp. 90, 143, 250, 318, 380, 381, 392, 463, 490, ill. pp. 143, 250, 380 (details of punch marks), classifies the punch marks appearing in this painting.
V[alerio]. Ascani inDizionario biografico degli italiani. Vol. 56, Rome, 2001, p. 89.
Victor M. Schmidt. "The Lunette-Shaped Panel and Some Characteristics of Panel Painting." Italian Panel Painting of the Duecento and Trecento. Ed. Victor M. Schmidt. Washington, 2002, pp. 86, 98 n. 12, fig. 9, compares it to a similar composition by Paolo Veneziano in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, and states that it was probably part of a tomb.
Carl Brandon Strehlke. Italian Paintings 1250–1450 in the John G. Johnson Collection and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia, 2004, pp. 154–55 n. 21, states that it probably originally decorated "a private Florentine burial chapel known as an 'avello', which was set into an arched niche that sometimes contained an image".
Victor M. Schmidt. Painted Piety: Panel Paintings for Personal Devotion in Tuscany, 1250–1400. Florence, 2005, pp. 145–46, 159 n. 13, fig. 96, suggests that the painted ledge was an afterthought, since it is painted over the Madonna's robe and perhaps around the feet of the Christ Child.
C. E. Travi Caspani inAllgemeines Künstlerlexikon: die bildenden Künstler aller Zeiten und Völker. Vol. 55, Munich, 2007, pp. 42–43.
Keith Christiansen. "Duccio and the Origins of Western Painting." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 66 (Summer 2008), p. 52, fig. 45 (color), relates the parapet or ledge to Duccio's innovative parapet included in his Madonna and Child of about 1295–1300 in the MMA (2004.442).
Daniela Parenti inGiovanni da Milano: capolavori del gotico fra Lombardia e Toscana. Ed. Daniela Parenti. Exh. cat., Galleria dell'Accademia. Florence, 2008, pp. 236–37, no. 25, ill. (color), dates it about 1360.
Mina Gregori inGiovanni da Milano: capolavori del gotico fra Lombardia e Toscana. Ed. Daniela Parenti. Exh. cat., Galleria dell'Accademia. Florence, 2008, p. 44.
Linda Pisani inGiovanni da Milano: capolavori del gotico fra Lombardia e Toscana. Ed. Daniela Parenti. Exh. cat., Galleria dell'Accademia. Florence, 2008, p. 192.
Carl Brandon Strehlke. "Giovanni da Milano; Giotto and His Heirs: Florence." Burlington Magazine 150 (October 2008), p. 712, notes that the unusual arrangement with the kneeling female at left and male at right suggests that the woman is the donor and possibly commissioned the painting in memory of her husband or other male relative.
Carla Travi inThe Alana Collection. Ed. Sonia Chiodo and Serena Padovani. Vol. 3, Italian Paintings from the 14th to 16th Century. Florence, 2014, p. 135.