Terracotta model of Brunelleschi portrait rediscovered after 700 years

A previously unknown terracotta portrait head of the great Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi has been acquired by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, the works commission of the Duomo of Florence where Brunelleschi was buried. It is one of only four known portraits of the architect (including his plaster death mask), and dating to 1447, it is one of the oldest terracotta portraits to survive.

The portrait was sculpted by Andrea di Lazzaro Cavalcanti (Il Buggiano), a student of Brunelleschi who became his adopted son. It was recently found in a historic home in Florence and identified by art historians Giancarlo Gentilini and Alfredo Bellandi as the model for a marble bust that il Buggiano had been commissioned to create by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore after Filippo Brunelleschi’s death. The finished marble bust is in a tondo on the wall in the right nave of the Duomo, a tribute to the man who built the cathedral’s unprecedented brick and masonry dome, revolutionizing architecture in the process.

Buggiano was by his father’s side when he died on April 15th, 1446. He is believed to have made the plaster death mask of his father that day. The funerary relief took longer to commission and accomplish. First the Wool Guild had to determine that the final resting place of Brunelleschi’s body would indeed be Santa Maria del Fiore. They decided on December 30, more than eight months after the architect’s death. On February 18, 1447, the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore commissioned a wall monument to include a realistic portrait and a memorial epigraph. Cavalcanti received the marble for the funerary monument on February 27th, and he immediately got to work forming the model of the realistic bust. The model was finished by the end of March. The finished marble portrait was completed in May.

The terracotta model he had used presumably was stored in his workshop for a while, but we don’t really know where it was or what it was doing in the 700 years before its rediscovery. The wear and tear suggests it was kept as a sculpture in its own right until the association with the funerary monument was forgotten.

“The terracotta head with Filippo Brunelleschi’s facial features was moulded by Andrea Cavalcanti (Il Buggiano), who was Filippo’s adopted son and heir”, said Antonio Natali, a council member of the Opera of Santa Maria del Fiore. “It is known that the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore gave both of them remarkable commissions: Brunelleschi goes without saying. However, Buggiano will be remembered for his admirable humanistic lavers in the sacristies of the cathedral and, at this point in time, especially the monument celebrating Brunelleschi in the cathedral, now that the terracotta head, the model for it, has been found. With these premises, everyone will understand how the acquisition by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore was actually unavoidable”.

“We believe that this is truly an exceptional opportunity, an unimaginable privilege, to be able to present the previously unknown, vivid portrait of Filippo Brunelleschi, modelled by his adoptive son, Andrea Cavalcanti, shortly after his death”, stated Giancarlo Gentilini and Alfredo Bellandi. As the many formal and technical aspects indicate, the work we present here should be considered as the model prepared by Buggiano for the execution of the marble portrait. It is a ‘life-like’ portrait, considering that Brunelleschi was notoriously “small in stature and features” (Vasari 1568), and the measurements of the face (perhaps slightly reduced by the usual ‘shrinkage’ of the clay) are substantially comparable to those found in the plaster death mask and the marble effigy. But compared to the facial cast, the image, now devoid of the contractions of rigor mortis, has more harmonious proportions. The face could almost be inscribed within a sphere”.

The work needs to be restored, and although (apart from a single gap in the chin, where an old, clumsy plaster repair makes it seem bigger), it has scratches all over it and a chalky residue veiling and traces of paint applications (one with seemingly natural tones and at least two brown ones, perhaps to simulate bronze, after the restoration of the chin).

Lost Mantegna rediscovered in storage, restored

A worn and damaged painting in the stores of the Correr Museum in Venice has been restored and identified as a work by the Renaissance master Andrea Mantegna. Madonna and Child, St. John and Six Saints has gone on display for the first time in centuries at the Villa Contarini in Mantegna’s hometown of Piazzola sul Brenta. The exhibition runs until October 27th.

The painting on panel depicts the Madonna and Child with the infant John the Baptist and six female saints. It dates to the end of the 15th century and was bequeathed to Venice by Teodoro Correr, abbot, art collector and scion of one of the city’s oldest patrician families, after his death in 1830. Fearing that his brother would sell off his beloved collection before he was cold in the ground, Teodoro wrote a will in January, just a month before he died, stipulating that his collection be kept intact, that it be named the Correr Collection, that it be open to the public and that it become a public institution under the protection of the city. This bequest created the first civic museum in Venice.

The small work, part of the original collection amassed by Teodoro Correr, was rediscovered last December by the museum’s curator who recognized the exceptional pictorial and compositional quality of the underlying work despite its dire condition. It had been neglected in storage for years. The colors were severely faded, there was paint loss on one hand and bad overpainting on the other. The painting needed extensive restoration before it could even be accurately evaluated, never mind attributed.

Conservators from the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia took on the project, utilizing X-ray and reflectographic analysis to examine the underdrawing. Meticulous cleaning and repairs revealed the chiaroscuro contrasts of light and dark and accents in pure gold paint. The fine execution and lavish materials marked it as the work of the master.

The newly-revealed painting was the twin of a painting that is now in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Conservators compared imaging results of the two works and found the outlines of the underdrawings were identical. They were created by a single cartoon (the composition drawn on cardboard/paper then perforated at guide points so it could be transferred easily onto a panel or canvas or other surface). The two paintings were likely created around the same time by the same workshop. The are only small differences in the details and colors. The Correr version is also unfinished, but just barely. It was a hair’s breadth from completion when the artist stopped. They were both probably commissioned by the same person, perhaps a noblewoman from the Gonzaga family, rulers of Mantua and patrons of Mantegna.

Casa Buonarroti digitizes Michelangelo’s drawings

The Casa Buonarroti museum in Florence has embarked on a new project to digitize figure studies, architectural designs and handwritten notes by Michelangelo and make the ultra-high resolution images available on their website. The goal is to upload the most significant drawings in the Casa Buonarroti’s collection to create an online catalogue of Michelangelo’s greatest works on paper, and now first 20 pages have now been uploaded.

The 20 pages include some recto and verso (front and back) sheets, denoted on the thumbnail with two arrows in the upper right corner. It’s a fascinating glimpse into Michelangelo’s art and life, seeing, for example, an iconic image like the dynamic male nude preparatory study for his Battle of Cascina fresco on one side of the page and his literal shopping list on the other. Or anatomical studies for one of his Pietà sculptures backed by anatomical studies for figures in the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.

The digitization of these materials gives artists, scholars and anyone else with even a passing interest access to works that are too fragile to be widely handled. The paper has to be protected from exposure to light, fluctuating temperatures and humidity levels, so the sheets are kept in carefully controlled environments. The pages were conserved before digitization, removing the artifacts of previous interventions and revealing some drawings that were obscured by flawed restoration attempts. Each sheet is also extensively annotated with background information, transcripts of texts and historic and artistic commentary.

Here’s one passage from a Madonna and Child study illustrating how content-rich the curator’s comments are:

The observation of the drawing allows one to follow the entire compositional process. First of all, Michelangelo sketched out both protagonists in black chalk, with a highly spontaneous handling: the fast, parallel hatching is combined with a soft, loose outline, drawn with a tormented manner. Initially, the face of the Madonna appears faintly sketched to the left, intent on looking down, in profile, at the Child in her arms, to be modified and rotated up three-quarters to the right, while gazing into the distance with an absorbed expression. Perhaps lost in the premonition of future pains, the Virgin’s head is executed on a smaller dimensional scale than the rest of the imposing body and with much more finished results, thanks to a soft chiaroscuro obtained with a broad-tipped black chalk, which lends the face a veil of shaded melancholy. This initial phase of compositional analysis was followed by the pictorial deepening of part of the figure of the Infant Jesus, perfectly executed even in the colouring, thanks to the overlapping of multiple techniques, all typical of Michelangelo’s heritage. The artist outlined the profile, already characterised by numerous pentimenti, with a red chalk, which he used together with a very shaded black chalk also to model the body with its rosy complexion, and interpreted the precious chiaroscuro effects with highlights of white lead, applied with chalk for the parts in light, and retouches of brown ink wash, applied with a very fine-tipped brush, for the areas of greater darkness. At this point, Michelangelo had to abandon work on the sheet, leaving the drawing with a distinct difference in finish, intentional and related to his graphic interests.

17th c. garden maze in Italy opens to visitors

One of the oldest garden mazes in Europe is reopening to the public after years of closure this weekend. The boxwood hedge maze at the Bufalini Castle in San Giustino, about 30 miles from Perugia in central Italy’s Umbria region, has been continuously maintained since the 17th century.

The original medieval fortress built by the Ghibelline Dotti family was destroyed in the late 15th century by order of the Republic of Florence. In 1487, it was transferred to Niccolò Bufalini who employed military architects to transform it into a square fortress with four towers in the corners surrounded by a wide moat. In the 1530s the family began turning the imposing fortress into an elegant country villa in High Renaissance style. The interior was modified to create large, airy rooms arranged around a central courtyard with columned porticos. Loggias were added to the façade and a new centered monumental entrance. The formal gardens with fruit trees, rare flowers, medicinal herbs, vegetable garden, roses and tall trees to draw birds, fountains and the boxwood hedge labyrinth were built up in stages during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Between the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, its park was organized into seven main areas enclosed by perimeter paths set at the edge of the moat and boundary wall. One of these was occupied precisely by the labyrinth created for the leisure of the lords and formed by tall boxwood hedges. The layout, measuring approximately 670 square meters, is trapezoidal in shape with three distinct centers, with a single access, on either side of which two cypress trees, still living, were planted on November 4, 1694, and are among the oldest trees in the garden. In the castle’s archives are some drawings relating to its design and construction, in particular a plan dated 1706, the Pianta del palazzo e giardino della villa di S. Giustino dei sign.ri March.si Bufalini, from which it is possible to see how its layout has remained unchanged over the centuries. This suggests that at least part of the boxwood plants are those planted in 1692, making the labyrinth at Castello Bufalini one of the oldest in Europe.

“The labyrinth is not only an exceptional botanical work, but an esoteric idea that is transformed into an experience,” says Costantino D’Orazio, director of the National Museums of Perugia-Regional Directorate Museums Umbria “That’s why the reopening of the labyrinth at Bufalini Castle enriches the charm of a place that will hold many surprises for the public in the coming years.”

“The opening to the public of one of the most interesting hedge labyrinths on the Italian scene,” says Veruska Picchiarelli, Director of Castello Bufalini “It is part of a process of recovery and re-evaluation of other areas, both internal and external, of the entire complex, which will lead starting in the coming months to double and totally upgrade the tour route.”

The castle was acquired by the Italian state in 1989. It is a rare example of a historic stately home in Italy that is largely intact, not just architecturally but in its artworks and furnishings as well. The collection of paintings, furniture, tapestries, majolica vases, dinner services, crystal and ancient busts assembled by the Bufalini family from the 16th through the 19th century are still in place, giving visitors a unique view of the lifestyle of an Italian noble family as fashions and tastes evolved.

The portrait that ensnared a king restored

The iconic portrait of Anne of Cleves, fourth wife of Henry VIII, that enchanted the king into marrying her, has been cleaned and conserved by Louvre experts for the first time since it was painted, restoring its original colors and glow. The portrait, painted by Henry’s court painter Hans Holbein the Younger, is much lighter now that the yellowed varnish layer is gone. The formerly murky teal background is a bright blue; the gold and jewels of her gown and headdress visible in great detail. Her skin, once sallow, is a dewy pink again.

In 1538, Henry sent his court painter Holbein to Düren to capture Anne of Cleves’ likeness so Henry could see her before deciding whether to marry her. For ease of transportation, it was painted on vellum that was later glued to wood instead of painting directly onto wood panel. Holbein was usually known for the verisimilitude of his portraits, but he had to thread a bit of a diplomatic needle with this commission. He couldn’t flatter Anne too much or Henry would be deceived in his future wife’s features, but the officials of Cleves would vet it before it was sent to England, so too much realism wouldn’t do either.

Holbein depicts Anne dressed in an opulent red silk gown with gold and pearl trim, her round, cherubic face looking placidly at the viewer through lidded eyes. Her features are petite and symmetrical and her expressionless face evocative of the highly stylized archaic smile of a kouros statue. The Anne in the portrait appealed to Henry well enough, and as an alliance to the powerful, rich Protestant Duchy of Cleves even more so. It would give isolated England a whole new friend group among the central and northern European Lutheran countries. The marriage moved forward.

The woman herself, however, repulsed him. Rather than a petite, delicate cypher, she was tall and broad. When he saw her in person for the first time, he felt the portrait had deceived him. Her did not find her physically attractive, nor did she attract him with her personality. She spoke no English, played no instruments and was generally a listless companion for a social butterfly like Henry. To preserve England’s relationship with the Protestant rulers of Europe, Henry VIII negotiated a very generous divorce agreement and six months after their marriage, Anne of Cleves graduated from fourth wife to “sister of the King,” and left the throne laden with riches and properties. She was friends with Henry for the rest of his life, and lived a long one herself, spending her fortune on sumptuous clothes, fine dining, gambling and hunting.