Monday, August 31, 2015

The Bufalini Chapel in the Aracoeli.

The Bufalini Chapel is located in the right aisle of the basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. This is the first chapel coming from the entrance and is famous for preserving the frescoes with the Stories of St. Bernardine of Siena by Pintoricchio. The frescoes date back to 1484-1486 and were commissioned by Nicolò Manno (Riccomanno) Angeli Bufalini who was an important citizen of Città di Castello, he held the position of consistorial lawyer in Rome. The coat of arms of his family (a bull with a flower), often appears in the chapel.

The first cycle of frescoes in the Sistine Chapel made by the most prominent artists of the time (Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, etc.) was completed in 1482 - these artists came mainly from Florence and Umbria, among them there was Pintoricchio who unlike the others who went back to Tuscany or Umbria stayed in Rome and opened a bottega with a workshop made of people who worked with him in the Vatican. Until then Pintoricchio was only an artist on the shadow of Perugino but now he could take advantage of the gap left by the great artists - he could then work on his first commission in the Eternal City: the Bufalini Chapel. Here, he demonstrated to be fully capable of organising and leading an enterprise of great complexity. Also, he was already trusted given the quality of his work in Umbria. There are no records on the execution of the frescoes, but they are usually attributed to the years 1484-1486. The chapel has a quadrangular base, with vault and floor decorated with cosmatesque mosaics. The frescoes unfold on three walls and the ceiling and are dedicated to the life and miracles of St. Bernardino of Siena, a saint who was then promoted by the Franciscan order and who was very popular in the Renaissance. The Aracoeli was in fact run by the Franciscans Minors, and the frescoes also feature two stories of St. Francis; also the Bufalini family was particularly close to Bernardino, because his preaching sedated discord among them and their rivals, the Baglioni and the Del Monte - the whole chapel is also dedicated to this peace.

Usually the work started by the segments of the vault, where there are the four Evangelists, depicted in a style taken from Perugino. The poses of the evangelists are studied carefully and show a greater vivacity than the serene classicism of Perugino.

Central wall

On the central wall there is the glory of San Bernardino - it is divided into two registers such as the lost Assumption of the Sistine Chapel by Perugino. In the lower register there is San Bernardino standing on a rock with open arms and surmounted by two angels who crown him, on his sides there are St. Louis of Tolouse and Saint Francis. In the background there is a landscape with a lake - very similar to those of Umbria. The upper register shows instead Christ in the act of blessing, within a so called “almond”, between angels, both praying and playing musical instruments. Also in this case, the scheme is “peruginesque” though showing a greater expressiveness, perceptible both in the figures, both in the fanciful landscape rocks, which avoid symmetrical patterns and amplify the spatial depth. Bernardino is holding an open book in which we read "Pater MANIFESTAVI NOMEN TVVM (H) OMINIBVS", which refers to the invention of Christogram IHS of the divine name which cost the Sienese saint a charge for idolatry and heresy.

Below this was a monochrome band in a classical style. It is today only readable for a while, there used to be a series of false niches and reliefs, including the remains of the military parade with prisoners and satyrs. It is an early example of the antiquarian taste that was spreading in those years in the Rome area, it was resumed shortly thereafter also by Filippino Lippi in the Carafa Chapel.

Right wall



On this wall Pintoricchio created an illusionistic space by painting two false symmetrical windows, one with the Eternal Father in the act of blessing, and one with a peacock, early Christian symbol of immortality. There is also a scene from the life of St. Bernardino of Siena: Bernardino receives the religious habit. It is set in an oblique perspective that exploits the decorated pillars with a grotesques arch. Under the actual window there is an opening with illusory five people, including a senior monk, perhaps the prior of the monastery, and a layman, maybe an administrator or an donor of the Basilica. Finally, there little scene on the right represents St. Francis in the act of receiving the stigmate - in honour of the Franciscan foundation of the Aracoeli.

Left wall

The left wall is organized into two overlapping scenes, separated by a cornice with painted frieze. The top bezel shows the Hermitage of young Bernardino, while below is the scene of the Funeral of San Bernardino, set in an urban space with a checkerboard floor which is rationally organized with the prospect that catches the viewer's eye to the vanishing point, that It coincides with a building in central base, based on the one from the delivery of the keys by Perugino. Pintoricchio changed the model by lowering the heights of each of the buildings on the side, this feature enriches and changes the scenario. To the left is in fact a porch with pillars decorated with fanciful golden grotesques, which comes almost at the threshold of the first floor, while on the right, farther, is a cubic building connected to a double spacious loggia and the background is open on the landscape and the sky is clear.

In the funeral the saint is lying on a bier, placed sideways, it increases the sense of spatial depth and the characters interact with the surrounding space very well. Monks, pilgrims and ordinary people come up to pay homage to the saint, while on the sides there are two contemporary figures who are richly dressed, they were recognized as the head of the family himself (left with fur-lined hood and a glove worn and one in hand) and another member of his family. The man with the hat on the extreme right might be Pintoricchio himself.

The rest of the characters that populate the square enact a series of miracles performed by the saint in life: the healing of a blind man (who point to eyes), the resurrection of a man possessed by the devil, the healing of the stillborn baby of John and Margaret Basel, the healing of Lorenzo di Niccolo da Prato wounded by a bull and the peace of the Umbrian families.

In this work there are clear influences of the many paintings of Perugino at this stage: the rational Urbino/Umbrian perspective, the variety of poses, inspired by the Florentine Benozzo Gozzoli and Ghirlandaio, the pungent characterisation of the poor pilgrims and beggars, derived from the example of the Flemish masters.

In the lunette there is a representation of St. Bernardino being penitent before the Porta Tufi in Siena - this fresco shows a young Bernardino’s first hermitage.

The grotesques that decorate the pillars are of great quality, they are overloaded with fantastic elements, monsters, animals, plants and ornaments, imitating the ancient reliefs and the first grotesque discoveries in the Domus Aurea. In all the frescoes there are lovely details - such as the background in the central wall, with procession of soldiers on the left and the rock with the castle on top or the beautiful vegetation in the lunette.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Pintoricchio chapels in Santa Maria del Popolo.

The wonderful Renaissance church of Santa Maria del Popolo hosts some marvellous XV century masterpieces by Bernardino Pintoricchio, a great artist from Umbria who also worked in the Borgia apartments, the Piccolomini Library in Siena and the Bufalini Chapel in Santa Maria in Aracoeli. Here Pintoricchio works mainly in two phases: two chapels that were decorated in the 1480s and the choir’s ceiling which was decorated in the early XVI century.

The Della Rovere Chapel

The first chapel on the right hand side is the Della Rovere Chapel - also known as the Cappella del Presepio and it is dedicated to Mary and St. Jerome.

The chapel was commissioned by Cardinal Domenico Della Rovere after Pope Sixtus IV had started the reconstruction of the basilica, from 1471 to 1483. The architecture has a peculiar Lombard feeling and it might be by Andrea Bregno, famous for his monuments. The frescoes are attributed to Pintoricchio and his workshop - the decoration of the chapel was executed between 1488 and 1490 - coinciding with his ceiling decoration in the Della Rovere’s palace near the Vatican. The chapel is hexagonal with a ribbed vault divided into six segments. The architectural space is enclosed within a painted mock architecture decorated with grotesques - with a monochrome base. Pintoricchio’s fresco representing the Adoration of the Child is located above the altar - the other two walls host windows and the tombs of the cardinals Giovanni de Castro (died 1506) and Cristoforo Della Rovere (died 1478) and Domenico Della Rovere (died in 1501) - this scene is enclosed within a decoration of grotesques.

The grotesque polychrome on yellow-gold are high quality and have been enhanced by a recent cleaning - its rich repertoire of figures includes gargoyles, swans, camels, shells, musical instruments, etc., It is inspired by the art of the Roman Imperial Age. They are therefore attributed to the hand of the master who would have been the only one to put into practice a bold experiment, among the most successful of its kind.

The ceiling is decorated with a blue background with gold stars. In the lunettes there are five frescoes with Stories of Saint Jerome. The scenes were detached and transferred onto canvas changes during the eighteenth century. The scenes are:

-St. Jerome disputes the virginity of Mary with the heretic Elvidio.
-St. Jerome penitent in the desert.
-St. Jerome removes the thorn from the lion.
-St. Jerome in his study with St. Augustine.

The lunettes are quite damaged and it is only possible to appreciate the composition in general, who according to Strinati is influenced by painters who were then active in Rome - such as Piermatteo of Amelia and Antoniazzo Romano. Some deny the authenticity of the lunettes, referring them to Tiberio d'Assisi. The works had much golden decoration, as evidenced by the spheres of red wax on the edges of the garments that served as support for the leaf of gold.

The Adoration of the Child with St. Jerome is located above the altar as a fake altarpiece, framed by an arch made of marble and gold. This work has always been considered an authentic work of Pintoricchio, whose finesse came out during the restoration. 

In front of the Nativity’s hut, partially in ruins and with walls of different materials (symbolizing the pagan and Jewish religions that witnessed the rise of Christianity) and with the roof trusses viewed from blow - there is the Holy Family, St. Jerome and the shepherds in adoration of the Child, laid in the bottom center of a bundle of wheat, in remembrance of the bread of the Eucharist. The ox and the donkey are on the right - closed by a fence of woven twigs, while Joseph is represented in the typical dormant attitude, recalling his role as mere overseer of Mary and the Child, without active participation. The rich background is lost in the distance thanks to the rules of aerial perspective that makes things appear far more nuanced in the color due to the bluish haze. it is populated by a city on the banks of a lake and a series of rocky outcrops, in which it is set also the arrival of the procession of the Magi and the announcement by the angel to the shepherds, located at the top center. There is a tree in the center that dives the two parts of the fresco giving it a sense of balance. The most refined parts of the fresco are the Virgin and Child - their vivacity of looks and gestures recall works by Antoniazzo Romano, the great Roman Renaissance artist.

The Basso della Rovere Chapel

This is the third chapel on the right hand side and it is dedicated to St. Augustine - this is the other chapel to host works by Pintoricchio and his workshop.

The chapel was commissioned by Bishop Girolamo Basso della Rovere after Sixtus IV had started the complete reconstruction of the basilica, from 1471 to 1484. Also in this case the architecture has a Lombard feel and is probably by Andrea Bregno. The paintings are attributed to Pinturicchio and his workshop, who worked in an unspecified period circumscribed between 1484, when the chapel was refurbished, and 1492, when his patron was at the episcopal seat of Palestrina.

Compared to the nearby Cappella del Presepio, which is also by Pinturicchio, the Basso Della Rovere Chapel presents a greater decorative scheme. A mock portico is indeed set on the walls of the hexagonal chapel which is covered by a ribbed vault made of six segments.

Fake porphyry columns with Corinthian capitals hold a golden entablature of white marble and gold and placed on a base decorated with (fake) benches and illusionistic monochrome reliefs. Two books painted in perfect perspective rest on one of the painted seat, deceiving the viewer. The bottom has significant similarities with inlays of the Studiolo of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro in Gubbio and today in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The profusion of polychrome decorations has its apex in the tiles of the floor, contemporary works from Deruta, reporting heraldic Della Rovere trees, animals and other motifs.

-Birth of the Virgin.
-Presentation to the Temple.
-Marriage of the Virgin.

In the five lunettes there are stories of the Virgin. Above the altar is the large fresco of the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints Augustine, Francis, Anthony of Padua and a monk - the lunette shows the Eternal Father giving a blessing.

Everything is enclosed by a marble cornice with rich golden decorations. On the two adjacent walls there are two arched windows with grotesques, and the fresco of the Assumption of our Lady and the tomb of Giovanni Basso della Rovere, surmounted by a lunette with the a fresco of a dead Christ supported by two angels.

The frescoes in the choir's ceiling:

The Carafa Chapel.

The Carafa Chapel in Santa Maria sopra Minerva is in my opinion the most wonderful Renaissance work to be found in any church in Rome (outside the Sistine Chapel) - it is not only a great masterpiece but it is the only example of Florentine Renaissance in this city (outside the Vatican). The chapel is located in the right hand transept of the basilica and it is dedicated to the Virgin and Saint Thomas Aquinas - it was built in the late XV century by Cardinal Oliviero Carafa who was known for his strong opposition to the Ottomans - in 1472 he led the Papal Navy in a battle against them and re-conquered the city of Antalya for the Republic of Venice. He was also famous for the commission of a great cloister designed by Bramante in Santa Maria della Pace, near the Piazza Navona. Cardinal Carafa was a dominican - like the friars that administered the basilica - his palace was not too far from the Basilica. Lorenzo de Medici suggested the cardinal to have his chapel painted by Filippino Lippi, son of Filippo Lippi, who was about thirty years old but who had already showed great artistic abilities. Filippino was already working in the Chapel of Filippo Strozzi in Santa Maria Novella, Florence (another great dominican church) and had to interrupt his work begun in 1487 and which he would have finished only in 1502. The presence of the artist in Rome is documented from the 27th August 1488 - with his young helper Raffaellino del Garbo. The frescoes were completed in 1493 when they were visited by Pope Alexander VI Borgia. Raffaellino worked on the decoration of another little space next to the chapel which would have hosted the tomb of the cardinal after his death - the theme of the frescoes were stories of the life of Virginia and other episodes based on the theme of chastity which well reflected the austerity of the cardinal’s character.

As usual the decoration of the chapel began from the ceiling which was divided into four angular sectors in which the artist depicted four sibyls. The Carafa coat of arms is in the center inside a medallion. The frames of the scenes include a pattern of diamonds and rings which are a symbol that represents Lorenzo de Medici. There are also some palm branches and books. The allusion to the Medici family can be read as a thanksgiving for the peace made by Lorenzo during the Baroni Conspiracy which put the Kingdom of Naples in civil war in 1485. Naples was the cardinal’s hometown. The books represent the cultural interests of the cardinal who owned a large library which was then left to the convent of Santa Maria della Pace where he also commissioned the cloister.

Filippino was the first artist to use the sott’in su - the “from below” perspective, a new technique calibered for the vision from below - this was surely possible thanks to the example of the fresco representing the Ascension of Christ by Melozzo da Forlì in the apse of Santissimi Apostoli (now in the Vatican and the Quirinal Palace).

The four sibyls are: Cumana, Libica, Tiburtina and Delfica. Their names are written in Latin in the corners and held by cherubims. They represent knowledge - like the prophets. They are holding writings by Saint Thomas and are surrounded by angels holding books or papers on which they are writing or reading. Cumana’s breast is semi-showing but it is not an allusion but it is an element which derives from Medieval theology and which compares the prophecy of a sibyl to milk for a newborn child. The poses are inspired by classical art. the complex poses and the several objects as well as the draperies create a sense of chaos and dynamism which is incredibly expressive - it refuses classical naturalism.

Annunciation and Assumption

The central wall is decorated with a mock altarpiece which is actually a fresco of the Annunciation in the lower part and divided by the upper part by a frame and stucco. The upper part has a representation of assumption of the Virgin. The entire scene is framed by a fake architecture with an arch supported by pillars decorated with monochrome candelabras. An interesting detail is the bow of a Roman ship with an olive branch, an allusion to the military success of "Oliviero" against the Turks. The ship was copied from a marble relief already in the church of San Lorenzo outside the walls (now in the Capitoline Museum) where any part of the boat corresponds, according to Roman tradition, to an organ of the human body: for this is on the bow an eye. Along the frieze, now visible only on the right wall, run various objects that recall the interests and positions of the cardinal; on the ledge there are then painted angels that hold the Carafa arms. The iconography of the annunciation, with St. Thomas Aquinas, and a kneeling cardinal Carafa. The dual role of Mary is very interesting - while she looks at the Angel that brings the holy announcement, followed by light, she also blesses the cardinal. The cardinal then assumes a leading role in this scene which is set in a small room - Mary is kneeling on a chair, a lectern holds some books, a curtain reveals some still life on the shelf - it is a shelf with books and with a carafe glass, transparent symbol of purity, with an olive branch, a reference to the name of cardinal Oliviero Carafa. To the left is a doorway covered by a barrel vault with the Carafa coat of arms, it suggests that this was inspired by a room in the cardinal’s palace.

The mock altarpiece is surrounded on either side by the apostles who stand in awe.

The stucco frame with golden decorations light consists of a base, two Corinthian pillars, a frieze of cherubs, festoons and palms, and a coronation with scrolls, vases and busts men, crowned with a basket of fruit (the fruit is compared to St. Augustine and St. Ambrose and good works) and closed by a curtain. On the pillars there is an early grotesque decoration, which shows the influence of the newly discovered frescoes of Domus Aurea. Vasari perhaps exaggerated when he wrote that Filippino was the first to have seen them, but still had to be certainly one of the first visitors. A series of characters painted on the sides of the blade, depicting the Apostles, directs the viewer's gaze towards the miracle that takes place in heaven, the Assumption of the Virgin that is going up on a cloud, pushed by angels, accompanied by lighted candles, as angels scattering incense and a light almond cherubs. The two censers very faithfully cite those designed by Botticelli in the fresco of the Punishment of the rebels in the Sistine Chapel, where probably Filippino collaborated. 

If the Virgin is represented in the traditional way, with a frontal view, freedom is found in musical angels that dance around, imitating those of Melozzo da Forli. From left (counterclockwise) there is an angel with tambourine, one with a trumpet, one with the psaltery, then three angels with torches that push the cloud, then one with drums tied at the waist, one with the triangle (in this case trapezoidal) and one with a bagpipe: these are instruments of military troops at the time, adapted to create a loud music, rather than the traditional barrel organs, lutes and strings from "inside". Bagpipes, military instrument par excellence, is decorated with parallel stripes red and white and alludes to the emblem Carafa and naval successes. The angels create a lively circle, the poses have great vitality and are “electrified” by linear games of the drapery and ribbons flying around. Behind the Apostles in the lower part, there is a procession of colorful characters and exotic animals, perhaps alluding to the triumph that the cardinal received back from the victorious military campaign. The giraffe was instead being seen by Filippino in Florence (one had been given a couple of years before Lorenzo il Magnifico arousing intense interest in the population), turning on his imagination.

An interesting detail is also that of the often present Roman ruins that symbolize both the overcoming of Christianity over paganism, while being also a Renaissance reference to its Classical past.

Left wall

The left wall now hosts the monument to Pope Paul IV Carafa by Pirro Ligorio, which destroyed the original frescoes of Vice and Virtue known only by the description of the Vasari.

Right Wall

The right wall has an architectural decoration which is similar to that of the central wall, but it is divided by a frieze in the center. The wall hosts two frescoes: St. Thomas in the chair (or Dispute of St. Thomas) and the Miracle of the book. The scene of St. Thomas in the chair is set in an airy space enclosed in classical architecture - in a covered pavilion vault with a round arch, which leads to the right, through an archway, with a terrace, a building continues next - where there are some characters. Under the niche is Thomas Aquinas surrounded by symbolic figures further down out of the niche, two symmetrical groups of characters. Thomas holds an open book with the inscription "Sapientiam sapientum perdam", taken from the words of St. Paul, which means "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise", and at his feet is a squat figure lying on the ground and covered with books, obvious personification of Sin, with a cartouche reading "Sapientia malitiam Vincit" ("Wisdom wins malice"), an allusion to the typical Dominican role of knowledge to recognize and fight vice and heresy. 

On either side of the saint are various personifications, with names engraved in gold letters on the clothes: Left Philosophy, Theology (with the crown, it addresses the saint), the Dialectic (with typical attribute of the snake) and Grammar (who teaches reading to a child and holding a rod to punish any student’s laziness).

The characters in the foreground instead are mostly figures of heretics, even in this case the golden inscriptions on the garments are recongizable, in some cases difficult to read today. There is Mani, with his finger on his lips, Eutyches, with a Pearl Earring, Sabellius, that reminds one of the Dacian Prisoners Arch of Constantine, Arius, with the yellow dress, etc. 


The books on the ground are obviously those of heretics and are destined for the stake. On the right stands a Dominican monk in the foreground, identified by Gioacchino Torriani, Master of the Order.

On the other side is rather Niccolo Orsini, head of the papal army, which seems ready to implement the judgment of Thomas. The fate of heretical books is not explicitly revealed, but you can also report the presence in the frieze “dell’acerra", one of the boxes in which the Romans held the incense to be burned on the sacrificial altars, which in this case contains a book instead.

The two side buildings that act as a backdrop are reminiscent of Umbria, as in the Funeral of San Bernardino by Pinturicchio in the Cappella Bufalini in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. On the left we see a city with a landscape on which stands the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, who at the time was in the Lateran and it was believed to be a portrait of the emperor Constantine.


The lunette contains more episodes of the life of St. Thomas. To the left is the Miracle of the book, set in an interior, where Christ turned to the saint by the crucifix to praise his work, saying: "Bene scripsisti de me Thoma". Miraculous apparition a monk escapes frightened by the door. The presence of angels with white lilies, symbols of purity and the fact that one of them deviates the mantle of Thomas to show the tied belt also refers to another episode in the life of the saint, when two angels appeared and tied him as a symbol of chastity for its resistance to the offers of a prostitute sent by the family of Thomas to distract him from monastic life.

The right side is set against a porch over the arches - there is a city in the background, while a figure dressed in red is coming down the stairs in the center. The identification of the characters in the foreground is more complex.

The dog that attacks the child is usually a personification of the devil that threatens the purity of childhood.

The woman with the monk's habit and rosary tucked in his belt is probably a personification of the Church, and the man coming down the stairs could be her husband Christ, the red suit is reminiscent of the Passion. His figure is also above Imago Pietatis lintel. The child would then, according to the allegorical writings of Hugh of Saint Victor, the symbol of the clergy, born of the union of Christ with his bride. The character on the right is dressed as a Muslim and shows the woman representing the Church by a man from the back dressed in yellow, who seems to want to convert. The woman in the background could be a depiction of the Synagogue, as found in the painting of the Trials of Moses by Botticelli in the Sistine Chapel.