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The Adoration of the Magi by Bartolo di Fredi: A Masterpiece Reconstructed at the University of Virginia Art Museum and the Museum of Biblical Art in New York – A Review

Bartolo di Fredi, Adoration of the Magi, tempera on panel. Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena.

Bartolo di Fredi, Adoration of the Magi, tempera on panel. Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena.

The Adoration of the Magi by Bartolo di Fredi: A Masterpiece Reconstructed,

The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, March 2 – May 22, 2012
on view from June 8 to September 9, 2012 at the Museum of Biblical Art.

Curated by Bruce Boucher, Director of the UVa Museum.
Catalogue with essays by Bruce Boucher, Francesca Fiorani, Wolfgang Loseries, and Anna Maria Guiducci

The Adoration of the Magi by Bartolo di Fredi: A Masterpiece Reconstructed is a what museum people call a focus exhibition. It is built around a single work of art in a museum’s collection, supplemented by other works which cast light on one or more aspects of the work. For the museum, it is an opportunity to take the work out of its usual context in the gallery and to direct the visitor’s attention towards that one individual work and its own historical context.This rich exhibition had several themes: the reconstruction of the dismembered work of art, the re-evaluation of the artist who created it, the Sienese master Bartolo di Fredi, the date, the patron, and the original location of the work. This small, but ambitious exhibition goes beyond even this. Through a series of thumbnail biographies, it provides the reader with a guide to Sienese painting in the decades following the Black Death, a period which remains underestimated and comparatively little-known. The exhibition catalogue would make an instructive companion to a visit to the Siena Pinacoteca and the churches of the city.

It was all especially rewarding since Bartolo di Fredi and his contemporaries of the years following the Black Death in Siena have not quite received their due, thanks to their dismissal by Bernard Berenson in his once-basic Italian Painters of the Renaissance. Millard Meiss, writing in his Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death (Princeton University Press, 1951) also respectfully consigned Bartolo di Fredi to the second rank. I don’t believe that any of the scholars who contributed to the catalogue would pretend that Bartolo is a Lorenzetti (either Pietro or Ambrogio) or a Simone Martini, but he is a fine painter in his own right and deserves our open-minded attention, especially in the Adoration of the Magi, which shows him at his very best. He did, in fact, enjoy a high reputation in his own time.

Bartolo di Fredi, Sienese, Seven Saints in Adoration. Tempera and gold leaf on panel. 1975.49.1

Bartolo di Fredi, Sienese, Seven Saints in Adoration. Tempera and gold leaf on panel. 1975.49.1

The beauty of the fragments brought together from an American, a German, and an Italian museum — the University of Virginia Art Museum (the originating venue for the exhibition), the Lindenau-Museum in Altenburg, and the Pinacoteca of Siena for the first and, most likely, the only time, speak for themselves. Also on view in New York was a version of the Adoration of the Magi which Bartolo completed around 1390, on loan from The Robert Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as Bartolo’s depiction of the Adoration of the Shepherds dating to 1374, on loan from The Cloisters.

Bartolo di Fredi, The Adoration of the Crucifix. Tempera and gold leaf on panel. Lindenau-Museum, Altenburg.

Bartolo di Fredi, The Adoration of the Crucifix. Tempera and gold leaf on panel. Lindenau-Museum, Altenburg.

The first task of the exhibition was to reunite the three surviving fragments of Bartolo’s altarpiece. The smallest of the fragments, part of the predella, is in the University of Virginia collection, while a Crucifixion with adoring saints, which in fact adjoins it in the predella, is in the Lindenau-Museum. The central panel, which depicts the Adoration scene itself, is in Siena. The travel of panel paintings, considered next to impossible less than twenty years ago, is still delicate work, and the exhibition would not have been possible without the extraordinary cooperation of the Pinacoteca Nazionale, MiBAC, and other Italian authorities. They were willing to make this considerable extra effort because the University of Virginia Museum assisted in the recuperation of antiquities illegally exported from Italy, important archaic acrolithic sculptures from Morgantina, which were actually stolen from the excavation site. The agreement with the Italian authorities enabled the owner to present them as a gift to the museum, where it was shown for five years and used for study and teaching, before they were shipped back to Sicily and put on display in the Morgantina Museum in Aidone — which also holds the famous Goddess of Morgantina, restored to Italy after long negotiations from the J. Paul Getty Museum. Even with the grateful cooperation of MiBAC, the Adoration would probably not have been able to travel, if the panel had not been sturdily cradled on the back. The loan of the Adoration is only the second of an ongoing program of exchanges between Italy and the UVa Museum.

Dr. Boucher and the three panels together at the University of Virginia Art Museum.

Dr. Boucher and the three panels together at the University of Virginia Art Museum.

Close to six feet tall and four wide, the main panel dominates the gallery with the two fragments of the predella below it. Of course much is missing, and we have no certain knowledge of the remainder of the altarpiece and its Gothic ornament. In their introduction, Bruce Boucher and Francesca Fiorani include the hypothetical reconstructions of Patricia Harpring and Gaudenz Freuler, but remain with the three proven elements which are included in the exhibition.

The the core of the bilingual catalogue consists of four essays:

1. Bruce Boucher, “The Dismemberment of a Masterpiece”

2. Francesca Fiorani, “Bartolo di Fredi’s View of Siena as the New Jerusalem”

3. Wolfgang Loseries, “Altarpieces of the Adoration of the Magi and the Shepherds by Bartolo di Fredi”. New documentation and new evidence.

4. Anna Maria Guiducci, “Paintings in Siena at the Time of Bartolo di Fredi”. Protagonists and supporting actors from the paintings in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena

In his eloquent essay on the dismemberment and provenance history of the three fragments, Bruce Boucher goes well beyond the history of the panels and provides a rich, although concise, account of the taste for pictures painted before the time of Raphael, and in particular Bernhard August von Lindenau’s Grand Tour, collecting activities, and his taste for early Sienese painting, which made the museum he founded in his home town, Altenburg, a major repository of the school.

Francesca Fiorani takes a highly specialized subject, the background of the painting and the details of Sienese buildings, and develops it into an important part of the cultural background of Bartolo’s Adoration. She observes that, while he was not the first Sienese artist to show the procession of the three Magi to Bethlehem and the manger, he was the first to depict it with such detail and splendor — a treatment which made an impression on other painters in Siena, who imitated it. Bartolo included an elaborate city view in the background, which he intended to be Jerusalem, but which included a number of illustrious Sienese buildings, among them the Duomo and the Palazzo Pubblico. She considers the motif in the context of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s depiction of Siena in his frescoes of the Effects of Good and Bad Government, which shared the Sala del Consiglio in the Palazzo Pubblico with the World Map, in which Jerusalem occupied an important place, and Simone Martini’s Maestà, “the official image which declared Siena the City of the Virgin.” The World Map gave Bartolo the support for his transferral of concept of Siena as the New Jerusalem from the political sphere to the religious, becoming “a primary vehicle for the construction of political legitimacy, religious supremacy, and the city’s claims to universality.”

Wolfgang Loseries’s attempt to establish the patron and original location of the Adoration is the longest of the essays and the most controversial. It has been thought heretofore that the altarpiece was painted for the Duomo, but Loseries made the telling point that the many Dominican saints in the predella amount to propaganda for the order, which would have been unacceptable in the city cathedral. He concludes that it must have been painted for a Dominican church, i.e. San Domenico in Siena, where it stood on the Altar of the Three Kings. He identifies the patron as Angelina Cinughi and dates the altarpiece, which has been given widely differing dates, between 1375 and 1385, because Bartolo reuses the composition in simplified form in a work dated to 1388. Loseries goes further and determines that Bartolo di Fredi’s Adoration of the Shepherds at the Cloisters, which is included in the show. This painting is known to have come from the Convent of Domenico in San Gimignano, where Bartolo worked on other occasions. Loseries has found one document which dates it to 1374 and another which makes it part of a posthumous endowment of one Bilia di Ghetto, who signed her testament in 1348. This makes it necessary for him to explain away a 26-year gap between the endowment and the execution of the altarpiece. He points out that, although Bilia made out her will in 1348, we don’t know when she actually died and thereby put its provisions into effect. The social and political disorder created by the Black Death, which came to San Gimignano in that same year and killed half the population, could also account for the postponement of the provisions of the will. Much of the connections Loseries makes between his documents is hypothetical, but his overall theory makes for a very interesting narrative.

The final chapter, Anna Maria Guiducci’s collection of short biographies and notes on post-plague paintings in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena, puts the preceding essays into the context of other artists of the period. The trend in scholarship following Meiss’s classic book is to revise his conclusion that the plague of 1348 caused a long-lasting decline in art in Siena by killing off the greatest artists. Guiducci’s discussion makes a convenient guide for the layman who wishes to explore these underestimated artists in the Pinacoteca. If you are planning a trip to Siena, you will want to take the catalogue with you, or at least a scan or a photocopy of this chapter.

There is no doubt that what remains of Bartolo’s altarpiece of the Magi is a beautiful and monumental work. In it his style appears to be eclectic, fusing simplicity in rendering the human form, which spread beyond Florence in the wake of Giotto and his followers, with Gothic linearism, which the old school of art historians would have considered retardataire. The depiction of the Magi themselves in some ways suggests Gothic manuscript illumination writ large. Bartolo also resorted to rich detail and a luxuriance of gilt in rendering their costumes. This exhibition invites us to take this style on its own terms, rather than clinging to the assumption that it is inferior, because it lacks the purity they held in such high esteem.

At the University of Virginia, the exhibition was complemented with a symposium. At the In New York this exhibition — one of three exhibitions of Italian art in the city this summer — brought the basic problems of Italian art history, a splendid and challenging example of the late Sienese trecento, and an irresistible stimulus to go to Siena and rethink one’s assumptions about the great local school into an unusual context, a museum many regular visitors of the Met, the Frick, and the Morgan don’t know, the Museum of Biblical Art, which presents an astonishing variety of exhibitions dealing with artefacts of all aspects of Judaeo-Christian belief, an important medieval Italian artist, who might well be a staple at the Met or the Cloisters, is only a mote in their vast perspective on religious art. At MoBIA, The Adoration of the Magi by Bartolo di Fredi: A Masterpiece Reconstructed, followed an exhibition of soldiers’ Bibles and the liturgical work of the Art Deco muralist, Hildreth Meière, whose work is as familiar to parishioners of St. Bartholomew’s as frequenters of Temple Emanu-El. It ran contemporaneously with an exhibition on bookmaking in the age of Gutenberg and will be succeeded by an exhibition on the religious work of Louis Comfort Tiffany and on Bibles of the Gilded Age. This unusual context should stimulate the visitor to look at the exhibition with open eyes and an open mind, but the visitor will inevitably leave it haunted by the history and the beauties of Siena.

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L'Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides' Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.
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