DOMENICO VENEZIANO’S most illustrious scholar was the great Umbrian artist Piero dei Franceschi, who, both in his types and landscapes, shows close affinity to his master. But he also numbered among his followers the Florentine Alessio Baldovinetti, who, as the teacher of Ghirlandajo, of the Pollauioli brothers and Andrea Verrocchio, exerted considerable influence on the next generation of artists, and occupies an important place in art history. Alessio was born on the 14th of October 1427, and early gave up his father’s trade to study painting in the shop of Domenico Veneziano. In 1448, he matriculated in the Painters’ Guild, and about the same time was employed to paint three panels in the presses for the altar-plate of the Medici Chapel in the Annunziata, which Fra Angelico had left unfinished when he went to Rome. These little subjects, representing the Baptism, Transfiguration and Marriage in Cana, are marked by the same refined naturalism that we find in Domenico Veneziano’s works, and show the same technical methods and careful accurate observation.
A curious book of Ricordi, which has been preserved in the Archives of S. Maria Nuova, gives an account of commissions executed by Baldovinetti between 1449 and 1491, and shows how varied his occupations were. Besides frescoes and altar-pieces for churches, we find entries of household altars for private devotion, panels for the decoration of bedsteads and furniture, marriage chests and shields painted with arms and garlands and inscribed with mottoes, gesso frames, mosaics, cartoons for stained glass and intarsia. In 1454, he painted an Inferno in the Infirmary of the Servi brothers which Andrea del Castagno had agreed to execute for Lodovico Gonzaga, but was too ill to undertake. Four years later he received eight florins for certain figures round the high altar of S. Egidio, the chapel in the hospital of S. Maria Nuova, which Domenico Veneziano and Andrea del Castagno had adorned with frescoes. He does not, however, mention the fresco of the Nativity, in the cloisters of the Annunziata, which he painted in 1462, for the sum of twenty florins, which had been bequeathed to the Servi friars by a citizen named Arrigucci. This much damaged fresco, the first of a remarkable series by the hands of some of the best Florentine painters, is a characteristic example of Baldovinetti’s style. The composition is wanting in unity, the figures are scattered and the interest divided, but the landscape of Val d’Arno is rendered with a truth and love of detail which marks an epoch in art. ” Alessio,” writes Vasari, ” was a very diligent artist, who tried to copy minutely every detail in Mother Nature. He loved painting landscapes exactly as they are, and you see in his pictures, rivers, bridges, rocks, plants, fruit-trees, roads, fields, towns, castles and an infinite number of similar objects. In his Nativity you can count the separate straws and knots in the thatched roof of the hut, and you see the stones in the ruined house behind, worn away by rain, and the thick root of ivy growing up the wall is painted with so much accuracy that the green leaves are differently shaded on either side; and among the shepherds he introduced a snake crawling in the most natural manner along the wall.” This treatment of landscape is common to all Baldovinetti’s works, and forms a marked feature in the charming Madonna and Child in the Louvre, where it is still ascribed to his fellow-pupil Piero dei Franceschi. Unfortunately for the preservation of his paintings, Alessio followed his master Domenico’s example in trying new methods of colouring, and his experiments, as Vasari tells us, often proved disastrous. ” He began his works in fresco, and finished them in secco, mixing his egg-tempera with a liquid varnish, heated in the fire, which instead of protecting his paintings from damp, destroyed the colour; and so, instead of making a rare and valuable discovery, he deceived himself and ruined his works.”
A few of his panel-pictures, however, are still in a fair state of preservation. One of the best is the altar-piece in the Uffizi, which he painted for the chapel of the Medici villa at Caffagiuolo. Here the Virgin who has Angelico and Domenico Veneziano’s grace of type and sweetness of expression is seated in a garden, with her feet on an Eastern carpet, and palms and cypresses appearing above the rich brocaded hangings behind her throne. St. Francis and St. Dominic kneel at her feet in deep devotion, and the Baptist, SS. Cosimo and Damian and other saints stand on either side. Very similar in style is the altar-piece of the Trinity, in the Accademia, for which Baldovinetti received eighty-nine florins, and which he painted in 1472, for the high altar of the Trinità, at the desire of Bongianni Gianfigliazzi. The idea of the angels floating on the clouds and drawing back the curtain to display the heavenly vision was finely conceived and well executed ; but the picture is in a bad condition, and much of the colour has been destroyed. This same Gianfigliazzi, we learn from Alessio’s records, was the patron who, in July 1471, gave him the great work of his life, the frescoes in the choir of the Trinità. The painter had promised to finish the series in seven years, for the sum of 200 florins, but the task proved far more arduous than he had expected, and it was only in January 1497 that his work was at length completed. Four masters of repute, Cosimo Rosselli, Benozzo Gozzoli, Pietro Perugino and Filippino Lippi, were then called to value the frescoes, and fixed the price at 1000 florins. These works, to which Baldovinetti devoted the best years of his life, and in which he introduced portraits of the Medici and their most illustrious contemporaries, were destroyed in 1760, when the choir was rebuilt, and the only fragments now to be seen are the figures of the Patriarchs on the ceiling, which have been lately brought to light, and a portrait of the painter in a red mantle, with a green cloth on his head and a white handkerchief in his hand, which is now in the Morelli collection at Bergamo.
Alessio’s journal ends in 1491, when his time and thoughts were absorbed in this great work. The last entries record his restoration of the mosaics in the Baptistery of Florence and in the choir of S. Miniato, where, twenty-five years before, he had decorated the Cardinal of Portugal’s Sepulchral Chapel with frescoes of the Prophets and an altar-piece of the Annunciation. A few of his smaller Madonnas may be seen in private collections in Paris and Florence, and a profile portrait of a lady in the National Gallery, which has been ascribed at different times to Piero dei Franceschi and Paolo Uccello, has been lately recognised by Mr Roger Fry as his work. The face is one of great charm and distinction, and the patterned brocade of the sleeve and beads of the necklace are painted in Baldovinetti’s characteristic manner.
Alessio married about 1465, but his wife, Mona Darla, and her only child died early, leaving him to a solitary old age. On the 23rd of March 1499, being seventy-two years of age, the painter entered the hospital of S. Paolo, a house of charity belonging to the Third Order of St. Francis, and made a donation of all his goods after his death to this institution, on condition that his maid-servant Mea should be sup-ported and cared for, to the end of her life. Five months afterwards he died, on the last day of August, and was buried in a grave which he had bought twenty years before in the Church of S. Lorenzo. Vasari relates how, after his death, a big chest which he had brought with him into the hospital was opened, and how, instead of being full of gold, as the Master of the Hospital expected, it only contained a few drawings and a book on the art of mosaic. ” But no one was much surprised,” adds the historian ; ” for he was so kind and courteous that he shared everything he possessed with his friends.”
Florence.S. Trinità, Choir: Frescoes of ceilingNoah, Moses, Abraham, David, Sacrifice of Isaac.
” S. Miniato: Annunciation, fresco of Prophets.
” S. Pancrazio : FrescoRisen Christ.
” Accademia : 233. Marriage in Cana, Baptism, Transfiguration ; 159. Trinity.
” Uffizi: 56. Annunciation; 6o. Madonna and Saints.
” Mr. Berenson: Madonna.
Bergamo. Gallery: 23. Fresco Portrait of Painter.
LondonNational Gallery : 758. Portrait of Lady.
Paris.Louvre: 1300A. Madonna.