Master of Santo Spirito
The Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist and St. Verdiana
William Spence, Florence, 1860.
Alexander William, Lord Lindsay, 25th Earl of Crawford (1812 – 1880), acquired from the above.
Private collection, U.K.
N. Barker, H. Brigstocke & T. Clifford, ‘A Poet in Paradise’; Lord Lindsay and Christian Art (exhibition catalogue), Edinburgh, 2000, no. 20 (illus. p. 81).
Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland, on loan.
The small body of works attributed to the Master of Santo Spirito – so named for three important altarpieces in the church of Santo Spirito, Florence – was independently recognized by Richard Offner and Federico Zeri, though the identity of this highly skilled painter is yet to be established with certainty. One case has been made to identify the artist as Giovanni Scheggini, called Graffione by Mr. Everett Fahy (see E. Fahy, Some Followers of Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1976, p. 195; and H.P. Horne, “Il Graffione”, The Burlington Magazine, VIII, December 1905, pp. 189-96). An alternative theory, which is widely although not universally accepted, was put forward in 1988 by Anna Padoa Rizzo; she proposed that the paintings from this group originated in the joint workshop of Donnino di Domenico di Donnino del Mazziere (1460 – after 1515) and his brother Agnolo di Domenico (1466 – 1513), who were active in the Oltrarno quarter of the city near the Church of Santo Spirito (see A. Padoa Rizzo, “Agnolo di Donnino: nuovi documenti, le fonti e la possibile identificazione con il ‘Maestro di Santo Spirito’”, Rivista d’Arte, 40, 1988, pp. 125-68). Donnino, the elder, may have trained in the workshop of Cosimo Rosselli, with whom he was closely associated according to Vasari. Padoa Rizzo was subsequently able to link a work given to the Master of Santo Spirito, a Madonna and Child with Two Angels and Saints Lucy and Peter Martyr (Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice) with a commission granted to Agnolo and Donnino in 1490 for the chapel of Ospedale di Santa Lucia, Florence. This seemingly confirms her identification of the anonymous master (see A. Padoa Rizzo in Erba d’Arno, no. 46, Autumn 1991, pp. 54-63).
Despite the debate over attribution, scholars can agree on the consistently high quality of the paintings that make up this group. As Zeri remarked, “they are based upon a rich and varied inheritance, reflecting the major artists working in Florence at the end of the Quattrocento – from Filippino Lippi and Domenico Ghirlandaio to Perugino and perhaps Botticelli. The main influence is, however, that of Lorenzo di Credi, with whom this painter must have been in close contact at one time” (F. Zeri, in Italian Paintings in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1976, vol. I, p. 108). Stylistic affinities with works by Lorenzo (who was apprenticed alongside Leonardo da Vinci in Verrocchio’s workshop) are evident in the present altarpiece, with its wealth of fine detail and gilt embellishments; in fact both Verrocchio and Lorenzo’s father were originally trained as goldsmiths. The atmospheric landscape background is much like those found in Lorenzo’s paintings. Composed of rocky hills, feathery trees and a palette of browns, blues and greens, it demonstrates an awareness of Netherlandish landscape conventions. There are, furthermore, many similarities between this altarpiece and others attributed to the Master of Santo Spirito. Look, for instance, at a Madonna and Child in Alabama (Kress collection, Birmingham Museum of Art), in which the Virgin has similarly elongated, elegant hands and fingers, while the Christ Child repeats the gesture of clutching his drapery in his fist. Even the distinctive looped knot securing the Virgin’s gown is identical in both paintings. We can also compare the architectural setting of the present altarpiece to one in Volterra (Pinacoteca). In both, the artist repeats the pattern of triangular marble floor tiles, and in each, the Madonna’s throne, set into a niche, is bounded by carved and gilded leaf-shaped scrolls.
Alongside the enthroned Madonna and Child and Saint John the Baptist is Saint Verdiana (d. 10 February 1242), the patron saint of Castelfiorentino, just outside Florence in the Tuscan countryside. Verdiana was born in Castelfiorentino to a noble family, and was recognised for her charitable and pious nature, which led her to make a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Upon her return, and in search of solitude and penance, Verdiana became an anchorite and had herself walled up into a small cell adjacent to the oratory of San Antonio. She remained in seclusion for 34 years, speaking to visitors and receiving food through a small window. According to legend, two serpents entered her cell in the last year of her life, to torment her and test her faith. Verdiana is traditionally represented as a nun with the attributes of a basket and two snakes. There is a church dedicated to Saint Verdiana in Florence, though we have no evidence to suggest an association between the commission of the present Madonna and Child and that particular church.
The altarpiece’s interesting provenance adds to the appeal of its unusual iconography. It was at one point in the collection of William Blundell Spence (1814 – 1900), an eccentric 19th century connoisseur and art dealer who spent more than half his life resident in Florence. Spence was himself trained as an artist and may have painted a view of his gallery in the Palazzo Giugni in which the present altarpiece can be seen (private collection). Among his English clientele was Alexander William Lindsay, 25th Earl of Crawford (1812 – 1880), a celebrated collector of old master pictures.
Lord Lindsay, as he was known, took a particular interest in early Christian art, and wrote Sketches of the History of Christian Art (1847), the first comprehensive survey of early Italian art compiled by an Englishman. Lindsay’s own collection was a reflection of this study, and his paintings illustrate a wide range of Christian saints and legends, including such unusual figures as Saint Verdiana. Lindsay purchased a number of works from Spence, evidently including the present altarpiece, though no record of the date of purchase exists in either the Spence or Lindsay files. Hugh Brigstocke suggests that he acquired the altarpiece around 1872, at the same time as he purchased a 13th century triptych now given to Grifo di Tancredi (see H. Brigstocke, “Lord Lindsay as a Collector of Paintings”, in A poet in Paradise: Lord Lindsay and Christian Art, p. 31). His passion for early Italian painting and sculpture was surprising in an era when such works were considered unfashionable, and can be traced to a book by the French author A.F. Rio, De La Poésie Chrétienne (1836). Lindsay read Rio’s essay, which associates the spirituality of early Christian art with a truer level of devotion, on his first trip to Rome, and was profoundly impacted.
Lindsay also built up a magnificent library at his family home, Haigh Hall, in Lancashire. Known as the Bibliotheca Lindesiana, it contained over 30,000 books, including a number of illuminated manuscripts. His ambition was to establish a private museum and library, modelled on the achievements of the Medici in Florence, and he observed in his library report of 1861-65: “I had, in fact, in my earliest youth determined to assemble together the wisest and most graceful thinkers of all countries, ages and pursuits as agreeable companions, instructive teachers, and honoured guests, under the symbolical pavilion of the Lindsays, who, with their friends, might thus converse hereafter, as in the School of Athens, with congenial associates in whatever branches of literature, art or science, their genius or taste should severally direct them to” (quoted in H. Brigstocke, op. cit., p. 287). Lindsay’s succession to the earldoms of Crawford and Balcarres on 15th September 1869 somewhat curtailed his academic pursuits, as he was obliged to turn his attention to more practical financial matters. He died in Florence on 13th December 1880 at the Villa Palmieri in Fiesole (named for one of its former residents, the humanist scholar Marco Palmieri), which he had acquired in 1872. The spectacular gardens of the villa are said to have inspired the setting for the framing narrative of Boccaccio’s Decameron.