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Home Indice e rubriche Primitivi pisani fuori contesto The likely provenance from the Hospital Church of San Giovanni della Calza for an altarpiece by Cecco di Pietro

The likely provenance from the Hospital Church of San Giovanni della Calza for an altarpiece by Cecco di Pietro

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di Dillian Gordon

A major work by the Pisan painter Cecco di Pietro (1364-1402) is the Virgin and Child enthroned with donors, in the Portland Art Museum, Oregon (Kress Collection 1174), signed and dated 1386. In this article it is argued that, despite the fact that the author was a Pisan, the provenance of the painting, once part of an altarpiece of which other panels are known, is to be sought not in Pisa, but in Florence, and the donors are to be identified as two Florentine brothers.

A major work by the Pisan painter Cecco di Pietro (1364-1402) is the Virgin and Child enthroned, in the Portland Art Museum, Oregon (Kress Collection 1174), signed and dated 1386, according to its inscription: «Cecchus Petri de Pisis me pi[n]sit a.d. MCCCLXXXVI»1. Kneeling at the foot of the throne are two lay figures, an elderly Hospitaller with a flowing white beard and a man dressed in red (fig. 1). This panel has been associated with the side panels showing the standing Saints Peter, John the Baptist, Bartholomew and Nicholas (formerly in Nantes and Rennes respectively, now in Avignon, musée du Petit Palais) (fig. 2)2. Only one predella panel survives: Laura Cavazzini has suggested that under the figure of Saint John the Baptist was the Baptism (22. 8 x 29.8 cm; private collection)3.

The provenance of this altarpiece has hitherto been thought to be unknown4. In this article it is argued that despite the fact that the painter was a Pisan, the presence of the Hospitaller and the particular combination of saints allows one to deduce that the provenance is to be sought not in Pisa, but in Florence, and to identify the donors as two Florentine brothers.

The presence of the elderly Hospitaller evidently suggests a connection with a Hospital church. The main Hospital Church in Florence during the fourteenth century was San Giovanni della Calza, which as early as 1362 at least, belonged to the Knights of Malta/ Hospitallers, also known as the Knights of Saint John; it remained in their possession until 15295.

1_cecco_di_pietro_two_donors 2_cecco_di_pietro_virgin-and-child

The church and attached hospital seem to have gone under several different names6. The Ospedale was originally dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, and at some date after 1362 took on the dedication to Saint Nicholas, namesaint of the husband of the hospital’s benefactress donna Bice, who made a bequest to the hospital in her will of 13627. By 1376 it was also known as SS. Bartolomeo e Niccolò8; after it was taken over by female Hospitallers in 1392 it was known as the ‘Spedale e monasterio de Sancto Niccolò’ and ‘monasterio di san Nicholo della porta a san Pietro Gattolino’9.

The patronage of the church belonged to the Benini family (possibly sharing it with the Squarcialupi). In his will of 14 February 1373 (modern 1374) Bindo di Lapo Benini said he had built the Hospital Church of Santi Giovanni e Niccolò, Florence10, and left property to the Ospedale at the behest of his brother Bartolomeo, Prior of the Order of Knights Hospitaller in Pisa; the Benini arms are carved in stone, opposite the arms of the Squarcialupi family, on the lintel over the main entrance to the church on the Via Romana (fig. 3)11.

The church (fig. 4) is very near the Porta Romana which once had sculptures on the exterior of the gate, now lost, which according to a contract of 1329 showed the Virgin and Child at the centre, with Saint John the Baptist and Nicholas on one side, and Saints Peter and Paul on the other12. On the interior city side is a fourteenth-century fresco showing the Virgin and Child enthroned with Saint John the Baptist, and a Bishop Saint, probably Saint Nicholas on the left, and Saint Peter receiving the keys to heaven from the Child, and a Franciscan saint (Francis or Anthony of Padua ?) on the right. The interconnection between three of the saints associated with the church, namely Saints John the Baptist, Peter and Nicholas, and those shown on the nearby city gate was therefore very close.

The same combination of saints as in the sculpture and in the frescoes is to be found in the altarpiece, apart from a Franciscan saint in the case of the fresco, and Saint Paul in the case of the sculpture, instead of Saint Bartholomew. This suggests that this altarpiece could have come from the Hospital Church, since it too shows those three saints: John the Baptist, Nicholas, and Peter. It is possible that the kneeling Hospitaller is Bartolomeo Benini, suggested by the inclusion of his name saint, Bartholomew, in position of honour beside the Virgin and Child: the fact that the church was known as SS. Bartolomeo e Niccolò was on account of his patronage13. Bartolomeo Benini was Prior of the Knights Hospitaller of Pisa and Rome in 1351, Prior of Venice in 1364, and in 1374 judged too old and decrepit to act as Admiral and so again appointed Prior14.

Bartolomeo Benini was consistently linked together in his patronage with his brother, Bindo15. Bindo was a wealthy landowner who lived in the parish of Santo Stefano a Ponte, and owned property in the parish of San Michele Visdomini16. He was also a converso of the Camaldolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Florence, where both he and his brother were generous benefactors17. In 1364 Bindo di Lapo Benini had commissioned an altarpiece, now in the Accademia, Florence, painted by Giovanni del Biondo, for a chapel in Santa Maria degli Angeli, which was dedicated to John the Baptist and contains the unusual feature of Saint John the Baptist wearing the robes of the Knights Hospitaller18. It has been suggested by Anthony Luttrell that the Saint John the Baptist reflects the appearance of Bartolomeo Benini, and that he is the younger of the two bearded Hospitallers featured in the Chapter House (Spanish Chapel) frescoes in Santa Maria Novella, Florence, painted by Andrea di Bonaiuto in 1366-6819.

3_benini_and_squarcialupi_coats_of_arms 4_san_giovanni_della_calza

If it is indeed Bartolomeo in the painting of the Virgin and Child by Cecco di Pietro in Portland, then the layman kneeling opposite is probably his brother, Bindo Benini, depicted posthumously, possibly on the tenth anniversary of his death, since he died in 137620. It is perfectly reasonable that Bartolomeo, as Prior of the Order in Pisa would have chosen a Pisan painter, Cecco di Pietro, to fulfil the commission for the Florentine church.

Also said to have come from the church is the altarpiece showing Saints John the Baptist, James and John the Evangelist, painted by Nardo di Cione around 1363-65, now in the National Gallery, London21. If these two altarpieces indeed came from this church, then a likely date for their having been moved is 1529/31, when the church was taken over by the Gesuati and three altarpieces by Perugino moved there from San Giusto alle Mura22.



1. Cecco di Pietro, Two donors, here identified as Bartolomeo and Bindo Benini. Detail of The Virgin and Child enthroned. Portland Art Museum, Oregon (Kress Collection 1174).

2. Cecco di Pietro, Reconstruction of The Virgin and Child enthroned, signed and dated 1386, tempera on wood, 123.8 x 53.3 cm (Portland Art Museum) with Saints Peter, John the Baptist, Bartholomew and Nicholas, tempera on wood, each panel 105.0 x 36.0 cm. Avignon, musée du Petit Palais (Reconstruction courtesy of Michel Laclotte and Esther Moench).

3. The Benini and Squarcialupi coats of arms, church of San Giovanni della Calza, Florence

4. Façade of the church of San Giovanni della Calza, Florence



1 For which see F. Rusk Shapley, Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection, Italian Schools, XIII-XV Century, London 1966, p. 73, and fig. 201.

2 For this altarpiece see M. Laclotte and E. Moench, Avignon, Musée du Petit Palais. Peinture italienne, Paris 2005, pp. 90-91, cat. nos. 64-67, and the reconstruction on p. 232.

3 L. Cavazzini (in ed. G. Romano , exh. cat., Antichi maestri pittori. Quindici anni di studi e ricerche, (dealer Giancarlo Gallino), 6 October - 18 December, Torino 1993, cat. 5, pp. 42-45). I owe this reference to Linda Pisani. See also Sotheby’s, London, Old Master and British Paintings, 9 December 2009, lot 21 (withdrawn from sale).

4 The panel with the Virgin and Child in Portland is first recorded in the collection of Conte Ferroni, Florence, then in the Contini Bonacossi Collection, Florence; acquired by the Kress Collection 1939 (Rusk Shapley, Paintings…1966, p. 73, and fig. 201). The panels with the sides saints in Avignon are first recorded in the Campana Collection in Rome, the panels with Saints Peter and Bartholomew in 1858, and the panels with Saint John the Baptist and Nicholas in 1862 (Laclotte and Moench, Avignon…2005, pp. 90-91, cat. nos. 64-67, and p. 232).

5 W. and E. Paatz, Die Kirchen von Florenz: ein kunstgeschichtliches Handbuch, Frankfurt, 1941, II, pp. 272-279. See also G. Richa, Notizie istoriche delle Chiese Fiorentine divise ne’ suoi quartieri, Firenze, IX, 1761, p. 97.

6 For the different names given to the church see Paatz, Die Kirchen… II, pp. 272-273.

7 In 1362 Donna Bice del fu Bingucci de’ Rossi and her husband, Niccolò del fu Ciupo Squarcialupi di Poggibonsi, took the habit of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem; in the same year she made her will ordering the repair of the Ospedale of San Giovanni near the Porta San Pier Gattolini (G. B. Uccelli, Il Convento di S. Giusto alle Mura e i Gesuati , Firenze 1865, p. 84).

8 Uccelli, Il Convento…, 1865, pp. 84-85. In 1392 it was given over to female hospitallers (see also note 9 below), and subsequently frequently changed hands. See also Richa (Die Kirchen…1941, II, pp.272-279) where the church is described as an oratory used by the hospital.

9 See the volume of constitutions and rules of around 1400, with an illuminated letter ‘S’ attributed to Matteo Torelli (?) showing Fra Lionardo Bonafedi, comandatore of San Jacopo di Campo Corbellini and Prior of Pisa, addressing the Hospitaller nuns (Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire, Geneva, Comites Latentes, ff. 1 and 41 verso; illustrated in the exhibition catalogue, G. Freuler, “Manifestatori delle cose Miracolose”. Arte Italiana del ‘300 e ‘400 da Collezioni in Svizzera e nel Liechtenstein, Lugano-Castagnola, Villa Favorita, Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation, 7 April-30 June 1991, cat. no. 81, pp. 211-213). For the nearby church of San Pietro Gattolino see Paatz, Die Kirchen…,1952, IV, pp. 621-628.

10 Uccelli, Il Convento…, 1865, p. 84, interprets this as enlarged and renewed, but Paatz, Die Kirchen…, 1941, II, p. 279, note 6, interpret this as having been built ex novo. The explanation is probably that Bindo Benini added a church to the hospital complex.

11 Uccelli, Il Convento …, 1865, p. 84; Richa, Die Kirchen…, 1941, p. 97; both describe the arms as two chains; the Benini arms in Santa Maria Novella are sketched as gold crossed chains on a red field in the Sepoltuario of Biscioni (ASF, ms 626, f. 64). The stemma of the Squarcialupi family over the door of San Giovanni della Calza is a wolf over three palle; see Uccelli, Il convento…, 1865, p. 85. See also note 7 above for the patronage of the Squarcialupi.

12 See C. Milanesi, Allogazione di alcune figure di pietra per la porta San Pier Gattolini di Firenze, fatta a maestro Paolo di Giovanni scultore fiorentino, «Giornale Storico degli Archivi Toscani», III, 1859, pp. 282-287, and J. Gardner, An introduction to the iconography of the medieval Italian city gate, «Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Studies on Art and Archaeology in Honor of Ernst Kitzinger on his seventy-fifth birthday», 41, 1987, pp. 199-213, p. 211. Milanesi (p. 285) identified the Saint Nicholas as Saint Nicholas of Tolentino with no basis for this identification, and thus identified a fragment of a mitred head from the sculptures which were damaged in the siege of 1529 as from a sculpture of Saint Zenobius, although this must have been the remains of Saint Nicholas of Bari.

13 Paatz, Die Kirchen..., 1941, p. 272.

14 A. Luttrell, The Hospitallers of Rhodes between Tuscany and Jerusalem: 1310-1431, «Revue Mabillon», 1992, pp. 117-138, pp. 122-123, and p. 123, note 34.

15 G. Bent, Monastic Art in Lorenzo Monaco’s Florence. Painting and Patronage in Santa Maria degli Angeli, 1300-1415, New York, Ontario and Lampeter, 2006, p. 97.

16 For Bindo di Lapo Benini see G. Bent, Santa Maria degli Angeli and the Arts: Patronage, Production and Practice in a Trecento Florentine Monastery, Ph. D., Stanford University 1993 (Ann Arbor 1998), pp. 140-142, and pp. 215-216, notes 82-86; and Bent, Monastic…2006, p. 58 note 98, and pp. 96-98.

17 In 1372 Bartolomeo Benini donated 200 gold florins, and Bindo Benini donated 100 gold florins to Santa Maria degli Angeli for the extending of the church; see the document transcribed by Bent, Santa Maria…1993, p. 646.

18 For the altarpiece see L. Marcucci, Gallerie Nazionale di Firenze, I. Dipinti Toscani del Secolo XIV, Roma 1965, n. 78, pp. 117-118. Bindo Benini gave a large amount of property to Santa Maria degli Angeli for the chapel dedicated to Saint John the Baptist on 15 August 1363, for his soul and that of his brother «Messer Bartolomeo priore di Pisa e di Roma mio fratello e di tutti con i nostri morti». Document transcribed by Bent, Santa Maria…1993, Doc. 22, pp. 633-634; Doc. 23, p. 635. In 1368 after the death of Beata Paola, two of the dwellings of her hermitage next to Santa Maria degli Angeli were repaired and rented out to Bindo Benini and his wife (see G. B. Mittarelli and A. Costadoni, Annales Camaldulenses Ordinis Sancti Benedicti , 1773, IX, pp. 83-84).

19 A. Luttrell, A Hospitaller in a Florentine Fresco: 1366/68, «Burlington Magazine», CXIV, 1972, 831, pp. 362-367, Appendix on p. 366.

20 It was not unusual for bequests to take some time before completion.

21 See the forthcoming catalogue of the Italian paintings in the National Gallery 1250-1400 by the present author.

22 See Paatz, Die Kirchen…, II, 1941, p. 277; and p. 282, note 37; p. 283, notes 39 and 40.
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