: ESSAY: The Search for the Origin of One Fifteenth-Century Madonna & The Discovery of the Magnificent Sforza Dukes of Milan
The Search for the Origin of One Fifteenth-Century Madonna &
The Discovery of the Magnificent Sforza Dukes of Milan
Professor Kelley Helmstutler-Di Dio
April 17, 2014
In the European section of the North Carolina Museum of Art there can be found a small painting titled Madonna and Child with St. John the Evangelist, a Donor, and St. Anthony Abbot. The only information about the work available to viewers at the museum or online credits the Italian School of Pavia and dates the work at the year 1400. Locked in the Latin inscription at the bottom of the image, however, are clues to when the work was truly created, whom the ‘donor’ is, and in turn a glance into the very interesting life of his family and European politics in fifteenth century Europe.
A translation of the Latin inscription found at the bottom of the painting roughly reads as follows:
Visible and vigorous man Matthew Bologninus, Pavia castle commander created holy angels companion Francesco Sforza Duke of Milan in 1450, demonstrate ties, St. John the Evangelist, and Anthony Abbot, from the Mother the client received.
Unified by blue, olive green and various shade of gold are the Mother, her baby Jesus and the two saints who are easily identified by the faint lettering of their names: Saint John the Evangelist on the left and Saint Anthony Abbot on the right. The man in the bottom left hand corner is the ‘donor,’ the client and Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza. By merely converting the Roman numerals MCCCCL it is clear that this piece was not created until at least the year 1450. It was not until that year that Francesco Sforza even became the Duke of Milan, a title that was not recognized by many for decades after this, so this piece was certainly not created until at least then.
A shrewd and ambitious man from a young age, Sforza made his name proving himself in the military for years. Having already been wed once, in 1430 the 29 year old was betrothed to Bianca Maria Visconti, the six year old illegitimate daughter of Filippo Maria Visconti who was the Duke of Milan. They were married in 1441 when Bianca came of age, Sforza procuring for himself a seat in one of Italy’s most powerful families. He had a place, certainly, but the question of his rights remained controversial because of his wife’s status as an illegitimate daughter of the Duke.
In 1447 the Filippo Maria Visconti died, leaving no heir to his sought after place as Duke. After three years of indecision, Sforza finally claimed the place for himself. By blood he was not a Visconti, and being and bastard child Bianca did not inherit anything in her fathers death, so even her legitimacy was questionable.
This question of legitimacy would follow Sforza for decades as he slowly gained recognition as the rightful Duke of Milan from leaders across Italy and Europe.
At the time Sforza claimed his seat as duke, a cultural conversation was going on about the ‘virtue of Magnificence’, in which the merits of great extravagance was questioned. As contemporaries looked to Italy’s theological history, revival of philosopher Thomas Aquinas’s work occurred, who centuries before in Summa Theologica had concluded that Magnificence was indeed a virtue.
After some debate it seems that Northern Italy came to a similar conclusion, that it was not only suitable but perhaps even obligatory for those who could afford to pour great amounts of money into art and architecture to do so. In his first years as Duke, Sforza reignited many architectural projects. These were assigned to Filarete who believed and encouraged the idea that ‘the reasons for building are now utility and fame.’
The trend of attaching the identity of the patron to a piece can be seen in Madonna and Child with St. John the Evangelist, a Donor, and St. Anthony Abbot, where his name and title are included in the bold inscription. Though there are no iconographical symbols of the families Sforza or Visconti in this image, the brilliant red clothing worn by Francesco may be a signature of the household. In Zanetto Burgatto’s Sforza Altarpiece is an unusually overwhelming presence of bright, vivacious red. The same hue is inescapable in Bonifazio Bembo’s court portraits of the family. Bembo’s depicts Bianca in a brilliant red dress with gold ornament that takes up the majority of the painting’s bottom half. The complementary portrait of Francesco shows the Duke in a shirt which is of a similar red and gold pattern, and more strikingly a bright red hat that takes over the top third of the painting. However, the most plentiful display of this luminous red hue is manifested in Bembo’s The People of the Court of the Sforza Family. In this last piece, a family portrait of sorts, every single Sforza shown is adorned in the same bright red color seen in the afore mentioned works. It seems no coincidence, then, that Duke Francesco Sforza be shown in this Madonna and Child bearing the same color, thereby identifying himself and representing the rest of the Sforza-Visconti household.
Still though, there remains the question of who created the work. Though the artists name or names could very well be lost to history, it is also possible that this piece was separated from a cycle of decorations made for the Visconti’s castle at Pavia. According to Luke Syson, ‘a group of at least sixteen portraits, either on canvas or panel, was held at the Castello in Pavia.’
Syson also explores the patronage of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, the son of Francesco and Bianca Maria Visconti. Upon taking over as Duke of Milan after his father’s death in 1466, Galeazzo took a special interest in the family’s Pavian castle, in which he called on Bembo to restore old frescos as well as to continue the decoration of the castle.
One of these new projects was ‘an elaborate mural cycle, filled with portraits for Galeazzo, his court and his predecessors, planned in 1469 for the Castello of Pavia.’
Galeazzo continued to employ Zanetto as well as Bembo as painters of the Sforza court, and commissioned a fresco cycle featuring images of the Sforza-Visconti family with the Virgin and Child.
Although it is unclear weather or not the Madonna and Child with St. John the Evangelist, a Donor, and St. Anthony Abbot was painted by one of the court artists, it seems a reasonable possibility. It is clear that Galeazzo was a passionate patron of the arts and that he was very interested in preserving and documenting his heritage. This Madonna, though painted with tempera on panel opposed to in a fresco seems to embody the same themes that he was pursuing as a patron in his decade as the Duke of Milan, familial portraits featuring the Mother and child.
This small painting holds many mysteries, and for now the artist remains one of them. Another is the date of the piece. At first it seems that Francesco would have commissioned it in 1450, the date mentioned in the piece’s Latin inscription. Upon furthur investigation, however, it seems quite possible that this was commissioned by Galaezzo Maria Sforza in memory of his fathers Francesco’s 1450 assumption of the title Duke of Milan. It is safe at least to date the work from 1450-1476, between the reigns of Francesco and his son, which is far later than the date given by the North Carolina Museum of Art as well as Artstor.
Contrary also to the works hesitant title, it seems quite evident that Francesco Sforza is the ‘donor’ in red. Thanks to the lettering at the bottom of the work great historical meaning that would otherwise be complete mystery can be found in this painting, and an introduction to the very interesting and complicated family life of the Sforza-Visconti Dukes of Milan, a legacy which in every way embodied the ‘virtue of Magnificence.’
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- D. Fraser Jenkins, “Cosimo de' Medici's Patronage of Architecture and the Theory of Magnificence,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 33 (1970), pp. 162-170
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