The two pairs of Angels boast a prestigious provenance from the collection of the celebrated architect, ceramicist and designer Georges Hoentschel (Paris, 1855-1915), one of the most prominent and sophisticated collectors on the Parisian art scene between the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, famous for his role as designer of the pavilion Union Centrale des Arts Decoratifs at the Exposition Universale of 1900 and for his involvement in the ambitious project for the Exposition Retrospective de l'Art Français des Origines à 1800, held in the Petit Palais in the same year.
A significant photograph of the time documents the two sculptures in 1906 in the "Salle Gothique" (Brennan 2013, p. 152, fig. 5.5), displayed in the exhibition areas established at n. 58 Boulevard Flandrin, in a building adjoining the collector's new residence in the Rue Théry, celebrated at the beginning of the century by the major titles of the international press as one of the most prestigious and influential art collections of the time (The Rise of Applied Art, 22 December 1906; Hoentschel Art for New York, 23 May 1907). (PL. I). Starting in that year, the valuable Hoentschel collection was sold in four significant installments to the American banker and cultivated collector J. Pierpont Morgan, who shortly afterwards donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In the catalogue of the Parisian collection published in 1908, the two groups were recorded as "North Italian XVI century" (Pératé - Brière 1908, I, p. 9, pl. XVIII), while they arrived in the prestigious American museum as "France, late Renaissance", works by an "unknown sculptor, second half of XVI century" (Breck 1913, p. 164, nn. 173-174).
During the century in which they formed part of the collection of the Metropolitan, the Angels never found an appropriate historical-artistic contextualisation, so much so that on their recent return to the art market (December 2014) they still appeared with a generic reference to an unknown North Italian sculptor working towards the end of the 15th century, being compared to the style of Francesco di Giorgio Martini and with faint echoes of the art of the Lombard Mantegazza family.
A significant contribution was provided by some photos belonging to the Ulrich Middledorf Archive held in the Photo Library of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence; there, the present sculptures are catalogued by the scholar as "nordost italienische" second half of the 15th century and as "veneto 15 secolo" respectively. This reference would appear to be borne out by the fact that the two pairs of telamons are sculpted from blocks of limestone, also known as pietra d'Istria, usually used in architectural decoration and in the production of sculpture in the artistic centres of Dalmatia and in the areas of the Italian pensinsula which, during the Quattrocento, were under the political and cultural influence of the Venetian Republic.
Further confirmation is provided on purely stylistic grounds as the two portentuous sculptures are characterised by the pronounced jutting of their heavy and angular somatic features, the characteristic carving of the eyes which are strongly elongated and with deeply incised pupils, the vigorous pose and the lively diagonal dynamism of the garments, which in one pair are cut by sharp oblique slashes, and in the other, bizarrely rippled by pleated drapery and papery flaps. These elements explicitly recall the results of that fortunate cultural moment that occurred in the middle decades of the Quattrocento on both shores of the Adriatic subjected to the cultural and artistic domination of the Serenissima, manifesting itself especially in the production of the most influential artist working between the Ventian lagoon and the eastern shore of the Adriatic, the sculptor and architect of Dalmatian origin Giorgio di Matteo da Zara, known as Giorgio da Sebenico.
Born in 1409 in Zara and most probably educated in the city of the Doges by the beginning of the 1420s, Giorgio must have completed his artistic education in the most prominent local sculpture workshop led by Giovanni and Bartolomeo Bon, participating, as scholars have often suggested, in the prestigious workshops of the Palazzo dei Dogi, in the sculptural decoration of the Porta della Carta (1438-1443) and the portal of the Scuola di San Marco (Chiappini di Sorio 1979; Schulz 1979, Mariano 2011).
In 1441, as documents attest, he had moved from Venice to Sebenico at the request of the cathedral chapter to work on the construction and sculptural decoration of the church of San Giacomo, a commission which was to earn him in the years that followed some of the most significant projects of the Adriatic and Dalmatian Renaissance. These included the construction of the chapel of San Francesco in Zara (1444), the chapel with the Tomb of San Ranieri in the old church of San Benedetto, later transferred to the parish church in Kaštel Lukšić (1444) and the Tomb of Sant'Anastasio in the cathedral in Spalato (1448), the Sacrophagus of Niccolò and Stefano Draganich in the church of San Francesco (1447) and the famous sacristy within the cathedral of San Giacomo (1450) in Sebenico, while in Ancona - a city where fifty or so years later he would be recorded as "degnissimo maestro tagliapietra" [most worthy master stonemason] (L. Bernabei, Croneche Anconitane, 1492-1497) - he was responsible for executing the Loggia dei Mercanti (1451-1454), the sculptural decoration of the portal of San Francesco alle Scale (1451) and that of Sant'Agostino (1460-66) (D'Elia 1962; Fiksovic 1963; Montani 1967; Puppi 1970; Kokole 1989; Chiappini 1993; Mariano 1993; Stefanac 2005; Mariano 2011, with earlier bibliography).
The works produced by Giorgio di Matteo's workshop are generally characterised by an uncommon vigour, a heightened naturalistic sensibility and a bold capacity for narrative synthesis which on one hand reflects the master's training based on the greatest examples of the High Gothic style assimilated during the period of his apprenticeship in the Bon workshop, while on the other it evokes the influence of Florentine models encountered both through direct contact with prominent artists from the Tuscan city active during the 1430s and 1440s in Venice or the territories of the Venetian hinterland, or through the study and drawing the works of the principal masters of the Florentine Quattrocento, such as Lorenzo Ghiberti, Luca della Robbia and, above all, Donatello, whose celebrated inventions and compositions Giorgio di Matteo in some cases recreated. At the same time, numerous stylistic nuances clearly emerge in his works, traceable to the substantial intervention of his most faithful collaborators and to a more eclectic workshop context; a phenomenon extensively documented in the archival sources and of which the two sculptures discussed here represent an excellent example.
The substantial documentation now available on the organisation of the various workshops overseen by Giorgio di Matteo in fact enables us to understand how, to overcome the complexity of the works, he must have planned a strict and homogeneous division of the tasks between his numerous assistants, Italian and Dalmatian, and among other local labourers working for independent workshops. Among the artists working at his side, we should mention the Italians Giovanni Pietro de Marte from Venice (his brother in law), documented with him in Sebenico and Zara, Lorenzo Pincino, also from Venice, who together with Andrea Butcich worked alongside the master on the execution of the Dragonich tomb in the church of San Francesco in Sebenico, Pietro Drassoevich, Luca Ratchovich from Ragusa (present-day Dubrovnic), Antonio Vukoslavich from Sebenico and the Venetian Antonio Busato, who were involved in the work on the sacristy in Sebenico (1450-1452) and in working the blocks of stone destined for the decoration of the façade of the church of San Francesco delle Scale in Ancona. For the most part, they must have been ordinary stonemasons tasked with roughing out the marble or architectural ornament, while there were two masters in particular who achieved a certain artistic autonomy in the architectural design and in sculpting the figures, while nevertheless abiding by the drawings and terracotta models provided by Giorgio di Matteo: Andrea Alessi (Lehza 1425 - Sebenico 1505), who to all intents and purposes can be considered his principal pupil and was already documented at the master's side in 1445, and Giovanni Pribislavic, from Sebenico, involved during the sixth and seventh decade of the Quattrocento in the realisation of works for the city of Ancona (Schulz 1979, documentary appendix; Stefanac 2005).
In the first pair of Angels it is possible to discern a clear resemblance to the works Giorgio di Matteo produced during the 1440s and 1450s in Sebenico, particularly in most of the monumental and characteristic broad, geometric faces of the protomes that run along the external fascia of the cathedral of San Giacomo, their features at times being identical to the heads discussed here (pl. I-III), described by the same stiff and fleshy mouths, by the broad arch of the eyebrows, by the shape of the elongated eyes, with their vigorously carved outlines and eyeballs. Reminiscent of the period of the early workshops in Sebenico and of the commissions carried out towards the end of the 1450s in Spalato is the lively and sustained movement of the drapery, characterised by diagonal incisions, sharp creases and deep eyelets, which can also be seen, albeit with less sculptural vigour and expressive intensity, in the large relief on the Tomb of San Raniero (1444-48) (pl. IV-V) and in some of the figures carved for the Baptistry of Sebenico Cathedral (1450-52) (pl. VI-VII). The lively diagonal arrangement of the figures and the oblique movement of the robes, like the unconventional raised position of the arm, seem on the other hand to evoke figurative solutions the artist was not to employ until the 1460s in the carved figures adorning the Portal of Sant'Agostino in Ancona (pl. VIII-IX).
In this first group of Angels it is difficult to discern the trace of the hand of any collaborators since the confidence seen in the postures in the two figures and the narrative expression on various levels of intensity seems to correspond perfectly to the expressive calibre of an artist of the quality of Giorgio da Sebenico, who, in addition to the invention of the group may also have been responsible for some of its execution. The other pair of telamons are instead characterised by their distinctive physiques, slender and compressed against the background, for the superfluous high relief work carried out only at a single depth and for the virtuosity with which the refined and obsessive drapery of the tunics animated by insistent pleating and unnatural hems is rendered. This modus operandi was more in keeping with the tendencies of a sophisticated artist specialising principally in carving rather than in the field of three-dimensional figure sculpture. Its traces might be found in those workshops in which a substantial contribution was made by Andrea Alessi, the most gifted of the pupils mentioned at the master's side, who between 1448 and 1452 was capable of managing independently important commissions such as the construction and decoration of the Chapel of Santa Caterina for the church of San Domenico in Sebenico (executed on the basis of that of San Raniero completed by his master Giorgio) or that dedicated to Saints Girolamo and Niccolò in the town of Arbe.
The documents of the workshop for the Loggia dei Mercanti in Ancona in fact record that Alessi was summoned to execute bases, columns, capitals and the foliated architrave on the first tier of the complex with precise instructions to follow to the letter what the master had done in 1444 in the chapel of San Francesco in Zara (now lost), but also to execute in their definitive form the sculptures in the round that Giorgio was to supply him with, already roughed out in accordance with an already predefined structural and iconographic programme, confirming his acknowledged ability also in monumental statuary.
On the façade of the church of San Francesco delle Scale, also in Ancona, can be seen a high relief representing Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata (pl. X), a work of problematic complexity with regard to attribution due to the participation in the workshop of Giovanni Prebislavich, mentioned earlier, but which in the figure of the saint from Assisi, in the distinctive pleating of the drapery and in the flattened definition of the garments, recalls the expressive features of the style of Andrea Alessi a decade later in the monumental relief of the Baptism of Christ for the façade of the Baptistry in Traù (1466) (pl. XI) (Venturi 1908; Ekserdjian 2009).
Compared to these works, the present pair of Angels seems to stand out for a more fluid and animated ductus of the garments, a more pronounced projection and greater anatomical vigour in the figures, elements which, it cannot be excluded, might have been the work of yet another person working within the same cultural milieu, perhaps the same involved in the execution of the two emblem-supporting Angels adorning a door frame in a palazzo on the street of the former Court in Spalato (pl. XII), or the sculptor of the Prophet ascribed by Venturi to Alessi, with his elongated body and clothing indicated by long calligraphic lines, incorporated into the altar of reliquaries in the cathedral of Sebenico (Venturi 1908, fig. 9).
In conclusion, despite the clear stylistic discrepancies, we can consider the two pairs of monumental Angels to have been executed within the same workshop context that witnessed the involvement of at least three distinct personalities: Giorgio di Matteo, identifiable in greater part in the execution of the first group, aided by one of his trusted assistants employed in the workshop of the cathedral of San Giacomo in Sebenico, and a third involved in the execution of the other pair of angels which, considering the similarities with works datable to a later period, might have been carved several years after the previous one. Considering the fact that both, in all likelihood, must originally have formed part of a single project intended for the realisation of a funerary monument situated within a Dalmatian church, it cannot be excluded that it was begun when Giorgio di Matteo was still alive but completed after 1473 by his close collaborators by then working with a certain autonomy. The two sculptures were conceived to serve structurally as corner pilasters arranged to support a monolithic funerary ark/tomb, as the apposite right-angled hollows visible on the upper side of the two blocks confirm. On the back of the sculptures, both display two different types of workmanship, appearing barely roughed out at the level of the wings, thus excluded from the eye of the observer, while in the lower part, in correspondence with the flow of the garments, they seem to be worked with a greater finish, permitting also a lateral view. The works also seem to have been conceived to be seen principally from below, as suggested by the almost complete working of the lower part of the rear and the inclination of the figures with the torso and the monumental heads projecting more than the rest of the body, thus implying that they were originally placed at the top of a balustrade or on individual plinths. A significant indication might also be provided by the different syntactical articulation of the two pairs, one intended to provide the spectator with a broader and closer view, the other with a more explicitly frontal and close up view, perhaps on the basis of their original positioning on the side wall of a chapel or in the presbytery of an important ecclesiastical building.
- A. Pératé - G. Brière, Collection Georges Hosntschel, II vols, Paris 1908.
- A. Venturi, La scultura dalmata nel XV secolo, in “LArte”, XI, 1908, pp. 30-46; 113-129.
- J. Breck, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Catalogue of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance sculpture, New York 1913, p. 164, nn. 173-174.
- C. Fiksovic, Jurai Dalmatinac, Zagreb 1963.
- M. D' Elia, Ricerche sull'attività di G. da Sebenico a Venezia, in “Commentari”, XIII, 1962, pp. 213-218.
- M. Montani, Jurai Dalmatinac I njegov Krug, Zagabria 1967.
- G. Marchini, Per Giorgio da Sebenico, in “Commentari”, XIX, 1968, pp. 212-228.
- L. Puppi, Appunti su G. da Sebenico architetto, in “Rivista dell'Istituto di archeologia e storia dell'arte”, XVII, 1970, pp. 154-180
- A. M. Schulz, Giorgio da Sebenico and the Workshop of Giovanni Bon, in “Radovi Instituta za Povijest Umjetnosti”, III-VI (1979-82), pp. 77-92.
- I. Chiappini di Sorio, Ancora su Giorgio da Sebenico a Venezia, in Idem., pp. 93-98.
- S. Kokole, Auf den Spuren des frühen fiorentiner Quattrocento in Dalmatiens: das toskanische Formengut bei G. da Sebenico bis 1450, in “Wiener Jahrbuch für Kunstgeschichte”, XXXII, 1989, pp. 155-167.
- I. Chiappini di Sorio, Giorgio da Sebenico, in Scultura nelle Marche, ed. P. Zampetti, Florence 1993, pp. 257-268.
F. Mariano, G. di Matteo da Sebenico in Ancona, in Marche e Dalmazia tra umanesimo e barocco, atti del Convegno internazionale di studio (Ancona-Osimo 1988), ed. S. Graciotti, M. Massa, G. Pirani, Reggio Emilia 1993, pp. pp. 61-73.
- S. Štefanac, Giorgio da Sebenico, Niccolò di Giovanni Fiorentino, Giovanni Dalmata: tre protagonisti del Quattrocento dalmata nelle Marche, in Emilia e Marche nel Rinascimento. L’identità visiva della ‘periferia’, Azzano San Paolo (Bergamo) 2005, pp. 39-62.
- D. Ekserdjian, The Renaissance in Croatia & Italy: The chapel of the Blessed Giovanni Orsini, in Croatia, London 2009, pp. 98-107.
F. Mariano, Giorgio di Matteo da Sebenico e il “Rinascimento alternativo” nel ‘400 adriatico, in “Critica d’Arte”, 46/46, 2011, pp. 7-33.
- C. E. Brennan, Hoentschel’s Gothic Importance, in Salvaging the Past: Georges Hoentschel and French Decorative Arts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2013, pp. 145-163.