Madonna with Child and Saints by Crivelli

Mr. & Mrs. Ahmanson, California Chapter

Inv 40298

The altarpiece presented here is open to critical debate regarding whether it may be attributed to either one or the other Crivelli brothers, or their followers or employees. The painting’s exact authorship cannot be sustained with absolute certainty. The saga of artistic enterprises involving the Crivelli family was one of longevity, with two major personalities, Carlo and his brother Vittore. In addition to these two protagonists, there were a plethora of family members and followers participating in their respective bodegas, or workshops. Of the two brothers, Carlo (Venice, ca. 1435-Ascoli(?)1494/5) was the eldest and most artistically gifted. Meanwhile, the younger Vittore (Venice, ca. 1440/45 – Fermo(?), 1501) is given a subordinate position regarding his acumen; with a ten year age difference with the elder Carlo, Vittore’s work was considered, in part, a revival of the latter’s creative contributions. The commonality between brothers was their education in Padua at the workshop of Jacopo Squarcione (Padua, 1397-1468), an instructor who through his teaching injected his own anti-classical intonation into his pupils’ work. Later, they teamed up with Giorgio Schiavone (Juraj Culinovic: Scardona, 1433/36 – Sebenico, 1504), following Schiavone’s invitation to go to Zadar in Damatia in 1459 (Zadar is now part of Croatia, but was formerly a Venetian Territory). This experience in the Veneto was pivotal for the two Crivelli brothers who, after the returning to their homeland, settled in the confines of ancient Marca and shared their respective zones of activity: Carlo in the Ascoli and Apennine region, and Vittore in Fermo and the Coastal territory. From a historic point of view, both men were seemingly distanced significantly from the great artistic movements of their time, giving way to their own unique style. Geographically removed from the serene naturalism of the Venetians and the severe scrutiny of the Tuscans, their style was focused instead on formal virtuosity, rich in exquisite chromatics and sumptuous decorative effects, considered characteristic of late Gothic ancestry. Whence in Padua, knowledge of the great Donatello’s Renaissance sculpture had played an influential role in their art.
The brothers’ styling bears witness to the Adriatic culture and heritage, most specifically to that of great artists such as Cosmè Tura, Bartolomeo Vivarini, and Marco Zoppo. Their work is characterized by insistent figural graphic contours, and focuses on materials of marble, fabrics and stone. Also, with attentiveness to brocades and gilded accents, their body of work served as the basis of a critical juncture wherein  the Victorian taste for the primitive was intercepted, and led to the subsequent social success of the English Pre-Raphaelites. From the second half of the 19th century, the international interest confronting the Crivelli brothers has never ceased; they are champions of an aesthetic trend with a trajectory that heads transversally to that of more traditional artistic groups. Carlo in particular was dubbed an artistic voice which sang the melodies of “another Renaissance,” “the shadow of the Renaissance,” or-if you prefer-the “Anti-Renaissance.” Scarcely documented in previous literature, the polyptych is simply referred to by art historian Luigi Serra in 1934 as the “altarpiece by Carlo Crivelli.” He notes that from the church of Saint Augustine in Grottommare, it was taken to Ascoli, and then removed for its trip to Rome where by order of Pope Gregory XVI, it was exposed in the new Lateran Art Gallery in 1844. The piece was generally considered to be a collaborative work, possibly that of a bodega.  Its attribution to Carlo’s brother Vittore dates back to 1960 and 1964 when historians Ennio Francia and Redig de Campos, respectively found undeniable wavering in the quality of the work. Another historian, Federico Zeri, thought to rule out the presence of Vittore’s hand in the altarpiece altogether, adding that its author was moreover “another personality altogether, working in close proximity to the great Crivelli, and most probably had access to his drawings and cartoons (1976).” More recently, editor Giannino Gagliardi (1995) showed how the lost altarpiece of the church of San Gregorio ad Ascoli was erroneously attributed as the first work of Carlo for the Marche town, executed in 1471, when the correct dating of the painting is actually ten years later in 1481. Mystery around the altarpieces’ artist is indubitably present.
The exact authorship of the piece is thus still open for debate. Oscillating theories are as varied as the difference in execution of the lateral Saints, almost caricatured, compared to that of the Madonna, who is rendered with exquisite finesse.
There is a formal consonance and iconography of the painting, and the graphic characters are virtually inscribed in the gothic carving of the frames. Art history scholar Pietro Alemanno wrote in 1986: “for a first step towards the truth, one must begin from the state of conservation of the painting, whose pictorial surface is so veiled in varnish and extraneous substances—that one should take with caution any proposal that fails to take these things into account…I believe that the discussion can only be taken up again after the cleaning of the painting.” Heeding these words, we anticipate with hope that restoration of the altarpiece may lead to clarity regarding the identification of its author.