Caterina Angela Pierozzi, The Annunciation Miniature, 1677. Colnaghi, London.
I’ve just read a wonderful article in the New York Times, A Messy Table, a Map of the World by Jason Farago, and I’m half inclined to post a link to that today (which I have) and leave it at that. It’s a richly illustrated piece, and works particularly well on a smart phone, but I can see that scrolling through on my laptop it functions just as well. The technology is ingenious: as you scroll through the text, the illustrations move to focus your attention on what is relevant – a bit like a lecture in print… He starts by posing a bold question: ‘When you visit a museum’s collection of European painting, do you skip by the still lifes and head for the showier stuff?’ Well, do you? I confess, I often do… He then goes on to demonstrate precisely why we shouldn’t. This is timely for me, as next week I’ll be talking about a group of still life artists of whom I suspect many of you will never have heard. They are all remarkably good, or, at least, remarkably interesting. And if one of them wasn’t the best artist ever, that wasn’t her fault: women just didn’t get the chances that their male colleagues had, and from which they could learn. That’s what I’ll be talking about next Monday 16 May at 6pm: Women Painting Still Life in the 17th Century. The overall title, Forbidden Fruit, is taken from a display at Colnaghi, ‘the first commercial art gallery in the world’ according to their own website. It’s a clever title, referring of course to Eve in the garden of Eden, although no reference is made to the fall or its consequences in Colnaghi’s small display, nor is it, as it happens, in any way relevant! None of the fruits on view were ever forbidden, and these women were remarkably successful – it’s just that we don’t hear about them so much today. Fortunately, things are changing. The title is not the only thing I disagree with (as you’ll see below), but don’t worry about that, as the art is superb. I’ve included a number of the paintings I will talk about at the very end of this post.
Today, though, I want to look at the piece which alerted me to Colnaghi’s show – a (relatively) recently discovered painting by Caterina Angelo Pierozzi. I thought I had heard of her – a well-documented female artist none of whose work was known. But I’m starting to think that that was someone else, partly because the text written by Colnaghi seems to be the only thing currently available. However, there are many women whose work is still to be discovered.
It’s called The Annunciation Miniature, not necessarily because of its size, even if it is relatively small at 14.6 x 19.4 cm. It’s really because of the technique, which is that of a miniaturist: tempera and gold leaf on vellum. The expensive materials tell us that it must have been a luxury item. It’s not really a still life either, as the main focus is on the Annunciation, although it is surrounded by a rather beautiful border of intertwined flowers.
As I’ve said, the painting is presented as a work by a previously unrecognised artist, but if none of Pierozzi’s work was known before the discovery of this piece in a French private collection about 18 months ago, how can we possibly know that this is really by her? Well, quite simply, in this case, because she signed it.
Her name is clearly visible in the gold border, which just begs the question, why is it a recent discovery? Presumably because the owner didn’t know that it was important. This detail shows, of course, the archangel Gabriel. His flat, gold halo has a medieval appearance, although the softness of touch – the delicate stippling with a minute brush – tells us that this is not a medieval painting, as does the subtlety of the modelling around the eyes, nose, mouth and neck. He wears the palest of pink robes (I suspect it has faded), with a green cloak, and ringing out against the dark background is a pair of brilliant blue wings – the left one projecting behind the head much as it did in Raphael’s Annunciation drawing a few weeks back (see 155 – Pre-Announced). He looks down with humility, the angle of his head contrasting with that of the Virgin’s – her eyes are turned upward towards Heaven.
Mary has the same flat, patterned halo, and also has a pale pink robe, which is even more faded, perhaps. On top of this, her traditional blue cloak, which unifies her pictorially with Gabriel’s wings, appears to be trimmed with ermine, speaking of her future coronation as Queen of Heaven. Her long, uncovered hair – referring to her youth and virginity – is picked out in individual strands, parted centrally and falling in waves over both shoulders. In the gold border we see that Caterina Angela Pierozzi (as identified under the angel) was Florentine, and that she made this image in 1677.
It is not a coincidence that both figures look medieval: Caterina has taken them from what was once one of the most famous paintings in Florence. However, its fame was not due to its art historical relevance, but because of its status as a miracle working image.
So famous is it, that an entire church is named after it: Santissima Annunziata, the Most Holy Annunciate (Virgin). The myth behind the painting is that, two years after the foundation of the church in 1250, one of the friars, a certain Fra Bartolomeo (no, not the famous one – he came two and half centuries later) set out to paint this Annunciation, but, worried that he wouldn’t be able to make the Virgin sufficiently beautiful, he left it unfinished and had a nap. When he woke up, there she was, in all her divine grace, presumably finished by an angel. All well and good, and who knows, potentially even true, apart from the fact that the story must refer to a different painting: stylistically, this one is dated about 100 years later – mid-14th Century – and was painted by an unknown follower of Giotto. Not that an angel might not have followed Giotto. Nevertheless, its status as a miraculous image remained undiminished, and it was particularly highly revered in the 15th Century, when numerous devotees, from the local Lorenzo ‘the Magnificent’ de’ Medici to the visiting Leonello III d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara, paid homage and left ex-voto images of themselves in wax. This led to at least one fire, and, a contemporary author worrying, given the weight of all the tributes, about the potential collapse of the church. In 1448 Piero ‘the Gouty’ de’ Medici, son of Cosimo il Vecchio, paid for a tabernacle to be built around the shrine. The curiously obstructive and asymmetric frame, which oddly doesn’t even focus on the Virgin, was stuck over it on a different occasion. Equally oddly, despite all this attention, and even a recent restauration (2020), there doesn’t seem to be a single good image of the fresco available.
Following on from Piero the Gouty, Medici interest in this painting continued well into the seventeenth century, with artists such as Alessandro and Cristofano Allori (father and son) commissioned to paint multiple copies for members of the ruling family and as diplomatic gifts. The illustration above is one of around 20 which Cristofano is known to have completed early in the 17th Century. It is painted with oil on copper, which, like vellum, was seen as another ‘luxury’ support.
That Pierozzi’s Annunciation is based on the fresco can be seen from a simple comparison between the two images of Mary, and could easily be another example of Medicean devotion: Caterina is known to have worked for the family. However, go back to the images above and look at the angel’s wings – Pierozzi has replicated neither the colour (reds and pinks in the original, rather than the vivid blue) nor the form (the left wing is lowered in both the fresco and copy, and does not project to the right of the halo). She did not reproduce exactly what she saw, whether she was looking at the original or a copy, and this is worthwhile bearing in mind for later.
So what do we know of Caterina Angela Pierozzi? At the moment, relatively little. Even the longest reference to her is relatively short, and comes from a biographical dictionary of artists written in 1702, which tells us that she was the niece of an artist, Fra Manetto Pierozzi. In an entry on the uncle, the author Filippo Baldinucci writes,
‘Caterina Angela Pierozzi, niece of said Fra Manetto, who having learned from her uncle the art of miniature, with praise she practises in it, and we have from her hand in the chambers of the Serenissimo Palace a painting of circa 2 braccia, in which is represented the Blessed Virgin in the act of sitting, there are St. Joseph, and St. Ann, and the baby Jesus, and a little St. John, who, with beautiful grace, and extraordinary naturalness, pressed on his chest his little apron, in which he holds tightly wrapped two kittens, almost as if he wanted to defend them from a little dog, which with a beautiful gesture seems to want to cause them harm, and so realistic are the gestures of the young boy and of the little dog, that more could not be desired’.
From archival references we learn that, as well as having an uncle who was an artist, she was also married to one, a certain Michelangelo Corsi, and that one of her works hung in a Medici Grand Ducal Palace. An inventory of 1692 states that it was a miniature showing a portrait of a woman holding ‘a small image of the Annunciation in her right hand, covered with crystal and adorned with a floral frame’. In many respects this sounds like a portrait of a woman holding today’s miniature, which itself has a remarkably elaborate frame.
I’ve taken the above quotations from the Colnaghi website, as this is currently the only source I can track down. However, Sheila Barker, Art History professor at the University of Pennsylvania and specialist not only in the Medici in the 17th Century, but also artists such as Artemisia Gentileschi and Giovanna Garzoni (who will be featured in Monday’s talk), has made significant discoveries about Pierozzi which will soon be published. Hopefully she will also counteract some of Colnaghi’s inaccuracies. I just happen to be married to a plant ecologist, and I asked him about the plants in this image. His comments went something like this:
‘At the very top left, that could be the bottom of a striped tulip, and below that is something a bit like a pheasant’s eye. The one with six blue petals is a bit like a gentian but they don’t have six petals. Then there’s something that’s a bit like a rose, and a bit like a peony, and coming down the right side, maybe a dead poppy head, but verging on a clematis,’ at which point he gave up and said, ‘they are all bits and pieces, really’.
On the far right of this section there is, admittedly, an upside-down striped tulip which is reasonably accurate, and going across the bottom (left to right) we have ‘one which is vaguely chrysanthemummy… that’s a bit like a peony, they are possibly cornflowers and something vaguely magnolia-like…’. Please remember, though, that this is not a botanical illustration. It is, I think, a beautifully painted garland, even if it is not an accurate representation of known flowers. And remember, I’ve never seen an angel, and yet I still believe that there is one depicted here. And yes, this is the point at which we should bear in mind that she didn’t even copy the angel accurately, so why should she reproduce real, as opposed to imaginary, flowers? Given Pierozzi’s obvious creativity, it was with some surprise that I read Colnaghi asserting that the Annunciation is surrounded by ‘… a border of minutely rendered flowers, which include irises, tulips, hyacinths, peonies and lilies.’ Tulips, yes, peonies, maybe – but the others? Admittedly hyacinths looked different in the 17th Century (they have been bred so that the florets grow closer together), but they still looked nothing like anything here. In a later paragraph the text continues, ‘The flowers are beautifully rendered with botanical accuracy, and presumably Pierozzi had these floral specimens in front of her as she created the miniature,’ which is, to adopt a technical term sadly underused in academic art history, utter garbage. Further on they point to the visible under-drawing (you’d have to get very close to see it) and extol Pierozzi’s skill with disegno, i.e. drawing (basically), the defining feature of Florentine painting in the 16th Century. The only problem with this assertion is that line is not at all important for this particular work – it is a soft-edged, painterly image which is almost entirely defined by the colour of the forms… It is an undoubtedly beautiful image, it’s just that the description – over-stated to promote an important work for a successful sale (let’s just say ‘florid’) – is wrong.
It’s a fantastic discovery, and a superb painting – and I’d love to be able to mount it on the wall of my study. If you would like it, why not make an enquiry at Colnaghi?! However, if I’m honest, I’d equally like one of the other images I will be talking about next week. Just to whet your appetites here are works by Rachel Ruysch, Giovanna Garzoni, Clara Peeters and Fede Galizia – all of which will be featured in Forbidden Fruit on Monday (even if not all are in the Colnaghi show).