Attributed to Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni

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Attributed to Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni
active 14th century-15th century
Two Scenes from the Martyrdom of St. Minias
ca. 1390-1410
Pen and brown ink and wash, over metalpoint, with white and red opaque watercolor, on paper prepared with brown ground.
11 1/2 x 15 5/8 inches (292 x 397 mm)
Purchased by Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) in 1909.
I, 1
Provenance: 
George Skene of Skene (1749-1825?), Scotland, and by descent; his sale, London, Sotheby's, 28 April 1898, lot 109 (as "Early Italian"); Colnaght, London; Sir J. C. Robinson (1824-1913; Lugt 1433 in gold), Edinburgh and London; his sale, Christie's, London, 12 May 1902, lot 63 (as B. Carducci), bought by "Lindsay"; Charles Fairfax Murray (1849-1919), London and Florence; from whom purchased through Galerie Alexandre Imbert, Rome, in 1909 by Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), New York (no mark; see Lugt 1509); his son, J. P. Morgan, Jr. (1867-1943), New York.
Description: 

The Two Scenes from the Martyrdom of St. Minias shows episodes from the life of St. Minias, an Armenian prince who came to Italy as a soldier, converted to Christianity, and lived as a hermit near Florence. Around a.d. 250, during the Emperor Decius’s persecution of Christians, Minias was arrested (as seen at left) and tortured by having boiling lead poured into his ear (at center right). The composition must have originally been a full lunette—a disembodied head at lower right is evidence that the sheet has been cut—and the right half would have shown later scenes from the legend, probably Minias’s beheading and the subsequent episode in which he picked up his head, swam across the Arno, and climbed the hill to his hermitage, the site where the church of San Miniato al Monte is found today.

The drawing is often identified as one of the finest and best-preserved drawings of the Italian trecento, and while it is a major monument of early Italian draftsmanship, its function, date, and attribution remain matters of debate. The lunette shape indicates that it was probably created in connection with a fresco, and the drawing’s high degree of finish has frequently led to the suggestion that it was a modello made for the approval of a patron, although there is no particular evidence to support that claim.1 The sheet was traditionally given to the school of Giotto and dated to the first half of the fourteenth century. The first challenges to that attribution came from Bernard Berenson, who associated it instead with Spinello Aretino and linked it to Spinello’s frescoes of the 1380s in the church of San Miniato al Monte, and Millard Meiss, who thought it was the work of a follower of Andrea Orcagna from the 1370s.2 Later writers returned to an earlier dating, with Bernhard Degenhart and Annegrit Schmitt giving it to Bernardo Daddi in the 1340s and Luciano Bellosi linking it instead to Taddeo Gaddi, also in the 1340s, on the basis of the drawing’s similarity to the Presentation of the Virgin in the Louvre.3 More recently, Angelo Tartuferi tentatively suggested an attribution to the Master of the Misericordia with a date of around 1340–50.4These suggestions have not been generally followed. Instead, Miklòs Boskovits’s alternate proposal that the drawing is by Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni has met with the broadest approval.5 The complicated background, combining landscape and architecture, finds parallels in a number of Cenni’s paintings, as do the somewhat archaic figures, which look back to Giottesque models but combine them with a suavity seen more typically in works from the final decades of the trecento. It has been hypothesized that Cenni might have created the drawing when he was working in the small town of San Miniato, west of Florence, in 1393, but the work finds its closest parallels with Cenni’s frescoes of around 1410 in the church of San Francesco, Volterra, so it could be for some project of a similarly late date.

Laurence Kanter, however, has questioned the attribution of the sheet to Cenni di Francesco, despite his own earlier endorsement of that idea.6 Kanter argued that the delineation of the architecture, and especially the remarkably subtle rendering of light and shade, does not appear in the work of Cenni or other artists of his generation. He drew attention, for example, to the fall of light on the corbels supporting the balcony at right, where the outermost corbel is bathed in light but only the tips of the other corbels are highlighted, and noted the sophisticated handling of the dentil friezes on the intersecting upper stories of the building. Kanter also described the rational treatment of drapery—how, for example, the cowl of the forward-leaning horseman at upper left falls forward into space. Such observed reality, and the understanding of perspective and spatial organization that underlies it, is more typical of the succeeding generation of Florentine art and is indeed absent from Cenni’s paintings. Yet the figures are still slightly archaic. A tempting hypothesis is that the drawing could be by an artist of the generation that emerged during the first decade of the fifteenth century—but it was a youthful work made before that artist fully arrived at his mature style, making attribution difficult.

Reexamination of the drawing challenges another often-repeated comment made about the work, which is that the purple-red upper part of the drawing is an example of the tinted paper described by Cennino Cennini in his Il Libro dell’Arte of around 1390. Cennini discussed purple-tinted paper. Here, however, that purple-red color was not applied over the entire paper as a drawing surface but rather was simply brushed onto the sheet after the drawing was made. In contrast to the precision with which the white highlights were constructed, the application of the watercolor is a bit careless: it fails, for example, to fill the spaces between all the battlements at the palace’s roofline. A similar hastiness is seen in the black background of the Louvre Presentation, in which one figure is partly covered by the wash and one of the windows that should be filled is blank. Rather than integral elements of the drawings, these dark washes seem to have been applied almost as afterthoughts. Accordingly, just as the Louvre drawing’s function has been questioned—is it Taddeo Gaddi’s preparatory drawing, or a later ricordo by Gaddi’s workshop?—so too one wonders whether the present sheet was not truly a preparatory modello but rather a record of an existing fresco, perhaps a drawing made by a talented artist of the generation following Cenni’s own. —JJM

Footnotes:

  1. Maginnis 1995, 34–35, writes that the size and degree of finish suggest that the drawing was not a preparatory study but also recalls the observation of Meiss (in Tintori and Meiss 1962, 26–27) that “it is hard to imagine any artist devoting such effort to a copy after an extant work.”
  2. Berenson 1938, 1:324–25, no. 2756c; 2:353; Meiss, in Mongan 1949, 2.
  3. Degenhart and Schmitt 1968–2010, 1:xxv, 76–78, no. 30; Bellosi 1985, 13–18, reiterated by Bellosi in Florence 2008, 208, no. 51.
  4. Tartuferi in Florence 2008, 21–23.
  5. Boskovits 1968, 278–80, 291n20; Boskovits 1975, 291.
  6. Kanter’s comments were made at a study day in January 2015 organized in connection with work on this catalogue. In Washington 1995–96, 28–31, Kanter had argued that Boskovits’s suggestion “is likely to be correct.”
Bibliography: 

Rhoda Eitel-Porter and and John Marciari, Italian Renaissance Drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 2019, no. 4.
Selected references: Fairfax Murray 1905-12, 1:1; Meder 1923, 150n1; Toronto 1926, no. 27; Foote 1927, 162; Buffalo 1935, no. 1; New London 1936, no. 1; Berenson 1938, 1:324-25, 2: no. 2756; New York 1939, no. 64; Mongan and Sachs 1940, 1:3; Cambridge 1948-49, no. 1; Mongan 1949, 2; Philadelphia 1950-51, no. 2; New York 1959, no. 1; Ames 1962, 1: no. 5; Tintori and Meiss 1962, 26-27n43; Boskovits 1968, 278-80, 291n20; Degenhart and Schmitt 1968-2010, 1:xxv, no. 30; Fossi Todorow 1970, 10, 81; Boskovits 1975, 291; Eisler 1975, no. 2; Jenni 1976, 11n8, 83n385; Los Angeles 1976, 6, no. 5; New York 1981, no. 2; Knab, Mitsch, and Oberhuber 1983, 11; Bellosi 1985, 12-18; In August Company 1993, no. 1; Maginnis 1995, 34-37; Washington 1995-96, 28-31; Florence 2008, 21, no. 51; Graul 2008, 10; Munich 2008-9, no. 1; Graul 2010, 87; New York and Williamstown 2017-18, 29.
Collection J. Pierpont Morgan : Drawings by the Old Masters Formed by C. Fairfax Murray. London : Privately printed, 1905-1912, I, 1, repr.
Denison, Cara D., and Helen B. Mules, with the assistance of Jane V. Shoaf. European Drawings, 1375-1825. New York : Pierpont Morgan Library, 1981, no. 2, repr.
100 Master drawings from the Morgan Library & Museum. München : Hirmer, 2008, no. 1, repr. [William M. Griswold and Rhoda Eitel-Porter]

Notes: 

Watermark: none visible through lining.
Formerly attributed to the school of Giotto, Bernardo Daddi and Anonymous Italian school, 14th century.

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