Niccolò di Buonaccorso
(active Siena, May 1372 – Siena, 17 May 1388)
Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple
Tempera on wood
cm 51 x 34 x 3.2 (with frame)
Florence, Uffizi Galleries, Gallery of Statues and Paintings
Inv. 1890 no. 3157
Technique and size
The work consists of a wooden panel painted in tempera on a gold background, surrounded by a simple rectangular carved wooden frame. In the upper part the main scene also appears to be framed by an arch made of gold plaster, engraved and adorned with phytomorphic-patterned plumes and resting on two small leaf-patterned corbels. The back is painted with a geometric silver decoration, with a diamond shape (rhombus?) inscribed on a band divided into another nine diamonds. In this elaborate scheme the artist has used two types of circular stamps, alternated with freeform engravings. The edges are engraved in the same way as the back and a metal stud is visible on the centre left. On the right, at the same height, there is a metal fragment and on the right edge there are two modern metal hinges. The entirely original overall dimensions of the structure are 51 x 34 x 3.2 cm, while the pictorial part, without the frame, is cm 42.5 x 26.6.
The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple is recorded as number 3157 in the 1890 Gallery inventory, with a note saying that it came from the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence. There are also notes regarding both how it came to be part of the collections of the museums in Florence (1 April 1900), and its subsequent purchase (19 July 1900) and arrival at the Uffizi Gallery. During the war it was first hidden in the Medici Villa di Poggio a Caiano shelter (from June 1940), then transported by the Germans to Castel Giovo di San Leonardo in Passiria, in the province of Bolzano, to be then returned to Florence in July of 1945. After a short stay at the Museo degli Argenti (now called Treasury of the Grand Dukes) in Palazzo Pitti, the painting returned to the Uffizi on 24 June 1948. It is now displayed in the museum section dedicated to medieval Tuscan panels.
State of conservation and restorations
The overall state of conservation of the work appears to be good, although the frame has some problematic areas where the surface gilding is very worn. The pictorial part is slightly worn in some points (for example, the figures) but it does not have any significant defects, with the exception of a large, irregular abrasion on the gilded background, which renders the underlying red bole visible. Also the condition of the painted decoration on the back is generally satisfactory, even if it has deteriorated more than the front side. In particular, the silver leaf is chromatically altered and partially worn and there are gaps in the painting. The support is largely without any significant damage.
The painting was subject to light cleaning in 1941 (restoration information sheet G.R. 741) and restored by Mario Celesia between February and March 1997 (restoration information sheet U.R. 4535) with the aim of removing the old paint and the pictorial retouches. It was fumigated in 2010 by Roberto Buda and then it underwent a maintenance review, conducted by Manola Bernini in March 2015.
Origin and vicissitudes of the collections
The first document to mention Niccolò Buonaccorso’s panel was the 1874 Catalogo dei quadri ed altri oggetti d’arte esistenti nella Raccolta del Reale Arcispedale di Santa Maria Nuova di Firenze e loro approssimativa valutazione (Catalogue of paintings and other art objects of the Royal Santa Maria Nuova Hospital collection in Florence and their approximate assessment), a manuscript kept at the State Archives of Florence and transcribed in full by Esther Diana (2005, pp. 337-347, esp. p. 339). The Presentation of the Virgin is number 14 in the catalogue and it is referred to as Buonaccorsi’s panel but a previous attribution is also there (“erased and attributed to the Schools of the Marche”), with the estimate of “lire 500.00”. The authors of this register were G. Emilio Burci, Inspector of the R. Gallery of Florence, and the painter Alessandro Mazzanti, who in that decade had attended the opening of the Picture Gallery of the Hospital, which hosted a considerable number of artefacts from churches, oratories, other buildings of the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital and other hospitals and monasteries which had been united as a consequence of suppressions (Ridolfi (1896-97) 1899, p. 162). It is not known where the Sienese panel originally came from, given that there is no information either in the above-mentioned inventory or in the later 1884 Mazzanti-Bianchi catalogue.
However, the archived documentation does allow us to retrace the negotiations that took place between the hospital administration and the government for the purchase by the Italian State of a part of the collection. Niccolò’s painting was recognized as valuable right from the start, although its valuation fluctuated (at a certain point the estimate was reduced to 350 lire). It was listed as one of the works subject to negotiations, which concluded definitively in 1897 with an agreement approved by Parliament on 1 April 1900 (Law no. 125), thanks to which the assets of the institution went to the Uffizi and Palatina galleries (Diana 2005, pp. 314-335, in part. p. 329).
Criticism and analysis
The painting in question was originally part of a more extensive collection, which included at least two other panels with scenes from the life of the Virgin. The collection included the Marriage of the Virgin, signed by the artist and now in the National Gallery in London (NG 1190), and the Coronation of the Virgin at the Robert Lehman Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of New York (no. 1975.1.21). The similar sizes of the panels to other works of the group and other similarities confirm their connection. In particular, the carpentry is identical, with the back of the frame similarly shaped and embellished with a diamond pattern.
We do not know when exactly the works were separated but we have some information about the last few collections that they were a part of. The Marriage was purchased in 1881 for the London gallery by Charles Fairfax Murray, who may have found it in Siena (Perkins 1914, p. 99, no. 1) or, more likely, saw it on sale in Florence in 1877 (Gordon 2011, pp. 380-393, esp. p. 390). Subsequently, Crowe and Cavalcaselle (1885, p. 255) were the first to associate it with the Santa Maria Nuova panel but Ridolfi, the director of the Florentine Gallery, knew of this link and spoke of how the Presentation “was part of a diptych that closed like a book but the two parts were separated. The author’s name was on one of them, but it was lost and then came into the hands of antique dealers and went abroad years ago” (Ridolfi (1896-97) 1899, pp. 169-170). The author did not know where the signed part was, but knew that it had been on the art market.
The New York panel was recognized as another component of the series by Frederick Mason Perkins (1914, p. 99, no. 2). He discovered it in Viscount Bernard d’Hendecourt’s collection in Paris. The scholar also identified the Assumption in the Sciarra (Rome) collection, cited by Douglas as a possible element of a disassembled triptych, which included the panels of the Uffizi and the National Gallery (Douglas in Crowe - Cavalcaselle 1908, p. 133, no. 1). Bernard d’Hendecourt, in a letter dated June 1914, confirmed its purchase from Prince Sciarra, who had in his turn bought it fifteen years before as the work of Fra Angelico. He subsequently sold it to an American art dealer. The painting had a number of owners before being acquired by Robert Lehman in 1946 (Pope-Hennessy-Kanter 1987, pp. 33-35; Newbery 2007, pp. 14-16).
Following these first instances of recognition, the panels were mentioned in directories dedicated to fourteenth century Tuscan painting (Van Marle 1924, pp. 515-518; Berenson 1932, pp. 391-392 and Id. 1968, p. 294). The suggested date, still recognized today, was established as between the eighth and ninth decade of the century, thanks to rare documents found in Siena referring to the artist (between 1372 and 1388; see Schmidt 2013, with bibliography) and to comparisons with the meagre body of work of which the surviving panels of a polyptych – kept in the nineteenth century in the church of Santa Margherita Costa al Pino in Siena – are a fixed point, bearing the painter's signature and the date 1387 (see Boskovits, 1980).
Subsequent studies have more precisely defined the artistic profile of Niccolò Buonaccorso and the characteristics of his work, distinguished by the elegance of a miniaturist and fine technique (Maginnis 1982 Freuler; 1991; Palladino 1997; Schmidt 2014). In particular, history reveals an affinity between the author and the other painters active in Siena at that time (Paolo di Giovanni Fei, Bartolo di Fredi), a dependence on the older masters such as Jacopo di Mino del Pellicciaio and Bartolomeo Bulgarini, and the continuous thread with Simone Martini and Lorenzetti, interpreters of the high point of Sienese Gothic (Schmidt 2013).
The Uffizi's Presentation at the Temple comes in the wake of this tradition, the compositional balance of which is to be appreciated: its harmony and the effects of the changing colours and the softness of the shapes, the wise, calibrated use of etching on the garments. These contrivances allow one to fully appreciate the high quality of the minute painting, which sadly is among the few catalogued works by the talented and cultured Niccolò di Buonaccorso.
From an iconographic point of view the panel portrays Mary as a young girl in the temple in the presence of an elderly priest, who receives her at the top of a flight stairs, while her parents Anna and Gioacchino witness the scene together with other people. The subject, taken from the Apocryphal Gospels, was widespread in the Middle Ages in Siena, which had been devoted to the cult of Mary since the time of the battle of Montaperti.
The spatial solutions adopted by the artist, which can be seen, for example, in the space with slender columns and the crown with statuettes supporting a long garland. The illusion of depth is skilfully created both by the foreshortened architecture and the floor with geometrical motifs, clearly citing the famous Purification of the Virgin by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, which was in the Siena Cathedral and today is in the Uffizi (Marcucci 1965, p. 169). It should also be noted that the illustrious iconographic tradition from which the panel descends includes the Stories of the Virgin cycle frescoed by Simone Martini, and Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti on the façade of the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena, lost centuries ago but documented in the literature, whose episodes (Nativity; Presentation at the Temple, by Ambrogio; Marriage; Return of Mary to the Paternal Home), perhaps flanked by an Assumption, were particularly popular and were reproduced in different contexts by younger artists (Caffio 2017, in part. pp. 370-371).
However, a difficult to resolve critical node concerns the primitive assembly of the panels and the related mode of presentation. The Uffizi Gallery’s catalogue of Tuscan paintings (Marcucci 1965, p. 169) reasonably supposes that the panels were doors, taking into account the elaborate decoration on the back and that probably there were other Marian scenes related to the three known scenes. While Bellosi (1979) thought that it was difficult to imagine how it was structured, according to Pope-Hennessy e Kanter (1987, p. 33) the complexity of the back implies that it would not only have been visible but also deliberately displayed, advancing the hypothesis that it was a portable altar similar to the Orsini polyptych by Simone Martini or a “case” for a statue of the Madonna with Child. In this regard, Palladino (1997, pp. 47, 51-52) also proposed other models (the elements by Simone in the Cappella dei Nove in Palazzo Pubblico in Siena). Subsequently, Schmidt considered them to be a series of removable and transportable polyptychs, a derivation of other classes of similar objects in ivory or precious metals (Schmidt 2002, in part. pp. 403-406 and p. 414). Studies seem to confirm that at a certain point the elements of the Uffizi and the National Gallery in London were clipped together like a closable diptych. However, this does not prove that they had been conceived as such (in this respect it should be noted that the Lehman panel does not have any signs of a hinge). Gordon (2011, p. 389) suggested that dependence on a frescoed prototype it did not automatically implicate a smaller reproduction of the entire cycle. In his opinion, the panels, arranged in the chronological order of a narrative sequence (with the signed panel in the middle), could alone denote a complete triptych, without the need for additional elements.
As regards its provenance, the fact that the painting in question comes from the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital is considered to be proof of its Florentine origin, given that the hospital was used in the nineteenth century as a deposit for works removed from various Tuscan centres (Pope-Hennessy - Kanter 1987, p. 33). In the same way, the indication of the home town of the painter in the signature on the panel in London (Nicholaus Bonachursi de Senis me pinxit) it does not prove that the work was intended for a location outside of Siena (see Gordon 2011, p. 390, who tends to favour a Florentine patron linked to the Santa Maria della Scala Hospital in Florence). In fact, this style of signature was very common among painters active in Siena in the fourteenth century, in order to attest to their work they tended to specify the origins de Senis even when they worked in the city (Donato 2011-12, in part. p. 11).
Bellosi 1979: L. Bellosi, Scheda n° P1115, in Gli Uffizi. Catalogo Generale, I, Firenze 1979, p. 395.
Berenson 1932: B. Berenson, Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. A list of the principal artists and their works with an index of places, Oxford 1932.
Berenson 1968: B. Berenson, Italian Pictures of the Renaissance, I, Central Italian and North Italian Schools, London 1968.
Boskovits 1980: M. Boskovits, Su Niccolò di Buonaccorso, Benedetto di Bindo e la pittura senese del primo Quattrocento, in «Paragone», XXXI, 1980, pp. 3-22.
Caffio 2017: A. Caffio, I perduti affreschi della facciata dello Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala a Siena, in Amborgio Lorenzetti, exhibition catalogue (Siena, Santa Maria della Scala 22 ottobre 2017 - 21 gennaio 2018), ed. by A. Bagnoli, R. Bartalini, M. Seidel, Siena 2017, pp. 363-373.
Cavalcaselle - Crowe 1885: G. B. Cavalcaselle - J. A. Crowe, Storia della pittura in Italia dal secolo II al secolo XVI, III, Firenze 1885.
Cavalcaselle - Crowe 1908: G. B. Cavalcaselle - J.A. Crowe, A History of Painting in Italy. Umbria, Florence and Siena from the second to the sixteenth century, III, The Sienese, Umbrian, and North Italian Schools, ed. by L. Douglas, London 1908.
Diana 2005: E. Diana, Contributi sulla storia contemporanea della raccolta artistica dell'Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova: i cataloghi di fine Ottocento, in «Archivio Storico Italiano», CLXIII, 604, 2005, pp. 313-351.
Donato 2011-12: M. M. Donato, Sulla soglia. Note della curatrice, in Siena e artisti senesi. Maestri orafi, ed. by M.M. Donato, in «Opera Nomina Historiae», 5-6, 2011-12, pp. 5-15 (on-line).
Freuler 1991: G. Freuler, «Manifestatori delle cose miracolose». Arte italiana del ‘300 e ‘400 da collezioni in Svizzera e nel Liechtenstein, exhibition catalogue (Lugano-Castagnola, Villa Favorita, Fondazione Thyssen-Bornemisza 7 aprile-30 giugno 1991), Lugano-Castagnola 1991.
Gordon 2011: D. Gordon, National Gallery Catalogues. The Italian paintings before 1400, London 2011.
Maginnis 1982: H.B.J. Maginnis, A reidentified panel by Niccolò di Buonaccorso, in «Source», I, 1982, 2, pp. 18-20.
Marcucci 1965: L. Marcucci, Gallerie Nazionali di Firenze, II, I dipinti toscani del secolo XIV, Roma 1965.
Newbery 2007: T. J. Newbery, The Robert Lehman Collection, XIII, Frames, New York 2007.
Palladino 1997: P. Palladino, Art and devotion in Siena after 1350: Luca di Tommè and Niccolò di Buonaccorso, San Diego 1997.
Palmeri 2010: M. Palmeri, Scheda n° 33, in Angeli. Volti dell’invisibile, exhibition catalogue (Illegio, Casa delle Esposizioni 24 aprile - 3 ottobre 2010), exhibition curated by di A. Geretti, catalogue ed. by S. Castri, Torino 2010, pp. 210-211.
Perkins 1914: F. M. Perkins, Dipinti senesi sconosciuti o inediti, in «Rassegna d’Arte», n.s., I, 1914, pp. 97-104.
Pope-Hennessy - Kanter 1987: J. Pope-Hennessy - L.B. Kanter, The Robert Lehman Collection, I, Italian Paintings, New York 1987.
Ridolfi (1896-97) 1899: E. Ridolfi, La Galleria dell’Arcispedale di S. Maria Nuova in Firenze, in Le Gallerie Nazionali Italiane, IV, Roma (1896-97) 1899, pp. 162-186.
Schmidt 2002: V. M. Schmidt, Portable Polyptychs with Narrative Scenes: Fourteenth-Century ‘De Luxe’ Objects between Italian Panel Painting and French. Arts somptuaires, in Italian Panel Painting of the Duecento and Trecento, New Haven 2002, pp. 395-425.
Schmidt 2013: V. M. Schmidt, Niccolò di Buonaccorso, in Dizionario biografico degli italiani, LXXVIII, 2013 (on-line).
Schmidt 2014: Schmidt V.M., La Vierge d’humilité de Niccolò di Buonaccorso, in «La revue des musées de France», LXIV, 4, 2014, pp. 46-57.
Van Marle 1924: R. Van Marle, The Development of the Italian schools of paintings, II, The Hague 1924.