The Stefaneschi Altarpiece, Arnolfo di Cambio, and the first whisperings of the Renaissance.
by Agnes Crawford
Last month, having finished a tour at the Vatican Museums and with an hour to kill, I wandered into the Pinacoteca. As I mentioned here the Vatican Picture Gallery is spectacularly good, and massively under-visited. This is thoroughly understandable, first time visitors have more than enough on their plate with the really big stuff; the Sistine Chapel is near the end of a long and winding route, and selectivity is fundamental to avoid running out of steam before getting there. But for those with museum stamina (a long visit can be broken up with a break at one of the cafès) or on a return visit, I can highly recommend it.
On this blustery November day I focused on the early rooms, and found myself standing alone before the Stefaneschi Altarpiece (November has a lot to recommend it). Commissioned by Cardinal Giacomo Stefaneschi, it is traditionally attributed to Giotto based on a reference in the Liber benefactorum, the list of benefactors of St Peter’s. This refers to Cardinal Stefaneschi as having commissioned a panel from Giotto at the vast cost of 800 florins.
This attribution has long been the source of discussion. The altarpiece is dated to the mid- to late- 1310s. Undoubtedly it was painted after 1313, the year of the canonization of Pope Celestine V, because on the right we the see the kneeling figure of Pope Celestine V complete with halo.
The humble hermit reviled by Dante was revered by Giacomo, who dedicated his poem Opus Metricum to the doomed pontiff. However financial documents place Giotto in Florence from 1314. The most plausible attribution is therefore to a workshop set up in Rome by Giotto, and working to the master’s designs, during his sojourn in the city c.1310.
Stefaneschi’s altarpiece was probably destined for the High Altar of the old Church of St Peter. An enormously important commission, it is also one with a strong political significance. Painted during one of Rome’s bleakest moments – the papacy had decamped to Avignon just a few years earlier – the painting is indicative of the cardinal’s desire to shore up the crumbling primacy of the Basilica of St Peter in Rome.
We now see it in a rather drab early twentieth century frame, but the gilded gothicizing opulence of the original setting can be seen in the painting itself. On the front of the central panel, to the left and kneeling before St Peter, is Cardinal Stefaneschi himself, shown presenting the altarpiece to the saint. This is a wonderful bit of “mise en abyme” (literally “placed into the abyss”); the painting within the painting also shows a tiny cardinal offering a tiny altarpiece, and so on, presumably, ad infinitum.
What particularly caught my attention this time was the throne upon which Peter sits. In the steepness of its upper triangular section, adorned with abbreviated pinnacles, it echoes the forms of two ciboria by Arnolfo di Cambio from the previous decades.
The first, dated c.1285, at the basilica of Saint Paul outside the walls (heavily restored after the great fire of 1823).
The second, dated 1293, at Saint Cecilia in Trastevere (where Arnolfo is believed to have been working at the same time as Pietro Cavallino painted these frescoes).
Both see Arnolfo merging a solidly classical symmetry with the Gothic; spiky pinnacles are added to steeper-than-classical pediments, and trefoils replace the round classical arch. As well as an elaborate sculptural decoration – at the Santa Cecilia ciborium the figure of San Tiburzio shown on horseback, the rider’s head turned one way the horse’s the other; the animal’s foreleg raised, forever frozen in movement, marks an extraordinarily sophisticated dynamism for the period – both use the contemporary Roman art of Cosmatesque inlay.
Pieces of chopped up Roman columns and sculptural decoration, together with gold tiles, were employed in a sort of mosaic decoration. We can see green, yellow and Imperial purple, colours of materials once imported from the far reaches of the, by now, long-fallen Empire. The columns themselves are also “recycled”.
Similarly if we look at the Stefaneschi altarpiece, we also see ornate Cosmatesque decoration framing the vast figure of Peter, shown sternly carrying his enormous keys. The same decoration is found on the sides of the throne and the steps which converge to give a sense of depth. In the foreground the floor is also decorated in the Cosmati style, the geometry of the decoration serving to emphasise the physical space in which the scene takes place.
Despite the deeply felt medieval mysticism which pervades his Opus Metricum, Cardinal Giacomo Stefaneschi commissioned a work which echoes the very recent sculptural architecture of Arnolfo di Cambio; a modern fusion of the classical and the Gothic.
In its desire to represent emotive figures and three-dimensional space it is imbued with the first tentative glimmerings of the Renaissance, and it is a piece in which Peter, the very foundation stone of the Roman Church, sits on a piece of contemporary furniture.
San Paolo fuori le mura
Piazzale San Paolo
Santa Cecilia in Trastevere
Piazza Santa Cecilia in Trastevere
9.30am – 12.30pm ; 4pm – 7pm
9am – 6pm, last entrance 4.20pm. 16 euros. Closed Sundays and Catholic holidays.