UVA Art Museum reassembles a 14th century Italian masterpiece

 A momentous reunion is happening at the University of Virginia. No, we’re not talking about alumni returning to town to relive their glory days. This goes back much further than even Mr. Jefferson himself—all the way to 14th century Italy, when painter Bartolo di Fredi took up his brush to create an altarpiece for a church in his native city of Siena. As he applied his tempera and gold leaf, he surely didn’t imagine that half a millenium* later parts of his painting would scatter across the globe, nor that they would be reunited for “The Adoration of the Magi by Bartolo di Fredi: A Masterpiece Reconstructed,” an exhibition opening Friday at the UVA Art Museum.

“Seven Saints in Adoration” is one of three pieces of Bartolo di Fredi’s majestic Sienese altarpiece shown together at the UVA Art Museum beginning Friday. (Courtesy of Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali PinacotecaNazionale di Siena.)

“Bartolo’s most famous work was probably a series of frescoes that were painted in the town of San Gimignano, which is near Siena, in the late 1360s,” Bruce Boucher, who joined the museum as director in 2009, told us. Boucher, along with UVA Associate Professor Francesca Fiorani, co-curated this exhibition, which was inspired by a portion of Bartolo’s altarpiece that found its way into UVA’s collection. “When I came here I thought it would be great for our public if we could try to reunite the three surviving pieces of this altarpiece, to show that the painting, pretty though it was, was merely a small part of a much larger structure,” Boucher said.

While his frescoes might be more famous, Boucher views Bartolo’s “Adoration of the Magi,” painted between 1375 and 1385, as the artist’s biggest accomplishment. “I think this is really his masterpiece,” he said. “He was not a painter of the first rank, like Simone Martini or Duccio, but he was consistently good, and in this painting I think he really outdid himself.” The altarpiece’s upper portion, for instance, not only features the wise men’s cavalcade as they journey to Bethlehem, but also incorporates Siena itself into that Biblical scene. “You see a view of a walled medieval city, which looks very much like Siena, and a building with green and white marble, which looks very much like the Gothic cathedral in Siena,” Boucher said. “It has this wonderful richness of detail, of narrative detail, that has this very obvious attempt to try to connect Siena with Jerusalem.”

“And of course it calls to mind the political fact that the Sienese had entrusted their city to the care of the Virgin from 1260 onwards,” he added, referring to Siena’s adoption of the Virgin Mary as its special patron.

Bartolo’s altarpiece remained in place for around 500 years, but then came the 19th century and the upheaval of the Napoleonic Wars. Like many religious artworks during that period, it was divided and scattered by the art market. The main panel, which depicts the familiar scene of the wise men paying homage to the Baby Jesus, remained in Siena, where it is now in the collection of Italy’s National Picture Gallery. A large portion of the bottom panel, which features Christ’s crucifixion along with a group of on-looking saints, was purchased in Rome by German aristocrat Bernhard von Lindenau, and it is still part of the Lindenau-Museum in his hometown of Altenburg.

Another section of the bottom panel, which portrays seven additional saints, has had the most adventurous journey. Its whereabouts remained a mystery until the 1920s, when it turned up in New York in a Milanese sale catalog, only to promptly disappear again. Then, in the 1970s, those gold-leafed saints surfaced right here in Charlottesville, when a local woman who had inherited the piece donated it to the UVA Art Museum. “Our scholars made the connection with the other panel in Germany in the late 1970s, and so we knew that it was part of this altarpiece,” said Boucher. “The painting may have had other panels to it, or wall frescoes that were part of a larger complex. We just don’t know.”

In addition to the three known sections of Bartolo’s “Adoration of the Magi,” the exhibition will also feature two works by his Sienese contemporaries, a small domestic altarpiece by Naddo Ceccarelli and a life-size crucifixion scene by Francesco di Vannuccio. “With these other two paintings we also show other aspects of the Christian narrative and different types of Christian altarpiece,” said Boucher. “You get to see something of the variety of religious painting in 14th century Siena and the way in which the Sienese regarded these works not only as religious statements but also as statements of political affiliation, of talismanic power.”

“The Adoration of the Magi by Bartolo di Fredi: A Masterpiece Reconstructed” opens this Friday, March 2. The museum will also host some of the world’s leading scholars on Sienese art for a symposium on April 27 and 28, and you can catch a glimpse of the six century reunion through May 27. Take that, Class of 1962.

*Corrected from "half a century"

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