opening hours: 10-18
Entrance with museum ticket
UFFIZI DIFFUSI A FAENZA
Faenza becomes part of the Uffizi Diffusi with the exhibition in the Municipal Art Gallery of the Polyptych of the Beata Umiltà by Pietro Lorenzetti (circa 1330-1335), a masterpiece of Gothic painting.
Santa Umiltà is a figure dear to the city, and in this very year the arrival of the Polyptych intends to act as a good omen and a sign of hope and recovery for the citizens.
On this occasion, visitors will be able to admire for the first time the results of the complex restoration of the work, which has just been completed after four years.
Pietro Lorenzetti, Polyptych of St. Humility
Pietro Lorenzetti painted the polyptych to commemorate St. Humility’s burial in the church of San Giovanni Evangelista in Florence, a convent which she herself had founded in 1283 and of which she was the abbess. Humility died on 22 May 1310 and her body was interred beneath the floor of the church. When it was found to be miraculously incorrupt the following year, it was moved to a new tomb which instantly became an object of devotion for the Vallombrosan order and for the faithful. Humility’s life and the miracles she performed were narrated in biographies intended to prove her saintliness pending her official canonisation which, however, did not materialise until 1722.
History and Condition
Originating in the world of Byzantine culture and closely associated with the veneration of relics, hagiographic altarpieces illustrating salient episodes in saints’ lives and legends became popular in Italy from the 13th century onwards and generally consisted of a single panel. In his St. Humility altarpiece Pietro Lorenzetti renewed the model, adapting it to the more up-to-date structure of a polyptych comprising vertical panels topped by pinnacles, enclosed in a (now lost) frame and resting on a figured predella or plinth. The altarpiece as we see it today is missing two pinnacles (now lost) and two stories (now in the Staatliche Gemäldegalerie in Berlin), while there are seven surviving fragments of the plinth, now cut back to tondo format, depicting Christ the Man of Sorrows and saints. The polyptych was dismantled and the missing parts lost when the monasteries were dissolved in the Napoleonic era and the painting was placed in storage with the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, where the restorer Francesco Acciai reassembled it arbitrarily several decades later, in 1841. The original narrative sequence was reinstated in the course of recent restoration, so that we can now appreciate this splendid masterpiece of Gothic painting as it was meant to be seen.
Born in Siena in the late 13th century, Pietro Lorenzetti trained under Duccio di Boninsegna and Giotto to become one of the leading lights in Italian painting in the first half of the 14th century. Skilled at both panel and fresco painting, he took part in the campaign to decorate the Lower Church in the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi and turned his hand to several complex altarpieces, such as a youthful work for Santa Maria della Pieve in Arezzo commissioned in 1320, and a Nativity of the Virgin for Siena Cathedral in 1342, only a few years before the Bubonic Plague of 1348 which was probably also the cause of his death.
The Uffizi polyptych, which is likely to have been painted c. 1330–5, may have made an even greater contribution than written works to the spread of the cult of this saint, shown standing in its central panel. Wearing the habit of a Vallombrosan nun, she has a lambskin on her head. A form of headress which may have been inspired by a tradition associating the lamb with the virtue of humility, it soon became Humility’s symbol and her distinctive attribute. Probably painted by Pietro Lorenzetti in conjunction with his brother Ambrogio, the polyptych is remarkable for its clear narrative and its attention to details taken from daily life. The artist’s brush dwells on the way the nuns’ table was laid in the refectory of Santa Perpetua, it accurately captures Humility’s flight as she prepares to cross the River Lamone and it illustrates in some detail the tools – the trowel and plumb line – of the masons intent on building the monastery. Yet despite this interest in detail, it never mislays its sense of sober simplicity. Each small panel uses a restricted palette consisting chiefly of shades of pink, grey and brown to depict a mere handful of figures in a bare architectural or landscape setting.
Humility of Faenza
Born into the wealthy Negusanti family in Faenza c. 1226, Humility was christened Rosanese. When the two children of her marriage to Ugolotto Caccianemici died at an early age, she took the vows at the Cluniac convent of Santa Perpetua in Faenza and persuaded her husband to do the same. Showing no hesitation in performing the humblest tasks around the convent, she soon earned herself the nickname Humility. Inspired by visions and bent on devoting her life solely to prayer, she left Santa Perpetua, crossed the River Lamone without getting wet and chose to live the life of a recluse in her uncle’s home, where she revealed her capacity for healing by curing the leg of a monk from the nearby Monastery of Sant’Apollinare. She later founded a convent for nuns dedicated to Santa Maria Novella, adopting the Vallombrosan rule. Prompted by a vision from heaven, she travelled to Florence to found another convent, dedicated to St. John the Evangelist, which soon became known as the convent of the Women of Faenza. She was abbess of the convent until her death on 22 May 1310. It was here that she dictated The Sermons, a vibrant example of medieval mystic literature, to her sisters. Canonised in 1722, she was proclaimed patron saint of the city of Faenza in 1942. Her relics are split today between the Convent of Santa Umiltà in Faenza and the Monastero dello Spirito Santo in Bagno a Ripoli, on the outskirts of Florence.
The restoration of Pietro Lorenzetti’s Polyptych of Blessed Humility
The Polyptych of Blessed Humility has been dismantled, altered and restored on many occasions in the past. The Gallerie degli Uffizi currently has twenty-two separate parts: the ogival central panel with the figure of Humility; eleven small panels with scenes from her life and miracles which, together, were originally part of the polyptych’s laterals; three pinnacles with frames depicting the Evanglists Mark, Luke and John; and seven small tondos cut from the horizontal front plank of the predella, or plinth, with Christ the Man of Sorrows, the Holy mourners, St. Bernardo degli Uberti, St. Paul, St. Peter and St. John Gualbert. The frame and the pinnacle with the Evangelist Matthew is lost, while two small panels with Humility’s miracles are now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. The missing central pinnacle has been hypothetically identified as a Christ Blessing now in the Salini Collection, but there is no evidence to prove with any certainty that the panel came from the polyptych.
The restoration, performed in the laboratory of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence after in-depth investigation and documentation, consisted in restoring the wooden support and cleaning the painted surface to eliminate dirt, deteriorated retouching and most of the dulled varnish. Restorers Stefano Scarpelli and associates completed the restoration by in-painting the losses and abrasions of the painted surface.
The investigation campaign, observation under the microscope and the restorers’ patient labour have allowed us to clarify many important aspects that have improved our knowledge of the polyptych, such as the proper sequence of the scenes, the existence of a frame covered in mecca (silver foil covered by a varnish simulating gilding) and the identification of the pigments used for the paints. The artist turned to the traditional pigments of the time, using a limited palette to convey a deliberate impression of poverty, yet with certain details higlighted in precious materials, for example the blue of the lapis lazuli used in the gems adorning the cross in the scene depicting the transfer of Humility’s mortal remains.
Thanks to the restoration, we can now admire Pietro Lorenzetti’s altarpiece with its original palette and clarity and follow the story of Humility’s life in the correct chronological order.