St. Augustine

St. Augustine

Marco Palmezzano

c. 1505
oil on wood
149,5 x 62 cm
source of the artwork

Faenza, church of Sant’Agostino; 1879: entered the Pinacoteca collections

short description

Paired with A Sainted Bishop, St. Jerome, and Tobias and the Angel.

These four panels are probably fragments of an altarpiece of whose commissioning we know nothing and for which we have no early records. They were already separated when Gian Marcello Oretti of Bologna saw them in the church of Sant’Agostino in Faenza in 1777.

The two smaller panels depict a Sainted Bishop, possibly St. Ambrose, and St. Jerome in a cardinal’s garb reading the Vulgate, his translation of the Bible into Latin. The two larger panels depict St. Augustine with a bishop’s garb over his black habit, and the Archangel Raphael with Tobias. The Bible tells us that young Tobias set out on a long journey in the company of a mysterious individual who helped him to overcome a number of difficulties. At the end of the tale, the individual proved to be the Archangel Raphael who, in popular credence, had become by definition the “guardian angel”, i.e. God’s intermediary who accompanies and guides men through life’s various phases and in times of trouble.

inventary n°

In the two smaller panels, in a classicising interior with green walls and embellished with a gilded frieze, we see a sainted bishop in a half-bust pose whom scholars have variously interpreted as St. Augustine (Grigioni 1956) or St. Ambrose (Casadei 1991, Viroli 1991), and St. Jerome. Jerome, who can be identified thanks to his cardinal’s red robe, is reading a book, the Vulgate, which was his translation of the Bible into Latin.

In the two larger panels, in a rich interior with coloured marble columns and pilasters adorned with grotesque friezes on a gold ground, we see St. Augustine wearing a bishop’s robe over his black habit (the latter an allusion to the Augustinian order, or Austin Canons, founded on the basis of his rule) and the young Tobias with the Archangel Raphael. The Book of Tobias in the Bible tells us that when the Children of Israel were in exile in Assyria, a pious man named Tobit, having gone blind and feeling the onset of death, called his son Tobias to him and urged him to cash in an old loan in Media. After finding a travelling companion, Tobias embarked on the journey, but on reaching the river Tigris he was attacked by a large fish. His companion told him not to fear. He then captured the beast, slew it and pulled out its heart, liver and spleen. After reaching their destination and recovering the loan, the two set out for home. Following his companion’s instructions, Tobias used the fish’s heart and liver to cast out a devil from a young woman named Sara, whom he then married, and he used the spleen to heal his father Tobit’s blindness. It was only at the end of all these adventures that Tobias’s mysterious companion revealed his true identity. He was none other than the Archangel Raphael. In Renaissance art it is not rare for Tobias to be portrayed as a young boy, because in popular credence the Archangel Raphael had become by definition the “guardian angel”, i.e. God’s intermediary who accompanies and guides men from their earliest youth through life’s various phases and in times of trouble.

The four panels were seen in the sacristy of the church of Sant’Agostino in Faenza in 1777 by an erudite scholar from Bologna named Marcello Oretti who, in his manuscript entitled Pitture nella città di Faenza, attributed them without any hesitation to Marco Palmezzano (in Casadei 1991, p. 46). His attribution has been unanimously accepted by scholars ever since.

What has been a topic of much debate among scholars, on the other hand, is whether or not the two pairs of panels belonged to a single decorative complex, given their shared provenance. The question is still an open one today, because we have no documents recording a commission or indeed any other mention of the works earlier than 1777. In the view of Anna Tambini (2005), who took up Grigioni’s view (1956), it is impossible for all four elements to be fragments of a single panel. The backgrounds of the two pairs are too different and hardly compatible, while the two sainted bishops, who look very alike and have no further attributes to identify them, would easily have caused confusion in the observer. Even if the Sainted Bishop in the quadrangular panel were St. Ambrose, she argues that it would be difficult to explain the absence of the fourth Doctor of the Church, St. Gregory the Great, who would be unlikely to have occupied the centre of the composition. Thus, she cautiously suggests that the two smaller panels may have come from the church of San Girolamo dell’Osservanza, where Palmezzano is recorded as working on an altarpiece in 1505, in which case the presence of St. Jerome would be justified in his capacity as the church’s titular saint, while the Sainted Bishop might well be St. Augustine. This latter detail would explain the hypothetical removal of the two panels, probably fragments of a single altarpiece, from the church of San Girolamo to the church of Sant’Agostino, possibly in the course of remodelling in the 18th century.

Anna Colombi Ferretti (2015) holds a completely different view. She considers it highly likely that the four panels come from a single Augustinian altarpiece, a hypothesis first formulated at the turn of the 19th century (Calzini 1894). Regarding, the reconstruction of the altarpiece, she suggests that the centre may have been occupied by a panel depicting the Virgin and Child (in a polyptych similar to that produced by Lorenzo Costa for the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Faenza in 1505 and now in the National Gallery in London, inv. no. NG629.1-NG629.5) or an image of a different kind, possibly frescoed or carved. In her opinion, the fact that the four panels come from the same altarpiece is borne out by the results of a diagnostic examination conducted on all four in 2005, which appear to confirm that the support is of the same type of wood with the same veining (Tambini was aware of these results, but only with regard to the two smaller panels).

The dating of the four panels has also been the object of some debate. In her most recent study, Tambini (2005) is inclined to opt for a date of c. 1505, while Colombi Ferretti (2015) argues in favour of a later date, c. 1520.

In stylistic terms, the panels with their use of warm, suffused light and their jewel-like hues illustrate Venetian painting’s strong influence on Marco Palmezzano, particularly after his recorded stay in the lagoon city in 1495.

E. Calzini, “Marco Palmezzano e le sue opere”, Archivio storico dell’arte, VII, 1894, 3-4, p. 460

S. Casadei, Pinacoteca di Faenza, Bologna 1991, pp. 46-47, entry nos. 88-91

A. Colombi Ferretti, Faenza agli inizi del secolo, in Colombi Ferretti A., Pedrini C., Tambini A., Storia delle arti figurative a Faenza, vol. V, Il Cinquecento. Parte prima, Faenza 2015, pp. 22-23

C. Grigioni, Marco Palmezzano pittore forlivese nella vita nelle opere nell’arte, Faenza 1956, pp. 74-76, 628-630

A. Tambini, in Marco Palmezzano. Il Rinascimento nelle Romagne, exhibition catalogue (Forlì, Musei di San Domenico, 4 December 2005 – 30 April 2006), ed. A. Paolucci, L. Prati, S. Tumidei, Cinisello Balsamo 2005, pp. 296-303, entry nos. 41-42

G. Viroli, La pittura del Cinquecento a Forlì, 2 vols., Bologna, 1991, vol. I, pp. 35-36, entry nos. 19-21

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written by
Piero Offidani