Scanning the Baptistery - A Tale of Wonder
January 4, 2018 Day One
“Jet lagged, but determined”
What a day we had.
Alberto Arnoldi appears to have been born in Florence, although the date of his birth has never been discovered. Indeed, practically nothing about this sculptor of note is known, and our understanding of his work and his legacy comes down to us only circumstantially.
Arnoldi must have been highly regarded by his peers and his patrons. His abilities were such that the officers of the Company of the Misericordia hired him to sculpt two different projects in the late 1350s and early 1360s for their residence on the Piazza S. Giovanni, now known as the Bigallo (Passerini, note 3, who cites documents contained in Archivio di Stato, Firenze, Bigallo, Deliberazioni dei Capitano II, II, 12). They chose him, the documents say, because they believed the quality of his sculptures would be comparable to those recently completed by Andrea Pisano for the Baptistery and the Campanile:
[The] captains of this confraternity … deliberated on the following things: First, they agreed to offer to Alberto Arnoldi, master from the parish of San Michele Berteldi, the commission to produce an image in marble of Our Lady holding her Son in her arms … with two angels…. All of these figures must be by the hand of Alberto, who shall receive a salary of 55 florins for the figure of our Lady and one hundred thirty florins for the two angels, who should be holding candles in their hands: the figure of Mary should be of a higher quality than the figure of Our Lady in Pisa. Its quality will be judged by three or four masters deemed to be qualified by the city of Florence, which shall appoint them at the time. And if it is deemed to be inferior to the one in Pisa, the Bigallo will not be obligated to keep it. And the images of the marble angels must be of the same quality and beauty of the said figure of Mary. He will be paid in the following manner: he will recieve an initial payment of one hundred gold florins, and when the figure of Our Lady has been completed to our satisfaction he will have fifty gold florins, and when he has completed the angels he will receive fifty gold florins; he will compose and install in the oratory the figures at his own expense. And the figures will be completed in two years from the time of their initiation, as indicated by the date of the first payment of one hundred florins.
When work was completed in 1361, Alberto Arnoldi received his payments.
At precisely this time, that is in 1358, Arnoldi was selected to serve as the administrator of art works to be produced in the cathedral of Florence, the walls of which were then being built up around the old church of S. Reparata (still in use despite being enveloped by the much larger S. Maria del Fiore that was rising up all around it). Arnoldi must have been an artist of note.
However, we must temper this evaluation with important caveats. First, Arnoldi produced very few works that have survived to this day. The only works we can ascribe to him convincingly are the Madonna and Angels altar inside the Bigallo and the Madonna and Child on its façade. Were he truly a valued sculptor in that period, surely we would have more works from his hand. Second, Arnoldi’s name does not appear in documents that address the most important sculptural projects of the day: he was not involved in the production of Andrea di Cione’s massive Baldacchino installed in Orsanmichele, the continuation of the project to add reliefs to the Campanile, or the carving of figures for the façade of the Duomo – of which went to other people. While he obviously caught the eye of the Captains of the Bigallo, he was not considered in the same league as Andrea. And third, despite his work for the Bigallo and inside the Duomo, Arnoldi’s output was not large enough or interesting enough to warrant comment by Lorenzo Ghiberti in his 15th-century art history text (the Commentarii) or by Giorgio Vasari in his 16th-century Lives of the Artists, both of whom devoted at least passing references to a host of other equally undistinguished craftsmen.
Alberto Arnoldi was the fourteenth-century equivalent of a One-Hit Wonder. The sculptures for the Bigallo are all that’s left for us to consider from his career.
Earenfight, Phillip. “Sacred Sites in Civic Spaces: The Misericordia and Orsanmichele in Post-Plague Florence,” in The Historian’s Eye: Essays on Italian Art in Honor of Andrew Ladis, Hayden B. J. Maginnis and Shelley E. Zuraw, eds., Athens, GA, 2009, 15-32.
Kreytenberg, Gert. “Die Trecenteske Dekoration der Stirnwand im Oratorio del Bigallo,” Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz 20 (1976), 397-403.
Levin, William. “Advertising Charity in the Trecento: The Public Decorations of the Misericordia in Florence,” Studies in Iconography 17 (1996), 215-309.
Passerini, Luigi. Curiosità storico-artistiche Fiorentine (Florence, 1866), 91-98.