Scanning the Baptistery - A Tale of Wonder
January 4, 2018 Day One
“Jet lagged, but determined”
What a day we had.
Niccolò di Pietro Gerini is not a household name today. His conservative style extended the innovations of Giotto and the traditions of Bernardo Daddi, but a full century after the advent of this new style of painting reached the vantage point of Florentine viewers. However, at the height of his career at the turn of the fifteenth century, few painters in Tuscany enjoyed the kind of popularity that he did among patrons and audiences alike.
We know nothing of his origins, his training, or his demeanor, but the archives do tell us that both his father and his son were also painters. It stands to reason that the family members worked together as a team for over one hundred years.
For his part, Niccolò matriculated into the Guild of Doctors and Apothecaries in 1368 at a time when he was involved in collaboration with Jacopo di Cione to paint now-lost frescoes in the vaults of the residence hall of the Florentine Guild of Lawyers, Judges, and Notaries. He may also have assisted on two additional works completed by Jacopo – the two Coronations of the Virgin for S. Pier Maggiore and the Florentine Mint, respectively – but the “Niccolaio” listed in documents related to these commissions may instead refer to the painter Niccolò di Tommaso. He painted a large dossal of the Entombment of Christ currently in the oratory of S. Carlino, just across the street from the more famous guild church of Orsanmichele. He teamed with Ambrogio di Baldese in 1386 to paint the fresco of the Abandonment and Restitution of Children on the façade of the Bigallo, and two years later completed a beautiful triptych of the Baptism of Christ for an altar in the dormitory of the Camaldolese monastery of S. Maria degli Angeli. Soon thereafter he went to the nearby town of Prato to paint frescoes in the Palazzo Datini and the church of S. Francesco, and then worked in Pisa at the church of S. Francesco before returning to Florence to paint the frescoes in the Sacristy of S. Croce.
Two haunting paintings of the Man of Sorrows – one for the Flagellant Confraternity of Gesù Pellegrino that operated out of S. Maria Novella and the other for an unknown setting – remind us of the severity of devotional practices during the decades following the Black Death of 1348 and its periodic reappearances. A number of other paintings have been attributed to his hand, like two street tabernacles that still stand on the Via dei Malcontenti and the Via delle Bella Donne, but this is speculative. However, documents from Orsanmichele confirm that in 1409 Niccolò di Pietro Gerini painted in fresco the effigies of a number of guild patron saints that still adorn the columns inside the former grain repository today.
Gerini’s approach to painting clearly demonstrates an affinity for the rather hard and massive forms popularized by Andrea Orcagna di Cione and his brother, Nardo di Cione, both of whom followed closely the traditions formulated by their probable master, Bernardo Daddi. Gerini’s lively compositions often revolved around narrative themes, sometimes invented from whole cloth by the artist: the Abandonment and Restitution of Children on the Bigallo and the Man of Sorrows in S. Maria Novella include references to contemporary people and practices that the artist either witnessed for himself or imagined in the design phase of the process. His color palette, filled with rich blues, greens, and vermilions, creates decorative patterns of unusual complexity and aesthetic brilliance. But his adherence to traditional representations of space, generic renderings of anatomical forms, and time-tested religious iconography make his impact on contemporaries and later generations minimal at best. Indeed, the advent of Lorenzo Monaco in the early fifteenth century and the arrival on the scene of Masaccio in 1422 swayed other Florentine painters away from Niccolò’s precedents, even though both Lorenzo and (to a lesser degree) Masaccio owed Gerini some important artistic debts. But for an important chunk of time between about 1380 and about 1405, Niccolò di Pietro Gerini was a leading artist in a city filled with capable competitors.
Arthur, Kathleen Giles. “Cult Objects and Artistic Patronage of the Fourteenth-Century Flagellant Confraternity of Gesù Pellegrino.” In Christianity and the Renaissance: Image and Religious Imagination in the Quattrocento, eds. Timothy Verdon and John Henderson, Syracuse, 1990, 336-60.
Bent, George R. Public Painting and Visual Culture in Early Republican Florence (Cambridge University Press: New York, 2017).
Offner, Richard. “Niccolò di Pietro Gerini.” Art in America 9 (1921): 148-55 and 233-40.
New, Britta. “Niccolò di Pietro Gerini’s ‘Baptism Altarpiece’: technique, conservation, and original design.” National Gallery technical bulletin 33 (2012), 27-49.
Zervas, Diane Finiello. “Niccolò Gerini’s Entombment and Resurrection of Christ, S. Anna/S. Michele/S. Carlo and Orsanmichele in Florence: Clarifications and New Documents.” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 66 (2003): 33-64.