Niccolò di Pietro
( Active during the late 14th and early 15th centuries )
Tempera and gold on wood panel 105x39.5 cm Element of a polyptych, circa1405 Inscribed “Augustinus” (in Gothic minuscule script, in red, just above the saint’s shoulders)
Sotheby’s Monaco, 17 June 1989, lot 410. A. DE MARCHI, “Ritorno a Nicolò di Pietro”, Nuovi Studi, II, 1997, 3, fig. 28, p. 9, p. 19 note 48. A. DE MARCHI, “Nicolò di Pietro. Sant’Ambrogio che battezza Sant’Agostino; Sant’Agostino che consegna la regola”, in Fioritura tardogotica nelle Marche, exhibition catalogue (Urbino, Palazzo Ducale, 25 July – 25 October 1998), ed. Paolo Dal Poggetto, Milan 1998, p. 216.
The panel shows us an image of the celebrated Early Christian Bishop of Hippo, immortalised in a frontal pose and wearing the black habit of the Augustinians, robed in a sumptuous cloak patterned with precious gold ramage. The wood support has been thinned down considerably, and the reverse bears traces of an old cradling, which was removed and replaced by five curved horizontal struts, attached with screws, that follow the natural bowing of the wood.
That the pictorial language of this work is entirely Gothic and Adriatic is proved by certain technical aspects such as the shaping of arch at the top (three-lobed and gently inflected) and the decoration of the saint’s halo and the morse that joins the two sides of the cloak, executed in raised and richly arabesqued pastiglia.
As noted by Andrea De Marchi, to whom we owe the attribution to Niccolò di Pietro, the painting is striking for its vivid chromatic qualities, especially noteworthy in the brilliant red lining of the cloak, the orange cover of the book held by in the saint’s left hand, and the rust-coloured platform on which he stands. This is decidely characteristic of the painter, if we think of the “extremely intense and unreal” blue (A. De Marchi, “Per un riesame della pittura tardogotica a Venezia: Nicolò di Pietro e il suo contesto adriatico”, Bollettino d’Arte, 1987, 44-45, pp. 25-66: 38) or the bright colours of the Evangelical symbols in the Cross of Sant’Agostino in Verucchio (Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale), signed and dated 1404 and therefore a secure work by Nicolò.
With respect to the Rovigo Coronation, the panel before us appears to have the closest parallels in some of the vegetal motifs that anticipate the highly Gothic pinnacles on the façade of Saint Mark’s (the work of Niccolò di Pietro Lamberti), not dissimilar to the foliate swirls of Saint Augustine’s staff, as well as the figure of God the Father – though we must bear in mind that some of our saint’s facial features were unfortunately subjected to an old repainting that so modernized the figure that it was attributed to the Piedmontese painter Girolamo Giovenone (1490-1555; cf. the Sotheby’s catalogue of 1989). Some of the elements in our painting, such as the use of raised gilding in the haloes and some of the details of the saint, or the sophisticated painted decoration of his robes, look forward to the middle of the first decade of the 1400s, and recur frequently in his oeuvre (see the Saint Ursula in the Metropolitan Museum, the Madonna in Budapest, the Brera Coronation and the Saint Lawrence in the Accademia, Venice).
It is hard to determine what our Saint Augustine was painted for – though it was clearly a lateral panel from a sizeable polyptych – because the painter’s range of activity was widespread: his known works reflect a career that spanned Venice, Verona, Mantua, Verrucchio in Romagna, Pesaro and Zara (Zadar). However we might plausibly that this was an Augustinian commission, given that Nicolò was particularly appreciated throughout his career by the monastic orders, and especially by the Augustinians, for whom he painted (apart from the Verrucchio Cross and the Rovigo Coronation) a grand polyptych which has come down to us in dismembered, fragmentary form (its component parts are in the Musei Civici in Pesaro, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Vatican Picture Gallery and a private collection), but which we know came from the church of Sant’Agostino in Pesaro.
Given this work’s notable dimensions, we may also hypothesize that it was not a lateral panel but stood in a central position, flanked by narrative scenes, or even other figures of saints, in a rare but not impossible arrangement; a slightly later example appears in the triptych depicyted in the background of the predella in Sassetta’s Arte della Lana altarpiece in the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle.