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Italian Renaissance Learning Resources

In collaboration with the National Gallery of Art

Time and Narrative

Alberti, Leon Battista

(b Genoa, 14 Feb 1404; d Rome, April 1472). Italian architect, sculptor, painter, theorist and writer. The arts of painting, sculpture and architecture were, for Alberti, only three of an exceptionally broad range of interests, for he made his mark in fields as diverse as family ethics, philology and cryptography. It is for his contribution to the visual arts, however, that he is chiefly remembered. Alberti single-handedly established a theoretical foundation for the whole of Renaissance art with three revolutionary treatises, on painting, sculpture and architecture, which were the first works of their kind since Classical antiquity. Moreover, as a practitioner of the arts, he was no less innovative. In sculpture he seems to have been instrumental in popularizing, if not inventing, the portrait medal, but it was in architecture that he found his métier. Building on the achievements of his immediate predecessors, Filippo Brunelleschi and Michelozzo di Bartolomeo, he reinterpreted anew the architecture of antiquity and introduced compositional formulae that have remained central to classical design ever since.

Paul Davies, David Hemsoll

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An image-bearing structure set on the rear part of the altar, abutting the back of the altarblock, or set behind the altar in such a way as to be visually joined with the altar when viewed from a distance. It is also sometimes called a retable, following the medieval term retrotabulum [retabulum, retrotabularium]. The altarpiece was never officially prescribed by the Church, but it did perform a prescribed function alternatively carried out by a simple inscription on the altarblock: to declare to which saint or mystery the altar was dedicated. In fact, the altarpiece did more than merely identify the altar; its form and content evoked the mystery or personage whose cult was celebrated at the altar. This original and lasting function influenced the many forms taken by the altarpiece throughout its history.

Alexander Nagel

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Angelico, Fra

[Fra Giovanni da Fiesole; Guido di Piero da Mugello]

(b nr Vicchio, c. 1395–1400; d Rome, 18 Feb 1455).

Italian painter, illuminator and Dominican friar. He rose from obscure beginnings as a journeyman illuminator to the renown of an artist whose last major commissions were monumental fresco cycles in St Peter’s and the Vatican Palace, Rome. He reached maturity in the early 1430s, a watershed in the history of Florentine art. None of the masters who had broken new ground with naturalistic painting in the 1420s was still in Florence by the end of that decade. The way was open for a new generation of painters, and Fra Angelico was the dominant figure among several who became prominent at that time, including Paolo Uccello, Fra Filippo Lippi and Andrea del Castagno. By the early 1430s Fra Angelico was operating the largest and most prestigious workshop in Florence. His paintings offered alternatives to the traditional polyptych altarpiece type and projected the new naturalism of panel painting on to a monumental scale.

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Barnaba da Modena

(b Modena; fl 1361–83).

Italian painter. Although a native of Modena (Emilia), he was first recorded as a Genoese citizen, hiring Tuscan assistants in 1361 and 1362. He was paid for paintings for the Palazzo Ducale, Genoa, in 1364; a Virgin and Child (1367; Frankfurt am Main, Städel. Kstinst.), signed in Janua, is thought to be by him. His earliest certain painting is the damaged polyptych of the Virgin and Child with Saints (Genoa, Pal. Bianco), signed, unlike later works, in capital letters. Its frame awkwardly combines the light Gothic arcading of Tuscan polyptychs with the continuous contour and simple gables of Emilian design. The incongruities of figure scale, the blackish undertone to the flesh painting and the small features and tall cranium of the Child all derive from Venetian painting, while the careful modelling of Mary’s eyes and puckered lips show the influence of the Lorenzetti brothers and their Sienese followers.

John Richards

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Bartolomeo di Giovanni

(fl Florence, c. 1475–c. 1500/05).

Italian painter, draughtsman and designer. His only documented works are the seven predella panels for Domenico Ghirlandaio’s altarpiece of the Adoration of the Magi (Florence, Gal. Osp. Innocenti), painted in 1488 for S Maria degli Innocenti, the church of the Foundling Hospital, Florence (Bruscoli).

Nicoletta Pons

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Bavosi, Jacopino di Francesco

(fl c. 1320–60).

Italian painter or group of painters. Jacopino di Francesco Bavosi was a well-documented artist active 1360–83 whose work has not been satisfactorily identified. In 1365 Jacopino and his son Pietro, who was also a painter (fl 1365–83), were employed as junior partners of Andrea de’ Bartoli on frescoes for the Visconti Palace at Pavia. . . . The first work of the principal artist of the earlier works of this group is a small Crucifixion (Avignon, Mus. Petit Pal.), in which strong Riminese influence is evident in the incised diapered gold background, close-set, vertical drapery folds and the olive greens and pinks. The lively gestures and distinctive dress of the protagonists are typical of the works produced c. 1320–40 . . .  The heart of the Pseudo-Jacopino corpus is made up of three polyptychs (Bologna, Pin. N.), which are later in date, c. 1340–50. These show few Riminese traits and may be by a different hand from the previous group.

Robert Gibbs

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Benvenuto di Giovanni

(b Siena, 13 Sept 1436; d Siena, after 1518).

Italian painter. He was the son of a bricklayer and lived and worked in or near Siena all his life. . . . Among his extant works, nine are signed and dated altarpieces, four are identifiable through documents and many others can be attributed to him on stylistic grounds. Their dates span 43 years, and they include panel paintings, frescoes, manuscripts and designs for the decorative pavement of Siena Cathedral. . . . Benvenuto was probably trained in Vecchietta’s workshop, although stylistic affinities with Sano di Pietro suggest that he might also have worked for him. Benvenuto’s early works show that he gathered inspiration from sources both in and outside Siena. . . . Benvenuto’s imaginative archaistic use of Trecento motifs underlined the religious significance and civic associations of his art.

Cynthia Coté

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Biagio d’Antonio

Biagio d’Antonio (Tucci)

(b Florence, 1446; d Florence, 1 June 1516).

Italian painter. He was previously confused with three other painters: Andrea Utili (fl 1481–96) of Faenza; ‘Giovanni Battista Utili’ (?1465–1516), whose second family name was Bertucci, also of Faenza; and Benedetto Ghirlandaio. . . . According to a catasto (land registry declaration), his surname was Tucci. An eclectic artist, he reflected the styles of many contemporary Tuscan painters, although his own slightly stiff and doll-like figure style is constant. . . . Biagio also produced many cassone paintings, in which he combined an animated narrative vein with an almost courtly taste for the description of rich and highly coloured costumes and armour.

Roberta Bartoli

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Botticelli, Sandro

[Filipepi, Alessandro (di Mariano di Vanni)]

(b Florence, 1444–5; d Florence, 17 May 1510).

Italian painter and draughtsman. In his lifetime he was one of the most esteemed painters in Italy, enjoying the patronage of the leading families of Florence, in particular the Medici and their banking clients. He was summoned to take part in the decoration of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, was highly commended by diplomatic agents to Ludovico Sforza in Milan and Isabella d’Este in Mantua and also received enthusiastic praise from the famous mathematician Luca Pacioli and the humanist poet Ugolino Verino. By the time of his death, however, Botticelli’s reputation was already waning. . . . From that time his name virtually disappeared until the reassessment of his reputation that gathered momentum in the 1890s.

Charles Dempsey

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Term used for large, lavishly decorated chests made in Italy from the 14th century to the end of the 16th. The word is an anachronism, taken from Vasari (2/1568, ed. G. Milanesi, 1878–85, ii, p. 148), the 15th-century term being forziero. Wealthy households needed many chests, but the ornate cassoni, painted and often combined with pastiglia decoration, were usually commissioned in pairs when a house was renovated for a newly married couple and were ordered, together with other furnishings, by the groom. Florence was the main centre of production, though cassoni were also produced in Siena and occasionally in the Veneto and elsewhere.

J. W. Taylor

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Dolce, Ludovico

(b Venice, 1508; d Venice, 1568).

Italian writer, critic and dramatist. He belonged to a noble but impoverished Venetian family. Dolce studied in Padua and became a versatile writer, typical of his times, who took his material from the works of others, with adaptations and quotations often bordering on plagiarism. He became an ‘editorial consultant’, working mainly for the Venetian publisher Giolito de’ Ferrari, for whom he edited many contemporary works as well as translations of the classics by Virgil, Horace and Cicero. He wrote five comedies, a few tragedies, poems and treatises and a few biographies of illustrious persons, such as the Emperor Charles V. Most of these were superficial works, written to gain fame and money; but they demonstrate a response to a new interest in public cultural debate.

Franco Bernabei

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Early Christian and Byzantine art

The art produced by the peoples of the Roman Empire from the early 4th century AD to c. 600—as well as specifically Christian art from c. 250—and that produced in the eastern half of the Empire, centred around Constantinople (Byzantium) to 1453. The Byzantine empire was the institutional setting for much of the medieval art of the eastern Mediterranean, and from the early 4th century AD for the Orthodox Church and so for Early Christian art. Byzantines regarded their empire as having arisen from the happy coincidence of the foundation of the Roman Empire under Augustus with the incarnation of Jesus Christ; for modern historians the empire has a clear end (1453, when the city fell to the Turks) but no clear beginning.

Margaret Mullett

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Franciscan Order

Religious order founded in 1209 by St Francis of Assisi. In its broader sense the name encompasses two other organizations that he founded: the Order of Poor Clares and the Tertiaries (founded 1221), lay brothers who were affiliated to the Franciscans but usually lived in the world. The Franciscans were active in Italy from the early 13th century, but they spread rapidly and eventually became a worldwide movement; they were wealthy and influential patrons of art and architecture. . . . The first officially approved Rule of 1221 best expressed the spirit of Francis’s mission. Of primary importance was the obedience he pledged to the papacy; the other brethren were to obey St Francis and his successors. Equally important was the vow to live in obedience, chastity and poverty.

Louise M. Bourdua

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Ghiberti, Lorenzo

Lorenzo (di Cione) Ghiberti

(b Florence, 1378; d Florence, 1 Dec 1455).

Bronze-caster, sculptor, goldsmith, draughtsman, architect and writer. He was the most celebrated bronze-caster and goldsmith in early 15th-century Florence, and his many-sided activity makes him the first great representative of the universal artist of the Renaissance. His richly decorative and elegant art, which reached its most brilliant expression in the Gates of Paradise (Florence, Baptistery), did not break dramatically with the tradition of Late Gothic, yet Ghiberti was undoubtedly one of the great creative personalities of early Renaissance art; no contemporary artist had so deep an influence on the art and sculpture of later times. His art, in which idealism and realism are fused, reflects the discovery of Classical art as truly as the realism of Donatello, and to label Ghiberti a traditionalist is to define the Renaissance art of the early 15th century one-sidedly in terms of increased realism. His competition relief of the Sacrifice of Isaac (1401; Florence, Bargello) determined the development of low relief not only in the 15th century but through the stylistic periods of Mannerism and Baroque, and up until the work of Rodin in the 19th century. Ghiberti’s writings, I commentarii, which include his autobiography, established him as the first modern historian of the fine arts, and bear witness to his ideal of humanistic education and culture. He was wealthier than most of his contemporary artists, and he owned considerable land and securities.

Manfred Wundram

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Giovanni Agostino da Lodi

(fl c. 1467–1524/5).

Italian painter and draughtsman. The identification of a particular hand has resulted in the removal of a group of paintings from those formerly attributed to Boccaccio Boccaccino of Cremona (whence the name ‘Pseudo-Boccaccino’). This resulted from the discovery of the signature of Giovanni Agostino da Lodi on a small panel painting of SS Peter and John (c. 1495; Milan, Brera) and was confirmed by another on a drawing, Allegory of Prudence (sold New York, Sotheby’s, 16 Jan 1986, lot 36). These works suggest that he was an intermediary between the perspective art of Lombardy during the last decade of the 15th century and the Venetian style of Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione and the other painters of their circle.

Marco Tanzi

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Gozzoli, Benozzo

(b Florence, c. 1420–22; d Pistoia, 4 Oct 1497).

Italian painter. He was one of the most prolific fresco painters of his generation. Active principally in Tuscany, but also in Umbria and Rome, he had a facility for satisfying current tastes that secured him a steady stream of commissions throughout his career.

Ailsa Turner

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Wooden panel with a painting, usually in tempera, of a holy person or one of the traditional images of Orthodox Christianity, the religion of the Byzantine empire practised today mainly in Greece and Russia. The word also has a range of related but disparate meanings, from the abstract and philosophical to the purely literal. For example, it is still used in modern Greek to mean an image or picture in the ordinary sense. In antiquity, Platonists and Neo-Platonists held that the material, earthly world reflects, or is the image of, the higher and divine cosmos; the Old Testament provides the theme of man as the icon of God in the temple of the world; and St Paul declared that ‘Christ is the icon of God’ (2 Corinthians 4:4). Thus the idea of the icon is associated with cosmology and the theology of the Incarnation. In the Early Christian period, disputes over such questions as whether or not God can be known or depicted or the invisible can be seen were part of an intense debate surrounding the acceptability, meaning and function of images of Christ. . . . The theory and belief system of icons was developed by theologians between the 4th and the 9th centuries, though only a few icons survive from then and up to the 12th century. Once established, however, the doctrinal principles never changed, and the study of icons is as much a matter of theology as of art. Subject-matter, form and composition did not deviate from the established dogma on which they depended; indeed, icons have been called theology in colour (Trubetskoy).

Richard Temple

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Term first used in the 15th century to refer to the complex new narrative and allegorical subjects that were then enlarging the repertory of painters. While remaining in use, its meaning became less clearly defined and more generalized in the 16th century. It appeared prominently for the first time in Books II and III of Leon Battista Alberti’s pioneering treatise on painting, De pictura (written 1435), where the author referred to historia as the most ambitious and most difficult category of works a painter can attempt.

Patricia Emison

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Leonardo da Vinci

(b Anchiano, nr Vinci, 15 April 1452; d Amboise, nr Tours, 2 May 1519).

Italian painter, sculptor, architect, designer, theorist, engineer and scientist. He was the founding father of what is called the High Renaissance style and exercised an enormous influence on contemporary and later artists. His writings on art helped establish the ideals of representation and expression that were to dominate European academies for the next 400 years. The standards he set in figure draughtsmanship, handling of space, depiction of light and shade, representation of landscape, evocation of character and techniques of narrative radically transformed the range of art. A number of his inventions in architecture and in various fields of decoration entered the general currency of 16th-century design. Although he brought relatively few works to completion, and even fewer have survived, Leonardo was responsible for some of the most influential images in the history of art.

Martin Kemp

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Lippi, Filippino

(b Prato, c. 1457; d Florence, 18 April 1504).

Son of Filippo Lippi. He was a painter of altarpieces, cassone panels and frescoes and also an exceptional draughtsman. His success lay in his ability to absorb, without slavishly following, the most popular trends in contemporary painting. He worked in Florence and Rome at a time when patrons were beginning to intermingle personal, religious, social and political ideals in their ambitions for palaces and chapels: with the support of wealthy and erudite patrons, such as Lorenzo de’ Medici (‘il Magnifico’) and Filippo Strozzi, he won important civic and private commissions. Lippi’s most distinguished achievement was the decoration of the Strozzi Chapel in S Maria Novella, Florence.

Marilyn Bradshaw

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Lippi, Filippo

Fra Filippo (di Tommaso) Lippi

(b Florence, c. 1406; d Spoleto, 9 Oct 1469).

He was one of the leading painters in Renaissance Florence in the generation following Masaccio. Influenced by him in his youth, Filippo developed a linear, expressive style, which anticipated the achievements of his pupil Botticelli. Lippi was among the earliest painters indebted to Donatello. His mature works are some of the first Italian paintings to be inspired by the realistic technique (and occasionally by the compositions) of Netherlandish pioneers such as Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck. Beginning work in the late 1430s, Lippi won several important commissions for large-scale altarpieces, and in his later years he produced two fresco cycles that (as Vasari noted) had a decisive impact on 16th-century cycles. He produced some of the earliest autonomous portrait paintings of the Renaissance, and his smaller-scale Virgin and Child compositions are among the most personal and expressive of that era. Throughout most of his career he was patronized by the powerful Medici family and allied clans.

Eliot W. Rowlands

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Lippo di Benivieni

T051294 (fl Florence, 1296–1320).

Italian painter. The earliest documentary reference to the artist records the apprenticeship of a certain Nerio di Binduccio to him in 1296, which suggests that Lippo was an established figure by this date. He is further recorded as a member of the Arte dei Medici e Speziali in Florence from 1312 to 1320. No documented works by him are known, however, and a reconstruction of his career was first suggested by Offner. The documented dates make Lippo a contemporary of Giotto, but the works attributed to him show a much stronger response to Sienese rather than Florentine painting, particularly that of the followers of Duccio.

Angelo Tartuferi

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Margarito d’Arezzo

(fl c. 1250–90).

Italian painter. The only documentary record of Margarito dates from 1262, when he was living in Arezzo. The nature and distribution of his surviving works suggest a thriving practice and a steady demand for his skills throughout Tuscany. Margarito’s fame outside Italy rests partly on Vasari’s account, partly on his easy identifiability among a host of anonymous contemporaries (most of his paintings are signed) and partly on the role imposed on him by 19th-century critics as an epitome of that barbarism into which Italian painting was deemed to have fallen by the late 13th century. Margarito seems to stand rather outside the main line of painting in Tuscany and has at times been dismissed as reactionary or provincial.

John Richards

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Master of the Osservanza

(fl ?c. 1440–80).

Italian painter. Longhi recognized that two triptychs, formerly attributed to Sassetta, were the work of another hand. The Virgin and Child with SS Jerome and Ambrose (Siena, Osservanza) and the Birth of the Virgin (Asciano, Mus. A. Sacra), formerly in the Collegiata, Asciano, both have a stylistic affinity with Sassetta’s works but, in terms of narrative expression, still belong to the Late Gothic tradition. Longhi observed that a further group of paintings was closely related to these works. This included the predella of the Osservanza Altarpiece (Siena, Pin. N., 216), a predella of St Bartholomew (Siena, Pin. N.), scenes of the Passion (Rome, Pin. Vaticana; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.; Cambridge, MA, Fogg) and the scenes from the Life of St Anthony Abbot (dispersed; e.g. panels in Washington, DC, N.G.A.; New York, Met., see fig.; Wiesbaden, Mus. Wiesbaden) previously also attributed to Sassetta.

Cecilia Alessi

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Narrative art

Term used to describe art that provides a visual representation of some kind of story, sometimes based on literary work. It is found throughout the world, and it appears not only as an art form in its own right in both two and three dimensions but also as decoration on a variety of objects. Narration, the relating of an event as it unfolds over time, is in principle a difficult task for the visual arts, since a work of art usually lacks an obvious beginning, middle and end, essential features of any story. Nevertheless, since ancient times many works of art have had as their subjects figures or tales from mythology, legend, history, or sacred texts. The artists overcame the inherent limitations of visual narrative by representing stories that the viewer might be expected to know and by providing key scenes to trigger memory.

In the period before 1500, narrative art was characterized by complex forms of relating historical events. Influenced by the medieval visual tradition, Renaissance narrative art developed a very sophisticated iconographic vocabulary based on biblical stories. Even illiterate Christians understood the stories the artists’ visual symbols represented.

Dominique Collon, Randy R. Becker

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Term that has been used with many different meanings. It is predominantly applied to painting, and in its broadest sense it describes any art depicting actual, rather than religious and imaginary, subject-matter. It implies a style in which the artist tries to observe and then faithfully record the subject before him without deliberate idealization or stylization.

Gerald Needham

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Term used to refer specifically to the rivalry of the arts of painting and sculpture. In 1817 in Manzi’s edition of Leonardo da Vinci’s Trattato della pittura the word appeared as the title to Leonardo’s witty defence of painting against the arts of poetry, music and sculpture, although it had not had this association before. Polemical comparisons of the arts are widely documented in 16th-century sources, yet a comprehensive work on the subject has never been attempted.

Claire Farago

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Term used in two main senses with respect to art: generally, for any systematic technique that renders the illusion of recession behind a two-dimensional surface (including receding lines, gradients of colour, tone and texture, degrees of clarity etc); but also more specifically, for the geometrical technique of linear perspective, the modern form of which was invented in the early Renaissance. . . . At its simplest, linear perspective relies on the way in which sets of inclined lines tend to be read as signalling some degree of space behind the surface on which they are drawn.

Janis Callen Bell

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Type of object with several panels, usually an altarpiece, although it may also fulfil other functions. The polyptych normally consists of a central panel with an even number of side-panels, which are sometimes hinged to fold. Although in principle every object with two panels or more may be called a polyptych, the word is normally used as a general term for anything larger than a triptych. As with diptychs and triptychs, the size and material can vary.

Victor M. Schmidt

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Term used for a horizontal band, cut from a single plank, below the main panels of an altarpiece. The appearance of the predella can be seen as part of the development of the altarpiece from a single panel to a large, multi-storey Polyptych. The small figures or scenes painted on the predella formed part of the integrated programme of the altarpiece, providing a visual commentary on the major images above and at the same time raising the main panels, and thus improving their visibility.

Ronald Baxter

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Sellaio, Jacopo del

[Jacopo di Arcangelo di Jacopo]

(b Florence, c. 1441; d Florence, 1493).

Italian painter. He is first mentioned in his father’s catasto (land registry declaration) of 1446 as a child of five. By 1460 he had joined the Compagnia di S Luca in Florence, and in October 1473 he appears in their records sharing a studio with Filippo di Giuliano (fl 1473–91). . . . Sellaio’s paintings show a brittle, linear technique and a light, pastel palette, clearly indebted to Botticelli. Vasari describes both Sellaio and Botticelli as fellow pupils of Fra Filippo Lippi.

Eliot W. Rowlands


Term applied to Tuscan 15th- and early 16th-century painted wall panels. Originally the term denoted panels that were set into the wall panelling at head or shoulder height above the backrest of a piece of furniture. It was later extended to include panel paintings set into the wall and was an integral part of the wainscoting. With few exceptions, spalliere are characterized by their size and shape—larger than cassone panels and proportionally higher, but still two to three times as long as high. . . . These pictures were installed above a piece of furniture, such as one or more cassoni, a bed or a lettuccio (a high-backed bench with a chest below the seat that doubled as a narrow bed). . . . The upward migration of pictures from chest to wall was necessitated by the increasing acceptance of the idea that the perspective within a composition ought to be constructed to work from a spectator’s viewpoint. Furthermore, whether cause or result, by the third quarter of the 15th century, paintings were much more highly esteemed in the domestic setting and quality was deemed more desirable, as attested by a higher proportion of panels by leading artists made specifically for domestic settings.

Ellen Callmannr

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Circular painting or relief carving. It developed as an independent form in Florence in the first half of the 15th century. However, earlier examples of the circular form do exist, for example in France with Jean Malouel’s Pietà (Paris, Louvre) which dates c. 1400. Many of the surviving Italian tondi depict themes that also occurred on the desco da parto, from which the tondo may have evolved. This was a circular or polygonal painted tray made to celebrate the birth of a child and presented to the mother with gifts of sweetmeats and fruit. Tondi paintings were produced in Florence primarily for domestic settings, with the Adoration of the Magi and the Virgin and Child being particularly popular subjects.

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Term used to define a picture consisting of three parts and denoting both the object itself and its compositional form. As an object the triptych may vary in size and material, but usually consists of a central panel flanked by wings (or shutters), which may be hinged; as a compositional form it is a tripartite structure, often with an emphasized central element. Although its imagery was, until the 19th century at least, predominantly religious, the object as such was not tied to a specific function.

Victor M. Schmidt

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