THIS tightly drawn exhibition in the Sunley Room at the National Gallery focuses on painted visions of paradise in the light of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and particularly brings together two altarpieces that had hung side by side in S. Pier Maggiore, a church in Florence that was dissolved in 1784; a street now runs the length of the aisle.
The high-altarpiece of S. Pier Maggiore, The Coronation of the Virgin with Adoring Saints, was painted in the workshop of Jacopo di Cione around 1370/71, some fifty years after the death of Dante Alighieri. Jacopo had earlier completed a triptych when his artist brother fell ill (the St Matthew Triptych of 1368 is now in the Uffizi), and in 1369 he matriculated with the Arte dei Medici e Speziali.
This was one of the largest and most prestigious altars erected in Florence, and a hoist was required to lift it into place. Before it, each newly invested Archbishop of Florence was sworn into office in a strange ritual in which he symbolically married the Prioress of the Benedictine community, giving her a ring. In exchange, the Sisters gave their new prelatical visitor a mattress.
In the central panel, Christ crowns the Virgin, surrounded by local and national saints, each of them distinguishable by their attributes. In the front rank, St Peter kneels beside St Bartholomew and St Stephen. Jockeying for position in third rank is St Gregory the Great, while, somewhat unusually, the Three Kings appear behind him, probably reflecting contemporary interest; the celebrated Historia Trium Regum was produced in 1364 -75 by Johannes von Hildesheim.
A hundred years later, Francesco Botticini (1446-98) painted an altarpiece for one of the side chapels to hang above the tomb of a notable citizen, Matteo Palmieri, who had died in April 1475 at the age of 70.
Palmieri was a wealthy chemist and apothecary, one of the speziali whose ceramic storage jars for unguents and costly tinctures are so redolent of Renaissance interiors. He had taken over the family firm at the Canto alle Rondini in 1428 at the age of 22, when his father died.
He gradually rose through the ranks of public service in undertaking his civic duty. In 1465, when he went as ambassador to the court of Naples, Alfonso V quipped that if the Florentine apothecaries were all like him, what were their doctors like, knowing that the Medici were the ruling family in the city.
We first meet Marco Palmieri in a marble bust of him by Antonio Rossellino (1468) which had once been put in a niche above his shop doorway. Opposite this exceptional loan from the Bargello Museum, we can trace the city streets in a bird’s-eye view of the city painted in the workshop of Francesco di Lorenzo Rosselli.
But Palmieri was not only a chemist and a politician, who wrote an influential book on civic life between 1431 and 1439, but a linguist and a humanist with a ready interest in theology, who wrote of an extraordinary visionary journey after a trip to the caves at Cumae — where it is said that one of the ancient sibyls dwelt — led by Alfonso V personally.
Conscious of Dante, Palmieri wrote up his own vision of being led through the afterlife. The Laurentian Library in Florence has loaned its chained copy of La Città di Vita. It is a beautifully illuminated work of 1473 (Plut. xl, 53). In it we see Palmieri’s conception of hell with 18 levels that he called “mansions”, while the mount of virtues is subdivided into three orders beneath the Blessed Trinity.
Quite what Palmieri believed of heaven and hell can be gleaned from the altarpiece that he designed and that Botticini painted for him posthumously. Dr Jennifer Sliwka has been able to show that the picture is far from conventional.
In it, the hierarchies of angels are mixed with those of the saints in the three encircling levels. The Cumaean figure appears in the outer circle. She and the recently deceased Pope Paul II (Pietro Barbo, 1417-71) in the second circle are the only two figures shown without haloes of golden rays.
Beneath the great cupola of heaven, the apostles gather around the Virgin’s empty tomb; in deference to the emblem of the city of Florence, the empty sarcophagus is filled with lilies, whereas The Golden Legend wrote of roses.
Beyond is a carefully delineated landscape of Florence, with Palmieri’s own estate on the slopes of Fiesole prominent. It features, too, in another splendid painting by Botticini, of The Virgin adoring the Christ Child (Banco Popolare, Bergamo), in which the kneeling Virgin obscures the Duomo behind her, and thereby enfolds within herself the Santa Maria del Fiore of the cathedral’s dedication.
Palmieri and his wife Niccolosa de’ Serragli (as a widow, she joined the Benedictine community at S. Pier Maggiore) kneel either side of the bewildered apostles. The damage to the deceased donor’s face, which was scratched out, may have been due to claims that he espoused the heretical belief, following the ancient author Origen (AD 184/85-253/54), that humans were angels who had been given souls to determine, under free will, their own path to heaven or to hell. But there is no evidence that Palmieri’s body was exhumed and later burnt. May he rest in peace.
The exhibition also highlights the significant project undertaken with the University of Cambridge to “recreate” a 3D virtual image of the now destroyed church from the surviving fragments found in surrounding houses and streets. We can see exactly what it looked like in its Gothic heyday in the model carried by St Peter to present to the Virgin in the Di Cione altarpiece.
The reforming “Jansenist” bishops appointed by Archduke Peter Leopold of Habsburg Lorraine (1765-90), who sought, first in Prato and Pistoia, to create a “Tuscan” church independent of Rome, used the instability of the structure of the church as an excuse to suppress the Benedictine house and demolish the church itself in 1784.
Both the Di Cione altarpiece, which had long been relegated to the south transept next to the Palmieri altar, and Botticini’s work were sold off. Both, independently, have come to Trafalgar Square, and offer glimpses of heaven, alongside panels from Fra. Angelico’s 1423/24 high altarpiece for his Dominican community at Fiesole.
“Visions of Paradise: Botticini’s Palmieri Altarpiece” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 28 March. Phone 020 7747 2885.