Florentine workshops between the 14th and the 15th centuries
The picture gallery’s first hall, on the upper floor, has gathered interesting works from the Florentine workshops that were in great favor between the 14th and 15th centuries, with a display of works by masters of a certain importance: Agnolo Gaddi, Niccolò di Lorenzo, Mariotto di Nardo and Lorenzo di Bicci. Lorenzo di Bicci, active in the second half of the 14th century, was the founder of a workshop that
continued to work with great technical skill and decorative knowledge throughout the entire 15th century, inherited first by his son Bicci and later by his grandson, Neri.
In the Museum of the Collegiate Church of Empoli, there are works representative of all the dynasty’s members, allowing us to observe the traditional organization of workshops and the work that was carried out in them: portable altars, acroteria, chests, puerpera’s trays, banners but also the coloring of statues.
Often the Florentine workshops – as in this case – were family businesses with notable advantages: in fact, the “sons of artists” were exempt from paying taxes – as is revealed by the Libro delle Matricole dei Medici Speziali, (a list of the members of the physicians and pharmacists’ guild)-and had the advantage not only of an early apprenticeship but also of an irreplaceable patrimony of designs, cartoons, models and, above all, a family training that guaranteed a stable quality of production that responded to the clients’ taste, clients who often were handed down from father to son. By the founder, Lorenzo di Bicci, we have in the museum two paintings made for the Chapel of Sant’Elena in the Church of Santo Stefano degli Agostiniani, the Virgin giving her Girdle to Saint Thomas and the Crucifixion.
The beautiful triptych on the main altar of the Collegiate Church representing the Madonna and Saints, already in the museum, was probably made in collaboration with Bicci following the tradition of handing down the workshop from father to son. His son Bicci di Lorenzo is represented by a triptych commissioned by Simone di Guiduccio from Spicchio in 1423 for his chapel dedicated to Saint Leonard in the Collegiate Church, of which the central part, depicting the Madonna with Child and the Donor, and one of the sides, the Saints John the Evangelist and Leonard, survive.
In this work, Bicci, who was a very good successor in the paternal workshop with a traditional and rather monotonous pictorial production, shows an openness to the innovations that were stirring Florence in the 1430’s, among Gentile da Fabriano, Masolino and Masaccio.
There is an interesting polychrome wooden sculpture, displayed in the same room, depicting the Magdalene, a work dated 1455 and, as is read in the inscription, made for Monna Nanna di Ser Michele Tocci da Vinci, who had it transferred from the Church of Santa Croce in Vinci, to the Chapel of Santa Lucia in the Collegiate Church of Empoli. On the basis of a document, dated 30October 1455, in the Ricordanze by Neri Bicci, the son of Bicci (ed. Bruno Santi, 1976, no. 77, pp. 39-40, p. 192), the sculpture, («a lifesize Saint Mary Magdalene with a base on which she is placed»), has been identified as the one delivered by the abbot of San Felice in Piazza and probably carved by Fra Romualdo da Candeli, a still unknown personality but whose work with Neri di Bicci, who carried out the coloring of wooden statues, is documented.
The favor demonstrated to the traditional workshops by Empoli clients must not make one think of a cultural gap in the countryside with respect to the city, because, even in Florence, these workshops were in very high demand by noble families and public clients. As a proof of this, in Empoli itself, next to the traditionalist artists, forward-looking artists worked who left extremely significant works, such as Gherardo Starnina, back from Spain. Some of his frescos, detached, are in the museum and some fragments are in the Church of Santo Stefano degli Agostiniani where Masolino himself worked.
Rosanna Caterina Proto Pisani
in, Museo della Collegiata di Sant’Andrea a Empoli. Guida alla visita del museo e alla scoperta del territorio, a cura di Rosanna Caterina Proto Pisani. Polistampa 2006