Antonio Pisanello was born in Verona, 1395 & would go on to work in Venice, Ferrara & Rome & other places (yut not Florence) as an instrumental shaping force of the early Renaissance. He is famous for his intricate medal-work & his incredibly detailed animal studies – he has painted birds as only the Japanese would have. As the fleshier Renaissance painter, as he picked up the pick-axe of Altichiero, he dug a bit deeper, observed objects more closely, individulised people more subtly, render distances with better effect, & so on. Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, kinda thing.
Unfortunately, of his vast output only two frescoes, two sacred subjects & three portraits have survived. Most of these paintings bear witness to Pisanello’s interest in the courtier’s life. the fresco at Saint Anastasia in his hometown of Verona is a classic case in point, a knightly pageant to which he added a shed-load of gold, much of which has now flaked off. His portraits are heavyweight possessions – the Leonello of the Morellu Collection at Bergama, the ‘Este Princess’ in the Louvre & the ‘Lady’ in the Clarence Mackay.
There is a naive wonder to Pisanello’s work, rather like a modern child prodigy with a paintbrush. Despite drawing as well as Van Eyck, & painting almost as well, why much of Pisanello’s work was lost is a quasi-mystery. The Florence School & his lack of a connection to it may be to blame. History is written by the victor after all. But we do have enough of his ouevre left to us – like the scattered sculptures of the Younger Polykleitos – to recognize the genius of Pisanello.
Four years ago, the above painting, the Madonna of the Quail (Italian: Madonna della Quaglia), dated to 1420, was housed in the Castelvecchio Museum of Verona. The painting depicts the Madonna with Child crowned by two flying angels, sitting inside a rose garden in typical late Gothic style. The painter put a great attention in the representation of vegetables and birds, including the quail in the foreground, which gives its name to the painting. The heavenly appearance of the scene is enhanced by the gilt background. The rendering of the Madonna and her clothes resemble those of the works by Gentile da Fabriano, whose workshop Pisanello was a member of at the time. The setting is also similar to the contemporary Madonna of the Rose Garden by Michelino da Besozzo or Stefano da Verona, also in the museum of Castelvecchio.
Then it got stolen! Then it got found again! A group 17 Old Master paintings from Verona’s Castelvecchio Museum stolen in November 2015 were recovered in Ukraine. The paintings, by such artists as Peter Paul Rubens, Andrea Mantegna, Giovanni Francesco Caroto, Hans de Jode, Jacopo Bellini & of course Pisanello, are estimated to be worth €16 million ($18.3 million). The robbery had been carried out by three masked men, who entered the museum as it was closing but before the alarm system had been activated. The security guard is suspected of assisting the robbers, providing his car as a getaway vehicle. In March 2016, authorities made 12 arrests in connection to the heist. Most of the suspects were from Moldova, and the paintings were recovered just one mile from the shared border, hidden in plastic bags.
Damian Beeson Bullen