About the artwork
Artist: Spinello Aretino(1350/52 - about 1410)
Fresco: 39.5 x 31 cm; 51.5 x 54 cm
Accession numbers: WAG 2752 & WAG 2753
‘7 February 1772…. Mr Patch for four fragments of the fresco painted by Giotto in the church of the Carmini lately burnt ... ...48 scudi,’
This description in one of the notebooks of Lancashire collector and connoisseur Charles Towneley tells of some pieces of fresco he had bought in Florence from the dealer, collector and scholar Thomas Patch. This was an unusual purchase for Towneley as he is nowadays best remembered for his collection of antique Roman statues, now in the British Museum. Various attributions to Giotto, Lorenzetti and others continued for these fragments throughout the 19th century.
William Roscoe, the Liverpool collector who owned so many of the pictures in this room, bought these two fragments of the same fresco series from the sale of William Young Ottley in 1811 and probably paid about £10 for both. It is not clear if these two pieces had belonged to Towneley - there are now in total more than ten pieces of the fresco in various museums, churches and one in private hands. Roscoe always believed his fragments to be by the great 13th century painter Giotto, who lived from 1266/67 to 1337.
The main reason why the pictures were attributed to Giotto was because they had been listed as among the several frescoes made by Giotto by the great 16th century biographer of Florentine artists - Giorgio Vasari. In his Life of Giotto, Vasari identified what he thought was Giotto’s special importance:
“In my opinion painters owe to Giotto … exactly the same debt they owe to nature, which constantly serves them as a model and whose finest and most beautiful aspects they are always striving to imitate and reproduce. For after the many years during which the methods and outlines of good painting had been buried under the ruins caused by war it was Giotto alone who, by God's favour, rescued and restored the art, even though he was born among incompetent artists. It was indeed, a great miracle that in so gross and incompetent an age Giotto could be inspired to such good purpose that by his work he completely restored the art of design, of which his contemporaries knew little or nothing.”
Giotto was seen by Vasari as having more or less single-handedly revived painting as a superior Art and rescued it from the low point to which it had sunk during the Middle Ages. One can see, therefore, that there is a sense in which Towneley, in buying fresco fragments by Giotto, was buying something that represented a revived continuity of the Roman Art that he was so interested in.
A contemporary of Roscoe, the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon went even further in suggesting Giotto’s connection with Antiquity. He compared these fragments to the great series of carved reliefs that Lord Elgin had recently brought to London from the Parthenon in Athens and suggested that it was almost as if Giotto had been schooled by descendants of those ancient Greek sculptors who had worked with Phideas at Athens.
These fragments are in fact by Spinello Aretino (active 1373 - died 1410/11) an artist from Arezzo, who worked extensively in Florence and was, like several other Tuscan painters, a follower of Giotto’s style. Spinello was commissioned sometime around 1380, by the Manetti family, to decorate their family chapel at the church of St. Maria del Carmine with scenes from the life of St John the Baptist. Spinello also painted a series of frescoes that still survives in the sacristy of the same church. In January 1771 the Carmine was very badly damaged by fire. Thomas Patch, an enterprising scholar, drew copies of the damaged frescoes and published a series of engravings of them. These remain the only visual records of what the whole frescoes looked like and are reproduced on the attached sheet. Patch then ‘sawed off’ various fragments which he sold or gave away.
The fragments are of great significance in that their rescue and recording marks almost the very beginning of the new taste in Europe for so-called Italian ‘Primitive’ art of the 14th century.
The fragments show the infant St John the Baptist being held by a young woman, behind whom is John’s mother, the aged St Elizabeth. John is being presented to his father Zachary in order to be named. The other fragment shows Salome, dancing at a feast before her father, Herod.
Fresco is water-based paint brushed directly onto wet plaster on a wall. Plaster will last well provided it does not get damp or get burnt - both of which happened to Spinello’s frescoes.