The Infant St. John presented to Zacharias

WAG 2753


William Roscoe, the Liverpool collector bought this fragment and another fragment 'Salome’ also in the Walker Art Gallery collection. They are two fragments of the same fresco series bought together from the sale of William Young Ottley in 1811 and probably paid about £10 for both. Roscoe always believed his fragments to be by the great 13th century painter Giotto (about 1266-1337) 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: 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. This is one of the artworks presented by the Liverpool Royal Institution. Liverpool’s economic development grew directly from Britain’s involvement with transatlantic slavery: the kidnapping, enslavement and forced migration of people from West Africa to the Americas and many to the Caribbean. Many members of the Royal Institution made their fortunes directly through the trade or indirectly through the wider economy. This wealth was largely how they were able to bring rare art and treasures, such as this, to the city.