A Revolutionary Artist

Antonio and Piero Pollaiuolo: Complete Edition with a Critical Catalogue

by Leopold D. Ettlinger
Phaidon, 183 162 illus pp., $75.00

Anton Pollaiuolo
Anton Pollaiuolo; drawing by David Levine

“With a new access of brutality, force, this time essentially forcible, was recovered. We are with Antonio Pollajuolo, as a painter one of the principal of the Florentine ‘fauves,’ dead set on the strains and stresses of anatomical working at rest and in movement and conflict.” The writer is that now largely forgotten figure Adrian Stokes, who in 1932 correctly apprehended what no academic art historian had up to then acknowledged, that Pollajuolo was not simply a great but a revolutionary artist as well.

He was a contemporary of Mantegna—the two painters may indeed have been born in the same year—but whereas Mantegna’s achievement has enlisted the attention of a succession of great scholars, Pollajuolo’s (if one excepts a few inspired pages of Berenson) has never received the class of criticism it deserves. To some extent this is a matter of scale; he left no Triumph of Caesar, no Camera degli sposi, no Eremitani frescoes. But the reason may also be that his work presents a particularly sticky problem in connoisseurship.

The head of the best-known goldsmith’s shop in Florence, Antonio had the liability of a younger brother, Piero, who practiced solely as a painter. The two brothers belonged to different guilds, and when pictures were commissioned from them they were, for formal reasons, contracted to Piero not Antonio, though Antonio must also have practiced as a painter from the start. People who believe salvation lies in clinging fast to documents—the German critic Bode did so, and so does Ettlinger—also believe that Piero, and Piero alone, was responsible for the works commissioned from him. If, on the other hand, you are the kind of person who admits that the evidence of the eye is sometimes less misleading than the written word, you arrive at the opposite result. But when you do so, you are guilty, says Ettlinger, of “arrogant disregard of documentary evidence.” Spurred on by his confident censure, I took his book with me the other day to Florence and read it alongside the works of art with which it deals. Unfair? Possibly it was. But it may be worth while to record some of the results.

In the Uffizi the Pollajuolos occupy a single room. Two of its walls are filled with six panels of Virtues. Tourists look at them today only because the seventh Virtue, Fortitude, was painted by Botticelli. The series was commissioned in 1470 from Piero Pollajuolo, on the strength of a “figure and image of Charity…painted or rather drawn on the wall of the meeting place.” Now it so happens that on the back of the Charity—the painting is shown on a hinge so that it can be seen—is a charcoal drawing for the figure, and if anything is stylistically certain, it is that this and the wretched painting of the same figure on the other side are by two different hands.

But stop, says…

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