The Best of Both Worlds

Pisanello the Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona, September 7—December 9, 1996

an exhibition at the Louvre, Paris, May 6—August 5, 1996, and at

Pisanello: le peintre aux sept vertus

catalog of the exhibition, edited by Dominique Cordellier
Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 518 pp., $135.00 (paper)

In 1862 the historian of Veronese painting Cesare Bernasconi cast doubt on the idea that all the works of Pisanello that were once admired in Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, Pavia, Mantua, and Naples could have disappeared altogether. Some of them, surely, must be languishing under misattribution to some other painter. No other artist from the fourteenth of the first part of the fifteenth century, with the possible exception of Giotto, had been so praised by his eminent contemporaries. Something more must have survived.

And Bernasconi was quite right. A couple of years before, the Portrait of an Este Princess now in the Louvre had appeared in a Paris sale as a Piero della Francesca. The Vision of St. Eustace now in the National Gallery in London spent much of the nineteenth century under attribution to either Dürer or Jean Fouquet. But most spectacularly of all, a large and representative collection of Pisanello’s drawings had been purchased by the Louvre in 1856 as being by Leonardo da Vinci.

This was the so-called Codex Vallardi, named after the collector and dealer Giuseppe Vallardi, who had acquired it in 1829 from “a noble family living near Piacenza and related to the Archinto family of Milan.” Vallardi had published his own descriptive catalog of the “codex” (which was actually more of an album than a codex, and had been assembled in the sixteenth century) a year before selling it off for a hefty-sounding 35,000 francs. There were 318 drawings, of which one turned out to be a Holbein, a few more to be indeed by Leonardo and his followers. The bulk of the volume however is now thought to be by Pisanello and his workshop.

So what sort of a mistake was it that the Louvre made? It is hard to imagine what the mid-nineteenth-century Leonardo oeuvre looked like, as a whole, if it contained such diverse objects as a Flemish Medusa from around 1600 and these drawings from the first half of the fifteenth century. One has to remember that there is very little overlap between, for instance, the oeuvre of Leonardo as conceived by Carlo Amoretti in 1804, which has more than sixty paintings, and the recent “complete catalog” by Pietro C. Marani (1989), which lists twenty-five items, more than a third of which bear later nineteenth- or twentieth-century attributions. And then there is the question of what Leonardo’s drawings would have looked like, if known through the medium of engravings.

Set this beside the paucity of works known in the 1850s to be by Pisanello: the portrait medals he designed; the two important frescoes in Verona, the Annunciation in St. Fermo and the St. George in St. Anastasia. What else? Moldering away in the collection of a certain Marchese Gian Battista Costabili in Ferrara, among what had once been a superb collection of largely Ferrarese paintings, now mostly in a shocking condition, there was Pisanello’s portrait of Lionello d’Este (now in Bergamo, Accademia Carrera …

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