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 Ettlinger, this cannot be the case; the drawing on the panel must be identical with the drawing on the wall, and the drawing on the wall is a documented work by Piero Pollajuolo. Not so, one might reply; it is far from sure that the two drawings are one and the same, and even if they were, the document would prove only that the Mercanzia believed the cartoon to be by Piero Pollajuolo, not that he really drew it out with his own hand. The difficulties do not end here, for one of the six paintings, the Prudence, differs from the other five; the head is differently shaped, the drapery is bolder, and the detail is more inventive and meticulous. To judge therefore from the visual evidence, one figure, the Charity, was botched up by Piero after a cartoon probably by Antonio Pollajuolo, while another, the Prudence, was not only drawn out by Antonio but in large part painted by him as well. But of all this Ettlinger, strapped to his document, vouchsafes no word.

On the north side of the room in the Uffizi is an altarpiece. It comes from the Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal at San Miniato al Monte, and it should go back there as soon as possible since it makes no iconographical or visual sense where it is now. It shows three Saints on a balcony backed by a bronze and marble balustrade, through which we look out on to a landscape represented as though seen from a helicopter. One of the Saints, James the Greater, turns to the right, toward the Cardinal’s tomb, and on the frame (which was designed by Giuliano da Majano) is an inscription addressed to the dead Cardinal. How far the painting is by Piero and how far it is by Antonio, whether the beautiful head of St. James was painted by the same hand as the puddingy head of St. Eustace, whether the jeweled dalmatic of St. Vincent is by either of the brothers or by some goldsmith apprentice in Antonio Pollajuolo’s shop—all these questions are irrelevant beside the point which Ettlinger desist from making, that the idea of the altarpiece as a window opened in a wall through which we look at something that is recognizably related to a world we know was a major innovation in quattrocento painting.


Nine years later the experiment continued in an altarpiece for the SS. Annunziata in Florence. Wrested from its setting over the altar of the Pucci Chapel, the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian looks as uneasy in the National Gallery in London as the earlier altarpiece does in the Uffizi, but at altar height the six archers set against a vast expanse of landscape must have made an overwhelming effect. Ettlinger, rightly, relates the composition to Alberti, but does a good deal less than justice to its dramatic force. The last of the great Pollajuolo altarpieces—a Coronation of the Virgin painted eight years later, solely by Piero—stands like a colossal stained glass window against the Gozzoli-decorated choir of Sant’Agostino at San Gimignano. Ettlinger (who defends the Coronation against the “harsh words used by B. Berenson,” quoted in an Italian translation not in the English original) thinks that it is now in the Collegiata at San Gimignano: it was indeed there temporarily in the nineteenth century, but for the forty-five years in which I have known it, it has always been where it is now.

It is, incidentally, not only a mid-nineteenth-century source who affirms “without adducing any evidence” that it was commissioned for the church by Fra Domenico Strambi, but the law of commonsense, since Strambi was in charge of the church in 1483 and remained in charge of it until his death five years later. He was responsible both for the myopic frescoes by Gozzoli in the choir and for the altarpiece which stands in front of them.

A paramount interest of Antonio Pollajuolo’s was description, the accurate rendering of what he saw, and this led him, under Eyckian guidance, to introduce an oil component into his otherwise orthodox technique. When the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian was cleaned in London, the paint proved to have shrunk locally owing to contraction of the oil medium, leaving little white spots over part of the surface of the panel, and when the Hercules, Nessus and Deianira was subjected to a much more radical cleaning at Yale the same phenomenon could be observed. (Ettlinger wrongly describes the mixed medium of the London altarpiece as tempera.)

Again and again Antonio Pollajuolo startles us with his extraordinary descriptive powers. The wrinkled glove on the right hand of Galeazzo Maria Sforza in the Uffizi, the crystal stem of the mirror in the right hand of the Mercanzia Prudence, the discarded hat of St. James in the San Miniato altarpiece, the heavy, steel-tipped arrows in the quivers of the soldiers in the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian represent a method of looking different from that of any other fifteenth-century Florentine artist. Pollajuolo was fascinated by texture: of water—did he, one wonders, touch up the somnolent stream which Piero inserted in the back of the San Miniato altarpiece; of fabric—witness the raised gesso lilies prepared for gilding in the Sforza portrait; of hair, as in the raised strands in the marvelous profile portrait of a lady in Milan, for whose attribution to Antonio Pollajuolo Ettlinger tells us that “no compelling reasons…have been produced.” This was an interest Piero Pollajuolo did not share, and we have only to compare the stereotyped plant forms at the bottom of the Staggia Altarpiece and in the foreground of the Tobias and the Angel in Turin with the organic detail of the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian and the Apollo and Daphne in London to establish the difference between an artist of genius and a relatively dull executant.

This faculty of observation accounts for the two skills in which Antonio Pollajuolo was supreme, the depiction of landscape and the rendering of the human form. In his paintings the setting commonly comprises a foreground and a distance with the middle ground suppressed. Whether the lost Hercules paintings which he made for the Palazzo Medici about 1460 were planned in this way we cannot tell, but in the small Hercules and the Hydra in the Uffizi and the Apollo and Daphne in London the distant backgrounds are realized with unprecedented optical resource. Their effect must have been still more vivid before the greens of the distant trees and hedges oxidized into a uniform dull brown. When Leonardo complained of the generalized landscapes of Botticelli, these incomparably truthful, unfailingly particularized images may have been the standard he applied.


Antonio Pollajuolo, says Ettlinger, “was hardly the first to employ this panoramic landscape,” and may have had recourse to it “in order to make a programmatic point.” True, there were earlier panoramic landscapes, but they were of a different type, and Pollajuolo must have been spurred on to paint his landscapes not by a reading of Alberti, but by intuitive visual responses that make him the herald of Koninck and Claude.

Changes in taste are unaccountable, and we may never know exactly why it was that there broke over Florence in the 1450s a wave of interest in action, not the frozen action of Masaccio or the quiet action of the predella panels of Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi and Domenico Veneziano, but noisy, violent action in which the human body was depicted in states of tension and stress. Later, when Michelangelo brought the movement to its climax in the Battle of the Centaurs, he was goaded into doing so by Politian, and the stylistic revolution of the 1450s could also have been humanist-inspired; perhaps it originated in a wish to close the gap between the tumultuous images that Roman and Greek literature suggested to a reader’s mind and the prim figurative language of contemporary artists.

The first painter to respond to its demands seems to have been the author of a celebrated shield in Washington (was he Castagno? was he the young Antonio Pollajuolo?), where two scenes are synthesized: the boy David, captured in a moment of concentrated energy as he winds up before discharging the stone from his sling, and the eventual outcome of his action, the severed head of Goliath on the ground. But the artist who attacked the problems of this revolution in style most resolutely and with most resource was Pollajuolo. Resolutely because he studied the surface of the human body as no Italian artist had studied it before; anatomy as it affected movement held no terrors or secrets for him. With most resource because his mind housed an encyclopedia of visual images, figures from classical coins, figures from classical reliefs, figures from classical shards. He operated like a Cuisinart. Identifiable ingredients were inserted at the top, but when they emerged they were almost invariably unrecognizable. This proneness to assimilation makes him a hard artist to study. But the typological sources of his style are not in doubt, and it is surprising to find Ettlinger asserting that “red-figure vase painting was not studied by the masters of the Renaissance.” We know from literary sources that it was collected, and the proof that it was studied lies in Pollajuolo’s work, in the sadistic warriors in the drawing in the Fogg Museum silhouetted on a dark ground, and in the skinny figures in the Lanfredini frescoes prancing about before a neutral drop curtain.

Pollajuolo’s figures and figure groups could be expanded or reduced. They could be blown up to a colossal size (as they were in the lost paintings of the Labors of Hercules executed for the Palazzo Medici) or deflated to a tiny scale as they are in the little Hercules panels in the Uffizi. They could be transposed to any medium—to fresco, to bronze reliefs and statuettes (the statuettes survive, but the character of the reliefs can be deduced only from the imitations of them made by Francesco di Giorgio at Urbino), or to embroidery. But it was through engravings that they exercised much of their influence. They were known in Padua and elsewhere in northern Italy, and they created a positive furor in the backwater of fifteenth-century Siena.

The first decisive proof of the commotion they aroused there is found in an altarpiece of the Massacre of the Innocents painted by Matteo di Giovanni for a church in Naples in 1468, and the excitement continued at least until 1481 when the Massacre of the Innocents made for the pavement of Siena Cathedral was stuffed with Pollajuolesque motifs and was crowned by a frieze which seems to be directly copied from a model by Pollajuolo. Here the analogy with vase painting is present once again in the use of a black ground; and the strange polychromy, the dull yellow bodies of the slaughtered children and the tinting of the mouths, recalls accounts of the Lanfredini frescoes in the state in which they are described at the beginning of this century. A key work is Pollajuolo’s Battle of the Nudes. A great many attempts have been made to elucidate its subject. Ettlinger thinks that it means nothing at all, that it is a study in synthetic emotion of the kind that was produced in the seventeenth century by Lebrun, and was designed specifically for copying. In view of its detail—the carefully differentiated weapons, the ploughed field, the coarse corn at the back—this is surely most improbable.

The dust jacket and title page of Ettlinger’s book contain the words “Complete Edition.” The book is far from being that. Important works have been left out. One is the beautiful Virgin and Child by Piero Pollajuolo in the Hermitage, which is cut down to an oval and transferred to canvas. To judge from the architecture and the landscape, it must originally have been the center of a small altarpiece. Another is the engraving of the Battle of the Giants, which was admirably discussed in the catalogue of Early Italian Engravings issued in 1973 by the National Gallery of Art and which is central to any serious study of Pollajuolo. A third is the great profile portrait of a lady in Berlin, where we see Antonio Pollajuolo emerging from the shadow of Domenico Veneziano. Of this and of the other profile portraits we are told only that “their re-examination seems necessary.” But where should they be re-examined if not in a monograph on Pollajuolo? Among the paintings which Ettlinger rejects and which are not illustrated is the Bardini St. Michael. “At best a copy of uncertain date, if not a nineteenth-century pastiche,” says Ettlinger (but perhaps he has not seen this impressive painting since it was cleaned).

Another painting consigned to limbo is the Madonna formerly at Strasbourg. For Ettlinger “surviving photographs inspire little confidence in the genuineness of this panel,” but I can testify, from firsthand observation on more than one occasion before it was destroyed, that it was genuine and was by Piero Pollajuolo. Ettlinger has a tiresome trick of casting aspersions on works he has not troubled to investigate in depth. One of the victims is the beautiful shield with Milo of Croton in the Louvre (“the shield might be a modern forgery”), another is the terracotta bust of a Youth in the Bargello (“its appearance and several odd features must raise doubts about its authenticity”), and still another is the small bronze Judith at Detroit, not by Antonio Pollajuolo and not of first-rate quality—it seems to come from the lid of some receptacle and was probably made in the workshop of Verrocchio—but not dating “from the nineteenth century without being an intentional forgery.”

When Maude Cruttwell’s Antonio Pollaiuolo appeared in 1907, Bode, in a review in the Burlington Magazine, declared that “the circulation of such books, which are regarded by the public as the results of the latest scientific research, only impedes the progress of art history.” I wish that he not I were writing this review. Cruttwell’s is an odd book—it is capricious and dogmatic—but it was a worthier one simply because she understood the stature of the artist she was dealing with.

This Issue

March 8, 1979