Giorgio SCHIAVONE | Saint Jerome [San Gerolamo] and Saint Alexis [San Alessio]

Dalmatia 1416 /1456 – Sebenico 1504

Saint Jerome [San Gerolamo] and Saint Alexis [San Alessio] c.1458-60
tempera on two wood panels Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Legacy of Guglielmo Lochis 1866

These two paintings, long and narrow and with a considered balance between the architectural elements, the figures and the light, evoke Andrea Mantegna’s unassailable definition of space and the role of the subject.[1] The design is a powerful and compact structure in the style of Antiquity, reminiscent of a triumphal arch with its broad pillars, barrel vault and carved mouldings—set against the limpid glow of the landscape that extends into the distance. But these are not works by Mantegna, though they were attributed to him by the collector Guglielmo Lochis. They are by Giorgio Schiavone, whose name was put forward with considerable insight by Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle in 1871, and who suggested a date of the 1450s.[2]

Overall the structure of the arches and their opening onto an atmospheric landscape clearly refers to Mantegna’s Saint Euphemia 1454.[3] The latter is more modern in the foreshortened view from below, but Schiavone, whose abilities were more modest, was quick to imitate both the innovative posture of the figure, with the feet moving towards the edge of the step, and minor details such as the moulding at the base of the pillars. We know that Schiavone had a particular interest in the construction of the work from his preparatory drawing, clearly visible in infrared reflectography, where the network of caliper measurements, converging lines and meticulous squaring fill the architectural sections in an orderly web. With the panels side by side—and without necessarily assuming a central or third element—we are able to observe the convergence of the perspectives and the dynamic interplay of chiaroscuro.

The two haloed saints, identified with the inscriptions ‘S IERONIMVS’ and ‘S ALESIVS’, occupy almost the entire space within the arches, but look as if they are about to step out and continue their walk. Details are depicted with precision, particularly the rosaries and the crucifixes with bleeding wounds. Saint Jerome, revered for his Latin translation of the Bible, is shown with a book bound in red leather, a bag of quills hanging from his belt, an ampulla of ink and a case for folding spectacles. Disturbing veins stand out on the old man’s temple. Saint Alexis, wearing a cross around his neck, holds a crucifix and a pikestaff. He is the patron saint of beggars, usually depicted dressed in rags. In short, each element seems to have been painted with great care, right up to the festoons with fruit and ribbons. The chipped stone and the illusionist touch of a large fly alighting on the step below Saint Jerome remind us that everything is transitory.

The original destination of the paintings is not known, but a distinguishing feature of each is the well-preserved verso varnished in glossy black with a dark red frame. The panels are quite thin and have been stiffened with a kind of square mount with moulded contours, making us think of the doors of a particularly precious cabinet or the shutters for a small organ.

Giovanni Valagussa

[1] Andrea Mantegna (1430/1431–1506).

[2] Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle, A history of painting in North Italy, London: J. Murray, 1871, 2 vols. The dating was accepted recently as ‘between the end of the sixth decade of the century and the beginning of the seventh’, see Andrea Nante, in Sergio Marinelli and Paola Marini (eds), Mantegna e le arti da Verona 1400–1500,  Venice: Rustica, 2006, pp. 214–15. See also Giovanni Valagussa, I grandi veneti: Da Pisanello a Tiziano, da Tintoretto a Tiepolo. Capolavori dall’Accademia Carrara di Bergamo, Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2010, pp. 40–41.

[3] Museo e Gallerie Nazionali di Capodimonte, Naples.