GIOVANNI d'Alemagna | Saint Apollonia blinded [Santa Apollonia accecata]

GIOVANNI d'Alemagna
Germany? 1379 /1419 – Padua? 1450

Saint Apollonia blinded [Santa Apollonia accecata] c.1440-45
tempera on panel
54.5 (h) x 34.3 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Bequest of Antonietta Noli, widow of Carlo Marenzi 1901

From the time of their acquisition the two Bergamo paintings have been known as the martyrdom of Saint Apollonia and the martyrdom of Saint Lucy. But we now know that both panels, together with two others, in Washington and Bassano del Grappa, belonged to a reredos, a screen behind an altar, devoted to the life of Saint Apollonia. (Unfortunately no other components have come to light so far.)

Saint Apollonia of Alexandria was an early Christian martyr. She endured brutal torture before her death by burning in 249 AD. According to The golden legend Saint Apollonia was set upon by a local mob during an uprising against Christians at the beginning of the reign of the Roman emperor Decius (249–251). Like many other virgin saints she was attacked and her teeth were knocked out. Later, when she was threatened with being burnt alive if she did not recant her Christianity, she walked willingly into the fire after saying a prayer. The golden legend also speaks of ‘a number of other saintly persons…[who] had their eyes put out…and still others, who had been led before the idols, and, far from adoring them, had hurled invectives at them’.[1] Giovanni d’Alemagna uses this as the basis for the imagery of the four known panels.

All four depictions of episodes from the life of Saint Apollonia are characterised by fine, almost miniaturist painting, with every minute detail distinguishable in the crowded scenes, which include a large number of figures for the most part not strictly necessary to the storytelling. Giovanni seems to have relished the opportunity to dress his characters in a variety of elegant and colourful clothes, including Oriental styles. In Saint Apollonia blinded the artist renders a group of women behind the saint wearing distinctive white wimples with prominent chinbands. These headdresses were common in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries—here they are used as a device to indicate that the actions taking place are in the past.Each event is located in a wonderful setting with simultaneous Classical, Venetian and Levantine echoes, the whole unified by the perspective framework, carefully planned and incised in the gesso base. Each panel is characterised by a prominent marble statue in the centre and ornate architecture surrounding the central figure of the saint and the angry mob.

Nothing is known about the provenance of these two paintings before their arrival at the Accademia Carrara and suggestions of a Venetian or Paduan commission can be no more than hypotheses. In any event, today the panels appear to be in a good state of preservation, though each reveals the same curious alteration (old but not original) where a small additional element completes the tip of the pointed arch. The other panels in the same series differ: this construction detail does not occur in the Bassano panel, but is seen again in the Washington panel.[2]

The complex critical history of these paintings begins with the name of Jacopo Bellini: in the Noli–Marenzi endowment documentation they are listed as the work of a mid fifteenth-century Venetian artist; subsequent suggested attributions revolve around Bellini and the Venetian circle until, in 1926, Roberto Longhi put forward the name of Antonio Vivarini for these two panels.[3] In 1973 came the publication by Federico Zeri of the only painting signed independently by Giovanni d’Alemagna, a depiction of Saint Jerome.[4] This was the first real opportunity to distinguish Giovanni’s hand, apart from the works he made in collaboration with his better documented brother-in-law, Antonio Vivarini. Since then there seems to have been no doubt that the two works now in Bergamo, with the other two in the series, are to be recognised as masterpieces by Giovanni d’Alemagna, whose origins were clearly Central European and who therefore must have brought to Vivarini’s workshop the markedly Gothic elements that dominate these scenes.

Giovanni Valagussa

[1]The golden legend of Jacobus de Voragine, Granger Ryan and Helmut Ripperger (trans.), New York: Arno Press 1969, p. 164.

[2]Saint Apollonia destroys a pagan idol c.1442/1445, tempera on panel, 59.4 x 34.7 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Samuel H. Kress Collection; Saint Apollonia being dragged by a horse c.1447, tempera on panel, 52.0 x 33.0 cm, Museo Civico, Bassano del Grappa.

[3]Antonio Vivarini (c.1418–c.1480). Longhi added Washington’s work to the series, with other similar paintings in a different cycle showing episodes from the lives of Saint Monica and Saint Augustine: Roberto Longhi, ‘Lettera pittorica a Giuseppe Fiocco su l’arte del Mantegna’, in Vita artistica, Studi d’arte, I, 1926.

[4]Saint Jerome 1444, tempera on panel, 97.4 x 42.3 cm, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore: see Federico Zeri and Elizabeth E. Gardner, Italian paintings: A catalogue of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, vol. 2 Venetian School, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1973, p. 90; and Federico Zeri, Italian paintings in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore: Walters Art Gallery, 1976, cat. 158, pp. 234–35.