Bartolomeo VIVARINI | Polyptych of the Madonna and Child, Saints Peter and Michael, the Trinity and angels (Scanzo polyptych) [Polittico con la Madonna col Bambino, i santi Pietro e Michele, la Trinità e angeli (polittico di Scanzo)]

Bartolomeo VIVARINI
Venice 1410 /1450 – Bergamo 1480/1520

Polyptych of the Madonna and Child, Saints Peter and Michael, the Trinity and angels (Scanzo polyptych) [Polittico con la Madonna col Bambino, i santi Pietro e Michele, la Trinità e angeli (polittico di Scanzo)] 1488
tempera and gold on four panels Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Bequest of Giacamo Carrara 1796

The existence of paintings by Bartolomeo Vivarini in the area around Bergamo is a very unusual phenomenon: a number of his works, generally quite complex polyptychs, are found in churches in towns scattered over the area surrounding the city. The presence of these works with their spectacular gold backgrounds suggests that the purchasers were true enthusiasts, natives of Bergamo who had migrated to Venice and were fascinated by this very traditional type of painting, so when they became wealthy they were able to send these masterpieces back to their home towns. As far as we know the paintings arrived in the period beginning in 1485 with the Madonna and Child enthroned in Almenno San Bartolomeo and ending in 1491 with the Saint Martin triptych in the parish church of Torre Boldone, now in the Accademia Carrara.

Vivarini’s remarkable polyptych, previously in the Scanzo parish church, is inscribed at the base of the central panel ‘Factum Venetiis per Barth/olomeum Vivarinum de Muriano / Pinxit. 1488’ [Made in Venice by Bartolomeo Vivarini of Murano/Painted 1488]; and we are certain of its Scanzo location thanks to mention of it in 1670.[1] It is possible to imagine Count Giacomo Carrara seeing it there and suggesting (as he sometimes did) that the old altar be replaced by a ‘modern’ work—in other words an eighteenth-century Venetian altarpiece—while he would take the old painting for his own collection. But by the time of the inventory drawn up in 1796, at the time of Carrara’s death, the memory of the Scanzo location and composition already appears to have been lost: the two panels with Saints Peter and Michael are listed, but there is no mention of the central panel with the Madonna, nor of the upper section with the Trinity.

The Madonna is shown seated as the Queen of Heaven, her Child nestled in her lap. She is flanked by Saints Peter and Michael, and above is the Trinity—God the Father, the Crucified Christ and a dove symbolising the Holy Spirit—with a pair of floating angels, with rounded checks, elaborately pierced haloes and carefully drawn wings. Saint Peter holds his traditional attributes, the keys to Paradise and a book representing his New Testament epistles. The Archangel Michael is shown in his dual role as defender of Heaven and arbiter of Judgement. He is an armoured warrior who vanquishes the devil, represented as part human, part winged minotaur with a dragon’s tail. The scales he holds are used to weigh human souls. Michael’s glorious coloured plumes repeat those of the angels above.

The critical history of these works reveals differences of opinion about the original composition of the whole group: several problems arise.[2] The central panel with the Madonna and Child has been trimmed on all sides; and if we compare it with well-known works by Vivarini we can conclude that it was positioned slightly higher than the other two panels to bring Mary’s head level with those of the saints. We must also imagine the panel with the Trinity being wider in order to complete the circle of the arch. Two fragments with small angels,[3] which some have attempted to link to this composition, would not have belonged to the polyptych but to another Vivarini altarpiece.

Giovanni Valagussa

[1] Donato Calvi, Delle chiese della Diocesi di Bergamo, 1670, manuscript, III, 255, Biblioteca civica Angelo Mai, Bergamo.

[2] See Rodolfo Pallucchini, I Vivarini, Venice: N. Pozza, 1961, pp. 129–30, notes 213–14; and Francesco Rossi, I pittori bergamaschi. Il Quattrocento, vol. 2, Bergamo: Edizioni Bolis, 1994, pp. 104, 127.

[3] Accademia Carrara, Bergamo.