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Picture Books of the Past: Carlo Dolci

Enjoy this series of segments highlighting Picture Books of the Past: Reading Old Master Paintings, a loan exhibition of 60+ works from the M&G collection. The exhibit has traveled to The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D. C. and the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida.

Take a closer look at M&G’s Madonna and Child by sensitive painter Carlo Dolci, noting how Dolci uses color to identify characters and to highlight their graces.

Girolamo Della Robbia: Terracotta Busts

The Della Robbia family is famous—for their secret artistic recipe. Watch to learn more about a pair of sculpture and this family of artists represented in M&G’s collection.

Carlo Dolci

Madonna and Child

Carlo Dolci

Below the image, click play to listen.

Object of the Month: February 2020

Savonarola Chair


Florentine, early 16th century 


For a mundane piece of furniture with such a simplistic design as to be easily transportable, this folding chair bears the name of a big personality and has allowed countless VIPs to rest and rule simultaneously.

Girolamo Savonarola was a monk and religious reformer in Florence, Italy. He came to the Medici’s city in 1481 to serve at the Dominican monastery and church of San Marco (St. Mark).  He proved to be honest and sincere, and he studied and memorized Scripture, which he applied practically to everyday living for himself and in his teaching. His preaching was passionate and dramatic, and he spoke against corruption in the church and papacy. His influence for morality and reform held popular support for a while, even garnering respect from Lorenzo, the Magnificent. Eventually, however, Savonarola was bitterly opposed by Rome. The pope enforced excommunication, suspension of the sacraments from the faithful, and a ban of trade, which affected Florence’s prosperous economy. Ultimately, the Florentines turned on him too, and Savonarola was sentenced to death. He was hanged and his body burned in the town square in 1498—just seventeen years after his arrival.

Shaped in the frame of an X, this Italian Renaissance Savonarola Chair is one of a few in M&G’s collection. The chair is constructed of walnut and is considered “unusual” by furniture expert Joseph Aronson because it only has five pairs of the thick, pivoted S-shaped strips of wood to hold the hinged seat. Normally, a chair like this might have six, eight, or even twelve pairs. However, these five rung pairs are each held together at the floor with a trestle for sturdiness, and the pairs are joined at the top by heavy arms with carved rosettes. The back of the chair is a modest board, which is attached loosely—easily removed when the chair needs to be folded. 

The chair style has had many names through the centuries and geographical regions including the X-chair, curule, faldstool, scissors chair, Dante chair, and Luther chair. Because of its unique design, the chair traces its roots and practical service back to antiquity. A visual record exists of Egyptian Pharoah Tut’ankhamun sitting in the chair. Roman senators and consuls used a backless version of these portable seats, and in Romanesque and Gothic illuminations the kings of France are perched on it.  

With Italy’s interest in Greek and Roman culture and thought, the Renaissance also revived awareness in the architecture and design from antiquity including furniture. One writer explains the era as “an exhibition of emancipated modern genius fired and illuminated by the masterpieces of the past.” During the awakening, the chair’s status of power continues in the pictorial records of seated bishops, emperors, and popes. Artists also rendered respected religious individuals in the chair such as St. Ambrose and Christ’s mother Mary. 

The Museum of San Marco preserves and features the fifteenth-century Dominican monastery where Fra Angelico was Prior and who decorated many of the monk’s cells and interior spaces with beautiful frescoes. Girolamo Savonarola became the monastery’s Prior in 1491 and occupied three cells that today still display a few of his personal items, including a folding X-chair in his study and similar chairs in other parts of the museum.

However, it wasn’t until nearly 400 years after his torturous death that the chair became associated with Savonarola specifically. In 1878, Florentine sculptor Giovanni Biggi created for the church at San Marco a bronze statue of the monk sitting pensively in an X-shaped chair.

Erin R. Jones, Executive Director


Additional Reading: 

Furniture of the Italian Renaissance, Walter A. Dyer

Michelangelo and Seats of Power, Eric Denker and William E. Wallace

Faith of Our Fathers: Scenes from Church History, edited by Mark Sidwell

Anatomy of A Design Classic: The Savonarola Chair


Published in 2020

Object of the Month: November 2018

The Repentant St. Peter

Oil on canvas, circa 1664

Carlo Dolci

Florentine, 1616-1686

This powerful portrait of the penitent Peter is by seventeenth-century Florentine artist Carlo Dolci. A child prodigy, Carlo entered Jacopo Vignali’s studio as an apprentice at the age of 9 and by 13 was independently completing noteworthy commissions. Throughout his lifetime Dolci’s paintings would continue to garner praise and to attract the patronage of luminaries like the Grand Duchess of Tuscany Vittoria della Rovere and her son Cosimo III.  

However, Dolci’s aspirations went beyond a desire for fame. His lifelong friend and biographer Filippo Baldinucci wrote: “From early childhood, Dolci frequented the Benedictine Order, and his devotion ever increasing, he made a firm vow never in all his life to wish to paint anything other than sacred images or religious stories, and to represent them in such a manner that they would inspire Christian piety in those who saw them.”  It is not surprising, therefore, that aside from a few portraits, Dolci’s entire oeuvre is comprised of devotional works. 

One of those rare portraits is this 1674 Double Self-Portrait.  This work not only highlights the artist’s technical skill but also insinuates his temperament.  Dolci was a meticulous artist. Baldinucci commented: “It may seem strange to hear that he completed so many works, having worked so slowly, or more accurately having taken so long to complete them, since sometimes a single foot occupied him for weeks.” We see that obsessive attention to detail in this work—both in its execution and in the handling of the subject. In a sense it is a visual pun. In the miniature portrait we see the bespectacled Dolci leaning in to delicately apply brush to canvas while the larger, central figure holds this miniature up for viewer examination. Notice the wistful expression of the dominant Dolci. It’s as if he is inquiring of the viewer, “I’m not sure I’m satisfied with my ‘image.’ Are you?” Numerous sources site that throughout his life Dolci suffered from melancholia, an archaic term describing (among other things) bouts of extreme depression. Perhaps this malady contributed to his ability to render powerful emotion convincingly. Regardless, it is this quality that evokes the pathos readily apparent in the Museum & Gallery’s portrait.  

Although the subject of this work is derived from the gospels, it’s popularity during Dolci’s time was due in part to Counter-Reformation dogma.  For example, one of the many objectives of the Council of Trent was to urge Catholic painters to reaffirm through art the salvatory function of those sacraments dismissed by the Reformers—including the sacrament of penance (the private confession of sins to a priest).  Art historian and curator David Steel notes that as a result “the repentance of Peter became an especially popular subject since it depicted the Prince of Apostles, and the first pope, in the sacramental act of doing penance; Peter’s tears became a symbol for that sacrament.”  

The compositional details mirrored in Dolci’s work were first codified by the Mannerist painter Domenikos Theotokopoulos, called El Greco. El Greco completed numerous variants and at least five autograph versions of this subject, including the one pictured here from the San Diego Museum of Art.  His dark background, grotto-like setting, and figural pose became standard, and we see these elements mirrored in Dolci’s rendering.  Both artists also clothe the figure in his traditional yellow-gold mantel of faith.  However, Dolci’s elegant brushwork and jewel-like coloration add what one historian describes as a “fresh, objective approach.”  

Although naturalistic in the handling of light and the depiction of Peter’s weathered face, red-rimmed eyes, and tousled hair and beard, there is none of the severity characteristic of such Baroque naturalists as Caravaggio. Dolci’s vital realism seems free of despair. As art historian Michael Bryan observed, “Nothing is harsh or obtrusive, all is modest and harmonious.” This seamless integration of the natural and the sublime creates a wonderfully moving image. 

To learn how Protestant painters sought to affirm their faith read about Lucas Cranach, the Younger’s Allegory of the Fall and Redemption of Man. 

Donnalynn Hess, Director of Education


Published in 2018

Object of the Month: November 2016

Bust of Henri II, King of France 

Bust of Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France

Glazed Terracotta

Girolamo della Robbia (attr. to)

Italian, 1488–1566

Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.

Heading into the month of November, the themes of family and tradition are strongly emphasized. Throughout the Museum & Gallery, there are many examples of studio traditions passed down between family members such as father to son, uncle to nephew and even father to daughter.  Of these there are few families who have achieved such renowned fame as the Della Robbia family.  Founded in Florence by Luca Della Robbia, the family workshop produced sculpture for more than 100 years and was considered one of the most successful studios of the Renaissance.

What made the Della Robbia family so successful was their contemporary approach to sculpture and their luminescent glazing.  Sculpture began to take new forms in the Renaissance, especially in the use of a forgotten medium—clay, which was revived for many reasons.  It was easy to model and cast, which allowed delicate detail; and it was an inexpensive material.  Clay was considered a humble medium that encouraged piety and did not distract from the holiness of the subject it depicted.

Luca is credited with the invention of the glaze, the family studio’s distinctive trademark, which effectively combined painting and sculpture.  Many reasons are given why he developed the new glazing technique ranging from aesthetic to economical or both.  The glaze was a ceramic treatment of the clay that protected the clay, making it impermeable.  It also rendered sculpture, in Giorgi Vasari’s words, “almost eternal.”  Hailed as a major artistic and scientific discovery, the glazed terracotta rapidly became desired throughout Florentine society.

After Luca, the studio was passed on to his nephew, Andrea, and then to Andrea’s sons.  From Florence, the studio was carried to France in 1517 by Girolamo della Robbia, the youngest son of Andrea.  At this time, King Francis I had been inviting many Italian artists such as Girolamo to encourage an artistic Renaissance in France.  Girolamo created many sculptures, altarpieces and intricate architectural elements for the king and his court.  After the death of King Francis, Girolamo went home to Florence but later followed Queen Catherine de’ Medici to Paris to continue making art until his death in 1566.  Two years later, Vasari wrote “not only did [Girolamo’s] house die out…but art was deprived of the knowledge of the proper method of glazing.”  Despite the family’s closely guarded glazing secrets, legend tells that a Della Robbia housemaid stole the glazing technique and passed it on to Benedetto Buglioni and his family.

Located in the Italian Mannerist gallery at M&G, two large terracotta busts immediately arrest the attention of guests.  Their powerful presence and beautiful glazing draw viewers in to inquire the identity of the sitters.  Both are attributed to Girolamo and are reminiscent of the works for which the della Robbia family is so famous.

When Dr. Bob Jones Jr., founder of M&G, purchased the pair, the figures were originally thought to be Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, son and daughter of infamous Pope Alexander VI.  However, due to Girolamo’s workshop being more centrally located in France, it is more likely the figures are King Henri II (son of Francis I) and Queen Catherine de’ Medici.  The figures could also be French courtiers who were wealthy enough to afford their portraits in sculpture.

Even though the art of sculpture seeks to capture a likeness or identifiable features, it should be noted that most sculptural portraits remain unidentified.  Whoever these two actually were, they have truly been immortalized and given as Vasari says an “almost eternal” look.  From their pedestal, they stand as a testament to the artistic tradition and genius of the Della Robbia family.

KC Christmas, Docent and Guest Services Attendant


Published in 2016

Object of the Month: December 2014

Madonna and Child with an Angel (“Madonna of the Magnificat”)

Tempera on panel

Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, called Sandro Botticelli (and studio)

Florentine, 1444/45–1510

Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.

The Florentine master Botticelli is known for creating elegantly fluid lines that give his paintings what art experts call an “ethereal quality.” Two expressive works showcasing this skill are his Madonna and Child with an Angel (c. 1490) and his Mystic Nativity (c. 1500).  Although both works highlight Christ’s incarnation, the overall composition and thematic nuances are vastly different.

This first work, a tondo from M&G’s collection, portrays a tender embrace between Mary and the Christ child.  The pose of the central figures readily awakens in the viewer that universal feeling of familial love.  It is an intimate human scene, but one that illuminates the wonder of the Word becoming flesh. This wonder is further explored through the angel who (unlike most angelic messengers) is without the defining attribute of wings. The angel’s focus on Mary’s Magnificat is also significant, for it draws our attention to the text that “gives voice” to the painting’s key theme: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.”

The beautiful intimacy between Mary and the Christ child is also implied through the central vignette of his Mystic Nativity. However, radiating from this focal point is a sweeping panorama that takes the viewer beyond the incarnation to the final judgment. It is one of Botticelli’s most unusual works; it is also his only known signed painting. In his later years, Botticelli came under the influence of the fiery reformer Savonarola. In The Panorama of the Renaissance Margaret Aston notes that the “more expressive and powerful force discernible in his later works may represent his spiritual response to [Savonarola and] the spiritual unrest in Florence.”  Aston also points out that despite the juxtaposition of the incarnation with the apocalypse, the overall tone of the painting is joy. The apocalypse, usually so terrifying, is here transformed through the angels’ celebration.  Clearly, this nativity will change everything.

Donnalynn Hess, Director of Education


Published in 2014