Giovanni Maria Butteri (Florence 1540-1606)
Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio and Other Tuscan Men of Letters
pen and brown ink on paper, 1565
11 1/2 x 10 1/8 inches
292 x 257 mm
As Rick Scorza established in 1985, this vigorous and rare pen drawing is a preliminary sketch for Giovanni Maria Butteri’s now-lost painting for the vast ephemeral decorations erected throughout Florence on the occasion of the entry into the city of Johanna of Austria (1547–1578), bride-to-be of Duke Francesco I de’ Medici (1541–1587), on 16th December 1565. The wedding took place two days later, and the festivities lasted until the middle of the following year. More specifically, Butteri’s painting was one of six enormous canvases (each measuring ca. 7.5 x 5.2 m) to decorate the triumphal arch built at the Porta al Prato in the northwest of the city, through which the archduchess and her court entered Florence. Vincenzo Borghini, Vasari’s humanist friend and rector of the Ospedale degli Innocenti, devised the complex iconographic programme for the decorations, in which virtually all Florentine artists participated. Nothing of the so-called apparato delle nozze survives but Borghini’s invenzione as well as detailed contemporary descriptions, such as Domenico Mellini’s, have made it possible to identify a number of preparatory drawings by artists including Bronzino, Vasari, Allori, Maso da S. Friano and others.
The decoration of the Porta al Prato was of particular importance, since it was the first Johanna and her entourage would pass through on their way to the city’s center. Thus, Borghini dedicated the triumphal arch to the glory of Florence and Tuscany, and their pre-eminent role in poetry, science, warfare, disegno (the fine arts in general), industria (trade), and agriculture. These subjects were to be represented in the six paintings which featured numerous portraits of the most prominent, though deceased, Tuscan men who had excelled in their respective disciplines. The paintings were inserted into the monument and accompanied by a total of nine statues. As we know from Borghini’s notes and Mellini’s description, Alessandro Allori (1535-1607) was responsible for the overall design. He also contributed three statues and five canvases, while the sixth, depicting Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio and Other Tuscan Men of Letters, was executed by his pupil Butteri. Mellini writes that Allori had called upon Butteri, “who made the painting of the poets and the other men of letters, and the epitaph and many other things.”
In 1995 Scorza published Butteri’s then newly discovered finished design for the Poets from the collection of the Palazzo Rosso, Genoa (fig. 1). Surely based on our drawing, it is fully elaborated, revealing and clarifying several details previously known only from Mellini’s description of the painting. According to Borghini’s invenzione, the painting was to show in the center the three foremost poets crowned by laurel wreaths – Dante, resting his hand on a globe held by a putto, with Petrarch, in a cowl, to his right and Boccaccio to his left. This corresponds closely to our drawing and the Genoa sheet. The three men were surrounded by a ‘choir’ of other Tuscan writers, all listed by Mellini, including Guido Cavalcanti, Luigi Alamani, and Giovanni della Casa. Personifications of the rivers Arno and Mugnone were seen resting in the bottom corners, both of which are included in the drawings. Behind the poets is an elaborate, balustraded double staircase with a terrace and landing in the middle (the architecture is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s staircase of the Palazzo del Senatore on the Campidoglio in Rome, as Scorza has noted). In the center of the staircase’s façade is a fictive gate, flanked by sculptures in niches, and reclining figures in the triangular fields below the stairs on either side. This can all be seen in the Genoa drawing and in our sketch, with the exception of the figures in the triangular fields. Beyond the terrace is the fountain of Aganippe and the Muses, set within a lush meadow (or prato, in allusion to the location of arch at the Porta al Prato), with Pegasus, Parnassus and Mount Helicon beyond, the last of which is lightly indicated in the Genoa drawing (but not in the present one). As Scorza’s elegantly summarized it, and the inscriptions on the painting itself read, “the poets of Tuscany had descended from Mount Helicon to pay their respects but lamented that death had denied them the opportunity to celebrate the wedding in verse.”
Butteri, however, may have played a larger role in the decoration of the triumphal arch at the Porta al Prato than Mellini’s account suggests. Scorza’s publication in 1995 of a further drawing, a finished design in the Morgan Library for the canvas representing Agriculture (or the Abundance of the Tuscan Land; fig. 2), clearly from Butteri’s hand, indicates that he was involved in at least one of the other paintings, too.
The present drawing is a rare example of Butteri’s early pen drawings made at the height of the Maniera style, only a few years before his perhaps best known works, the two oval panels of the Discovery of Glass (fig. 3) and The Glassworks in the Studiolo of Francesco de’ Medici in the Palazzo Vecchio of 1570-71. In the subsequent years of his long career, amidst the emerging early Baroque in Florence, Butteri developed a more restrained style, though still indebted to Allori’s, as his altarpieces in the churches of Florence and beyond attest. This more somber style is reflected in his relatively rare drawings, such as that for his altarpiece of the Birth of the Virgin at Reano (near Turin; ca. 1585) in the National Gallery of Canada  (a rare chalk drawing for the same picture is in the British Museum), or the study formerly in the Piasecka Johnson collection (fig. 4) for Christ and the Centurion in the Church of S. Maria del Carmine, Florence, of ca. 1585-90. ❖