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Intended for private use, this intricate panel by Florentine trecento artist Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni is one of the first depictions of Saint Jerome in his studio.
Cenni di Francesco di ser Cenni (Florence act. ca. 1369–1415)
Saint Jerome Translating the Bible, ca. 1380–82
tempera and gold on panel
12 3⁄4 x 8 5⁄8 inches
32.4 x 21.9 cm
Fig. 1 Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, Initial N with Saint Peter Enthroned and the Liberation of Saint Peter, from an Antiphonary, fol. 35V. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore W.153 © Matteo Omied / Alamy

The artist

Like most painters in trecento Florence, Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni was a member of the Arte dei Medici e Speziali. This guild, one of the seven Major Guilds of Florence, was initially for doctors and pharmacists but began to accept painters into its ranks in 1314. He was a registered member by 1369. A successful and prolific artist, Cenni was skilled in various media: he painted exquisite gold ground panels, beautiful frescoes and was also an exceptionally accomplished manuscript illuminator (fig 1). He collaborated, for example, with the great trecento miniaturist Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci on the choirbook for San Pier Maggiore. Though there are a number of signed works, Cenni di Francesco’s corpus has recently been expanded to include works formerly given to the Master of the Kahn St Catherine (fig 2) and the Rohhoncz Master. The common thread between all his works are a wealth of decorative detail, slightly imperfect perspective and elongated features, especially around the eyes of his figures, all hallmarks of the late trecento Gothic style in Florence.

Cenni’s early works show the influence of Andrea and Jacopo di Cione, probably filtered through an artist such as Giovanni del Biondo. But by the mid 1370s his penchant for anecdotal detail, bright color and elegant elongated figure types come to the fore as is evidenced by his illuminations and panels such as the St Catherine Enthroned with Two Saints and Two Donors, Metropolitan Museum, New York. Later works such as the 1383 frescoes painted for San Donato in Polverosa and even the magnificent 1410 frescoes for San Francesco in Volterra (header image) show this abiding love for decoration and narrative content. Cenni attempted more statuesque figure types in the 1390s in response to the Giottesque revival but it is in his charming, colorful, narrative efforts that his real artistic personality flourished, perhaps on account of his training as a miniaturist.

Fig. 2 Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, St Catherine Enthroned with Two Saints and Two Donors, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1982.35.1

The present panel

Our intimate panel exemplifies this aspect of Cenni’s work. We witness, through a drawn curtain, Saint Jerome, busy translating the Bible into Latin—the New Testament he translated from the Greek in which it was originally written, and the Old Testament from Hebrew. The result, known as the Vulgate was used across Christendom until the Reformation. Born in Dalmatia in ca. 347 C.E., Jerome died in Bethlehem in 420 C.E. He is shown here with his scholarly attributes, seated at a desk, surrounded by books and manuscripts, in a small, chapel-like space, with barrel vaulting and a lancet window. The saint wears the red robes of a cardinal and a cardinal’s hat hovers above his halo. St Jerome was usually depicted as a cardinal, even though the rank did not exist in his lifetime. At his feet is a lion, his loyal attribute, who holds up his wounded right paw. St. Jerome was the second most prolific writer in ancient Latin Christianity, bettered only by St. Augustine. He is the patron saint of translators, librarians and encyclopedists. St. Jerome was revered as one of the four Doctors of the Latin Church (the others being St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Ambrose and St. Gregory) and the group were famously portrayed in monastic fresco cycles, such as that by Giotto (fig 3) in Assisi and Pietro da Rimini in Tolentino.

Fig. 3 Giotto, Saint Jerome as Doctor of the Church, The Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Assisi
Fig. 4 Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, Mary at the House of the Pharisee, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City

This panel, however, is one of the earliest of all depictions of this subject intended for a private patron. It has been dated by Boskovits and Todini to ca. 1370 and may be compared to the handling of Scenes from the Life of St Mary Magdalene, Pinacoteca Vaticana, especially Mary at the House of the Pharisee (fig 4). There is a roughly contemporaneous St Jerome in the Art Institute, Chicago by Cecco di Pietro. The rarity of the subject at this date is underlined by the inscription on the base of the desk “S. Geronim[o] Doctore”. A comparable, smaller panel by Lorenzo Monaco of ca. 1415 is now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (fig 5). With the burgeoning interest in scholarship during the late middle ages and the Renaissance, St. Jerome in his Study became an increasingly popular subject, immortalized by artists such as Carpaccio, Ghirlandaio and Botticelli.

Fig. 5 Lorenzo Monaco, Saint Jerome in his Study, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam SK-A-3976
Fig. 6 Francesco Allegrini (after G. Zocchi), Lorenzo de Antonio Ridolfi, 1360 – 1400. Gonfalier of the Republic of Florence, engraving on paper, 1765. National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh UP R 34

A notable patron

detail of the present panel (lower left)

In the lower left corner of the painting, facing the saint, is a notary wearing the black robes of a member of the legal profession. The notary is seated on a bench on which is painted the coat of arms of the important Florentine Ridolfi family; the panel was therefore presumably commissioned by a notary in that family. At the time of the execution of this painting, Lorenzo di Antonio Ridolfi (1362-1443) (fig 6) had recently completed his studies in law at the University of Bologna and would have just begun a career as notary in Florence. Additionally, Lorenzo was known to have a passion for the writings of Saint Jerome.[1] It seems reasonable to assume that the seated, black-robed figure represents the young Lorenzo Ridolfi. Building on his reputation as a scholar and the author of works on Boccaccio and Petrarch as well as a major treatise Tractatus de Usuris e Materia Montis (1404), Lorenzo became a senior figure in late mediaeval Florentine politics. He was a Gonfalier of Justice and one of the Ten of the Balia among numerous other high offices. The Ridolfi family, in 1425, brokered the Florentine alliance with the Venetian Republic and their palace was a famous landmark, occupied by, among others Elizabeth and Robert Browning in the nineteenth century.

Fig. 7 Attributed to Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata, private collection
Fig. 8 Reverse of the present panel
Related works

This panel, clearly intended for personal devotion, is thought to have been paired with a similar work by the artist depicting Saint Francis receiving the Stigmata (fig 7). The two paintings are similar in size and details, including the nearly identical bands on the uppermost part of each panel. If the panels are indeed a pair, one might surmise that they formed a diptych, perhaps intended as a meditation on study and Divine inspiration. The excellent condition of our panel is attested to by the intact original decoration on the reverse (fig 8).

Fig. 9 Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, Saint Jerome Translating the Bible in its original location in the Church of San Domenico, San Miniato (province of Siena) against Frescoes by Agnolo Gaddi © Fondazioni Zeri

A later (1411) and much larger depiction (205 x 80 cm) of the same subject by Cenni, commissioned for SS. Jacopo e Lucia, is at the Museo Diocesano, S. Miniato al Tedesco (figs 9-10). It does not include the portrait of the patron and places the saint’s study in the context of a wider cityscape. It recalls the essential composition, but the elongated figure is more exaggerated and the handling is more crude, without the delicate depiction of still-life details, which make our panel so unusual.

Notes

[1] Gaudenz Freuler, ‘Eine Florentinischer Trecento-Tafel Mit Dem Heilegen Hieronymus’ in Der Schreibstube, in Licht(t)räme: Festschrift fur Brigitte Kurmann-Schwarz zum 65. Geburtstag, 2016, p. 62.

detail of the present panel (St. Jerome)
Fig. 10 Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, Saint Jerome Translating the Bible (detail), Museo Diocesano, San Miniato
provenance

Lorenzo di Antonio Ridolfi (1362-1443), Florence

with Wildenstein Gallery, London

Private Collection, Paris

Bibliography

Giovanni Sarti, Primitifs et Maniéristes Italiens (1370-1570), Paris, 2000, pp. 14-22, reproduced.

Eliot W. Rowlands, Masaccio, Saint Andrew and The Pisa Altarpiece, Los Angeles, 2003, p.71, reproduced fig.63.

Gaudenz Freuler, ‘Eine Florentinischer Trecento-Tafel mit dem Heiligen Hieronymus in der Schreibstube,’ in Licht(t)räme: Festschrift für Brigitte Kurmann-Schwarz zum 65. Geburtstag, Petersberg, 2016, pp. 56-64, reproduced fig.1.

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