Lorenzo di Credi's "Portinari Tondo": A Painting for a Medici Banker
Danielle Carrabino, Curator of Painting and Sculpture, highlights a recently acquired Italian Renaissance painting.
The painting, known as a tondo (literally meaning “round”) due to its shape, is a recent addition to the SCMA collection. It is a typical example of 15th-century workshop paintings created for homes in Florence, Italy. The painting has been in private collections since arriving in the United States in the early 20th century but has not been on public view during that time. It is in remarkably fine condition and was recently conserved in 2019. Given the holiday season, it feels like the right time to introduce the painting through its subject matter, patron, artist, and how it fits in the to SCMA collection.
The perfect circular form of the painting carries connotations of the divine, regeneration, and the circle of life. Tondi were created for the home, and more specifically for the bedroom, where themes of family and reproduction were central. The towering figure of the Virgin Mary, who prays to her newborn Christ child, provides a model for worshippers to join her in prayer. The young Saint John the Baptist at left echoes Mary by clasping his hands in adoration, further reinforcing this action. As the patron saint of Florence, Saint John communicates a specifically Florentine context to the viewer and also carries connotations of baptism, a sacrament that introduced babies to Christianity.
The painting is known as “The Portinari Tondo” due to certain clues that point to its possible patronage. Benedetto Portinari was the head of the Medici bank in Bruges. The northern European background may allude to his work there. Even more convincingly, scholar Gigetta Dalli Regoli proposes that the young oak tree at left and oak stump at right that frame the Virgin also suggest Portinari was the patron. These two trees appear on the back of a portrait of Portinari by Hans Memling (Uffizi, Florence) along with his personal motto, “De Bono in Melius” (From Good to Better). Moreover, the painting was created around the same time that Portinari had purchased a new palazzo or residence in Florence, where the painting may have been intended for display.
The artist of the painting, Lorenzo di Credi, is a lesser known figure to contemporary viewers, but who was well known in his own time. Lorenzo has gained attention in recent years through recent exhibitions (for more on Lorenzo, see https://artgallery.yale.edu/exhibitions/exhibition/leonardo-discoveries-verrocchios-studio and https://www.nga.gov/collection/artist-info.1181.html). He worked under the artist Andrea del Verrocchio in one of the city Florence’s most important workshops at the time. Other artists who also worked in this workshop include Botticelli, Perugino, Piero di Cosimo, and Leonardo da Vinci, among others. Lorenzo di Credi replaced Verrocchio upon his absence and eventual death not long before this painting was created. Several versions of this compositions survive, indicating its popularity and the collaborative nature of workshops in producing works of art for the growing art market in Florence. Lorenzo was influenced by his Florentine peers as well as by northern European artists, which may be one of the reasons Portinari commissioned this painting from him.
Currently, this painting is the museum’s only example of Florentine painting from the 1470s, a transitional moment in terms of both style and technique. It complements existing works in the collection and fill an important gap in the collection. It also relates to works of art in other local academic art museums within the Five College system. In the few short months that it has been on view, it has already helped fulfill SCMA’s mission of teaching by offering learning opportunities for Five College faculty and students, other school groups, and our Pioneer Valley community.
The painting is currently on view on the second floor of the museum.