Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Masolino in Hungary

Reliquary bust of Saint Ladislas from Várad cathedral and drawing after
a fresco of Masolino, inspired by the reliquary

It is a well-known fact that Florentine painter Masolino worked for some time in the Kingdom of Hungary, starting from 1425. Leaving the decoration of the Brancacci Chapel incomplete, he left in September, invited by Filippo Scolari (Pipo Spano) with a lucrative three-year contract. His employment was cut short by the death of Scolari at the end of 1426. We know that he stayed in Hungary even after the death of his patron, as Florentine tax reports filed in July of 1427, mention that he was still there. He likely did not return to Florence until May 1428 - the time when he collected part of his payment from the Scolari commission. After this, Masolino went on to work in Rome, and later in Castiglione Olona.
It is not know what commissions he had in Hungary. Filippo Scolari had a castle built at the town of Ozora, with a chapel dedicated to his patron saint. He also rebuilt the parish church and the Franciscan church of the town. In one of the centers of the Kingdom, at the royal basilica and coronation church of Székesfehérvár, he had a chapel built, intended for his burial. When in May 1426, Florentine ambassador Rinaldo degli Albizzi visited these places, he mentions all these newly built and decorated edifices - but does not mention the presence or the works of Masolino. Most people are inclined to believe that the funerary chapel at Székesfehérvár was frescoed by Masolino - the chronology allows this (he could have painted in during the summer and fall of 1426, explaining why the ambassador did not mention it), but sadly there is no clear proof of this.
Recent research (PDF of Hungarian article by Krisztina Arany) revealed that Masolino probably carried out some works for another Florentine family in Hungary, the Melanesi family. The brothers Simone and Tommaso Melanesi owed "Florentine painter Masino, who is staying in Hungary" 133 florins, according to a catasto entry of 1427. Their third brother, Giovanni, was bishop of the wealthy town of Várad, in eastern Hungary. He became bishop after the death another Florentine, Andrea Scolari. Melanesi was bishop for just a short year: from the Spring of 1426, until the beginning of the next year. I uncovered an interesting piece of evidence indicating that Masolino most likely visited the town of Várad - and thus perhaps even worked there.

After his return to Italy, Masolino received important commissions in Rome. One of those was painting an extensive cycle of Uomini famosi, for the palace of cardinal Giordano Orsini. This cycle is only known from a series of 15th century copies. A partial copy, a series of drawings in Rome (Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica) - known as the Libro del Giusto - preserved faithful and detailed impressions of the original figures. The head of one of the figures, Theseus, presents a remarkable similarity to one of the most characteristic heads from medieval Hungary: the head of the reliquary of Saint Ladislas, erected at the cathedral of Várad (and today preserved at Győr). This head reliquary was made after its predecessor got destroyed in a fire in 1406, likely during the 1420s, thus during the tenure of Andrea Scolari as bishop. No doubt, it was the most significant object at the cathedral during the possible visit of Masolino, explaining why he may have copied it. He later used the features of the reliquary when he was faced with the task of designing over 300 figures for the Uomini famosi cycle. This observation, however, still not shine any light on the Hungarian commissions of Masolino - and there is little hope that any trace of his works here will ever turn up.

My study on this subject is forthcoming in 2011. A Hungarian newspaper reported on this discovery, after I presented my findings at a conference in May, 2010. See the article here (in Hungarian).

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