Art and Archaeology Interviews
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JR: Starmina spent many years in Spain. Are there other examples from this period of the exchanges between Italy and Spain which later became extremely rich right up to the 18th century, notably in music? Also at this time, Italian and Spanish composers were often priests, otherwise they had no revenue to practice their art. Was this the case with painters?

CS: No. It was an accident in Starmina's life which had led him to Spain, but the influences are there, in all the colours, notably the orange tones. Some artists were monks, but most were laymen, at least in Italy.

Another painting whose principal interest is its early date, around 1320, is an anonymous work by the Master of San Torpé. Extraordinary for the period is an attempt at persepctive in the arcades. The painting is in excellent condition despite minor restoration in the halo of the child. We know very little about this painter except that he worked in Pisa, but perhaps was trained in Siena. There is a great deal of research in progress concerning this artist. He is certainly an important painter.

JR: Fra Lippo Lippi's Virgin and Child is a very "accessible" picture.

CS: The picture is charming and has an instant appeal. It was painted around 1500 and is typical of what most people expect of Florentine painting at this time. One notices the Flemish-inspired landscapes because Florentine bankers working in Northern Europe often commissioned pictures from Flemish painters that they then brought home to Florence.

JR: This looks very much like an early work.

CS: It is the first picture of the exhibition in terms of chronology. Entitled The Baptism of Christ, it was painted around 1310, and reflects the style of Cimabue. It is the beginning of the art of painting and is the work of two brothers [Gregorio and Donato d'Arezzo] who worked in Arezzo when that city had a school as important as Florence. The painting is completely lacking in perspective. Christ is standing up against the river Jordan with lots of little fish in the river, two angels on one side and St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist on the other, who incidentally is rarely present at the Baptism. The background is in silver rather than gold, as in the other paintings of the show. Silver backgrounds are seen in paintings by Ciambue and Giotto during this period, and as you can see the silver is oxidised without restoration, and the color corresponds more to the overall harmony of the painting rather than gold which would be somewhat shocking here. Naturally, works such as this one are very rare because of the period, state of conservation and the theme of the Baptism.

JR: I notice that it has been sold.

CS: Yes, this is a very rare work

JR: Would it be indiscreet to ask you the final selling price?

CS: (a discreet smile) Not when the painting has been sold, but I shall give you some prices shortly.

Over here is Ugolino di Nerio. He was the most important pupil of Duccio [di Buoninsegna], so this is also very early, certainly before 1320 because the gold is engraved by hand. It is a small private devotional painting and we know the identity of the donor, a monk at the convent of Santa Maria Novella, where the Sienese painter Ugolino di Nerio came to work. He enjoyed great fame during his lifetime and was brought to Florence where he worked on the main altar of Santa Maria Novella which was made for the same monk, Fra Baro Sassetti, whose familiy was very rich. Naturally, as a monk he lived in poverty but his family paid. It is probable that Sassetti commissioned this Crucifixion with several Saints and a Donor. The characters seem engraved in the picture, and look at the folds of the clothes. This is an excessively refined work. You can see the slightly worn gold background and the red-clay preparation under the gold--this is not serious but one must never touch it at this point.

JR: Marvellous

CS: Here we have a very great picture. The Crucifixion with the two afflicted, St. Francis and St. Guy (1380-1385), is a painting for specialists by Francesco di Vannuccio who was a Sienese painter. The work is very well-known and was part of a great German collection [Fritz August von Kaulbach, Berlin]. It has been documented and studied by many important art historians and is absolutely intact. Considered the heir of Simone Martini, Francesco di Vannuccio already announces the international gothic style. His work is not represented in the Louvre and is extremely rare although there are six or seven panels known to us. Collectors know the value of Francesco's work.

Another important picture, The Flagellation, is attributed to Andrea del Castagno. The catalogue of the exhibition recapitulates important information known to date about it: the rest of the predella, that is the three other pieces, are in London [National Gallery], New York [Frick Collection] and Edinburgh [National Gallery of Scotland]. Our part of it had disappeared from the market for a very long time and was thought to be lost. It had been part of the collection of the great art historian Bernard Berenson [before the war], who was among the art historians who studied this period. Apart from this anecdotal aspect, the attribution was contested because we know only very large-scale works by Andrea del Castagno, thus making comparison difficult. Because the three other pieces of the predella in museums abroad have been attributed to Andrea del Castagno, we have also taken up the attribution. But if it is not Andrea del Castagno, then it must be something close to it.

Some have suggested [Francesco] Botticini, but we consider this work too good to be a Botticini. Others mention Piero Pollaiuolo, which would be the same level as Andrea del Castagno. There are nevertheless two surprising elements in this picture: the perspective of the tile floor and columns is perfectly rendered; the open door in the background and the system of ceiling arches, and again the perspective is exact. More important, the psychological aspect of the characters and imagery appearing at the same time as Andrea del Castagno might explain this attribution. Pilate reaches out his hand as though he wants to stop the flagellation, but seems unsure how to do it. The shameful look of the group of councillors where one of them - refusing to look - already turns his head contrasts with Christ's calm and stoic expression. One hardly sees this kind of psychological study in painting before this period. Of equal interest is the painter's bronze-like treatment of the clothes reflecting the influence of sculpters at that time.

JR: Has the Berenson provenance made this picture more desireable for collectors and does it have a decisive influence on the painting's market value?

CS: Yes, this is an excellent provenance. But it also demonstrates that he found the picture interesting and kept it for himself. Although Berenson did not study this painting, it was reproduced in a book before the war [1938] - the only reproduction of the work known to us - and this is how we know it was in his collection. Moreover, according to the reproduction, the picture had been repainted which was often the case [perhaps in the 17th or 18th century]. These repaintings were not for repair but for reasons of style. For example, Christ had a moustache and His muscles had been removed which reflected Flemish taste at the time. Later, when we cleaned the painting the moustache disappeared and Christ's muscles reappeared. Apart from other small changes such as the shape of right-hand councillor's hat, its conservation is good.

JR: You have mentioned that up to three fourths of the pictures presented to you turn out to be wrongly attributed. So, provenance is no guarantee?

CS: Provenance establishes where the picture was before, and in the case of a great collection this acts as a seal of approval, especially in this period where there are many paintings of unknown provenance. Personally, this is not very important. Of prime importance is to be sure of the period and not to be in possession of a fake. Many fakes were produced in the 19th century. It is thus important to consult a specialist before making an acquisition. Another factor is to verify that the picture has not undergone too many restorations, especially in the faces or other major areas of the picture. The gold should not have been done over - that is terrible. Questions of attribution depend on the painter. If it is a great painter then attribution will change the price. With attributions concerning less important painters, the difference in price is not so great. Whether a painting is the work of Andrea del Castagno or Piero Pollaiuolo does not affect the price very much because they are both painters of similar quality. At that point, it becomes a quarrel between specialists. Naturally, one should look at the picture for its intrinsic value. The advantage of seeing the 33 pictures on view here is to enable one to compare pictures and to judge for oneself the relative importance of each painting.

JR: Can you show me two works by the same artist where one can make such a comparison and determine significant differences in the aesthetic quality and market value of the pictures?

CS: Here are two examples by a painter whose contribution is not enormous. They are by Bicci di Lorenzo: One is The Nativity and the Adoration of the Shepherds and the other St. Bartholomew exorcising the Princess of Armenia. One is of much higher quality and there is a big difference in price between the two paintings.

JR: Could you be more specific?

CS: The Nativity is valued at a little over 2 million French Francs ($330,000) and the other at 650,000 French Francs ($110,000). The Nativity was a more important commission, better paid and the painter clearly worked harder. It is one of the prettiest works by Bicci di Lorenzo known to us, with the detail of the sheep jostling one another to get a better look at the Nativity. The presence of animals and their psychology, the Annunciation to the shepherds and the city of Bethlehem with an erroneous perspective and the extraordinary colours. Again, this painter did not make a major contribution to his period, but it is handsome representation of the Nativity. Shall we go upstairs?

Returning to the first level of the Galerie Sarti

CS: One really should mention this painting. As you can see the panel's dimensions are considerable: almost one meter high by two meters long. In fact this type of work was known as spalliera and inset in the richly carved wooden panelling in the main rooms of a palace not only for decorative reasons, but also to ensure better insulation against the cold. There was one on each wall, thus four in a room, and this was a type of painting comissioned by rich families on the occasion of a marriage, though no room thus decorated has survived. [Giorgio] Vasari talks about it, in particular a Botticelli ensemble which decorated a bedroom. In this case we have an anonymous painter referred to as the Master of Apollo and Daphne after two panels in an American museum. The picture is called Ulysses leaving for Troy. Since this is a profane picture we are talking circa 1500. One can see the influence of Botticelli and Perugino. The pictural representation is continuous. Ulysses bids farewell, climbs aboard his ship, the ship leaves port, Penelope returns home and begins to weave with her little Telemachus - a lovely representation of Ithaca, which is not Ithaca at all, but a Renaissance city with a beautiful perspective. One no longer finds this kind of big picture which is astonishing for the period and an example of one of the first profane, mythological depictions. Generally this type of painting focused on feminine virtues. Ladies had them in their bedroom to remind them of the importance of fidelity.

JR: While their husbands were away.

CS: Such paintings have become extremely rare. One could spend all day, but I would like to comment on the Portrait of a Woman in Profile, a famous Florentine portrait long attributed to Paolo Uccello. Reproduced dozens of times, the bibliography is incomplete. Today, art historians agree on the attribution to the anonymous Master of the Castello Nativity. The representation is astonishing for the period with its stylised, blue ground announcing the 16th century. Although this may be the representaion of a particular woman, it is more of an intellectualisation. Notice the hands stuck to the bust which is used as a pedestal for the face. By use of the profile, signifying features such as the mouth or eyes are only half-represented and give the face a static look. Apart from the slightly worn ground and the hair-dressing, the picture is in very good condition.

JR: To return to prices for a moment....

CS: As you can see the price list is available and the prices are indicated up to 3.5 million French Francs ($574,000). Beyond that, it is by request. When someone is interested in the most expensive pictures, they will ask. Unlike many galleries in France, we show our price list because many people think that these pictures are more expensive than they really are. The lowest price in this show is 350,000 French Francs ($57,380) and as you can see for that price you have a lovely picture dating from around 1400. For a million French Francs ($163,935) you have a very beautiful picture and for a painting by a great master, prices start at 5 milllion ($819,675). In terms of the period, prices are much lower than modern painting, if you look at Picasso and Braque; much lower than Impressionist pictures and in many respects lower than 17th and 18th century paintings.

JR: Why no speculation in this market?

CS: As an investment this period always had the same value with a small annual increase. But during an economic crisis like the last one a few years ago, early Italian paintings remained stable. At the same time one cannot speculate with these pictures. You cannot buy a picture in this market for 2 million French Francs ($330,000) and hope to sell it six months later for 4 million ($660,000). Prices increase at a rate of about 10%, but for someone who wants to invest in this period, I would recommend very interesting pictures by imporant painters - which does not imply spending an enormous amount of money. You must choose carefully, because it is the evolution of the painting which will determine its price.

JR: What are the parameters of this market?

CS: Above all, it is not speculative. These pictures are a narrow market with fewer people who understand them. They are not decorative, although you can hang them anywhere or mix them with modern painting. In my house I have early Italian paintings next to modern pictures. But they are not decorative like a pair of still lifes or two views of Venice. It is a different mentality. These pictures attract people who are more interested in painting rather than their decorative possibilities. Furthermore, the subjects can be religious which bothers some people. Personally, the subject is abstract and does not have a lot of importance, but these two factors make for a narrow market.

JR: And at auction?

CS: One sees few things at public auctions because the pictures are often wrongly attributed. Morover, people hesitate about putting such pictures up for auction because they think they they will sell less well than through the hands of a specialised dealer. Buyers are frightened to make acquisitions at public auction because they do not know what they are buying. If you want to be sure of not acquiring a fake, as well as a picture in good condition and properly attributed, it is difficult to buy alone in this period unless one is a specialist. Therefore, our clients prefer to consult us before buying at a public auction because then they are sure not to acquire a work where there is some doubt or there is a horrible surprise waiting down the line.

Most people think that these works can only be seen in a museum. When they stumble onto our gallery, they are astonished to discover that these works are for sale. I suppose most people think that our gallery is a museum! (bemused giggle) Naturally, our clientele includes great collectors who have acquired extraordinary pictures, but we also have visitors who buy an early Italian painting for the first time and thus begin to build collections which years later become equally as important. We provide our clients with the necessary understanding of the period, so that they begin to collect with discernment. In France, this is particulary appreciated, and for us it is a pleasure to form new collectors. Because works are rare, this period of painting is not in its rightful place in the market. Although the prices are not very high, there is only a limited number of works available. But in fact, there are still discoveries to be made.

The catalogue, "Trente-Trois Primitifs Italians de 1310 à 1500:
du Sacré au Profane" (Thirty-Three Early Italian Paintings 1310 - 1500:
from the Sacred to the Profane), hardback, in English and French, can be ordered directly from Galerie G. Sarti in Paris at the following address:

Galerie G. Sarti 137, rue du faoubourg Saint-Honoré 75008 Paris France
Tel: (33) 1 42 89 33 66 Fax: (33) 1 42 89 33 77


The price of the catalogue is FF 300 plus postage.

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