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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

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(c. 1308 - c. 1368, 1), Italian painter, sculptor and architect, whose full name was Andrea Di Clone, called 1 The dates of Orcagna's birth and death are not exactly known. According to Vasari, he died in 1389 at the age of sixty; but a document dated 1376 provides a guardian for Tessa and Romola, daughters of Orcagna's widow Francesca (see Bonaini, Mem. Ined. pp. 105106). In that case 1376 was perhaps the year of his death; and if Arcagnuolo, 1 was the son of a very able Florentine goldsmith, Maestro Cione, said to have been one of the principal artists who worked on the magnificent silver frontal of the high altar of San Giovanni, the Florentine Baptistery. The result of Orcagna's early training in the use of the precious metals may be traced in the extreme delicacy and refined detail of his principal works in sculpture. He had at least three brothers who all practised some branch of the fine arts: Lionardo or Nardo, the eldest, a painter; Matteo, a sculptor and mosaicist; and Jacopo, also a painter. They were frequently associated with Orcagna in his varied labours.

From the time of Giotto to the end of the 14th century Orcagna stands quite pre-eminent even among the many excellent artists of that time. In sculpture he was a pupil of Andrea Pisano; in painting, though indirectly, he was a disciple of Giotto. Few artists have practised with such success so many branches of the arts. Orcagna was not only a painter and sculptor, but also a worker in mosaic, an architect and a poet. His importance in the history of Italian art rests not merely on his numerous and beautiful productions, but also on his widespread influence, transmitted to his successors through a large and carefully-trained school of pupils. In style as a painter Orcagna comes midway between Giotto and Fra Angelico: he combined the dramatic force and realistic vigour of the earlier painter with the pure brilliant colour and refined unearthly beauty of Fra Angelico. His large fresco paintings are works of extreme decorative beauty and splendour - composed with careful reference to their architectural surroundings, arranged for the most part on one plane, without the strong foreshortening or effects of perspective with which the mural paintings of later masters are so often marred.

1. Orcagna as a Painter. - His chief works in fresco were at Florence, in the church of S Maria Novella. He first covered the walls of the retro-choir with scenes from the life of the Virgin. These, unfortunately, were much injured by damp very soon after their completion, and towards the end of the following century were replaced by other frescoes of the same subjects by Ghirlandaio, who, according to Vasari, made much use of Orcagna's motives and invention. Orcagna also painted three walls of the Strozzi chapel, at the north-east of the same church, with a grand series of frescoes, which still exist, though in a much injured and "restored" state. On the northern end wall is the Last Judgment, painted above and round the window, the light from which makes it difficult to see the picture. In the centre is Christ floating among clouds, surrounded by angels; below are kneeling figures of the Virgin and St John the Baptist, with the twelve apostles. Lower still are patriarchs, prophets and saints, with the resurrection of the blessed and the lost. The finest composition is that on the west wall, unbroken by any window. It represents paradise, with Christ and the Virgin enthroned in majesty among rows of brilliantly-coloured cherubim and seraphim tinged with rainbow-like rays of light. Below are long lines of the heavenly hierarchy mingled with angel musicians; and lower still a crowd of saints floating on clouds. Many of these figures are of exquisite beauty especially the few that have escaped restoration. Faces of the most divine tenderness and delicacy occur among the female saints; the two central angels below the throne are figures of wonderful grace in pose and movement; and the whole picture, lighted by a soft luminous atmosphere, seems to glow with an unearthly gladness and peace. Opposite to this is the fresco attributed by Vasari to Orcagna's brother Bernardo, or rather Nardo (i.e. Lionardo); it was completely repainted in 1530, so that nothing but the design remains, full of horror and weird imagination. To some extent the painter has followed Dante's scheme of successive circles.

These paintings were probably executed soon after 1350, and in 1357 Orcagna painted one of his finest panel pictures, as a retable for the altar of the same chapel, where it still remains.

Vasari is right about his age his birth would have been in 1316. Milanesi, the editor of Vasari, is, however, inclined to think that Orcagna died in 1368, when he is known to have been seriously ill. ' Of this form, sometimes spelt Orcagnuolo, Orcagna is a corruption.

In the centre is Christ in majesty between kneeling figures of St Peter and St Thomas Aquinas, attended by angel musicians; on each side are standing figures of three other saints. It is a work of the greatest beauty both in colour and composition; it is painted with extreme miniature-like delicacy, and is on the whole very well preserved. This retable is signed, "An. dni. mccclvii Andreas Cionis de Florentia me pinxit." Another fine altar-piece on panel by Orcagna, dated 1363, is preserved in the Cappella de' Medici, near the sacristy Sta Croce; it represents the four doctors of the Latin church. According to Vasari, Orcagna also painted some very fine frescoes in Sta Croce, similar in subjects to those attributed to him in the Campo Santo of Pisa, and full of fine portraits. These do not now exist. In the cathedral of Florence, on one of the northern piers, there hangs a nobly designed and highly finished picture on panel by Orcagna, representing S Zanobio enthroned, trampling under his feet Cruelty and Pride; at the sides are kneeling figures of SS Eugenius and Crescentius - the whole very rich in colour. The retable mentioned by Vasari as having been painted for the Florentine church of S Pietro Maggiore is now in the National Gallery of London. It is a richly decorative composition of the Coronation of the Virgin, between rows of saints, together with nine other subjects painted in miniature. Other paintings on panel by Orcagna were sent by the Pope to Avignon, but cannot now be traced. The frescoes also have been destroyed with which, according to Vasari, Orcagna decorated the façade of S Apollinare and the Cappella de' Cresci in the church of the Servi in Florence.2 2. Orcagna as a Sculptor and Architect. 3 - In 1355 Orcagna was appointed architect to the chapel of Or San Michele in Florence. This curiously-planned building, with a large upper room over the vaulting of the lower part, has been begun by Taddeo Gaddi as a thank-offering for the cessation of the plague of 1348. It took the place of an earlier oratory designed by Arnolfo del Cambio, and was the gift of the united trade-gilds of Florence. As to the building itself, it is impossible to say how much is due to Taddeo Gaddi and how much to Orcagna, but the great marble tabernacle was wholly by Orcagna. This, in its combined splendour of architectural design, sculptured reliefs and statuettes, and mosaic enrichments, is one of the most important and beautiful works of art which even rich Italy possesses. It combines an altar, a shrine, a reredos and a baldacchino. In general form it is perhaps the purest and most gracefully designed of all specimens of Italian Gothic. It is a tall structure of white marble, with vaulted canopy and richly decorated gables and pinnacles, reaching almost to the vaulted roof of the chapel. The detail is extremely delicate, and brilliant gem-like colour is given by lavish enrichments of minute patterns in glass mosaic, inlaid in the white marble of the structure. It is put together with the greatest care and precision; Vasari especially notes the fact that the whole was put together without any cement, which might have stained the purity of the marble, all the parts being closely fitted together with bronze dowels. The spire-like summit of the tabernacle is surmounted by a figure of St Michael, and at a lower stage on the roof are statuettes of the apostles. The altar has a relief of Hope between panels with the Marriage of the Virgin and the Annunciation. On the right side, looking east, of the base of the tabernacle are reliefs of the Birth of the Virgin and her Presentation in the Temple; on the ]eft, the Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi; and behind, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and the 2 The magnificenc but much injured frescoes of the Last Judgment, Hell, and the Triumph of Death in the Pisan Campo Santo, described with great minuteness and enthusiasm by Vasari, are attributed by him to Orcagna, but internal evidence seems to show that they are productions of the Sienese school. Crowe and Cavalcaselle attribute them to the two brothers Lorenzetti of Siena, but they have been so injured by wet, the settlement of the wall, and repeated retouchings that it is difficult to come to any clear decision as to their authorship. It appears, however, much more probable that they are the work of Bernardo Daddi.

Orcagna was admitted as a member of the Sculptors' Gild in 1352. His name occurs in the roll as "Andreas Cionis vocatus Arcagnolus, pictor." Angel warning the Virgin to escape into Egypt. Above the last two subjects are large reliefs of the Death of the Virgin, surrounded by the apostles, and higher still her Assumption; she stands in a vesica, and is borne by angels to heaven. On the base of the Virgin's tomb is inscribed "Andreas Cionis pictor Florentinvs oratorii archimagister extitit hvjvs mccclix." Orcagna's own portrait is given as one of the apostles. In addition to these richly-composed subject-reliefs the whole work is adorned with many other single figures and heads of prophets, angels, and the Virtues, all executed with wonderful finish and refinement. The shrine, which forms an aumbry in the reredos, contains a miraculous picture of the Madonna. A fine bronze screen, with open geometrical tracery, encloses the whole. No work of sculpture in Italy is more magnificent than this wonderful tabernacle, both in general effect and in the delicate beauty of the reliefs and statuettes with which it is so lavishly enriched. It cost the enormous sum of 96,000 gold florins. Unfortunately it is very badly placed and insufficiently lighted, so that a minute examination of its beauties is a work of difficulty.

No mention is made by Vasari of Orcagna's residence in Orvieto, where he occupied for some time the post of "capomaestro" to the duomo. He accepted this appointment on the 14th of June 1358 at the large salary (for that time) of 300 gold florins a year. His brother Matteo was engaged to work under him, receiving 8 florins a month. When Orcagna accepted this appointment at Orvieto he had not yet finished his work at Or San Michele, and so was obliged to make long visits to Florence, which naturally interfered with the satisfactory performance of his work for the Orvietans. The result was that on the 12th of September 1360 Orcagna, having been paid for his work up to that time, resigned the post of "capo-maestro" of the duomo, though he still remained a little longer in Orvieto to finish a large mosaic picture on the west front. When this mosaic (made of glass tesserae from Venice) was finished in 1362, it was found to be uneven in surface, and not fixed securely into its cement bed. An arbitration was therefore held as to the price Orcagna was to receive for it, and he was awarded 60 gold florins.

Vasari mentions as other architectural works by Orcagna the design for the piers in the nave of the Florentine duomo, a zecca or mint, which appears not to have been carried out, and the Loggia dei Lanzi in the Piazza della Signoria. It is, however, more than doubtful whether Orcagna had any hand in this last building, a very graceful vaulted structure, with three semicircular open arches on the side and one at each end, intended to form a sheltered meeting-place for the Priori during elections and other public transactions. This loggia was ordered by the General Council of Florence in 1356, but was not actually begun till the year 1376, after Orcagna's death. The architects were Benci di Cione (possibly a brother of Orcagna) and Simone di Francesco Talenti, both men of considerable reputation in Florence. The sculptured reliefs of the seven Virtues in the spandrels of the arches of the loggia, also attributed to Orcagna by Vasari, were later still. They were designed by Angelo Gaddi (1383-1386), and were carried out by three or four different sculptors.

Pupils of Orcagna named by Vasari are Bernardo Nello, a Pisan, Tommaso di Marco, a Florentine, and, chief of all, Francesco Traini, whose grand painting on panel of St Thomas Aquinas enthroned with the arch-heretics at his feet still hangs in the church for which it was painted - Sta Caterina at Pisa. Orcagna had, in addition to the two daughters mentioned above, a son named Cione, who was a painter of but little eminence. Some sonnets attributed to Orcagna exist in MS. in the Strozzi and Magliabecchian libraries in Florence. They have been published by Trucchi (Poesie inedite, ii. p. 25, Prato, 1846). They are graceful in language, but rather artificial and over-elaborated.


Vasari, ed. Milanesi, i. p. 593 (Florence, 1878); Giornale degli Archivi Toscani, iii. p. 282, &c.; Passerini, Curiosita storico-artistiche; Gaye, Carteggio inedito, i. pp. Soo-513, ii. p. 5; Rosini, Storia della pittura, vol. ii.; Baldinucci, Professori del disegno, vol. i.; Rumohr, Ricerche Italiane, ii., and Antologia di Firenze, iii.; Crowe and Cavalcaselle, Painting in Italy, i. p. 425 (London, 1864); Perkins, Tuscan Sculptors, p. 77 (London, 1865). (J. H. M.)

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Orcagna'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​o/orcagna.html. 1910.
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