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Bartolomeo Vivarini’s Frari Triptych

The Vivarini are a family of artists I am perilously unfamiliar with, and amongst them, none more so than ‘middle-child-in-spirit’ Bartolomeo. I know that he was brother to Antonio and uncle to Alvise. I know that his works are scattered around Venetian churches and international museums. I know that he was painting in the mid-to-late fifteenth century. And, I know that he belonged to one of the most prolific and successful artistic families of Quattrocento Venice. I don’t know where he came from, who influenced his work, how he shaped local art, what his best paintings are, or if he was really any good. My eyes too often skim over his paintings in museums and churches, and I rarely think about researching his life in my spare time. ‘Twas ever thus when I would visit the Frari with its two altarpieces by the artist. Until now. A couple of days ago I thought to forgo dissecting Titian’s saucy Assumption or Donatello’s beardy St. J, and, instead, made a point of ogling Bart’s Madge and the baby JC with grumpy men triptych, properly, for the first time. 

This groovy work shows the not-uncommon-by-a-long-shot subject of the Virgin enthroned with the Holy Baby bobbing about on her knee. An older #totesdeadbutnotreally Jesus is depicted above them on the cross. The grumpy old men are St. Peter (right – white beard, Amal Clooney mustard robe), St. Paul (right – holding sword, smelling St. P’s ear), St. Andrew (left – book, cross, superior vibe) and St. Nicholas of Bari aka Father Christmas aka dean of Coca Cola (left – receding hairline, Darth Vader hand). 

The artist conveniently almost always signed and dated his works, and the present example is no exception. Its dating to 1487 places it in Bart’s mid-to-late period, which, having googled his earlier output, suggests that age did done him good. The frame is likely by Jacopo da Faenza, because the internet says so.  And since there are four panels, this is, strictly speaking, a polyptych. It is situated in the Bernardo Chapel of the Frari, presumably funded by the Venetian senator, Pietro Bernardo, whose funerary monument is nearby.

After yet another plague in 1631 (’twas a disease shitshow in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Venice) the Madge panel came to known as Madonna della Salute.  Alas, it didn’t do much good: a later major plague in the 1680s ravaged the city’s population, followed just over a century later by the final fall of the republic after Napoleon waddled in and took over in 1797. 

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A Western Art History blog by someone who sometimes gets paid  to read and write about Western Art History. Mostly Old Masters. Mostly Italian. Hopefully accurate.

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