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Panel

  • Place of origin:

    Florence (city) (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1460 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Walnut and spindle-wood, intarsia

  • Museum number:

    86-1892

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

Making pictures with different coloured woods (or intarsia) had been widely practiced in Italy since about 1250, but the art of creating naturalistic still-lives with intarsia originated in Florence, Italy, in the 1430s. This involved cutting lighter woods, such as boxwood or spindle-wood, into a background of darker woods like walnut. The subjects were often depicted surrounded with scrolls or wreaths and often included grand church silver - in this case a censer for burning incence and a nef, for storing a prince's or bishop's salts and cutlery. This type of intarsia was then known as tarsia di silio or spindle-wood inlay, and mostly used for decorating individual panels in church sacresties or choir stalls. Although widely used throughout Italy between about 1450 and 1540, intarsia fell out of fashion because the woods gradually lost their original colours and became increasingly vulnerable to woodworm infestation.

Physical description

Panel composed of three sections (2 smaller sections glued above and below a main section), inlaid with a pale colour wood (spindle-wood?) and black paste, showing a censer suspended by a chain from an encircling wreath of olive?, above an incense boat with two spoons. Mounted in a later softwood moulded frame with banding inlay.

Place of Origin

Florence (city) (made)

Date

ca. 1460 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Walnut and spindle-wood, intarsia

Marks and inscriptions

[...] AI Firenze
Impressed with a coat of arms into red wax seal on back, on top and bottom sections

Dimensions

Height: 80 cm, Width: 38.3 cm

Object history note

In 1892, this object was acquired, 'restored', from Stefano Bardini, the Florence-based dealer, for £17 - 7 - 0.

Commentary on the panels 86-1892 and 87-1892 kindly supplied by Joanne Allen (2008)

These two decorative intarsia panels probably formed part of the decorative program of a sacristy dating to 1450--1500. Panel 86-1892 depicts a censer and incense dish surrounded by olive branches, while 87-1892 shows an asperges bucket and aspergillum amid the serpentine stems of stylised lilies. Both the dimensions of the panels and their iconography suggest that they originated in a sacristy, either decorating liturgical cupboards or a cassapanca (bench chest). Measuring 71.9 x 29.9cm (exluding their frames), the panels conform to the size and shape of extant sacristy panels, for instance those in the church of Santi Nazaro e Celso in Verona. Although similar imagery was used in choir stall dorsals, these tend to be much wider. Symmetrical intarsia designs of vegetal or floral forms commonly featured in sacristy programs, the most well known example being the north sacristy of Florence Cathedral. Highly stylised floral forms emerge from classically inspired vases in intarsia panels on the north wall of the sacristy, completed before 1445. Similar designs incorporating lilies appear on the sacristy doors from the Badia in Fiesolana completed by Giuliano da Maiano between 1461 and 1463.

The V&A panels, while following this iconographic model, depict flowers not in vases but alongside liturgical objects. As these objects are similar in size and form to the usual vases, on first glance the images seem to conform to the accepted iconography. Representations of liturgical objects in sacristy cupboards were also depicted in perspective intarsia panels forming sacristy cupboard doors, providing a striking parallel between the fictive cupboard and the real version. The V&A panels take inspiration from both forms of iconography, creating unusual images which emphasise the symbolic nature of the objects depicted.

Panel 86-1892 depicts a censer, incense dish and sprigs of olive. In liturgical practices, olive oil is used both for anointing and for lighting lamps. Durandus, the thirteenth-century writer on church symbolism, extols the holiness of olive oil which was used to light the lamps in the Tabernacle. Incense is used during liturgical services to to purify the physical space in which ceremonies took place (the smoke also symbolises the prayers of the faithful rising heavenwards). The combination of incense and olives can therefore be interpreted as a meditation on the concept of holiness and mystery.
An asperges bucket with the inscription `asperges me' and an aspergillum appear in the second panel (87-1892), surrounded by the leaves and flowers of a lily plant. Aspersion, or sprinkling with holy water, is associated with baptism and cleansing from sins. In his description of the consecration of a church, Durandus explains that through the sprinkling of water `the altar of the heart and the entire man are cleansed and sanctified'. The symbolism of cleansing accords well with the image of the lily, traditionally associated with purity and chastity. Lilies are an attribute of the Virgin Mary, and were often depicted in scenes of the Annunciation. The intarsia panel can thus be read as a reflection on purity and cleanliness, through the purity of the white lily flowers and the cleansing aspergillum. Decorative intarsia panels do not normally lend themselves to such symbolic interpretations, but the highly unusual combination of liturgical objects and floral motifs inspires the viewer to make allegorical connections. Presumably, other panels in the sacristy program also illustrated religious concepts in a similar way.

The panels are executed in a technique known as intarsia a buio or intarsia di silio, in which a matrix panel of dark wood was inlayed with a lighter wood, usually spindlewood. This technique was cheap and quick, but was prone to damage due to the delicate nature of the cutting. At least two different woods were used, one of which has quite pronounced colour variations, and what appears to be a black filler. Panels of this sort usually consist of a single piece of matrix wood, but the V&A panels both consist of a large central section with extra pieces added at the top and bottom, though not obviously as the result of a later restoration. The frames are machine-cut softwood and are evidently a later addition.
Panels 86-1892 and 87-1892 were bought from the Bardini Collection in Florence in 1892, (panel 86 has a red stamp on the back in which the word `Firenze' can just be made out). The panels' Florentine provenance together with their stylistic similarities with other Florentine woodwork supports the likelihood that the panels were made in or around the city. The iconography and technique used allows us to date the panels to the last quarter of the fifteenth century.

Descriptive line

Italian, 1500-1600

Materials

Walnut; Spindle-wood

Techniques

Intarsia

Subjects depicted

Olive branch; Censers; Nefs

Categories

Woodwork

Collection

Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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