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Arch of an Altar

  • Object:

    Arch of an altar

  • Place of origin:

    Italy (possibly Florence, made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1490 - ca. 1520 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Sangallo, Guiliano da, born 1445 - died 1516 (sculptor)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Carved marble

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 50b, The Paul and Jill Ruddock Gallery, case WS

The style and provenance of this marble arch indicate that it comes from Florence. It is a fine example of marble carving; probably from the school of Giuliano da Sangallo. Similar arches are still found today in churches in Florence. However, most of them are made of the grey stone known as pietra serena and are not as finely carved as the V&A example.

Historical significance: The frame is a very fine example of Florentine Renaissance marble carving, though its origin is still unclear. Though there are similarities with the work of Michelozzo and Francesco di Giorgio, it appears closest to the work of Giuliano da Sangallo and his workshop. This arch appears to be a unique survival in England from the Florentine Renaissance; its closest parallel is the arch in the sacristy of San Niccolo.

Physical description

A marble arch with two columns and a frieze. The underside of the arch, as well as the front are richly carved with fruit, oak leaves and Classically inspired patterns. A shield with an effaced coat of arms is at the centre of the frieze. The capitals are modifed Ionic.

Place of Origin

Italy (possibly Florence, made)


ca. 1490 - ca. 1520 (made)


Sangallo, Guiliano da, born 1445 - died 1516 (sculptor)

Materials and Techniques

Carved marble

Marks and inscriptions

A stonemason's mark in the form of the letter F


Height: 459.7 cm whole, Width: 325.1 cm, Depth: 99.1 cm

Object history note

When purchased in Florence from the dealer Tito Gagliardi for £140, the arch was said to have come from the private chapel at the Palazzo Ambron in Florence. As noted by John Pope-Hennessy, John Charles Robinson in his Art Referee report to the museum disagreed with the stated provenance. Robinson wrote: " I do not think the marble arch or architrave of an altarpiece ever came from a private chapel of a palace. I have known it for many years on sale in Florence, and declined to purchase it on account of its great bulk and merely fragmentary condition; what remains of this work, however, is of the finest early cinquecento Florentine sculpture. It is very probably by one of the Majani, and doubtless originally came from one of the churches of Florence or the neighborhood." (Robinson Reports, MA/3/9 vol. II, part III, Box 5A, July 20, 1864, and cited in Pope-Hennessy, p.188)

Pope-Hennessy commented that Limburger had recorded two Ambron Palaces in Florence. (Pope-Hennessy, p. 187) It is unclear why Robinson did not believe it could have come from a private chapel, though it must be said that similar large arches are today only to be seen in Florentine churches.

Historical significance: The frame is a very fine example of Florentine Renaissance marble carving, though its origin is still unclear. Though there are similarities with the work of Michelozzo and Francesco di Giorgio, it appears closest to the work of Giuliano da Sangallo and his workshop.

This arch appears to be a unique survival in England from the Florentine Renaissance; its closest parallel is the arch in the sacristy of San Niccolo.

Historical context note

Pope-Hennessy noted that "the arch forms the upper part of an altar." He also commented on the similarity in styles between this arch and the ones over the altars in Santa Maria delle Carceri in Prato, designed by Giuliano da Sangallo (1443-1516). (Pope-Hennessy, p.188).

No-one has commented on the similarity between the forms of the V&A arch and the arch at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie al Calcinaio, Cortona, designed by Francesco di Giorgio. Though on a larger scale, the high altar of the Cortona church is crowned by a very similar structure; a square opening framed by columns (the Cortona versions are fluted) with a carved arch above. In the case of Cortona, the architectural structure frames a miraculous Madonna which has been framed and then set off by a fresco. In the lunette above, a fresco of God the Father in a blessing gesture is flanked by two angels. The Cortona arch was created in 1519 by Bernardino Covatti. He most likely followed a design by Francesco di Giorgio. (Weller, p.202)

It also seems to have escaped notice that the decorative details are very close to some of the moldings in the arches of the chapels in the former church of Cestello in Florence, now the church of Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi. It has been suggested that Giuliano da Sangallo was the artist behind the sculptural decoration on the chapel arches due to similarities between their decoration and that of Santa Maria delle Carceri in Prato. (For the Cestello see Luchs, passim). Similar garlands of fruit and leaves are also present on the entrance to a chapel in the Church of Sant' Andrea a Sveglia in Pian del Mugnone in Fiesole, carved by Michelozzo. (See Ferrara and Quinterio, figure 89).

The arch is also very close in appearance to one found in the sacristy of San Niccolò in Florence, though the San Niccolò arch has columns that extend to the ground. The details of this arch, though simpler, are also found in the frame of the altarpiece of the Santa Chiara chapel and the Sangallesque arch. For example, whereas the V&A Sangallo arch and Santa Chiara frame have a frieze of fruits and oak leaves, the San Niccolò arch has only leaves. The interior of the V&A arch is entirely carved and separated into four panels but that of the San Niccolò arch has five panels with large rosettes at the centre of each. The details of egg and dart molding across the centre of the lower impost blocks seem identical. The arches seem to be similar in depth, though without further examination it is impossible to be sure.

It is possible that the V&A arch may have been modified at some point; perhaps by having had its columns cut down. This would explain Robinson's comment that when he saw the arch it was in fragmentary condition. Certainly the plain rectangular blocks of marble behind the columns are not in their original position (if they belong at all to the original). Their lack of articulation and their position behind the columns has no precedent in Renaissance architecture.

Donal Cooper suggested that the altar frame may have come from the Church of Santa Chiara in Florence; the original site of the high altar and chapel now in the V&A (Cooper, p.). He believed that the altar frame would have been paired with another one located across the nave of the church. They would framed the artworks noted by Vasari to have originally been in Santa Chiara; the della Robbia lunettes now at the Accademia and the Perugino "Lamentation" panel and the Lorenzo di Credi "Adoration of the Shepherds." However, this does not take into account space for the frames of the paintings (now lost) and further research is necessary .Certainly the level of carving of the arch is on a par with that of the high altar of Santa Chiara, and literary evidence and descriptions in Richa describe similar arches in other Florentine churches. A similar format of arch and altar is found in San Felice in Florence, which has pietra serena arches lining the walls of the side aisles. However, these seem to have been moved and altered during the 19th century, so it is difficult to state with certainty what the original appearance of the church would have been.

Descriptive line

Arch of an altar, white marble, from the Palazzo Ambron, Florence, in the style of Giuliano da Sangallo, Florentine, ca. 1490-1520

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Pope-Hennessy, J. assisted by Ronald Lightbown, Catalogue of Italian Sculpture in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1964, pp, 187-188
Luchs, A., Cestello: A Cistercian Church of the Florentine Renaissance, Ph.D diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1975, Outstanding Dissertations in the Fine Arts, Garland Publishing, New York, 1977
Preyer, B. 'The Rucellai Palace', in Giovanni Rucellai ed il suo Zibaldone: A Florentine Patrician and His Palace, vol. ii, London: Warburg Institute, 1981, pp. 187-188
Paul Davies and David Hemsoll, 'Renaissance balusters and the antique', Architectural History, vol. 26 (1983), pp. 1-23
Rocchi, G., 'Contrassegni di lapicidi sulle pietre dei palazzi rinascimentale di Firenze', in Ricerche di storia dell'arte: Rilievi, disegni, indagini, vol. 27 , 1986, pp. 73-80
Lamberini, D., Lotti, M. and Lunardi, R., eds. Giuliano e la bottega dei da Maiano: Atti del convegno Internazionale di Studi, Fiesole 13-15 giugno 1991, Florence: Octavo, 1994, p. 60 image
Cooper, D. 'La commissione di Atalanta Baglioni e la collocazione originaria della Deposizione nella chiesa di San Francesco al Prato', in La Deposizione di Raffaello restaurata: Studi storici, critici, di restauro e di indagini diagnostiche, ed. K.Hermann-Fiore, Editoriale Motta: Milan, forthcoming, 2007, pp. 23-45, especially pp. 33-35
Damiani, G. and Larghi, A., San Niccolo' Oltrarno: la chiesa, una famiglia di antiquari, vol. i, Florence, 1982
Ferrara, M. and Quinterio, F., Michelozzo di Bartolomeo, Florence: Salimbeni, 1984
Busignani, A., Bencini, R., Le chiese di Firenze: Quartieree di Santo Spirito, Florence: Sansoni, 1974
Inventory of Art Objects acquired in the Year 1864. Inventory of the Objects in the Art Division of the Museum at South Kensington, arranged According to the Dates of their Acquisition. Vol. 1. London : Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for H.M.S.O., 1868, p. 1

Production Note

Style of Giuliano da Sangallo (ca. 1443-1516)





Subjects depicted

Palmettes; Shields; Egg and dart moldings; Leaves; Balusters; Citron; Pine cones; Rosettes; Pomegranates; Oak leaves; Apples; Lemons; Acorns


Sculpture; Architecture


Sculpture Collection

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