Some painters get a really raw deal. Take Francesco Francia (1450-1517), originally a goldsmith from Bologna, and influenced by Raphael’s teacher Pietro Perugino. Admired in the 19th century, chiefly for his Raphalesque compositions, but virtually unknown today. If you want proof, try S.J. Freedberg’s voluminous survey of 15th century Italian painting; Francia merits only a few lines; none of his paintings are reproduced.
I started thinking about Francia during last term’s course I did on the history of the National Gallery, London; and in connection with a course I’m putting together on the influence of renaissance art on 19th century English painting and collecting. In his indispensable history of the NG, Jonathan Conlin refers to what could be considered Francia’s masterpiece: the Saint Anne Altarpiece from San Frediano, Lucca. (1511-17) Composed of two elements, the main panel with Virgin, Child and Saints; and a panel showing a Pieta, the two works are currently displayed in a 19th century frame. As pointed out by Conlin, the two fragments were acquired in 1841. a year that also saw a Parliamentary select committee report on the question of working-class access to museums. Presumably, it was thought that the devout quality of art such as Francia’s would serve to inculcate Christian values and beliefs into the labouring classes.
Judging by Charles Compton’s image of NG visitors observing Francia’s Pieta in 1855, it was the middle-classes that this kind of saintly art appealed to. An intriguing observation poised halfway between social commentary and parody; is the little boy staring raptly upwards towards heaven a deliberate comic touch? I don't really know, but I can see why this Pieta might have resonated with the Victorians. It blends sentimentality with the grimness of death; the pinched face of the Madonna, her red-eyes and bony face; it is almost as the skeleton is forcing itself out into the space of the viewer. There is an earnestness to Francia; the faces of his angels are very grave and despite the beauty of his figures, a heaviness seems to settle upon his compositions; as if there were personal tragedy beneath each brushstroke.
Away from the crowds, connoisseurs and collectors evaluated Francia. They perceived his art- and similar- to exhibit the characteristics of Pre-Raphaelite painting. W.P. Bayley, writing in the Art Journal in 1860, described Francia’s art “as the cor cordium, the heart of hearts of the real Pre-Raphaelites: a softness and warmth of humanity above seraphic painters, are here under the shadow of the Dove’s wings.” This is quoted in the best book on taste and collecting ever written , Francis Haskell’s Rediscoveries in Art, where Haskell discusses taste and Christian art, well before the PRB came into existence in 1848. It’s interesting to speculate on how the PRB would have turned out if they’s taken Francia, Luini et al as the model for their painting. Studying Francia, they would have discovered the values of good composition, perspective, geometry, all in the service of pictorial excellence. Alas, such precedents were cruelly ignored, thus ensuring Francia would be consigned to oblivion, remembered by the odd connoisseur or two.
One of these connoisseurs was the American Bernard Berenson whose Italian Painters of the Renaissance of 1952 (which incorporates material from earlier published work), while not exactly effusive, grudgingly notes Francia’s achievement.
“Francia, whose meticulous finish, gracious angel faces, and quietistic feeling render popular, was, from the point of view of universal art, a painter of small importance. Trained as a goldsmith, he became a painter only in his maturity, and thus he missed the necessary education in the essentials of the figure arts. But his feeling, before it grew exaggerated (when it anticipated his townsmen of a century later [he means Bolognese baroque artists like Guido Reni and the Carracci] was, in its quietism, at least as fine as Perugino’s. No work by the Umbrian master is more solemnly gracious, tender, yet hushed with awe, than Francia’s Munich picture of the Virgin stooping, with hands reverently crossed on her breast, to worship the Holy Child within the mystic rose-hedge. Perugino, without his magical command of space effects, could never have moved us thus; and even Francia owes much of his modest triumph to his landscapes.”
|Francesco Francia, Madonna, Child and Infant St John, Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest. 1500.||Pietro Perugino, Madonna, Child and Infant St John, London, NG, 1505-10.|
Berenson’s phrase “ solemnly gracious” nicely describes Francia’s figures, especially his Madonnas who seem the saddest young women in renaissance art. The psychological associations I pick up are not good; this is far from the innocent charm of Perugino whose art seems devoid of these underlying complexities. Perhaps this might explain Francia’s “modest triumph” in the 19th century. Francia was primarily admired for his formal perfection, which as I’ve suggested here might be linked with his mental state. Only such collectors as W.P. Bayley, who was both a devout Christian and connoisseur, would be able to comprehend the various levels on which Francia’s art worked. Bayley not only acknowledged the technical skill of Francia, but also by his phrase “under the shadow of the Dove’s wings” discerned something more, a hint of sadness, possibly, elevating Francia higher than other “seraphic painters”. because of his piety. This distinctiveness may have been lost on the public, our Victorian family studying his art, who would have seen Francia as just another religious painter, no different from Perugino or a score of others.