Description & Technical information

Born and trained in Emilia Romagna, but active mainly in Genoa and, subsequently, in Pisa, Barnaba da Modena was one of the most significant and successful Northern Italian artists of the latter half of the 14th century. He almost certainly trained around the 1350’s in Bologna where the lively artistic scene was dominated by Vitale di Aimo de’ Cavalli (1310 – 1360) and other painters such as Pseudo Jacopino di Francesco, Lippo di Dalmasio and Simone dei Crocefissi. The influence of the Bolognese masters is particularly clear in Barnaba’s confident use of narrative in his earliest productions, as exemplified in two small panels now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna. However, as he moved to Genoa, his stylistic language changed dramatically.

Documented in Genoa since 1361, Barnaba must, however, have arrived in that city at an earlier date, for by that year he was already the master of a large and successful workshop. His Genoese production bears the influence of local artistic trends, which in the mid-1300’s were still based on Sienese and Pisan painting of the beginning of the century. The impact of Duccio’s style on Barnaba’s is particularly identifiable in several panels representing the Madonna and Child intended for the private market and characterised by the golden highlights of the drapery (such as the 1357 version in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie in Frankfurt) and in more complex works (such as the first polyptych realised for the Murcia Cathedral, probably in the late 1370’s).

During the 1370’s and 1380's, Barnaba worked mainly for private patrons from Pisa; he was commissioned to complete the frescoes in the Camposanto, but refused. The style of these years shows the rejuvenating influence of younger artists from Siena and Pisa. The most representative work of the period is almost certainly the so-called Madonna dei Mercanti, now in the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo in Pisa. The present, previously unknown, work by the master, discovered and attributed by Prof. Dr. Andrea de Marchi, can be dated to this period. The soft modelling of Saint Nicholas, his fine features, and a completely new approach to the rendering of light, show an evolution in comparison to the rigidity typical of the artist’s earlier productions and reveal the influence of artists such as Bartolo di Fredi and Luca di Tommé.

The shape and size of our panel suggest that it might have been part of the predella or, more convincingly, the crown, of a polyptych. Such a polyptych has not, as yet, been identified however. The Polittico di Santa Lucia made for the Murcia Cathedral around 1385, with four pinnacles and four half-length figures of saints above the panels depicting Saint Lucia's story, might be considered a possible model for such a polyptych. It has been suggested that it is feasible that the present San Nicholas might have constituted one of the pinnacles of the polyptych originally intended for Sant’Andrea in Ripoli, now in the Arcivescovado in Pisa. Our small panel also shares some stylistic features with the Pentecost in the National Gallery in London (Inv. no. NG 1437), Algeri (op. cit.) observing that the London panel depicting the Madonna dei Mercanti was part of a composite work realised for Pisan patrons during the same period.

We are grateful to Profs. Dr. Andrea De Marchi and Sonia Chiodo, Università degli Studi di Firenze, for confirming the attribution to Barnaba da Modena based on digital photographs and first hand examination of the work.

Date:  1370 – 1380
Period:  Middle Ages, 14th century
Origin:  Italy
Medium: Tempera on panel
Dimensions: 33 x 25 cm (13 x 9⁷/₈ inches)
Provenance: Private collection, Belgium
Literature: C. M. Kaufmann, ‘Barnaba da Modena and the Flagellants of Genua’ in Victoria and Albert Museum Bulletin, Vol. 2 (1966), pp. 12-20
F. R. Pesenti, ‘Barnabas de Mutina pinxit in Janua: i polittici di Murcia’ in Bollettino d'Arte, Vol. 53 (1968), pp. 22-27
E. Rossetti Brezzi, ‘Pittura ligure del Trecento’ in E. Castelnuovo (ed.), La Pittura in Italia: Il Duecento e Il Trecento (Mondadori Electa, Milan, 1985), pp. 33-40
G. Algeri, ‘Tra Genova, Pisa e Murcia: nuove indagini per l’attività di Barnaba da Modena’ in Studi di Storia dell’Arte, Vol. 19 (2008), pp. 9-34
Categories: Paintings, Drawings & Prints, Works of Art