by LR Hudgins
Analysis of the Sacra Conversazione by Bonifazio de Pitati at Columbia (SC) Museum of Art
|An Analysis of Sacra Conversazione by Bonifazio di Pitati (1487 -1553)
Columbia Museum of Art
In 1932, Samuel H. Kress of New York purchased a painting from the Prince Giovanelli collection of Venice; it was known simply as Sacra Conversazione. This work was one of several sacra conversazioni works painted by Bonifacio di Pitati (a.k.a. Veronese) in the first half of the 16th century. Berenson (1932) listed at least 9 known versions of the subject by this artist, and subsequent research has revealed additional works. The painting discussed here was donated to the Columbia Museum of Art as part of a larger bequest by Mr. Kress.
The sacra conversazione, or holy conversation, was a recurring theme throughout the Italian Renaissance. These images of the holy family grouped with saints, martyrs, or biblical figures could be found not only in churches, but in state offices and private homes. The commissions for sacra conversazioni would become a significant source of income for Italian painters.
Bonifazio di Pitati (also called Veronese) was one of the artists who benefited from the popularity of these sacred landscapes. In 1529, he was commissioned to do a series of wall paintings at the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi, a state office in Venice. Bonifazio came to Venice in the early part of the 16th century and studied art, most likely in the school of Palma Vecchio. (Nichols 1996:888) He went on to run a large workshop in Venice. Bonifazio was familiar with the foundations for contemporary art, built by Giorgione and Bellini, and at that time, interpreted by painters like Palma and Titian.
Early versions of this style displayed the Holy Family ensconced in an architectural frame – Bellini shows Mary in an archway. Earlier artists used a throne or shed. When Palma and his contemporaries began creating conversazioni, they placed Mary and Christ outside – on a veranda, or in a garden – at one with the Venetian landscape, saints and martyrs at her side. The CMA Conversazione shows Mary and Christ seated under a rose trellis in a lush landscape, with fields and forests backed by mountains. Bonifazio was part of a culture of painters that moved the sacra conversazione out of the church and into the everyday landscape of Venice. This shift to the natural setting was an attempt to combine the sacred with the natural world- bringing religion to a more familiar setting.
While Bonifazio was mirroring Palma’s landscapes, he was also using his composition as a foundation. The tripartite layout was classic Palma, though Bonifazio’s figures were not quite as robust. As for the theme, Bonifazio may have had inspiration from another artist who was working in Venice. Fern Rusk Shapely pointed out that Albrecht Durer’s “Feast of the Rose Garland,” painted for St. Bartholomew’s in Venice in 1506, also displayed the coronation theme (CMA 1962). The similarity between the two paintings suggests that Durer’s work/style was known and perhaps studied by fellow painters.
It is important to understand the symbolism used in this painting in order to identify the subject. Wealthy patrons would have been educated in the iconography of the saints, and would have been able to display this knowledge by interpreting the work. This piece depicts the coronation of Saint Catherine (with the crown of martyrdom). At the center, slightly elevated above the others, is the Madonna and child. Saint Catherine of Alexandria, whom we recognize from the broken piece of barbed wheel at her feet (also known as the Catherine’s wheel), kneels in front of Mary. To Mary’s left are Peter, with the keys, and Mark, shown with a lion. To Mary’s immediate right (our left) is the young boy Tobias, shown with his fish and medicine pot, symbols of his Old Testament story. The angel at his side is Raphael, who traveled with him in his biblical journey as well. To Mary’s far right are Saints Jerome and Joseph, though some scholars argue that it is James the Great. There are other symbols of the sacred, including the goldfinch (symbolizing Catherine’s martyrdom) and the robin on the throne (symbol for Christ’s Passion) (CMA 1962:116).
The lack of signature on the CMA painting makes it important to understand the unique characteristics of Bonifazio’s style work. While the cues were subtle, they were unmistakable. First, the faces of the individuals are rather elegant – oval faces, aquiline nose, and modest, thickly-lidded eyes. Bonifazio showed very little variation among his subjects, except to add or subtract facial hair. Additionally, the sacra conversationi used many of the same figures. The bearded saint appears in every painting. Even the poorly formed lion can be seen repeated throughout Bonifazio’s works. Another distinguishing mark can be seen in the Columbia painting in the feet of young Tobias – they appear deformed or ill painted. The same deformity is seen in a character in Christ Among the Doctors.
The Columbia Museum of Art’s Sacra conversazione by Bonifazio dei Pitati is an example of the transition occurring in Italian (Venetian) Renaissance art. The view is still planometric, the figures seem fairly static – almost posed. The canvas is separated into 3 sections, adhering to the need for order and control. While the artist is working hard at combining the sacred space with natural surroundings, the overall effect is still somewhat plastic – the dynamism for which Bonifazio is known does not manifest itself here as it does in other works. It will take the influence of a new generation of artists to bring a new dynamism to the art of Bonifazio di Pitati.
Lisa Hudgins, MA Art History
University of South Carolina