Alvise Vivarini Madonna with Child and Saints Francis, Peter, Paul and John the Baptist (Polyptych of Montefeltrino)


National Gallery of the Marche




2380 x 1670 mm



historical period


Exhibit Artwork

Artwork Details

The Polyptych of Montefeltrino consists of five compartments that feature the Madonna enthroned in the centre with her hands in prayer adoring the sleeping Child, a prefiguration of the dead Christ, resting on a small cushion and lying on his knees. On the left side of the Virgin and Child, we can recognize St. Peter holding a book and the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven (of the church) entrusted to him by Christ and St. Francis, who can be recognized for his brown cloak, reading a book of prayers while holding a cross. On the right side are St. Paul holding a sword and St. John the Baptist with his cross and lamb skin, rendered with extraordinarily refined details. The artist signed and dated the work “1476 LUDOVICUS VIVARINUS MURIANENSIS P(inxit)” under the central compartment with a rather rare style. He uses the Italian form of his name – Ludovico – instead of the more usual Venetian Alvise. The work dates back to the painter’s early period, the 1570s, a moment when the Renaissance was fully expressed in Florence in the use of perspective for a real representation of space, but he still expressed the late Gothic models in the composition from the end of the 14th century and the first decades of the following century. The figures of the saints are inserted each in their compartments and represented with a shining gold background behind them according to the Gothic taste, like the elaborate and original richly carved, perforated, painted and gilded wooden frame as well. It could be described as a “late” work which, however, had a considerable influence on painting in the Marche area. Observing the painting we understand how the polyptych represents a real moment of transition in the painter’s artistic career, between training with his father Antonio and uncle Bartolomeo, linked to the works of the Paduan Francesco Squarcione, who combined the ancient with effective signs, bright and acid colours, well-defined expressions, and the innovational Venetian examples of Antonello da Messina and Giovanni Bellini. It was the first work signed by him, the third member of the thriving workshop in Murano. In the 1950s Pietro Zampetti suggested that the figure of St. Francis was stylistically weaker than the others, especially in its design and model, and could be made by Antonio Vivarini. The art historian, and several decades later also John Steer, saw a clear difference compared to the other saints. Although Steer hypothesized it was made by one of Antonio’s collaborators, perhaps based on a design by Alvise. The other saints were considered a work of Alvise, characterized by nervous traits and formal elegance in the lean and elongated figures and precious colours, as seen in Mary’s turquoise mantle and the elegant iridescent clothes of St. Peter. However, Rodolfo Pallucchini instead saw in St. Francis the beginning of the turning point in Alvise’s painting, giving it greater plasticity compared to the other figures. Critics still see the differences today in the figure of Francis, considered a work of his father Antonio and less elegant and more compact. Furthermore, as Davide Trevisan recently noted, the drapery is stiffer, especially in the folds, and the chiaroscuro is “qualitatively questionable, giving the shape an excessive sense of heaviness”. Even in the details, the figure appears weaker than the other saints, such as John, whose anatomy is rendered with great elegance. Trevisan suggests another hypothesis, claiming that the figure of Francis may have been repainted more recently. The Polyptych of Montefeltrino was probably commissioned for the high altar of the funerary chapel of the Oliva counts in the Convent of the Observant Franciscan Minors of Frontino in the province of Pesaro-Urbino. The chapel was built thanks to Carlo Oliva in 1484 and probably at the same time the Vivarini polyptych was replaced with the Oliva Altarpiece painted by Giovanni Santi, Raphael’s father, in 1489. The polyptych therefore could have been commissioned by Gianfrancesco Oliva, Carlo’s father, given the presence of the Saints John and Francis, the latter also the founder of the religious order of the Convent. Giovan Battista Cavalcaselle and Joseph Archer Crowe saw the work in the sacristy of the Franciscan church in 187, as part of the cataloguing campaign of the historical and artistic heritage of Umbria and the Marche area that was carried out ordered by the Italian government. Since 1950 the work has been in the National Gallery of the Marche in Urbino.

Artist Details

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Alvise Vivarini’s family was originally from Padua and owned an active workshop in Murano in the 15th century. Alvise was probably born around 1446 in Venice where he trained with his father Antonio and uncle Bartolomeo. From the end of the sixties of the 15th century, the artist showed his propensity to broaden his artistic vision by abandoning the harshness and dazed expression of his uncle and father, whose works were more outdated, and assimilating from other painters of his time who were active in the Lagoon and Veneto region. Giovanni Bellini and Andrea Mantegna significantly influenced his work, as evidenced by the Crucifixion (Milan, Poldi Pezzoli Museum) and the Penitent St. Jerome (Bergamo, Accademia Carrara) where the beautiful landscape recalls the classical works of Cima da Conegliano. Other important influencers were the “outsiders” Marco Zoppo, from Perugia, who was staying in Venice for the works in the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista and Palazzo Ducale (those of the latter were never finished), and Antonello da Messina who switched the harshness and bright colours of Vivarini the Elder to a greater naturalism, as seen in the Nativity today in the Lia Museum of La Spezia, painted around 1471 and in the more mature St. Jerome in the National Gallery of Washington. These influences, and especially that of Antonello da Messina, that made him move away from the artistic traditions of his family, can be seen also in his first known work, the Polyptych of Montefeltrino, painted for the chapel of Oliva counts in the Convent of the Minor Observant (Urbino, National Gallery of the Marche), signed and dated 1476 in the central piece. The work maintains a general setting still linked to the late Gothic era as evidenced by the golden background and carved frames. On 24 March 1471, Alvise enrolled on the Scuola Grande della Carità, from where he was expelled eleven years later for default, while in 1480 he signed and dated the Sacred Conversation in the Church of San Francesco in Treviso. Eight years later, in the summer of 1488, he sent a canvas to the Doge’s palace to demonstrate his work. In this way, Vivarini received a prestigious commission in the Sala Del Maggior Consiglio where started to paint two works, as mentioned by Giorgio Vasari in the Lives of the Artists, which were never completed, depicting the war between Pope Alexander III and Federico Barbarossa. The third planned painting was never started. Giovanni Bellini, Carpaccio and Vittore Belliniano finished the incomplete works. Vivarini received another public commission in the early 1480s for the Sala del Capitolo of the Scuola Piccola di San Girolamo in Cannaregio with a painting depicting St. Jerome carrying the lion to into the convent, the frieze above the painting and a tondo depicting the Eternal Father on the ceiling, the only painting that has survived to this day (Venice, Galleria dell’Accademia). The Blessing Christ for the Church of San Giovanni in Bragora dates back to 1494, and it is part of an altar reliquary dedicated to St. John the Almsgiver, where he also painted another Blessing Christ (antique market) a few years later. The subject was replicated in another painting preserved today in the Pinacoteca di Brera, signed and dated 1498. The same year the artist painted the Resurrection of Christ for Santissimo Sacramento di San Giovanni in Bragora, with classical notes and by that time projected towards larger forms of the early 16th century. The new century started with new important commissions such as the banner for the Scuola Grande di San Marco, which has now been lost and for which he received 100 ducats. The following year he worked with Alessandro da Caravaggio on a polyptych of which today remains only the “Assumption of the Virgin”. The last news on the painter dates back to 1504, the year when he worked on the Madonna with Child and Saints (St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum) where the influence of the Lombard painter Giovanni Boltraffio stands out, showing his bond between the Venetian and Lombard artistic culture that would later mark artists such as Lorenzo Lotto. Vivarini also painted portraits that were influenced by the full forms of Antonello da Messina and his half-bust setting with a slightly raised face, as well as those of Perugino taking inspiration from classicism, as seen in the Portrait of a Virile from 1497 (London, National Gallery). Vivarini had a daughter, Armenia, who was an excellent glassmaker.

Collection Details

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National Gallery of the Marche