The round form of the painting was widely popular in the 15th-century Tuscany and Umbria, especially in the works of sacred and devotional subjects, such as Madonnas with Child and in private homes they were often placed in bedrooms.
This round painting depicts five monumental figures, all standing next to each other. Mary is in the center, holding the Infant Jesus in her arms, while the saints are gathered around her: on her right is St. Francis, who is almost behind her, and St. Mark reading a book. On the left of the Virgin you can see St. Claire, recognizable for her dress of Clarisse nuns, a religious order she founded, and St. Catherine of Alexandria, who is holding a breaking wheel, the instrument and symbol of her martyrdom. The earthlier saints are standing on a meadow, while the Virgin is depicted in glory, slightly raised by cherubs.
In the foreground you can also see a mysterious scroll of paper on a wooden disc, which has been interpreted as “desco da parto” and as a magical symbol of eternity.
The figures occupy the space almost entirely but behind them in the lower part of the painting you can see a rural landscape. In particular, the meadow of flowers on which the figures are standing is described realistically, with great attention to the rendering of different types of existing plants and flowers and their symbolism. In fact, you can distinguish the lily, Mary’s symbol of purity, the aquilegia, symbol of innocence and linked to Mary as well, and the carnation, symbol of maternal love.
Overall, the composition is solid and monumental for the wide figures, whose robust bodies are typical of Signorelli’s painting, anticipating Michelangelo’s wide and strong from. Moreover, the figures of this painting were probably made with the same cartoon of his workshop that was used for the painting now preserved in Krakow, although in the work of Palazzo Pretorio the artist portrayed Mary in glory, raised by cherubs.
According to critics, Luca’s nephew Francesco Signorelli also intervened on the work. Francesco collaborated in his uncle’s workshop from 1508 to 1523 and he completed some of his works that were left unfinished, following faithfully Luca’s style.
The wooden frame that embellishes the round work is coeval with the painting. The frame is gilded and carved with decorative motifs that recall the works of Della Robbia, especially the apples, festoon and pines that characterize the frame.
It is not known who ordered the work from Signorelli and where it was intended, even though the presence of the Franciscan saints Claire and Francis would suggest a destination in a religious institute, perhaps in a female convent. However, the work was donated to the city of Prato through the legacy of Paolo Vanni in 1871.
Luca d’Edigio di Ventura, born in Cortona, studied in nearby Sansepolcro under Piero della Francesca, whose later works greatly influenced the early career of the painter, even though many of his early works have now been lost.
Signorelli, however, soon changed his pictorial style, which oriented towards more expressive representations, which go beyond the monumental detachment of master Piero della Francesca’s figures. Luca did not give up on majestic figures, but he concentrated on realistic representation of the anatomy and on an almost theatrical rendering of the gestures and poses of his characters.
In 1480 he stayed in Rome where, together with other Tuscan artists, he followed Perugino on the decoration of the Sistine Chapel, but he was active above all in Tuscany, Umbria and Marche, especially in Loreto, where he decorated the Sacristy San Giovanni for Santa Casa di Maria. Signorelli had always a strong bond with his hometown, so much that he held various political positions in Cortona.
He was always up to date on artistic innovations that developed in Central Italy and in 1490 Signorelli was in Florence to further improve his artistic path in the circle of artists of Lorenzo the Magnificent de’ Medici. In the Tuscan city Luca became interested in the Neoplatonic movement of Lorenzo the Magnificent and his friends Agnolo Poliziano and Sandro Botticelli, with whom he had worked in the Sistine Chapel. In Florence he painted the famous Education of Pan - which was lost during the Second World War – for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The work showed that he had already assimilated the figurative culture of Botticelli.
However, with Lorenzo de’ Medici’s death in 1492 and the expulsion of his son Pietro two years later, the climate in Florence changed drastically and Signorelli decided to return to Umbria. He painted many other works, including frescoes, in Tuscany and Umbria, such as the Stories of St. Benedict of Monte Oliveto Maggiore (1497-1498) near Asciano and the decoration of the Chapel of San Brizio for the cathedral of Orvieto (1499-1502).
In the meantime, Luca had organized an active and modern workshop, which used the artistic innovation of the time and where his nephew Francesco also worked.
Not much is known of Francesco, who continued the pictorial style of his uncle, not only because he completed some works that he left unfinished, but also because he painted and signed independent works that were very faithful to Luca’s style, such as the altarpiece with the Presentation at the Temple, signed and dated 1518, and the Immaculate Conception, preserved at the Municipal Gallery of Gubbio.
Prato’s Museo Civico is situated in the Palazzo Pretorio, in Piazza del Comune at the city center.
The first documents of the Palazzo date back to the end of the 13th century, when captain of the Guelfs, Francesco de’ Frescobaldi decided to purchase the building already owned by Pipini, to house the foreign magistrates, the court and the prisons. Between 1334 and 1338 the building was enlarged by Florentine craftsmen and the medieval appearance was changed. During the following centuries and especially in the 18th century a series of improvements were implemented finally until the late 19th century, when the building came under the demolition threat.
In 1912 an important restoration work led to the opening of the Galleria Comunale, which was previously housed in the Palazzo del Comune. The last restoration started in 1998 and it was finished in 2013. In September of the same year the museum reopened with the exhibition “From Donatello to Lippi. Officina pratese”.
The historical origins of the museum are linked to the decision of the grand duke of Tuscany, Leopold II, who wanted to create a collection of paintings for the students of the city’s drawing school (1788).
The collection was enriched thanks to various donations and purchases, until the official inauguration of the first exhibition organized by Giovanni Papini in 1912.
In 1926, thanks to Angiolo Badiani’s initiative, the State museum received their first assemblage of plaster casts by local sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini and in 1954 the museum was reopened with new layout, designed by Giuseppe Marchini.
In the late 1980s’ the gallery was closed for restoration work. During these years of improvements, the museum purchased the Crucifixion by Filippino Lippi and the altarpieces by Santi di Tito and Alessandro Allori were donated to the museum by Angela Riblet.
The museum holds many artworks, ranging from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. Among these there are the polyptych with the Stories of the Cintola by Bernardo Daddi, polyptychs by Giovanni da Milano and Lorenzo Monaco, Filippo Lippi’s Madonna del Ceppo and the Adoration of the Child and Vincenzo Ferrer, Filippino Lippi’s Annunciation with St. Julian, Mattia Preti’s Repudiation of Agar and the Cabins by Ardengo Soffici.
The collection includes also an important assemblage of sculptures of the most important artists of the time, among them Andrea della Robbia and Benedetto Buglioni.