A large, archaic marble throne and a shell-shaped half-dome seats the Virgo Lactans, while on her sides, in the foreground, stand the two imposing figures of Saint Agnes and Saint Catherine, distinguished by the palm of martyrdom and their respective attributes – the lamb and the wheel – that are almost hidden from sight; one is at the saint’s feet in very small size and it is almost camouflaged in the background, while the other can be seen at the side of the throne, shown by the saint who lifts the hem of the dress which otherwise would be covering it.
The ancient iconography represents the breastfeeding Virgin, where a Herculean baby Jesus is depicted completely naked and with a coral necklace, turning his towards the viewer and he seems distracted by his mother’s breast, while the mother seems thoughtful, holding him with her right arm and pointing him with her left hand as if to emphasize her maternal act. According to this well-established model–centred composition with classical elements influenced by Bramante and by the bright decorative nuances of Squarcione – where the focal point of the scene is the throne; the three-dimensional structure with a niche and shell-shaped canopy (an element with a possible symbolic value: C. Tedeschi, Teorìa de la Belleza 2014) that bears the protrusion of the umbo on the top, almost as if it should undermine the decorative value of the element and lead the focus of the viewer towards the divine group. Without the possibility of identifying precise models, which have always been determined in the Ferrara area (Salmi 1926-1927), it is not difficult to recognize the director of such compositional choices, also due to the slavish repetition of the canopy element, from the Brera Madonna by Piero della Francesca, the imaginative architectural side scene on the central panel of the Roverella altarpiece by Tura to, above all, the intellectual complications of Previdari’s engraving from 1481, as reminded by Andrei Bliznukov. These would be cross-references, which refer, as already mentioned, to the academic environment of Squarcione, where the cultural syncretism affected the painter’s educational predisposition while considering the delay in which this response arrives, being precisely the panel in question dated and signed, and therefore one of the key points for reconstructing the artist’s catalogue. The inscription “. 1. 4 .. ANTONII CIGOGNARII OPVS . . 9 . 0 . “ in capital characters, as if it was an ancient epigraph, is placed on the vertical side of the first step of the base and the points that were placed to measure the space from start to finish for the numbers are still clearly visible. These few considerations would be enough to talk about Antonio Cicognara – a painter and miniaturist of perhaps Cremonese origins (where he is documented alive at least until 18 May 1516; M. Tanzi, The Bernard and Mary Berenson 2015) – as a non-conformist and sophisticated artist who was capable of balancing different cultural realities and probably more accustomed to small-format works (Hendy 1931, p. 48) according to many sketches for book decorations he made for the Antiphonaries for the cathedral of Cremona (codes IV and V of the Diocesan Historical Archive of Cremona; Passoni 2004).
These decorations and the work in question and the more archaic Virgin and Child of the Pinacoteca di Ferrara, signed and dated 1480, compose the nucleus of the artist’s certain works, to which can be added a small selection of paintings divided in various museums, which, however, cannot be certainly attributed to the painter, according to criticism (Campbell, 2002, pp. 263-268; M. Tanzi, Bernard and Mary Berenson 2015 2015, pp. 197-202), although it is undeniable that the historiographical disagreement that led to the classifying of works in the catalogues of three masters of the same name (see the summaries of Bargellesi 1981) has now been fully overcome. In this context there has been some critical fortune, that has characterized the work in question, for obvious reasons that are mentioned in the bibliography concerning the artist, which has made it one of the cornerstones for the research of the artistic culture in Cremona.
The painting was in the church of San Pantaleone in Cremona in the early 18th century (Sacchi 1872; Nebbia 1912) and then in don Davide Rondanini’s collection, rector of the church of Sant’Elena (hence it was thought to have been made for the church; Zaist 1774) while today it is in the Cavallini Sgarbi collection after having been part of various historical Lombard collections, including the Milanese collection of Achille Cologna, as noted by Marco Tanzi (Bernard and Mary Berenson 2015, pp. 197-198, n. 3). The crystalline brightness and chromatism light up the clear and pure colors, the sharp forms with which the painter depicts the figures of the saints and the harsh and barren landscape, but also the splintery configurations of the draperies and the precious decorations that pervade the artistic surface explain well the previous popular Ferrarese interpretation of the Cavallini Sgarbi collection piece, and the painter’s work in general, who was thought to have painted the month August in the cycle of the Months in Palazzo Schifanoia (Longhi 1934, pp. 58, 166, 168). However, nowadays these styles are explained as indirect learning from the works of Cremona painters, more directly and consciously linked to the artistic culture of the city of the Este (Tanzi 1991; Tanzi 2015), and Cicognara is an indispensable artist to understand the artistic relationships between the cultures of Cremona and Lombard area, thus rooted in the artistic context of his alleged birthplace – as shown by the comparison proposed by Marco Tanzi, with the reliefs of the Ark of the Persian Martyrs (Cremona, Cattedralel; Tanzi 1991, pp. 18-30, fig. 2)-, the artwork in question traces the geographical structure of rich cultural exchanges which involve all the fields of artistic production, but its full understanding is far from complete.
Not much is known about the life and whereabouts of Antonio Cicognara. He was probably most active in the Cremona area and perhaps in Ferrara at the end of the 15th century. His documented works start from 1480 and his last artwork was documented on 8 May 1516. Among his works, we know Madonna with Child (1480, Ferrara), St. George and the Princess (Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo in Brescia) and Madonna with Saints Agnes and Catherine of Alexandria (also known as Madonna del Latte, 1490, Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation in Ferrara).
The Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation was founded in 2008 by the couple Caterina “Rina” Sgarbi and Giuseppe “Nino” Sgarbi and their daughter and son, Elisabetta and Vittorio.
It is located in Ro Ferrarese, in their family home, which is now owned by the Elisabetta Sgarbi Foundation and it houses hundreds of works of art – paintings and sculptures from the 13th to the 20th century – that have been acquired in more than thirty years of passionate collecting.
The Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation promotes culture and research and works in collaboration with public and private institutions, organizes exhibitions inspired by rigorous scientific projects. The museum activity includes preservation, valorization and the possible increase of the art collections. The Foundation encourages the art education through training activities and support studies on the history of medieval and modern art with a particular attention to minor contexts and Italian artistic geography.
In addition to its art collection, the Foundation preserves a remarkable library, with sources of art and local stories, starting from the 16th century. For the will of its founders, the works of the collection and the library are accessible to art enthusiasts and scholars.
After having acquired, since 1976, 2800 titles of the 3500 works listed by Julius Schlosser in his Letteratura Artistica, Vittorio Sgarbi understands that “paintings and sculptures could be more convenient and enjoyable than the rarest book”. This illumination came from his encounter with Mario Lanfranchi, a master collector, the first of many persons he met after abandoning the university dogma that led him to “look artworks as spiritually universal goods, only materially unavailable”.
Thus, in 1983 while crossing San Domenico di Niccolò dell’Arca, Sgarbi decides that he would no longer “buy things that are possible to find, whose existence could be presumed, but things that were not known to exist for their unusual nature, or things that were even unthinkable”.
As he himself says “the hunt for paintings has no rules or goals, it is unpredictable. You don’t find something you’re looking for; you look for what you can find. Sometimes it is far beyond desire and expectations”. From this unstoppable impulse, which was closely connected to the love for beauty and the homeland, from this “rhapsodic, original collecting, that aspires to exclusive relationships with artworks as if they were living persons” arose a real summa of Italian art, between painting and sculpture, from the 13th century to our days: a cultivated assortment that reflects the broad and multifaceted culture of those who have found, acquired, studied and ultimately protected the precious pieces that built it.