FOREIGN COLLECTIONS 
FILE : Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama, USA
TITLE : De Matteis Windows

 

Museum Website: http://www.artsbma.org/

These windows by the Florentine firm of Ulisse De Matteis came to the Birmingham Museum of Art in Birmingham, Alabama, as part of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation’s donation to the Museum in 1950 [1]. They are the only examples in an American museum of the work of the stained glass atelier founded by De Matteis (1828-1910), a Florentine glazier who was quite well known in his day. The four windows are variations on four of the six windows created by Gualtieri di Fiandra and Paolo do Brondo between 1558-1561 for the colloquio of the Certosa del Galluzzo, the Carthusian monastery outside of Florence founded in the 1340's [2]. Like the Certosa windows, the central medallion in these four stained glass panels depict four of the most salient events in the life of St. Bruno (c.1030-1101), the founder of the Carthusian order at Chartres. Three of the windows represent scenes from the funeral of Raymond Diocrès, Bruno’s teacher at the cathedral school of Notre Dame in Paris. During his own funeral, Raymond raised his head three times and called out the three phrases (inscribed on both the Certosa and Birmingham windows): JUSTO DEI JUDICIO ACCUSATUS SUM, "I have been called to account by the perfect judgement of God"; JUSTO DEI JUDICIO JUDICATUS SUM, "I have been judged by the perfect judgement of God"; and JUSTO DEI JUDICIO CONDEMNATUS SUM, "I have been condemned by the perfect judgement of God." Raymond’s miraculous words inspired Bruno to retreat from the world and follow a life of asceticism. The fourth episode represents the dream of Hugo, the Bishop of Grenoble, who saw seven stars of gold fall to his feet and then fly through the sky to the Desert of Chartreuse, the predestined location of the first Carthusian house [3]. The inscription on the Birmingham window depicting this scene reads: EP(ISCOP)US VIDIT IN SOMNIO SEPTE STELLAS, "The bishop saw seven stars in a dream" [4].

While the Birmingham windows preserve the date of 1570 included in the border decoration of two of the Certosa windows, the De Matteis firm did not intend to trick his audience: instead, the glazier included his stamp in the lower right hand corner of one of the windows. The stained glass atelier of Ulisse De Matteis enjoyed a great deal of popularity in its day; a catalog published in 1915 when the De Matteis firm was under the artistic direction of the Florentine painter Ezio Giovanozzi includes a complete list of the hundreds of commissions the firm received from its inception in 1859 until the publication of the catalog [5]. Not only did they create windows in many of the important civic and religious monuments in Florence, but they won many exhibition prizes and received commissions all over Italy, in other European cities and even in America. Despite this renown, very little research has been carried out on Ulisse De Matteis and therefore very little is known about his life or workshop. He is included in several dictionaries of nineteenth-century Italian artists, and from these entries and the 1915 catalog one can construct his basic biography [6].

Ulisse De Matteis was born in Florence in 1828 and following his participation in the first war of Italian liberation against Austria in the late 1840's, he studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence with the renowned painter Stefano Ussi. De Matteis’ career as a painter was relatively short lived: in the 1850's, with the help of the chemist Prof. Emilio Bechi, he dedicated his artistic career to painting on glass with enamel pigments. Together with the glassmaker Natale Bruschi, De Matteis founded a society for glass enamel painting that was approved by the Academy and earned Bruschi and De Matteis a great deal of honor within Florentine Academy circles. In 1859, Ulisse De Matteis founded his stained glass workshop in Florence together with his two younger brothers. De Matteis’ wife, Veronica, also worked in the shop painting windows [7]. Ulisse De Matteis died in February of 1910; his obituary in the Corriere della Sera reports that he died at the age of 82, mentions several of his important commissions in Florence and abroad, and ceremoniously places him in the circle of the nineteenth-century Macchaioli painters Telemaco Signorini, Giovanni Fattori and his former professor Stefano Ussi, with whom he was imprisoned in Austria during the wars for Italian independence [8]. In 1904, Ulisse De Matteis and his sons brought the Florentine painter Ezio Giovanozzi to their shop as artistic director in what may have been an attempt to modernize the style of the workshop [9]. Giovanozzi worked in the Liberty and Renaissance revival styles which were evidently quite popular: following Ulisse De Matteis’ death, Giovanozzi created some of the largest and best-preserved stained glass cycles in the firm’s history. Giovanozzi’s Renaissance revival style windows were quite popular in church settings Florence and elsewhere and Tuscany throughout the 1910's. Examples survive in the American Church in Florence, the Archbishop’s chapel in the Palazzo Arcivescovado in Florence, in San Francesco in Arezzo and in the church of Saints Paolo and Donato in Lucca.

Renaissance revival style stained glass was also popular in secular locations such as banks, hotels and private homes. It was likely for a secular context that the De Matteis workshop created the Birmingham windows during the time of Ezio Giovanozzi’s tenure as artistic director of the firm, probably between 1905 and 1920. The front of the 1915 catalog created by Giovanozzi bears the same logo on the Birmingham windows as do many of the windows illustrated inside. The 1910 portal of the Banca Commerciale Italiana, illustrated in the company’s catalog, is carried out in a Renaissance style complete with garlands and central medallions which contain the entwined letters of the bank’s logo. The medallions in the center of the Banca Commerciale doors are similar to those found in the Certosa and Birmingham windows. While the Banca Commerciale’s door is apparently no longer extant, a commission from about the same time survives in the hotel Porta Rossa on the Via Porta Rossa in the historic center of Florence [10]. While the commission is not documented, the firm included their insignia, the same insignia found on the Birmingham windows, on one of the windows. In order to compliment the Renaissance revival style of the interior, the officina De Matteis painted the glass of the central partition in the lobby with Renaissance style figures, including one which resembles the leading lady of Botticelli’s Primavera. The figures are surrounded by frames and garlands which, like those in the Banca Commerciale door, are similar to the sixteenth-century glazing style of the Birmingham windows. The Porta Rossa glass bears the greatest similarity with the Birmingham windows in terms of color, figural style and decorative motifs. These Renaissance "reproductions" most likely earned the firm a great deal of their income because they were very fashionable in this period and therefore quite marketable to private and public patrons.

The Renaissance revival generally centered around the decoration of private homes. Throughout the last half of the nineteenth century, upper and middle class Italians decorated their homes with neo-Renaissance furniture, reproductions of Renaissance ceramics and other decorative items conceived in Renaissance styles. For these private patrons, the Renaissance style probably represented a return to their grand artistic past. According to Annalisa Zanni, "when Florence became the capitol of Italy in 1865, the neo-Renaissance joined and harmoniously blended with the Risorgimento." [11] Thus, the Renaissance revival likely had relatively overt political connotations for the artists and patrons who decorated their homes and businesses with Renaissance "recreations."

The Birmingham windows were produced within this spirit of revival in early twentieth century Florence. For very different reasons, the Renaissance revival style was also popular in America, the eventual home of the Birmingham windows. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century wealthy American patrons who felt themselves to be the true inheritors of Italian Renaissance culture, began to purchase Italian art and recreations of Renaissance furniture for their own majestic residences [12]. For example, a large amount of Italian art and furnishings flooded into the homes of wealthy Americans like George Gray Barnard, William Randolph Hearst and William Boyce Thompson in 1916 when Elias Volpi auctioned off large parts of the Renaissance paintings and furniture he had collected in his Palazzo Davanzati in Florence [13]. In the next decade, Samuel Kress began to decorate his New York apartment in the style of an Italian palazzo [14]. According to one description, the grand apartment was furnished with "heavy tables and elaborately carved cassoni...a plethora of majolica, plaques, and small bronzes, and...Savonarola stools and Medici chairs," in addition to the collection of Italian Renaissance paintings which Kress had also purchased with the help of his patron Alessandro Contini-Bonacossi [15]. Kress probably purchased the windows now in the Birmingham collection to furnish his palazzo. As the Birmingham windows correspond to a type of window sold in the 1915 De Matteis catalog, it is even possible that Kress himself ordered the windows from the De Matteis workshop [16]. These recreations of sixteenth-century stained glass must have blended well with the dark wood furniture and painted gold panels that populated Kress’ New York City neo-Renaissance apartment.

Nancy M. Thompson
Assistant Professor of Art History
St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN
thompsn@stolaf.edu

NOTES

  1. A new catalog of the Birmingham Museum’s Kress catalog will be published in the Spring of 2002. This essay is an excerpt from my larger essay from this forthcoming publication.
  2. On the Certosa in Florence, see Caterina Chiarelli and Giovanni Leoncini, eds., La Certosa del Galluzzo a Firenze (Milan, 1982). On Carthusian patronage in Florence, see Caterina Chiarelli, Le attività artistiche e il patrimonio librario della Certosa di Firenze : dalle origini alla meta del XVI secolo (Salzburg, 1984). The windows in the Certosa were formerly attributed to Giovanni da Udine based on their stylistic similarities with his windows in the Laurentian library. Documentary evidence revealed that the windows in the Certosa were instead created by Paolo di Brondo and Gualtieri di Fiandra. See Chiarelli (1982), 279-81.
  3. Chiarelli (1982), 279-80.
  4. The inscription on the Certosa window is longer than that on the Birmingham window. It reads: EP(ISCOPU)S VIDIT IN SOMNIO SEPTE(M) STELLAS ANTE PEDES SUOS CADERE, "The bishop saw in a dream seven stars fall before his feet." See Chiarelli (1982), 279-80 for the Latin inscriptions of the Certosa windows.
  5. A brief history of the firm is give in a 1915 sales catalog entitled, Officina De Matteis vetraria: per la costruzione e per il restauro de vetrate dipinte a smalto a gran fuoco, secondo il sistema degli antichi maestri, hereafter referred to as Officina De Matteis vetraria.
  6. The most thorough of these entries is the Dizionario degli artisti italiani vivendi, ed. Angelo De Gubernatis (Florence, 1892), 174-75. Later dictionaries, including Comanducci’s Dizionario illustrato dei pittori, disegnatori e incisori italiani moderni e contemporanei, 4th ed. (Milan, 1972) appear to have taken their information from De Gubernatis.
  7. Veronica De Matteis exhibited a window depicting the angel of God in the 1887 exhibition of construction materials in Florence. See note 12 for more information on the exhibit. According to an entry on Ulisse De Matteis in the Dizionario dei pittori italiani, ed. Antonietta Maria Bessone-Aureli (Città di Castello, 1915), Veronica De Matteis won a silver medal at another Florentine exhibition.
  8. De Matteis’ obituary is in the Corriere della sera, 18 February, 1910. For more information and further bibliography on the Macchaioli, see Albert Boime The Art of the Macchia and the Risorgimento: Representing Culture and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Italy (Chicago, 1993). On page 185, Boime notes that in 1848, Ussi "joined the Florentine Second Battalion that was defeated at Mantua , and he was imprisoned by the Austrians for several months." Perhaps Ulisse De Matteis followed in the footsteps of his teacher and also joined the battalion.
  9. Giovanozzi was born in Florence in 1882. See Commanducci’s entry on Giovanozzi, vol. 3 (1972), 1497. He was still alive in 1963 when he had a show of his paintings at the Saletta d’arte Gonnelli in Florence.
  10. The proprietor of the Porta Rossa was not sure of the exact date of the remodeling on the interior of the hotel. She estimated that the De Matteis glass was from the early twentieth century. Because the Porta Rossa commission is not included in the 1915 sales catalog, I would estimate that the glass dates to just after the publishing of this catalog.
  11. Annalisa Zanni, "The Neo Renaissance as the Image of the Private," in Reviving the Renaissance, ed. Rosanna Pavoni (Cambridge, 1997), 142.
  12. Richard Guy Wilson, "Expressions of Identity," in The American Renaissance (New York, 1979), 10-25.
  13. Roberta Ferrazza, Palazzo Davanzati e le collezioni di Elia Volpi (Florence, 1993). See especially the chapter entitled, "Palazzo Davanzati: un simbolo della ‘Fiorinità’ negli stati uniti fra la prima guerra mondiale e il Crac di Wall Street," pages 145-222.
  14. Marilyn Perry, "The Kress Collection" in A Gift to America: Masterpieces of European Painting from the Samuel H. Kress Collection (New York, 1994), 16.
  15. This is the description of John Walker, the former curator of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. See his book, Self Portrait with Donors (Boston, 1973), 133-153.
  16. It is also possible that Kress purchased the windows from his dealer in Florence, Alessandro Contini-Bonacossi. See Perry (1994), 16-19 for the relationship between Kress and Contini-Bonacossi.