TUSCANY - Florence
FILE : Cathedral 3
TITLE : Nativity

LOCATION: Firenze, S. Maria del Fiore Cathedral, tambour Ta6 (roundel)

DIMENSIONS: diameter a. 480 cm

PROVENIENCE: original location


AUTHOR: Paolo Uccello (cartoons– documented) execution (Angelo Lippi – documented)

ASSIGNMENT: Opera del Duomo

SUBJECT/S : Nativity. The subject belongs to a complex iconographic programme dedicated to the Glorification of the Virgin with the addition of some Christological episodes: the Annunciation, Ta5 - destroyed), the Nativity ( Ta6), the Presentation at the temple(Ta4), the prayer in the garden (Ta3), the Deposition (Ta7), the Resurrection ( Ta8) , the Ascension (Ta2); the sequence ends with the Incoronation of Mary (Ta1), located in the Tribune, above the St. Zenobi chapel.

CRITICAL NOTES: when the works at the impressive Brunelleschi’s dome were near the end, the Opera del Duomo started out the eight round windows of the tambour closing them with their relative stained glass. It is the period when Ghiberti, with the three ocula in the façade already set, after operating at the Orsanmichele, was working at the eastern gate for the Florentine baptistery. That may justify the fact he was not dedicating all his time to this new important commission for the tambour stained glass windows; an assignment that should have been rather laborious if the supervisors of the Cathedral required the full-size and coloured cartoons for the Incoronation window both to Donatello and Ghiberti, cartoons that had to be placed in situ to better verify the final effect ( see Firenze Cattedrale 2).

A further challenge was the one between Ghiberti and Paolo Uccello for the roundel with the Ascension. After the end of his work at the Watch, on 2 May 1443 Paolo Uccello was paid for that roundel; but Ghiberti obtained the commission (see Firenze Cattedrale 30). However, Paolo’s work must have been appreciated since he was assigned of three cartoons for other three roundels soon after: the Resurrection (July 1443), the Nativity (November 1443), the Annunciation, (February 1444, window destroyed in 1828). Martin points out the high amount of liras paid to Paolo for each cartoon, that is, 40 liras per cartoon, almost the same pay given for the frescoes. Even though the amount was less than what Ghiberti and Andrea del Castagno obtained , 50 liras per cartoon, it is not little if compared to the 64 liras he got for the Monument to Giovanni Acuto, and the 40 for the Watch. Therefore, Martin concludes that Paolo must have carried out full-size models for the roundels as well, and with the painting of the background.

The three windows are just an unusual episode of Paolo’s activity, who painted especially on panel or at fresco. After his return to Florence from Venice in 1430, the artist had been working at some cycles for about ten years: the one with St. Francis’ stories in S. Trinita’s ; the decoration of the Assumption Chapel in the Prato’s Cathedral (dated to 1433-34 by Volpi); the fresco of the Adoration of the Child at S. Martino’s in Bologna (dated around 1435). Furthermore, the three compositions of the Battle of S. Romano for Cosimo de’ Medici’s bedroom, re-dated to an earlier period, just before 1440. At S. Maria del Fiore Paolo’s assignments followed one another: after the Monument to Giovanni Acuto, the Watch in the counter-façade paid in February 1443, almost near the start of his new commission for the tambour’s roundels.

Despite the damage due to the botching this window underwent during a continuous sequence of ‘restorations’, it is still visible the previous work. Lingering over the various figurative elements of the large roundel, it allows the acknowledgment of detailed references to previous paintings of the artist. The image of the donkey and the ox stretching out towards the manger, out of the limits of the weak hut, supported by knotted trunks comes from the fresco in Bologna; too much detailed is the foreshortening, with the clear line of the two animals’ backbone, to consider it only a coincidence. The same for the sudden twisting movement of the Virgin showing the florid face out of a thin neck; St. Joseph’s meditative posture, crouching down with his head fixed on the right arm; the child’s posture laying against a ground rise: all figurative episodes so close to those in the Adoration of the Child of Karlsuhe that he seems to take notes from that painting.

Agnolo di Lippi was the executor. The scarce news about his work are about the payments made by the Opera of the Florentine cathedral, and for some years the information about his activity are related to Domenico del Piero’s . Domenico was just assigned of the Donatello’s cartoon execution, the Coronation of the Virgin (see Firenze Cattedrale 2) when the supervisors of the Cathedral gave the two artists a certain amount of glass, a loan of 40 florins and the use of a house where the artists could work at Donatello’s drawings. But their collaboration didn’t last long: in 1435 both the artists left Florence, and , according to what shown by Burnam, Domenico di Pisa is working at the stained glass windows of the Cathedral (see Pisa Cattedrale 0). However, their presence was evidently required at the Florentine yard, since the Opera of S. Maria del Fiore sent an injunction to the Captain of Pisa in December 1435, where Domenico’s return to Florence was urged. After only two months , in February 1436, they wrote to the Vicar of Mugello with a request of a summons for Lippi. Therefore, the two collaborators had to go back to Florence and take up again their work at the cathedral. In the end the works proceeded : on 26th June 12 florins were paid for the glass coming from Venice; on 19th December 1437 the two artist were paid for the window laying. Once that ‘suffered’ commission was over, the two masters continued to work in S. Maria del Fiore at the transept windows, but each one independently.

In five years Lippi carried out the windows of St. Peter Chapel ( 1439- 42, see Firenze Cattedrale 25 ), maybe those in the St. John the Evangelist Chapel (1441 – 43, see Firenze Cattedrale 20), and this roundel of the Nativity. In spite of the mortified personality of the two master glaziers work at the apse windows for the uniformity required by Ghiberti, evidence of Angelo’s style is clear in the refined choices of his execution of St. Peter Chapel. The choices adopted for the execution of the Nativity in the tambour are different if compared to the windows of St. Peter Chapel, but still the result of the same sensitiveness towards the expressive possibilities given by the glass. In the roundel the perspective is created thanks to the marble-like round glass or light blue cives; the same glass used in Donatello’s roundel, and maybe belonging to the same glass stock employed for that window.

CONDITIONS: As for all the windows in the cathedral, this one as well underwent a through restoration and intervention work during the past. The never-ending story of the rearrangements in the corpus of the stained glass windows had already begun since 1447-54 with the maintenance carried out by Lippi himself; than came Leonardo della Scarperia and Bernardo di Francesco’s intervention. They were entrusted with the restoration of the windows in the Florentine Duomo by the Construction of S. Maria del Fiore, together with the use of a laboratory. The most glaring and readable intervention is in the lead frame net carried out by U. de Matteis, in order to solder the several breakings maybe due to the material that come off from the dome; the same occurred to the other roundel by Paolo Uccello, the Annunciation (Ta5), heavily damaged.

Originally, the lead frame net was square-like, near the tesellatum of the mosaic; now the pieces are reduced to small fragments, badly patched up. Therefore, the thick lead frame net not only forbids an easy reading of the original leads’ ductus drawing, but it also created some ‘mistakes’: the humped body of the ox lost its volumetric definition; the donkey seems to be lame, for its contracted leg that is a result of further leading intervention, while a stop gap made its back humped, with a deforming protuberance.




G.POGGI Il duomo di Firenze, Firenze, (1909), edited by M. Haines 1988, vol. I nn. 744 – 50, 813, 818, 825- 26


H. VAN STRAELEN Studien zur Florentiner Glasmalerei des Trecento und Quattrocento, Wattenschad, 1938, pp. 81-83

G. MARCHINI Le vetrate italiane, Milano Electa, 1955 p.42, n.53; C.ACIDINI LUCHINAT Le vetrate, in AA.VV. La cattedrale di S. Maria del Fiore a Firenze, Firenze, 1995, vol. II, pp. 278-80; F. MARTIN- P. G.RUF Le vetrate di S. Francesco in Assisi, Assisi, 1998, pp. 132 –3.

As far as Paolo Uccello’s artistic activity is concerned, see A. ANGELINI Paolo Uccello in AAVV Pittura di luce, Milano, 1990, pp. 73- 84.

As for the bibliography of the whole complex of the cathedral stained glass windows see Bibl.Ghiberti

PHOTOGRAPHIC FILES: Archivio Electa Editrice, Milano

EDITOR: Caterina Pirina, February 2001