It was January 30, 1518, when Leonardo Buonafede, “spedalingo” or rector of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, commissioned Giovan Battista di Jacopo di Gasparre, a promising artist of humble origins, without a real surname and called Rosso Fiorentino (Florence, 8 March 1494 – Fontainebleau, 14 November 1540) a Sacred Conversation with the Madonna and Child surrounded by Saints: Saint John the Baptist, Saint Anthony the Abbot, Saint Stephen and Saint Jerome.
Delivery was scheduled for June of the same year and the agreed amount was 25 wide gold florins (fiorini larghi).
Vasari tells us that, however, Spedalingo, seeing the sketched panel, was strongly disappointed: he established that the Saints seemed rather “devils”, and so he ran away from home and did not want the panel, saying that Rosso had pranked him.
But everything has a price: the dispute was resolved with the deduction of 9 florins from the remuneration for the painter, an almost 40% discount.
However, the altarpiece never reached the Church of Ognissanti. It was still too disturbing, despite, probably, some corrections to the expressions on the faces that, according to Vasari, at the beginning Rosso always made “cruel and desperate”, softening them just before delivery.
The Spedalingo resolved it was better to send it to a country church owned by the hospital, dedicated to Saint Stephen, in Mugello.
In fact, many innovative elements were introduced in the painting, first of all is the elimination of any hierarchical form between the Virgin and the Saints: the Madonna is not placed at the top, in a dominant position, but stands on a par with the Saints, and the figures are compressed into a confined space, without the elegant frame of a paradisiacal architecture or landscape to set the mood.
Donatello’s reliefs in the pulpits of the Passion and Resurrection in San Lorenzo probably inspired Rosso in creating the angular and rough effects used for the depiction of male bodies. These have dark faces, deep shadows carved into the flesh, with restless and disturbing looks, accentuated by a marked gesture. These characteristics of exasperated expressiveness of the faces will also recur in later works by Rosso.
However, we must be careful: the accentuation of the shadows under the eyes in Jesus, so unnatural, is actually due to the re-emergence of a “pentimento”, probably corrected when the Saints were modified. There were also other afterthoughts: for example, 4 eyes are visible in the face of the Child.
One cannot remain indifferent to this painting, in front of these stripped and elongated bodies, with almost grotesque faces, that are however accompanied by the sweetness of the little angels in the foreground and by the great chromatic richness with bright and iridescent hues.
Despite the disdain of the Spedalingo, this work is today one of the most important of Florentine art of the sixteenth century, and is now preserved in the Uffizi. And the little angels are considered among the most enchanting images of all Western art.
Art-Test investigated another small delightful work by Rosso of the Uffizi collection: Portrait of a Young Lady, but who knows what one could discover under the Pala!