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Reliquary of Montalto

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JEAN DU VIVIER (?), Paris, last twenty years of the XIV century; Venetian goldsmith workshop, 1457-1464; Diomede Vanni, Rome, doc.1587.
Reliquary with the Image of the Pietà and Scenes from the Passion (so-called 'Reliquiario di Montalto')
Gold, melted silver, embossed, engraved, painted and gilded, enamels en ronde bosse, gems (sapphires and spinel rubies), pearls, cameo in sardonyx; cm 66,5 x 43 x 23
Montalto Marche (AP), Museo Sistino Vescovile; Restoration: Istituto Centrale del Restauro, Rome, 1987-1990

Reliquiario Sisto VThe so-called 'Reliquiario di Montalto' is an extraordinary relic whose artistic value and historic importance have been extensively researched during the second half of the last century starting with a fundamental study carried out by Theodor Mulier and Erich Steingraber (1954) with more recent contributions by Filippo Trevisani (1987 and 2003) and Anna Rosa Calderoni Masetti (1997 and 2003). A description of the historic vicissitudes and the passage of property of the precious handiwork that follows have determined the complex morphological and stylistic variations that over time has brought it to its present state.
According to a more recent study (Calderoni Masetti, 2000a), the Reliquary is identified as one of the objects listed in the inventory of Charles V (1379-1380) among the precious works conserved in the Oratorio della Cappellina of the king at the Louvre. This is further verified in the recognition of the Treasury of the heir, Charles VI in the years 1391, 1400-1405, and 1413. The Reliquary then reappears in the inventory note following the death of Frederick IV of Tyrol in 1439 (Eikelmann, 1995). In 1450 it was in the hands of a German merchant, Jacob de Goldemonte, who sold it to Leonello of Este on April 2 of the same year for his collections. The work is clearly identifiable in a precise description of the ducal inventory (Franceschini, 1993). In this document, the front part of the Reliquary is described as can be seen today: a plate of gilded silver with a large angel at the center with unfurled wings holding up the dead Christ; at the sides there are two kneeling angels holding a lance and pillar. The group is made in enamel en ronde bosse (opaque or translucent enamel applied over gold relief) with a precious chromatic variety including two shades of white, blue, azure, red, emerald green and a light gray .
The same technique is used in the expressions of the Crucifixion and the Flagellation, inserted in two rings along the frame above which there are two flying angels holding the scourge, nails and crown of thorns. Above, inside a quadrangular tympanum appears God the Father surrounded by angels. These figures are also in enamel en ronde bosse as well as the small, dramatic Deposition that concludes the iconographic cycle of the Passion at the base, lined by two quadrangular compartments containing the relics. In gilded silver with painted hands and face are two kneeling angels at the sides of the tympanum that are holding up scrolls reading "Passus sub Pontio" "Pilatus crucifixus," which are fragments of the “Apostles’ Creed.” The elegant Gothic letters are made using the punctiform incision approach, a precious pointillée technique used by goldsmiths throughout the region to the north of the Alps. This same technique was used to finely decorate the angels’ wings and the original parts of the gilded silver plate, more specifically, the flat quadrangular frame along which there are vegetation decorations in which some plants can be recognized such as marigold, hawthorn, violet, carnation, wild rose, and flax, which are symbolic references to the Virgin Mary and the Passion for their funerary symbolism

Reliquiario Sisto V The same pointillé work was used to depict the Agony in the Garden on the back of the gilded silver, described in the Estensi inventory, but that was later eliminated together with a ring and chains that were used to hang the Reliquary. On the front part, it is worth noting the profusion of gems (sapphires and spinel rubies, erroneously defined as ‘balas rubies’) and pearls distributed over a large cross erected behind the Christ held by an angel, around the image of the Eternal Father and along the frame. The colors of the gems and pearls harmoniously exalt the timbre value of the enamels, especially the grades of luminosity of the white, the intense bleu de roi, the brilliant rouge-clair that, when the underlying gold is left to transpire, takes on an extraordinary ruby tone that Benvenuto Cellini defines “the most beautiful of them all” (1568, ed. 2002, pp.33-34).
The fate of the Reliquary after the sudden death of Leonello d’Este on October 1, 1450 is not known, but it can be presumed that political reasons motivated its alienation, then its following reappearance in 1457 in the Inventory of the Venetian Cardinal Pietro Barbo, Pope from 1464 to 1471 with the name Paul II (Muntz, 1879). A refined collector, the Cardinal had collected in his Roman palace of San Marco a notable treasure comprised of many important works in gold. Comparing the description of two inventories, it has emerged that there had been substantial modifications made to the Reliquary by the new owner who, besides adding four of his own coat of arms (azure to the galloping lion, crossed by a band), had added enamels and gems in a new mounting in gilded silver only to the front part. This is a slender quadrangular structure sustained by a wide base with a mixtilinear profile with ornate flowers and vegetables. Running along the width there is a foliage decoration that starts from two wide leaves of acanthus, while the back with the Agony in the Garden is eliminated and substituted with an aniconic mirror in which a candelabra and extensive volute vegetation emerge from the sable base. All this culminates in a niche with a cameo in sardonyx, maybe Byzantine, depicting Jesus Christ, behind which there is an engraved message referring to the client. Other two dedications are placed at the base of the two façades of the Reliquary. The one in back still remains that made by Pietro Barbo, and the front one was made by Pope Sixtus V when, during the second year of his papacy (1587), he gave the precious object to the city of Montalto in Marche, his “dearest homeland.” The Pope from the Marche had taken the Reliquary from the Vatican Treasury, perhaps choosing it because of the resemblance of the coat of arms to his own. Diomede Vanni, the goldsmith in charge of the “repolitura e rassettatura” or “cleaning and repairing” of the object, was supposed to only modify the dedicatory writings, removing those of Barbo and replacing them with those of Sixtus (the back one from the fifteenth century was restored in 1910) and to add the emblems of the Pope to the band of the existing coat of arms, that is, the star and the three mountains.

Reliquiario Sisto V L'orafo sistino è l'unico dei maestri che hanno lavorato al Reliquiario, fin dalla sua creazione, di cui si abbia notizia sicura. Non si sa, infatti, chi eseguì la nuova, monumentale montatura voluta dal cardinale Barbo, anche se il lavoro è stilisticamente collocabile nell'ambito dell'oreficeria veneziana quattrocentesca. E non è documentato l'artista che realizzò lo straordinario manufatto nella sua forma primitiva, caratterizzata dalla delicata lavorazione pointillé, ma soprattutto dall'esteso impiego degli smalti en ronde bosse, la preziosa tecnica orafa sviluppatasi in Francia, e particolarmente a Parigi, dalla seconda metà del Trecento. Non si ritiene infatti di condividere la recente proposta secondo la quale alcuni preziosi manufatti con smalti en ronde bosse, tra i quali il Reliquiario di Montalto, potrebbero essere stati realizzati in Lombardia (Venturelli, 2003).
The Sistine goldsmith is the only known maestro to have worked on the Reliquary since its creation. In fact, it is not known who made the monumental mounting desired by Cardinal Barbo, even if the work is stylistically traceable to the Venetian goldsmith works of the fifteenth century. There is not even documentation on the artist who created the extraordinary handiwork in its primitive form, characterized by pointillé elaboration, nor on the extensive use of the enamels en ronde bosse, the precious goldsmith technique developed in France, mainly in Paris, during the second half of the fourteenth century. The recent conjecture that the precious handiworks with enamel en ronde bosse, including the Reliquary of Montalto, were made in Lombardy is not thought to be valid (Venturelli, 2003). Therefore, the Sistine Reliquary was believed to have been commissioned by a client representing the royal house of France and made in one of the Parisian goldsmith ateliers. Based on the description of an object very similar in the Inventory of the Louvre chapel as previously mentioned, It has also been suggested that the commissioner could have been Charles V who died in 1380, while the name Jean or “Hennequin” du Vivier, "orfèvre et valet de chambre" of the king, emerges as the probable goldsmith (Calderoni Masetti, 2003a). In fact, a payment was made in 1377 by the Duke of Burgundy to the famous goldsmith for an object that was then added – for reasons still unknown today – to the property of the king. It is not possible to elaborate all of the arguments that sustain this theory that, at the present state of study, seems to be the most plausible in defining the origin of this extraordinary piece. Finally, its presence among the goods of Frederick IV of Tyrol could be motivated by its inclusion among the dowry pieces of Catherine of Burgundy, daughter of Filippo l’Ardito, brother of Charles V, who married Leopold IV of Tyrol.

Benedetta Montevecchi       

Description taken from the catalogue of the exhibition: Gentile da Fabriano e l’altro Rinascimento, by L.Laureati e L.Mochi Onori, (Fabriano, April 21 – July 31, 2006), Milan 2006, pp.102-103.


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