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Isaac’s sacrifice

Tommaso Manzuoli, detto Maso da San Friano

Florence 1531-1571

Material: Oil on canvas

Size: cm 188 x 136

review by sandro ballesi

This work of art, defined with undoubted technical skill and realized with a rich chromatic range where shiny and preciously glazed hues stand out, represents one of the most widespread biblical episodes in the artistic field, namely the Sacrifice of Isaac.

Taken from the Old Testament book of Genesis (22, 1-19) history, which has become an absolute model of human obedience to God, it tells of how one day the Lord to test Abraham’s devotion, imposed on him to sacrifice Isaac, his only son, who was born when he was already aged, by his wife Sara.

Even if in complete despair, the Jewish patriarch took his little son to a chosen place, where to carry out the sacrifice. At the time of the immolation, however, the Lord sent an angel from the Kingdom of Heaven to prevent the same sacrifice. In place of the innocent child, and in homage to God, he killed a ram the horns of which, as we learn from the Holy Scriptures, got caught in some brambles. This event, rich in symbolic values, was  read, from the Middle Ages on, as a prefiguration of Jesus Christ’s death, the only-begotten Son of the Lord sent by him down to earth to be immolated for the Eternal Salvation of all Humanity.

Perfectly in line with the biblical text, the table illustrates, as in most of the artistic representations dedicated to the same episode, the climax of history, or the moment in which the angel sent by the Lord to Abraham prevents him from sacrificing his son. Rich in strong empathic charge, the painting focuses its attention, beyond the obvious descriptive priority given to the protagonists of the drama, on the scenic layout where, in a pleasant hilly landscape with architectural ruins and a city wall in the background, two servants of Abraham are pictured also in the background while crying,  and the ram is under some trees with tall branches.

The style features and the typological peculiarity of the figures, especially those of Isaac, lead to assign this work, hitherto unpublished, to the pictorial catalog of Tommaso Manzuoli, better known as Maso da San Friano.Maso was born in Florence on November 4 1531, in San Frediano district from which his nickname derived. He is a prominent figure in the field of the Tuscan painting – second half of the sixteenth century.   He started soon his artistic studies  at first in the school of Pier Francesco Foschi,  then in Carlo Portelli’ s one; there,  in addition to acquiring the foundations of a good copyist, he created  portraits and works of invention based on Francesco Salviati’s  “Belle Maniera” and on the lessons of Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino.

After making copies, especially copies of paintings by Andrea del Sarto, he distinguished himself not only for the portraits – among which the important one is “The two architects” at the Museum of Capodimonte in Naples, signed and dated 1556 – but mainly for his refined altarpieces, where a particular attention is given to the linguistic formulas adopted by Rosso Fiorentino. These formulas were evident in the almost sharp facet of the fabrics drapery and in the stretched out and often anti-naturalistic shape of the figures.

The restlessness of his images and the frequently dreamy settings distinguish his paintings realized for the Studiolo (cabinet) of Francesco I in Palazzo Vecchio, where, under the aegis of Giorgio Vasari and alongside artists such as Girolamo Macchietti and Mirabello Cavalori, he created some works, worthy of the utmost attention in the panorama of the Tuscan painting of the time.

For still unknown reasons,  he died at the peak of his success in his hometown in 1571 and on  October the second his body was buried in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine (for the biographical profile of this artist see S. Brevaglieri in “Biographical Dictionary of Italians”, 69, Rome, 2007; with a preceding bibliography).

The good practice refined by this artist in his youth, in copying some renowned compositions of the early sixteenth century, is evident in this work, borrowed, albeit with slight variations, from one of the most successful late realizations made by the famous Andrea Del Sarto, an artist loved by Tuscan painters and patrons until the late nineteenth century.

Three autograph versions in fact, dating from 1527 to 1529, of the famous pre-Mannerist Florentine painter, are nowadays being known as taken from the same compositional formula.  Two of them, , with the same composition and description of details but in a different format, are preserved respectively in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden and the Museo del Prado in Madrid;  a third one, unfinished and therefore not completed by the artist, is listed in the collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The painting analyzed here seems to draw inspiration from the version currently in the United States, having no memories of other sartesque (of Andrea Del Sarto) autographs; it is evident in each figurative and ornamental element that surrounds the scene in the foreground, such as the two weeping servants and the watering donkey, the walled-in village and, again, the arrangement of clothes partially rolled up at the base of the sacrificial stone altar.

Distinctive features related to the reference model, which allow the full autograph of Maso da San Friano recognizable in this work, however, are in the figures faces, definitely different from Andrea Del Sarto’s typologies and in the pictorial definition with brushworks more compact and softly shaded.

Probably datable between the end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties, due to its typological peculiarity of the characters and mainly for the one of Isaac, this painting has relevant resemblance with Maso’s works painted at that time, such as “The Fortress” at the Gallery of the Academy in Florence (M. Onali in Il Cinquecento in Florence. “Modern and contemporary Manner, catalog of the exhibition realized by C. Falciani and A. Natali, Florence, Rome, 2017, pp. 266-267; with a preceding bibliography) and the Visitation of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambride (see A. Nesi, Per Maso da San Friano in “Christian Art”, 2007, XCV, 838, pp. 22-23; with the previous bibliography).

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