Filippo Fasanini, who died in 1531, instructed the executors of his will to commission this altarpiece for his chapel dedicated to Saint Philip and Saint James in S. Domenico, Bologna. It is signed on the throne’s plinth: IERONIMVS. TREVISIVS. P.[INXIT] (‘Girolamo of Treviso painted this’).
Filippo Fasanini was a professor of rhetoric and poetry at the University of Bologna. His will stipulated that the altarpiece was to represent the Virgin Mary with the infant Christ, Saint Joseph, Saint Philip, Saint James and his own likeness taken from nature. Filippo is kneeling in his black academic gown at the bottom left. His sunken features suggest that his portrait was painted from a death mask – a plaster cast of the face of the corpse. The patron’s name saint, Philip, is probably the one presenting him to the Virgin and Christ.
The altarpiece was praised by Vasari in his 1550 edition of The Lives of the Artists as Girolamo’s best work.
Filippo Fasanini was a professor of rhetoric and poetry at the University of Bologna. He was much appreciated as a poet and orator and was especially famous for his translations of Greek texts. His will stipulated that the altarpiece was to represent the Virgin Mary with the infant Christ, Saint Joseph, Saint Philip, Saint James and his own likeness taken from ‘naturali archetypo’ (a model from nature). Filippo Fasanini is at the bottom left, in his black academic gown. His sunken features suggest that his portrait was painted from a death mask – a plaster cast of the face of the corpse. Given Girolamo’s experience as a sculptor he may have made the mask himself. Although it is common to find sculpted busts made from death masks during this period, it is unusual to find one followed so closely in a painting.
The infant Christ, standing between the Virgin’s knees, raises his hand in blessing towards Filippo Fasanini, who kneels before him. The patron’s name saint, Philip, is probably the one on the left presenting him to the Virgin and Christ. Saint Joseph, the elderly man, and Saint James, holding a book and pilgrim staff, are on the right. The chapel is dedicated to Saint James the Less, who shares his feast day with Saint Philip, but the pilgrim staff held by Saint James here is the attribute of Saint James the Greater – there may have been some confusion as to which Saint James was being represented.
The Virgin’s halo is painted in lead-tin yellow to look like gold. The radiating brushstrokes are thicker near her head and blended or merged at the edge, creating a shimmering disc. The infant Christ seems once to have had an aura of rays coming from his head. The haloes have suffered from wear or from increasing translucency where the paint was thinly applied, and now those of the saints can barely be seen.
The prominent asymmetrical columns in this altarpiece suggest that Girolamo had seen Titian’s Pesaro Altarpiece erected in the church of the Frari in Venice in 1526. The reverse of a drawn study for an altarpiece with four saints by Girolamo of about 1531 (now in the British Museum, London) shows him experimenting with designs for altarpieces with an oblique view of a canopied throne as in this painting.
Work on the Fasanini altarpiece started on 25 October 1531 and was probably finished by 5 October 1533. It was praised by Vasari in his 1550 edition of The Lives of the Artists as Girolamo’s best work.
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