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Domenico Veneziano, 'The Virgin and Child Enthroned (Carnesecchi Tabernacle)'

Domenico Veneziano (active 1438; died 1461) 

'The Virgin and Child Enthroned (Carnesecchi Tabernacle)', about 1435–43
Fresco transferred to canvas, 241 x 120.5 cm
Signed on the step of the throne: DOMI[NI]CVS/ D[E]. VENECIIS. P[INXIT].

This Virgin and Child enthroned with two saints is one of only two surviving signed works by Domenico Veneziano, one of the most influential Florentine painters of the mid-15th century, and the master of Piero della Francesca.1 It is also of special interest as the detached remains of a street tabernacle, few of which are displayed in museums because of their damaged state after centuries exposed to the weather. Yet tabernacle images such as this and the street tabernacle shown below (fig. 1) were once visible across Europe, on streets and crossroads in town and country, asserting a religious presence in the most public places and encouraging prayer rituals as part of everyday life, as well as during ceremonial processions. It is an important surviving example of this type of painting.

'Head of a Tonsured, Bearded Saint' (from the side wall of the Carnesecchi Tabernacle), about 1435–43
Fresco transferred to tile, 45 x 35.5 cm
Enlarge and zoom in

'Head of Tonsured, Beardless Saint' (from the side wall of the Carnesecchi Tabernacle), about 1435–43
Fresco transferred to tile, 43 x 35.5 cm
Enlarge and zoom in

1. Street tabernacle on a corner of Borgo degli Albizzi. © Amanda Lillie.

As it was originally part of a building, immured in a wall niche high above a street corner, it was an architectural painting in a very material sense. The grey painted arch of Domenico Veneziano’s inner frame, the box-like construction of the Virgin’s throne, and the domical blue sky from which God the Father emerges, all seem designed to emphasise the niche effect while playing with illusions of recession and projection in relation to its setting.2 Thus, while the large rigid throne which hems in the Virgin and Child creates a deeper perspectival space, at the same time it pushes the figures towards the viewer, rendering the Incarnation more certain and present. The throne dominates the space within the fresco, creating a tabernacle within a tabernacle within a tabernacle. The outermost enclosure would originally have been the wall niche, within which the fictive ‘pietra serena’ arch created a second framing for the image, and the throne then built a third enclosure for the Virgin. Its box-like construction uses the tabernacle design to symbolise the concept of the Virgin’s enclosed or unbreached womb (fig. 2).

2. Reconstruction of the Carnesecchi Tabernacle showing the original position of the two saints. © Chris Oberon.

A series of repeated geometric forms – square, round and spherical – dominate the composition. The five big, flat, red and green marble roundels (either side and at the base of the throne), like discs sliced from ancient porphyry and serpentine columns, the four silver balls on top of the throne, the florets dotted around the fictive ‘pietra serena’ frame, the shallow dishes of the haloes, the disc of God’s aureole (not the usual almond or mandorla shape) set into the larger scooped hemisphere of the sky, and the ‘opus sectile’ (inlaid geometric marble decoration, also known as Cosmati work) running around the throne’s edge like a selvage, are all part of an integrated, apparently modular design.3 Even the heads of the Virgin and Christ Child are more regular, geometric ovoids than human heads normally are. These compact shapes and masses add to the grounded, solid effect of the image, just as the flat surfaces of the stony throne, together with the frontally aligned, straight-backed Virgin and Child, create its stern formality.

The restricted palette of red, white, blue and green provides another unifying pattern. The uncompromising geometric rhythm of the painting should not, however, be overstated because the fresco has been so badly damaged from exposure to the elements that the fine decorative detail, such as the patterned silk brocade of Mary’s dress, the modelling of flesh and drapery, and the flowery meadow in the foreground, cannot achieve the softening interplay with the architecture they undoubtedly would have set up originally.

The throne

This type of high-walled throne is unusual, as the thrones of Madonnas normally have low arms, or none at all, allowing an impression of greater access to the sacred figure. ‘Opus sectile’ was, however, often incorporated into painted architecture, having been revived by painters such as Giotto in the early 14th century.4 Domenico Veneziano even made it look as though his Latin signature were part of the stone inlay on the front step.5 The combination of ‘opus sectile’ and a high-sided marble throne most closely resembles the thirteenth-century episcopal cathedra in San Lorenzo fuori le Mura in Rome, which also displays the same large inlaid roundels of porphyry and serpentine (fig. 3).6 This throne seems specifically designed to look episcopal or ecclesiastical.

3. Thirteenth-century episcopal throne in San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Rome. © Photo Scala, Florence - courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Culturali.

Records concerning the 19th-century removal of the Carnesecchi Tabernacle help establish that there were only two flanking saints, unlike most other tabernacle images which depicted enthroned Madonnas with four or six saints. Both were painted on the side walls of the tabernacle, and only their heads and shoulders were removed as the rest of the figures had been worn away over time.7 Their identities remain uncertain, although the tonsures, black habits and cowls mean they may have belonged either to an Order of Unreformed Benedictines or Augustinian Hermits. The bearded saint with a book could be Saint Benedict. Pouncing is visible on both heads, particularly along the hairlines and ears, showing where preparatory drawings were transferred to the wall plaster. It is not certain which side of the tabernacle each saint was originally placed.

Fifteenth-century documents reveal that the patron of this tabernacle was most probably Bernardo di Cristofano Carnesecchi (1398–1452), a wealthy international merchant, who built a new house on the Canto de’ Carnesecchi to rent out to members of the papal court sometime between 1433 and 1439.8 In 1452 Bernardo Carnesecchi died and his sons inherited the house, which was described in 1458 as ‘a house called the house of the Virgin Mary’ (‘detta la chasa della Vergine Maria’), and still known in 1468 as ‘a new house with the Virgin Mary outside’ (‘una chasa nuova chola Vergine Maria di fuori’). This house at the very apex of the Canto de’ Carnesecchi presumably took its name from Domenico Veneziano’s fresco. Its end wall is represented in Zocchi’s 18th-century view with the tabernacle niche at first-storey level, framed by an arch supported on small engaged piers and protected by a low balustrade surmounted by what looks like an oval grille attached to sun-like rays (figs. 4 and 5).

4. Giuseppe Zocchi, 'View of the Street leading to Santa Maria Novella', 1744, Museo di Firenze com'era. © Scala, Florence.

5. Detail showing the position of the tabernacle.

Although Zocchi drew other shrines in which the paintings were visible, that is unfortunately not the case with the Carnesecchi tabernacle, which is in deep shadow and too high to allow a glimpse of the image inside.9 Zocchi’s view does, however, follow the processional axis leading from the Baptistery and Cathedral towards Santa Maria Novella, showing how prominent the end wall of the Carnesecchi house appeared in the urban landscape.

The timing of Bernardo Carnesecchi’s purchase or construction of a house to which he then attached a tabernacle is significant. As he himself declared, it coincided with the years when Pope Eugenius IV was resident in Florence (1434–6 and 1439–43), and the site was almost certainly selected for that reason – to attract high rents from members of the papal curia on a street that directly connected the papal apartments at Santa Maria Novella with the Cathedral. Domenico Veneziano’s painting was probably intended to enhance that processional route – a route that was to become even more significant when the Ecumenical Council was held in Florence in 1439.

Amanda Lillie

Selected literature

Davies 1961, pp. 170–1; Wohl 1980, pp. 64–7, 80–1 notes 1–7, 114–7; Bellosi 1990, pp. 65–71; Dunkerton, Foister, Gordon and Penny 1991, pp. 77, 79; Elkins 1991; Bellosi 1992; Florence 1992; Bambach 1999, pp. 204, 444–5 notes 77–82; Gordon 2003, pp. 58–67; Preyer forthcoming.

This material was published in April 2014 to coincide with the National Gallery exhibition 'Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting'.

To cite this essay we suggest using
Amanda Lillie, ‘Domenico Veneziano, The Virgin and Child Enthroned (Carnesecchi Tabernacle)’ published online 2014, in 'Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting', The National Gallery, London,