We are indebted to Professor Andrea De Marchi who, on the basis of a photograph, recognised that this panel is a late work by Andrea de' Bruni, the Bolognese master who settled at Ancona. His hand was first distinguished from that of Andrea de' Bartoli by Roberto Longhi in 1934. His name appears on a signed document dated 1369 (Fermo, Galleria) and on his Madonna dell'Umiltà (Museo di Corridonia), dated 1372. Longhi proposed the frescoes in the central nave at Pomposa Abbey (near Ferrara) as Andrea's earliest surviving work, dating them to the 1350s as products of the Bolognese pictorial canon, directly dependent on Vitale, who doubtless oversaw the decorative programme. To this Vitalesque phase one can also add a Madonna enthroned with Saint John the Baptist (Bologna, Pinacoteca), datable to circa 1360. A marked stylistic development beyond this background can already be discerned in a Crucifixion in the Ospedale degli Infermi at Rimini, as well as in a Nativity which may date to a proximate moment (London, private collection).
The unusual shape suggests that the panel would have been attached to a handle or staff and used as a processional image on feast days and other occasions of religious observance by a local congregation or a lay confraternity. Very few such processional images survive; a notable example is the much larger processional banner painted a generation later by Spinello Aretino (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), representing members of a confraternity in devotion to the Madonna. We are grateful to Mr. Everett Fahy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for confirming the plausibility that the present 'superb' work by Andrea de' Bruni may indeed have had a processional function.
The provenance of this panel can be traced back to the early nineteenth century, when it would seem to have been acquired by Maria Louisa of Spain, daughter of Charles IV of Spain and consort of Louis, Duke of Parma. When the Treaty of Aranjuez was signed on 21 March 1801, depriving the House of Bourbon-Parma of their territories in Northern Italy (which had been occupied by French troops since 1796), Napoleon created the Kingdom of Etruria to compensate the former Dukes of Parma for relinquishing his claims. This new kingdom comprised most of what had been the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and Louis and Maria Louisa were its first King and Queen. When Louis I died in 1803, his young son Charles Louis succeeded him as King Louis II, while Maria Louisa was appointed Queen Regent. This arrangement lasted only until 1807, however, when Napoleon decided to dissolve the Kingdom and absorb Tuscany into France, turning Etruria into three French départements.
The Duchy of Lucca was established by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 as a new compensation for the House of Bourbon-Parma, with Maria Louisa reigning as Duchess until 1824, when she was succeeded by Charles Louis. From 1824 to 1827 Charles Louis travelled throughout Italy, while from 1827 to 1833 he was in Germany, where he owned two castles. During his reign as Duke of Lucca he consolidated the family art collection, a part of which was sold in a celebrated London sale at Christie's in 1840; as well as the present lot, the sale included works now given to Fra Angelico, Benvenuto Tisi da Garofalo, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Correggio.