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Francesco Francia (Bologna c. 1450-1517)
Property from the Collection of Chauncey D. Stillman sold to benefit the Wethersfield Foundation
Francesco Francia (Bologna c. 1450-1517)

Saint Barbara

Francesco Francia (Bologna c. 1450-1517)
Saint Barbara
signed 'francia aurifex' (lower left)
oil on panel
25 ¼ x 18 ¾ in. (64.1 x 47.7 cm.)
Contessa Giulia Seghizzi Coccapani, Marchesa di Spezzano e di Fiorano, Modena, by 1872.
Pietro Foresti (1854-1926), Palazzo Foresti, Carpi.
Benigno Cristoforo Crespi (1833-1920), Milan, by 1907; his sale, Galerie George S. Petit, Paris, 4 June 1914, lot 22, where acquired by
James Stillman (1850-1918), New York, and by descent to
Charles Chauncey Stillman (1877-1926), New York; (†), his sale, American Art Association, New York, 3 February 1927, lot 30 ($21,000), where acquired by
Elizabeth G. Stillman (d. 1956), New York, and by inheritance by 1957 to
Chauncey Devereux Stillman (1907-1989), New York.
E.G. Gardner, The Painters of the School of Ferrara, London, 1901, p. 216.
M. Bryan, Bryan's Dictionary of Painters and Engravers, G.C. Williamson, ed., IV, New York, 1903, p. 184.
B. Berenson, North Italian Painters of the Renaissance, New York, 1907, p. 222.
G.C. Williamson, Francesco Raibolini called Francia, London, 1907, p. 152.
G. Lipparini, Francesco Francia, Bergamo, 1913, pp. 71-2.
J.A. Crowe and G.B. Cavalcaselle, A History of Painting in North Italy, II, London, 1912, p. 285.
E. Negro and N. Roio, Francesco Francia e la Sua Scuola, Modena, 1998, pp. 157-158, no. 28.
Modena, Accademia di Belle Arti, 2° Centenario di Ludovico Antonio Muratori, 20-21 October 1872, no. 44.
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on loan, from 1921-1926.

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Lot Essay

Trained as a goldsmith, Francesco Francia took up painting relatively late in his career, around 1485, and quickly became one of the most successful artists in Bologna during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Notwithstanding this success, Francia never ceased working in precious metals: in addition to serving as an officer of the goldsmith’s guild on several occasions, he was director of the Bolognese mint under the Bentivoglio family and later under Pope Julius II and signed his paintings aurifex (goldsmith) throughout his life. Though his early style owed much to the Ferrarese School, he later modified and softened his approach under the influence of Lorenzo Costa and then Perugino, producing delicate and profoundly moving devotional works for churches in and around his native city.

The present panel is an outstanding example of Francia’s work from the early 1500s, when the artist was fully embracing the graceful figures and sweeping, atmospheric landscapes perfected by Perugino. Here, Francia presents the young virgin saint before a parapet with a vast, verdant landscape rising up behind her. A small town appears on the distant horizon, painted in blue tones according to graduated atmospheric perspective. Barbara holds in her left hand her traditional attribute of a tower. Though not included in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, this Christian saint was thought to have been born in Asia Minor during the 3rd century. Her story was first recounted in the 7th century and her cult was particularly strong throughout Renaissance Europe. According to legend, Barbara was the beautiful daughter of a pagan nobleman named Dioscurus. To protect her from her numerous suitors, Dioscurus constructed a great tower with only two windows and locked her inside it. Separated from society, the young woman converted to Christianity and was able to receive the rite of baptism by a priest who entered the tower disguised as a doctor. One day, while her father was away, Barbara convinced workmen to add a third window to the tower. Upon Dioscurus’s return, she explained to him that the three apertures represented the Holy Trinity. Enraged by his daughter’s conversion, he had her tortured and eventually executed her by decapitation with his own sword.

Francia’s Saint Barbara, with her blushed cheeks, full lips, and soulful eyes, certainly lives up to the saint’s legendary beauty. The arrow held in Barbara’s right hand, however, appears to have no significance within the context of the saint’s hagiography. While it is tempting to speculate that the arrow’s presence reflects a misinterpretation of the saint’s story by the artist, the fact that Francia employed this same idiosyncratic imagery for the Saint Barbara in his Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Barbara, now in the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, suggests that the arrow holds some special significance. Negro and Roio date the present work to around 1500 based on stylistic similarities to Francia's fresco of the Madonna del terremoto of 1505 in the Palazzo Comunale, Sala d’Ercole (loc. cit.).

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