Nicola Giolfino trained in the workshop of Liberale da Verona, where Giovanni Francesco Caroto was one of his contemporaries. Nicola's uncle Antonio, a sculptor, was one of Liberale's collaborators, carving elaborate frames for the latter's altarpieces. Giolfino could not have had a better teacher in Verona: Liberale travelled extensively, especially in Tuscany, before settling back in his native city towards the end of the 1480s, bringing with him a deep knowledge of the work of the Sienese painters of the time, among them Vecchietta, Francesco di Giorgio, Neroccio dei Landi and Matteo di Giovanni. The mature style of Liberale certainly had a profound and long-lasting influence on the young Giolfino. Giolfino's work also displays an obvious knowledge of the art of Mantegna, of the impact of Marcantonio Raimondi's prints after Raphael and of a proximity to painters such as Giovanni Maria Falconetto, who, as Vasari said, spent twelve years in Rome copying all the antique statuary uncovered during that time. These affinities, coupled with Giolfino's having been born and educated in a city where Roman culture was still so visible, need to be taken into consideration in any discussion of these three small panels.
Although it is often suggested that they may have been part of a cassone, both the size and the subject seems to imply a different destination, such as an unidentified piece of furniture, or perhaps the panelling of a humanist's studiolo. The three panels depict episodes from the death of Cato, an erudite allusion to classical literature, first identified by Schubring (loc. cit.).
Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis (95-46 B.C.) a politician in the late Roman Republic, was celebrated as an adherent of Stoic philosophy, and is remembered as a paragon of tenacity and moral integrity. During the Great Civil War, he escaped to Africa to continue his resistance against Caesar: despairing of his cause, and unwilling to live in a world led by Caesar, he committed suicide. According to Plutarch, Cato attempted to kill himself by stabbing himself with his own sword, but, already injured in the hand, no more than wounded himself. His son and his friends entered his chamber to find him unconscious but still alive, and called for a physician who sewed up the wound. As soon as Cato regained consciousness, seeing that the deed was unfinished, opened his wound, dying immediately.
A sophisticated and moving example of Giolfino's oeuvre, based on ancient history, these paintings have often been linked to two panels in the Lindenau Museum, Altenburg, which depict scenes from the story of Lucius Papirius Cursor. All of these small-format paintings preserve a certain Gothic flavour, that makes them difficult to place in the chronology of the artist's long career. On the other hand, a comparison with the fragment from a predella in the Slezské Zemské Muzeum, Opava (Czech Republic), with Stories of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino, dated 1515, suggests a similar date for the present paintings (see M. Repetto Contaldo, 'Proposte per l'attività giovanile di Nicola Giolfino e precisazioni cronologiche', Verona Illustrata, 5, 1992, fig. 1).
Giolfino was a skilled visual narrator both of secular and religious subjects, as the famous predella with scenes from the life of Saint Barbara in the Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona, demonstrates. His narrative capacities were also employed on a larger scale, his masterpiece being the frescoes with Stories of Saint Francis in the church of San Bernardino, Verona.
We are grateful to Dr. Marina Repetto Contaldo for her help in cataloguing this lot.