An anonymous summit of the Renaissance in Liguria: the table of the Master of Cesio

The highly prized Diocesan Museum in Albenga preserves a singular panel painting by an anonymous artist from the small village of Cesio: it is dated 1457 and, for its modernity and quality, can be considered one of the pinnacles of the early Renaissance in Liguria. But who was its author?

Writing about the Cesio panel, an extravagant apex of the Renaissance in Liguria, now preserved in the highly prized Diocesan Museum in Albenga, art historian Mauro Natale had spoken of an “absolute exception”: it was not in fact customary for such an ambitious and such an “international” work, we might say, to be destined for a tiny provincial oratory. In ancient times, the panel was in fact located in Cesio, a small and secluded hamlet hidden in the mountains of the Impero stream valley in western Liguria. We know very little about this work, however: we do not know who the author is, who had probably left his name in the inscription that runs along the marble transenna behind the two protagonists, namely Saint Eleutherius on the left and Saint Maurus on the right. And since we cannot with certainty trace his style back to a known hand, we will agree to identify him, according to tradition, as the “Master of Caesio.” We know that there was a donor, because we see him depicted on the lower left, next to St. Eleutherius, but even for him the name likely present in the inscription has been lost. Perhaps he was a person who had something to do with the Dorias: it was a member of the family, Paganuccio Doria, who brought to Genoa in 1354, after the occupation of Porec, the relics, later returned in 1934, of the two saints, Eleuterius and Maurus, bishops and martyrs of the Istrian city. And at some point in history, in Liguria the iconography of the bishop St. Maurus must have become confused with that of the Benedictine St. Maurus, the one depicted here: there are records, albeit seventeenth-century, of the Benedictines of Genoa revering the relics of the Istrian Maurus. We also know little about the oratory of St. James, the one in which the sources attest to the panel, which was destroyed centuries ago: before being transferred to the Diocesan Museum of Albenga shortly after its opening in 1981, the painting was kept in the parish church of Cesio.

The scarce written sources do not help much to clarify the occasion on which the work was painted. So, for the Tavola di Cesio, it is mainly the few elements that survive on the painted surface that speak, ruined partly by the effects of an improvised and cheap sixteenth-century repainting (the image we see today was in fact covered with a Madonna of the Rosary), and partly by centuries of neglect that had compromised the painting’s conservation conditions. Then, in the 1960s, when the Superintendence of Liguria finally decided to restore the painting, great was the surprise to find, during the cleaning, that beneath the ugly 16th-century makeover was hidden an image of the highest order: the Madonna of the Rosary was therefore removed and light was once again given to the panel by Maestro di Cesio, executed in 1457, as the remaining shreds of the inscription (“MCCCCCCLVII DIE XV MADII A MAGESTAS FUIT FACTA”) attest.

Master of Cesio, Saints Eleutherius and Maurus and a Donor (1457; tempera on panel, 155.5 x 162.5 cm; Albenga, Diocesan Museum)
Master of Cesio, Saints Eleutherius and Maurus and a Donor (1457; tempera on panel, 155.5 x 162.5 cm; Albenga, Diocesan Museum)

Who was the Master of Cesio? It has been said that it is the panel that speaks for him: and the panel tells us of a modern, up-to-date artist, born and bred in a high-status context, certainly urban, certainly far from the popular vernaculars of the small towns of the Ligurian Apennines. The two saints find their place under a berceau that accommodates a large concave seat, in a space prospectively defined and foreshortened in depth, in ways rare to find at this chronological height in Liguria. Look at how the sense of the third dimension is given by the strong chiaroscuro transition of the shadow behind Saint Eleutherius: the throne, behind him, is in darkness, and with rather abrupt transitions one arrives at the part behind Saint Maurus that has instead remained in the sun. The light is low (we are evidently at the end of the day) and comes from the left, causing the shadows of the objects held by the saints to be cast on the portion of the back covered by the rich damask fabric that we see in the lower portion: the shadows of the palm held by St. Maurus and of the crosier, wrapped with a white veil, which St. Eleutherius holds in his left hand, are among the most commendable pieces of virtuosity in the painting.

We note then that the Master of Caesarea had a taste for eccentricities (we see this from the dates hanging from the palms) and was adept at rendering minute details: here then are the faces of St. Eleutherius and the donor, mercilessly rendered with a graphism that dwells on wrinkles, dark circles, protrusions and various weightings, are defined with a portraitist’s flair; here are the few pieces of brocade showing how theartist had lingered on them with a certain lustre, here the artist’s lenticular attention allows us to read the book that Saint Eleutherius shows the devotee while holding his palm of martyrdom, as well as the cartouche hanging from the canopy. On the former, a passage from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, while in the latter an exhortation to contemplate the Passion of Christ. Again, the Master of Cesio loved to experiment, as we see from the saints’ aureoles: Eleutherius’ is still round, Gothic, complete with punches decorating it (even with the saint’s name), while Mauro’s is a foreshortened disk in perspective, in the manner of Piero della Francesca. What’s more, he was an artist who was able not only to place figures in space, but to make their volumes believable: we can see this by observing the three-quarter poses appropriate to the objects, the robes that, despite the sinuous and ample folds that are still late Gothic, suggest to us the presence of the bodies, the obvious plasticism of the modeling.

However, he is also an artist who is still rough in certain passages, still tied to ancient modes (this can be seen, as mentioned, by looking especially at the clothes), and who reveals a few too many hardnesses, well listed by Anna De Floriani, the first to sign an in-depth study of the Caesar’s Table, in 1982: “the rather trite drawing, the rendering often far too soft, sometimes ’chintzy,’ and chiaroscuro in an almost mechanical way of the draperies that [...] one would expect to be defined with greater volumetric vigor and by means of a much tighter play of chromatic and luminous planes.”

All these elements help us get an idea of who the Master of Caesio was. We can begin to picture him as an artist who was certainly trained in Provence. There are close similarities between the panel in the Diocesan Museum in Albenga and certain works by Enguerrand Quarton, the greatest Provençal painter of the early fifteenth century: the physiognomic attitude and facial types recall the Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, poses and volumetries recall the Pala Requin of the Musée du Petit Palais in Avignon, and the clear, low light and in some ways the spatial construction retain some echoes of the Madonna of Mercy of the Musée Condé. Compared to Quarton, however, the Master of Cesio is a less elegant artist, decidedly harsher, less skilled in rendering light effects. Conversely, he appears more willing to look to central Italy, as the decidedly more rational space compared to Quarton’s constructions, and the revealing detail of St. Maurus’ halo, suggest. And, as De Floriani has noted, the Master of Cesio was also ready to embrace some Spanish-style solutions, such as the pastoral wrapped in the veil or the brocade that wraps the seat: elements that in any case the artist could see in paintings from southern France oriented toward the Iberian peninsula.

His experience has usually been placed within those trends that recent historiography has placed under the broad umbrella of the “Mediterranean Renaissance,” a concept that began to appear in nuce in the 1950s and has more recently, at least since the exhibition El Renacimiento méditerraneo curated by Mauro Natale in Madrid in 2001, taken on a more or less defined physiognomy. We speak, then, of a series of phenomena that characterized the Mediterranean basin in the first half of the fifteenth century: the presence of typically Flemish forms of expression over structures proper to the Renaissance in central Italy, the mixing of stylistic elements typical of even distant regions, the recurrence of certain solutions in an area ranging from the Valencian coast to southern Italy, and so on. However, the figure of the Master of Cesio can be further circumscribed: we imagine him as a Ligurian or a Provençal who studied with Enguerrand Quarton, or who was familiar with his works, and who at some point in his career must have learned about the innovations that were taking shape between Tuscany and Marche in the middle of the century, perhaps with a stay in those lands. An open, receptive, talented anonymous. An artist not revolutionary, certainly, but capable of painting, despite the very small percentage that has come down to us of her, work of the highest quality.

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