The armless beauty: on the Madonna of Camaiore, a mysterious work by Matteo Civitali

The Museum of Sacred Art in Camaiore preserves a sweet and delicate Madonnina by Matteo Civitali, which is rather mysterious: is it a Virgin Announced or a Madonna of Childbirth (or rather, a Madonna of Expectation)?

Perhaps the most suitable nickname for Matteo Civitali’sAnnunciata was found by Carlo Pedretti: in 1998 he compared some sheets by Leonardo da Vinci with the sweet little Renaissance Madonnina by the great sculptor from Lucca, and called her “the maiden of Camaiore.” A noun that is certainly a bit old-fashioned, nowadays used in current parlance mostly in a joking tone, and therefore an unlikely candidate for a nickname that truly lived up to the work, but nonetheless apt to convey theidea that the delicate wooden statue, housed today in the Museum of Sacred Art in Camaiore, Versilia, appears to us more like a portrait of a shy and shy girl than a solemn depiction of the mother of God. The beauty of Camaiore has come to us without arms: it is a sculpture that has undoubtedly suffered much. Statues like this, in ancient times, were used somewhat as hangers, if you will: it was customary to clothe them with real clothes, sumptuously embroidered, which left only the face of the original work visible. The head, then, with its hair gathered in a bonnet and a lock running down the neck, has come down to us substantially intact, something that cannot be said of everything else: tampering due to centuries of liturgical practices have brought us a ruined work, and even devoid of its arms.

The refinement of Matteo Civitali’s beauty, however, has managed to survive intact the torments the work has endured over the centuries. Maria appears to us as a shy and perhaps even a little tedious teenager, caught in a grimace unable to conceal the discomfort of a young girl who is not in the habit of receiving visitors: her neck and face are turned slightly to the right in relation to her body, a sign that the girl is averting her gaze from something in front of her. Her eyes are turned downward and do not meet ours, her mouth is half-open, but from the folds of her lips it looks as if she is about to open into an impish smile. The attitude is typical of depictions of the Virgin Announced, the expression is that of a girl who has been visited by an unexpected guest. A guest who is making an important revelation to her. And she listens, trepidatious yet delighted, to the news that the divine messenger is bringing her: the finesse of Matteo Civitali lies in his ability to suggest all the Virgin’s emotion, so much so that Pedretti saw in it, perhaps with a bit of exaggeration, even an anticipation of Leonardo’s motions of the soul. A mixture of surprise, embarrassment, hesitation, fear, happiness. Little more than a child and already called to such an onerous task.

Matteo Civitali, Annunciata or Madonna dell'attesa (pre-1484; polychrome wood, 158 x 44 x 36 cm; Camaiore, Museum of Sacred Art)
Matteo Civitali, Annunciata or Madonna dell’attesa (ante 1484; polychrome wood, 158 x 44 x 36 cm; Camaiore, Museum of Sacred Art)

For a long time, Civitali was considered a second-rate artist. Adolfo Venturi even went so far as to consider him a “provincial who tried to dress in Florentine elegances, rich and not a gentleman, refined and not fine, measured and not profound.” Some of the twentieth-century critics blamed him for lack of originality. Today, fortunately, the judgment on this artist has changed: he is considered perhaps the greatest sculptor of the mid-15th century outside Florence. His uniqueness lies not only in his isolation, however, but also in the novelty of his inventions, especially in marble: “in the last decades of the fifteenth century,” Francesco Caglioti has written, “Tuscan sculpture found in Civitali no less than in Verrocchio, Pollaiolo, Francesco di Giorgio and Benedetto da Maiano a majestic inventor ofunprecedented plastic forms,” and at the time of Michelangelo’s early maturity “it would be Civitali alone, in the company of Benedetto da Maiano, who would witness at the highest level the achievements of Tuscan marble art.” Civitali’s universe is made up of marble, terracotta, and even wood, and theAnnunciation of Camaiore, which dates from the 1580s, that is, the period when Civitali, in his 50s, was experiencing a sort of second youth (not only because he was very prolific at those chronological heights, but also because he was capable of inventing solutions that were always original), would almost seem to sanction a renewal of interest in Desiderio da Settignano’s very young damsels, toward whom Matteo Civitali’s gaze had already turned in his youth. Of those childlike faces of Desiderio, the Madonnina di Camaiore preserves all the tenderness, psychological acumen, and empathy regarding the subject: not, therefore, already a superficial glance, but a heartfelt attention, a thorough reasoning.

The life-size sculpture is recorded in the inventory of the Opera della Collegiata di Camaiore as early as 1484, if we are to imagine that she is the work for which are marked, in the document, “una veste di damaschino per Nostra Donna” and “una veste morella per Nostra Donna,” notations that inform us how already in those days it was customary to dress the statue, at least on special occasions. The work then underwent modifications probably to adapt it to the robes that, over time, were donated to it, and which reflected the fashion of their respective eras: this is perhaps the reason why the work lost its arms. The one in Camaiore, then, is not the only Madonna by Matteo Civitali that has come down to us: we know of at least four others, the one in the church of San Frediano, the one in Santa Maria dei Servi, the Madonna in the church of San Michele in Mugnano, and the one once in the church of San Cristoforo and now in the National Museum of Villa Guinigi.

Recently, starting with the exhibition that the Museum of Sacred Art in Camaiore dedicated to Civitali’s five wooden Madonnas in the summer of 2008, there has been a growing suggestion that these sculptures represented not the Virgin Annunciate, but the Madonna of Childbirth: the fact that in no case has the eventual sculpture of the archangel Gabriel reached us, their slightly pronounced abdomen and their resemblance to similar works in painting are among the elements that led scholar Antonia D’Aniello to formulate this undoubtedly fascinating hypothesis.

No other such examples would be known in the Lucca area, with the exception of a terracotta sculpture preserved in the parish church of San Gennaro in Capannori, which because of its robe, a gamurra with a vertical cut to adapt it to the various stages of pregnancy, is unquestionably identifiable as a Madonna of childbirth. The sculpture, in the past, has also been attributed to Civitali himself, a road that is no longer viable today because of the considerable difference in quality compared to the Lucchese sculptor’s production. The Belle of Camaiore does not have the same robe, and the same is true of the other sculptures in the Civitalian group, which do not even have their hands placed to caress or point to the belly, as is the case in most known depictions of the Madonna of Childbirth (also in sculpture: one from the French area is preserved, for example, at the Parmeggiani Gallery in Reggio Emilia, and another 15th-century “Madonna of Expectation” is at the Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon).

How, then, to read the Camaiore sculpture? The terracotta statue from Capannori certifies, beyond reasonable doubt, that around the middle of the 15th century there was some form of devotion to the Madonna of Childbirth in the territory of Lucca. Perhaps on the occasion of December 18, the date of the feast of Expectatio, the expectation of the Virgin’s delivery. A “Madonna of Expectation,” who knows. And in the absence of a well-established sculptural tradition, Matteo Civitali, in approaching this subject, had to refer to that of the Annunciation, given also the obvious theological contiguity of the two themes. There are, however, Madonnas of the Waiting looking downward, resigned. A mixture of two different iconographic motifs, then, perhaps due to a lack of terms of comparison, or with the deliberate intention of renewing a canon, or perhaps still a choice due to precise demands dictated by liturgical needs that unfortunately are not known to us. In time, perhaps, we will be able to see more clearly, beyond the fog that the centuries have descended over these sculptures. At the moment, we will have to content ourselves with admiring the tender, youthful beauty of the graceful, unfortunate damsel of Camaiore.

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