A painter from Umbria or Marche, a quasi-Rinaldo di Ranuccio

Angelo Tartuferi

The compelling analysis of a late 13th century painted crucifix, with its shifting attributions and historical relevance

This medium-sized painted Crucifix by a yet unidentified artist from the Italian region of Marche or Umbria has reached the present day in more than satisfactory conditions. The regularly shaped support suggests it was made around 1300, although the style of the painting can be traced back to the earlier 13th century. The support’s construction is clearly visible at the back, consisting of a central vertical board to which two large square portions are connected to form the arms of the cross. A rounded rod running to the end of the arms, fixed with large nails, tights the wooden boards along with toggles and glue.

Painted cross, c. 1295, tempera, gold and silver on panel, 160 x 119 cm. Inscriptions: “I-N-R-I,” in the upper table. Courtesy of Galleria Enrico Frascione, Florence.

The figures are painted on a silver background, with a blue painted cross behind them. The halo comprises an additional small panel coming off the surface, a typical feature found in the 13th century. It presents a peculiar cross drawing on two layers of gold leaf, and two rather deep recesses with rounded circular motifs made with a burin, which was also used to decorate the margins of these gilded parts according to popular taste at the time.

The work has been deeply studied since Roberto Longhi (1966), who attributed it to the Spoleto painter Rinaldo (or Rainaldetto) di Ranuccio [1], an artist who probably trained with the local workshop of Simeone and Machilone. The direct reference to the Spoleto painter was recorded without any comment by Luis C. Marques (1987), but was rejected by the author of this article (Tartuferi 2015) in the catalog of the Florentine exhibition L’arte di Francesco at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, during which the painting was shown for the first time in public and finally included in recent studies.

On that occasion, I pointed out that the unknown artist would seem to refer, above all, to the models of Rinaldo di Ranuccio, but also to the formal characters found in the Crucifix signed and dated 1258 by Simeone and Machilone, now at the National Gallery of Ancient Art in Palazzo Barberini in Rome, and before in the Bastianelli collection in Rome [2], especially in regards to expressive details. At the same time, I also emphasized the more modern features of some of the crucifix’s parts, in particular the slender figures of the mourners in the central panel, characterized by a subtle and refined design, but above all the very lively figures of St. Francis and St. Clare–the iconography unequivocally attests the original Franciscan destination of the work–painted on the side of the arms according to quasi-14th century taste. Equally common at the time are the proportions of the cross’s arms, which here occupy half of the side panels, confining the two Franciscan figures to the extreme edges of the support. As previously mentioned, one of the most intriguing aspects of the painting is the clear contrast between the undoubted cultural roots within the 13 century figurative, popular tradition, and the consistent presentation, both in terms of shape and style, of a so-called prototypical 14th century painting language.

Alessandro Delpriori largely agrees with my arguments (2016), reiterating how, throughout the 13th century and beyond, the ancient Duchy of Spoleto and the Marches shared not only pictorial manners but also the artists themselves. While rejecting the attribution to Rinaldo di Ranuccio, the basic reference to Umbrian painting and in particular to the Spoleto area remains valid, confirmed by some details such as the pink loincloth twisting around the waist, the depiction of Christ’s stretched legs, and the posture of the feet–all details found in the Crucifix painted by Rinaldo di Ranuccio himself in the Pinacoteca di Fabriano. The reference to an Umbrian painter of the 13th century is also recorded in the card N. 1076 of the Zeri Foundation.

In this context, I however dismiss the arguments by Delpriori (2016, p.122), according to whom some influences of Giotto and his workshop’s figures of the apostles in the Chapel of St. Nicholas in the lower basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, generally dated back to the late 13th century [3], are found in the crucifix in question. Re-examining this work, I become more and more convinced of its entirely 13th century cultural provenance, although I continue to consider it datable to the last part of that century, around 1295. 

In my opinion, the painting is to be appreciated above all for the naive freshness of its language, which also transpires from some enchanting details such as the laces of St. Francis’ sandals, or the thread-like rivulets of blood that branch off from the large nail holes in Jesus’ feet. The work must have been appreciated only by a tiny group of faithful in a small town between Umbria and Marche, people who, like the artist, were probably unaware of the extraordinary innovations in the frescoes of what became the most artistically important church of Christianity at the time, the San Franciscan Basilica of Assisi. I cannot identify in the figures of the mourners even a remote reference to any idea of spatiality found in the paintings from Assisi.

A pictorial example of undoubted iconographic interest and rarity, this cross, originally hoisted on a beam, above an altar, or hung in the apse of a small church between Umbria and Marche, is also an important document of faith, based on the extraordinary popular significance of the Franciscan message. It was conceived to transmit to the faithful from seven centuries ago, in an immediate didactic way, the very particular relationship of St. Francis with the crucifix.

[1] On the painter and the relative bibliography, see M.C. Rossi, Rainaldo (Rinaldo) by Ranuccio, in the Dizionario biografico degli italiani, vol. 86, Roma 201686, Rome 2016.

[2] See D. Ferrara, in Iacopone da Todi e l’arte in Umbria nel Duecento, catalog of the exhibition (Todi, Palazzi Comunali, Museo Pinacoteca, 2 December 2006 – 2 May 2007) edited by F. Bisogni and E . Menestò, Geneva-Milan 2006, pp. 160-161; C. Ranucci, Machilone, in the [1] On the painter and the relative bibliography, see M.C. Rossi, Rainaldo (Rinaldo) by Ranuccio, in the Dizionario biografico degli italiani, vol. 86, Roma 201686, Rome 2016, vol. 67, Rome 2006.

[3] See S. Romano, Le botteghe di Giotto. Qualche novità sulla Cappella di san Nicola nella Basilica inferiore di Assisi, in Medioevo: le officine, conference proceedings (Parma, 22-27 September 2009) by A.C. Quintavalle, Milan 2010, pp. 584-596.

R. Longhi, Schede di pittura: una croce spoletina; contributo a Cimabue; Ghirlandaio, «Il Vasari», XXIV, 10, 1966, pp. 20-23; L.C. Marques, La peinture du Duecento en Italie centrale, Paris 1987, p. 69; A. Tartuferi, in L’arte di Francesco. Capolavori d’arte italiana e terre d’Asia dal XIII al XV secolo, catalogo della mostra (Firenze, Galleria dell’Accademia, 31 marzo – 11 ottobre 2015) a cura di A. Tartuferi e F. D’Arelli, Firenze 2015, pp. 192-193; A. Delpriori, La scuola di Spoleto. Immagini dipinte e scolpite nel Trecento tra Valle Umbra e Valnerina, Perugia 2015, pp. 70-71; A. Delpriori, in Francesco e la croce dipinta, catalogo della mostra (Perugia, Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, 30 ottobre 2016 – 29 gennaio 2017) a cura di M. Pierini, Cinisello Balsamo, Milano 2016, pp. 120-124.

Former director of the Department of Painting from the Thirteenth to the Fifteenth Century at the Uffizi and director of the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, Angelo Tartuferi is an expert on medieval Italian painting. He currently directs the San Marco Museum in Florence.

The crucifix featured in this article will be presented by Galleria Enrico Frascione at the upcoming Biennale Internazionale dell’Antiquariato di Firenze.

June 30, 2022