Neri di Bicci (1419-1491) was an Italian painter active mainly in Florence. A prolific painter of mainly religious themes, he worked in the medium of tempera. He studied under his father, Bicci di Lorenzo, who in turn had studied under his father, Lorenzo di Bicci. All three were part of a lineage of great painters beginning with Neri's grandfather Lorenzo who was a pupil of Spinello Aretino.
Neri di Bicci's main works include a St. John Gualbert Enthroned, with Ten Saints for the church of Santa Trinita, an Annunciation (1464) in the Florentine Academy, two altarpieces in the Diocesan Museum of San Miniato, a Madonna with Child Enthroned in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Siena, and a Coronation of the Virgin (1472) in the abbey church at San Pietro a Ruoti (Bucine).
The Ricordanze are a series of journals Neri kept from the years 1453-1475. They include the rates of remuneration for his work, his pupils, and lists of their works. They are the most extensive 15th century document we have relating to a 15th-century painter and are still preserved in the library of the Uffizi Gallery.
When Neri was born in 1419 he was the third in a line of Bicci family artists. It began with his grandfather Lorenzo di Bicci who was a contemporary of Jacopo di Cione and Niccolò di Pietro Gerini. Lorenzo di Bicci is most famous for his Triptych (c. 1399, Museo della Collegiata di Sant'Andrea, Empoli), but also created many notable Madonnas (Madonna and Child c. 1400, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; Madonna and Child with Angels c. 1405-1410, Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco; Madonna of Humility with Two Angels c. 1375-1380, Private Collection). Neri's father was also an artist and worked closely with the grandfather Lorenzo helping to create many of his commissions. Neri spent a lot of time in his father's workshop and in his first works this is evident from their extremely similar style. At only the age of 15, in 1434, Neri joined the confraternity of Saint Luke (Compagnia di San Luca). This confraternity was started as early as 1349 and although it was not part of the official guild system, many artists joined due to the lack of an official artist guild. By 1572, however, it would finally become an official guild of Florence and be filled with many of the best painters and sculptors. There was much confusion, as documented later, as to who art historians attributed the Bicci family work to. In Giorgio Vasari's "Lives of the Artists" he confused Neri as being the second son of Lorenzo and therefore brothers with Bicci. Much of Bicci's work was subsequently falsely attributed to Neri. These false attributions were not corrected until 1768 in Domenico M. Manni's edition of "Baldinucci's Notizie dei professori del disegno" (News from the professors of drawing). This mistake was reiterated in Gaetano Milanesi's commentary to Vasari's Vite in 1878.
Neri created works for people in all different social classes ranging from the upper bouerghoise, to members of the florentine guilds, to humble provincial churches. In 1439, there is the first documented work that Neri collaborated with his father on. This trompe-l'oeil was a funerary monument to Luigi Marsili (1342-94) and was frescoed by them both in the Florence Cathedral. Then in 1440, Neri painted and dated an Annunciation in San Angelo a Legnaia with his father. By 1444, Neri began creating his own art beginning with a painted triptych Virgin and Child Enthroned with Six Saints for the chapel of San Giacomo in Santissima Annunziata. In this work it is clear that Neri's style had evolved and moved away from being similar to his father to being more like the styles of Fra Filippo Lippi and Paolo Schiavo. In 1447, we know Neri painted a predella which is now untraceable for San Martino in Maiano. Although we do not have the painting, we know it was completed due to documented records of a payment being received thirteen years later on August 27, 1460. In 1452 Neri's father, Bicci, died and Neri was given control over the workshop. Also in this year Neri was commissioned to create a fresco cycle illustrating scenes from the Life of St Giovanni Gualberto for the Spini family chapel in Santa Trìnita, more specifically commissioned by Giovanni Spini and Salvestro Spini. The only part of the fresco that survives to this day is the depiction of the annunciation over the entrance arc. Neri was most likely influenced by Fra Angelico and Domenico Veneziano which is deduced from his treatment of hair and garments. Neri's altar piece style often included advanced use of extreme foreshortening in the architecture.
These two Archangel Raphael and Tobias pieces were most likely created one after the other. 1.1 was created in the workshop between 1457 and 1463, while 1.2 in the early 1460s. The subject of the Archangel was extremely popular in Florence in the 1460s and artists such as Francesco Botticini and Piero del Pollaiuolo illustrated this bible story. Although some works similar to the two seen here can be attributed to Jacopo da Sellaio, a higher proportion are from Neri's workshop. 1.1 and 1.2 are clearly very similar in terms of style and the way the characters are arranged. They are both by Neri and were created in his shop, possibly with the help of some assistants. Both works feature the Archangel on the left looking back at Tobias while holding his hand. There is also a small white dog in both and the Archangel is holding a box in his right hand. In 1.1 the chin, forehead, and hair of Tobias and the face of the Archangel have all been reinforced and fingers of the archangels right hand and Tobias's left hand are modern. The painting is overall covered with dirt and unevenly preserved and only the subsidiary parts of the picture are well preserved. The box and upper part of the fish have also been regilt. 1.2 is considerably better preserved, but still covered in a discolored varnish. The profile of Tobias had to be reinforced and there was a hole above the right wing of the archangel that was filled. The gold leafing on the halo is worn down, but the gilding of the stars and aureole of tobias is still intact.
The most prestigious commission of the 1450s period was a tabernacle that held a copy of Justinian's Digest in Greek. It was located in Sala dell'Udienza, in the Palazzo della Signoria and depicted Moses and the Four Evangelists, but was later destroyed. On November 25, 1459 Neri received a commission for an altarpiece depicting the Coronation of the Virgin with Eleven Saints, now located in the Acadamia of Florence, for the church of the monastery of Santa Felice. This work is notable due to the large scale of the piece and the amount of characters represented. It illustrates an emblematic medieval background and on top of that Neri placed modern elements.
In 1933 it was published that the curator of the Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, Victor Lasareff, had identified two new panel paintings that were created by Neri di Bicci. The first painting identified is "Mandona della Cintola "which was formerly recorded as painted by an unknown artist. The Madonna della Cintola is in good condition and depicts the Madonna in the middle with Saint Julian and Saint Thomas on either side of her, along with a few other unidentifiable characters. The painting is created in a cold light and uses varied colors which are not blended, but each have their own bold separate color. There are two artistic styles used on the faces of the characters. The Madonna and the angels, St. Julian, and St. Thomas have flat faces with only moderate use of light and shade. The rest have more "plastic" faces with sharply drawn on wrinkles. This painting is most similar to Neri's "Santa Felicita with Her Seven Sons" which was created for the church of Santa Felicita in Florence in 1464 (1.3). Both feature characters who have big separated ringlets in their hair. The second painting identified is "The Madonna with a Child holding a Pomegranate". It differs to the Madonna della Cintola in that it has much richer colors especially the faces which have a more a pinkish yellow. The Madonnas face in particular has much more realistic shading and lighting making her face look more rounded rather than flat. The paintings were able to be identified due to the unique artistic style of Neri which, as seen in this painting, contain long narrow eyes half covered by heavy eyelids, finely arched eyebrows,and long thing fingers with square nails. Also whenever Neri depicts a Madonna she has an oval, elongated face. Neri also always creates robes in the same style thickly laying on the paint and giving the impression that the robe is stiff, almost as if it was made of metal.
On August 6, 1456, Neri di Bicci received a commission from Bartolomeo di Lucha Martini for an altarpiece of the Virgin and child with six saints.This commission has been identified with the painting now hanging in the chapel of St. James Cathedral in Seattle. It is one of the few works of Neri di Bicci in the United States. The painting underwent significant restoration at the Seattle Art Museum in 2004. The St. James Cathedral altarpiece depicts the Virgin and Child in the center, flanked by saints: Luke, Bartholomew, and Lawrence on the left, John the Baptist, Martin, and Sebastian on the right. The bent arm of the infant Christ is unusual in Neri di Bicci's work--the nursing infant reaches into his mother's blouse, suggesting the Virgin lactans, or nursing Virgin.
On the sixth of June, 1460 Neri was commissioned by Bartolommeo Lenzi to create an altarpiece for the church of the Innocent. Neri chose to depict a Coronation of the Virgin with Saints. This panel clearly was inspired by works of Andrea del Castagno with the figures portrayed as freer than normal and other stylistic similarities.
In 1471, Neri was commissioned to create an altar piece for the Palla family chapel in the Santo Spirito in Florence. In this time period it was very common for families of a high status to have their personal chapel in a larger church. The chapels would typically be located on the left and right sides of the aisle where they could be easily viewed by worshippers. Having a personal chapel showed off a family's personal wealth and at the same time showed how charitable they were by creating a chapel that the people of their city could use. Historians know that 1.4 was truly painted by Neri due to a record made in his workshop book on May 7, 1471 which states, "began to paint for Mariotto di marco della palla an altarpiece on which will appear the Angel Raphael and Tobias, to the right the Angel Michael, and to the left Angel Gabriel; in addition below the feet of Angel Raphael, a small picture representing the crucifixion with St. John and the Virgin." It was also recorded that three smaller pictures were supposed to be underneath the main one, but they have been lost. This picture is famous for the way Neri expertly depicts the energetic figure of Angel Michael versus quiet thoughtfulness of Angel Gabriel and the helpfulness of Angel Raphael. This picture was created using tempera on panel and has red undertones throughout. These red undertones are important because they contrast the gold making it seem brighter. This particular subject was most likely chosen because the Palla family had a young family member who was going off to a job or to university. It was very common at this time that when a younger member of the family left home a picture would be ordered and Tobias would be depicted as the person who was about to leave. The Archangel Raphael helps Tobias in his life and the family hopes the same will happen for their child.
One of the last records we have of Neri is from April first, 1488 when he received 8 bushels of grain in Santa Maria Monticelli as payment for a painting. Later on May tenth, the same year, he was paid for an untraceable frontal portraying the "Legend of St Francis" and the "Building of the Santa Maria degli Angeli".
Neri is described as a conservative artist of his time still using the old ground gold technique. Giotto was the father of this type of gold art, creating it in the 13th century, and therefore Vasari refers to Neri as being one of the last Giottoesque painters. Neri's paintings were without emotion and created in an almost mechanical like fashion. He painted the same subject over and over again often only changing small details like the clothes they were wearing, but keeping all of the same characters in the same forms. All of Neri's paintings contain identical details such as long narrow eyes half covered by heavy eyelids, finely arched eyebrows, straight noses, sharply outlined mouths, and long thing fingers with square nails. Also, as stated previously, Neri is known for always depicted the Madonna with an oval, elongated face. Neri also always creates robes in the same style thickly laying on the paint and giving the impression that the robe is stiff, almost as if it was made of metals. Neri had a stylistic change in 1452. Before this date his works were often unsophisticated, yet contained ornamental motifs and many figures and had the artistic freshness of a young artist. After 1452, he begins adopting forms from artists in the renaissance which, by the end of his career, eventually become tired and repetitive.
The first pupil of Neri's workshop, Cosimo Rosselli, began his apprenticeship at the young age of fourteen as documented on May 4, 1453. Years later in 1460 the cousin of Cosimo, Bernardo di Stefano Rosselli, would collaborate with Neri on a series of paintings in the workshop. In 1458, Giusto d'Andrea began his to study as an apprentice to Neri and stayed for at least two years before joining the confraternity Neri was a member of, la Compagnia de San Luca.Francesco Botticini also began studying art at Neri's workshop after signing a one-year contract. Despite this contract, Francesco decided to leave Neri's workshop in July 1460 after only nine months of training presumably due to some prior training from his father who was a painter. Botticini would go on to become an extremely successful artist mentioned in Vasari's Lives of the Artists and painting the famous Assumption of the Virgin with Saints and the Angelic Hierarchies. Neri's pupils also include Stagio di Taddeo d'Antonio, Dionigi d'Andrea di Bernardo di Lottino, and Giosuè di Santi. The workshop is recorded as creating more than fifty Madonna and child paintings and the Virgin with the girdle seven times. The workshop was so popular in fact, that on 22 November 1458, Neri had to rent a second workshop at the Porta Rossa in the centre of Florence. This gave him and his pupils more room to work on larger paintings and to take on more clients.
The records are a 189 page long workshop diary that began on March 10, 1453 and continued until April 24, 1475. These are the most extensive 15th century document historians have relating to a 15th-century painter and are still preserved in the library of the Uffizi Gallery. The one that is preserved is likely the fourth diary being labeled "D" and referring to diary "C" often. The record included all types of information to the art pertaining to the workshop including commissions for paintings, the names, professions and social status of patrons, descriptions and dimensions of works, techniques and colors used, type of carpentry, the style of frames, the scenes depicted, and prices. Because of this record we know of many of the works of Neri even ones that to this day have not been located. We also know that the workshop took commissions from all types of people in Italy such as artisans of the Chianti region, noble families like the Spini, Soderini and Rucellai, small Florentine shopkeepers, abbots of the Vallombrosans of Santa Trìnita and S Pancrazio, and ordinary parish priests from the surrounding countryside. Neri died in 1491 and left behind a legacy in his pupils and in his four sons and two daughters. None of his children became artists, ending the legacy started by his grandfather, and instead turned to the mercantile business. Neri is buried in the Saint Mary of Carmine church. To this day he is less famous for being an artist of talent, but instead for keeping these meticulous records of his works and for the sheer number of works his workshop created.