By Costanza Beltrami

On 25 March 1430 —on what was the first day of the Senese new year until 1750— the rich Senese widow Ludovica Bertini commissioned an altarpiece for a now-destroyed chapel in the Cathedral of Siena. The artwork was commissioned from the local painter Stefano di Giovanni di Consolo, known as Sassetta, who had already realized important work at the Cathedral. Unlike previous patrons, Ludovica instructed the painter directly, without using the operaio (the building’s administrator) as an intermediary. This implies an unprecedented degree of control on the appearance of the artwork and the surrounding chapel, a fact all the more striking when considering that Ludovica was a woman.

The contract of 25 March 1430 contains very precise instructions on the contents of the altarpiece: it had to include the Virgin and Child, the seraphic Saint Francis, Saints Peter and Paul, Saint John the Baptist, and the figure of the Savior above Mary. The panel’s lower section, or predella, was to show the miracle of the snow, which allegedly happened in Rome in the 4th century, during the pontificate of Liberius. The rich patricians John and his wife wished to leave all their possessions to the Virgin and prayed to receive a heavenly sign. On 5 August, at the height of the Roman summer, a miraculous snowfall covered the top of the Esquiline Hill, revealing to the couple where they should found their church, the Basilica of St Mary Major.
Demonstrating her business sense, Ludovica also requested the painter to work with high quality gold and pigments. The contract did not stipulate the altarpiece’s price, to be estimated at the end by two independent experts, one chosen by Ludovica and the other by Sassetta.

As revealed by other documents, Sassetta completed his painting on 23 October 1432, with a slight delay on the one-year deadline stipulated in the contract. A week later, the work had been evaluated by two independent experts, who recognized its quality and recommended a payment of 180 florins for the painter’s skill, labor, materials and for the decoration of the chapel’s walls around the altarpiece. Clearly unsatisfied with Sassetta’s work, Ludovica refused to pay and brought the matter to court. However, a second committee confirmed the first estimate. Sassetta’s eventually received his deserved payment, and the altarpiece was installed in the Cathedral before 30 april 1433.

Yet, the panel was soon removed from its location as artistic taste changed dramatically in the early modern period. Initially in the cathedral’s storerooms, the painting was eventually bought by Matteo Biagini for the devotions of a lay confraternity in the village of Chiusidino. Rediscovered in the nineteenth-century, it was described as solemn and beautiful, albeit very damaged, by Bernard Berenson. The painting’s fortunes changed radically with an article of 1913, when Giacomo De Nicola identified the Chiusidino panels with the ones once commissioned by Ludovica Bertini for the Cathedral of Siena. Since then, it has been considered a masterpiece of fifteenth-century Senese painting.

Reference: Machtelt Israëls, Sassetta’s Madonna della Neve. An image of patronage (Leiden 2003).

The Madonna of the Snow, 1430-32, tempera on panel, 240 x 216 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, inv. 00281712. Photo: Web Gallery of Art.

Founding of Santa Maria Maggiore, from the predella of the The Madonna of the Snow, 1430-32, tempera on panel, 33 x 29 cm. Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence. Photo: Web Gallery of Art.

Contract for the commission of the Madonna of the Snow to Sassetta, followed by the election of two arbiters and their appraisal of the finished altarpiece, 25 March 1430, 23 and 29 October 1432, drawn up by notary Luca di Nanni of Sicilia, ink on vellum, ASV Fondo Toscano I 16192. Reproduced from Machtelt Israëls, Sassetta’s Madonna della Neve. An image of patronage (Leiden 2003), fig. XI.

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