On 13 December, the French auction house TAJAN
will be selling two paintings by Pietro Lorenzetti (active in Siena from 1306 to 1345), an artist as rare as he is important for gold-ground paintings of the Sienese School of the early 14th century. These two poplar panels, depicting Saint Sylvester and Saint Helena, immediately recognisable but previously completely unknown, come from the former Ramé Collection. They were acquired in Paris in 1860 by this eminent high court magistrate with a passion for archaeology and history, whose archives were donated to the Musée Archeologique de Rennes. Kept by his descendants, who had already sold part of their collection with Tajan in 1985, these two paintings represent a genuine rediscovery by the Cabinet Turquin. These two works by the greatest Sienese painter of his generation were probably part of a large altarpiece made of five or seven panels, which was likely to have been cut apart, as most of them were, having fallen out of fashion in the 18th century and dispersed in the 19th. The two panels will be sold separately with an estimate of 1.5-2 million for the Saint Sylvester and an estimate of 400,000-600,000 for the Saint Helena, a difference justified by the exceptional state of conservation of one compared with the other.
The art historical significance of this discovery
These two panels complete Pietro Lorenzetti´s known body of works. Lorenzetti, his brother Ambrogio and fellow artist Simone Martini, all trained in the art of Duccio and sensitive to the work of the great Florentine artist Giotto, constitute the finest jewels in the crown of Sienese painting of the early 14th century. Pietro Lorenzetti, born circa 1280 and as his brother likely to have died during the great Black Death of 1348, created frescoes, altarpieces and devotional paintings both in Siena and in the surrounding areas of Assisi, Arezzo and Cortona. Unlike the others, however, his temperament was highly dramatic and passionate. Preoccupied with the entirely modern idea of showing pathos or tragic eloquence, his natural talent was accompanied by a profound ability to express human emotions. It was in this that he transformed the Sienese Byzantine tradition into one of a realistic representation of humanity.
A corpus of roughly thirty known works
A mere thirty or so works by Pietro Lorenzetti are known to exist in the world; the only one in the collection of the Musée du Louvre was acquired at auction at Drouot in 1986. Among Pietro's known, documented altarpieces are the Maesta of Cortona (Museo Diocesano), the signed altarpiece for the pieve (parish) of Arezzo commissioned in 1320 by the bishop of the city, which is still in place, and the altarpiece of the Birth of the Virgin for the Duomo of Siena documented in 1335-1342 (Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo). Works that are undocumented but signed or reconstituted by critics include the altarpieces at: Monticchiello (before 1320), the church of the Carmine in Siena, signed and dated 1328-1329, Loeser Collection (c. 1340) and San Giusto (c. 1345) (Siena Pinacoteca Nazionale, no. 50). Among the frescoes, we should mention the one of the left transept of the lower church in Assisi, circa 1320-1326, that of the former chapter house of the convent of San Francesco in Siena (Siena, Chiesa di San Francesco and Museo dell'Opera del Duomo) also circa 1326, and finally that of the church of Castiglione del Bosco dated 1345.
A humanist iconography
Saint Sylvester was a man of power. Pope from 314 to 335, under the reign of Emperor Constantine I, he held the reins of the Church at a pivotal moment in Christianity. Saint Sylvester is here depicted wearing a Byzantine crown; this presence of oriental attributes is a reminder of his key role in the struggles between Rome and Byzantium, still an important debate in 1325. His destiny was inseparable from that of the emperor, whom he baptised along with his mother Helena, making Constantine the first Roman sovereign to tolerate and then embrace Christianity. Helena is generally portrayed as a high-ranking figure, since she was an empress, but one who converted and worked to spread the Christian faith. She was canonised as a saint by both the Catholic and Byzantine churches. According to legend, it was she who invented the true cross of Christ.
The painting of a master
Pietro Lorenzetti was a major creator of gold-ground painting; his oeuvres are precious objects worthy of a goldsmith of the highest order. Using tempera on a ground of gold, the colour of the eternal, as well as extremely elaborate tooling, never mixing the grinded pigments, the artist perfectly mastered the technique that enabled his paintings, executed on poplar, to survive unaltered, through the centuries.
France, land of rediscoveries of major Italian paintings of the Quattrocento
Several major early Italian Quattrocento paintings have been rediscovered in France in recent years: La Dérision du Christ, a small panel by Cimabue, found in Compiègne, sold for 24.18 million on 27 October 2019 with auctioneer Dominique Le Coënt in Senlis, classified as a National Treasure and finally acquired by the Louvre in November 2023; Virgin and Child Enthroned, circa 1350 by the Master of Vissy Brod, bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 6.2 million a month later in a sale led by Maître Cortot in Dijon, and finally the sale by Artcurial on 22 March 2022 of a small panel by Bernardo Daddi for 1.3 million.
For centuries, until the Great Depression of 1929, France was a wealthy country that imported works of art from abroad, accumulating a unique heritage during the 18th and 19th centuries. It wasn't until 1914, with the Impressionists and Cubists that France began to export works of art, until it was overtaken by New York and London in the 1970s. It should be remembered that until 1992, the French state could easily prohibit artworks from leaving the country, encouraging in a rather contradictory fashion sales done discreetly abroad. Since 1992, the loosening of these restrictions has led to a change in direction but it has taken 20 years to regain the trust of collectors. Internet has done the rest, proving daily that one can sell across the globe from any city in France, explains Eric Turquin, the person behind the research and attribution of these recent rediscoveries.