Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Palmieri Assumption of the Virgin

BOTTICINI, Francesco (about 1446 - 1497 )
The Assumption of the Virgin, probably about 1475-6
Egg tempera on wood, 228.6 x 377.2 cm
National Gallery, London.

BOTTICINI, Francesco (about 1446 - 1497 )
The Assumption of the Virgin, probably about 1475-6 (detail)

The altarpiece was placed in the funerary chapel of the Palmieri family in San Pier Maggiore, a church belonging to Benedictine nuns in Florence.

Matteo Palmieri (1406–1475) was born into a prosperous Florentine merchant family, and followed his father into the profession of an apothecary. In 1427, he ranked among the top taxpayers in Florence. At twenty-seven he married Niccolosa de’ Serragli, the daughter of a prominent Florentine. In 1432 he started his political career, holding several posts within the city, the most important of which was Gonfaloniere di Guistizia (Standard-bearer of Justice) in 1453. He also travelled extensively as an ambassador for the city. Palmieri studied with a number of prominent humanists.

Palmieri wrote several books and chronicles, the most well known being Della Vita Civile (1436), a treatise on civil life as well as the poem, Città di Vita (ca.1464), an imitation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (1306-21).

On the 15th April 1475, two days after his death, Palmieri was given a ceremonial funeral in San Pier Maggiore arranged and attended by the city’s most important citizens.

The painting was only finished after Matteo Palmieri`s death.

Matteo Palmieri is depicted kneeling on the left. Opposite him is his widow, Niccolosa, in the habit of a Benedictine nun, the Order which owned the church.

In the centre, the Apostles marvel at the tomb of the Virgin filled with lilies while above Christ receives her into the highest circle of Heaven. Angels are ranged in nine choirs, divided into three hierarchies. Unusually, saints have been incorporated into the ranks of angels.

The painting depicts Palmieri`s poem, Città di Vita and his ideas.

In his poem, Palmieri had depicted the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, the subject matter of the painting. The indecision of the Church at the time as to the actual manner in which the Virgin was taken to heaven gave artists a measure of freedom in their interpretation of events. Artists drew heavily for visual guidance on such scenes from the hagiographical book, The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine (ca.1230-1298/99). See The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints compiled by Jacobus de Voragine: The Assumption of our Lady at

In his poem and his works, Palmieri had set out Origen’s condemned doctrine on pre-existence and universal redemption: that the angels who remained neutral during the Fall of the Rebel Angels were made into men so that under the spur of passion they might make their choice between good and evil. This doctrine was condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council in AD 553. There are signs that the painting also illustrates Origen`s theories.

After his death, Palmieris work was condemned. As regards the painting there were always rumours that Palmieri and Botticini had perpetrated heresy. This is set out by Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists. But interestingly, Vasari confuses Botticini with Botticelli and ascribes the painting to Sandro Botticelli.

Palmieri`s family status and wealth are shown through the use of landscape in the painting. The extent of the landscape in the paintin is unsual for the theme of the Assumption. Florence and Fiesole are shown.

Clearly identifiable are the Cathedral and the Palazzo Vecchio with San Pier Maggiore just behind him. Also depicted is the river Mugnone, and the bridge is probably the Ponte alla Badia. The buildings to the left are the Badia di Fiesole with the Chapel of Saint Romolo beside it. On the bank in front is the Villa Palmieri and the ‘Schifanioa’, a farm owned by Palmieri.

The landscape behind Niccolosa might depict the farms in Val d’Elsa that formed part of her dowry

The Villa Palmieri had a rather distinguished history.

It was the setting of the first refuge of Boccaccio's seven young women and three young men when they fled from plague-stricken Florence in 1348 and told tales for ten days. It is now generally agreed that if Giovanni Boccaccio (June 16, 1313 – December 21, 1375) had any particular house in his mind it was this.

The Villa had a bust of Matteo Palmieri, which was an autheticated work by Antonio Rossellino (b. 1427, Settignano, d. 1479, Firenze) (1468). Until the nineteenth century it was displayed over the exterior portal of the house so that it is damaged and most detail effaced. It is now in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence (see below).

ROSSELLINO, Antonio (b. 1427, Settignano, d. 1479, Firenze)
Matteo Palmieri 1468
Marble, height: 53,3 cm
Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence

Villa Schifanoia was built over the remains of the ancient Villa Palmieri.

In the early nineteenth century, the English artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851 ) visited Florence. His sketch book shows his sketches taken while he was in the Villa. See the online sketchbook at the Tate Gallery website at

In 1888, 1893 and 1894, Queen Victoria visited Florence. She stayed at Villa Palmieri and Villa Fabbricotti together with her retinue and some members of her government. She was visited there by the Italian King and Queen. At that time, the Villa was owned by the family of the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres.

In 1927 the property passed into the hands of Myron Taylor, the United States Ambassador to the Vatican during the pontificate of Pope Pius XII. Taylor restored the villa to house his own art collection and also laid out a beautiful Italian-style garden on the large stretch of land on the south side.

In 1986 the villa was bought by the Italian State and converted into a European University Institute where it houses The Department of History and Civilization , The Department of Law and The Academy of European Law.


  1. This is the first real information I have found about Matteo Palmieri. Thank you!

    I first came across a photo of the bust in an art history book. My first thought was 'wow, that looks like my grandfather'. Then I read the name. My last name, as was my grandfather's, is Palmieri.

  2. Thanks for the informative item. I had read about the writings of M. Palmieri, Della Vita Civile, but am pleased to see the picture of his bust. As another person with a Palmieri grandfather, I have to say I can't see a resemblance but would be pleased to believe I have a distant connection with the orator and diplomat.