Andrea Orcagna, originally known as Andrea di Cione, was one of the most prominent Florentine painter, sculptor, and architect of the mid-14th century. He is mentioned in Dan Brown’s latest novel Inferno. To be specific, the novel’s main character Robert Langdon refers to the terrifying black demon whose red hair is smeared with the blood of his victims and who is attributed to Orcagna.
The son of a goldsmith, Orcagna was the leading member of a family of painters that included three younger brothers: Nardo, Matteo, and Jacopo di Cione. Nothing is known of the early years of Orcagna. According to a document dating to June 1368, he fell ill and presumably died later that year. Giorgio Vasari reported that Orcagna was 60 years old at the time of his death; it is therefore estimated that he was born around 1308.
His name first appeared in 1343/44 in the register of the Florentine painters’ guild (Arte dei Medici e Speziali) and in 1352 in the register of the stone workers’ guild (Arte dei Maestri della Pietra). After 1352, Orcagna was mentioned in numerous documents relating to a number of projects in Florence, including the Strozzi Altarpiece in S. Maria Novella and the marble tabernacle in Orsanmichele.
The altarpiece commissioned in 1354 by Tommaso Strozzi, in the family chapel in S. Maria Novella, is the only painting entirely produced by Orcagna that has come down to us intact. This polyptych (signed and dated 1357) depicts Christ the Redeemer in the center flanked by the Virgin and St. Thomas Aquinas on the left and John the Baptist and St. Peter on the right.
Colours are dazzling with rich use of gold, and the figures seem aloof and unconnected with humanity or its problems.
Orcagna rejected the logical and coherent spatial articulation of Giotto and his followers and instead sought to return to the tense, cramped abstract space of earlier days.
The reason for Orcagna’s return to an earlier artistic conception is probably the shattering effect of the plague, or Black Death, of 1348.
The survivors of the epidemic interpreted it as evidence of God’s anger and vengeance against the moral corruption of mankind. Their efforts to appease Him took the form of returning to the sanctified ways of their ancestors. Artists, too, rejected the realism of their immediate predecessors, Giotto and his school, for the late-13th-century abstract art.
The surviving section of a fresco from the Triumph of Death in Santa Croce has also been ascribed to Orcagna. In September 1367, he received the commission from the Arte del Cambio to produce an altarpiece of the patron of the guild, St. Matthew, with four scenes from his life. In August 1368, the execution of this picture (now in the Uffizi) was taken over by Jacopo di Cione on account of an illness.
As a sculptor, Orcagna is known through a single work, the tabernacle in the guild oratory of Orsanmichele, of which he became superintending architect by 1356.
This is a decorative structure of great complexity, supported on four octagonal piers and heavily encrusted with coloured inlay. Its principal sculptural features are, on the front and sides, a number of hexagonal reliefs with scenes from the life of the Virgin, and, at the back, a large relief of the Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin, signed and dated 1359.
The large relief is among the most notable surviving examples of the expressive art that sprang up in Tuscany after the Black Death. There are marked qualitative differences in the figurated parts of the tabernacle, and some of these may be due to Orcagna’s brother Matteo.
In 1358 he became architect of the cathedral at Orvieto, where he was engaged in 1359–60 with his brother Matteo in supervising the mosaic decoration of the facade.
Orcagna was employed as architect in the Duomo in Florence in 1357 and from 1364 to 1367. At the time of his death, Orcagna was working on the St. Matthew Altarpiece (Uffizi) with his brother Jacopo di Cione, who finished the project.
Picture by www.teladoiofirenze.it