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In early 1457, Francesco Pesellino was an accomplished artist in his mid-30s enjoying a glittering career. Renowned for the exquisite detail of his panels, he counted the Medici family among his patrons and Filippo Lippi among his collaborators. By summer he was dead from the plague. His name and work sank into such obscurity that there has never been an exhibition devoted to the artist—until now. Displaying items from the collection of London’s National Gallery alongside several loans, Pesellino: A Renaissance Master Revealed aims to revive the talented but unlucky Florentine’s reputation and bring his work to a wider audience.

The show is centred around two panels, The Story of David and Goliath and The Triumph of David (both around 1445-55), which tell the story of the biblical king and were probably once part of an opulent cassone, or marriage chest. They amply demonstrate Pesellino’s skill, showing David and Goliath as if they were part of an extravagant Renaissance procession, brimming with animals and gold. David is shown mid-swing as he launches a stone at the giant, while knights lunge and thrust in all directions on their bespangled horses, providing a good opportunity for Pesellino to prove his mastery of the then innovative technique of foreshortening.

Pesellino’s The Triumph of David (around 1445-55)

The panels first entered the National Gallery, initially as a loan, almost 50 years ago. Recent conservation has revealed the extraordinary intricacy of Pesellino’s gold and silver leaf, as well as scuffs on the paintwork and the presence of keyholes, later filled in. These panels were part of an object designed for use, and for all their splendour they clearly did not overawe their owners, who must have been very wealthy. One of the show’s key themes is Pesellino’s connection with the Medici. Alongside their outstanding quality, the inclusion of several Medici emblems in the story of David panels suggest that they could have been part of the furnishings of the Medici Palace in Florence.

Pesellino gained a reputation as a painter of small pictures, but had he lived longer he might have been remembered for bigger things as well. The exhibition will include Pesellino’s The Pistoia Santa Trinità Altarpiece (1455-60), a large-scale work that abandons the medieval tradition of polyptych altarpieces, in which painted figures were separated from each other by an architectural frame. Instead, Pesellino represents saints, angels and the three persons of the Trinity within the same patch of rolling Tuscan countryside. Left unfinished after his death, the altarpiece was completed by Filippo Lippi, and is the earliest pala, or single-panel altarpiece, in the National Gallery.

Pesellino’s The Pistoia Santa Trinità Altarpiece (1455-60), completed after the artist’s death by Filippo Lippi

The Pistoia Santa Trinità Altarpiece is a lucky survival, having been sawn into several pieces during the 18th century and dispersed around Europe. The sections were gradually acquired and reassembled by the National Gallery during the first three decades of the 20th century. Curated by Laura Llewellyn, Pesellino: A Renaissance Master Revealed aims to shed light on the National Gallery’s significant relationship with this artist. The show will be in Room 46, a small, focused space that is the obvious home for such an exhibition, providing a quiet moment to look closely at Pesellino’s compelling work. It is accompanied by the first fully illustrated catalogue on the artist to published in English.

Pesellino: A Renaissance Master Revealed, National Gallery, London, 7 December-10 March 2024

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