Circle of Bonafacio Bembo


The Circle of Bonafacio Bembo and
Adoration of the Holy Child Tryptych

Marilyn Bradsaw and Barbara Bays

In the Cantor Arts Center is an exquisite little alterpiece (1) that has been linked to the family of painters named Bembo from the picturesque town of Cremona in Northern Italy. (2) The patriarch of the family, Giovannit Bembo, (active 1421-49), fathered at least three painter-sons, Bonafacio (active 1447-78), Benedetto (1462-89), and Ambrosio, (active 1450s). Bonifacio became the most famous of these brothers, partly because of his involvement with the overlords of the region, the powerful dukes of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti, Francesco Sforza, and Galeazzo Maria Sforza. (3)

Bonafacio's name is now often linked to the small scale-paintings on tarot cards, such as that of Father time (4), whose commission has been associated with the Visconti-Sforza court. (5) Records show that Bonafacio's contracts entailed large-scale works as well, including the creation of murals and panel paintings.(6) For Duke Francesco Sforza (7), he carried out (lost) restorations on Visconti murals in the castle of Pavia in 1456-58. (8) Besides this work for Francesco in 1461, he also created two (lost) figures in fresco for the Palazzo Visconti-Sforza in Milan. (9) To commemorate the marriage of Francesco and Bianca Maria Visconti (on October 25, 1441), he made an alterpiece in 1462 for the chapel of Saints Grisante and Daria (protectors of conjugal love) in the chruch of Sant Agostino, Cremona (10)...

(notes up to 10 for this opening paragraph to follow)

(1)Circle of Bonafacio Bembo, Adoration of the Holy Child, circa 1470s, Tempera on panel, 65.5 x 5.1 CM (Entire tryptych) Gift of donald Whyte, 1987.158

...Adoration of the Holy Child triptych has been attributed to Bonafacio Bembo (R. Longhi, Critica d' Arte 30 (1949), 298, no. 27) and is now considered a work of the circle of Bonafacio Bembo. Bernard Berensen considered the tryptych to be by the Cremonese painter. Vincenzo Cervechio in his early phase (museum files). The recent conservation of the painting was supported by the Cherneck Fund.

(2) Cremona is a Romanesque town that came under the domination of the Milanese in the 14th century. The Bembo produced many painters who worked in Cremona and Lombardy in the 15th and 6th centuries.

(3) When Filippo Maria Visconti died in 1447, he left no male heirs; the duchy of Milan came under a republican government, called the Ambrosiana, until Francesco Sforza (d. 1466), who had been the strongest of Filippo's generals, took control of Milan and declared himself the new duke in 1450. Francesco had married Fillip Maria's illegitimate daughter Bianca Maria in 1441, and his goal was to continue the tradition of the Visconti dynasty. His son Galeazzo Sforza ruled for ten years until his assassination in 1476; the duchy then passed to Galeazzo's son Giangaleazzo (d. 1494), although Galeazzo's brother Lodvico Il Moro had primary control over many issues concerning patronage.

(4) One of the most reproduced of these little paintings, Father TIme is among the group of tarot cards now in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. The group of 35 cards in the Morgan was acquired in 1911 from the dealer Hamburger, who doubtless had acqquired from Count Colleoni (see G. Moakley, the Tarot Cards Painted by Bonafacio Bembo for the Visconti Sforza Family, An Iconographic and Historical Study, (New York, 1960), 20). The remaining cards of this deck are divided between the Colleoni family and the Academia Carrara in Bergamo.

Several of the cards rflect the style of the Ferarrese artist Antonio Cigognara, whose work likely influenced the circle of Bonafacio, as can be seen in the figure of St. Francis in the Stanford triptych. (see below). Another candidate is Francisco Zavattari (see Dumont, the Visconti-Sforza Cards (New York 1986). , 12-14, reference G. Algeri, Gli Zavattari, (Rome 1981).

(5) There are thre decks of tarot cards that have been identified with Visconti or Sforza patronage: the Brambilla tarot deck at the Brera, Milan, which is dated about 1442-43; the Colleoni-Baglione deck, divided between the Pierpont Morgan Library and Accademia Carrara in Bergamo (see above, note 4) and the Vsisconti deck in the Cary Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. The Colleoni-Baglione and Visconti decks are dated later than the Brambilla, closer to 1450.

...notes to be continued later up to 10....while one further paragraph discusses various painters Bembo might have worked with, the rest of the article and citations about payments, lost frescos and subjects aren't directly tarot related, but of interest to art tarot the journal will probably worth the $15. At the very least, the details of the clothing, subjects, etc. and the citation notes can summarize what is known/agreed upon as of about circa 2007 in terms of tarot, Bembo...etc...Dumont and Moakley are cited below...(corrections/notes up to 10 to follow)

The full article and painting, plus detail is p. 16-25
Cantor Arts Center Journal
Volume Three, 2002-2003.

You can buy it at the following link


Notes 6-10...general Bembo painting info (no tarot)

(6) A payment document of April 30, 1467, names Bonfacio Bembo as the creator of the high alterpieces of Cremona Cathedral; his work was likely begun three years earlier (see L. Bellingeri and M. Tanzi, Bonafacio Bembo dalla Cattedral al Museo di Cremona (Brescia, 1991), 5). A 1574 document describes the subject of the high alterpiece as the Madonna and Child enthroned between two angels (ibid. 7). This alterpiece is generally accepted as Madonna and Child Enthroned attributed to Bonafacio Bembo in the Museum Civico "Ala Ponzone." Cremona.

(7) In 1456, Francesco Sforza invited Bonafacio to Pavia, where he was to work on restoration in the castle (see C. Baroni and S.S. Ludovici, La pittura lombardio del quattracentro (Florence, 1952), 107-9).

(8) The original frescos depicted various animals in gold, (lions, leopards, tigers, wild boars); the castle was destroyed in 1527 (see Bandera.) "Persistanze tardogotiche a Cremona Frate Nebridio e altri episodi" Paragone 323 (January 1977), 37, 61nos 13-14).

(9) See Arte in Lombardia tra Gotico e Rinascimento (Milan 1988), 178

(10) For citations referring to documents concerning Bonafacio's alteriece in Sant Agostino, se Bandera (as in 8), 40, 63, n. 14.


If I can find the pictures I took for personal use...

...back a few years ago of the alterpiece, I will post what I can.

At least the notes and information for awhile can assist in historical students to know 'what is known' about one of the more elusive--the painters of gilded minatures that we seem to muse about so much...

Bonafacio Bembo
Cremona Alterpiece
(placeholder for full attributions)

Bonifacio Bembo
(1420 circa - notizie fino al 1477)
Incoronazione di Cristo e Maria
Frammento della pala Plasio
tempera su tavola




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