Vogue like a painting
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Osvald Sirén published the present Nativity in 1908 in an article on Trecento paintings in US collections in The Burlington Magazine. Since that date, various art historians have studied the work from the viewpoint of its attribution, date and original location. The panel entered the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in 1979. Prior to that, between 1876 and 1977, it was on deposit with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In his article in the Burlington mentioned above, Sirén drew attention to the panel’s physical condition and the fact that dust and dirt had affected the paint surface. The panel has been restored on two occasions: in 1919 when it belonged to the Boston Athenaeum and was on deposit with the Museum of Fine Arts in that city; and between 1977 and 1978 in the studio of Marco Grassi in New York, a few months before it entered the Thyssen collection at Villa Favorita, Lugano.
Taddeo Gaddi was a pupil of Giotto and worked in his studio for twenty-four years according to Cennino Cennini. While he faithfully contributed to and disseminated his master’s style he also introduced some innovations of his own. Vasari praised his use of colour which, in his opinion, was fresher and livelier than those of his master, and the fact that “after having observed and learned the easiest parts of Giotto’s work he was capable of surpassing him without difficulty in the colouring”.
Boskovits dated this Nativity to around 1325,3 and considered it a youthful work by the artist. Giotto’s influence is evident in the composition and in a series of details that enliven the scene such as the way of arranging the holy family on descending levels that create different pictorial planes, Saint Joseph’s pose and the shape of the stable in front of the rocky landscape. The panel probably continued on the left with an Annunciation to the Shepherds, a subject that is confirmed by the position of one of the small angels in the sky, the presence of the sheep and part of a staff that has been cut off at the left edge. Gaddi closed the composition on the right with the two midwives Zelomi and Salome who comment on the scene.
The painting, which according to Boskovits would have formed part of a small altarpiece (now dismantled), has been associated with a Presentation in the Temple in a Florentine collection. This panel, published by Berenson who attributed it to Taddeo Gaddi, has a similar style to the present panel and deploys a similar type of decoration in the haloes. Following Boskovits, this hypothetical small altarpiece, made for private devotional purposes, would have had the present Nativity as the left wing, while The Presentation in the Temple would have been the central subject.