Charles Nicholl writes about a 15th-century mystery
Andrea del Castagno was one of the greatest Florentine painters of the Quattrocento – masterful in technique, spare and hard-edged in style, idiosyncratic to the point of strangeness. He was a hill farmer’s son from the Mugello, born in about 1419 in the hamlet of Castagno on the western flank of the Apennines. The first record of him is as a six-year-old bocca – a ‘mouth’, or dependant – in his father’s tax return. He is listed as Andreino, a diminutive which persisted throughout his life, possibly suggesting he was a small man. By 1440 he was in Florence, his talent already recognised by the civic authorities, who commissioned him to paint a huge propagandist mural on the façade of the Palazzo del Podestà (or Bargello) depicting a group of traitors hanging upside down. This debut earned him the rather striking nickname Andreino degl’ Impiccati (‘Little Andrew of the Hanged Men’). In 1442 he was in Venice, painting saints and prophets on the vaulted ceiling of San Zaccaria: his earliest extant work and the only one he signed (‘Andreas de Florentia’). The unusually youthful features of St Luke have been canvassed as an early self-portrait. For the next 15 years, until his early death in 1457, he worked like a fury, mostly in Florence and mostly in fresco, producing a series of dramatic masterpieces of which only a fraction survive, among them the grave and melancholy Last Supper in Sant’Apollonia; the moody St Julian in the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata (shown below); the equestrian portrait of Niccolò da Tolentino in the Duomo; and the windswept David, painted on a leather shield now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. In a lost Assumption of the Virgin, it is said, he portrayed himself as Judas.