The elegant Palazzo Comunale, also known as the Palazzo degli Anziani, is situated directly next to the Duomo of Pistoia. Construction of the palazzo started in 1295. As its alternative name indicates, it served as accommodation for the Anziani, the Elders. The magistrate with the prestigious title of Gonfaloniere (literally: standard-bearer) di Giustizia also had his seat here. Part of his job was to enforce public order. In the second half of the fourteenth century a second floor was added to the palazzo, a project that gave the building its current appearance. It nowadays houses not just the city hall, but also the Museo Civico d’arte antica. We visited the museum in the summer of 2020 and had a stroke of luck: because it was August, there was free entry.
The collection of the Museo Civico was largely assembled towards the end of the nineteenth century, with the exception of the so-called Collezione Puccini. This collection belonged to a noble family from Pistoia and comprises works made between the fourteenth and nineteenth century. At least eight generations of the Puccini family contributed to the collection. In 1862 the Collezione Puccini was sold at an auction, with the aim of raising funds for a local orphanage. Unfortunately only a few of the top pieces found buyers, so the orphanage ended up with a near-complete art collection instead of cash. In 1914, 56 objects from the collection were acquired by the municipality of Pistoia. These objects from the Collezione Puccini have always been kept together. They can be seen in a separate section of the Museo Civico. In 1922 the museum opened its doors to the public. Next year it will celebrate its centenary.
The Museo Civico has a number of good medieval sculptures and paintings. We can for instance admire a beautiful relief which is attributed to Nicola Pisano (ca. 1220-1284) and which was previously in the convent of the church of San Francesco. It features Saint Franciscus receiving the stigmata from an angel that, judging by its six wings, must be a seraphim. The stigmata are also visible on a panel painting that once stood in the same church. In the centre is a full length portrait of Franciscus. The eight smaller scenes surrounding the saint represent events from his life, including again the reception of the stigmata. Unfortunately we do not know the name of the painter or painters, but the museum tentatively suggests that Coppo di Marcovaldo (ca. 1225-1276) may have been involved (there is a question mark behind his name). The panel painting is dated to ca. 1260-1270, and in 1274 Coppo painted a crucifix for the Duomo of Pistoia, so it is not inconceivable that he was also active in the church of San Francesco in the same city.
From the beginning of the fourteenth century are a Lamentation of Christ by Lippo di Benivieni and a Madonna and Child with four saints by the mysterious Maestro del 1310. In these works the rigid and flat Byzantine style has already been abandoned, but in terms of technical skill the panel paintings are still a far cry from the genius of a painter like Giotto. The Lamentation must have been painted between 1300 and 1310. Regretfully we know little about the life of the man who painted the work, nor do we know much about the man behind the moniker ‘Maestro del 1310’. The reason he was given this alias is that a work in Avignon, France, that is attributed to him mentions the year 1310. In Pistoia the church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas has a couple of frescoes made by him. His altarpiece in the Museo Civico features a Madonna and Child flanked by an unknown apostle and Saint John the Baptist on the left and Mary Magdalene and Saint Bernardus of Clairvaux on the right. The work is dated to 1300-1324.
Those interested in works from the fifteenth century may want to see a panel painting made by Mariotto di Nardo (died 1424). His Annunciation is both elegant and colourful, and especially the archangel Gabriel has been very well done. Perhaps Mariotto put in a little extra effort because the kneeling man in red and blue was also called Gabriel, Gabriello Panciatichi to be precise. He was a scion of a noble family from Pistoia and had founded a convent of Franciscan friars in 1414. The panel painting is from that convent. The two saints on either side of the Annunciation, Saint Nicholas and Saint Julianus, were not painted by Mariotto di Nardo, but by Rossello di Jacopo Franchi (ca. 1376/77-1456).
The collection continues with works from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century by painters such as Lorenzo di Credi (ca. 1459-1537), Bernardino del Signoraccio (ca. 1460-1540) and Bernardino Detti (1498-1572). All three of them painted a so-called Sacra Conversazione, which is a somewhat anachronistic term for a Madonna and Child with saints that are not neatly arranged like, for instance, on the panel painting by the Maestro del 1310 mentioned above.
Detti’s work is called the Madonna della Pergola. He painted it in 1523, when he was about 25 years old. The Madonna has been depicted as the Madonna dell’Umiltà here, i.e. she sits quite humbly with the Christ child on the ground. The saints surrounding her are Bartholomew (with the knife), James the Great (with the pilgrim’s staff) and the young John the Baptist (with the text ECCE AGNVS DEI). Behind the Madonna we see a girl with a basket of fruit. It is not quite clear who she is, but Discover Pistoia hypothesises that she has been portrayed for the simple reason that she died (the basket apparently gives the clue). Children take up a central position on the altarpiece: baby Jesus, young John the Baptist, the girl with the basket of fruit, and in the background two more children and a depiction of the Judgment of Solomon.
The works from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries can be found on the second floor. The highlight for me was a panel painting by Jacopo Chimenti, also known as Empoli (1551-1640). The painting is about the foolish judgment of King Midas. Once there was a musical contest between the shepherd’s god Pan and the god of art Apollo. Tmolos had been appointed umpire and had awarded the victory to the latter. The painting shows us that King Midas clearly disagrees. He points at Pan and is immediately punished: Apollo gives him the ears of a donkey. People who cannot tell the difference between cheerful tunes and real music are silly as asses, the god must have thought. The painting was made in 1624 and originally hung in the Casino Mediceo di San Marco in Florence.
I must admit I thought the aforementioned Collezione Puccini was not that special. In fact, I understood quite well why the auction of more than 150 years ago was a failure. The best work that is still in the collection is, in my humble opinion, a painting attributed to Mattia Preti (1613-1699), who was a follower of Caravaggio. Preti was also a Knight Hospitaller and spent the last decades of his life on Malta, where the Knights had their headquarters. The painting in the Museo Civico depicts the story of Susanna and the Elders, which is part of the additions to the Book of Daniel. The reason the work is attributed to Preti is possibly that another, similar-themed painting has been attributed to him with certainty. Experts may decide whether Preti really painted the work in Pistoia, but the museum seems pretty sure he did.
Finally, I would like to mention a painting by an unknown artist that is anything but an artistic highlight: a portrait of Pope Clemens IX (1667-1669). The reason to briefly discuss the portrait anyway is the fact that this pope was from Pistoia. He was a member of the noble Rospigliosi family.
Pope Clemens lived by the Latin motto “Aliis non sibi Clemens” – “clement to others, not to himself” – which was of course a pun on his name. He died in December 1669 after receiving the terrible news that the Turks had taken the city of Candia (now Heraklion) on Crete after a 21-year siege. The pope’s tomb can be found in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, while the funerary monuments of his parents are in the church of San Domenico in Pistoia. The portrait in the Museo Civico is a copy of a painting by Carlo Maratta (1625-1713).
This post was based on the information panels in the Museo Civico and on my Dorling Kindersley travel guide on Florence and Tuscany.