Orcagna (c. 1308-c. 1368) was an Italian painter, sculptor, and architect whose work greatly influenced Florentine and Tuscan art during the late 14th century.
Nothing is known of the early years of Andrea di Cione, called Orcagna. According to a document of June 1368, he fell ill and presumably died later that year. Giorgio Vasari reported that Orcagna was 60 years old at the time of his death; hence, he was born about 1308. In 1343/1344 his name first appeared on the register of the Florentine painters' guild (Arte dei Medici e Speziali) and in 1352 on the register of the stone workers' guild (Arte dei Maestri della Pietra). After 1352 Orcagna was mentioned in numerous documents relating to a number of projects in Florence, including the Strozzi Altarpiece in S. Maria Novella and the marble tabernacle in Orsanmichele. He was capomastro of the Cathedral in Orvieto (1359-1362), where he executed the mosaic decorations for the facade.
The signed and dated (1357) altarpiece commissioned in 1354 by Tommaso Strozzi, in the family chapel in S. Maria Novella, is the only painting entirely by Orcagna that has come down to us intact. It is a large polyptych depicting Christ as the Redeemer in the center flanked by (left) the Virgin and St. Thomas Aquinas and (right) John the Baptist and St. Peter. The outermost panels depict (left) St. Catherine and St. Michael and (right) St. Lawrence and St. Paul.
Most scholars view this unusual altarpiece as a conscious effort to return to pre-Giottesque conceptions of religious art. Orcagna rejected the logical and coherent spatial articulation of Giotto and his followers to return to the tense, cramped abstract space of earlier days. He filled the gold openings of the frame with insistently plastic and full forms, often using contradictory devices. The figure of Christ, for example, is brought forward to the foreground plane by his gestures to St. Thomas and St. Peter and simultaneously pushed back in space by the way the adoring angels overlap the seraphim of his mandorla.
The explanation for Orcagna's return to an earlier artistic conception is probably the shattering effect of the plague, or Black Death, of 1348. The survivors of the epidemic interpreted it as evidence of God's anger and vengeance against the moral corruption of mankind. Their efforts to appease Him took the form of returning to the sanctified ways of their ancestors. Artists, too, rejected the realism of their immediate predecessors, Giotto and his school, for the abstraction of late-13th-century art. Orcagna's Strozzi Altarpieceis the finest work of the period illustrating this attitude.
The marble tabernacle in Orsanmichele (1355-1359) was built to enclose a painting by Bernardo Daddi and depicts the life of the Virgin in a series of relief panels. The major panel depicts the Assumption of the Virgin and combines relief sculpture with mosaic decoration. According to Vasari, Orcagna learned the sculptor's art from Andrea Pisano, a plausible but unverified theory. Orcagna's sculptural style is close to Andrea Pisano's in its concern for sweeping rhythms and decorative surfaces. Generally the figures have a fullness and plasticity very similar to the painted figures on the Strozzi Altarpiece.
At the time of his death Orcagna was working on the St. Matthew Altarpiece (Uffizi, Florence) with his brother Jacopo di Cione, who finished the project. Some fragments of frescoes have been attributed to Orcagna, though they are probably by assistants. These include the Triumph of Death, the Last Judgment, and Hell in Sta Croce (ca. 1348), the Last Supper and the Crucifixion in the refectory of Sto Spirito, and some half-length figures of prophets in the choir of S. Maria Novella.
A valuable discussion of late-14th-century Florentine painting, including an especially good analysis of Orcagna's Strozzi Altarpiece, is in Millard Meiss, Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death (1951). Evelyn Sandburg-Vavalà includes most of Orcagna's paintings in her books Uffizi Studies (1948) and Studies in the Florentine Churches (1959). For Orcagna's work as a sculptor see John Pope-Hennessy, Italian Gothic Sculpture (1955). □