Faithful to Nature: Eleven Lombard Paintings 1530-1760
Faithful to Nature: Eleven Lombard Painting
17 East 76th Street, New York
2 November – 23 December 2019
Nicholas Hall is pleased to present a selection of Lombard paintings and sculpture in the exhibition Faithful to Nature: Eleven Lombard Paintings 1530-1760. On view are works by Giampetrino, Giovanni da Maino, Fede Galizia, Giulio Cesare Procaccini, Daniele Crespi, Tanzio da Varallo, Il Cerano and Giacomo Ceruti. The focus exhibtion presents a unique opportunity to examine the important yet often underappreciated artists of the Lombard School in the wake of Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio.
Lombardy is a region rich with associations. Its largest city is Milan, Italy’s capital of finance, fashion, and design. Close to France and Germany, Lombardy is a cosmopolitan hub; I get my coffee every morning at Sant Ambroeus on Madison Avenue, an offshoot of the famous cafe on the fashionable Corso Giacomo Matteotti in Milan, named for Milan’s patron saint.
But Milan, and indeed Lombardy, was not always so glamorous. In the sixteenth century it was ravaged by war and occupied by the French. In 1630 it was decimated by the Great Plague of Milan. As late as the 1680s a British visitor, Gilbert Burnet, the Bishop of Salisbury, said of Milan:
Today, as in the eighteenth century, Milan is still on few people’s cultural Grand Tour, and yet the city and the region around it are epicentral to Italy’s national success.
Lombardy is an area full of contradictions. Its outlying cities—Bergamo, Brescia, and Cremona— lean as much to the Veneto as they do to Milan. Milan and its artistic culture have similarly divided loyalties. On the one hand, its aesthetic is fundamentally wedded to realism, from the unsparing portraiture of Giovanni Battista Moroni and Giovanni Ambrogio Figino to the still lifes of Caravaggio and Fede Galizia. On the other hand, it supported the careers of some of the most rhetorical Catholic painters in all Italy.
An Introduction to Lombard Painting 1530–1760
For many of us today, Italian painting of the Renaissance is that of Venice and Florence, and during the Baroque period attention shifts to Bologna, Rome, and Naples. Nevertheless, from the fourteenth through the eighteenth centuries, the region of Lombardy in north central Italy was home to a great number of extraordinary painters. The borders of present-day Lombardy were formalized at the time of Italian unification at the end of the nineteenth century, and the region now comprises the cities of Milan, Varese, Como, Pavia, Cremona, Brescia, Bergamo, and Mantua. But during the early modern period, its shape was more elastic. Mantua, for example, was an independent state ruled by the Gonzaga family, and although Bergamo and Brescia were both part of Venice’s western terraferma, thanks to their geographic proximity to Milan, their painters are generally grouped together with other Lombard artists.
Bramante and Leonardo in Sforza Milan
The Sforza dukes ruled Renaissance Lombardy from the Castello Sforzesco at the heart of Milan. The court was one of the most magnificent in all of Europe and the dukes were great patrons of the arts. Yet it was at the fateful invitation of the Sforza that the French first entered Italy in 1494, ultimately precipitating the dynasty’s downfall. In 1499, the French drove the Sforza duke Ludovico “il Moro” out of Milan, and the territory then fell definitively under imperial domination following the Battle of Pavia in 1525, which Francis I lost to the Habsburg emperor Charles V. From 1535, the region was ruled by Spanish Habsburg governors. Politics, as ever, shaped cultural patronage, and thus the development of the Lombard school of art.
In the last decades of the fifteenth century, the Sforza invited to Milan two artists whose example revolutionized Lombard art. The painter and architect Donato d’Agnolo Bramante (1444–1514), born near Urbino, took up residence in the city in the late 1470s, and the Florentine Leonardo da Vinci arrived in Milan in 1482. Although now best known as the architect of the Tempietto in Rome, Bramante was also an accomplished painter. During his Milanese sojourn, Bramante produced a number of frescoes notable for their idiosyncratic figure style, elaborate architectural settings replete with classicizing ornament, and carefully calculated perspectives, reminiscent of the work of Andrea Mantegna (fig. 1)
Bramante had one exceptional pupil, Bartolomeo Suardi (ca. 1465–1530), known as Bramantino after his teacher. Bramantino’s work as an architect is evident in the austerely classical monu- mental structures that appear throughout his many panel and fresco paintings (fig. 2), as well as his designs for an extraordinary set of tapestries (the Trivulzio Months, 1501–9, Castello Sforzesco, Milan). His fascination with classical architecture and ornament, as well as with perspective, acute foreshortening, and the depiction of space would inform the work of Milanese artists well into the sixteenth century.
Leonardo meanwhile arrived in Milan to work for Ludovico “il Moro” in 1482 and stayed until 1499 when he left the city together with his exiled patron; he returned to Milan again in late 1506 and remained there until 1513. During those initial seventeen years, Leonardo worked on architectural and engineering projects, staged courtly entertainments like plays and tournaments, and produced ephemeral decorations for wedding and other celebrations, while his drawings and notebooks of the period reveal not only myriad inventions for new projects but also his endless fascination with scientific, artistic, poetic, and allegorical themes. In Milan, he painted his most famous religious works, the Last Supper (1495-98) in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie and the probable first version of the Virgin of the Rocks (1483-86) now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. During this period, Leonardo made many studies both of human anatomy, focusing in particular on human proportion, attempting to find the mathematical basis of ideal beauty. By deliberately distorting these proportions, he found he could also create images of “ideal” ugliness. His ability to generate alluring and absolute beauty—which for Leonardo demonstrated the power of art itself—found its finest expression in his female portraits of the period, in particular his image of Ludovico’s mistress, Cecilia Gallerani (fig. 3). Conversely, his many highly idiosyncratic drawings of what he called “visi mostruosi” or “monstrous faces,” and which modern scholars call “grotesques,” explore the inextricably linked concept of human deformity (fig. 4). 
Leonardo’s grotesques were an essential source of inspiration for some of the most bizarre paintings ever created by a native of Lombardy, the composite heads formed from plants, animals, and other objects by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526–1593) (fig. 5). Arcimboldo’s careful descriptions of still life elements also find precursors in the example of Leonardo, whose painstaking drawings of trees, leaves, and flowers foreshadow Lombardy’s emergence in the seventeenth century as a preeminent center for the development of still life painting.
Indeed, Leonardo’s impact on art in Milan was profound, and evidenced not least in the rise of a local circle of “Leonardesque” painters, which included Andrea Solario (ca. 1465–1524), Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (1467–1516), Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis (active by 1472, died after 1508), Giampietrino (active by ca. 1495, died 1553), and Bernardino Luini (ca. 1480–1532). Leonardo’s influence can be traced through the works of these painters and others incountless ways, but a useful example is Solario’s Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist (fig. 6). Along with many other depictions of this subject in Milanese art of the period, Solario’s at once gruesome and exquisitely refined panel was likely based on a lost original by Leonardo, and moreover, the dynamic contrast between Salome’s porcelain skin and the executioner’s brutish arm grows out of Leonardo’s interest in the contrast between beauty and ugliness. Lombard artists would continue to take up not only these kinds of subjects but the tensions between beauty and horror, gorgeous and ghoulish, well into the seventeenth century.
Habsburg Milan and the Influence of Titian
Milan’s Habsburg rulers favored artists from outside the city, and it was during this period that Titian (1485/90–1576), the preferred painter of Charles V, left his mark on Milan. The Spanish governor, Alfonso d’Avalos, commissioned from the Venetian artist two portraits presenting him as a faithful soldier of the Empire (one in 1533, now in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and the other in 1539, now in the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid) and likely facilitated the commission for the altarpiece depicting Christ Crowned with Thorns (fig. 7) for the chapel of the Confraternity of the Santa Corona in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie (ca. 1540–42). Titian’s altarpiece, which combined expert handling of an outstanding model of ancient art (in this case, the Laocoön) with brilliant Venetian colore, was a spectacularly modern statement in mid-sixteenth-century Milan.
The altarpiece stood in stark contrast to the arch-conservatism of the works of Gaudenzio Ferrari (1475/80–1546), a Piedmontese painter recruited to Milan by the Sforza following the death of Bernardino Luini. Gaudenzio was a major figure in Milanese art of the period, undertaking a steady stream of commissions across the city’s main churches—the cathedral, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Santa Maria presso San Celso, and so on. Yet for patrons excited by the dramatically urgent handling and color of Titian, Gaudenzio’s gentle and monumental classicism, as illustrated by paintings like the Birth of Christ (1540s), currently located in the Credito Bergamasco (fig. 8), must have read as staid in the extreme.
Developments in Brescia and Bergamo
During the sixteenth century, the cities of Brescia and Bergamo were the western outposts of Venice’s terraferma, or mainland empire. Brescia in particular developed a formidable and influential school of painting, inflected by both Venetian and Milanese traditions as well as by northern art. Despite belonging to a regional school, the Brescian painters—Moretto, Romanino, and Savoldo preeminent among them—were to have a great impact on Italian art thanks to their influence on a young artist born in the region later in the century, namely Michelangelo Merisi (1571–1610), known to us today as Caravaggio, after the town of his birth. Caravaggio had intense admiration for the Brescians’ humble, earthy approach to sacred painting, and in modern scholarship, the great Italian art historian Roberto Longhi christened them “i precedenti di Caravaggio” (Caravaggio’s predecessors).
In works like the Carrying of the Cross (fig. 9), Girolamo Romanino (1484/87–?1560) combined Titian’s brilliant colore with the expressivity of German prints, which circulated widely in northern Italy. The influence of German prints is also evident in his Flagellation processional banner for a Brescian confraternity, likely inspiring its compressed composition and the executioners’ ruthless fervor (fig. 10). It was perhaps on the account of works like this that Romanino was sometimes accused of transgressing the bounds of decorousness in his imagery, creating paintings that some contemporaries deemed “bizarre.”
Alessandro Bonvicino (ca. 1498–1554), known as Moretto da Brescia, interpreted sacred themes in a manner closely aligned with movements in piety and spirituality sweeping through the lay community of northern Italy from the 1520s, following Martin Luther’s break with the Catholic Church.
By the end of Moretto’s life, when he painted the iconic and poignant Entombment (fig. 11), such activities were being suppressed by Rome, accompanied by attempts to impose artistic orthodoxy. However, the deeply devotional cast of much Brescian art from the 1520s to the 1550s is one of its defining characteristics. Moretto was also an accomplished portraitist, incorporating acute attention to naturalistic detail into elegant depictions of the north Italian nobility (fig. 12).
The third painter in the Brescian triumvirate, Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo (1480/85–after 1548), did not settle in his native city, instead traveling to Parma and Florence and by 1521 he was work-ing in Venice.17 Savoldo was famous in his lifetime for his depictions of the Magdalene, wrapped in a sumptuous iridescent silk cloak and glancing at the viewer (fig. 13), and for his nocturnal scenes. Saint Matthew and the Angel (fig. 14) is one of his most evocative of such themes di notte, which Longhi considered a quintessentially pre-Caravaggesque work of art.
The foremost painter of Bergamo, meanwhile, was Giovanni Battista Moroni (no later than 1524–1578).18 Born in nearby Albino, Moroni studied with Moretto and was active in Trent during the Council before returning to Bergamo and, ultimately, Albino. Moroni was one of the most outstanding portrait painters of the sixteenth century, and his likenesses—whether they portray an aristocrat in extraordinary fashions or the tailor who made them (figs. 15, 16)—arrest the viewer with forthright realism and exquisite attention to details of costume.
Portraiture was also central to the art of Lorenzo Lotto (ca. 1480–1556), the Venetian painter who worked throughout the Marches and the Veneto, becoming the leading painter in Bergamo between 1513 and 1525. Throughout his peripatetic career Lotto developed a distinctive visual language. Featuring a brilliant, jewel-tone palette, congested compositions, dramatic, angular gestures and poses, and details of still life rendered with a specificity that makes them look Netherlandish, Lotto’s learned works are often highly allusive, and today sometimes elusive, in their meaning. Yet in their striking frankness, and their careful attention to naturalistic details, his portraits feel closely aligned with his those of his Lombard contemporaries and successors (figs. 17, 18).