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James M. Bradburne

The Culture of Cardinal Borromeo

Detail of The Interior of The Linder Gallery with Personifications of Pictura and Disegno, private collection
An excerpt from “The Cross Roads of Culture” – an essay on art, science and culture in 17th century Milan by James M. Bradburne, Director General of the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

With powerful Counter-Reformation clergy, Milan’s connections to Rome were close, and religious Counter-Reformation themes dominated the output of Milan’s artists and writers, such as the artists of the influential Procaccini and Crespi families. Giulio Cesare Procaccini was influenced by Gaudenzio Ferrari, but also by Rubens, and he actively collaborated with Jan Brueghel (fig. 1). Very northern-influenced landscapes appeared in the background of Procaccini’s work, as did poses associated with secular themes such as Eros and Psyche. Daniele Crespi, a student of Procaccini’s and member of the Accademia Ambrosiana of Federico Borromeo, like Francesco Cairo clearly embraced the early Baroque whilst retaining the close attention to detail that marked the work of northern artists. Notwithstanding the underlying tension between the northern Mannerism of Spranger (fig. 2) and the southern Baroque of Cairo, Milanese artists were clearly aware of the artistic trends emanating from the northern countries, and the work of Brueghel (fig. 3), Wtewael, Francken, Van Dyck and Rubens. In 1618 Federico Borromeo donated his collection of paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures to the newly founded Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, part of his ambitious project which included a library, a museum and an academy of fine arts that would open its doors two years later. This tripartite institution was to be responsible for the reform of religious culture and the arts in the diocese, in accordance with the decrees of the Council of Trent. The Ambrosiana is thus not only an example of Borromeo’s pastoral work – a synthesis of Christian spirituality, secular culture and historical engagement – but an expression of the close relationship between religious thought and art that provides one of the keys to understanding the cultural landscape of early 17th century Milan.

Fig. 1 Jan Brueghel and Giulio Cesare Procaccini, Garland with Madonna and Child surrounded by Saints, 1619 © Museo Nacional del Prado, P001417
Fig. 2 Bartholomäus Spranger, Venus and Vulcan, ca. 1610 © Kunsthistoriches Museum, Gemäldegalerie, 2001
Fig. 3 Jan Brueghel the Elder, Allegory of the Fire, 1608-10. Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, inv. 68 © Paolo Manusardi / Mondadori

By the end of the 16th century we have two strands of Renaissance light, both Christian – one deeply influenced by the secular tradition of the Classical world, the other Reformed and reforming – and both committed to the individual and his relationship with the divine, both convinced of the individual’s intrinsic agency, and both in some ways deeply “perfectionist”. Here we can see the influence of Renaissance Humanism, embodied in Leonardo’s perfect human figure inscribed in the circle and the square. We read it in Shakespeare’s “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” [William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2, pp. 303–312] – a perfect synthesis of the theory of the microcosm and the macrocosm, in which humans shared the essence of the angels.

“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!”
– William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2, pp. 303–312

The definitive and calamitous end of the era came with the death of Rudolf II’s brother Albrecht V, the last of the peace-advocating Habsburgs, in 1621 – the same year that the heads of twenty-one Bohemian nobles paid the price of Frederic V’s short reign as the ruler of Bohemia. More decisively than the defenestration of Prague in 1618, or even the defeat of Frederic’s forces at White Mountain in November 1620, the deliberate lapse of the Nine Year Truce following Albrecht’s death unleashed the full horrors of the Thirty Years War by the Counter-Reforming Spanish Habsburgs who felt that they were losing the peace to the ascendant Protestant powers. Prague had fallen in 1620, Heidelberg was taken and sacked by Tilly’s troops in 1622, and for many it seemed that the light had gone out in Europe. It was this war – in fact a series of wars conducted the length and breadth of the continent for three decades – that scattered seeds, good and bad, across Europe, and into which the Baconian “merchants of light” made their way in the gathering darkness, a darkness that would only lift by mid-century. ❖

James M. Bradburne is the Director General of the Pinacoteca di Brera and Biblioteca Braidense in Milan. Prior to taking up this appointment in 2015, he was the Director General of the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi for eight years. Besides his work on exhibitions and museums, he writes about the history of art, science and technology, as well as gastronomy and children’s stories.
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