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.
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.
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.”
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.