THE fame of Leonardo at Milan is perhaps the reason why the existence of a distinct and original Lombard School was more or less ignored till within the last century. The portion of that school which became revolutionized by Leonardo’s methods was at or near Milan, where, however, the old Milanese School as represented by Foppa, Civerchio, Borgognone, Zenale, and others, still held its own. In the outlying parts of Lombardy, and especially west of the Ticino, we find artistic activity at Lodi, Pavia, Novara, Vercelli, in the Lake districts and in the lower valleys of the Alps. Of these places, Pavia and Vercelli were the most important, and there the Milanese and Piedmontese Schools amalgamated, the latter being practically a subdivision of the former. The Court of Ludovico Sforza at Pavia, and the decorations of the Castello and of the Certosa, brought a diverse group of artists* to that place, the most important of the painters being Borgognone, Macrino d’ Alba, and Perugino. As to Vercelli, we find certain families of artists settling there during the last thirty years of the fifteenth century, such as the Oldonis from Milan, the Giovenones from Novara, and the Ferraris from Chiasso and Desena. During the débaele which followed the fall of Ludovico Sforza, we find many artists gravitating between Milan and Vercelli, which seems to have been a town of considerable artistic activity.
As we have no evidence that Gaudenzio studied first at Vercelli, we can dismiss the tradition to that effect. His earliest works show the influence of certain Milanese artists, and when he came to work at Vercelli he was already far superior to the artists of that place. Vercelli possesses some of his greatest works, but it was at Milan that he received his training.
I should be inclined to divide Gaudenzio’s career into five periods. The first period comprises his early training, and lasts till the completion of the great screen in Santa Maria delle Grazie at Varallo, in 1513. The second lasts from 1513 to about 1520, and shows the still further development and maturing of his powers. The third period lasts from 1520 to 1528, when he went to live at Vercelli. During the early part of this period he painted his finest panel pictures, and also worked at the altar-piece at Morbegno and completed the great Chapel of the Crucifixion at Varallo. Towards 1526 or 1527 he came under the influence of Correggio, as we shall see when we study his works in detail. To the Vercelli period, which lasted from 1528 to 1536, belong the magnificent frescoes executed in the Church of St. Christopher in that town, and the Angel-Choir in the cupola of the Pilgrimage Church at Saronno. From 1536 till his death in 1546 he executed his last works at Varallo, and the paintings that still exist in the galleries and churches at Milan. During the last ten years of his life his art degenerated rapidly, and, as he has been generally judged by his work at Milan, there is little wonder that his reputation as an artist suffered so complete an eclipse. Though these divisions are purely arbitrary, they enable us to study his works to a certain extent chronologically. We have few dates to go by, but by grouping round the few signed pictures, or the works about which we have documentary evidence, those which have the same qualities and show the same point of technical development, we can arrive at a fairly accurate idea of his life’s work.
Gaudenzio’s first masters were Stefano Scotto and Luini. About the former little is known. Lomazzo mentions that he excelled in arabesques, a form of art which can have appealed but little to his pupil, and we only find arabesques twice in Gaudenzio’s works. The Scottos had come from Piacenza about the middle of the fifteenth century, and the names of various members of the family are found in the archives of Milan. The most interesting document relative to the position of the Scottos is one about a society of artists who called themselves ” L’ università dei pittori milanesi.” This document states that this society met on February 2, 1481, at the house of one Melchiore Scotto, and gives a list of seventy members. Among them we find Borgognone, Zenale, and Buttinone. This document shows that not only was Scotto’s house a meeting-place of the Milanese artists, but, as the above names indicate, it was possibly the centre of the old Milanese School, as distinct from, and possibly rival to, Leonardo’s famous Accademia. The old Lombard School remained quite twenty years behind its Italian contemporaries, and this in spite of the quickening spirit of Leonardo, and the new facilities afforded by painting in oils, which had been recently introduced at Milan by Flemish artists.
I have dwelt rather long on this subject; for if this theory is correct, it explains how it is that Gaudenzio, coming as a lad into this rather circumscribed centre, shows in his earliest works a curious straining after early fifteenth-century methods, at a time when such new and powerful influences were at work in the art world at Milan, and influences far more in harmony with his natural gifts. The feeling for quick and lively movement is there, but is suppressed as he strives to attain to the quieter, more grave and dignified atmosphere of the older generation of artists.
In architecture wider influences were at work: Foppahad introduced the classic ideas of the Paduan School, and Bramante had developed Italian Renaissance architecture to its highest form by enriching the Byzantine and Gothic styles with ideas drawn from Greco-Roman sources. Bramantino continued his work, and the whole of Lombardy bears proof to-day of the beauty and refinement of their art. Lomazzo mentions a book of architectural designs by Bramante, ” which,” he says, ” much influenced Raphael, Polidoro, and Gaudenzio.” This accounts for the slight similarity in certain architectural backgrounds, which led later writers to place Gaudenzio among Raphael’s pupils instead of recognising that both artists had taken from the same source. Lomazzo also mentions a book of drawings of buildings and studies for presepios and rooms, by Civerchio and Buttinone. This book, which was highly prized by Gaudenzio, was given by him in his old age to Cesare Cesarini, one of his pupils.
Luini seems to have used his influence at this time in directing his young pupil’s attention chiefly to the works of Borgognone and Bramantino. The impressions of these two masters are found in Luini’s own early work as well as in Gaudenzio’s, and it is possible that when Luini went to Borgognone’s studio his pupil went with him. Perugino’s work at the Certosa in 1495 was also noted by Gaudenzio, as we shall see later on.
But Gaudenzio possessed a vivacity and a dramatic sense which demanded far more of art than the old Milanese School could give. The force and rhythm of movement appealed to him as to no other contemporary Lombard. Now, there was but-one master of movement at Milan at that time, namely, Leonardo da Vinci. As we know, Leonardo particularly strove to represent the subtle shades of expression of face and gestures in his figures, and it is this spirit of life in every line of his work that fascinated his contemporaries. While most of his followers failed to see this essence of his genius, and, copying slavishly, produced commonplace or grotesque results, Gaudenzio grasped and absorbed this fundamental truth. He was never a pupil of Leonardo’s, and could not have comprehended the subtle and varied qualities of his character. This feeling for vitality is one of the few things they had in common, but it is the chief quality that distinguished Gaudenzio from his Lombard contemporaries, and became his greatest characteristic when he finally emancipated himself from the traditions of his youth.
During his first years of independent work the influence of Leonardo is not very apparent. But the old order was changing, and the new order, with its complicated theories of chiaroscuro, perspective and movement, was most effectively bringing in another range of ideas, both in technique and composition. Just as Luini’s temperament had been attracted by the one, so was Gaudenzio’s livelier imagination attracted by the other ; and it was possible that it was Gaudenzio who first inspired Luini with an appreciation for Leonardo’s genius, which developed after the great Florentine’s return to Milan in 1507. Luini’s ” maniera grigia” seems to be the result of trying to combine Borgognone’s gray flesh tints with an attempt at chiaroscuro after the manner of Leonardo, and it is my belief that after Leonardo had left Italy in 1516 Luini’s last or blond manner was the result of renewed intercourse with Gaudenzio, whose colouring was at this period of his career of quite extraordinary brilliancy.
To sum up the results of Gaudenzio’s early training, we find him for many years faithful to the old traditions. His genius, however, could not fail to develop itself on its natural lines. A modern writer* has drawn attention to the impetus given to dramatic art by the Franciscan movement, and Gaudenzio, working in a Franciscan atmosphere at Varallo, is able to give expression to his great gift for dramatic action, as the screen across the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie bears witness.
The originality of the composition, the life and vivacity of the figures, and the audacity of the perspective, are most striking. But the undue length of limb, the want of anatomical knowledge, especially in the hands, and the lack of restraint, are also noticeable. The renewed intercourse with Luini, which possibly began at Como about 1514, was also most beneficial to Gaudenzio, who had remained faithful to a great extent to the early types of features, hands, and forms that he had learnt at Milan. After this date the long, attenuated beings gradually disappear, and Gaudenzio’s figures acquire reasonable proportions, while the hands become like Luini’s, a large peasant type, soft and rounded and anatomically correct. His children also approach nearer to Luini’s child Christ, and the small, solidly modelled “putti ” we find in Gaudenzio’s second and third periods are admirably drawn. The restraining influence which Luini seems to have had was distinctly beneficial while it lasted. With better modelling, intenser colour, and moderation of violent and exaggerated attitudes, Gaudenzio executed some of his finest panel pictures, and, though less single-minded than Luini, he shows himself far more powerful than his former master.
One last but important influence came into Gaudenzio’s life about 1527, namely, that of Correggio, as we see by the works at Como and Bellagio. These two natures had much in common. They both had a strain of originality bordering on the fantastic, and both possessed a dramatic force in the conception, and a natural swiftness and impetuosity in the execution, of their art. Both men were sincerely religious, and both were able to depict the fervour of spiritual ecstasy in a remarkable manner.
This influence, which led Gaudenzio to make many interesting changes in his mode of artistic expression, had eventually a disastrous effect on his art. While the influence of Luini tended towards simplicity and restraint, that of Correggio had the contrary effect. The new system of strong chiaroscuro and the massing of clouds and flying cherubs often give confused and unsatisfactory results. Though we have such magnificent works as the frescoes at Vercelli and the Angel-Choir at Saronno during the following decade, Gaudenzio gradually allows his rapidity of execution and his exuberant fancy to lead him astray. His fine and striking ways of expressing emotion, his wonderful. richness of invention, and his pure, strong colouring suffer in consequence. His touch coarsens, his colour scheme becomes crude and fiery, and the movement of his figures violent and exaggerated.
His influence is found throughout Lombardy, where his followers strove to imitate his methods. The most important of these was Bernardino Lanino, who became his pupil in 1530, at a time when Gaudenzio had completely abandoned the old style for the new. A ” Last Supper ” in the old convent behind St. Christopher (now used as a charitable institution) is attributed to him by Signor Frizzoni. His earliest dated work (1534), now in the Turin Gallery, shows that he closely imitates his master’s new methods. The composition of a fine altar-piece at Borgosesia, which is dated 1539, proves that he had a strong feeling for both form and colour ; but his later works show that as he develops his scheme of colour becomes paler and browner than Gaudenzio’s. The two ” Depositions ” hanging in the same room in the gallery at Turin show this clearly. A ” Madonna and Child ” in the Poldi Pezzoli, which has long been attributed to Gaudenzio, is a fine panel painting by Lanino. The beautiful face is the type of Gaudenzio’s Vercelli Madonnas, but the type of the child Christ is not his. This, together with the general brown tone of colouring, is similar to that in a picture of a Madonna and Child in the Turin Gallery, which is there rightly attributed to Lanino. Unfortunately for Lanino, the constant use of the cartoons left him by Gaudenzio, combined with a weakness of execution, destroyed all originality and charm in his work, as many large altar-pieces testify.
Of Gaudenzio’s other pupils and assistants little is known. Fermo Stella was his assistant at Morbegno about 1520, and also in the Chapel of the Crucifixion on the Sacro Monte, and some fairly good altar-pieces by him are still in existence. Della Cerva was Gaudenzio’s assistant at Milan for a short time before his death, and frescoes by him can still be seen in that city.