Early Years Of Gaudenzio Ferrari

IN the preceding chapter I have endeavoured to trace Gaudenzio’s artistic evolution. We will now proceed to examine his works in detail. It is a little difficult to place them chronologically, as his easel pictures were always more carefully finished than his fresco work. There are, however, a certain number which we can definitely place before the ancona at Arona in 1510. Tradition says the ” Pietà ” in the cloisters next Santa Maria delle Grazie at Varallo is his earliest existing work, and was painted in 1498. It is certainly a very youthful production, but, though the figures are stiff, there are a simplicity and a quietness that give intensity to its pathos.

Another fragment of early fresco work is in the Chapel of the Pietà on the Sacro Monte at Varallo. This chapel was constructed in 1504, and was originally the Chapel of the Journey to Calvary. This fresco has, unfortunately, been restored to such an extent that any primitive charm the figures may have possessed is lost, and only the weakness of construction is apparent, while its only technical interest lies in the use of gesso in the armour and the trappings.

The four interesting little panels in the gallery at Turin are the earliest easel pictures we possess. His peculiarities are here very strongly marked, and the Borgognone and the Bramantino influences clearly shown, while in the feeling for movement and in the types of some of the heads we see the trace of Leonardo’s magnetic art. The drawing is still very faulty, and the length of the fingers (see Plate II.) unduly exaggerated. These long, stiff fingers, the heavy, drooping upper eye-lids, the lights on the hair indicated by rather coarse brush work, the strained, pensive expression, the curious pursed-up lips—all these are traits which we shall constantly come across.

The least interesting is No. 44, which represents ” the Almighty,” but No. 48, ” Joachim driven from the Temple,” shows us a good architectural background, while both the pavement and the vista through the arch are interesting attempts at perspective. (The colouring and composition of this little panel may be compared with two little panels by Borgognone in Room 5 in the same gallery.) The weakness in the drawing is very apparent, but there is a graceful feeling for drapery, which goes far to redeem the general effect.

No. 47, representing the Madonna and Child with St. Anna and two angels, is a charming composition, but is, unfortunately, much injured. The angel to the right recalls a drawing by Leonardo, so also does the graceful pose of the Madonna’s head, while the scarlet and gold braid net on her hair and the scarf thrown lightly round her shoulders are distinctly Peruginesque. All through these early years the impressions of first one and then another contemporary artist appear, to be all eventually made subservient to Gaudenzio’s own very real and very powerful genius.

These panels were obviously painted about the time that Gaudenzio executed the frescoes in the Chapel of St. Margaret in Santa Maria delle Grazie at Varallo—that is to say, about 1506 or 1507. These frescoes have the special interest of being the only ones of any importance belonging to this early period which are extant in their original condition.* Of his chief works during these years there are, unfortunately, no traces left. The frescoes in the chapels of ” St. Francis,” ” the Betrayal,” ” the Magdalen,” ” the Repose,” ” Christ before Pilate,” and, on a portico, ” Christ carried to the Sepulchre,” all belonged to this time; but the original buildings were pulled down during the next two centuries to be replaced by larger and more pretentious edifices, and Gaudenzio’s work perished.

For the same reason it is difficult to trace Gaudenzio’s early work as a modeller—” plasticatore,” as Lomazzo calls him. The terra-cotta figures in many shrines in Northern Italy belong to a form of art indigenous to this part of the country. During the first half of Gaudenzio’s life he undoubtedly executed many such figures for the original chapels on the Sacro Monte, but during the changes made a century later most of the original figures disappeared, though a few can be found fitted into more modern groups. Two of these figures are in the present Chapel of ” Pilate showing Christ to the People,” and show an individuality of treatment far superior to the other work. The only chapels belonging to this early period which are still in their original condition are those of ” the Holy Family” and the ” Adoration of the Shepherds.” These chapels are made in grottos of the natural rock. The figures representing two of the shepherds were renewed at a later date, and the bambino stolen from both chapels at different times, but the rest of the groups are the work of Gaudenzio’s youth.

Gaudenzio also combined painting and modelling to a certain extent by the use of gesso during the first half of his life. He abandoned its use completely during the Vercelli period, and it is rarely to be found even on his early panel pictures, but in his frescoes he uses it very effectively to represent metal in armour and trappings.

The frescoes in the Chapel of St. Margaret represent scenes from the childhood of Christ. The roof is elaborately decorated with ” grotteschi,” which depict a curious mixture of sacred and profane subjects, such as Orpheus and his lute, Hercules clubbing the Hydra, and angels playing on musical instruments or holding cartouches on which are inscriptions. These inscriptions were deciphered by Bordiga, who believes them to represent the words : ” Gaudentius—anno 1507.”

This date is probable, as the immature technique shows that these frescoes could not have been executed at a later date. The angels, with their elongated figures and long, thin limbs, and the arrangement of the draperies, recall peculiarities in Bramantino’s early work in the Ambrosiana Pinacoteca, but there is more movement in the swirl of these aerial vestments than in anything produced by that artist. On the ceiling are four tondos in brown chiaroscuro which represent ” The Annunciation,” ” The Nativity,” ” The Adoration of the Magi,” and ” The Flight into Egypt,” and are executed with minute care.

The walls of the chapel are covered by two large frescoes, representing to the right ” Christ disputing with the Doctors,” and to the left ” The Presentation in the Temple.” This last is much injured by damp and retouching, but there is much that recalls the Turin panels, while the figure of the youth to the right has much charm.

The ” Disputation ” was long considered a proof of Gaudenzio’s intercourse with Raphael, owing to a certain similarity in the architectural background with that of ” The School of Athens.” But, as we have already seen,* the resemblance came from both artists taking from the same source, namely, Bramante. If the date of the cartouche is correct, this chapel was finished before Raphael went to Rome, and therefore two or three years before the Stanza della Segnatura was painted.

We find in the technique many of the faults of his youthful work, but in the grouping of the figures we may note with interest a scheme of composition which here occurs for the first time, but which we shall find constantly recurring in Gaudenzio’s work. Whether the scene represents a ” Disputation,” a ” Last Supper,” a ” Pentecost,” or an ” Ascension,” the arrangement of the dramatis personae is practically the same. In the ” Last Supper ” this form of composition, so different from the Tuscan and Umbrian ideas, comes direct from the Byzantine sources at Ravenna and Milan,’ and shows how tenaciously the young artist held to the old ideas, in spite of the fame of Leonardo’s great work at Milan.

In the colouring of this fresco we find delicate shades of reds, blues, and yellows, shown up pleasantly by the gray stone’ background, while a stronger tone is introduced by the use of a dark brown, which here throws into relief the figure of the child Christ. This dark brown and certain shades of rich mulberry reds are much used during this stage of Gaudenzio’s career, and contrast well with his light scheme of colouring. Gold is only used for the halos of Mary and Joseph and the child Christ.

The human touch, which is never absent from Gaudenzio’s work, is depicted in many ways—in the pathetic attitude of Mary and in the puzzled faces of the doctors, while the high mission of the Holy Child is clearly shown. Gaudenzio was not only an intensely religious painter, but a dramatic one as well, and he never fails to impress on us the true meaning of any scene he represents.

In the Church of Sant’ Antonio at Quarona, near Varallo, is a picture of the Madonna and Child and angels. It is much blackened and injured, but belongs to this early period. Two panels, once forming part of an ancona in the Church of San Giovanni, outside Quarona, are now in the museum at Varallo. They represent a local saint, Santa Panacea, and St. Peter, and are attributed to Gaudenzio, but seem to me more probably done by an early follower. A small St. Sebastian, much injured, and a Santa Petronilla, are also in this gallery. The latter was painted outside a mountain Chapel, and though her red robe and yellow cloak are still discernible, the picture was much injured by weather before it was moved to the museum.

The best things in this museum are two small ” tondi ” representing St. Peter Martyr and a monk asleep, and the portrait of an elderly man in a red cap. The delicate colouring of the “tondi” is charming, while the sweep of the brush shows the beginning of his emancipation from the small, dry strokes of his earliest method. This is shown still more clearly in the portrait, where the features are put in with strength and vigour. This picture is interesting as being the first portrait we have from his brush.

Two pictures of the Annunciation must also be mentioned here, one now in the collection belonging to Lady Layard at Venice, the other belonging to Herr Eugen Schweitzer at Berlin. They both consisted of two panels, but only the angel exists of the one at Berlin, the other half of the picture having been lost. The freer brush work shows it to be of a slightly later date than the picture at Venice.

This ” Annunciation ” is the finest existing work painted previous to the ancona at Arona. Though it has much in common with the panel at Turin (No. 47), both in the types of the heads and in the dryness of the technique, it is a far finer picture. The execution is better, and it is also in a far better state of preservation. It recalls strongly Borgognone’s scheme of colouring, especially in the pallid flesh tints, while the blues, though heavy like all Lombard blues, are harmonious and agreeable in tone. The Virgin, who is seated before a desk, wears a scarlet and gold net on her hair, as in the Turin picture. A blue mantle lined with green is draped over her red dress, while a bronze-coloured curtain falls behind her, and throws up in relief her fair hair and delicate features. The angel kneels before her with a red mantle thrown over his white robes, and it is to be noted that he holds a cross, round the staff of which is a scroll bearing the sacred salutation, an unusual rendering of the subject. The two panels are united in composition by the long wooden terrace ledge and the blue sky speckled with clouds, which form the background to both figures.

We will now examine the ancona in the Church of Santa Maria Nuova at Arona, on the Lake Maggiore, which is one of the most perfect things we have from Gaudenzio’s brush. Hitherto we have had to dispense with documentary evidence for dates, or accept such traditional ones as agreed with the technique of the works themselves. The earliest documents we possess were signed at Vercelli in 1508 and 1509, and refer to an altar-piece painted for the Church of the Confraternity of Santa Anna in that town. It represented Santa Anna and two saints, but it has since disappeared.

The contract for the ancona at Arona was drawn up and signed on February 25, 1510, at Arona. Gaudenzio undertakes to design and supply the framework of wood, carved and gilded, in three or four months’ time, and to go to Arona and paint the panels in oils as soon as he could. He undertakes that the ancona shall be completed and in its place over the altar of the principal chapel of the above-mentioned church by Easter Day the following year. The price is to be 150 ducats, and he agrees to the stipulation that after it is finished experts are to value it. If these experts judge the value to be less than 150 ducats, Gaudenzio consents to give back what they consider right ; if, on the contrary, the ancona is considered of greater value, the people of Arona are not obliged to give more than the stipulated sum. A document exists referring to this arrangement, dated June 5, 1511. Whether no expert was forthcoming, or the beauty of the work was so self-evident, a third document, dated July 26, 1511, states that, at the urgent request of Gaudenzio to have the matter settled, not only was the whole sum paid, but it expressly states that no restitution would be expected whatever the verdict of later experts might be.

The altar-piece is divided into nine parts. In the centre is ” The Adoration of the Child.” In the lunette above are the Almighty and two angels. To the right, above, are St. Martin and St. Jerome, and to the left St. George and Sant’ Ambrogio. Below, to the right, are St. Peter Martyr and San Gaudenzio protecting the kneeling figure of a woman, while to the left are St. Catherine and St. Barbara. The lowest row consists of the predella, in three panels, representing Christ and the Twelve Apostles. Among the ” grotteschi under the columns are two cartouches, with Gaudenzio’s signature and the date:

In the central panel, the Child, who is supported by St. Joseph and an angel, looks up at the kneeling Madonna, while another angel behind the group plays a lute. In the background is the manger, and to the left a landscape. As Signor Venturi has justly pointed out, the composition and design of the principal figures are taken from Perugino’s panel which is now in the National Gallery in London, but which had been painted recently for the Certosa at Pavia. The attitude of the Madonna, the flowing lines of her draperies, the position of the Child, the pillow on which it is being held, are practically identical with Perugino’s work. But there the similarity ceases. This fair-haired Madonna, with her crimped golden tresses, differs not only in type, but in sentiment, from the Peruginesque ideal. The thrill of emotion playing over the features replaces the dainty aloofness of the Umbrian Madonna, and we feel the glow of tender mother-love radiating towards the little one, which, while robbing the picture perhaps of a certain religious quality, makes it attractively sweet and human.

The colouring of the whole ancona is rich and harmonious. In the above composition the Madonna’s rich blue mantle, her purple robe and light-green scarf, the white robes of one angel and the delicate pinkish draperies of the other, make a charming scheme of colour, strengthened by the rich browns and yellows of St. Joseph’s raiment, and brought into relief by the dark tones of the landscape in the background.

The head of the angel holding the Child is painted with a rare delicacy and charm. It recalls Leonardo, and is one of the most perfect little heads Gaudenzio ever did.

Equal to this panel in interest and beauty is the one to the left representing St. Catherine and St. Barbara. The sweet gravity of expression, the delicate beauty of form and feature, the grace and refinement in every line, the exquisite colour, the strength and excellence of the painting—all combine to make this panel a very perfect creation.

The panel to the right is also of great interest, as it contains the portrait of a kneeling woman, possibly the donor. Though the name Borromeo does not occur in the contract, the chapel in which the ancona stands belongs to the Borromean family, and tradition believes this figure to represent a lady of that house. As in all portraits of that time, the strong features are faith-fully depicted, and as she kneels there, an imposing figure in her rich velvet gown, a gold chain round her neck, and everything handsome about her, she hardly seems to need the assistance of the wistful-eyed saints behind her.

The two panels above representing four saints recall again the influence of Borgognone, which, no doubt, had been revived and strengthened by the sight of a fine picture by that master which hangs in the neighbouring Church of the SS. Martin. The figures of St. George and St. Martin might almost have stepped out of the groups of youthful martyrs represented in that work but for the freer technique, while the softer expression and the golden hair are typical of Gaudenzio.

The lunette of the Almighty, blessing with one hand, and holding the globe in the other, surrounded by angels and cherubs, is a composition often introduced in the upper part of altar-pieces by Lombard artists of this period.

The predella panels have been ruined by repainting. It has been pointed out that the predellas by the later masters were generally lightly sketched in.* Gaudenzio generally paints his predellas in chiaroscuro, and we know from the Novara ancona with what daintiness and vivacity.

But except for the predella this ancona is the most perfect production belonging to his first period, before he developed his larger manner, and while the dainty framing of the old-fashioned anconas still necessitated a care and minuteness of finish, which were unsuitable for, larger effects.

Gaudenzio also painted a ” Nativity ” in fresco for this church, which has disappeared. It was an early work and done about this time.

We have no documents belonging to 1512, but in the sacristy of the Church of San Alessandro della Croce at Bergamo are four panels representing St. Jerome and three Dominican saints, which approach the Arona ancona closely in drawing and technique. They possess the same beauty of execution and distinction of sentiment, while the figure of St. Jerome is practically a replica of the one in that masterpiece. They evidently formed part of an ancona executed for the Dominicans, and it is believed they came from the suppressed Church of St. Thomas at Bergamo, though nothing is definitely known.*