Francesco Raibolini – Fresco Decoration

IN 1505 Francia painted, by special contract for the commune of his native town, in the dining-hall of the Podestà Comunale, a Madonna known as the ” Madonna del Terremoto ” (Plate XXX.), to commemorate the deliverance of the place from total destruction by an earthquake which visited Bologna in June of that year, and caused the greatest alarm and injury.

Many houses were thrown down, and some of the finest palaces in the place were much injured, but the city ” sent up a great cry for assistance,” says the old chronicler, and ” Our Lady interceded. and the quaking was stopped.”

This picture is often quite overlooked by the visitor to the town, and is, in fact, not now very easy to find. The chapel to which twenty years afterwards it was removed has been destroyed, as the magistrates, so the custode told me, ” do not now need to go to church, and have given up that sort of thing long ago ;” but the picture is still in situ, and shielded by an iron guard. Inasmuch as it is, however, simply on a wall of what is now used as a passage to other rooms, and as it is often covered up by a large wardrobe which stands in front of it, it is not remarkable that this fresco is often missed, and that the frescoes in the Chapel of St. Cecilia are said to be the only ones now remaining of Francia’s work in Bologna. As a matter of fact, the fresco is one of the most important things in the city, as it gives a picture of what the city was like in 1505, when all its numerous towers were standing ; and many of the buildings may still be recognised. The walls are represented, and their bastions and gates ; the Torre Asinelli and the Torre Garisenda can be seen ; the incomplete nave of San Petronio, the churches of San Giovanni and the Misericordia and San Vitale can all be recognised by one who knows Bologna ; and the strength of the place can be realized from this curiously accurate perspective view of it. Above, in the sky, is the Madonna with her Divine Son blessing the city, and below, upon a banner, is the dedicatory inscription : V . M . D. TERREMOTV . CVNCTA . DIRRVENTE . DICT . ET . COS . VRBE . SERVATA . DEIPARAE . VIRGINIS . IMAGINEM.

” When an earthquake destroyed everything, the city being preserved, the Dictator and Council dedicated this image of the Madonna to the Virgin Mother of God.”

The Madonna is garbed in religious dress, as she appears in all the succeeding works of the artist.

The chief works that remain to show us what Francia could do in fresco are those in the Chapel of Sta. Cecilia. One only of these frescoes bears a date, and that is not one of the two done by Francia, but the fresco next to it, which was the work of Costa, and is dated 1506. This, however, in all probability, gives us the date for the entire series, which it is almost certain was completed before 1507. The Chapel of Santa Cecilia is attached to the Church of San Giacomo Maggiore, and was founded by Giovanni Bentivoglio as a family chapel, in which he desired to be buried, and was erected by the architect Gasparo Nadi. The work was commenced in 1481, but was stopped for some time, and the building was not completed till 1504, and then the work of decorating it no doubt began, and was entrusted to Francia and Costa and to their pupils. Only two of the panels were the work of Francia, and these are the two nearest to the altar on the Gospel and Epistle side of the chapel, and, very fortunately, they are the two in the best condition of the entire series. There are altogether ten depicting the story of St. Cecilia, and the two by Francia illustrate “The Marriage of St. Cecilia and Valerian ” and “The Burial of St. Cecilia.” Two others in the series are by Costa, whose work is in each case next to that of Francia ; three are by Aspertini, one by Chiodarolo, and two others are attributed either to Giacomo Francia, or to Giulio, his brother, or else to Cesare Tamaroccio.

The fresco of the marriage (Plate XXXI.) is the favourite one of the two, and is a charming conception admirably carried out. The braided and filleted hair give the characteristics of the period of Francia’s activity, and the grouping is said to be the result of another influence which at this time began to enter the life of the artist—the influence of Raphael. But of that we must treat in another chapter.

It is important to notice that the scenery is that of the immediate neighbourhood of Bologna, being clearly taken from Sasso, where the very defile at the entrance of which the scene is taking place can be seen. Francia has by this time cut himself adrift from whatever Umbrian influence he ever had, and is frankly Bolognese. His faces have no longer the dreamy look of the saints of Perugino, nor do they stand isolated one from the other, each occupied with its own reflections and indifferent to what is going on around. Francia has pulled his figures together. He has given to them a common interest, and they take their part in the scene in which they are represented. Here in this fresco is an instance, as it will be noticed that each of the marriage – party is interested in the ceremony, and that there is a subdued hum of conversation going on between the attendants. The blushing, shrinking bride and the almost too eager groom are both of them subjects of interest and of talk, and the entire group is giving more or less attention to what is transpiring in its midst.

The marriage takes place under an arcade that in its accurate perspective recalls the work of Piero della Francesca ; but it is situate at the entrance to a mountainous defile upon one spur of which is perched a little temple. To anyone who is conversant with the scenery around Bologna, or who has even travelled into the city from Pistoja, and has looked upon the mountains as he comes in sight of the river Reno, it will be quite evident that the artist has not gone far afield for his inspiration. The crooked Valley of the Reno—the precipitous mountains on either side, rugged and jagged, clothed so scantily with the rough bushy trees on their upper spurs, and nearer their feet with the wind-blown chestnuts, so strangely warped and gnarled in their growth by reason of the wind and the poverty of the soil—can all be seen in the works of the artist ; and where, as in this marriage, he depicts the very entrance to a peaceful and fertile valley, he is not the less accurate in the light waving larches, in the yellow-green of the grass, and in the fuller-grown, rounder chestnuts that adorn the slopes.

Something more than the buoyant spaciousness of the Umbrian masters has entered into his soul, and he looks out upon his native mountains and valleys with a better appreciation of their expanse of beauty. Although he still places all his figures in the immediate foreground, yet he is able in these later works to carry on the eye to the country that lies beyond the hills and beyond the streams, and to give that out-of-doors effect for which one looked in vain in his earlier works.

The Burial of the saint is not so well preserved as is the Marriage ; but the same power of combining the figures into one complete whole is just as apparent in it as in the marriage, and in the very centre of the group the body of the saint resting in its long sleep—peaceful, quiet, and composed, as if in innocent slumber—is charmingly presented, and can hardly be excelled in beauty. Sasso is again the scene of the mournful event, and the solemnity of the occasion is well marked upon every face in the group. Francia never succeeded in representing great gaiety, fun, or amusement on the faces of his spectators, nor did he ever depict laughter; but in the representation of deep sorrow he was at this later period of his life facile princeps, albeit he ever presented the restraining power of faith in holding back the mourner from the hysteria of grief.

Profound melancholy marks the aspect of this group. The first bitterness is past, but the sight of the life-less body has awakened the deeper sorrows mingled with the griefs of anticipated loneliness and of trouble yet in store for others. Even the men—strong, healthy fellows as they are—must needs turn aside their faces from the body that they are bearing to the tomb, lest their emotions gain the mastery over them. One woman, who was, it is clear, at the marriage, is with uplifted hand speaking of the goodness of the saint. The venerable Pontiff is uttering the words of the solemn office ; but all the rest are wrapt in grief, dwelling upon the sorrows that have past, and contemplating those that will surely affect all who are known to be present at this sad ceremony. Even amidst all the sorrow of the scene the idea of a future life is not overlooked, as high up in the lovely blue sky can be seen a sweet-faced angel bearing off to Paradise the soul of the departed saint.

As a picture the fresco is admirably arranged and every detail well thought out ; and while in its technique we miss the patient, minute painting of the goldsmith, which would have been out of place in such a work, we welcome instead the broad, flowing, easy, luscious brush-work that the quick-drying fresco demanded.

A quite remarkable knowledge of anatomy must not be overlooked in the forceful action of one of the men who steadies himself against the marble tomb with one foot and strains to obtain the proper purchase for lifting the body of the saint, and it should also be remarked that but one ear is to be seen in the whole group of twelve persons ! The colouring is pleasant, subdued, but rich ; the dead flesh is admirably painted, and the reds of some of the draperies glow with a brilliance which is the more remarkable as the fresco has been very badly treated, and it is a wonder that so much of it remains to be seen. All is full of swaying movement, instinct with life, and conveying to the spectator the undoubted impression of real genius.

The existence of these frescoes makes us the more regret the loss of what Vasari considered the finest works of the master in this method of painting—the decorations that were done for the palace of the Bentivoglio. The building, Calvi tells us, was commenced by Ercole Bentivoglio, in the Strada San Donato in Bologna, and was of regal magnificence. Its completion was undertaken by Giovanni Bentivoglio, and he called from Ferrara, Modena, and his own city the best workers in fresco to decorate the rooms. Having, however, seen the work of Francia in fresco—perhaps the Madonna del Terremoto—he desired the artist to take in hand the decoration of one of the best rooms, an apartment which he himself proposed to use ; and Francia pro-posed to illustrate the story of Judith and Holofernes. Nothing of this work now remains, as the palace had been destroyed in the time of Vasari, and he records the total destruction of these priceless works. In the Albertina, however, is preserved a study for the representation of Judith with the head in her hand, just as she has returned from the camp, and is placing the head in a bag, which her servant is carrying. From this drawing we can get an idea of the movement that must have existed in these frescoes, of the verve and swing that characterized them, and of the skill with which they were drawn. Vasari goes into a long description of them. He speaks of the camp of the warrior, of the approach of the Jewish heroine, of the action that freed the people from their servitude and the world from a tyrant, and of the maid who, with her eyes fixed upon her mistress with an expression of the most absolute obediencè and affection, bent down to receive into her keeping the bloody head of Holofernes.

Vasari also states that, in the room over that which contained this great work, Francia had painted a dispute of philosophers, which was coloured to represent bronze; and which was, he tells us, “admirably executed, and expressed the thought of the master with great effect.”

Nothing of this fine work now remains. The palace had five great halls in it, and 244 vaulted rooms, which were rich in tapestry and regal furniture. The loggia, which led from the third court to the garden, was decorated by Costa with frescoes of the burning of Troy, and around the house were lovely gardens, ” where cool fountains plashed their waters, and white statues and busts gleamed in the sun.” Beyond the palace were extensive rooms for retainers, granaries, and armories.

The death of Alexander VI., on August 18, 1503, was speedily followed by important changes at Bologna. Pius III. reigned but a few weeks, and in October of the same year Julius II. came to the throne. The Bentivogli had been ruling in Bologna, and other Governors in neighbouring States nominally as the deputies of the Supreme Pontiff ; but they had all practically cast off the yoke of the Pope, and were using their position as if they were independent Sovereigns, and setting completely at defiance the orders of the ruler of the States of the Church. This condition of insubordination did not at all suit the warlike Pontiff, who was determined to put down these petty tyrannies, and bring the dominions of the Church into direct subjection to the Holy See. In the autumn of 1506 he left Rome to proceed against Bologna, as this city had more than any other taken up a position of independence. In October he reached Cesena, where it appears Francia was at that time living, and where in all probability he was arranging for his picture of The Presentation,” if not actually engaged upon it. From this city he issued a Bull against Giovanni Bentivoglio, who was actually at that moment conspiring against him, raising an army to meet the Pontifical troops, and stirring up the people of Bologna to resist their lawful Sovereign, in whose name he had been nominally ruling. By the Bull Pope Julius declared Bentivoglio to be an enemy to the Church, delivered his goods to pillage, and granted a plenary indulgence to anyone who should deliver him into the hands of the Holy See.

Long before this time the despotic rule of Bentivoglio, the vast expenditure upon his palace which he had enforced, and the consequent high state of the taxation in the city, coupled with the oppression of his sons, who were not so popular as their father, and whom the people determined never to receive as their rulers, had made the citizens uneasy and discontented, and they were ready therefore to receive the Pope.

Bentivoglio tried to obtain the assistance of neighbouring States, and he did succeed in getting many promises of help, notably from Modena and Ferrara; but as the Pontifical troops drew nearer and nearer to the city, and proved their fighting power by several short skirmishes, the other States withdrew their promises, joined the Papal forces, and left the Bentivogli to their fate. Deserted by his allies, and finding, when too late, that he had infuriated his people by his oppression, the old ruler, who with all his harshness had been so great a patron of the fine arts in Bologna, fled from the city he had beautified, and with his wife and family took refuge for a short time in the French camp, and thence quickly passed to Milan.

At Milan he settled down, but sent on his son Alessandro to France to plead with Louis XII. for his aid against the Pope. The League of Cambrai had, how-ever, been arranged, and the friendship of the ambitious Pope was of too great importance to the King of France and the Emperor (to whom Alessandro also went) for either of them to be induced to take up arms to help Bentivoglio. While the son was absent pleading for help in a lost cause, the old ruler, Giovanni Bentivoglio, died (February, 1508), worn out with worry and sadness at having to leave his beloved Bologna, and at the news that reached him of the destruction in that city. His son, who married Ippolita Sforza in 1492, continued to reside in Milan until his death in 1532, and he and his wife were, like their father, buried, not in the Chapel of St. Cecilia, where they had wished to lie, but far away in Milan, in the Church of San Maurizio Maggiore, which, in continuance of their constant love of beauty, they had employed Luini to decorate in fresco in the manner adopted by Francia in Bologna. They left but one child, Alessandra, who took the veil in the convent attached to the same church, and who died in that monastery, and was buried near to her parents. Their portraits can all be seen in Luini’s lovely frescoes over the high altar in the church. They had carried off with them the Archdeacon’s altar-piece of “The Nativity,” and that picture remained in Milan till 1816, when it was returned to Bologna, where now it hangs. Mean-time the Pope had entered the city at the head of his troops, riding upon a “great white horse,” so says the record, and distributing ” with his own hand,” as he passed down the streets, the medals which he had caused Francia to make, and which bore upon them the fateful words : “Bononia per Julium a Tyranno Liberata.” The people received the Pontiff gladly, and knelt in long lines down the streets to receive his blessing and make their submission, and for a few days all was peace and festivity. Then, alas t Ercole Marescotti upbraided the people for leaving in their midst any signs of the past oppression, and excited them with the story that the Bentivogli would soon return if their home was left in the city. The Pontiff, having obtained the complete submission of the place, was on the point of moving on with his forces to Perugia to subdue that city also, when the people, fired by the words of Marescotti, and led by him, advanced to the San Donato Palace and crying, ” To prevent the vulture’s return, we must destroy his nest,” set fire to the glorious structure, and burned it to the ground. Soon the splendid palace that had been such a dream of beauty had become a smouldering heap of ruins, and all the lovely frescoes that adorned it had perished for ever.

The news, as we have seen, reached the refugees in Milan, and Giovanni was overcome with grief at the loss of his. works of art, and the precious books and manuscripts that he had collected. He wrote to his wife, who was at that time in Mantua, to tell her of the trouble that had overwhelmed the family, and did so in such bitter terms that she, not daring to return to him in his anguish, strangled herself, and on the news of this further calamity reaching Milan, coupled with the fact that no help was forthcoming from France or from the Holy Roman Empire, the old ruler lost all interest in life, and a few days afterwards was discovered dead upon his couch.

So passed away the great glory of the family of the Bentivogli, immortalized by Francia, and to whose wise discernment Bologna owes so much of the beauty that adorns it at the present day.