GAUDENZIO’S anxiety to have matters settled at Arona in the summer of 1511 was no doubt owing, not only to stress of work already on hand, but probably still more to the work he had in prospect for the future. The idea of decorating the centre wall of Santa Maria delle Grazie at Varallo was no doubt already under discussion. Though we have no documents relative to this vast piece of work, it was finished in 1513, and Gaudenzio could hardly have taken less than a year or eighteen months over it.
The origin of the peculiar construction of this church is worth recording. An ancient chapel originally stood on a spot near which the path begins to ascend to the Sacro Monte. When the Franciscan monk Bernardino Caini, fixed upon this mountain as a suitable site for the chapels of a New Jerusalem, the Vicinanza or Commune of Varallo promised him, about 148o, to erect a convent for the Minorites close by. Marco Scarogini, a pious Milanese noble, and an ardent supporter of Bernardino Caini, had already erected another chapel close to the first one. His epitaph (now in the church) tells us this chapel was dedicated to Santa Maria Immaculata, and that he died on March 14, 1486. The construction of the convent began in 1487, and it was finished in 1493. Both the existing chapels were enclosed in the convent church, and form part of a screen made by .throwing a wall across the building. In Bramantino’s sketch-book in the Ambrosiana Library there, are several designs for thus dividing churches belonging to the monastic Orders. In some the far side of the wall is entirely reserved for the monks ; in others, as in this church, it stands across the centre of the nave. Bernardino Caini and his monks took possession on April 14, 1493.
The Sacro Monte exercised an immense influence on the people of the Valsesia, and we can imagine the enthusiasm and the pride with which, on his return from Milan, the young Gaudenzio had plied his brush in the service of the Franciscans. Later on the monks seem to have turned their attention to the decoration of their convent and church, and the frescoes in the chapel now dedicated to St. Margaret were the result. Old writers mention two series of frescoes executed by Gaudenzio, representing the lives of St. Catherine and St. Cecilia, which covered the walls of the cloisters ; but unfortunately these frescoes have quite disappeared, and there is nothing to show us the gradual development of this branch of Gaudenzio’s art during this period. That this improvement was duly noted is probable, for tradition says that the people of Varallo, headed by his relations, the Vincios, invited him to decorate at their expense the vast expanse of wall above the two chapels in the convent church. The space to be covered measured 10’40 metres across, and 8 metres in height, and the subjects chosen were scenes from the life of Christ.
The first thing which Strikes the observer is the extra-ordinary originality both in the composition and in the colour scheme of this great work. The deep and rather heavy greens, blues, and purples of the Venetian and Umbrian Schools are quite absent. A wide range of tones of creamy whites, grays, and fawns in the draperies and in the architectural and rocky backgrounds give a lightness and a delicacy of tone to the whole wall. Light blues, yellows, browns, pinks, and greens abound, emphasized by touches of a dark rich reddish-brown introduced in the draperies and in the mosaic pavements. Gaudenzio knows how to use darker colours sparingly, but most effectively, ever careful to keep the general tone light. He employs gesso for the armour and trappings, but his love of modelling makes him occasionally exaggerate its use, as in the picture of the Crucifixion, and his happiest results are in the scenes where paint is the only medium used.
In composition we shall see, as we study the screen in detail, that Gaudenzio possessed a most extraordinary fertility of invention, and that, though he may some-times err on the side of exaggeration, it is the result of his own original genius, and not the vain attempt to_ reproduce the ideas of others. Sincerity and piety are the chief notes struck, while his dramatic sense gives fire and animation to the scenes depicted.
Gaudenzio divided the wall into twenty-one spaces, arranged in three rows, one scene in the centre, that of the Crucifixion, being four times as large as the others.
The following is a list of subjects chosen :
The Annunciation. The Nativity. The Adoration of the Magi. The Flight into Egypt. The Baptism. The Raising of Lazarus. The Entry into Jerusalem. The Last Supper. Christ washing the Feet of the Disciples. The Agony in the Garden. The Betrayal. Christ before Herod. Christ before Pilate. The Flagellation. Pilate washing his Hands. The Journey to Calvary. The Arrival at Calvary. The Crucifixion. The Deposition. The Descent into Hades. Christ rising from the Tomb.
Above in the angle of the roof are two ” putti ” supporting a “tondo” representing the prophet Isaiah. He holds a scroll on which is inscribed in Gothic lettering the following words, ” Traditu “i” morte aia “tuam Esaia 53.”
Below are four tondi. The two centre ones represent St. Francis and San Bernardino da Siena, while the others bear inscriptions. On the one to the left is written, ” 1513. Gaudentius Ferraius Vallido Siccide Pinxit ” ; while on the one to the right we read, ” Hoc Opus Impensis Popli Varali AD X Gloriam,”
Unfortunately for the perfection of this great work, Gaudenzio has obviously left a good deal of the execution to assistants, as we shall see as we examine it in detail.
No. 1, ” The Annunciation,” is among the least interesting of the compositions ; for though the rush and fervour of the angel and the gentle dignity of the Virgin are well expressed, the execution is coarse and rough. The general tone of the colouring is light and harmonious, and the squares of dark-red mosaic have a pleasing effect.
No. 2, ” The Nativity,” is a charming composition and well executed. The Madonna has a very lovely face. She kneels to the left wrapped in a pale-blue mantle, while the tall figure of St. Joseph in a warm yellow cloak stands beside her. Two charming angels singing from a book stand above the Child, who lies on the ground sucking His finger as He looks up at His parents. The delicate creamy and pinkish robes of the angels compose well with the gray wall behind them, while the shadow of a rocky arch in the background throws into relief the rest of the group. In the distance we see an angel announcing to a shepherd the glad tidings of great joy.
No. 3, “The Adoration of the Magi,” is not so satisfactory a production. The composition is confused and complicated. The Madonna and Child are seated outside a doorway to the left. Her charming face recalls the Umbrian type. Two of the kings are bending before them ; the third, the Ethiopian, is standing to the right, having his spurs removed. Horses and servants complete the group, while in the background are woods and fields. The colouring of this picture is too monotonous in strength of tone, but some of the detail is good, notably the head and attitude of the kneeling king, which are particularly fine and dignified.
No. 4, ” The Flight into Egypt,” is full of action, but is, unfortunately, marred by bad drawing and rough execution. The chiaroscuro is good, a dark wood in the background showing up the figures effectively, while a distant mountain peak accentuates the wildness and loneliness of the scene.
No. 5, “The Baptism,” is more carefully executed than the last scene, and repays examination. Our Lord and St. John are painted in delicate and subdued flesh tints, and the brown folds of St. John’s cloak are well drawn. Two angels to the right, in green, white, and yellow robes, harmonize well with the general scheme of colour. In the background we have the valley of a mountain stream. The sloping fields and clumps of trees are painted in delicate greens, and the rocky mass just behind the principal figures is admirably treated. Gaudenzio’s rocks are obviously done from careful studies of Nature, and these rocks in colour and in drawing recall the bed of the Sesia above Varallo.
No. 6, ” The Raising of Lazarus.” This is one of the most sympathetic representations of this subject in Italian art. Though faults of technique undoubtedly exist, it is instinct with so spiritual an atmosphere that the faults and failings become secondary matters. The beautiful head of Christ and the nobility of attitude and gesture are so fine, and the expressions of the other faces so true in sentiment, that the shortcomings and the exaggerations have no power to injure our enjoyment of this picture. In the background are sundry figures, whose actions express wonder and amazement as Lazarus emerges from the tomb. Pale and wan, his look of adoration and worship is fixed on the Redeemer, while Martha and Mary throw themselves at Christ’s feet in a rapture of thankfulness and awe.
These two figures throw a light on Gaudenzio’s conception of their respective spheres of action. Martha wears a nun’s head-dress and is severely robed in dark green, and is perhaps representative of the life of graver cares, while Mary, with her fair hair streaming over her pale-blue dress and yellow and pink mantle, possibly represents the gay world and its allurements.
No. 7, ” The Entry into Jerusalem.” Though the centre figure in this scene stands out well, the general impression is unsatisfactory. The composition is con-fused, and the audacity of foreshortening here leads Gaudenzio astray. The figure of the youth in. green doublet and white stockings, strewing branches in the right-hand corner, is grotesque and unpleasing. At the same time, some of the details in the background are good. The man helping a youth up a tree is realistically drawn, while another youth raising his hand to catch the branches is very well depicted.
No. 8, ” The Last Supper.” This is the earliest existing representation of this subject painted by Gaudenzio. The composition is in accordance with the Byzantine tradition, and a cartoon of this subject of a later date, now in the Albertina Library at Turin, _shows that Gaudenzio never departed from it. This scene is carefully painted, and the light and dark coloured marbles of the walls and benches are well rendered. The heads of the Apostles are full of expression. The one in the foreground turning to the left is a specially fine and dignified type. The graceful figure of a page pouring water into a basin and standing on a raised platform relieves the monotony of the back-ground, while an open doorway with a vista of sky and hills gives a sense of lightness and space.
No. 9, “Christ washing the Feet of the Disciples.” The composition, colour, and execution of this scene are admirable. Standing in a vast hall, the puzzled but interested group of disciples gather round the centre figures. St. Peter, in a gray robe and yellow cloak, is seated to the left in an easy and natural attitude, but the pucker on his forehead shows the bewilderment of his mind. The kneeling figure of Christ is full of grace and dignity. Robed in red, with a white towel thrown over His shoulder, He bends over the Apostle’s feet. The dark-brown robe of a disciple in the background brings his fine and delicate features into relief. These two figures are finished with much care and precision ‘of detail. The fine architectural background gives dignity to the scene.
No. 10, ” The Agony in the Garden.” As we approach the crisis of the great tragedy the intensity of feeling grows more acute. The conflict shown in the drawn, agonized face of this white-robed figure is wonderfully depicted. The sharp rocks in the back-ground add an atmosphere of sternness and severity to the scene. The angel presenting the chalice is the least satisfactory of the figures, but the group of the disciples asleep is carefully executed.
No. 11, ” The Betrayal.” This is one of the most dramatic and original of the series, and I doubt if a more realistic representation of this scene existed at that period. The blackness-of night lit up by artificial light had rarely been successfully treated before, and Gaudenzio seized the opportunity for novel chiaroscuro effects. The light from the burning braziers falls direct on Christ, who is embracing Judas, while the soldiers, emerging from the darkness, seize Him with rough brutality. St. Peter, to the left, is smiting down a soldier, and the swift action of his arm is most remarkable. To the right stands a Roman soldier, the brim of his helmet casting the upper part of the face into shadow with a quite Rembrandtesque effect. In contrast to the agitated group in the foreground, we have in the distance the outline of the quiet fields, and in the sky the faintest glimmer of the coming dawn.
Though much of this fresco is marred by coarse execution and bad drawing, it is an interesting experiment in a new line of artistic achievement. A good deal of gesso is used both in this picture and in the next.
No. 12, ” Christ before Herod,” is a finely painted scene with rich detail. The carpet on Herod’s throne, and the tapestry studded with flowers and leaves in the background, are very decorative. Gesso is used lavishly in the trappings and armour of the soldiers, one of whom, standing in an almost Mantegnesque pose, with his back to the spectator, looks on placidly while certain of the group menace the Redeemer. The figure of Christ is full of gentle dignity as He looks towards Herod. The head of the soldier seizing Him from the back recalls a drawing by Leonardo. The colouring of this picture is rich and strong.
No. 13, ” Christ before Pilate.” This scene and the next are the most interesting in the series, not only for the scheme of colouring, but also for their great originality. A tall figure to the right in black and yellow tights argues with Pilate, marking his arguments with his fingers in a most decisive manner. The stately form of Pilate stands in the centre wrapped in a splendid rich brown coat lined with fur, while his silver hair flows from. under a turbaned head-dress. He turns and faces the soldier, and his face wears an angry, puzzled expression as he strives to save Christ from the clamouring mob. In the background is the entrance to his palace, a fine classic portal, with the words ” PALACIVM PILATI ” inscribed in Roman lettering on the lintel. Above is a lunette containing statuary representing the Laocoon. This has been held as another proof that Gaudenzio had been to Rome, but I do not think it is a proof either way. The discovery of this famous piece of sculpture had made a great stir in artistic circles, but the Renaissance artists had an intense reverence for classic art, and when they repro-duce any well-known statue in their works, they represent it accurately. I think that if Gaudenzio had seen and drawn the Laocoon for himself we should have an exact copy of it, and that the subject of our present study was done from a description.
No. 14, ” The Flagellation,” is of equal interest to No. 13. The great beauty of this scene lies in the perfect harmony of low tones in which it is painted. Grays and whites predominate, picked out and emphasized by the red and black patches of the mosaic pavement, while the touch of rich brown given by Pilate’s dark-robed figure in the background has a particularly happy effect. The modelling of the figures and the swing of the bodies are excellent, and the feeling for space, distance, and movement admirable. There is an architectural sketch attributed to Zenale in the British Museum which represents a very similar loggia sup-ported by dainty columns, which may have indirectly inspired Gaudenzio in this fresco.
No. 15, ” Pilate washing his Hands.” This scene is very unequal. It has some good detail, but the composition is spoilt by the exaggerated figure of a straddling warrior, who dominates the foreground to the detraction of the general effect. To the right, in the background, Pilate is seated on his throne, while a youth pours water over his hands. His fine, grave face looks thoughtfully at Christ, whose head is turned towards him. On the hem of the red robe worn by the Redeemer is inscribed in gold the words SALVATMON. The rest of the lettering is illegible or hidden by the white cloak.
A curious figure of a youth asleep, to the right, shows Gaudenzio’s love for strange and fanciful effects. This fair-haired page, bored with the turmoil going on, has fallen asleep on the steps of the throne. His green doublet and tights, white shirt and gold chain in gesso, give a bright note of colour, while, standing close to Pilate, another page in gaily slashed attire makes also a curious contrast to the grim reality of the scene.
No. 16, “The Journey to Calvary.” This scene is well rendered. The Roman officer in the background is ordering the soldiers to keep back the crowd, in the foremost rank of which we see the Virgin and St. John. The Virgin is a type we shall find constantly during the next few years in Gaudenzio’s representations of the ” Pietà,” notably in a fine picture belonging to Signor Crespi at Milan.* We shall also find the peak-like arrangement of the cloak over the head. The hands and the expression of the face are beautifully rendered, while the action of the executioner driving her back is. realistically painted. These are the two best figures in the group. On the face of the Redeemer the distress of exhausted nature is apparent as He is led along by another executioner, whose coarse face is rendered still more repulsive by his goitred neck. The colouring is light and pleasing, and the figures in the foreground stand out well from the rest of the procession, which emerges from a large classic gateway in the background, to the left.
No. 17, ” The Arrival at Calvary,” has many interesting touches. To the left stand the two thieves with bound hands, while in front of them kneels the Redeemer in prayer over the cross, on to which a little child has innocently strayed. Its mother, standing behind, draws it back with her hand. She has a beautiful face, and wears a picturesque head-dress of plaited linen, which adds to the dignity of her appearance. The cross stands out against her white cloak, while the dark brown of her dress brings the face of Christ into relief. The child is attracted by the soldier to the right, who holds a large gesso ornamented shield, on which is inscribed SENATVS POPVLVS QVE ‘ ROMANI ‘, and the beginning of another sentence, VOSTN. His expression of bored indifference as he stands keeping order is naturally depicted. In the background a troop of horsemen crowd round and keep back the people.
No. 18, “The Crucifixion.” Gaudenzio justly considered that this scene required more space than the others. It is four times the size of the other panels, but he has taken care that the proportions of the figures should harmonize with the rest of the screen.
This crowded scene is full of incidents. Though it is far removed from the quiet atmosphere of the Umbrian School, it holds its own by the sincere and the intense feeling which animates it, and the strong dramatic qualities give movement and life to every figure depicted.
In the foreground, to the left, is a group of women supporting the fainting Virgin, The faces and draperies are beautifully rendered. To the right are the soldiers casting lots. The foreshortening of the one leaning over in the centre is admirable, though the excessive use of gesso makes him corne almost too far out of the picture. Behind them is a charming group of women with children looking on, and tradition says that the two figures in pilgrim dress in the centre are portraits. The one to the right is said to be Pellegrino da Modena, and the one in the centre, being fawned on by a fine white dog of the collie type, is believed to represent Gaudenzio himself. Roman horsemen circulate round the base of the crosses. The action of Longinus on a white charger richly caparisoned is well depicted, but the gesso is again too heavily applied, and brings him too much into the foreground.
The upper part of the picture looks confused, owing partly to overcrowding and partly to the voluminous folds of the angels’ robes, who, eight in number, hover round the centre cross. They have not yet attained the beauty of either movement or expression which we shall find in Gaudenzio’s later work. In the distance we see Jerusalem, represented with many fine Renaissance towers and domes.
No. 19, ” The Deposition.” This scene is fairly well carried out, and the composition is interesting, as being very similar with that of a fine picture of this subject painted by Gaudenzio at a later date, and now in the Gallery at Turin.* The colouring is bright, and one or two of the heads are finely rendered ; but part of the execution was left to assistants, and the general effect of the picture is crude and unsatisfactory.
No. 20, ” The Descent into Hades.” This is another experiment in chiaroscuro. The light in this fresco radiates from the figure of the Redeemer, who, wrapped in a gray cloak and carrying a gray banner, bends for-ward to draw Eve forth over the fallen door. Two fine figures of prophets stand on the right, and on the left is the penitent thief holding up the cross, while demons and hobgoblins hover round, striving to bar the way. Unfortunately, the gesso has blackened with time, and looks more like prickles than rays of light ; but the general scheme of light and shade is good, and the impression of the dark limitless cavern well given.
No. 21, ” Christ rising from the Tomb.” The surface of this fresco is much injured. The figure of Christ, though full of movement, is not well executed. The general tone of the colouring is pale. The startled soldier to the left, who raises his shield in haste, is fairly good, but the others are grotesquely rendered and very badly drawn. This fresco is the least satisfactory of the series.