Gaudenzio Ferrari – 1513 To 1520

THE screen in the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie at Varallo practically ends the first period of Gaudenzio’s career. His fame is now well established, and during the next twelve or fourteen years we shall find him hard at work in various parts of the duchy of Milan. He seems to have been chiefly engaged in the designing and the execution of large and elaborate altar-pieces, some of which were carried out in carving and painting, while others were only in carving and gilding.

Though the design of the great altar-piece in the Chapel of Sant’ Abbondio in the Cathedral of Como has never been attributed to him, the spirit that animates it is undoubtedly his. The little figures on the summit are obviously reproduced from his models, and resemble, not only the terra-cotta ” putti ” in the Chapel of the Shepherds on the Sacro Monte, but also those on the altar-pieces at Rocca Pietra and at Morbegno.t Very similar also are the five minutely carved scenes in the lower part of this work to those at Morbegno, while both in the attitudes of the figures and in the architectural backgrounds there is much that recalls the big screen at Varallo. The first mention of a date (which refers to a payment) of the Sant Abbondio altar-piece is L514, and proves that the carver had already set to work, and Gaudenzio had probably made the design soon after he finished his great work in Santa Maria delle Grazie.

We do not know the name of the carver who executed the Como altar-piece. Don Santo Monti believes him to have been one of the Passeri, a family of carvers, gilders, and painters from Torno, as similar work by a certain Andrea Passeri exists in the Lake districts. Whoever he was, the carvings show him to have been an excellent craftsman, and he may have designed those figures which are not characteristic of Gaudenzio’s art. There are distinctly two minds at work in this altar-piece, though the master-spirit is undoubtedly the Valsesian.*

This work in the Duomo at Como is of special interest as being probably the occasion when Gaudenzio renewed his intercourse with Luini, with results very beneficial to his art. Luini painted one of his finest altar-pieces for the neighbouring Chapel of St. Jerome probably about this time, as it is in his ” maniera grigia.” The screen for the altar-piece of the Sant’ Abbondio Chapel was the combined work of both artists, and though it was executed at a later date, it was probably arranged for now. I have dealt elsewhere on the influence of Luini on Gaudenzio, and we shall notice a gradual improvement in the modelling and in the proportions of the figures in the work of the latter artist, while some of his heads become quite Luinesque.

Another interesting work is in the Church of San Martino, in the village of Rocca Pietra, about two miles from Varallo. This ancona was renovated and altered during the seventeenth century, and some of the panels were removed, but, fortunately, the upper half, with its daintily carved statuettes, was left intact. It is in the form of a temple carved and gilded, and the remaining panels represent the following subjects : Above in the centre are small half-figures of Christ rising from the tomb, and two guards. To the right and left are panels representing the Annunciation. Below, to the right, are San Gaudenzio and St. John the Baptist, and to the left Sant’ Ambrogio and St. Martin in Bishop’s robes. The carved figures in the lower part belong to a later time, and probably date from the period the alterations were made. A ” Madonna and Child ” belonging to Signor Vittadini at Arcorre is believed to have been originally here, as the dimensions correspond with the centre space, now filled by a carved figure of Christ holding a cross. This is quite possible, as the technique shows that it was painted about this time, while the composition is identical with that of the Madonna in the lower part of the Novara altar-piece. Signor Vittadini believes his picture to have been painted the first, as the treatment is a trifle more dry and ” serré ” ; but when we compare the other panels with the Novara work, there is no apparent difference in the technique. The Vittadini ” Madonna ” is seated on a stone bench. A fine carpet at her feet recalls the one in ” Christ before Herod ” at Varallo. Her expression is sweet and gentle, and there is a marked improvement in the anatomy, especially in the model-ling of the hands and in the infant Christ. On each side are angels worshipping, and the proportions remind us of a picture by Borgognone at Cremia, on the Lake of Como.

Two other panels, now in the Library at Novara, may also have belonged to the Rocca Pietra ancona. The dimensions make it possible, and the technique shows that they were painted about this time. They represent angels adoring. The colouring of the wings is marvellously brilliant and glowing, while the swiftness of movement and the rapture of devotion are beautifully felt.

The Rocca Pietra ancona has much in common with the next great work which we shall examine, namely, the altar-piece in the Church of San Gaudenzio at Novara. In the contract, which was signed on July 2o, 1514, there are many stipulations for statuettes, delicate carving, and fine colouring. We find from this document that Gaudenzio had submitted a model of the proposed altar-piece to the Canons of the basilica before they commissioned the work, and every detail was settled in advance. Gaudenzio was to design a frame in ” good and excellent wood and three figures in wood to be placed on the top of the said frame, and that the said frame was to be made with subtle and excellent detail-work by the hand of an excellent carver, according to the model given to the said Canons by the said Maestro Gaudenzio, and better still. He was also to paint the bottom of the frame with scenes from the history of San Gaudenzio, and in all the ancona there were to be at least thirteen large figures as in the model, and it was to be painted with very fine ultramarine blue, and other very fine colours and fine gold, in oil, and that Maestro Gaudenzio alone was to do the figures, and that no pupil was in any way to help in the execution of the ancona. That Maestro Gaudenzio was to finish the ancona in eighteen months’ time, and to put it in its place with its case painted in blue, with gold stars, and that both within and without the said case was to be painted in a manner suitable to the ancona. That if the eighteen months passed and the work was not finished, the Canons might have it finished by a capable maestro, at the expense of the said Maestro Gaudenzio. Also that if, within a year of the time it was finished, any cracks appeared or any colour fell, the said Maestro Gaudenzio was to repair it at his own expense, and for this he was to give ` caution money’ consigned to the town of Novara.”

Gaudenzio was also to paint a canvas with a suitable subject to place before the ancona. He was to receive 1,250 livres imperiales, to be paid in instalments ; and we find the same conditions as to an expert valuing the work when completed as we found in the Arona contract.

It is rather amusing to find that, after protecting themselves with the above conditions, the Canons themselves seemed unable to keep to the contract. Gaudenzio had great difficulty in getting his money. He deputed a certain Sperandio, an artist of Novara, to receive it for him, and the entries made by the latter show that it took over five years to collect it. In the end Gaudenzio received 1,350 livres imperiales, more than the sum stipulated, while the Synod of Novara pronounces the following eulogy on him : ” Gaudentius noster in iis plurimum laudetur opere quidem eximis sed magis eximie Pius.”

We learn from the contract that, when complete, this ancona was contained in a painted casing or outer frame, and covered by a screen probably attached by a hinge to the outer frame. It was made for the old Basilica of San Gaudenzio, which stood outside the walls of Novara. In the seventeenth century the Spaniards strengthened the fortifications of the town, and pulled down all buildings within a certain distance of the walls, and amongst them the old church. The pictures and furniture belonging to it were moved into the present Church of San Gaudenzio, which had been recently built. This ancona suffered considerably in the move. The outer casing was probably left behind, the painted screen has disappeared, while to fit it into its present place the top of the frame with the carved statuettes was cut off. But though shorn of these accessories, for beauty of colour, design, and execution, it must take a high place amongst Gaudenzio’s works. Though a trace of the Borgognone influence may still be felt in the figures of the saints, Gaudenzio has completely developed his own types and his own ideas of composition.

The ancona is divided into two rows. In the centre of the upper one is the ” Nativity,” with the ” Annunciation ” on each side in two panels. In the centre of the lower row we find the Madonna and Child seated on a rocky bank, surrounded by saints, while above flying angels hold back draperies. It is not easy to give names to all the group, but the two saints in Bishop’s robes represent Sant’ Ambrogio and San Gaudenzio. On the panel to the right are St. Paul and Sant’ Agabio, while to the left we find St. Peter and St. John the Baptist. On the predella below are the four Fathers of the Church and scenes from the life of San Gaudenzio. They are painted in chiaroscuro and are worth studying, not only for the slight, rapid, and lively brush work, but also for the delicacy and fancy with which these little scenes are depicted.

In the upper part of this altar-piece the Madonna is represented with soft golden hair falling in a cloud round her face. Her hands are crossed on her breast, and we may note the complete change in the type of the hand, which is now depicted with far less- refinement, but more realism. Her dress is a rich carmine colour, which is also used for St. Paul’s cloak, while the gorgeous robes of the Bishops and Gaudenzio’s favourite yellows and browns, introduced in various places, all combine to keep the tone bright and harmonious. The faces are delicately painted and full of feeling ; the heads of the two Bishops and the saint in the red biretta are particularly good. The whole of the detail is carefully executed, and the general effect of the altar-piece is rich and glowing. It is a fine example of this period in Gaudenzio’s career, when his colouring was of a quite remarkable brilliancy, and while it is still combined with a careful precision in the technique. This period lasted about ten years, during which time the best of his panel pictures were produced.

Gaudenzio did other work for this church. We know of a terra-cotta figure of Christ crucified, with the Magdalen painted in fresco kneeling at His feet ; also of a picture of the Madonna and St. Anna, with the donor, who was one of the Regular Canons. This picture and the fresco have disappeared, but the ” Christ crucified ” was, moved into the new Church of San Gaudenzio, and now hangs nearly opposite to the ancona we have just been studying. The figure is well modelled with painful realism, but to the modern mind there is something distasteful in the use of real hair, which gives an element of banality, and almost nullifies the very real and intense feeling which pervades the work. We find this mixture of mediums in some of the figures on the Sacro Monte, and it is a fit example of that extraordinary decline of artistic feeling which took place in Italy during the sixteenth century.

A picture which recalls the Novara altar-piece is a fragment of an ” Annunciation ” representing the angel Gabriel, now in the museum at Varallo. It was originally in the old church on the Sacro Monte, and the other half, representing the Virgin, was destroyed when that church was pulled down to make room for the present edifice. This angel is practically a replica of, and the swirling draperies almost identical with, the Novara work. It was possibly painted a year or two later, as there are touches of gold in the embroidered hem of the robe and in the hair.

The composition of a lunette over the door of the Chapel of Santa Maria di Loreto outside Varallo is also reminiscent of the Novara work. It represents a Holy Family, and, though injured by exposure, it has great merit. Being in fresco, it is not so carefully finished, but the brush work is good and strong and the faces full of charm. The usual reds, yellows, and greens are used in the colouring of the draperies.

A series of frescoes exist in the Church of San Giulio on the Island of San Giulio, on the Lake of Orta. They are completely ruined by damp and restoration. Judging from the action of the figures, I believe those on the side-walls and arches were painted not long after the Chapel of St. Margaret at Varallo, but all trace of Gaudenzio’s brush is hidden under modern paint. In the vaulting are the four Evangelists, and on the arches are “tondi” representing characters from the Old Testament. Below on one side are San Fermo and Santa Apollonia, and on the wall opposite are Sant’ Ambrogio and St. Benedict.

The fresco over the altar has nearly disappeared, but enough remains to show it represents the Madonna and Child, with St. Joseph and St. Roch to the right, and to the left St. Sebastian and St. Peter. The last-named is protecting the kneeling figure of a fair-haired boy. In the lunette above is the martyrdom of St. Stephen. The type of the Madonna shows that this wall was painted some years later than the rest, and this fact, combined with the presence of saints especially invoked against the plague, gives some clue to its approximate date, as there was a specially bad visitation through the North of Italy in 1516 and 1517.

The picture in the sacristy is not by Gaudenzio, but recalls the work of his follower, Cesare Cesarini, a very inferior Lombard artist, and done much later in the century.

I have mentioned elsewhere the influence of the Court of Pavia, where Leonardo was living during the winter of 1515 and 1516. Certain pictures exist whose technique and colouring show that they were painted about the time of the Novara ancona. One of the most important is the ” Last Supper ” now in the sacristy of the Cathedral of Novara. Nothing is known of the origin of this interesting work, which is, unfortunately, skied and difficult to study under its present conditions. Characteristics of both the Paduan and Florentine Schools are found in the composition of this picture. The scene takes place in the courtyard of a massive building, possibly the Castello at Pavia, as soldiers are depicted on guard at the entrance, and on one side we see standing the solitary column so often found in pictures influenced by the Paduan School, while the said influence is still further shown in the group of carved children playing round the base. In the figures in the foreground, however, in spite of the Byzantine grouping, we are forcibly reminded of Leonardo da Vinci. It is like the flash of a likeness seen for a moment on a strange face. Certain of the heads recall his drawings, but it is in the movement and in the chiaroscuro that his influence is especially noticeable. Gaudenzio here aims at that subtle delicacy characteristic of the great Florentine’s work, and, though falling short of his model, his treatment of lights and shades, and the refinement of the modelling in the half-tones, show a great advance on his previous work.

Another trace of Florentine influence at this period of Gaudenzio’s career is found in the fact that this picture was originally in the form of a “tondo,” and is the only known instance of his painting this form of picture. It was cut down to fit into the panelling of the sacristy in the seventeenth century. The colouring is very beautiful, rich, and vivid, and in spite of the injuries it has suffered, this ” Last Supper” is the finest existing picture of this subject painted by Gaudenzio. The youth to the left with flaxen ringlets is a type we find in some of his later works.

But other and less subtle influences are also at work at this time. Gaudenzio clothes his figures in rich brocades and jewel-bedecked raiment, and gold, is used occasionally in the high lights. We find this treatment in some of Defendente di Ferrari’s works, and also in Macrino d’ Alba’s paintings at Pavia ; but we have not seen it before, nor do we find it at a later period in Gaudenzio’s works. The Vittadini ” Madonna ” we have already studied, and the ” Madonna and Child’ in the Brera and the ” Annunciation ” at Berlin are also examples of this treatment. In the last two we find an unpleasant red in the flesh tints, a hot tone which, unfortunately, becomes frequent as time goes on. Very typical of the Milanese School is the wreath of jasmine worn by the angel, recalling heads by Boltraffio and Luini.

In the Brera ” Madonna ” the materials are beautifully painted, and the embroidered chemisette recalls those worn by the Fobello peasant-girls in the mountains near Varallo. The modelling of the child is very good, and the drawing of the left leg and foot gives a lively forward movement to the whole body. It is on comparing the careful modelling of these little limbs with that of a picture of the same subject belonging to Signor Crespi at Milan that I am inclined to believe the latter work was not executed by Gaudenzio, but by some one of his school. The accessories of brocades and veils are beautifully executed, but the heavier modelling and the cooler tones, and the types of the Madonna and Child, point to a very fine work of a later date by Lanino.*

In the same gallery is, however, a ” Pietà ” which may rank among the finest of Gaudenzio’s panel pictures. It is in very good preservation. The expression on the faces, and the pathos and elevation of sentiment, are admirably rendered. The depth and brilliancy of the colour, the careful modelling, and the fine lines of the draperies, are superbly painted. The cartoon of this fine work is in the Albertina at Turin.

This ” Pietà ” has much in common with the one in the ancona in the Church of San Gaudenzio at Varallo, which was probably painted a little earlier.

This ancona consists of six panels. In the centre above is the ” Pietà,” to the right is St. Mark, and to the left St. John the Baptist. Below, in the centre, is the ” Marriage of St. Catherine,” to the right St. Peter, and to the left San Gaudenzio. The ” Pietà ” is simpler in composition than the one we have just been studying, and very beautiful. The chiaroscuro effect is more abrupt, and the head of St. John recalls Luini, and indirectly Leonardo. The action of the Madonna is infinitely touching, and the whole atmosphere has a restraint and dignity which places this panel at a very high level. The group below is not particularly striking, though the Madonna and Child are charmingly rendered, but the panels of the four saints are very good. Un-. fortunately, when the original frame was replaced by the present one during the seventeenth century, the predella was suppressed. A small panel of the ” Martyrdom of St. Catherine,” in chiaroscuro, now in the museum at Varallo, is said to have belonged to this ancona. Another tradition says that the panels of this predella are in the Palazzo Belgioiosa at Milan, and represent the four Fathers of the Church, the Nativity, the Epiphany, and the Presentation in the Temple.

The screen for the ancona in the Chapel of Sant’ Abbondio in the cathedral at Como must have been taken in hand about 1516 or 1517. It originally consisted of six canvases, three by Gaudenzio and three by Luini ; but at a later date it was divided, and the ” Sposalizio ” by Gaudenzio, together with the ” Presepio ” by Luini, were moved to the opposite side of the church. We will study the ” Flight into Egypt ” later on, as it obviously belongs to a later development of Gaudenzio’s art. The composition of the ” Sposalizio ” is good, and there is a fine architectural background representing the interior of the Temple, with steps leading up to the altar. A note of classicism is introduced by the sacrifice depicted on the side of the altar, while above the altar is an inscription I have been unable to decipher. We find a decorative touch in the gold edges of the draperies, which have become almost too voluminous and drown the figures. The centre group is good, while to the right is a fine figure of a woman, obviously a portrait, wearing the turban-like head-dress we so often find in portraits of this period. The suitors breaking their sticks are not so good, the attitude of the one to the left being particularly affected and exaggerated. Like all tempera painting on canvas, the colour has sunk in, and it is impossible to judge of the original effect, especially as these particular canvases have been restored several times.

This peculiar treatment of drapery we find in two other works of this period. One is a much-injured panel now in the Poldi Pezzoli Museum at Milan. It represents the Madonna and Child with St. Catherine, St. Margaret, St. Dominic, and St. Peter Martyr. St. Margaret might have stepped out of the ” Sposalizio,” with her voluminous draperies edged with gold. Being a panel picture, the execution is far more care-fully done. The surface is much injured, especially about the centre figures, and the picture has been restored; but some of the heads still preserve the original delicate brush work.

The other work is in the gallery at Turin, and represents the Crucifixion. It is in tempera on canvas, and was executed later than the foregoing panel. In many ways it is a great advance on the Varallo screen, though the medium used does not allow of any strength of colour, and the execution is slighter. The angels are far better drawn, and, though swathed in draperies, the movements of their aerial flight are drawn with exquisite lightness and delicacy. The stir and animation of the whole scene are depicted with Gaudenzio’s usual skill.

In the same gallery is a very fine work belonging to this period, but greatly superior to those we have just been studying. It represents St. Peter and a donor, and was obviously the right wing of a triptych. Nothing is known of the origin of this picture, which for beauty of colour and execution is one of the most perfect of Gaudenzio’s works. The composition recalls forcibly the Borgognone in the Louvre, and the back-ground of blue sky reminds us of the Layard “Annunciation.” Though the figures are life-size, the details are executed in a most minute and careful manner. The realism of the portrait impresses us with a sense of accuracy in the representation. Every detail of this fine head is faithfully depicted, and we see a proof of this in the curiously long pointed lobe of the ear. Gaudenzio usually draws the ear with a rounded lobe. The colouring is particularly pleasing. St. Peter’s green dress and yellow mantle make a good back-ground to the fine white-haired prelate as he kneels in a beautiful dark-red brocade gown, edged with black and with full black sleeves dotted with gold. St. Peter’s keys are painted in gold, but raised gesso is not used.

The altar-piece in the Church of the Pietà at Canobbio, on the Lake Maggiore, also belongs to this period, as it was painted before 1520. In a document relative to the alterations made to the church in that year, there is a special note that care must be taken not to injure the ” venustissime ” (most beautiful) picture over the altar. It was probably painted about 1517, as some of the hands show a lingering trace of Gaudenzio’s earliest types. In the composition the converging lines of arms and weapons centre towards the figure of Christ, whose look is fixed on the fainting Virgin to the left, while in the chiaroscuro the strong lights are so treated that, in spite of the confusion of the crowd, the attention of the spectator is at once riveted on this pathetic incident. Gaudenzio rarely painted anything finer than this head of the Redeemer, and the expression of pain and anxiety are wonderfully rendered. The dramatic quality in this ” Journey to Calvary,” the beautiful colouring and the excellence of the technique, all combine to make it an important work ; but it is, unfortunately, in a rather bad condition. In its original state the painting was so vivid and lifelike that Lomazzo speaks of a dog attacking the amiable-looking cur seated in the right-hand corner. In the trappings of the horses Gaudenzio uses gesso, a rare occurrence in his panel pictures, and it is also used for a small gilded ” Pietà ” in the centre of the predella. To the right and left of this ” Pietà ” are represented angels adoring, charming little figures painted with great refinement.

In the Borromeo Gallery at Milan is a ” Madonna and Child with St. Joseph and St. Antony.” Though neither so strong nor so brilliant in colouring as the last picture, the types show that it belongs to this period, probably about 1518. The figures are nearly life-size, and the Madonna and Child are well composed. There is a charming touch of nature in the way the little child nestles against its mother and clutches at her dress. We see for the first time the orchard background, which we shall constantly find in later works.

In the museum at Varallo is a picture representing St. Francis receiving the stigmata. It was probably executed before 1520, and tradition says it was painted for Don Antonio de Leyva when Governor of Milan, and that it hung formerly in the old church on the Sacro Monte. It is well composed, and has a very fine background, representing the Apennines and La Verna.

The predella belonging to the Count Castellani at Novara is much injured and retouched. It represents .he Nativity, the Adoration, and the Flight into Egypt, and was originally in the parish church of Borgosesia.

Two panels representing St. Maurice and St. John the Baptist are now in the possession of the Faa family at Novara. They were parts of an altar-piece executed for the Tettoni family at Romagnano. These panels are in good preservation, which cannot be said of the six panels now hanging in the parish church of Gattinara, a village across the river from Romagnano. They are also fragments of an altar-piece, of which the two saints at Novara may possibly have formed part, as the technique is similar, but it had already been broken up and scattered by the beginning of last century.*

The panel in the Villa Borromeo on the Isola Bella, representing the Saviour holding a globe, is too feeble in execution to be Gaudenzio’s own work, though it is evidently from his atelier.

In the parish church of Fontanèta is a large fresco attributed to Gaudenzio. It represents the Assumption of the Madonna. It is so much injured and blackened by time and repainting, and is also in such a bad light, that it is difficult to study it. Judging, however, from the attitudes and types of the group of Apostles in the lower part of the fresco, it was probably executed by Gaudenzio and his assistants about 1516.

In the collection of Mr. Willett at Brighton is a ” Madonna and Child ” attributed to Gaudenzio. It is a charming work full of tender feeling, but, though it has much that reminds us of Gaudenzio, it is difficult to place it among his works. All that can be safely said is that it is a very good picture of the Valsesian School.