Gaudenzio Ferrari – 1520 To 1528

BETWEEN 1519 and 1528 Gaudenzio was busy over two important works, which, while differing considerdbly in size and technique, both combine a mixture of painting and modelling. I refer to the altar-piece in the Church of San Lorenzo e dell’ Assunta at Morbegno, and the Chapel of the Crucifixion on the Sacro Monte at Varallo.

We have already noted that the design for the Morbegno altar-piece was probably made by Gaudenzio early in 1516, for in the Liber Credentiæ of the Compagnia dei Battutit of Morbegno the contract with the wood-carver was signed on August 18, 1516. He signs himself .” Giov. Angelo del Magno di Pavia, nunc habitator Morbenii,” and was probably one of a well-known family of sculptors and wood-carvers of Pavia. He must have finished his part of the work about 1519, as during that year his name appears in the Liber Credentiæ for the last time. The contract with Gaudenzio and Fermo Stella is missing, but the painting and gilding of the altar-piece was undertaken by these two artists for the sum of 2,000 lire. They were paid in instalments, and Gaudenzio seems to have set to work as soon as the carving was finished, as we find his name in the Liber Credentiæ on May 29, 1520, and on October 14, 1521. He then seems to have left it for some time, as his name does not reappear till March 8, 1524, Fermo Stella having signed the receipts of payment during the intervening period. Gaudenzio must then have taken it in hand again, for we find his signature on July 21, 1524, on August 12, on September 7 and 16, and on October 7, 1525, and finally in January, 1526 (the day of the month is illegible).

The altar-piece stands about 19 feet high, and is nearly 10 feet broad. It is a mass of elaborate carving, gilding, and painting. The surface of the wood was prepared with a layer of gesso before the paint and gilt were applied, but it is much cracked, and many of the figures, some of which are only about 8 inches high, are chipped and broken.

The altar-piece is designed so as to frame an old fresco of a Madonna and Child. On each side of this painting are large statues of saints ; the one to the right is San Bernardino of Siena, and the one to the left is St. Lawrence, the patron saint of the church. Above in a lunette is God the Father, with cherubs, and on the cornice the figures of the Virgin and the angel Gabriel. On the cupola above is the “Assumption of the Virgin,” who stands on the summit surrounded by a ” mandorla ” of cherubs. A circle of ” putti ” below are playing on various musical instruments, while still lower down are the Apostles in attitudes of rapture and surprise. All these little figures are obviously carved from Gaudenzio’s models, and all imbued with the vivacity and life characteristic of his work.

But the most interesting of the carvings are the five scenes from the life of the Virgin -which are in the lower part of the altar-piece. They represent the Presepio, the Flight into Egypt, Christ and the Doctors, the Sposalizio, and the Descent of the Holy Ghost. We have seen similar work in the Como altar-piece, but there the original colours have disappeared under more recent gilding. Here, in spite of the chipping of the gesso and the damage done to the figures, we are able to see the original effect to a certain extent. The painting of the dresses, the faces, and the architectural backgrounds, is most carefully and daintily executed. Classic scenes and tiny but elaborate ” grotteschi ” cover the walls of the buildings, and classic ideas are also to be found in the ornamentation of the general design. The perspective is very well carried out in these minute scenes, and a delightful naturalness of gesture and attitude are found in the groups, which are cleverly manipulated. In the ” Presepio ” a charming touch is given in the action of the little Child pulling at its mother’s cloak, demanding to be caressed and not worshipped. The composition of the scene of Christ and the Doctors is distinctly original. Though the perspective is perhaps a trifle abrupt, the feeling for distance and amplitude in this limited space is very cleverly conveyed, while the large curtains caught up in the fore-ground break the monotonous lines of the chequered ceiling very effectively.

The Chapel of the Crucifixion on the Sacro Monte at Varallo was erected about 1517, under the direction of Pietro Ravelli and Bernardino Baldi, builders, of Varallo. There are no documents existing relative to Gaudenzio’s contract for the frescoes or for the statuary. The date 1523 was found on the wall by Signor Arienta, and the probabilities are that Gaudenzio worked on and off at it for several years, leaving the chapel practically completed when he moved to Vercelli in 1528. The following inscription, ” 1529 Die 26 Octobre Johannes Antonius,” also. found by Signor Arienta, shows that one of his assistants did not finish his part of the work, till the following year.

Owing to the effects of exposure and time, and to the reshifting of many of the statues at a later date, it is a little difficult for us to picture to ourselves this famous chapel in its original condition, or to understand the enthusiasm of Gaudenzio’s contemporaries. The frescoes, once brilliant with gorgeous colouring, are now faded, cracked, and ruined, and no longer make a suitable background to the terra-cotta group of figures, which are also much injured. But, as the late Mr. Samuel Butler justly observed, this chapel, ” regarded as a single work, conceived and executed by a single artist, who aimed with one intention at the highest points ever attained both by painting and sculpture, and who wielded on a very large scale, in connection with what was then held to be the sublimest and most solemn of conceivable subjects, the fullest range of all the resources available by either, must stand, perhaps, as the most ambitious attempt that has been made in the history of art. As regards the frescoes, the success was as signal as the daring, and even as regards the sculpture the work cannot be said to have failed.”

Though the opinion of Federigo Zucchero is not of much value, it is interesting to find that when he visited Varallo in 1606 he particularly admired this chapel, and speaks of ” the spirited genius and powerful manner of Gaudenzio Ferrari. He mentions the brilliant colouring, and says that the figures seemed really alive, and that the soldiers were casting lots ” with jests and acts worthy of such wretches.”

The chapel is built in a semicircle, with a column in the centre to support the roof, The surface of the walls is covered with the remains of the frescoes, which represent a vast crowd, numbering about 150 persons. On the ceiling is depicted, Lucifer triumphant and a flight of angels, whose attitudes denote awe-struck horror and the acutest despair. Though shrouded in too much drapery, their movements are admirably expressed. They have nearly all the same beautiful type of face, with the high parting of the hair on the forehead, and have suffered less from retouching than the rest of the painting.

We are able to have some idea of the general effect of these frescoes from an old coloured engraving published towards the end of the eighteenth century, of which one copy is in the museum at Varallo, and another is in a private collection in London. From this engraving we can also see more clearly the extra-ordinary variety of persons depicted, from the nobles with their escorts to the beggars disfigured with goitres. Some of the soldiers are in armour, but the majority are in gaudy striped raiment, with plumed head-dress.

They are depicted in proud, overbearing attitudes, and carry all kinds of weapons—spears, arquebuses, maces, and swords. One group represents Eastern warriors in Oriental dress, and over their heads float banners with the crescent and the star. In the centre background three nobles on horseback have ladies on the croup behind them. They are all, horses as well, gorgeously arrayed. The noble on the white charger is dressed in a red slashed doublet, with white and blue striped hose, and wears a garter with a fleur-de-lis design. His lady is in red, with white sleeves, and wears a green and yellow turban-shaped head-dress. The trappings of the horse are blue and gold, while a fine piece of tapestry hangs from its back with a beautiful green, dark-blue and gold pattern. The others of the group are equally elaborately and gaudily attired. The general impression of the costumes and plumed head-dresses recalls the Hungarian and South German dress of that period, and makes me believe that Gaudenzio had a new opportunity of making studies from the varied troops of which the army of Charles V. was composed. Milan had revolted from the French in 1521. In 1523 the Emperor’s troops were engaged in driving the French out of North Italy, and finally defeated them in 1524 at the Battle of Gattinara, not far from Varallo. It is possible that the noble with the fleur-de-lis garter represents the Constable de Bourbon, who had joined the Emperor in 1523, and was present at that engagement. Tradition says that another of these warriors is the Count Filippo Torinelli of Novara, who was also one of the Emperor’s generals. The neighbourhood of the celebrated shrine to the battlefield makes it probable that the Sacro Monte benefited financially from the gratitude of the victorious army, and it is quite possible that the most important figures depicted in these frescoes are portraits of the chief leaders, which Gaudenzio could have painted in the spring of 1524.

Certain other figures are known to be portraits of members of the Scarognini family of Milan, a family who had always been foremost among the patrons of the Sacro Monte. From an inscription now defaced, but mentioned by old writers, it is known that the two men kneeling over the door to the right are portraits of a certain Emiliano Scarognini and his son Francesco. Emiliano died in 1517, so it is possible that Gaudenzio painted these portraits directly the chapel was built, and placed them over the door, so as to be out of the way of the general design, which he had probably not settled on. The technique is rather more precise and dry than in the rest of the frescoes.

Below, to the right of the door, and by the door on the opposite side of the chapel, are two family groups which must have been charming in their original condition, but which are now much injured. The portraits of the lady and of her two children are too faded for reproduction, but the grace and beauty of this white-robed figure can still be appreciated. She wears the usual turban-shaped head-dress, bound with ribbons and jewels, which lends an added dignity to her aspect. The group opposite of the gentleman and his son is also much ruined. The attitudes of both figures are simple and natural, and this little child, with its flaxen hair and yellow-brown dress, must have been a charming study. Unfortunately, the features of both have been retouched, with deplorable results, and the photograph brings out the crudeness of the new paint to the detriment of the general effect. In the background are seen the chapels of the Sacro Monte. There are some charming heads of women in the crowd, notably two on the wall to the left, sitting on a bank holding children, one of whom is playing with a dog.

We will now turn to the statuary. The group consists of twenty-six statues, two of which are on horseback. Tradition says that Fermo Stella helped with the modelling of the horses. The original figure of the Redeemer was an old sacred statue, which was stolen in later times. Toinetti mentions that the original figures of the two thieves were carved in wood by the sculptor Alagardi Romano, who records this fact in his ” Life.” They were copied from models made by Gaudenzio in clay, and were also stolen in later years.

The most pleasing group left is that of the Madonna supported by two women, and St. John standing near by. Zucchero specially mentions this group, which is well carried out and full of feeling. Unfortunately, the repainting it was subjected to in later years has naturally ruined the delicacy of the surfaces. The group of soldiers gambling is also very good, while the pose of a peasant woman standing close by with her children is excellent, though the little boy at her side is too clumsily modelled. A pug-dog sitting just behind this group is, on the contrary, very well done. The armour of the soldiers is decorated with gesso, and we find ” S.P.Q.R.” on some of the shields. On one shield is a heraldic device, which the late Mr. Samuel Butler believed to be that of Gaudenzio’s family. The proofs, however, are not convincing, and Gaudenzio himself never laid claim to noble extraction. Mr. Butler also believed that the two figures standing to the extreme left were portraits of Leonardo da Vinci and Stefano Scotto. This is quite possible as regards the former, and as regards the latter, we have found this head before in Gaudenzio’s works, and, as it recurs constantly amongst Leonardo’s drawings, it is obviously that of some personage at Milan well known to both artists during the last decade of 1400, who could quite well have been Stefano Scotto.*

As I have already pointed out, the changes wrought by time, exposure, and restoration make it impossible to judge this great work according to its original merits. We can only try and realize the reach of Gaudenzio’s aim by ignoring the present unsatisfactory condition of the chapel, and by the knowledge of his work elsewhere and by the help of old engravings we can, to a certain extent, understand the greatness of this high venture, the achievement of which definitely placed Gaudenzio at the head of the Lombard School.

Besides the work at Varallo, Gaudenzio found time in 1526 to decorate the Chapel of San Rocco at Valduggia. This little chapel had been erected in the market-place of his native village as an ex voto after the plague in 1516, as the following inscription tells :t ” Quod populus a peste difensori erigebat an MDXVI Gaudentios Ferrarius patritius ‘ ex voto pictura decorabat.” The altar-piece representing the Madonna and Child with St. Francis and St. George has dis-appeared, and all that remains of the frescoes on the walls are the nearly effaced figures of San Crispino and Sant’ Orso.’

In the parish church of San Giorgio at Valduggia Gaudenzio painted a Holy Family, with St. Barbara and a shepherd. Though this fresco is much injured, enough remains to show that it must have been a very fine work, and was probably done about the same date as the Dorchester House picture.

A certain number of panel pictures were also painted during this period. Their rich colouring and matured technique and the types of the Madonna and Child show that they must have been executed after the pictures we have already studied, and before Gaudenzio’s visit to Parma, which I should place towards the end of this period and about 1526 or early in 1527.

One of the finest of these pictures is the ” Marriage of St. Catherine ” in the cathedral at Novara. This beautiful picture is, luckily, in a good state of preservation. The brilliant colouring is rich and glowing, and unmarred by the hot reds which have appeared occasionally in Gaudenzio’s work. The figures are painted life-size with all the strength and vigour of his best period. The face of the Madonna is refined and beautiful, with an expression of ineffable sweetness playing over the features, while the grand figure to the left in Bishop’s robes of rich gold and red brocade is one of the finest we have from Gaudenzio’s brush. It represents Sant’ Agapito (a local saint), but it was probably painted from some Novarese ecclesiastic, as it possesses all the individuality of a fine portrait. The other figures are not so interesting, though San Gaudenzio, to the left, is good ; but the St. Catherine is unsatisfactory, and the St. Joseph, with his thumb in his mouth, is a rather grosser version of the type Gaudenzio usually paints for that saint.

The pose of the Child is obviously done from one of Leonardo’s sketches, and is interesting as showing the development of Gaudenzio’s attempt to depict the Luini-Leonardo type of bambino. The modelling is now perfect, but the element of exaggeration, rarely quite absent from Gaudenzio’s works, is shown in the choice of this frog-like attitude. The reaction from this extreme, however, soon set in, as we shall see in his later works.

The background of this picture is painted with all Gaudenzio’s charm and interest. To the right, at the foot of a rocky and wooded hillside, is St. John the Baptist, and to the left, further back in the plan, is the entrance to a town, on the grassy slope outside of which is depicted the martyrdom of St. Stephen. In the distant valley stands a picturesque church.

The rest of the altar-piece was added in later times. The predella painted by Gaudenzio, consisted of charming dancing and playing ” putti.” These little panels are now in the Galleria Lochis in the picture-gallery at Bergamo. They are four in number, and combine a delicacy of colour with a daintiness and a fairylike grace of movement. As these :little figures flit across the grass, it would be hard to find anything less religious in spirit, or more closely allied to the little people of Northern folk-lore, in the work of the Italian artists of that day.

The present predella was put together about the middle of the last century, when the altar-piece was moved to its present place.* The centre panel is a ” Pietà ” by Lanino, and is a free adaptation of Gaudenzio’s cartoon at Turin. The two side-panels representing the Martyrdom and the Burial of St. Catherine, painted in a network of arabesques, were done by a modern artist. To this artist is also attributed the head of the Almighty in the lunette above, and the two heads representing the Virgin and the angel Gabriel in the upper corners of the frame of the altar-piece.

The fine picture at Dorchester House was probably painted about 1521. It is a very good example of the early part of the period we are now studying. The kneeling figures of the Virgin, St. Joseph, and an ecclesiastict are very fine, and are painted with great beauty and dignity. Gaudenzio’s natural feeling for the exuberance of life is shown in the attitudes of the cherubs, three of whom support and worship the infant Christ, while two others, holding a scroll, are flying over the group. The Holy Child, holding up its arms to its Mother, and the cherubs bending over it, are charmingly rendered. To the right is the ruined wall of the stable, while a fine landscape of distant mountains bounds the horizon to the left. The general scheme of colouring is warm and bright, without being too hot. The deep carmine of the prelate’s cape is particularly good and rich.

Two pictures in the Turin Gallery also belong to this period. No. 51 represents the Deposition, and No. 49 a Madonna and Child, with two saints and a ” putto.” The ” Deposition” is the finest picture of this subject that we have from Gaudenzio’s brush. The brilliant colouring and the strong lights and shades are here obviously meant to represent a vivid sunset effect, which is still further accentuated by the dark line of mountains against the sky. The level rays of the setting sun light up the hill of Calvary in the back-ground, and the group of soldiers, whose ” faire, goodly, and prowd-stepping horses “* recall Leonardo’s drawings. In this picture and in the two following ones we find a new and powerful scheme of chiaroscuro, and we realize that Gaudenzio had met with, and was magnetized by, a new and powerful influence. This I believe to have been that of Correggio. Though he was little known to his contemporaries, he would have had much in common with Gaudenzio, and Parma was not far off. Both had to the full the ecstatic temperament, and in the works of both artists exuberance of life abounds. Correggio was more dreamy, and Gaudenzio more ardent and more vigorous. As he comes under Correggio’s influence we find as great a depth and brilliancy in his chiaroscuro, though he rarely achieves the delicate gradations and the pearly tones which are Correggio’s special gift and peculiar charm. But from about 1527 Gaudenzio undoubtedly knew and strove after Correggio’s ideals, and came very near him, as we shall see in the Vercelli frescoes.

No. 49 in the Turin Gallery represents the Madonna seated on a throne, with a baldaquin hung with purple cloth. The infant Christ stands on her knees, with His hand raised in benediction. The type of face and the modelling recall Luini, while the “putto,” playing on a harp at the foot of the throne reminds us of the child in the ” Marriage of St. Catherine ” at Novara. On the right of the throne stands St. Martin, and on the left St. Maurice in Bishop’s robes. The fine, sharp features of the last-named are strongly painted, and this head is evidently a portrait. The background of fruit-trees is carefully painted.

In the Church of San Pietro at Maggianico, near Lecco, on the Lake of Como, is an altar-piece which belongs to this period, though inferior to the works of this time. It represents Sant’ Ambrogio, St. Anthony, and St. Bonaventura, and was originally painted on wood. The three saints were transferred on to canvases early last century, and slightly injured in consequence. The colouring is rich and warm, and the figures are the types we have constantly found in this artist’s works. The predella, representing the Apostles, is by another hand.

We will now turn to a work which shows clearly the further development of the influence of Correggio on Gaudenzio’s art, namely, The Flight into Egypt,” in the Duomo at Como, which was probably executed about 1527. Being painted in tempera on canvas, the great brilliancy of the colour is not now apparent, but the new influence is seen not only in the strong chiaroscuro, but also in certain details of the composition. The angel flying overhead recalls the one in ” The Martyrdom of St. Placida,” while the woolly clouds and the large palm-tree remind us of the ” Riposo.” The angels are, however, Gaudenzio’s own types, and the infant Christ still recalls the Luini “putti,” only possessed of far more animation.

From Como Gaudenzio probably went to the Valtellina. Private as well as professional reasons took him there during the winter of 1527 and 1528.* An altar-piece in the Church of San Giovanni, near Bellagio, shows clearly the new influence, while the technique gives the approximate date. This picture represents Christ in glory, seated on clouds and surrounded by angels bearing the signs of the Passion. Below are the members of a family kneeling in worship, the women to the right, under the protection of St. Peter and St. John the Baptist, the men to the left, under the protection of St. Paul and St. Lawrence. The strong lighting from the front and the confused, crowded impression produced by the heavy clouds denote his new methods. But his natural strength and power are shown in the fine sweep of the draperies, in the grand figures of the saints, and in the charm and beauty of the angels’ heads. The expression of rapt devotion on the faces is depicted with Gaudenzio’s usual sincerity and depth of feeling.

In the colouring he uses his favourite reds, yellows, and greens. One lady is a particularly striking figure, in a gold-embroidered kirtle flowing over a blue skirt. The cartoons for this picture are at Turin, and seem to have been copied or adapted freely by his followers, as we see from the works of Bernardino Lanino and two of the Giovenones.*

The picture in the collection of Dr. Mond in London probably belongs to this time, for, though the execution is broad and fluid, there is still a certain restraint. It represents St. Andrew bearing his cross and standing out against a blue sky, with a landscape painted in the lower part of the canvas.