IN dealing with the first twenty or thirty years of Gaudenzio Ferrari’s life, we are confronted with the difficulty which meets us in dealing with the lives of the greater number of the artists of the Renaissance, namely, a complete absence of documentary information. To arrive at the approximate date of his birth, we are forced to turn to the record of his death, which has recently been found in the archives at Milan, and which states that he died on January 31, 1546, aged about seventy-five. As a contemporary writer* mentions that Gaudenzio was over sixty at the time of his death, this places the date of his birth somewhere between 1471 and 1486. Though the only authentic portrait we have of him, which was painted shortly before his death, represents him as quite an old man, it is difficult to accept the earlier date. For it would mean that this original and powerful artist had not only not developed his remarkable abilities till he was over forty, but also that the complete change in his painting, from the old traditions to the more fluid, broader technique of the day, took place when he was between fifty and sixty. With his strong character, this was hardly probable so late in life. Recent writers on the subject believe he was born about 148o, and this date seems the most likely.
In writing a life of an artist of the Italian Renaissance, we should naturally turn for information to Vasari’s Lives”; but that writer seems curiously ignorant of Gaudenzio’s position as head of the Lombard School during the last years of his life. There are two short paragraphs about Gaudenzio. The second and longer one is printed towards the end of the work. This may have been one of those additions which Vasari complains were made to his book when it was printed without his permission.
The one contemporary writer in whose pages we find constant mention of Gaudenzio is Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, a Milanese artist. He must have been a lad at the time of Gaudenzio’s death, but his first master was Giovanni Battista Della Cerva, and he was no doubt fired by him with his enthusiasm for the great Lombard. Lomazzo wrote two books, in which he expounds curious and fantastic theories about the art of his day, especially as exemplified by Raphael, Mantegna, Polidoro, Leonardo, Michel Angelo, Titian, and Gaudenzio, whom he calls the seven pillars of the Temple of Art.
Of Gaudenzio he says in one place : ” Finally mine olde Master Gaudentius (though he be not much knowne) was inferior unto few, in giving the apt motions of the Saintes and Angels, who was not only a very witty painter (as I have elsewhere shewed), but also a most profound Philosopher and Mathematician. Amongst all whose all-praise-worthy workes, (which are almost infinite, especially in this point of motion) there are divers mysteries of Christes passion of his doing, but chiefly a Crucifix called Mount Calvary at the Sepulcher of Varallo, where he hath made admirable horses, and strange angels, not only in painting, but also in Plasticke, of a kind of earth wrought most curiously with his own hand ` di tutto relievo ‘ ; through all the figures.
” Besides in the Vaulte of the Chappell of St. Mary di Grazia in Milane he hath wrought most naturall angels, I mean especially for their actions. There is also that mighty cube of S. Mary de Serono full of thrones of angels, set out with actions and habites of all sortes, carrying diversity of most strange instruments in their hands. I may not conceale that goodly Chapel which he made in his later time, in the Church of Peace at Milano, where you finde small histories of our Lady and Joachime, shewing such super-excellent motions, that they seem much to revive and animate the Spectators.
” Moreover the story of Saint Roccho done by him in Vercelli, with divers other workes in that Citty : Although indeede almost all Lombardy be adorned with his most rare workes. Whose common saying concerning this arte of motions I will not conceale ; which was, That all painters delight to steale other men’s inventions, but that he himselfe was in no great danger of being detected of theft hereafter. Now this great painter, although in reason he might for his discretion, wisdome and worth, be compared with the above named in the first book, Cap. 29,* yet notwithstanding is he ommitted by George Vasary, in his lives of the famous Painters, Carvers, and Architects. An Argument (to say no worde of him) that he intended to eternise only his own Tuscanes.”
The name Ferrari is common both in Piedmont and Lombardy, but no connection can be traced between the different families. Gaudenzio’s branch belonged to the Valsesia, but it is possible that his family was closely related to the Ferraris at Vercelli. In the first contract signed by Gaudenzio in that town in 1508, a certain Eusebio Ferrari, an artist, becomes guarantee for him. Gaudenzio was born at a small place called Valduggia, not far from Borgosesia, and, from a register taken of the houses at Varallo in 1536, we learn that his father was a painter, named Lanfranco or Franchino. The Valsesia still supplies most of the masons and house-painters in the North of Italy, and whatever may have been the rank of the elder Ferrari, it is probable that Gaudenzio not only learnt the rudiments of fresco-painting at an early age, but also, no doubt, acquired that feeling for broad and liberal treatment of wall surfaces which is so strong a characteristic of his work.
His mother was a member of the Vincio family of Varallo, a family well known in the Valsesia ; and we find that Gaudenzio valued the connection, for in signing his early works he constantly adds “Vincius,” De Vincio,” or ” De Vince ” to his own name. He also signed himself ” De Varali ” or ” De Varali vallis siccid,” the greater part of his life. The family must have moved to Varallo when Gaudenzio was quite small.
He was probably sent to Milan at an early age, and in Scotto’s studio he was brought into direct contact with the artists of the old Milanese School.* Here, too, began his friendship with Bernardino Luini, a friendship which had the happiest results on his art. Like Luini, his earliest works show that he experienced the influence of Bramantino and Borgognone. As these same early works show, he did not altogether escape the magic spell of Leonardo da Vinci, he must have studied in Milan between 1490 and 1498 during Leonardo’s residence there. A ” Pietà ” in the cloisters of Santa Maria delle Grazie at Varallo is said to be his earliest existing work, and believed to have been painted in 1498. As this is the date of the fall of Milan and the flight of Ludovico Sforza, it is probable that Gaudenzio returned to Varallo that year.
During the next few years he must have been absorbed in the decoration of the chapels which were being rapidly built on the Sacro Monte at Varallo. Unfortunately, nearly all this early work has disappeared, partly owing to time and exposure, but chiefly to the pulling down and rebuilding of most of these early chapels at a later date. The only fragment of fresco that remains is in the present Chapel of the Pietà, which was originally the Chapel of the Pro-cession to Calvary, and which was erected in 1503. This painting and a few terra-cotta figures, together with the Chapels of the Nativity and the Presepio, are all that remain of these early years at Varallo) though we know from various writers that a great many frescoes were executed. The few panel-pictures of this period show how completely Gaudenzio was the outcome of the old Milanese School, and it is not till much later that he allows the influence of the late Renaissance to infect his art, and, unfortunately, to destroy its charm.
The frescoes in the Chapel of St. Margaret in the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie at Varallo, representing scenes from the childhood of Christ, are the first important works that we possess. The cartello is not easy to decipher, though Bordiga made out the date to be 1507.* This date is, however, very probable, as the technique shows that it was done some time previous to the ancona at Arona.
It is difficult to give a date for Gaudenzio’s first visit to Pavia. It may have been during his student days, and certainly before 1507, as the scheme of decoration in the above chapel recalls Borgognone’s work in the Certosa, while we find the influence of both Borgognone and Perugino very obvious in the Arona altar-piece. It is a matter of great regret that the first picture of which we have the contract signed and dated at Vercelli in 1508 is lost. This work might have shown us even more clearly his artistic bent at that time. Eusebio Ferrari- is known to have worked at the Certosa, and, though possibly a relation, the friendship between them may have begun at Pavia.
This contract gives us some idea of Gaudenzio’s position. He is called ” maestro,” and must have had a fairly wide reputation to be summoned to Vercelli, where a good many artists were then working ; he was evidently in flourishing circumstances, and married about this time. His wife belonged to Varallo, and had property there. A son called Gerolamo was born in 1509, and a daughter named Margaret in 1512.
In February, 1510, Gaudenzio signed a contract to paint an ancona for the Church of Santa Maria Nuova at Arona, on the Lake Maggiore. It is in the Borromean Chapel ; and though no mention is made of that family in the contract, tradition says that the kneeling figure of a lady represents a Contessa Borromeo. Whoever she may be, she has the privilege of being one of the most interesting figures in one of the most perfect works Gaudenzio ever achieved. He took about a year over it, as we find from documents signed in June and July, 1511.
It is difficult to follow Gaudenzio’s movements in his constant journeyings to and fro, but the political life of the time gives a certain clue to his wanderings. Leagues and counter-leagues made the Milanese territory a cockpit during the first thirty years of the sixteenth century. The constant movements of the French to hold the duchy of Milan, and the recurring invasions each time they were driven out, must have made life and property anything but secure for the inhabitants of the country. Just at this period, from 1509 to 1513, the Novarese district was particularly unsettled, and probably for this reason we find Gaudenzio working either at Varallo or in the Lake districts. Part of the frescoes in the Church of San Giulio, on the island of that name on the Lake of Orta, belong to this period. Though quite ruined by damp and repainting, they have much in common with the frescoes in the Chapel of St. Margaret.*
Towards the beginning of 1512 he must have begun the first of his three great masterpiecesthe frescoes on the screen across the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie at Varallo. They represent scenes from the life of our Lord, and were finished in 1513. We have no documents relative to this great work, but tradition says that it was commissioned by certain members of the Vincio family. Up to this point of his career we can trace the various influences he had come in contact with ; but here he throws tradition to the winds, sets his imagination free, and deals with these sacred subjects in so original a manner that we are rarely reminded of any contemporary treatment of similar scenes.
In 1513 the French were defeated ,at the second battle of Novara, and forced to withdraw from Italy, and, a temporary quiet reigning in the Novarese district, we find Gaudenzio accepting in 1514 the commission of an ancona for the original Church of San Gaudenzio at Novara. It was to be finished in eighteen months, and every detail is carefully arranged for in the contract. The length of time given points to the fact that he was busy with other work at that date, and in all probability it was the ancona for the Church of San Martino at Rocca Pietra, near Varallo. This ancona has been considerably altered at a later date, but in the panels and in the daintily carved figures on the summit we find all the charm of Gaudenzio’s early work.
Another point of interest which sheds some light on Gaudenzio’s movements at this time is the similarity existing between the design of this ancona and the one in the Chapel of San Abbondio in the Cathedral of Como, although the latter is entirely carried out in carved woodwork. Both are designed like temples, with finely-carved figures on the summits. The first notice in the Como archives relative to this ancona is in the year 1514. Though we have no mention of Gaudenzio’s name, the greater part of the design is undoubtedly his, and much resembles the altar-piece begun at Morbegno in 1516, while the great tempera painted wings, though done rather later, are of special interest, as showing the renewal of the friendship between Luini and Gaudenzio.
We have no documentary proof of this, but the mutual influence of these two artists on each other begins to show in their works. There is also in Gaudenzio’s art a distinct ” rapprochement ” to Leonardo, which is particularly striking in a ” Last Supper ” now hanging in the sacristy of the Cathedral at Novara. The only place he could have come into contact with him at this period was at Pavia, and there is indirect evidence of a meeting there. Leonardo had gone to Rome in 1513, and in 1515 he was at the French Court at Pavia. In 1516 he left Italy for good. Francis I. strove to bring back the golden days of Il Moro, and welcomed all artists to assist in the fêtes and Court functions which took place during the winter of 1515 and 1516. Gaudenzio’s fame had spread through Lombardy, and it is probable he was summoned to Pavia. Lomazzo mentions a ” Rape of Proserpine ” painted by Gaudenzio for Francis I. This picture, which is fully described in the ” Trattate della Pittura,” was sent to Fontainebleau, and has since disappeared. This is the only profane subject that Gaudenzio is known to have painted,* butand this gives a further clue to the datein the carvings of the Morbegno altar-piece designed by Gaudenzio this winter he introduces mythological subjects, such as Daphne turning into a laurel, etc., which would show that his interest had been revived in the fashionable classic subjects of the day. This, combined with the fact that the construction of this altar-piece was carried out by a carver from Pavia, points to the French Court as the place where Gaudenzio experienced again the influence of the great Florentine, and the interesting ” Last Supper ” at Novara shows the result.
Whether Luini was also at Pavia it is difficult to say. Court life would have little to attract him. The great spectacular effects would interest Gaudenzio, but he had in common with Luini a very sincere and deep religious feeling, and both are at their best in the great works executed for the Church. A ” Descent of the Holy Ghost ” at Romagnano, which is evidently done from a cartoon by Gaudenzio, is signed ” Bernardinus Luinus,” and dated 1517. It is difficult to accept this signature, though some of the heads are distinctly Luinesque, and the colouring recalls faintly Borgognone’s fine ancona at Bergamo. This picture was originally in the form of a ” tondo,” and cut down to its present shape some years ago. Now, the ” Last Supper ” at Novara was also a tondo, and also cut down to fit its present place in the panelling of the sacristy of the cathedral. But when we compare the Romagnano picture with Luini’s work at this period, it cannot have come from his brush. In its present blackened condition, all that can be said is that the date is probably correct, and that it came from Gaudenzio’s atelier. The use of gesso on the mantle of the Madonna points to an early period of Gaudenzio’s life.
It is a little difficult to follow Gaudenzio’s movements between 1515 and 1528, for, though his home was at Varallo, he must have been constantly away. For a long time it was believed that he was in Rome working under Raphael between 1517 and 1520, but recent research has shown that he was busy with commissions in the Milanese territory. His signature is found on documents at Novara, Vercelli, and Morbegno, and we also know he twice painted conjointly with Luini for the Chapel of San Abbondio in the Cathedral at Como, once about 1518, and again about nine years later.
On January 9, 1521, he signed an agreement to take as pupil for six years Joseph Giovenone, the nephew of the painter of that name. This document throws a side-light on the uncertainties of existence in those days, as it particularly stipulates that in the case of war or plague preventing work the contract was to be suspended till such time as work could be resumed.
Between 1521 and 1525 (the year of the Battle of Pavia) great unquiet prevailed ; but during this period we find Gaudenzio, accompanied by his assistants, hard at work in the Valsesia and the Valtellina, and safe from the troops of King or Emperor, who ravaged the plains of Lombardy.
The decoration of the Chapel of the Crucifixion at Varallo was begun during this period. The chapel was built about 1517, but no document can be found relative to this remarkable piece of work. Gaudenzio worked on and off at it for many years, and finally left it to be finished by assistants. It contained many terra-cotta figures, and on the walls are painted a vast crowd, while on the vaulting are depicted angels in attitudes of despair and horror. In its present ruined condition it is difficult to judge what the original effect must have been like, but it raised Gaudenzio to the highest position among his contemporaries.
This chapel and the altar-piece at Morbegno occupied his chief attention till 1528, but he had other work on hand as well. About 1526 or 1527 he must have paid a visit to Parma, for in no other way could the influence of Correggio, which appears suddenly in his art about this time, so completely revolutionize his methods and ideas. This we see distinctly in the Como “Flight into Egypt,” the ” Christ with the Signs of the Passion,” which was originally in the Valtellina,t and in his subsequent work at Vercelli.
We do not know which year Gaudenzio’s first wife died, but by 1528 he had married again. His second wife was Maria Mattia della Foppa, from Morbegno; she was widow of a certain Giovanni Antonio de l’Olmo, of Bergamo, and had one son, ten years old, by her first husband, and was possibly of the same family as the great Foppa. In this year 1528 Gaudenzio moved his domicile to Vercelli.
From this time till 1536 he was working hard at commissions in that city, and rarely going away. We find his signature constantly during this period, either in contracts for work or as witness in family or other documents. His son Gerolamo becomes old enough to sign as witness in 1530, and also becomes a pupil to his father, and in the same year the name of Bernardino Lanino, who became his most important follower, appears for the first time in the archives.
In the autumn of 1532 he married his daughter Margaret to Domenico Pertegalle, surnamed Festa, of Crevola, near Varallo. In the wedding contract Gaudenzio and his son Gerolamo undertake to give her a dowry of 100 lire imperiale, payable in four years, and secured by a mortgage on Gaudenzio’s house at Varallo.
Between the years 1530 and 1534 Gaudenzio accomplished the magnificent series of frescoes representing the lives of St. Mary Magdalen and of the Madonna in the Church of St. Christopher at Vercelli. These frescoes show him at the full zenith of his powers and are worthy of all the praise which has been bestowed on them.
In 1534 the authorities of the Sanctuary of Santa Maria dei Miracoli at Saronno opened negotiations with Gaudenzio for the decoration of the cupola of that church. On September 28 of that year he met the deputies at Milan, and signed an agreement to go to Saronno the following Easter, and undertook not to begin any other work till it was finished. This agreement he carried out, and returned to Vercelli in October, 1535, leaving behind him one of the finest works of art in Northern Italy.
We do not know the exact date that Gaudenzio left Vercelli or when he settled definitely at Milan. An invasion of the French in 1536, who took many Piedmontese towns and threatened Vercelli, may have decided him to move his domicile a second time. He went first to Varallo, where we find him working between 1536 and 1539. Assisted by Bernardino Lanino and his son Gerolamo, he painted the cupola of the old church on the Sacro Monte and the Chapel of the Magi. In 1538 a violent quarrel broke out between the civil and ecclesiastical authorities relative to the finances of the Sacro Monte. This unhappy affair and the death of his son Gerolamo probably made the old artist leave Varallo, and he apparently settled in Milan, for all subsequent documents are dated from that city.
In 1539 he painted an ancona for the Church of Santa Maria in Piazza at Busto Arsizio, and in the autumn of that year we find him signing papers relative to his wife’s affairs, arbitrating in a dispute between another artist and his patron, and the sale of his house at Varallo. In January, 1540, he signs a receipt for the final payment for the said house, and thus practically terminates his connection with his old home. He paid one more visit to the Valtellina, probably in 1541, and painted a lunette over the door of the Church of San Antonio dei Domenicani at Morbegno, besides important works in the adjacent villages of Traona and Premona.
Gaudenzio was now the acknowledged head of the Lombard School, but during the last years of his life it is a sad fact that the quality of his work deteriorated rapidly. This may account for his complete eclipse during the succeeding centuries, as so much of his decadent work is in Milan, and judging by that, few would trouble themselves to visit the smaller places, where his finest productions are to be found.
This can be clearly seen in the frescoes in the Chapel of Santa Corona in Santa Maria delle Grazie at Milan, painted in 1542. A picture of St. Paul for the altar of this chapel was painted in 1543, and is now in the Louvre in Paris. The vigour is still there, but accompanied by a crudeness both of sentiment and technique.
We do not know which year his second wife died, but there is no mention of her or of her son later than 1540. In 1543 we find Gaudenzio taking a house for three years with Giovanni Battista della Cerva, a Milanese artist who became his associate for a short time. Della Cerva was unmarried, and appears to have had no kith or kin, for some months after Gaudenzio’s death he makes a will, dated September 31, 1546, in which he left all his property to the Ospedale Maggiore at Milan, with directions to provide dowries yearly for two poor girls. We can imagine Gaudenzio gladly turning to this kindly friend as the burden of loneliness and the infirmities of age increased. We find them working together on equal terms at a ” Last Supper ” for the Church of the Passione at Milan in 1543 and 1544. Della Cerva apparently did not accompany Gaudenzio to Saronno in 1545, for though the only assistant mentioned in the archives is a Battista, he appears to have been only a wood-carver, not a painter.
Della Cerva is said to have begun as a pupil of Bernardino Lanino. In the autumn of 1545 we find him working with Lanino, who was in Milan, and who had undertaken a large series of frescoes in the Oratory of St. Catherine in the Church of San Nazaro in Brolio, which were finished in 1546. The intimacy existing between the two young men and Gaudenzio is here gracefully shown, not only by the use of his cartoon for the centre painting, but also in a portrait group, where the old master appears between the two younger artists.* He is here depicted a broken-down old man with a kindly expression, but with a strained, anxious look. His last illness was probably already on him, for he died on January 31, 1546, as the following extract from the Milanese necrology tells : ” Domenicus Majester Gaudentius de ferrarijs anorem circa 75 ex catarro suffocatus in prima, sine signo pestis decessit juditis Magestri Alexandri Granati.”
We have some knowledge of his personal appearance and character from Lomazzo’s writings, while the wording of the few contracts we possess also gives a clue to his popularity. He stands before us a good-natured, large-hearted man of a bright and cheerful disposition, and just and generous in all his dealings. He had regular features, an aquiline nose, auburn hair, and a dignified and noble carriage. Lomazzo gives a list of his accomplishments as follows : ” He was painter, modeller, architect, ` ortico,’ natural philosopher and poet, and a player on the lyre and the lute.” It is an interesting fact that Gaudenzio introduces a lute when-ever he can, while in the Saronno cupola the variety- of musical instruments in the hands of the celestial choir is very striking, and could only have been depicted by one who was thoroughly familiar with them.
The dominant note of his character was an intense and ardent piety,* which pervades everything he did ; and it is this sincerity of heart that redeems to a certain extent even those faults of exaggeration and violence which his strenuousness led him to commit. The intercourse with the Franciscan friars during Gaudenzio’s early years intensified this side of his character, while it developed the dramatic qualities of his art. In later life he is too often carried away by his enthusiasm, and sadly needs the control of a right judgment. His greatest faults are due to a want of balance of mind, accompanied by a curious lack of the critical faculty. This is seen clearly in the works he undertook from time to time, conjointly and on equal terms with artists like Fermo Stella, Lanino, and Della Cerva. Though they are obviously his inferiors in technique and in range of ideas, he seems heedless of their shortcomings, a fact which, while it speaks highly for his good-nature, shows a deplorable lack of æsthetic taste. He does not seem to realize that the finest composition may be injured by indifferent execution,
” We find in Gaudenzio the devotion expressed in the book of saints” (Lomazzo). and many of his works suffer in consequence. This special point was, however, noticed by his contemporaries, and in more than one contract his patrons protect themselves against the work of his assistants by stipulating that Gaudenzio only is to do the painting.* He always seems willing to fall in with the wishes of others, and we never hear of quarrels with his patrons, and any differences are always amicably and easily settled. When painting the ancona for Casale, he lets his imagination go, and paints an altar-piece twice as fine as the one commissioned. When the brothers De Nanis object to the greater size and value, he willingly cuts it in two. At Arona he agrees that if, when the work is finished, two competent artists decide that the value does not come up to the price settled upon, he shall return part of the money, and then makes himself secure by painting an altar-piece so beautiful that there can be no two opinions in the matter. Always willing to oblige his patrons, the contracts show that he was also thoughtful for his assistants, and provides for their needs, while the family documents show him equally thoughtful, fair, and generous, in his private life.
He would take infinite pains to alter anything he considered not good enough in his own work. When painting in fresco, he would have the surface of the wall destroyed and prepared over and over again, till he got the desired result. He never cared for riches, and though he depicts gay and varied costumes in his paintings, he always dressed simply and in sober hues. He had a great desire to preserve both the dress and speech of the Valsesia from innovations which he disliked.
Many of his recorded sayings show a strong common-sense, as when he objects to the Madonna and the Apostles being painted in gorgeous robes, “which,” as he says, “they never wore.” The only time he himself gave way on this point was about 1515 and 1516. The “Annunciation” at Berlin, and the Madonnas in the Vittidini Collection and in the Brera, are the only ones thus attired. The technique shows that they were done about this time, and they were probably commissions for the splendour-loving Court at Pavia.