Chapter 10




THE SEVEN CHAPELS NUMBERED 5-11.

CHAPEL No. 5. VISIT OF THE MAGI.


Fassola says that this chapel was begun about the year 1500, and completed about 1520, at the expense of certain wealthy Milanese; Torrotti repeats this. Bordiga gives it a later date, making Gaudenzio begin to work in it in 1531; he supposes that Gaudenzio left Varallo suddenly in that year to undertake work for the church of St. Cristoforo at Vercelli without quite completing the Magi frescoes; and it is indeed true that the frescoes appear to be unfinished, some parts at first sight seeming only sketched in outline, as though the work had been interrupted; but Colombo, whose industry is only equalled by his fine instinct and good sense, refers both the frescoes and their interruption to a later date. Still, Fassola may have only intended, and indeed probably did intend, that the shell of the building was completed by 1520, the figures and frescoes being deferred for want of funds, though the building was ready for occupation.

Colombo, on page 115 of his "Life and Work of Gaudenzio Ferrari," says that Bordiga remarked the obvious difference in style between the frescoes in the Magi and the Crucifixion chapels, which he held to have been completed in 1524, but nevertheless thought seven years the utmost that passed between the two works. Colombo shows that by 1528 Gaudenzio was already established at Vercelli, and ascribes the frescoes in the Magi chapel to a date some time between 1536 and 1539, during which time he believes that Gaudenzio returned to Varallo, finding no trace of him elsewhere. The internal evidence in support of this opinion is strong, for the Crucifixion chapel is not a greater advance upon the frescoes in the church of St. Maria delle Grazie, painted in 1513, magnificent as these last are, than the Magi frescoes are upon the Crucifixion, and an interval of ten years or so is not too much to allow between the two. Gaudenzio Ferrari was like Giovanni Bellini, a slow but steady grower from first to last; with no two painters can we be more sure that as long as they lived they were taking pains, and going on from good to better; nevertheless, it takes many years before so wide a difference can be brought about, as that between the frescoes in the Magi and Crucifixion chapels. The Magi frescoes have, however, unfortunately suffered from damp much more than the Crucifixion ones, and I should say they had been a good deal retouched, but by a very capable artist.

Colombo thinks that in these frescoes Gaudenzio was assisted by his son Gerolamo, who died in 1539, and, as I have said, holds that it was the death of this son which made him leave Varallo, without even finishing the frescoes on which he was engaged.

But Signor Arienta assures me that the frescoes were not in reality left incomplete: he holds that the wall on the parts where the outline shows was too dry when the colour was laid on, and that it has gradually gone, leaving the outline only. This, he tells me, not unfrequently happens, and has occurred in one or two places even in the Crucifixion chapel, where an arm here and there appears unfinished. The parts in the Magi chapel that show the outline only are not likely to have been left to the last; they come in a very random haphazard way, and I have little hesitation in accepting Signor Arienta's opinion. If, however, this is wrong and the work was really unfinished, I should ascribe this fact to the violent dissensions that broke out in 1538, and should incline towards using it as an argument for assigning this date to the frescoes themselves, more especially as it fits in with whatever other meagre evidence we have.

Something went wrong with the funds destined for the erection of this chapel, and this may account for the length of time taken to erect the chapel itself, as well as for subsequent delay in painting it and filling it with statues. In the earlier half of his work Fassola says that certain Milanese gentlemen, "Signori della Castellanza," subscribed two hundred gold scudi with which to found the chapel, but that the money was in part diverted to other uses--"a matter," he says, "about which I am compelled to silence by a passage in my preface;" this passage is the expression of a desire to avoid giving offence; but Fassola says the interception of the funds involved the chapel's "remaining incomplete for some time." There seems, in fact, to have been some serious scandal in connection with the money, about which, even after 150 years, Fassola was unwilling to speak.

I would ask the reader to note in passing that in this work, high up on the spectator's right, Gaudenzio has painted some rocks with a truth which was in his time rare. In the earliest painting, rocks seem to have been considered hopeless, and were represented by a something like a mould for a jelly or blanc-mange; yet rocks on a grey day are steady sitters, and one would have thought the early masters would have found them among the first things that they could do, whereas on the contrary they were about the last to be rendered with truth and freedom by the greatest painters. This was probably because rocks bored them; they thought they could do them at any time, and were more interested with the figures, draperies, and action. Leonardo da Vinci's rocks, for example, are of no use to any one, nor yet for the matter of that is any part of his landscape-- what little there is of it. Holbein's strong hand falls nerveless before a rock or mountain side, and even Marco Basaiti, whose landscape has hardly been surpassed by Giovanni Bellini himself, could not treat a rock as he treated other natural objects. As for Giovanni Bellini, I do not at this moment remember to have seen him ever attempt a bit of slate, or hard grey gritty sandstone rock. This is not so with Gaudenzio, his rocks in the Magi chapel, and again in the Pieta compartment of his fresco in the church of St. Maria delle Grazie, at the foot of the mountain, are as good as rocks need ever be. The earliest really good rocks I know are in the small entombment by Roger Van der Weyden in our own National Gallery.

Returning to the terra-cotta figures in the Magi chapel, there is nothing about them to find fault with, but they do not arouse the same enthusiasm as the frescoes. They too are sufferers by damp and lapse of time, and a painted terra-cotta figure does not lend itself to a dignified decay. The disjecti membra poetae are hard to recognise if painted terra-cotta is the medium through which inspiration has been communicated to the outer world. Outside the Magi chapel, invisible by the Magi, and under a small glazed lantern which lights the St. Joseph with the Virgin adoring the Infant Saviour, and the Presepio, hangs the star. It is very pretty where it is, but its absence from the chapel itself is, I think, on the whole, regrettable. I have been sometimes tempted to think that it originally hung on the wall by a hook which still remains near the door through which the figures must pass, but think it more probable that this hook was used to fasten the string of a curtain that was hung over the window.

In conclusion, I should say that Colombo says that the figures being short of the prescribed number were completed by Fermo Stella. Bordiga gives the horses only to this artist.

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

CHAPEL No. 6. IL PRESEPIO.


This is more a grotto than a chapel, and is declared in an inscription set up by Bernardino Caimi in letters of gold to be "the exact counterpart of the one at Bethlehem in which the Virgin gave birth to her Divine Son." Bordiga writes of this inscription as still visible, but I have repeatedly looked for it without success.

If Caimi, as Fassola distinctly says, had the above inscription set up, it is plain that this, and perhaps the Shepherd's chapel hard by, were among the very earliest chapels undertaken. This is rendered probable by the statement of Fassola that the shell of the Circumcision chapel which adjoins the ones we are now considering was built "dalli principij del Sacro Monte." He says that this fact is known by the testimony of certain contemporaneous painters ("il che s' argumenta dalli Pittori che furono di que' tempi"). Clearly, then, the Presepio, Shepherds, and Circumcision chapels were in existence some years before the Magi chapel was begun. Gaudenzio was too young to have done the figures before Bernardino died. Originally, doubtless, the grotto was shown without figures, which were added by Gaudenzio, later on; they were probably among his first works. The place is so dark that they cannot be well seen, but about noon the sun comes down a narrow staircase and they can be made out very well for a quarter of an hour or so; they are then seen to be very good. They have no fresco background, nor yet is there any to the Shepherd's chapel, which confirms me in thinking these to have been among the earliest works undertaken. Colombo says that the infant Christ in the Presepio is not by Gaudenzio, the original figure having been stolen by some foreigner not many years ago, and Battista, the excellent Custode of the Sacro Monte, assures me that this was the second time the infant had been stolen.

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

CHAPEL No. 7. VISIT OF THE SHEPHERDS.


Some of the figures--the Virgin, one shepherd, and four little angels--in this chapel are believed to be by Gaudenzio, and if they are, they are probably among his first essays, but they are lighted from above, and the spectator looks down on them, so that the dust shows, and they can hardly be fairly judged. The hindmost shepherd-- the one with his hand to his heart and looking up, is the finest figure; the Virgin herself is also very good, but she wants washing.

If Fassola and Torrotti are to be believed, {12} and I am afraid I must own that, much as I like them, I find them a little credulous, the Virgin in this chapel is more remarkable than she appears at first sight; she used originally to have her face turned in admiration towards the infant Christ, but at the very first moment that she heard the bells begin to ring for the elevation of Pope Innocent the Tenth to the popedom, she turned round to the pilgrims visiting the place, in token of approbation; the authorities, not knowing what to make of such behaviour, had her set right, but she turned round a second time with a most gracious smile and assumed the position which the elevation of no later Pope has been ever able to disturb. Pope Innocent X. was not exactly the kind of Pope whom one would have expected the Virgin to greet with such extraordinary condescension. If it had been the present amiable and venerable Pontiff there would have been less to wonder at.

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

CHAPEL No. 8. CALLED BY FASSOLA AND TORROTTI THE CIRCUMCISION, AND BY BORDIGA THE PURIFICATION.


The chapel itself is, as I have already said, one of the very oldest on the Sacro Monte; it is doubtless much older than either the frescoes or the terra-cotta figures which it contains, both of which are given by Fassola, Torrotti, and Bordiga to Fermo Stella, but I cannot think they are right in either case. The frescoes remind me more of Lanini, and are much too modern for Fermo Stella; they are, however, in but poor preservation, and no very definite opinion can be formed concerning them. The terra-cotta work is, I think, also too free for Fermo Stella. The infant Jesus is very pretty, and the Virgin would also be a fine figure if she was not spoiled by the wig and over-much paint which restorers have doubtless got to answer for. The work is mentioned in the 1586 edition of Caccia as completed, but there is nothing to show whether or no it was a restoration. I have long thought I detected a certain sub-Flemish feeling in both the Virgin and Child, and though aware that I have very little grounds for doing so, am half inclined to think that Tabachetti must have had something to do with them. Bordiga is clearly wrong in calling the chapel a Purification. There are no doves, and there must always be doves for a Purification. Besides, there was till lately a knife ready for use lying on the table, as shown in Guidetti's illustration of the chapel.

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

CHAPEL No. 9. JOSEPH WARNED TO FLY.


This chapel is described as completed in both the 1586 and 1590 editions of Caccia. The figures are again given to Fermo Stella by Bordiga, but not by either Fassola or Torrotti. I am again unable to think that Bordiga is right. There is again, also, a sub-Flemish feeling which is difficult to account for. The angel is a fine figure, and the heads of the Virgin and Child are also excellent, but the folds of the drapery are not so good. If there were any evidence, which there is not, to show that these figures were early works of Tabachetti, and that the sleeping St. Joseph is a first attempt at the figure which he succeeded later so admirably in rendering, I should be inclined to accept it; as it is, I can form no opinion about the authorship of the terra-cotta work. The fresco background is worthless.

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

CHAPEL No. 10. THE FLIGHT INTO EGYPT.


This chapel is of no great interest. The authors and the date are uncertain. It is mentioned in the 1586 and 1590 editions of Caccia, but we may be tolerably sure that Tabachetti had nothing to do with it. Bordiga says "the figures seem to be by Stella," which may be right or may be wrong. Though the figures are not very good, yet this chapel has, or had in Fassola's time, other merits perhaps even of greater than artistic value, for he says it is particularly useful to those who have lost anything. "Perditori di qualche cosa" are more especial recipients of grace in consequence of devotion at this particular chapel. The flight is conducted as leisurely as flights into Egypt invariably are, but has with it a something, I know not what--perhaps it is the donkey--which always reminds me of Hampstead Heath on a bank holiday.

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

CHAPEL No. 11. MASSACRE OF THE INNOCENTS.


This is one of the most remarkable chapels on the Sacro Monte, and also one of the most abounding in difficult problems. It was built with funds provided by Carlo Emanuele I., Duke of Savoy, about the year 1586, and took four years to complete. In the 1586-7 edition of Caccia the chapel itself is alone given as completed. In the 1590-1 edition, it is said that both the sculptures and the frescoes were now finished, and that they are all "bellissime e ben fatti (sic)." This is confirmed by an inscription on the collar of a soldier who stands near Herod's right hand, and which, I do not doubt, is intended to govern the whole of the terra-cotta work. The inscription runs -

"Michel Ang. RSTI" (Rossetti) "Scul: Da Claino MDXC Etate an. VIIL"

This exactly tallies with the dates given in the two editions of Caccia.

The date is thus satisfactorily established, but the authorship of the work is less easily settled. All the authorities without exception say that the sculptor was a certain Giacomo Bargnola of Valsolda, who was also called Bologna. Fassola describes him as a "statuario virtuosissimo e glorioso per tutta l' Europa," and Torrotti calls him "il famoso Giacomo Bargnola di Valsoldo [sic] sopranominato Bologna." All subsequent writers have repeated this.

At Varallo itself I found nothing known about either Bargnola or Valsolda, but turning to Zani find Bargnola under the name Paracca. Zani says, "Paracca, non Peracca, ne Perracca, ne Perrazza, Giannantonio, o Giacomo, detto il Valsoldo, Valsolino, e il Valsoldino, non Valfondino, ed anche il Bargnola, e malamente Antonio Valsado Parravalda." He says that he was a "plastico" and restorer of statues, came from the neighbourhood of Como, was "bravissimo," and lived about from 1557-1587. There was a Luigi Paracca from the same place who was also called "Il Valsoldino" and a Giacomo, and an Andrea, but of these last three he does not say that they were noteworthy.

Nagler mentions only a Giovanni Antonio Parracca, who he says was called Valsolda. He says that he was a sculptor of Milan, who made a reputation at Rome about 1580 as a restorer of antique statues; that he only worked in order to get money to spend on debauchery, and died, according to Baglione, young, and in a hospital. His words are -

"Paracca, Gio. Antonio gennant Valsoldo, Bildhauer von Mailand, machte sich um 1580 in Rom als Restaurator antiker Werke einen Namen, arbeitete aber nur, um Geld zur Schwelgerei zu bekommen. Starb jung im Hospital wie Baglione versichert."

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

I have had Baglione before me, but can find no life of Paracca either under that name or under that of Bargnola, and suppose the reference to him must be incidental in the life of some other artist. I will again gratefully accept a fuller reference. I do not believe a word about Paracca's alleged debauchery. Who ever yet worked as Nagler says?

We have, then, to face on the one hand the authority of all writers about the Sacro Monte, and on the other, the exceedingly explicit claim made by Rossetti himself in the inscription given above. Probably Bargnola began the work and Rossetti finished it. It is not likely that the extremely circumstantial statement of Fassola should be without any foundation, but again it is not likely that Rossetti would have claimed the work if he had not done at any rate the greater part of it. If Bargnola died about 1587, he could not have done much, for in the 1586-1587 edition of Caccia it is expressly stated that the chapel alone was done "Di questa e fatta solamente la chiesa." And if he had lived to finish the work, he, and not Rossetti, would have signed it. We may conclude, then, with some certainty, that he died before the chapel was finished, but may think it nevertheless probable that he was originally commissioned to do it.

The question resolves itself, therefore, into how much he did, and how soon Rossetti took the work over. It must be remembered that Michael Angelo Rossetti is a name absolutely unknown to us. Zani, Nagler, Cicognara, Lubke, Perkins, and all the authorities I have consulted omit to mention him. I find abundant reference to three, and indeed five, painters who were called Rossetti, two of whom-- doubtless nephews of Michael Angelo Rossetti,--did the frescoes in this very chapel we are considering, but no one says one syllable about any Michael Angelo Rossetti, and it is a bold thing to suppose that an unknown man should have succeeded so admirably with such a very important work as the Massacre of the Innocents chapel, and have lived as the inscription shows to the age at least of fifty-seven without leaving a single trace in any other quarter whatever.

The work, at any rate in many parts, is that of one who has been working in clay all his life, and was a thorough master of his craft, and this makes it all the more difficult to suppose it to be a single tour de force. On the other hand, such tours de force were not uncommon among medieval Italian workmen. Gaudenzio Ferrari's work in sculpture is little else than a succession of tours de force, and in other parts of the work we are now considering, there is a certain archaism which suggests growing rather than matured power.

We should not forget, however, that an inscription in terra-cotta cannot be surreptitiously scrawled on like a false signature on a fresco or painting. Here the signature was made with pomp and circumstance while the clay was still wet, and was baked with the figure on which it appears. Too many people in this case would have to know about it for a false inscription to be probable. As for the evidence of Fassola, we must bear in mind that he is a notoriously inaccurate writer; that he did not write till nearly a hundred years after the work was completed; that Torrotti is only an echo of Fassola, and all subsequent writers little more than echoes of Fassola and Torrotti. On the whole, therefore, the more I have considered the matter the more I incline towards accepting the signature, and giving the greater part of the terra-cotta work to the man who claims it--that is to say, to Michael Angelo Rossetti, sculptor, of Claino. Signor Arienta tells me he has found a Castel Claino mentioned in an old document, as formerly existing near Milan. He is himself inclined (though knowing nothing of Paracca when I last saw him), to see two hands in the work--and here he is probably right, but I hardly think Rossetti would have signed as he did if Bargnola or Paracca had done the greater part or even half of it.

Proceeding to a consideration of the frescoes, we find that two of Herod's body-guard, standing on his left hand, and corresponding to the one on his right, on whose collar the sculptor signed his name, have also signatures on their collars, obviously done in concert with the sculptor. The signatures are as follows:-

"Battista Roveri Pictor Milane AEta XXXV"
and
"Io Mauro Rover Pictor."

Fassola says that the painter of the chapel was "il Fiamenghino." If he had said the painters were "i Fiamenghini" he would have been right, for Signor Arienta called my attention to a passage in Lanzi, in which he has dealt with three painters bearing the name of Rovere, two of whom, if not all three, were called "i Fiamenghini." The three were Giovanni Mauro, Giambattista, and Marco, which last painter does not seem to have had anything to do with the Massacre of the Innocents. Lanzi calls Gio. Mauro a follower, first of Camillo, and then of Giulio Cesare Procaccini. He describes them as painters of great facility and invention, but as seldom taking pains to do what they very well might have done, if they had chosen, and his verdict is, I should say, about right. He adds:-

"I find them also called Rossetti, and they are still more often described as 'i Fiamenghini,' their father, Richard, having come from Flanders, and settled in Milan."

Signor Arienta explained to me that it was through this surname of Fiamenghini, by which the brothers Rovere were known, that Giovanni Miel D'Anvers was supposed to have had any hand in the frescoes on the Sacro Monte. This last-named painter was court painter to Carlo Emanuelle I. Bordiga knew this, and seeing he came from Antwerp, concluded that he must be "il Fiamenghino" mentioned, and all subsequent writers have followed him.

Signor Arienta also tells me that some twenty years or so later these same two painters signed some frescoes at Orta as follows:-

"Io Battista, et Io Maurus Aruberius, dicti Fiamenghini, pinxerunt anno 1608 die 9 Octobris."

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

Doubtless their mother's name was Rossetti, and the Michael Angelo RSTI who claims the sculptured work, and was some twenty years their senior, was their uncle.

He also told me that one of the figures in the frescoes of the Massacre of the Innocents chapel is wearing a collar with a clasp on which there is an oak-tree, for which "Rovere" is the Italian, and that he holds this to have been a portrait of the painter.

Fassola says that under the glazed aperture which is in front of the piece there is placed a small terra-cotta car drawn by a child and loaded with a head, or ear, of maize, a goose, and a clown; he explains that the maize means 1000, the car 400, the clown 90, and the goose "per il suo verso"--whatever this may mean--4, which numbers taken together make the number of infants that were killed. He adds that there is another like hieroglyphic, which, as it is not very important, he will pass over. I find no mention of this in Torrotti, nor yet in Bordiga, but when people call attention to a thing and then say nothing about it, I generally find they have a reason. On a recent visit to Varallo I examined the two hieroglyphs; the second is also a small terra-cotta car or cart drawn by a child, and containing the bust of a monk, a die, and two or three other things that I could not make out. The treatment of these two hieroglyphics alone is enough to show that they were done by a thorough master of his craft. No doubt the import of the whole was known by Fassola to be sinister, but I must leave its interpretation to others. He adds that the graces vouchsafed at this chapel are chiefly on behalf of sick children.

I may conclude by saying that though nothing has been taken directly from Tabachetti's Journey to Calvary chapel, the sculptor, whoever he was, has nevertheless plainly felt the influence, and been animated by the spirit of that great work, then just completed.




Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Email:
Sonnet-a-Day Newsletter
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.
Email: