Chapter 13




MYSTERIES OF THE PASSION AND DEATH.


The Palazzo di Pilato is now ended, and we begin with the mysteries of the Passion and Death of the Redeemer, the first of which is set forth in


CHAPEL No. 36. THE JOURNEY TO CALVARY.


This, having regard to the terra-cotta figures alone, is by far the finest work on the Sacro Monte, and it is hardly too much to say that no one who has not seen it knows what sculpture can do. I have sufficiently shown that all the authorities, not one of whom has ever so much as seen a page of Caccia, are wrong by at least twenty years, when they say that Tabachetti completed the work in 1606. Bordiga refers, and this time I have no doubt accurately, to a deed drawn up in 1602, in accordance with which the fresco background was begun by Antonio Gandino, a painter of Brescia; this alone should have made Bordiga suspect that the terra-cotta work had been already completed, but he does not appear to have noted the fact, and goes on to say that the agreement with Gandino was cancelled by Bishop Bescape in 1604, and that his work was destroyed, the chapel being handed over to Morazzone, who painted it in 1605, and was paid 1400 lire, besides twenty gold scudi. Morazzone has followed Gaudenzio boldly, repeating several of his fresco figures, as Tabachetti, with admirable good taste, had repeated several of his terra-cotta ones, while completely varying the action. The right-hand frescoes, and part of those on the wall opposite the spectator, have been recently cut away in squares, and relined, as the wall was perishing from damp.

The statues consist of about forty figures of men, women, and children, and nine horses, all rather larger than life. They too have suffered from the effect of damp upon the paint; nevertheless, a more permanent and satisfactory kind of pigment has been used here than in most of the chapels; the work does not seem to have been much, if at all repainted, since Tabachetti left it. One figure of a child in the foreground has disappeared, the marks of its feet and two little bits of rusty iron alone show where it was; the woman who was holding it also remains without an arm. I am tempted to think that some disturbing cause has affected a girl who is holding a puppy, a little to the right of this last figure, and doubt whether something that accompanied her may not have perished; at any rate, it does not group with the other figures as well as these do with one another; this, however, is a very small blemish. The work is one that will grow upon the reader the more he studies it, and should rank as the most successfully ambitious of medieval compositions in sculpture, no less surely than Gaudenzio's Crucifixion chapel, having regard to grandeur of scheme as well as execution, should rank as the most daring among Italian works of art in general. I am aware that this must strike many of my readers as in all probability a very exaggerated estimate, but can only repeat that I have studied these works for the last twenty years with every desire not to let a false impression run away with me, and that each successive visit to Varallo, while tending somewhat to lower my estimate of Giovanni D'Enrico--unless when he is at his very best--has increased my admiration for both Gaudenzio Ferrari and Tabachetti, as also, I would add, for the sculptor of the Massacre of the Innocents chapel.

It cannot, indeed, be pretended that Tabachetti's style is as pure as that of his great predecessor, but what it has lost in purity it has gained in freedom and vigour. It is not possible that an artist working in the years 1580-1585 should present to us traces of the archaism which even the most advanced sculptors of half a century earlier had not wholly lost. The stronger a man is the more certainly will he be modified by his own times as well as modify them, and in an age of barocco we must not look for Donatellos. Still, the more Tabachetti's work is examined the more will it be observed that he took no harm from the barocco, but kept its freedom while avoiding its coarseness and exaggeration. For reasons explained in an earlier chapter his figures are not generally portraits, but he is eminently realistic, and if he did the Vecchietto, of which I have given a photograph at the beginning of this book, he must be credited with one of the most living figures that have ever been made--a figure which rides on the very highest crest of the wave, and neither admits possibility of further advance towards realism without defeating its own purpose, nor shows even the slightest sign of decadence. Of the figure of the Countess of Serravalle, to which I have already referred, Torrotti said it was so much admired in his day that certain Venetian cavaliers offered to buy it for its weight in gold, but that the mere consideration of such an offer would be high treason (lesa Maesta) to the Sacro Monte. Fassola and Torrotti, as well as Bordiga and Cusa, are evidently alive to the fact that as far as sculpture goes we have here the highest triumph attained on the Sacro Monte of Varallo.

I had better perhaps give the words in which Caccia describes the work. In the 1586 edition, we read, in the preliminary prose part, as follows:-

"Come N. S. e condotto alla morte con la croce alle spalle, qual si vede tutto di rilievo."

The poetical account runs thus:-


"Si trova poi in una Chiesa nera
Con spettacolo fiero accompagnato
Da soldati, e da gente molto fiera,
Con la Croce alle spalle incaminato
Christo Giesu in mezzo a l'empia schiera,
Seguendolo Giovanni addolorato,
Che di Giesu sostien la sconsolata
Madre, da Maddalena accompagnata."


In the 1591 edition, the prose description of the work runs; -

"Come N. S. e condotto alla morte con la Croce sopra delle spalle, quali si vedeno tutto di rilieuo bellissi."

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

I have no copy of the poetical part of this edition before me, but believe it to be identical with the version already given. The impression left upon me is that the work in 1586 was only just finished enough to allow it to be called finished, and that its full excellence was not yet displayed to the public, though it was about to be so very shortly.

Signor Arienta tells me that Tabachetti has adhered rather closely to a design for the same subject by Albert Durer, but I have failed to find the design to which he is referring.

Bordiga again calls attention to the extreme beauty of the view of Varallo that is to be had on leaving this chapel.

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

CHAPEL No. 37. THE NAILING OF CHRIST TO THE CROSS.


This and the two following chapels are on the top of the small rise of some fifteen or twenty feet in which Bernardino Caimi is said to have seen a resemblance to Mount Calvary; they are approached by a staircase which leads directly to Giovanni D'Enrico's largest work.

Bordiga says that the chapel was begun in 1589 at the expense of Marchese Giacomo d'Adda; he probably, however, refers only to the building itself. It is not mentioned as even contemplated in the 1586 edition of Caccia, nor yet, unless my memory fails me, in that of 1590. It is not known when the terra-cotta work was begun, but it was not yet quite finished in 1644, when, as I have said, D'Enrico died.

The frescoes are by Melchiorre Gilardini, and have been sufficiently praised by other writers; they are fairly well preserved, and show, as in the preceding chapel and in Gaudenzio's Crucifixion, how much more is to be said for the union of painting and sculpture when both are in the hands of capable men, than we are apt to think. If the reader will divest the sculpture of its colour and background, how cold and uninteresting will it not seem in comparison even with its present somewhat impaired splendour. Looking at the really marvellous results that have been achieved, we cannot refrain from a passing regret at the spite that threw Tabachetti half a century off Gaudenzio, instead of letting them come together, but we must take these things as we find them.

On first seeing Giovanni D'Enrico's Nailing to the Cross we are tempted to think it even finer than the Journey to Calvary. The work is larger, comprising some twenty or so more terra-cotta figures-- making about sixty in all--and ten horses, all rather larger than life, but the first impression soon wears off and the arrangement is then felt to be artificial as compared with Tabachetti's. Tabachetti made a great point when, instead of keeping his floor flat or sloping it evenly up to any one side, he threw his stage up towards one corner, which is much higher than any other. The unevenness, and irregular unevenness, of the ground is of the greatest assistance to him, by giving him variety of plane, and hence a way of escaping monotony without further effort on his part. If D'Enrico had taken his ground down from the corner up to which Tabachetti had led it, he would have secured both continuity with Tabachetti's scene, and an irregularly uneven surface, without repeating his predecessor's arrangement. True, the procession was supposed to be at the top of Mount Calvary, but that is a detail. As it is, D'Enrico has copied Tabachetti in making his ground slope, but, unless my memory fails me, has made it slope evenly along the whole width of the chapel, from the foreground to the wall at the back--with the exception of a small mound in the middle background. The horses are arranged all round the walls, and the soldiers are all alongside of the horses, and every figure is so placed as to show itself to the greatest advantage. This perhaps is exaggeration, but there is enough truth in it to help the reader who is unfamiliar with this class of work to apprehend Tabachetti's superiority more readily than he might otherwise do in the short time that tourists commonly have at their disposal. The general impression left upon myself and Jones was that it contains much more of Giacomo Ferro than of D'Enrico; but in spite of this it is impossible to deny that the work is important and on the whole impressive.

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

CHAPEL No 38. THE CRUCIFIXION.


Neither Fassola nor Torrotti date this work, but I have already shown reasons for believing that it should be given to the years 1524-1528. Fassola says that the figure of Christ on the Cross is not the original one, which was stolen, and somehow or other found its way to the Church of S. Andrea at Vercelli, where, according to Colombo (p. 237), a crucifix, traditionally said to be this one, was preserved until the close of the last century. Bordiga says that there is no reason to believe this story. The present crucifix is of wood, and is probably an old one long venerated, and embodied in his work by Gaudenzio himself, partly out of respect to public feeling, and partly, perhaps, as an unexceptionable excuse for avoiding a great difficulty. The thieves also, according to Bordiga and Cusa, are of wood, not terra-cotta, being done from models in clay by Gaudenzio as though the wood were marble. We may be sure there was an excellent reason for this solitary instance of a return to wood, but it is not immediately apparent to a layman.

We have met with the extreme figure to the spectator's left in the Ecce Homo chapel. He is also, as I have said, found in the Disputa fresco, done some twenty years or so before the work we are now considering, and we might be tempted to think that the person who was so powerfully impressed on Gaudenzio's mind during so many years was some Varallo notable, or failing this that he was some model whom he was in the habit of employing. This, however, is not so; for in the first place the supposed model was an old man in, say, 1507, and he is not a day older in 1527, so that in 1527 Gaudenzio was working from a strong residuary impression of a figure with which he had been familiar many years previously and not from life; and in the second, we find the head repeated in the works of Milanese artists who in all probability never came near Varallo. We certainly find it in a drawing, of which I give a reduced reproduction, and which the British Museum authorities ascribe, no doubt correctly, to Bernardino de' Conti. I also recognise it unquestionably in a drawing in the Windsor collection ascribed to Leonardo da Vinci--a drawing, however, which it is not easy to think is actually by him. I have no doubt that a reminiscence of the same head is intended in a drawing ascribed to Leonardo da Vinci in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, only that the artist, whoever he may be, has added hair (which is obviously not drawn from nature), and has not produced so good a likeness as Gaudenzio and Bernardino de' Conti have done, but about this last I am less certain. At any rate there can be no doubt that the figure represents a Milanese character who in the time of Gaudenzio's youth was familiar to Milanese artists, and who made a deep impression upon more than one of them. This will be even more apparent to those who are familiar with the terra-cotta figures at Varallo, for these can be seen from several points of view, and a fuller knowledge of the head is thus obtained than a flat impression from a single point can give.

It is not likely that the figure is that of a mere model, for it has no, or very little connection with the action of the piece, and is evidently placed where it is--the extreme figure to the left, which is always a place of honour--for the sake of introducing the portrait into the composition. Gaudenzio would not have been so impressed, say, with old Christie {14} as to give his portrait from memory twenty years after he had seen him last, to put this portrait in the place of honour, and to make the work much more emphatic as a portrait than as the figure of an actor in his drama, inasmuch as he has turned the head towards the spectator and away from the central incident. It is more probable, then, that we must look for some well-known Milanese art-world character as the original for which the figure was intended.

We know that Gaudenzio Ferrari studied under Stefano Scotto, and have every reason to think that Bernardino de' Conti--who, I see, studied in the school of Foppa, one of Scotto's predecessors, if not under Scotto himself, must have known him perfectly well. Leonardo da Vinci kept the rival school at Milan, and the two schools were to one another much what those kept by the late Mr. F. S. Cary and Mr. Lee were some thirty years ago in London. Leonardo, therefore, also doubtless knew Scotto by sight if not personally. I incline to think, then, that we have here the original we are looking for, and that Gaudenzio when working at what he probably regarded as the most important work of his life determined to introduce his master, just as I, if I were writing a novel, might be tempted to introduce a reminiscence of my own old schoolmaster, and to make the portrait as faithful as I could.

I am confirmed in this opinion by noting, as I have done for many years past, that the figure next to that of Scotto is not unlike the portraits of Leonardo da Vinci, of which I give the one (whether by himself or no I do not know) that I believe to be the best. I had been reminded of Leonardo da Vinci by this figure long before I knew of Scotto's existence, and had often wondered why he was not made the outside and most prominent figure; now, then, that I see reason to think the outside figure intended for Gaudenzio's own master, I understand why the preference has been given him, and have little doubt that next to his own master Gaudenzio has placed the other great contemporary art-teacher at Milan whose pupil he never actually was, but whose influence he must have felt profoundly. I also derive an impression that Gaudenzio liked and respected Scotto though he may have laughed at him, but that he did not like Leonardo, who by the way had been dead about ten years when this figure was placed where it now is.

I see, therefore, the two figures as those of Scotto and of Leonardo da Vinci, and think it likely that in the one portrait we have by far the most characteristic likeness of Leonardo that has come down to us. In his own drawings of himself he made himself out such as he wanted others to think him; here, if I mistake not, he has been rendered as others saw him. The portrait of Scotto is beyond question an admirable likeness; it is not likely that the Leonardo is less successful, and we find in the searching, eager, harassed, and harassing unquiet of the figure here given a more acceptable rendering of Leonardo's character and appearance than any among the likenesses of himself which are more or less plausibly ascribed to him. The question is one of so much interest that I must defer its fuller treatment for another work, in which I hope to deal with the portraits of Giovanni and Gentile Bellini, and with Holbein's "Danse des Paysans." I have, however, given above the greater part of the information of which I am as yet possessed upon the subject. In conclusion, I may say that I mentioned the matter to Signor Boccioloni the Sindaco of Varallo, and to other friends with whom I have discussed the question on the spot, and found that people generally seemed to consider the case as rather a strong one.

As regards the portraits supposed to be found on the frescoes, they are all so doubtful that I will refrain from discussing them, but will refer my readers to Colombo. The only exception is a portrait of one of the Scarrognini family which is seen on the right-hand wall above the door, the fact of the portraiture being attested by a barbarous scrawl upon the fresco itself.

Caccia says of the work with more enthusiasm than even I can command, but in a style of poetry which I find it fairly easy to render, that we may see among the spectators

" . . . a maraviglia,
Vi son piu donne con la sua famiglia;"

which means in English -

"And here you may behold with wondering eyes,
Several ladies with their families."

He continues that

"Gli Angeli star nel ciel tutti dolenti
Si veggon per pieta del suo Signore,
E turbati mostrarsi gli elementi,
Privi del sole, e d' ogni suo splendore,
E farsi terremoti, e nascer venti,
Par che si veda, d' estremo dolore,
E il tutto esser non pinto ne in scultura,
Ma dell' istesso parto di Natura.

"E se a pieno volessi ricontare Di questo tempio la bellezza, e l' arte, Le statue, le pitture, e l' opre rare, Saria (?) un vergar in infinite carte Che non han queste in tutto il mondo pare, Cerchisi pur in qual si voglia parte, Che di Fidia, Prasitele, e d' Apelle, Ne di Zeuxi non fur l' opre si belle."

"Search the world through in whatsoever part, And scan each best known masterpiece of art, In Phidias or Praxiteles or Apelles, You will find nothing that done half so well is."


In this translation I have again attempted to preserve--not to say pickle--the spirit of the original.

Returning to the work as a whole, if the modelled figures fail anywhere it is in respect of action--more especially as regards the figures to the spectator's right, which want the concert and connection without which a scene ceases to be dramatic, and becomes a mere assemblage of figures placed in juxtaposition. It would be going too far to say that complaint on this score can be justly insisted on in respect even of these figures; nevertheless it will be felt that Gaudenzio Ferrari the painter could harmonise his figures and give them a unity of action which was denied to him as a sculptor. It must not be forgotten that his modelled work derives an adventitious merit from the splendour of the frescoes with which it is surrounded, and from our admiration of the astounding range of power manifested by their author.

As a painter, it must be admitted that Gaudenzio Ferrari was second to very few that had gone before him, but as a sculptor, he did not do enough to attain perfect mastery over his art. If he had done as much in sculpture as in painting he would doubtless have been as great a master of the one as the other; as it was, in sculpture he never got beyond the stage of being an exceedingly able and interesting scholar;--this, however, is just the kind of person whose work in spite of imperfection is most permanently delightful. Among the defects which he might have overcome is one that is visible in his earlier painting as well as in his sculpture, and which in painting he got rid of, though evidently not without difficulty--I mean, a tendency to get some of his figures unduly below life size. I have often seen in his paintings that he has got his figures rather below life size, when apparently intending that they should be full- sized, and worse than this, that some are smaller in proportion than others. Nevertheless, when we bear in mind that the Crucifixion chapel was the first work of its kind, that it consists of four large walls and a ceiling covered with magnificent frescoes, comprising about 150 figures; that it contains twenty-six life-sized statues, two of them on horseback, and much detail by way of accessory, all done with the utmost care, and all coloured up to nature,--when we bear this in mind and realise what it all means, it is not easy to refrain from saying, as I have earlier done, that the Crucifixion chapel is the most daringly ambitious work of art that any one man was ever yet known to undertake; and if we could see it as Gaudenzio left it, we should probably own that in the skill with which the conception was carried out, no less than in its initial daring, it should rank as perhaps the most remarkable work of art that even Italy has produced.




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