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Chapter 14

CHAPEL No. 39. THE DESCENT FROM THE CROSS.


Fassola and Torrotti both say that the terra-cotta figures here are by a pupil of Giovanni D'Enrico. Bordiga says that the three figures forming the group upon the cross were done contemporaneously with the Nailing of Christ to the Cross, which we have already considered, and are in the style of D'Enrico. If so, they are not in his best style, while the others are among the worst on the Sacro Monte, with the exception of one, which I never even observed until last summer, so completely is it overpowered by the worse than mediocrity with which it is surrounded. This figure is perhaps, take it all round, the finest on the Sacro Monte, and is generally known as "Il Vecchietto" or "the little old man." It is given as the frontispiece of this book.

I was led to observe it by a casual remark made by my old and valued friend Signor Dionigi Negri of Varallo, to whom I am indebted for invaluable assistance in writing this book, and indeed at whose instigation it was undertaken. He told me there was a portrait of the man who gave this part of the ground to the founders of the Sanctuary; he was believed to be a small peasant proprietor--one of the "alcuni particolari poueri" mentioned by Fassola as owning the site--who, having been asked to sell the land, gave it instead. This was the story, but I knew that the land was given not later than 1490-1493, whereas the chapel in question is not earlier than 1630, when no portrait of the peasant benefactor was possible. I therefore went to the chapel, and finding the figure, saw what must be obvious to any one who looks at it with attention, I mean, firstly, how fine it was, and secondly, that it had not been designed for its present place.

This last is clear from the hand, which from outside at first appears to be holding a pair of pincers and a hammer, as though to assist at the Deposition, but which proves to have been originally designed to hold a stick--or something round, the hammer and pincers being at present tied on with a piece of string, to a hand that is not holding them. I asked the opinion of Cav. Prof Antonini of Varallo and his son, both of them admirable sculptors, and found them as decided as myself in their admiration of the figure. Both of them, at different times, were good enough to go inside the chapel with me, and both agreed with me that the figure was no part of the design of the group in which it now is. Cav. Prof. Antonini thought the whole right arm had been restored, but it was getting dusk when he suggested this, and I could not see clearly enough to form an opinion; I have the greatest diffidence in differing from so excellent an authority, but so far as I could see, I did not think there had been any restoration. I thought nothing had been done except to put a piece of string through the hole in the hand where a stick or roll had been, and to hang the hammer and pincers with it. Leaving Varallo early on the following morning, I was unable to see the figure again by day-light, and must allow the question of restoration or non- restoration to remain unsettled.

There is a large well-defined patch of mended ground covering the space occupied by the figure itself. There is no other such patch under any other figure, and the most reasonable inference is that some alteration has been made here. The expression, moreover, of the face is not suitable for a Deposition.

There is a holy tranquil smile of joy, thankfulness, and satisfaction, which perfectly well befits one who is looking up into the heavens, as he might at an Assumption of the Virgin, or an Ascension, but is not the expression which so consummate an artist as the man who made this figure, would give to a bystander at a Deposition from the Cross. Grief and horror, would be still too recent to admit of the sweet serene air of ineffable contentment which is here given.

Lastly, the style of the work is so different from that of all the other figures in the chapel, that no solidarity can be seen between it and them. It would be too much to say that the others are as bad as this is good, but the difference between Rembrandt's old woman in our National Gallery and an average Royal Academy portrait of fifty years ago, is not more striking than that between the Vecchietto and his immediate neighbours.

I can find no mention of the figure in Fassola, or Torrotti. Bordiga says, "On the left there is a man in peasant's costume, holding his hat in reverence of Jesus, and said to be a benefactor of the chapel." He does not say anything about the excellence of the workmanship, nor, indeed, have I heard any one, except the two sculptors, Cav. Prof. Antonini and his son, speak of the work in terms which showed a perception of its merit. If the world knows little of its greatest men it seems to know not much more about its greatest works of art, nor, if it continues to look for guidance in this matter to professional critics and society art-dabblers, is it likely to improve its knowledge. Cusa says of it:-

"E fra essi un vecchietto naturale assai pel rozzo costume che veste, e per la semplicita del atto; egli guarda Gesu in atto di levarsi il cappello, mentre con l'altra mano tiene le tenaglie ed il martello. Lo si dice ritratto di un Rimellese, benefattore della cappella."

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

I asked the two sculptors Antonini if they could help me in settling the question to whom the work should be assigned, and they agreed with me that it could not be given to Gaudenzio. It is too masterly, easy, and too like the work of Velasquez in painting, to be by one who is not known to have done more in sculpture than some two score or so of figures on the Sacro Monte now remaining, and a few others that have been lost. The Vecchietto is the work of one to whom modelling in clay was like breathing, walking, or eating and drinking, and Gaudenzio never reached such freedom and proficiency as this.

With few exceptions even the best art-work falls into one of two classes, and offers signs either of immaturity or decline. Take Donatello, and Luca della Robbia, or, in painting, Giovanni Bellini, John Van Eyck, Holbein, Giotto, and even Gaudenzio Ferarri in his earlier work; take again, in music, Purcell and Corelli; no words of affectionate admiration are good enough for any one of these great men, but they none of them say the last word that is to be said in their respective arts. Michael Angelo said the last word; but then he said just a word or two over. So with Titian and Leonardo Da Vinci, and in music with Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. We admire them, and know that each in many respects surpassed everything that has been done either before or since, but in each case (and more especially with the three last named) we feel the presence of an autumnal tint over all the luxuriance of development, which, while hardly detracting from the pleasure we receive, still tells of an art that has taken not an upward but a downward path. I know that I am apt to take fancies to works of art and artists; I hold, for example, that my friend Mr. H. F. Jones's songs, of which I have given the titles at the end of this volume, are finer than an equal number of any written by any other living composer--and I believe that people will one day agree with me, though they will doubtless take their time in doing so--but with all this tendency towards extravagance I endeavour to preserve a method in my madness, and with most works find that they fall readily into the growing or the decaying. It is only with very few, as with Homer and Shakespeare at their best, the Venus of Milo, the Ilyssus, the finest work of Rembrandt, Giorgione, and Velasquez, and in music with Handel, that I can see no step left unclimbed, yet none taken on the downward path. Assuredly the Vecchietto must be classed with the very few works which, being of the kind of fruit that they are, are dead ripe, without one trace either of immaturity or decay.

Difficult, however, as the problem who made this statue is, it is simplified by the reflection that it can only be given either to Gaudenzio or Tabachetti. I suggested D'Enrico's name to Cav. Prof. Antonini to see how he received it, but--thinking doubtless more of Giacomo Ferro than of D'Enrico--he said "E-whew," and tossed his thumb over his shoulder, as only an Italian can, as much as to say that D'Enrico set about his figures with too light a heart to get a Vecchietto out of them; Gaudenzio, then, being impossible and D'Enrico ordered out of court, it only remains to give the work to Tabachetti, with whose sleeping St. Joseph and with not a little else of whose work it presents much analogy; for the notion that a stranger of name unknown came to Varallo, did this single figure, and then went away without doing any more either there or anywhere else in the least like it, is as incredible as that it is the work of D'Enrico.

As for the question of the source from which the figure came we should remember that the Chiesa Vecchia dell' Assunta was pulled down at the end of the last century; and this, considering the excellent preservation in which the Vecchietto is still found, and the comparatively recent appearance of the disturbance of the ground under his feet, seems the most likely place for him to have come from. There were two opportunities in this church, one of which certainly was, while the other very well might have been, made the occasion for a group of figures with upturned heads. The first of these, of course, is the Assumption of the Madonna, of which Caccia says there was a representation of her "Come ascese in Cielo, con le statue delli dodeci Apostoli intorno di rilievo," and there may very well have been a benefactor or so in addition. The second was the impress of our Saviour's last footprint on the Mount of Olives before He ascended into heaven. This is mentioned by Fassola as a feature of special importance, and as having had an indulgence conceded to it by the Pope in 1488 while it was on its road from Jerusalem. This relic was held in great veneration, and it is easy to imagine that its effect may have been enhanced by surrounding it with figures looking upwards into the heavens towards the clouds that had already received the body of the Redeemer. All this, however, is mere conjecture, for there is not a tittle of evidence in support of it, and we are left practically with nothing more than we can still see within the limits of the figure itself to give a clue either to its maker, or the source from which it came, but we may incline to think that it is the portrait of a benefactor, for no one but a benefactor would have been treated with so much realism. The man is not a mere peasant; his clothes are homely, but they are good, and there is that about him which harmonises well enough with his having been in a position of comfort. Common peasants may be seen in the Shepherd's chapel, and the Vecchietto is clearly of higher social status than these. He looks like a Valsesian yeoman or peasant proprietor, of some substance; and he was doubtless a benefactor, not of this, but some other chapel.

I have said there are analogies between this figure and others by Tabachetti which after all make it not very difficult to decide the question to whom it should be given. We do not, indeed, find another Vecchietto, but we shall find more than one figure that exhibits equal truth to nature, and equal freedom from exaggeration. It is not possible, for example, to have greater truth to nature than we find in the figures of Adam and Eve in the first chapel. There is not one trace either of too much or too little, of exaggeration or of shortcoming; the nude figure of a man and of a woman were wanted, and the nude figure of a man and of a woman are given, with neither more or less modelling than what would be most naturally seen in a young and comely couple. So again with the charming figure of the Virgin sewing in the First Vision of St. Joseph chapel. The Virgin and the Vecchietto are as unlike each other as two figures can be, but they are both stamped with the same freedom from affectation, and the same absolute and easy mastery over the means employed. The same applies to the sleeping St. Joseph, in which case there is a closer analogy between the two figures themselves. It applies also to a not inconsiderable extent to the man with a goitre who is leading Christ in the Calvary chapel. This figure is not done from life, being a repetition of one by Gaudenzio, but it is so living that we feel sure it would have been more living still if Tabachetti had had the model before him from which Gaudenzio in all probability actually worked. At Crea, there are other figures by Tabachetti to which I will call attention presently, and which present not inconsiderable analogies to the Vecchietto. I explain the fact that the analogies are not closer, by reflecting that this is the one of the few cases in which Tabachetti has left us a piece of portrait work, pure and simple, and that his treatment of the head and figure in pure portraiture, would naturally differ from that adopted in an ideal and imaginative work.


Samuel Butler

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