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Chapter 16

TABACHETTI'S WORK AT CREA.


I have now to add a short account of what remains of Tabachetti's work at Crea, to the very inadequate description of his work at Varallo that has been given in some earlier chapters.

Crea is most easily approached from Casale, a large opulent commercial town upon the Po, that has already received the waters of the Dora Baltea, and though not yet swelled by the influx of the Ticino and Adda, has become a noble river. The town is built entirely on the plain, but the rich colline of the Monferrato district begin to rise immediately outside it, and continue in an endless series of vineclad slopes and village-capped hill-tops as far as the eye can reach. These colline are of exquisite beauty in themselves, and from their sides the most magnificent views of Piedmont and the Alps extend themselves in every direction. The people are a well-grown comely race, kind and easy to get on with. Nothing could exceed the civility and comfort of the Hotel Rosa Rossa, the principal inn of the city. The town contains many picturesque bits, but in our short stay we did not see any very remarkable architectural features, and it does not form an exception to the rule that the eastern cities of Northern Italy are far more beautiful than the western. The churches, never one would imagine very striking, have been modernised and restored; nor were we told that there is any collection of pictures in the town which is likely to prove of interest.

The visitor should leave Casale by the 7.58 A.M. train on the line for Asti, and get out at Serralunga, the third station on the road. Here the sanctuary of Crea can be seen crowning a neighbouring collina with a chapel that has an arcaded gallery running round it, like some of those at Varese. Many other chapels testify to the former importance of the place; on the whole, however, the effect of the buildings cannot compare with that of the sanctuaries of Varallo and Varese. Taking a small carriage, which can always be had at the station (fare, to the sanctuary and back, eight francs), my friend, Mr. H. F. Jones, and myself ascended to Serralunga, finding the views continually become more and more bewitching as we did so; soon after passing through Serralunga we reached the first chapel, and after another zigzag or two of road found ourselves in the large open court in front of the church. Here there is an inn, where any one who is inclined to do so could very well sleep. The piazza of the sanctuary is some two thousand feet above the sea, and the views are in some respects finer even than those from the Sacro Monte of Varese itself, inasmuch as we are looking towards the chain of the Alps, instead of away from them.

We have already seen that the sanctuary at Crea was begun about 1590, a hundred years or so later than the Sacro Monte of Varallo, and a dozen years earlier than that of Varese. The church attached to the convent, in which a few monks still remain, contains a chapel with good frescoes by Macrino D'Alba; they are somewhat damaged, and the light is so bad that if the guardiano of the sanctuary had not kindly lent us a candle we could not have seen them. It is not easy to understand how they can have been painted in such darkness; they are, however, the most important work of this painter that I have yet seen, and give a more favourable impression of him than is likely to be formed elsewhere. Behind the high altar there is an oil picture also by Macrino d'Alba, signed as by the following couplet, which they may scan who can:

"Hoc tibi, diva parens, posuit faciente Macrino
Bladratensis opus Johes ille Jacobus.1503."

The "Macrino," and "1503," are in red paint, the rest in black. The picture is so dark, and the view of it so much obstructed by the high altar, that it is impossible to see it well, but it seemed good. There is nothing else in the church, nor need the frescoes in the chapels containing the terra-cotta figures be considered; we were told they were painted by Caccia, better known as Moncalvo, but we could see nothing in them to admire. The sole interest of the sanctuary--except, of course, the surpassing beauty of its position-- is vested in what few remains of Tabachetti's work may be found there, and in the light that these may throw upon what he has left at Varallo.

All the work by Tabachetti now remaining at Crea consists of the Martyrdom of St. Eusebius chapel, almost all of which is by him, perhaps a figure or two in the Sposalizio chapel, but certainly not the figures of St. Joseph and the Virgin, which are not even ascribed to him, the Virgin in the Annunciation chapel, some parts of the Judith and Holofernes, with which this subject is strangely backed; some few of the figures in the Marriage Feast at Cana chapel, and lastly, the wreck, which is all that remains, of the Assumption of the Virgin--commonly called "Il Paradiso." All the other chapels are either in a ruined state or have been renewed with modern figures during the last thirty years, and more especially during the last ten, at the instance, and, as we understood, at the expense, of the present Archbishop of Milan, who does his campagna here every summer.

The most important chapel is the Martyrdom of St. Eusebius, below the sanctuary itself. The saint is supposed to have been martyred in front of the church of St. Andrea at Vercelli. Some four or so of the figures to the spectator's right are modern restorations; among them, however, there is a child of extreme sweetness and beauty, which must certainly be by Tabachetti, looking up and clinging to the dress of its mother, who has been restored, and is as commonplace as the child is the reverse. There are two restored or rather entirely new priests close by the mother and child, and near these is another new figure--a girl immediately to the child's right; this is so absurdly bad and out of proportion that it is not easy to understand how even the restorer can have allowed himself to make it. All the rest of the figures are by Tabachetti. A little behind the mother and child, but more to the spectator's right, and near to the wall of the chapel, there stands a boy one of whose lower eyelids is paralysed, and whose expression is one of fear and pain. This figure is so free alike from exaggeration or shortcoming, that it is hard to praise it too highly. Another figure in the background to the spectator's left--that of a goitred cretin who is handing stones to one of the stoners, has some of the same remarkably living look as is observable in the two already referred to; so also has another man in a green skull-cap, who is holding a small battle-axe and looking over the stoner's shoulders. Two of the stoners are very powerful figures. The man on horseback, in the background, appears to be a portrait probably of a benefactor. In spite of restoration, the work is still exceedingly impressive. The figures behind the saint act well together, the crowd is a crowd--a one in many, and a many in one--not, as with every one except Tabachetti who has tried to do a crowd in sculpture, a mere collection of units, that, whatever else they may be, are certainly not crowding one another. The main drawback of the work is that the chapel is too small for the subject- -a matter over which Tabachetti probably had no control.

It is with very great regret that I have been unable to photograph the work, but I was flatly refused permission to do so, though I applied through influential people to the Archbishop himself. No one need be at the trouble of going to see it who is not already impressed with a sense of Tabachetti's in some respects unrivalled genius, and who does not know how to take into consideration the evil influences of all sorts with which he was surrounded; those, however, who realise the magnitude of the task attempted, who will be at the pains of putting themselves, as far as may be, in the artist's place and judging of the work from the stand-point intended by him, and who will also in their imagination restore the damage which three centuries of exposure and restoration must assuredly have involved, will find themselves rewarded by a fuller comprehension of the work of a sculptor of the foremost rank than they can attain elsewhere except at Varallo itself.

I have said that some of the figures in the Sposalizio chapel, except Joseph and Mary, are ascribed to Tabachetti. I do not know on what grounds the ascription rests; they have been restored,--clogged with shiny paint, and suffered every ill that could well befall them short of being broken up and carted away. Any one who sampled Tabachetti by these figures might well be disappointed; two or three may be by him, but hardly more. In spite, however, of all that may be justly urged against them, they are marked by the same attempt at concert and unity of purpose which goes so far to redeem individual comparative want of interest. In the background is a coloured bas- relief of Rachel and Jacob at the well and five camels.

In the Annunciation chapel the Virgin may well be, as she is said to be, by Tabachetti; she is a very beautiful figure, though not so fine as his Madonna and Child in the church of St. Gaudenzio at Varallo; she has been badly painted, and it is hard to say how much she has not suffered in consequence. Some parts of the story of Judith and Holofernes in the background are also good, but I do not think I should have seen Tabachetti in them unless I had been told that he was there.

The wreck of the chapel commonly called "Il Paradiso" crowns the hill, conspicuous for many a mile in every direction, but on reaching the grating we found no trace of the figures that doubtless once covered the floor of the chapel. All that remained was a huge pendant of angels, cherubs, and saints, swarming as it were to the ceiling in an inextricable knot of arms, legs, wings, faces, and flowing drapery; two circles of saints, bishops, and others, who might be fitly placed in Paradise, rising one above the other high up the walls of the chapel--the lower circle full-length figures, and the other half-length; and above this a higher and richly coloured crown of musical saints and angels in good preservation. In passing I may say that this is the place where the Vecchietto ought to have come from, though it is not likely that he did so.

The pendant retains much of its original colour, and must once have been a gorgeous and fitting climax. Still, no one can do much with such a subject. To attempt it is to fly in the face of every canon by the observance of which art can alone give lasting pleasure. It is to crib, cabin, and confine, within the limits of well-defined sensation and perception, ideas that are only tolerable when left in the utmost indefiniteness consistent with thought at all. It is depressing to think that he who could have left us portrait after portrait of all that was noblest and loveliest in the men and women of his age--who could give a life such as no one but himself, at any rate at that time, could give--should have had to spend months if not years upon a work that even when new can have been nothing better than a magnificent piece of stage decoration.

But of such miscarriages the kingdom of art is full. In the kingdom of art not only are many called and few chosen, but the few that do get chosen are for the most part chosen amiss, or are lavished in the infinite prodigality of nature. We flatter ourselves that among the kings and queens of art, music, and literature, or at any rate in the kingdom of the great dead, all wrongs shall be redressed, and patient merit shall take no more quips and scorns from the unworthy: there, if an able artist, as, we will say, F. H. Potter just dead, dies poor, neglected, and unable to fight his way through the ranks of men with not a tenth part of his genius, there, at any rate, shall right be done; there the mighty shall be put down from his seat, and the lowly and meek, if clever as well as good, shall meet his just reward. It is not so. There is no circle so exalted but the devil has got the run of it. As for the reputations of the great dead, they are governed in the main by the chicane that obtains among the living; it is only after generations of flourishing imposture, that even approximate right gets done. Look at Raphael, see how he still reigns supreme over those who have the people's ears and purses at command. True, Guido, Guercino, and Domenichino have at last tumbled into the abyss, and we know very well that Raphael will ere long fall too, but Guido, Guercino, and Domenichino had a triumph of some two hundred years, during which none dared lift hand against them. Look again at that grossest of impostors--Bacon. Look at by far the greater number of the standard classical authors, painters, and musicians. All that can be said is that there is a nisus in the right direction which is not wholly in vain, and that though tens of thousands of men and women of genius are as dandelion seeds borne upon the air and perishing without visible result, yet there is here and there a seed that really does take root and spring upwards to be a plant on the whole more vigorous than that from which it sprung. Right and truth and justice, in their relation to human affairs, are as asymptotes which, though continually drawing nearer and nearer to the curve, can never reach it but by a violation of all on which their own existence is founded.

As for the Assumption chapel, those who would see it even as a wreck should lose no time; it is in full process of restoration; it is swept and garnished for immediate possession by a gentleman whom we met on the road down, and whose facility of execution in making crucified Christs out of plaster of Paris is something almost incredible. His type of face was Jewish, and it struck both Jones and me that his proficiency must be in some degree due to hereditary practice. He showed us one crucifix which he had only begun at eight o'clock that morning, and by eleven was as good as finished. He told us he had done the brand new Disputa chapel and the Agony in the Garden with the beautiful blue light thrown all over Christ through deep French ultramarine glass, and he was now going on with the other chapels as fast as he could. He said they had no oven for baking terra-cotta figures; besides, terra-cotta was such a much slower material to work in; he could make a gross of apostles in plaster more quickly than a single set of twelve in terra-cotta, and the effect was just as good when painted; so plaster of Paris and unrivalled facility of execution are to have everything their own way. Already what I can only call a shoddy bishop or pope or two, I forget which, have got in among the circle of Tabachetti's saints and angels that still remains. These are many of them portraits full of serious dignity and unspotted by the world of barocco with which Tabachetti was surrounded. At the present moment they have been partly scraped and show as terra-cotta; no doubt they have suffered not a little in the scraping and will do so still further when they are repainted, but there is no help for it. Great works of art have got to die like everything else.

And, after all, it is as well they should, lest they come to weigh us down too heavily. Why should a man live too long after he is dead? For a while, yes, if he has done good service in his generation, give him a new lease of life in the hearts and memories of his successors, but do not let even the most eminent be too exacting; do not let them linger on as nonagenarians when their strength is now become but labour and sorrow. We have statutes of mortmain to restrain the dead hand from entering in among the living--why not a statute of limitations or "a fixed period" as against reputations and works of art--say a thousand years or so--behind which time we will resolutely refuse to go, except in rare cases by acclamation of the civilised world? How is it to end if we go on at our present rate, with huge geological formations of art and book middens accreting in every city of Europe? Who is to see them, who even to catalogue them? Remember the Malthusian doctrine, and that the mind breeds in even more rapid geometrical ratio than the body. With such a surfeit of art and science the mind pails and longs to be relieved from both. As the true life which a man lives is not in that consciousness in the midst of which the thing he calls "himself" sits and the din and roar of which confuse and deafen him, but in the life he lives in others, so the true life a man's work should live after his death is not in the mouths but in the lives of those that follow him; in these it may live while the world lasts, as his lives who invented the wheel or arch, but let it live in the use which passeth all praise or thanks or even understanding, and let the story die after a certain time as all things else must do.

Perhaps; but at any rate let us give them decent burial. Crush the wounded beetle if you will, but do not try to mend it. I am glad to have seen the remains of the Assumption chapel while they are in their present state, but am not sure whether I would not rather see them destroyed at once, than meet the fate of restoration that is in store for them. At the same time I am confident that no more competent restorer than the able and eminent sculptor who has the work in hand is at all likely to be found. My complaint is not against him, but against the utter hopelessness of the task. I would again urge those who may be induced to take an interest in Tabachetti's work to lose no time in going to see what still remains of it at Crea.

Last January I paid a second visit to Crea; and finding a scaffolding up, was able to get on a level with the circle of full-length figures. They were still unpainted, the terra-cotta figures showing as terra-cotta and the plaster of Paris white. When they are all repainted the visitor will find it less easy to say which are new figures and which old. I will therefore say that of the lower circle of twenty full-length figures the only two entirely new figures are the sixth to the left of the door on entering, which represents a man holding an open book by his left hand and resting it on his thigh, and the sixth figure to the right of the door on entering. There are several unimportant restorations of details of dress, feet, and clouds; the rest of the work in this circle is all by Tabachetti.

In the circle of busts and half-length figures, the first new work to the left of the door on entering is a figure that holds a lamb, the two half-length figures that come next in sequence are also new--the second of these is a nun holding a little temple. The second upper choir of angels and saints is still in its original [?] colour and seems to have been little touched, as also the pendant.

The chapel containing the Marriage Feast at Cana has been much restored and badly repainted. Most of the figures are very poor, but some, and especially a waiter with his hair parted down the middle, who is offering a hare (not cut up) to a guest who seems to have had too much already, are very good indeed. I find it difficult to think that this waiter can be by any one but Tabachetti. The guitar-player is good, or rather was good before he was repainted--so is a lady near him, so are some of the waiters at the other end, and so are the bride and bridegroom; at any rate they are life-like and effective as seen from outside, but the chapel has suffered much from restoration.

There is one other chapel at Crea which may be by Tabachetti though I do not know that it is ascribed to him, I mean the one containing figures of the founder and his wife, a little below the main piazza. The shepherds and sheep to the left are probably not by Tabachetti, but the lady is a well-modelled figure. Both she, however, and her husband have been so cruelly clogged with new paint that it is hard to form an opinion about them.

On the piazza itself is a chapel representing the Birth of the Virgin which is also pleasing. It is not always easy for us English to tell the Birth of the Virgin from the Nativity, and it may help the reader to distinguish these subjects readily if he will bear in mind, that at the Birth of the Virgin the baby is always going to be washed-- which never happens at the Nativity; this, and that the Virgin's mother is almost invariably to have an egg, and generally a good deal more, whereas the Virgin never has anything to eat or drink. The Virgin's mother always wants keeping up. Gaudenzio Ferrari has a Birth of the Virgin in the Church of S. Cristoforo at Vercelli. The Virgin's mother is eating one egg with a spoon, and there is another coming in on a tray, which I think is to be beaten up in wine. Something more substantial to follow is coming in on a hot plate with a cover over it and a napkin. The baby is to be washed of course, and the kind old head nurse is putting her hand in the bath, while the under nurse pours in the hot water, to make sure that the temperature is exactly right. It is to be just nicely loo-warm. The bath itself is certainly a very little one; it will hold about a pint and a half, but medieval washing apparatus did run rather small, and Gaudenzio was not going to waste more of his precious space than he could help upon so uninteresting an object as a bath; in actual life the bath was doubtless larger. The under-under nurse is warming a towel, which will be nicely ready when the bath is over. Joachim appears to have been in very easy circumstances, and the arrangements could hardly be more commodious even though the event had taken place at a certain well-known establishment in the Marylebone Road.

At Milan, in a work that I only know by Pianazzi's engraving, there are two eggs coming in on a tray, and they too, I should say, are to be beaten up in wine. The under nurse is again filling a very little bath with warm water, and the head nurse is trying the temperature with her hand. There is no room for the warming of the towel, but there is no question that the towel is being warmed just out of the picture on the left hand. Here, at Crea, the attendant is giving the Virgin's mother a plain boiled egg, and has a spoon in her hand with which she is going to crack it. The Virgin's mother is frowning and motioning it away; she is quite as well as can be expected; still she does not feel equal to taking solid food, and the nurse is saying, "Do try, ma'am, just one little spoonful, the doctor said you was to have it, ma'am." In the smaller picture by Carpaccio at Bergamo she is again to have an egg; in the larger she is to have some broth now, but a servant can be seen in the kitchen plucking a fowl for dear life, so probably the larger picture refers to a day or two later than the earlier.

The only other thing that struck us at Crea was the Virgin in the Presentation chapel. She is so much too small that one feels as though there must be some explanation that is not obvious. She is not more than 2 ft. 6 in. high, while the High Priest, and Joachim and St. Anne are all life-sized. The Chief Priest is holding up his hands, and seems a good deal surprised, as though he were saying-- "Well, St. Anne my dear, I must say you are the very smallest Virgin that I ever had presented to me during the whole course of my incumbency." Joachim and St. Anne seem very much distressed, and Joachim appears to be saying, "It is not our fault; I assure you, sir, we have done everything in our power. She has had plenty of nourishment." There must be some explanation of the diminutive size of the figure that is not apparent.


Samuel Butler

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