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Chapter 2

THE REV. S. W. KING--LANZI AND LOMAZZO.


Leaving Sir Henry Layard, let us turn to one of the few English writers who have given some attention to Varallo--I mean to the Rev. S. W. King's delightful work "The Italian Valleys of the Pennine Alps." This author says -


"When we first visited Varallo, it was comparatively little known to travellers, but we now found that of late years many more had frequented it, and its beautiful scenery and great attractions were becoming more generally and deservedly appreciated. Independently of its own picturesque situation, and its advantages as head-quarters for exploring the neighbouring Vals and their romantic scenery, the works which it possesses of the ancient and famous Val Sesian school of painters and modellers are most interesting. At the head of them stands first and foremost Gaudenzio Ferrari, whose original and masterly productions ought to be far more widely known and studied than they as yet are; and some of the finest of them are to be found in the churches and Sacro Monte of Varallo" (p. 498).

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Of the Sacro Monte the same writer says -

"No situation could have been more happily chosen for the purpose intended than the little mountain rising on the north of Varallo to a height of about 270 feet"--[this is an error; the floor of the church on the Sacro Monte is just 500 feet above the bridge over the Mastallone]--"on which the chapels, oratories, and convents of that extraordinary creation the New Jerusalem are grouped together. Besides the beauty of the site and its convenient proximity to a town like Varallo of some 3000 inhabitants, the character of the mountain is exactly adapted for the effective disposition of the various 'stations' of which it consists"--[it does not consist of "stations"]--"and on this account chiefly it was selected by the founder, the 'Blessed Bernardino Caimo.' A Milanese of noble family, and Vicar of the Convent of the Minorites in Milan, and also in connection with that of Varallo, he was specially commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV. to visit the Sepulchre and other holy places in Palestine, and while there took the opportunity of making copies and drawings, with the intention of erecting a facsimile of them in his native country. On his return to Italy in 1491, after examining all the likely sites within reasonable distance of Milan, he found the conical hills of the Val Sesia the best adapted for his design, and fixed upon Varallo as the spot; being probably specially attracted to it from the fact of the convent and church of Sta. Maria delle Grazie, already described, having been conveyed through him to the 'Minori Osservanti,' as appears from a brief of Innocent VIII., dated December 21, 1486."

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Mr. King does not give the source from which he derived his knowledge of the existence of this act, and I have not come across a notice of it elsewhere, except a brief one in Signor Galloni's work (p. 71), and a reference to it in the conveyance of April 14, 1493. But Signor Arienta of Varallo, whose industry in collecting materials for a history of the Sacro Monte cannot be surpassed, showed me a transcript from an old plan of the church of S. Maria delle Grazie, in which the inscription on Bernardino Caimi's grave was given--an inscription which (so at least I understood Signor Arienta to say) is now covered by an altar which had been erected on the site of the grave. The inscription ran:-

"Hic quiescunt ossa B. Bernardini Caimis Mediolan. S. Montis Varalli Fundatoris An. 1486. Pontif. Dipl sub die 21 Xbris. Mortuus est autem in hoc coenobio An. Vulg. AErae 1499."

It would thus appear that the Sacro Monte was founded four years earlier than the received date. The formal deed of conveyance of the site on the mountain from the town to Bernardino Caimi was not signed till the 14th of April 1493; but the work had been already commenced, as is shown by the inscription still remaining over the reproduction of the Holy Sepulchre, which is dated the 17th of October 1491. Probably the work was contemplated in 1486, and interrupted by B. Caimi's return to Jerusalem in 1487, not to be actively resumed till 1490.

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"The first stone," says Mr. King, "was laid by Scarognini, a Milanese 'magnifico,' who cordially entered into the scheme; and at his expense the Holy Sepulchre was completed, and a hospice attached, where the founder and a number of Franciscan brothers came to reside in 1493. Caimo had planned a vast extension of this commencement, but died within three years, leaving his designs to be carried out by his successors."

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"Each oratory contains a group--in some very numerous--of figures modelled in terra-cotta the size of life or larger; many of them of great merit as works of art, others very inferior and mere rubbish. The figures are coloured and occasionally draped with appropriate clothing, the resemblance to life being heightened by the addition of human hair"--[which, by the way, is always horse-hair]--"and the effect is often very startling. Each chapel represents a different 'mystery,' and, beside the modelled figures, the walls are decorated with frescoes. The front of each is open to the air, all but a wire grating, through apertures in which the subject may be perfectly seen in the position intended by the designer" (pp. 510-512).

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Mr. King says, correctly, that Gaudenzio's earliest remaining work on the Sacro Monte is the Chapel of the Pieta, that originally contained the figures of Christ bearing the cross, but from which the modelled figures were removed, others being substituted that had no connection with the background. I do not know, however, that Christ was actually carrying the cross in the chapel as it originally stood. The words of the 1587 edition of Caccia (?) stand, "Come il N.S. fu spogliato de suoi panni, e condotto sopra il Monte Calvario, ch' e fatto di bellissimo e ben inteso relievo."

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"The frescoes on the wall," he continues, "are particularly interesting, as having been painted by him at the early age of nineteen"--[Mr. King supposes Gaudenzio Ferrari to have been born in 1484]--"when his ambition to share in the glory and renown of the great work was gratified by this chapel being intrusted to him; a proof of his early talent and the just appreciation of it. The frescoes are much injured, but of the chief one there is enough to show its excellence. On one side is St. John, with clasped hands gazing upwards in grief, and the two Marys sorrowing, as a soldier in the centre seems to forbid their following further; his helmet is embossed and gilt as in the instances in the Franciscan church, while the two thieves are led bound by a figure on horseback."

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These frescoes appear to me to have been not so much restored as repainted--that is to say, where they are not almost entirely gone. The green colour that now prevails in the shadows and half-tones is alien to Gaudenzio, and cannot be accepted as his. I should say, however, that my friend Signor Arienta of Varallo differs from me on this point. At any rate, the work is now little more than a ruin, and the terra-cotta Pieta is among the least satisfactory groups on the Sacro Monte. Mr. King continues:-

"In the Chapel of the Adoration of the Magi we have a work of higher merit, giving evidence of his studies under Raphael."

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Here Mr. King is in some measure mistaken. The frescoes in the Magi Chapel are indeed greatly finer than those in the present Pieta, but they were painted from thirty to forty years later, when Gaudenzio was in his prime, and it is to years of intervening incessant effort and practice, not to any study under Raphael, that the enlargement of style and greater freedom of design is due. Gaudenzio never studied under Raphael; he may have painted for him, and perhaps did so--no one knows whether he did or did not--but in every branch of his art he was incomparably Raphael's superior, and must have known it perfectly well.

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Returning to Mr. King, with whom, in the main, I am in cordial sympathy, we read:-

"The group of ten figures in terra-cotta represents the three kings just arrived with their immediate attendants, and alighting at the door of an inner recess, where a light burns over the manger of Bethlehem, and in which is a simple but exquisite group of St. Joseph, the Virgin, and Child. On the walls of the chapel are painted in fresco a crowd of followers, the varieties of whose costumes, attitudes, and figures are most cleverly portrayed. In modelling the horses which form part of the central group, Ferrari was assisted by his pupil Fermo Stella."--[Fermo Stella is not known to have been a pupil of Gaudenzio's, and was probably established as a painter before Gaudenzio began to work at all.]--"But the greatest of all Gaudenzio's achievements is the large chapel of the Crucifixion, a work of the most extraordinary character and masterly execution. His first design for the subject, on the screen of the Minorite Church, he has here carried out in life-like figures in terra-cotta; twenty-six of which form the centre group, embodying the events of the Passion; while round the walls are depicted with wonderful power a crowd of spectators, numbering some 150, most of whom are gazing at the central figure of the Saviour on the cross. The variety of expression, costume, and character is almost infinite. Round the roof are twenty angels in the most varied and graceful attitudes, deserving of special attention; and also a hideous figure of Lucifer."

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Gaudenzio's devils are never quite satisfactory. His angels are divine, and no one can make them cry as he does. When my friend Mr. H. Festing Jones met a lovely child crying in the streets of Varallo last summer, he said it was crying like one of Gaudenzio's angels; and so it was. Gaudenzio was at home with everything human, and even superhuman, if beautiful; if it was only a case of dealing with ugly, wicked, and disagreeable people, he knew all about this, and could paint them if the occasion required it; but when it came to a downright unmitigated devil, he was powerless. He could never have done Tabachetti's serpent in the Adam and Eve Chapel, nor yet the plausible fair-spoken devil, as in the Temptation Chapel, also by Tabachetti.

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To conclude my extracts from Mr. King. Speaking of the Crucifixion Chapel, he says:-

"Though this combination of terra-cotta and fresco may not be as highly esteemed in the present day as in the times when this extraordinary sanctuary sprang into existence, yet this composition must always be admired as one of the greatest of Ferrari's works, and undoubtedly that on which he lavished the full force of his genius and the collected studies and experience of his previous artist life."

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It is noteworthy, but not perhaps surprising, that this observant, intelligent, and sympathetic writer, probably through inability to at once understand and enter into the conventions rendered necessary by the conditions under which works so unfamiliar to him must be both executed and looked at, has failed to notice the existence of Tabachetti, never mentioning his name nor referring to one of his works--not even to the Madonna and Child in the church of S. Gaudenzio, which one would have thought could hardly fail to strike him.

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Mr. King has elsewhere in his work referred both to Lanzi and to Lomazzo in support of his very high opinion of Gaudenzio Ferrari; it may, therefore, be as well to give extracts from each of these writers. Lanzi says:-

"If we examine into further particulars of his style, we shall find Ferrari's warm and lively colouring so superior to that of the Milanese artists of his day, that we shall have no difficulty in recognising it in the churches where he painted; the eye of the spectator is directly attracted towards it; his carnations are natural and varied according to his subjects; his draperies display much fancy and originality, with middle tints blended so skilfully as to equal the most beautiful produced by any other artist. And, if we may say so,--he succeeded in representing the minds even better than the forms of his subjects. He particularly studied this branch of the art, and we seldom observe more marked attitudes or more expressive . . . As Lomazzo, however, has dwelt so much at length on his admirable skill both in painting and modelling, it would be idle to insist on it further. But I ought to add that it is a great reflection upon Vasari that he did not better know or better estimate such an artist; so that foreigners who form their opinions only from history are left unacquainted with his merit, and have uniformly neglected to do him justice in their writings."

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Lomazzo says:-

"Now amongst the worthy painters who excelled herein, Raph. Urbine was not the least who performed his workes with a divine kind of maiesty; neither was Polidore"--[Polidoro Caldara da Caravaggio]-- "much behind him in his kinde, whose pictures seemed as it were passing furious; nor yet Andreas Mantegna, whose vaine showed a very laborious curiositie; nor yet Leonard Vincent"--[Leonardo da Vinci]-- "in whose doings there was never any error found in this point. Wherof amongst all other of his works, that admirable last supper of Christ in Refect. S. Maria de Gratia in Milane maketh most evident proofe, in which he hath so lively expressed the passions of the Apostles mindes in their countenances and the rest of their bodies, that a man may boldly say the truth was nothing superior to his representation, and neede not be afraide to reckon it among the best works of oyle-painting (of which kind of painting John de Bruges was the first inventor). For in those Apostles you might distinctly perceive admiration, feare, griefe, suspition, love, &c.; all which were sometimes to be seen together in one of them, and finally in Judas a treason-plotting countenance, as it were the very true counterfiet of a traitor. So that therein he has left a sufficient argument of his rare perfection, in the true understanding of the passions of the mind exemplified outwardly in the bodie. Which because it is the most necessary part of painting, I purpose (as I say) to handle in this present booke. I may not omit Mi. Angelo in any case, whose skill and painfulnesse in this point was so greate, that his pictures carry with them more hard motions expressed after an unusual manner, but all of them tending to a certaine bould stoutnesse. And as for Titian, he hath worthely purchased the name of a great painter in this matter, as his pictures do sufficiently witness; in each whereof there shineth a certain mooving vertue, seeming to incite the beholder unto the imitation thereof. Of whom this saying may well be verified, that he was beloved of the world and envied of nature.

"Finally, mine old Master Gaudentius (though he be not much knowne) was inferior unto fewe, in giving the apt motions to the Saintes and Angels; who was not onely a very witty painter (as I have elsewhere showed), but also a most profound philosopher and mathematician. Amongst all whose all-praiseworthy workes (which are almost infinite, especially in this point of motion) there are divers mysteries of Christe's passion, of his doing, but chiefly a crucifix called Mount Calvary at the Sepulchre of Varallo; where he hath made admirable horses and strange angels, not only in painting, but also in plasticke, of a kinde of earth wrought most curiously with his own hand cleane rounde"--[di tutto rilievo]--"through all the figures.

"Besides in the vault of the Chappell of S. Mary de Gratia in Milane he hath wrought most naturall angels, I meane especially for their actions; there is also that mighty cube of St. Mary de Serono, the Cupola of S. Maria at Saronno, full of thrones of angells set out with actions and habites of all sortes, carrying diversity of most strange instruments in their hands. I may not conceal that goodly chapel which he made in his latter time, in the Church of Peace in Milan, where you shall find small histories of our Lady and Joachime showing such superexcellent motions that they seem much to revive and animate the spectators.

"Moreover, the story of S. Roccho done by him in Vercelli, with divers workes in that city; although indeede almost all Lombardy be adorned with his most rare workes, I will not conceal one saying, which was that all painters delight to steale other men's inventions, but that he himself was in no great danger of being detected of theft hereafter. Now this great painter, although in reason he might for his discretion, wisedome, and worth be compared with the above named in the first booke, cap. 29, yet notwithstanding is he omitted by George Vasary in his lives of the famous painters, carvers, and architects. An argument, to say no worse of him, that he intended to eternise only his own Tuscanes. But I proceede to the unfoulding of the originall causes of these motions. And first for our better understanding I will beginne with those passions of the mind whereby the body is mooved to the performance of his particular effects" (Id., Book ii. pp. 7, 8).

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What Gaudenzio said was that all painters were fond of stealing, but that they were pretty sure to be found out sooner or later.

For my own part, I should like to say that I prefer Giovanni Bellini to Gaudenzio; but unless Giotto and Giorgione, I really do not know who the Italian painters should stand before him. Bernardino Luini runs him close, but great as Bernardino Luini was, Gaudenzio, in spite of not a little mannerism, was greater.

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The passage above referred to by Lomazzo as from his twenty-ninth chapter runs:-

"Now if any man be desirous to learne the most exact and smallest parts of these proportions, together with the way how to transfer them from one body to another, I refer him to the works of Le. Vincent, Bramante, Vincentius Foppa, Barnard Zenale; and for prints to Albert Durer, Hispill Peum, &c. And out of mine owne workes he may gather that I have endeavoured if not performed these proportions, done according to these rules; which all the best and famous painters of our time have likewise observed; who have also attained to the exquisite proportions of the seven planets. Amongst whom Mi. Angelo hath merited the chiefest commendation; next him Raph. Urbine was famous for making of delicate and Venereall bodies; Leon. Vincent for expressing of solary bodies; Polidore Caldara of Caravaggio for Martiall bodies; Titianus Vecellino for Lunaryes; and Gaudentius Ferrato da Valdugia a Milaner for Jovialistes" (55 Bk. i. p. 117).

Having been compelled to look through the greater part of Lomazzo's work, inasmuch as not one of the several writers who have referred to his high opinion of Gaudenzio has given chapter and page, I would fain allow myself to linger somewhat in the fascinating paths into which my subject has led me. I should like to call further attention to this forgotten work as "Englished" by one Richard Haydocke, "Student in Physik," and dedicated to no less a person than "to the Right Worshipful Thomas Bodley, Esq.," whose foundation of the library that bears his name is referred to in the preface. Gladly would I tell him about Alexander the Great, who, being overmatched by his enemies in India, "was seen to reake forth from his bodie fier and light;" and of the father of Theodoricus, who, "by the like vehement effect, breathed out of his heart, as from a burning furnace, fierce sparkels; which flying forth, shone, and made a sound in the aire." I should like to explain to him about the motions of the seven planets which are the seven governours of the world, and how Saturn "causeth a complexion of colour between blacke and yeallowe, meager, distorted, of an harde skinne, eminent vaines, an hairie bodie, small eies, eie brows joyned together &c.," and how "he maketh a man subtle, wittie, a way-layer, and murtherer;" how, again, Jupiter is "magnipotent, good natured, fortunate, sweete, pleasant, the best wel-willer, honest, neate, of a good gate, honorable, the author of mirth and judgement, wise, true, the revealer of truth, the chiefe judge, exceeding all the planets in goodnesse, the bestower of riches and wisedome;" how Mars "broaches bould spirites, bloud, brawles and all disordered, inconsiderate, and headdy actions;" how "his gestures are terrible, cruell, fierce, angry, proude, hasty and violent," and how also "he is reputed hoat and drie in the highest degree, bearing sway over redde choler." I should like to tell him about the passions, actions, and the gestures they occasion, described as they are with a sweet and silly unreasonableness that is very charming to read, and makes no demand whatever upon the understanding. But charming as are the pages of Lomazzo, those of Torrotti are more charming still, and they have a connection with our subject which Lomazzo's have not. Enough, therefore, that Mr. Haydocke did not get through more than half Lomazzo's treatise, and that, glancing over the untranslated pages, I see frequent allusions to Gaudenzio in the warmest terms, but no passage so important as the longer of the two quoted above.


Samuel Butler

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