Last Years Of Gaudenzio Ferrari
( Originally Published 1908 )
THE next trace we have of Gaudenzio is at Varallo, where he was working till 1539. Assisted by Lanino and his son Gerolamo, he painted the cupola of the old church on the Sacro Monte. This church was pulled down in later years, but we know the subject was the same as in the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista at Parma—namely, Christ in glory with the Twelve Apostles and angels, and is another proof of Correggio's influence. Gaudenzio painted the principal figures, and his assistants did the rest. This is the last mention of Lanino as assistant to Gaudenzio. He had already undertaken work on his own account, as the contract for his earliest signed picture is dated April 24, 1534, and he probably now definitely began his independent career, for his fine altar-piece at Borgosesia is dated 1539. We also find a proof of this in the fact that in the Chapel of the Magi, Gaudenzio's next work at Varallo, he is assisted by his son, and Lanino's name is not mentioned.
We have, unfortunately, reached the period of degeneration in Gaudenzio's art, which rapidly developed with his declining years. This chapel was not altered in later times, and though it has suffered considerably from damp, it can never have been pleasing, and from what is left of the frescoes we can see that they were roughly and coarsely executed, while both the painted and modelled horses are very bad. Gesso is used in the armour and trappings, a return to his early methods. The rocky background is obviously done from studies in the immediate vicinity of Varallo.
While engaged on this work great sorrow came to Gaudenzio. In 1538 a violent quarrel broke out between the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, relative to the administration of the finances of the Sacro Monte, a condition of things particularly distasteful to a man of Gaudenzio's pious and gentle nature. Certain " signori della Castellanzi " had subscribed zoo scudi d'or to found this chapel, and some of the money had been diverted to other uses. In the midst of this trouble, early in 1539, Gaudenzio lost his son, and the broken-hearted father apparently left Varallo at once, and went to live at Milan. He seems to have broken off all further connection with the home of his youth, for on August 15 he sells his house at Varallo for 700 lire.
The document relative to the sale was signed at Milan, and from this time till his death his home was there, though he made two or three journeys to execute commissions in different parts of the duchy.
The first of these commissions was the altar-piece for the Church of Santa Maria di Piazza at Busto Arsizio. It is composed of six panels ; the largest, in the centre, represents the Assumption of the Virgin. At the sides are St. John the Baptist, St. Michael, St. Jerome, and St. Francis. Above is God the Father, and below is a predella with scenes from the life of the Virgin. This is divided into three partitions: to the left we have the birth of the Virgin, in the centre the Sposalizio, and to the right the angel appearing to Joseph in the carpenter's shop. The Assumption is the same composition as the Vercelli fresco, but lacks the spiritual atmosphere of that fine work. The forms are coarser, and the colouring, though rich, is heavier. The favourite yellow mantle appears well in front. The surface of the picture has been much blackened by the smoke of the candles on the altar beneath. In the predella, however, we still have a trace of that vein of delightful fancy which we have often noticed. These little scenes are painted in brown and yellow chiaroscuro with a light, quick brush, and have a vivacity and a delicacy lacking in the larger panels. They are full of natural incidents, such as a child playing with a dog, a dog asleep, the Virgin reading, etc. The drawing for this " Sposalizio " is probably the one now in the Ambrosiana Pinacoteca at Milan.
The side-walls of the choir are covered with frescoes by Lanino, which are nearly all taken from Gaudenzio's designs. As Gaudenzio left his cartoons to Lanino on his death, this is not surprising.
There are no documents to be found relative to Gaudenzio's work during the years 1540 and 1541. In a document signed by him at Milan on March 27, 1540, he appointed his stepson agent for his wife's property at Morbegno, and it is probable that his last visit to the Valtellina took place during these two years. Little is left now of the work he executed during this visit. A " Coronation of the. Virgin " in the parish church of Traona, about three miles from Morbegno, was highly praised by Lomazzo, who speaks of the " Christ who crowns the Virgin, surrounded by angels similar to the Saronno ones." Beneath it was a " Conversion of St. Paul." They were both painted in fresco, but the wall was rebuilt in later years and the frescoes were not preserved. All that remains of them now are some broken fragments in a store-room behind the choir. At Premona, above Talamona, a little higher up the valley, Don Santo Monti found a fresco on the wall of a house, which is undoubtedly by Gaudenzio. The figures are life-size, and represent St. Anthony and St. Roch. It is much injured by weather. At Morbegno itself Gaudenzio painted a `Nativity " in a lunette over the door of the church belonging to the suppressed Convent of St. Anthony, which is now used as barracks. The fresco is protected by a wire-netting, which makes it difficult to see. In spite of a certain crudity in the colouring and coarseness in the execution, the work is redeemed by the devout and earnest intention of the artist and the beauty of sentiment in the figures.
In 1542 Gaudenzio was commissioned to paint the Chapel of Santa Corona in the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie at Milan. As the name of the chapel suggests, the subjects chosen were those scenes of the Passion in which the crown of thorns appears. On the right wall we find the " Flagellation," and above it " Christ being shown to the People " ; on the left wall is the " Crucifixion," an exaggerated version of the Vercelli masterpiece ; and in the vaulting are eight angels bearing the signs of the Passion. They are coarsely and heavily painted, but are the same types as we have seen in the Saronno cupola.
Though far inferior to the work of his earlier years, certain details in these frescoes are still fine. The face of our Lord in the " Flagellation " is pathetically rendered, while that of the Virgin fainting in the scene of the " Crucifixion " is one of the finest known. The realism of this noble face worn out with grief has never been surpassed.
The frescoes have been much injured by damp, and much of the fiery colouring has faded, but the coarse execution and the violent attitudes of most of the figures—many of which are over life-size--make one feel that these frescoes can never have been satisfactory. We find Gaudenzio again using gesso for the trappings of the horses.
The picture of St. Paul now in the Louvre at Paris was painted in 1543 for the altar of this chapel. It was replaced in 1558 by a " Crowning with Thorns," by Titian, and both pictures were taken to France in 1800, and were not restored in 1814. St. Paul is painted in a green dress and red mantle, seated before a desk on which is an open book. Through a window in the background is seen the town of Damascus, and a small group of figures representing the episode of the con-version of the saint. It is signed and dated on the desk, " 1543 Gaudentius." It is riot a pleasing picture, for the colouring is too strong and fiery, and the type of face is ugly.
About 1543 Gaudenzio must have lost his wife, for on July 4 of that year we find him renting a house for three years, together with a certain Giovanni Battista della Cerva, who became his partner for a short time. Tradition says that Della Cerva had begun as a pupil of Lanino, and his work shows he belongs completely to Gaudenzio's school. He has not the strength or the imagination of the old master, and his colouring is grayer, but he has a certain grace, and his execution is good. It is to Della Cerva's brush that I should ascribe the greater part of the execution of the charming " Madonna and Child " now in the Carrara Gallery at Bergamo, and the " Christ rising from the Tomb " now in the National Gallery in London, as they both lack the vivid strenuousness of Gaudenzio's own technique.
The most important work they did together is the " Last Supper " for the Chapel of St. John the Evangelist in the Church of the Passionists at Milan. The original contract is lost, but a document exists dated February 18, 1544, referring to the payment for the picture, and also for the frame, which was made by a certain Giovanni Pietro from a drawing given by Gaudenzio. Della Cerva is mentioned as Gaudenzio's associate.
The general tone of this picture is light and gay, but the flesh tints are grayer, and the colours have no longer the intensity of Gaudenzio's earlier work. Through the open window we see a building which is supposed to represent the original Church of the Passion before it was enlarged. There is a touch of humour in the two little gamins who have climbed up to the window and are watching the feast. In the principal- group the types of the heads, the attitudes of the figures, and the folds of the draperies, are more or less copied from his older works, but the composition lacks the early spontaneity and vivacity.
This " Last Supper " was commissioned by a certain Don Aurelio, Prior of the monastery. He tried to make a stipulation that, in return for his gift, the monks of the Passion should say a yearly mass for him on the anniversary of his death. As he could not get this arrangement made, he presented the picture to the Church of Sant' Ambrogio at Merate in 1546, and in 1549 cancelled his original deed of gift to the Passionists of Milan. Litigation ensued, as Gaudenzio's death had, no doubt, sent up the value of the work, and finally, in 1551, the picture was restored to its original place.
To this period belongs the " Martyrdom of St. Catherine " now in the Brera. This picture was originally painted for the Church of Sant' Angelo. It is an unfortunate specimen of the work of his last years. The strength is there, but spoilt by violent and uncouth attitudes. The brilliant colour, no longer subdued by delicate half-tones, has degenerated into crudeness, the types are coarse, and in the case of the central figure ruined by sentimentality. The flesh tints are grayer and browner, and the technique heavy and laboured, while the composition is incoherent and confused. Such as it is, however, it was immensely admired by Gaudenzio's contemporaries, and in later times* we find the Austrian Government giving 48,000 lire to secure it for the Brera. Being in that important gallery and being a work of such magnitude, this picture has, perhaps, more than anything else tended to give a wrong estimation of Gaudenzio's very real talents.
Another late work is in the Church of Santa Maria in Celso at Milan. It is in the ambulatory, and represents the Baptism of Christ. The St. John recalls the Casale picture, but the figure of Christ is more dignified. They are painted life-size. To the right are two angels, and above are God the Father, and the Holy Ghost descending in the form of a dove. Around are five " putti " and clouds. In the background is a charming landscape with hills and mountains, and a castle by a stream. It is one of the most pleasing of Gaudenzio's last works.
In the Basilica of Sant' Ambrogio is a canvas painted in tempera. It is in the third chapel to the right, that of St. Bartholomew, and that saint is represented standing on one side of the Madonna and Child, with St. John the Evangelist on the other, while above two " putti " hold a crown over the Madonna's head. The figures are life-size, but the colours have sunk in, the surface of the canvas has been much blackened and injured by time, and it is in a very bad light. Like most of Gaudenzio's other work of this period, it is mentioned by Lomazzo.
A picture of St. Jerome in ,the Church of San Giorgio is also attributed to Gaudenzio. It is in the first chapel to the right, but it is extremely doubtful that this coarsely-painted picture was his work. His special characteristics are lacking in the drawing, though his favourite red is used for the cloak of the saint, and the general impression given by this picture makes me think that it belongs to a slightly later period. Tradition says that the kneeling figure to the left is the portrait of a member of the Della Croce family who was Abbot of the adjoining monastery, now sup-pressed.
In the Borromean Gallery at Milan are two " putti " who evidently once formed part of an altar-piece. The type of child belongs to this late period, and the pale flesh-tints and gray tones would point to Della Cerva's assistance in the execution. Some foliage recalls Gaudenzio's own brush, and the curtains are painted a certain red he constantly uses.
In 1545 Gaudenzio worked again at Saronno. He painted four tondos below the cupola with the following scenes from the story of the Fall :
1. The Creation of Eve.
2. Adam and Eve in Eden.
3. The Temptation of Eve.
4. The Expulsion from Eden.
The first two are ruined by damp, but the two last named are in a fair state of preservation. We do not know who were Gaudenzio's assistants, as the only name mentioned in the archives is a certain Battista, a wood-carver, but these frescoes entirely lack Gaudenzio's usual animation. The tone of colouring is light, with pale, distant landscapes. The figures are painted against the skyline, and the anatomy is good.
Gaudenzio also painted an "Assumption of the Madonna " with the Apostles, which was destroyed when an organ was placed on that wall in the seventeenth century. From the Saronno archives we learn that he received 100 gold scudi for this work, which shows that it was an important one.
In the latter part of 1545 Gaudenzio must have undertaken the frescoes representing the stories of the Madonna, of St. Anna, and of St. Joachim, for the Church of Santa Anna della Pace at Milan.* These frescoes, which are now in the Brera, were left incomplete at Gaudenzio's death in January, 1546. They were finished by inferior artists, and, though the execution is often poor, the composition shows that the vein of lively imagination was still strong in the old artist. Inferior as these frescoes are to Gaudenzio's masterpieces at Vercelli and Saronno, their one claim to consideration may be that they are said to have influenced Paolo Veronese, and in some of these figures we can see the forerunners of the great Venetian's courtly crowds.