International Gothic Art in Italy (Part 3)


International Gothic began earlier, flourished more vigorously and lasted longer in Lombardy than anywhere else in Italy. Its life span there was about 80 years.

It has already been mentioned that the earliest unmistakable signs of an inten­sification of courtliness, combined with strong influences from Giovanni di Milano, occur in a series of frescoes painted in various churches and oratories in the Lom­bard countryside between 1565 and 1575. The last span of the nave at Viboldone, for example, has a tondo in which the figure of Eve is already frankly profane, with her long fair hair and her gown off one shoulder (fig. 16); and the armed men in tight-fitting tunics and pointed boots are already very like those who throng the Lancelot and Guiron manuscripts. The crowded, animated scenes at Lentate and Albizzate are often placed within the narrow confines of Gothic canopies, like those of a few years later in the Book of Hours which Giovanni di Benedetto da Como decorated for Blanche of Savoy. In fact the solidly constructed figures and the sober narrative style in this Book of Hours seem to derive directly from the Lombard fresco tradition.

I here is no doubt, at any rate, that miniatures acquire fresh importance in Lombardy from about 1580 onwards, and reveal a particular ability to adapt the steadily increasing taste for luxury—now quite courtly in tone—to the restricted space of an illuminated page. At the same time, frescoes painted in the last decade or so of the century often reproduce the style of miniatures on a large scale, as in the case of the Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine in the church of San Francesco at Lodi, and the sumptuous figures of female saints carved on the pillars of the same church.

There is a Book of Hours (No. 757) of the same period in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, whose best miniatures reveal a subtle but clearly more “inter­national” quality. The linear style of drawing here becomes more angular and the colours more brilliant. The clear-cut wings of St. Michael stand out sharply against the blue and gold diapered ground, while St. Ursula and her companions (fig. 19) have long aristocratic fingers, richly embroidered dresses and a wealth of pearls.

This rapid development of what is now an “international” rather than just a Lombard style was a result of Gian Galeazzo Visconti’s rise to power in Milan in 1578. His consistent policy of foreign alliances and marriages, especially with France, and his ambitious collections of titles (he rose from Conte di Virtii to Imperial Vicar and then first Duke of Milan) ensured that despotic rule was firmly established in Lombardy. This in turn gave rise to flamboyant court ceremonial and at the same time brought together cultural influences from various foreign parts. The Library at Pavia had been founded in the fourteenth century, and now brought itself up to date with a charmingly eclectic selection of books: books of hours, chivalrous ro­mances, classical texts and encylopedias of popular science. It was consequently responsible for the presence of flourishing ateliers of miniaturists at Pavia in the closing years of the century. Whatever work they undertook, these artists made it their task to portray the new elegance and artificiality of life, offsetting its cloying atmosphere by means of traditional Lombard directness and a curiosity about the smallest details of the plant and animal world. Hence one can discover, even within the delicate chivalry of the Guiron legend, a quiet game of chess going on in a military tent, or a relaxed conversation in the cool shade of a portico or in fresh green meadows whose leafy trees have a gentle touch of realism in spite of being scattered freely over the white surface of the page (fig. 18). In manuals of botany and in the various Tacuina Sanitatis nothing escapes the miniaturist’s eye, and nothing is too humble to be represented. There are representations of ants, grubs and beetles in the Theatrum Sanitatis in the Biblioteca Casanatense, and the Tacuinum in Paris has open-air or interior scenes arranged around a “model” drawing of a plant, a herb, or a humble vegetable. The fact that a number of different hands are involved in this one Tacuinum confirms our identification of a unified and unmistak­ably Lombard style, the ouvraige de Lornbardie, in which a tasteful, decorative spontaneity of composition is combined with keen observation, and a smoothly flowing technique. But the Tacuinum in Vienna shows a more intense and vibrant version of this manner, with its preference for sharp strokes of strong colour in the draperies. This artist may be the man who in 1400 was to paint the Last Judgement in Santa Maria dei Ghirli at Campione (fig. 20), with its throngs of angels and blessed and damned souls, their wild gesticulations encircling the rather energetic figure of Christ on his pagoda-like throne.

The unknown miniaturist who decorated a Book of Hours at Modena about 1390 also displays such skill in adapting the style of French tapestries by means of heavy lines and an almost impatient irregularity, and such free imaginative power in representing elegant but uncomplicated costumes that, at his best, he looks for­ward to Miclielino da Besozzo.

Giovannino deGrassi also worked at this period and within a similar art tradition. Thanks to work on Milan Cathedral, Milanese art had become increasingly open to foreign influences at the end of the century; and Giovannino de Grassi was soon to occupy an eminent position in these circles, for he was employed even as sculptor and architect on the cathedral itself, in the company of artists from France, Burgundy and the Rhine valley.

In his famous sketch-book at Bergamo, Giovannino de Grassi succeeded in refining to the utmost both the technique of the miniature and the observation of nature, so that his examples of animals seem strikingly more true to life than those in the various other sketch-books of the period (fig. 22). His drawings were intended as models, and hence were copied a number of times even in foreign manuscripts: but they were rarely equalled for their truthful representation of fur, feather and hide. For this purpose he uses a tireless succession of tiny, almost pointille strokes of colour, which are seen to even greater effect in his delightful groups of choristers and harpists. These qualities recur in his contributions to the Visconti Offices, for­merly in the Landau Finaly Collection and now in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence. Although his figures are here typically Lombard, the delicate modelling is his own. Pale shadows steal into human features and insistent outlines are avoided, while nature is subtly veiled in fight which glints on trees and stones. Sometimes, it is true, he indulges in contrived compositional arrangements, but he does so with masterly effect. This can be seen in the initial of the Magnificat containing the Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine. Rosy angels burst forth from rich vine leaves and a number of white rabbits crouch in the grass. But sometimes his observation is keener and his manner more intimate, as in the Creation of the Animals. Life-like flies perch on the borders, acorns fall silently from the great leafy oak, and the entire family of animals crowds together at the foot of the page. And the same might be said of the Flight into Egypt (fig. 21), where the treatment and iconography are closely reminiscent of Franco-Flemish works.

It has already been pointed out how influential this Lombard interest in nature was outside Italy—particularly in France, where it coincided with the arrival of Flemish artists at the French courts. There are many early fifteenth-century French codices which show clear traces of this influence. One only has to look at Gaston Phoebus’s Livrc de Chasse, the Livrc dc Mcrveillcs, or the Epitrc d’Othea d Hector to realize this. But they never reach the Lombard level of subtlety and spontaneity of observation.

But the artist in Italy who was to be permanently influenced by the work of Giovannino and his atelier was Gentile da Fabriano. One small group of his works shows such clear traces of this particular manner that he must surely have been in Lombardy before the turn of the century, having first probably been brought up 21 on the refined decorative art of Orvieto. Look at the Madonna and Child with Saints in the little altarpiece from Fabriano, now in Berlin. The angels are lodged like fiuit in the thick of the trees, and the figure of St. Catherine seems to have come straight out of a Lombard book of hours. Also Lombard in derivation is the subtle rendering of light in the Stigmatization of St. Francis, formerly at Fabriano but now in the Crenna Collection. It makes the tree trunks almost transparent, and steals into the folds of the saint’s habit and amongst the blades of grass (fig. 71).

Now look at the little Madonna with St. Francis and St. Clare in the Galleria Mala- spina at Pavia. The Madonna’s face has that typical melancholy expression of Gentile da Fabriano’s figures, and it is even more delicately modelled by the shad­ows which fall upon it. Any lingering doubts about Vasari’s attribution of this panel to Gentile da Fabriano (an opinion which was recently confirmed by Arcangeli) must surely disappear if we examine the Annunciation at the top of the panel. Its subtle engraving bears witness to the influence of the art of Orvieto, which is even more strongly felt, amidst a wealth of Lombard influences, in the great Valle Romka polyptych, now in the Brera in Milan. This painting will be discussed later, for not all Gentile da Fabriano’s works can be grouped with his small series of Lombard paintings.

It seems likely that by the early fifteenth century the ouvraige de Lombardie had no further contribution to make to art. In fact, one can already see in Giovan- nino the danger of too superficial a curiosity and of remaining confined to the hot­house atmosphere of court circles.

In these circumstances, it is all the more surprising that Michelino da Besozzo was able to make free use of these influences. He must certainly have been brought up on such art. for Candido Decembrio relates having seen him make masterly drawings of animals while still a puerulum, and as early as 1588 he painted the lost panel for Santa Mustiola in Pavia.

The De Consolatione Philosophiac in the Biblioteca Malatestiana at Cesena may well be his first illuminated manuscript. There are traces of the influence of Gio- vannino in the figures surrounding the philosopher’s death-bed (fig. 23), but Michelino’s outlines have a new flow which is strikingly clear and confident. The fawn lying in the grass and the rabbits nibbling away amidst the decoration of the margins display a new ability to convey animal forms and to analyse the play of muscles, so that the models provided by Giovannino seem miraculously to come to life. Even in his early work in the Avignon Book of Hours, the old iconographical tradition takes on a new lease of life, and one can already discern that ability, as Longhi puts it, “to leave on one side French fussiness and Giovannino’s irregular outlines, and to go back to the old Sienese manner—long before the Limbourg brothers made their discoveries—in order to recover a controlled fluidity of outline, expressive but rapidly executed strokes, and an arrangement of bright plant stems which burst into flower around the page so that even the most crabbed figures of prophets emerge from swaying violets .

Another of Miclielino’s original contributions to art is that tenderness and sen­sitivity of feeling which gives new life to the purely surface realism of Lombard art. Before the end of the fourteenth century he had produced a quite new kind of figure in his St. Lawrence beside the Madonna in the fresco in the first span of the nave at Yiboldone, with his ascetic and melancholy face and his hair neatly combed into place. It is very difficult to establish the chronology of Michelino’s works, but a reliable point of reference is the famous page of Pietro di Castelletto’s Funeral Oration, illuminated in 1*105 (fig. 24). This is an excellent example of the skilful and assured way in which Michelino succeeds in combining genuine human feeling with highly imaginative decoration, by contrasting, for example, the ab­stract circles of red and blue angels with the coarse, robust features of GianGaleazzo, and the solemn gravity of the attentive monks with the gay, ethereal prophets who emerge from undulating plant stems. Echoes of French art are, of course, used here in a quite personal way. This is particularly clear in the pale water-colour figures of the apostles in two illuminated leaves in the Louvre. They have recently been claimed for the French school, but as early as 1905 Toesca rightly judged them to be the work of Michelino.

Michelino takes the French taste for delicacy of line a good deal further, as can be seen in a page from the Epistles of St. Jerome in the British Museum (fig. 25). At the foot of the page are three quatrefoils containing the Nativity, the Trinity and the Resurrection. Every detail in these scenes is conveyed with a consistent flow, without there being a single superfluous line. As Schilling has shown, this manu­script can be dated to 1414, when Michelino had been in Venice for several years, llis presence in the Veneto was to have a considerable influence on Veronese art, and involves us in the question of the infiltration of foreign influences from the North. Many art historians maintain that there are undoubted traces of the art of Cologne and the Rhine valley in Michelino, especially in the panel at Siena depict­ing the Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine (fig. 26). But the evidence used in support of this argument is chiefly based on generic iconographical comparisons and seems to have no greater validity than that evidence which led other historians to attribute to Michelino works like the small Coronation of the Virgin in Berlin (which is really Franco-Flemish), or the Carrand diptych in the Bargello (which is Franco- Valencian). In other words, the panel at Siena simply has echoes of international tendencies which are so numerous by this time that it is idle to attempt to trace individual borrowings. After all, if it is a question of iconographical similarities one can find figures very like those of Michelino in Milan itself. What about the groups of saints and prophets at the top of the columns in the cathedral, attributed by Russoli to the circle of Jacopino da Tradate?

There is no doubt, at any rate, that the tinge of humour in the prophets of the Funeral Oration becomes stronger in the Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine at Siena. The figures float on the gold ground, wrapped in the elusive and capricious contours of their cloaks; St. Anthony’s is even further reduced and cut into by the uneven edge of the throne. This subtly humorous decorum is even more evident in the splendid Book of Hours in the Bodmer Library at Cologny. It was probably produced about 1450 the period of Michelino’s best and most striking work. A different flower blooms on every page and gives it its special character, as though in a herbal. Each plant springs up from the foot of the page, spreads about its willowy stems and bursts into fleshy flowers: violets, cyclamen, columbine, snapdragons, and wild roses. As in a well-ordered tapestry, each plant threads its way behind the figures of saints in a masterly re-interpretation of the old French tradition of geometrical backgrounds. Truth to nature and decorative requirements are perfectly reconciled. The lightness of the figures and the flow of their outline are blended and controlled by a new kind of delicate plasticity. The whole scene is put together with a new intimate approach, and one encounters entirely original characters such as the bearded diggers and exotic looking soldiers in the Finding of the True Cross, and the farmer’s wife with two ducks hanging from her hand in the Presentation in the Temple. The latter scene is also closely related to the small panel of the Marriage of the Virgin in the Metropolitan Museum in New York (fig. 27). In this painting, the marriage ceremony has a quite intimate and domestic air under the crooked, purplish vaulting of a little Gothic chapel, and there is a suggestion of parody in the detail of St. Joseph holding a flowering staff.

This Marriage of the Virgin is the last certain work of Michelino that we have. The fragments of frescoes in the ground-floor portico of Palazzo Borromeo are partly his work, according to documentary evidence, but are now too fragmentary and difficult to make out to be of much value to us. They suggest, if anything, that his work w as declining. If we want to find evidence of late work by Michelino, we must look rather at the panel depicting a Bishop Saint (fig. 28) in a private collec­tion in Florence. Longhi recently brought it to light. His suggestion that, if not by Michelino, it might be by Cristoforo Moretti can, 1 think, be abandoned. A modest and undisciplined painter of the stature of Moretti (fig. 29) could not have produced such an impressive figure as this, with its exquisitely refined decoration and relief gilding, its confident elegance in the arrangement of the folds of the faded purple dalmatic and its rare delicacy of feeling.

It can reasonably be asserted that every other Lombard painter working in the period 1450—1460 followed the example of Michelino, and it is understandable that such a rigorous and delightful manner should inevitably decay. But in addition to decadent over-refinement there is also a parallel vein in which feeling is conveyed with greater vibrancy. The Master of the Vitae Imperatorum of Suetonius is a skil­ful and tireless popularizer of this manner, though he often oscillates between the elegance of Michelino and a more personal harshness of line and shadow. There is a manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, dated 1459, in which he takes the opportunity of representing Dante’s Hell with dramatic violence of feeling in desolate rocky landscapes.

This same tendency is put to better use in the work of Belbcllo da Pavia, another miniaturist, whose imaginative force is so great that he scarcely seems an Italian artist at all. But he is influenced to some extent by the more usual Lombard tradition in his collaboration with Giovannino on the Visconti Offices, formerly in the Landau Finaly Collection, and with the Master of the Vitae Imperatorum in the Breviary of Marie of Savoy at Chambery. When he is working on his own, however, in the late Gradual in the Library at Cesena, in the Este Bible in the Vatican (left unfinished in 1434) and in the Missal at Mantua—his imagination and enquiring spirit are given free rein and appear in all their force. The sources of his style cannot be explained satisfactorily in terms of French art, but he does have affinities with artists from Emilia and perhaps even with the nervous spirituality of Lorenzo Monaco. Thus Belbello likes to blend one colour with another as they are struck by shafts of ethereal light. He likes to intertwine threads and great swirls of gold against the intense blue of his night skies, and to give weight and breadth to his figures by means of short, sharp gestures of repressed energy (fig. 30). The borders of his pages are filled not with slender threads but fat scrolls quite similar to those in manuscripts from Emilia. The scene thus acquires an almost esoteric significance which is most effective in the night sky, when the starlight sprinkles the trees with gold and gleams on the layers of rock (Fig. 31).

It is not surprising that the Marchioness of Brandenburg found Belbello’s man­ner too obscure, for she was by now (about 1460) accustomed to the new learning and middle-class humanism of Mantegna. It was at Mantegna’s suggestion that she withdrew from Belbello a commission to decorate a missal. Belbello had already begun the work, and it is touching to find that in 1462, now an old man, he re­quested permission to continue without payment. In spite of the Marchioness’s lack of confidence in him, however, this is precisely the time when the more Lombard miniatures in the Borso d’Este Bible (fig. 32) show how strong an influence Bel­bello could exert on the Ferrarese art of the time. Moreover, his style continued to act as a stimulus towards freedom of imagination in the almost expressionist work of certain minor artists from the Po valley, such as Gerolamo di Cremona, Liberale da Verona, and even the young Tura.

But many of the paintings produced in Lombardy towards mid-century were increasingly limited and weak in inspiration. Masolino’s paintings at Castiglione in 1435 and Pisanello’s stay at Pavia in 1440 had only a marginal influence on such works, and did not bring about any substantial changes. Not even a work like the famous aristocratic Games in Palazzo Borromeo, where the influence ol Masolino and Pisanello is strongest, can alter this view.

Towards 1440, Veronese painting became more influential in Lombardy, and the work of Stefano da Verona and his followers brought back echoes of Michelino da Besozzo. The best product of this fusion of Lombard and Veronese ar t is to be seen in an unusual work: a large-scale polyptych. Meiss dated it to the beginning of the century, but in fact it was siggied and dated 1445 at Cemmo in Val Camonica by a certain Parotus (according to a document published by Panazza). 1 he pink mantle of the slightly elongated Madonna in the central panel falls in gentle folds against the dark green hedge in the background, which sparkles with drops of gold m a way which recalls the Madonna Enthroned in Palazzo Venezia. The latter is generally considered to be a Veronese work, but, as Longhi suggested some time ago, it is really Lombard.

There is a small group of outstandingly good works of the same period in which the style of Michelino da Besozzo is closely followed and highly rarefied. They demonstrate that a late and decadent manifestation of a particular style is not necessarily indicative of poor quality. The works in question are the diptych of the Crucifixion and Madonna and Child with Saints (fig. 33), part of which is in Prague and part in Munich, the engraved glass by Cietario in the Museum at Turin and the small triptych at Lille. All these works have the elaborate, flower-decorated wooden frames which are typical of small polyptychs in the strictly “international” manner, and they are thus unaware that towards mid-century the fashion for such works gave way to a new taste for altarpieces and large-scale polyptychs.

The very elegant frescoes at Monza of the life of the “most Christian” Queen Theodolinda (1444) show that the Zavattari were also heirs of Michelino. In these paintings they take up once again the ancient Lombard fresco tradition. The upper parts include an incredible display of embassies, processions and feasts at court (fig. 54), whose wildly exaggerated luxuriousness is quite naive. The profusion of gilding in relief, even in the diapered background with its coats of arms, pre­vents the slightest exploration of space. But there are some echoes of Pisanello in the low’er parts, hidden in scenes derived from the old Lombard “sketch-book” style. Furthermore, the figures have a new air of composure. The delicate human features are slightly more solid than usual, and there are a few portraits from life. All these traits suggest contact with the minor renaissance in the Veneto w’hich had reached the borders of Lombardy a few’ years earlier in w’orks by Antonio Vivarini, Jacopo Bellini and Squarcione.

It is quite possible that Bonifacio Bembo of Cremona worked with the Zavattari on the upper frescoes at Monza w’hen in his early twenties. Those few’ spirited and energetic touches which give life to the weak imitation of Michelino’s grace may in fact have been his. His famous tarot cards (fig. 35) show that a cloying taste for luxury could be relieved by a touch of gentle, ironic humour and could gain a new flavour by contrast with the modest function of the object painted. The delightful ceiling panels scattered between museums in Cremona, Trento and Torcello are examples of domestic artisan work which nevertheless have a most impressive delicacy about their flowing lines. The same kind of grace is found in the Lancelot in Florence. There is no gilding or colouring here, nor any feeling of monotony, although the variations in the 289 scenes are slight and the characters portrayed are more typical of the eighteenth century than of the world of chivalry.

Bembo’s frescoes on the vaulting, walls and splays of the Cappelia Cavalcabb in the church of S. Agostino in Cremona (fig. 57) are still clearly in the International Style. They show a dashing variety of theme, technique and colour. This style has been described by Zeri as “a multicoloured meeting point of Masolino’s chromatic felicities and l’ouvraige de Lombardie”, and it stands out, too, in the two delightful little panels in the Brera, depicting St. Alexis (fig. 36) and St. Julian. They are outstanding examples of the out-and-out worldlincss of the International Gothic world.

Bembo continued to be active for a long time, and towards 1460 he obviously tried to introduce into his work something of that faint renaissance culture from the Veneto which had already been echoed in a few Lombard works such as the 1458 polyptych by Paolo da Brescia with its suggestions of Squarcione, or the six small panels in the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in which the gently bowing figures of saints are reminiscent of Vivarini. The Coronation of the Virgin at Cremona (the central portion of a triptych which Longhi succeeded in reconstructing in 1928, thus mak­ing it possible to investigate the personality of this Cremonese painter who had remained unidentilled until then) contains some suggestions of perspective in the panelled ceiling, the floor and the throne; but the scene is nonetheless “neo-feudal” and there are reminiscences of the miniature style in the cut flowers scattered over the floor.When he began work in the castle at Pavia in 1467, Bembo collabo­rated with some newcomers such as Zanetto Bugatto and the young Vincenzo Foppa, to whom he may have passed on something of his pseudo-renaissance cul­ture.

The new age was now firmly welded to the old. By about mid-century Vincenzo Foppa had painted the Madonna in the Berenson Collection. The Madonna herself is placed within an enclosure of plaited reeds against a gold ground in a way which shows how reminiscences of the old Lombard style could be freshly adapted, with a new seriousness of intention. And when Zanetto Bugatto went to Flanders in about 1460 to learn from Rogier van derWeyden, he brought about a closer rela­tionship between Flemish and Lombard art. The only precedent for this — but an outstanding one — was Donato de’ Bardi’s Crucifix, painted before 1451.

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