International Gothic Art in Italy (Part 5)

Art

 Within the Piedmontese Duchy of Amedeo VIII, International Gothic art developed in an atmosphere of feudalism and chivalry, as we can judge from the three or lour hundred castles then scattered over the territories of the House of Savoy. There was no trace of a middle-class merchant society.

As in the Lombardy of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, so here the development of art was closely affected by the duke himself. Not only did his rule fall within the half century when late Gothic art flourished, but in addition the various sources of inspiration in Piedmontese painting correspond exactly to the various territorial gains he made. In pointing this out, we are not trying to create artificial geo-politi­cal and cultural boundaries, but simply to emphasise the conclusions of recent research on the subject. This has revealed that, when Amedeo VIII made conquests in the direction of Genoese territory and Savoy, and when he moved his residence to Thonon, there was an increase in the international traffic of ideas which one expects in any case to find in a duchy set astride the Alps. There is plenty of docu­mentary evidence to confirm this. The Swiss artist Bapteur, for example, was appointed court painter; Iverny of Avignon executed a triptych for the Marchese di Ceva; many Flemish codices were acquired for Amedeo’s library, and there was a free influx of miniatures from Savoy, which were destined to exert a decisive influence on Piedmontese art. Clear evidence of traffic out of Piedmont can be found over a wide area, from the Alps to the Rli6ne and from the sea to Lake Geneva, in a whole group of frescoes painted between 1410 and 1450. There are some at Abon- dance in Savoy, others in Notre-Dame de Bourg at Digne (in a style similar to that of Jaquerio) and, a little further away, the Nativity at Bonnet-le-Chateau. And then we must take into account the infiltration of Catalan art towards the middle of the century, later re-echoed in Provence in the work of Mirailliet.

Piedmontese painting was thus increasingly subject to foreign influences in the early decades of the fifteenth century and consequently became perhaps the most “international” art in Italy. But until the beginning of the century its closest links were with Lombardy, which owned territory well within the general area of the Pied­montese state. We have already mentioned the special significance of the Montiglio frescoes as an antecedent of International Gothic painting. Yet another precursor can be found a little later—between 1579 and 1587—at Asti, now once more a Visconti possession, in the miniatures of the Cronaca Malabaila, which display a flowing Lombard style and a precocious courtly elegance. Again in the late fourteenth century we find an unknown painter at work at Ranverso, an important centre of Piedmontese International Gothic art, on the Scenes from the Life of Mary Magda­lene. Castelnuovo recently drew attention to them, and there is no doubt that Lom­bard influences are involved. And the tempestuous frescoes in the apse at Sezzadio, reminiscent of the manner of the De’ Veris, belong to the same period.

By the turn of the century, however, Jaquerio had begun the career which was to make him the chief exponent of Piedmontese International Gothic art, and by signing himself as from Turin in a lost fresco in the Dominican convent at Geneva, he made clear his nationality. A sixteenth-century print of this fresco shows the punishment of wicked priests who issue forth from the body of a devil, and indicates the painter’s very personal taste for the horrific. The scene is conveyed with elegance, however, so that there are present the twin threads of a very un-ltalian grotesque brutality on the one hand, and stylistic refinement on the other.

Modern scholars have been particularly interested in Jaquerio because of his stature as an artist, the complexity of his paintings, and the fact that his active career extended over the entire first half of the fifteenth century, lienee they have tried to throw more light on what little was previously known of his stylistic develop­ment, and have tended to attribute to him all the most significant Piedmontese paintings surviving from that period. It is consequently necessary to examine the corpus of his art with care, and, where necessary, to be bold enough to reject the attribution to him of a few major works.

This is not the place for a thorough analysis of all attributions to Jaquerio, but it is worth examining some of the best paintings involved. It is doubtful, for example, whether he was responsible for the frescoes in the castle chapel at Fenis. Toesca thought them to be fine examples of late fourteenth-century painting, but in fact the mature international style involved indicates that they cannot have been painted before 1410 or so. What little paint remains is thick and bright, but where the colours have gone one can see to even greater advantage the sharply defined undulating outlines of the slim figures, arranged in elegant, almost blase and faintly exotic poses. This is true of the saint on horseback beside St. Michael and of St. Michael himself, who reminds us of Valencian painting (fig. 57).

Having rejected the Fenis frescoes, we still have to face the problem of establish­ing exactly what Jaquerio was doing in the first thirty years of the century, when we know him to have been in Thonon, Pinerolo and Turin. It has been convinc­ingly suggested that he returned from Thonon about 1450 to paint the signed frescoes on the left-hand wall of the presbytery at Ranverso.

The fine Madonna Enthroned (fig. 58) has been much used as evidence of Lom­bard and even Veronese influence, but what most deserves emphasis is the quite different tone, not the general similarities. There is thus a strong sense of counter­point about the upsurging baldacchino, with its pointed arches, spires and flying buttresses. It looks like a wooden model and is nearer to the architecture of Bur­gundy than to the ecstatic style of Milan Cathedral. And in addition the pain ting has a controlled linear flow, a measured elegance of dress, a decided purity of colour throughout, and a vibrant but controlled expression of emotion. All these qualities make it doubtful whether Jaquerio really had direct knowledge of Lombard art and was really influenced by it.

There was another painter in Piedmont at this time, however, who certainly did have the opportunity of making a direct acquaintance with Lombard art: Bapteur of Fribourg. He worked at the court of Amedeo VIII from 1427 onwards, and in that year visited Milan, Verona, Florence and Rome on behalf of the duke. In 1428 he began the Scenes from the Apocalypse in the manuscript which used to be in the Escorial but has recently been lost.We know it, however, from photographs.

These delightful miniatures bear witness to the refinement of the painting of  Savoy, for their evident appreciation of reality is combined with a visionary imagi­nation, and the flowing sentiment is accompanied by detailed observation of costume and landscape. Lyrical tension is maintained throughout by means of both ex­tremely sensitive linear effects and the light which caresses the surfaces upon which it falls. The miniaturist evidently knew all about the latest developments in Franco-Flemish art.

Jaquerio must have developed and refined his style under the influence of Bap- teur rather than that of any other artist working in the same milieu. They were both subject, of course, to the same variety of foreign influences. That Bapteur worked alongside Jaquerio is strongly suggested by the Scenes from the Life of St. Anthony on the right-hand wall of the presbytery at Ranverso. These frescoes are invariably attributed to Jaquerio, though their deplorable condition really renders it impossible either to make them out satisfactorily or to attribute them to him with certainty. What is striking, however, is the influence of miniatures on the arrangement and composition of the scenes. The elegant temptress and the huddle of devils are thus accompanied by groups of ordinary people and other popular elements which are clearly reminiscent of certain miniatures by Bapteur. In the one comparatively well-preserved portion (fig. 59) an old country couple can be seen bringing offerings to St. Anthony. They carry hams strung on sticks, while two boars sniff about and lurch along in front of them, impeded by the cord to which they are attached. The dark earthy tones of this scene, its delicate, subdued light, and the painstaking analysis of the humbler aspects of life, are unusual for Jaquerio.

Jaqucrio’s realism takes a different turn in the row of prophets beneath the Madonna’s throne on the opposite wall, with their abrupt gestures and plebeian human features, conveyed by means of an expressive and lively contrast of colours. But although these sturdy prophets are deliberately given direct and popular treatment, we also notice the pale, melancholy figure of David in his royal mantle of ermine, and, in the splay of the window, an aristocratic and sharply sorrowfiul St. Margaret. Here is yet further evidence of the twin sources of Jaquerio’s style.

This row of prophets is essential to an understanding of the Road to Calvary in the adjacent sacristy (fig. 60). There is an almost obsessive quality about the gro­tesque variety of characters depicted in this crowded scene. The silent torment of Christ and the women is accompanied by the din of shouts and trumpets, and there are traces of sheer bestiality and wildly obscene gesture in the surrounding crowd. The heavy black outlines and the strident colours bring the scene dangerously close to theatricality at a popular level and almost suggest the exuberant Fie Crucis paint­ed by Gaudenzio Ferrari a century later.

The existence of the prophets in the presbytery however, and the better pre­served colours in the Road to Calvary are insufficient in themselves to justify attri­buting the latter to Jaquerio. It is necessary in addition to postulate an appreciable time gap between the two, during which Jaquerio must have become aware of certain popular trends in northern art, perhaps in the iorm, as Griseri suggests, of wood-engravings from Burgundy.

As Griseri has pointed out, there is another group of frescoes in the castle at La Manta which have the same kind of crude tones and dark, inky outlines as the Road to Calvary. They depict St. John the Baptist wrapped in the skins of •wild animals, a Martyr Saint tied to a wooden cage and dripping with blood, and a Crucifixion in soft but intense tones. But there may be even more connections between Jaquerio and the art of the North. The figure of Christ at La Manta, for example, is very like that in the famous Paehler altar in Munich, painted quite a few years earlier; and the iconography of the Prayer in the Garden in the sacristy is very like that of the frescoes in the sacristy at Bressanone. It too, then, must be much less Lombard in inspiration than has hitherto been suggested.

Another, and perhaps even more surprising aspect of Jaquerio’s style can be seen in the Scenes from the Life of St. Blaise in the last chapel on the right at Ran- verso, built, as documents show, in 1450. It is a pity that the poor condition of the frescoes prevents us from fully appreciating the artist’s great skill in the use of off- whites, pale greens and greys in depicting woods and lakes. It is unusual to find Jaquerio so interested in nature or using such a very Lombard display of animals around St. Blaise in the desert; and the calm of his scenes is broken only in the epi­sode of the shipwreck, where the fishermen cling to the prow of the sinking boat. How did Jaquerio achieve such calm elegance so soon after painting the violent Road to Calvary? One cannot exclude the possibility that he was assisted by a son, for he was now an old man.

At any rate, these frescoes show that at this late stage Piedmontese International Gothic painting was not nearly as decadent as contemporary Lombard art. The Piedmontese style is not superficial in line or feeling. It conveys, moreover, a dry but intimate kind of realism, and its forms have a fulness which almost looks forward to Spanzotti.

The difference between Lombard and Piedmontese art becomes even clearer if we compare certain mid-century works by followers of Jaquerio—the fine Cruci­fixion in the church of San Vito at Piossasco, for example—with contemporary Lombard works painted in Piedmont, such as the frescoes at Cassine, at Rocca Canavese and in the church of San Bernardino at Ivrea. All of these are in a style which is generally reminiscent of the Zavattari.

We have already pointed out that Jaquerio’s art is so varied in form and treat­ment that it is only too easy to overestimate the number of his works. In spite of Griseri’s authoritative opinion, it is unlikely that he was responsible for the fresco of the Fountain of Youth in the baronial hall at La Manta. It has been suggested that such vivid, almost unbridled fantasy in the portrayal of the transformation of weak senility into vigorous youth (fig. 61) must be the work of Jaquerio. And yet one feels bound to wonder how far the French literary text—dear to the Lord of Sa- luzzo—may also have been responsible for the biting satire and the many ribald details: the arrival of old people by the cartload, the anxious haste and difficulty of those who dismount, undress and plunge into the fountain. Flemish tapestries must aho have exerted a strong influence on the composition, and in this connection a parallel has rightly been drawn with the Scenes from the Lives of Saints Fiat and Eleutherius at Arras. But the hasty and daring simplification of form in the Foun­tain of Youth, and the strident colours, laid on quite flat, are not sufficiently close to Jaquerio s work. Rather one can find an echo of this style in the frescoes by Aimone Duce at Villafranca Sabauda, in which the bleak vices and attractive virtues are rendered by well-contrasted images.

The artist responsible for the Fountain of Youth has Piedmontese characteristics in so far as his style is violent and almost popular, whereas the painter responsible for the row of nine Heroes and Heroines (fig. 62) on the opposite wall of the same hall has an aristocratic refinement which is also Piedmontese. The theme is un­doubtedly French in origin and has links with miniatures, and there are echoes of tapestries in the foliage of the trees from which hang heraldic shields. But there is no doubt as to the Piedmontese quality of the broadly rhythmical composition, the clarity of line, the delicate fragility which offsets the static pose of some of the heroines, and the painstaking details of clothing, gilding, and complicated armour.

The fact that panel paintings arc as rare in Piedmont as in Lombardy lends spe­cial interest to a small but delightful panel of the Crucifixion which recently found its way into the Museum at Turin. It was at first attributed to Jaquerio, but Griseri has recently suggested that it was painted by Bapteur (fig. 65). Her view is certainly consonant with the high quality of the painting, and also explains the numerous sources of inspiration involved. There are hints of Piedmontese influence, but the chief sources seem to be northern. The quality of feeling conveyed in the swarming crowd is certainly worthy of Bapteur, and there are echoes of miniature styles in the angels who flit over the gold ground, the clumps of grass scattered sparsely over the earth, and the bright reds. But there is also something quite new about the way the draperies of the chief figures are filled out and broken up; about the sense of space, extending to distant snow-covered mountain peaks; and about the striking armour of the oriental-looking soldiers. They all suggest a development in the direc­tion of Flemish art.

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