International Gothic Art in Italy (Part 6)


Strangely enough the International Gothic style produced its best results at Bologna in the turbulent thirty years between 1540 and 1370, when Vitale, the great “Illustrator” and Jacopino were at work, but subsequent generations naturally developed this early and inimitable blend of the dramatic with an investigation of the possibilities of form. The University was still the centre of Bolognese culture and set the style for an aristocracy based on cultural distinction rather than feu­dalism. Consequently, the agitated political life of the city during the first decades of the fifteenth century involved a proudly ghibelline, merchant and middle-class society. There were repeated political coups, an attempt to set up a signoria, and political sway was held at different moments by the Visconti, the Papacy and even a schismatic pope. These new interests and clashes of class and custom must have echoed through the great building yards around San Petronio, begun in 1390. San Petronio was second only to Milan Cathedral in size, and its extremely simplified Gothic structure sprang from an overweening, popular competitive spirit which was to remain proudly unfulfilled, like the bold height of the Garisenda tower a century earlier.

San Petronio was an ideal setting for the rich fantasies of local Gothic art. As soon as we enter, strange and gigantic figures of Saints appear before us on the pillars of the first span of the nave and transport us deep into the past. Immediately after the creation of these figures—about 1410—Jacopo di Paolo painted the pre- della for the complex wooden polyptych in the Bolognini Chapel. The simplicity of its rhythm and chromatic composition is so superb that there can be no doubt as to the high quality of the kind of late Gothic art which it exemplifies, though the sturdy figures are still in the fourteenth-century style. In the Journey of the Magi (fig. 64), for example, the low edge of the gilded sky envelops the descending rhythm of rocks, path, and the necks of the horses and dogs, all of which strongly converge towards an invisible horizon. In the same chapel are some other more or less con­temporary frescoes of Scenes of the Three Magi which display all the impetuous imagination of popular scenes. They must have been painted by Giovanni da Modena—perhaps with the aid of assistants—as is clear from a comparison with the two great frescoes in the nearby Chapel of St. George, entrusted to him in 1420. In the Triumph of the Church over the Synagogue and the Original Sin, ancient medieval allegory seems to reappear in all its naivety, but -with added vio­lence of feeling and strange metamorphoses. The ends of the wooden cross are extended in the form of human arms and hands, the lion’s mane frames a striking male face (definitely a portrait), while the Synagogue is on a goat who has all the courtliness of a Heroine from La Manta.

This approach gives full play to the artist’s faculty of invention in the Scenes of the Three Magi in the Bolognini Chapel. Only a painter like Giovanni da Modena, brought up and at ease in the Bolognese tradition, could have produced such an original interpretation of a theme which is so common and so closely associated with particular iconographical traditions. Here we have three wealthy merchants about to set off on a voyage of exploration. They are both adventurers and pioneers. There is a swarm of porters, cabin boys with their caps over their eyes, pack animals, and crates and packages. Orders and directions are given. A variety of boats lie in the harbour, ranging from no more than a nut-shell to a galley bristling with oars. Horses rear, manes bristle and eyes flash (fig. 65). And all this bustling activity is held together and closely controlled by an illusory but effective sense of plasticity, contained within taut outlines and strong colours in deep, dark tones.

Could this artist be the miniaturist called Giovanni da Modena who encountered Jacques Coene in Milan in 1599? If so, he must have paid more attention to the Burgundian and Rhenish sculptures then appearing on the pilasters of Milan Cathe­dral than to Lombard miniatures, just as later on lie took good notice of the sculptures decorating each side of Bologna Cathedral. As Longhi has pointed out, his Crucifix for the church of San Francesco in Bologna (fig. 66) is the work of “a sono­rous and dramatic Italian Sluter”. The pain expressed in Christ’s face is intensified by the way in which it is thrust down into the hollow between the shoulders, by the hair flowing down over his back like the blood from his side, and by the great piece of iron, more than just a nail, struck in so hard that it splays his toes. The heavily bearded figure of the Almighty at the top of this same Crucifix suggests even more strongly the influence of Jacques Coene, for it is very like the figure at the top of the Area di San Domenico, sculpted by that other ‘‘Italian Sluter”, Niccolb dell’Area. And, since we are discussing sculpture, it is worth pointing out that Giovanni da Modena’s work can perhaps explain the striking variety of Jacopo della Quercia’s relief sculptures for the portal of San Petronio—especially the Scenes from the Childhood of Christ on the architrave, which are rich in linear effects designed to build up or flatten out the figures.

Giovanni da Modena’s career as an artist lasted until 1451. Its length and variety make it impossible to arrive at a settled chronology of his works, but we can pick out a few more paintings to exemplify his surprising breadth of style. The Crucifix in Palazzo Venezia is painted in a kind of sharp, expressionist manner, reminiscent of the Master of the Rohan Hours, whereas the wing of the diptych in the Longhi Collection with the Stigmatization of St. Francis and Three Saints (fig. 67) is almost a miniature by virtue of its tiny dimensions and the diapered gold ground, against which the three strange saints stand out, their eloquent faces emerging from exag­geratedly sumptuous or ragged robes. Again the tone changes in the Entry of Heraclius into Jerusalem, a. panel in a private German collection which was attribut­ed to the Florentine artist Giovanni da Ponte until Longhi set matters right. That it was painted by Giovanni da Modena is clear from the types of arrogant braggart in the retinue, and from a comparison with the companion panel in the Louvre.

We are thus bound to recognise that Giovanni da Modena stands out amongst the host of late Gothic painters in Italy for the high quality of his work. (His contemporary Jean Lebfcgue recognised this fact by including a book of his instruc­tions to painters amongst his collection.) Another outstanding artist, however, was the Emilian painter Michele di Matteo. He has been much criticised, it is true, and even held responsible by Sandberg-Vavalk for “plunging Bolognese painting into the depths of degradation”, because, as Longhi observed, the quality of his painting varied very much according to the place where he was working and the commission he was undertaking. There is evidence, nevertheless, that on occasion he could produce work in other parts of Italy which had all the imaginative force of Bolo­gnese art. This can be seen in the Dream of Original Sin atPesaro, which also echoes the style of Giovanni da Modena’s work in the Chapel of St. George—here adapted to a more evocative atmosphere. It also finds expression in the gentle profile and small, bright figure of St. Helen against the background of a dark mountain in the scene of the exorcised devils (fig. 69), and it is even clearer in the striking polyp- tych in the Accademia in Venice, painted shortly after 1427. Michele di Matteo here succeeds in blending the quite Bolognese vitality of his figures with a Venetian refinement such as that of Jacobello del Fiore. The four Evangelists (fig. 68) in the upper panels are particularly striking for their luxurious clothes, embroidered and speckled with gold, and for the mosaics and embossed leather which throw into relief the characteristically expressive faces. And what narrative vigour he has de­rived from the art of the Po valley in depicting the Legend of the True Cross in the predella, and what skill he has in using decorative fancy to convey human character!

He remained faithful to this style throughout his long career. It is therefore not surprising to find him, towards mid-century, working on the vaulting of the Baptistery at Siena with the Sienese painter Giovanni di Paolo—another artist who insisted on ignoring the changing times.

Even a brief review of Emilian art such as this ought perhaps to include a few minor works like the rough frescoes in Lombard style in Santa Maria di Castello at Carpi, or the modest work of Alberti of Ferrara, but we are still bound to conclude that there was less late Gothic painting in Emilia than in other parts of Italy. The best measure of its success, however, lies in its influence outside Emilia. It gave fresh impetus to painting in the Veneto in the early fifteenth century, for example, and was influential in Umbria and the Marches, where it intensified the use of shadow, gave body to the easy-going art of Nelli, and inspired Arcangelo di Cola da Camerino at the beginning of his career. And since Belbello da Pavia was working in Emilia at the time of the Este Bible, he must have found support and inspiration in the paintings of Giovanni da Modena for the tender pathos of his own work. Nor must we forget, to use Longhi’s words, “what considerable effect this extreme and inflated medieval expressionism must have had on a whole host of artists who could not make up their minds between the real and the unreal: those wandering pedlars of antidotes to the Renaissance, on the periphery, or away from the centre of the new art throughout the fifteenth century”.

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