Miscellaneous Studies: A Series of Essays
by Walter Horatio Pater
Public Domain Books
Art Notes in North Italy
 TITIAN, as we see him in what some have thought his noblest work, the large altar-piece, dated 1522, his forty-fifth year, of SS. Nazaro e Celso, at Brescia, is certainly a religious–a great, religious painter. The famous Gabriel of the Annunciation, aflight, in all the effortless energy of an angel indeed, and Sebastian, adapted, it was said, from an ancient statue, yet as novel in design as if Titian had been the first to handle that so familiar figure in old religious art–may represent for us a vast and varied amount of work–in which he expands to their utmost artistic compass the earlier religious dreams of Mantegna and the Bellini, affording sufficient proof how sacred themes could rouse his imagination, and all his manual skill, to heroic efforts. But he is also the painter of the Venus of the Tribune and the Triumph of Bacchus; and such frank acceptance of the voluptuous paganism of the Renaissance, the motive of a large proportion of his work,  might make us think that religion, grandly dramatic as was his conception of it, can have been for him only one of many pictorial attitudes. There are however painters of that date who, while their work is great enough to be connected (perhaps groundlessly) with Titian’s personal influence, or directly attributed to his hand, possess at least this psychological interest, that about their religiousness there can be no question. Their work is to be looked for mainly in and about the two sub-alpine towns of Brescia and Bergamo; in the former of which it becomes definable as a school–the school of Moretto, in whom the perfected art of the later Renaissance is to be seen in union with a catholicism as convinced, towards the middle of the sixteenth century, as that of Giotto or Angelico.
Moretto of Brescia, for instance, is one of the few painters who have fully understood the artistic opportunities of the subject of Saint Paul, for whom, for the most part, art has found only the conventional trappings of a Roman soldier (a soldier, as being in charge of those prisoners to Damascus), or a somewhat commonplace old age. Moretto also makes him a nobly accoutred soldier–the rim of the helmet, thrown backward in his fall to the earth, rings the head already with a faint circle of glory–but a soldier still in possession of all those resources of unspoiled youth which he is ready to offer in a  moment to the truth that has just dawned visibly upon him. The terrified horse, very grandly designed, leaps high against the suddenly darkened sky above the distant horizon of Damascus, with all Moretto’s peculiar understanding of the power of black and white. But what signs the picture inalienably as Moretto’s own is the thought of the saint himself, at the moment of his recovery from the stroke of Heaven. The pure, pale, beardless face, in noble profile, might have had for its immediate model some military monk of a later age, yet it breathes all the joy and confidence of the Apostle who knows in a single flash of time that he has found the veritable captain of his soul. It is indeed the Paul whose genius of conviction has so greatly moved the minds of men–the soldier who, bringing his prisoners “bound to Damascus,” is become the soldier of Jesus Christ.
Moretto’s picture has found its place (in a dark recess, alas!) in the Church of Santa Maria presso San Celso, in the suburbs of Milan, hard by the site of the old Roman cemetery, where Ambrose, at a moment when in one of his many conflicts a “sign” was needed, found the bodies of Nazarus and Celsus, youthful patrician martyrs in the reign of Nero, overflowing now with miraculous powers, their blood still fresh upon them–conspersa recenti sanguine. The body of Saint Nazarus he removed into the city: that of Saint Celsus remained within the little sanctuary  which still bears his name, and beside which, in the fifteenth century, arose the glorious Church of the Madonna, with spacious atrium after the Ambrosian manner, a facade richly sculptured in the style of the Renaissance, and sumptuously adorned within. Behind the massive silver tabernacle of the altar of the miraculous picture which gave its origin to this splendid building, the rare visitor, peeping as into some sacred bird-nest, detects one of the loveliest works of Luini, a small, but exquisitely finished “Holy Family.” Among the fine pictures around are works by two other very notable religious painters of the cinque- cento. Both alike, Ferrari and Borgognone, may seem to have introduced into fiery Italian latitudes a certain northern temperature, and somewhat twilight, French, or Flemish, or German, thoughts. Ferrari, coming from the neighbourhood of Varallo, after work at Vercelli and Novara, returns thither to labour, as both sculptor and painter, in the “stations” of the Sacro Monte, at a form of religious art which would seem to have some natural kinship with the temper of a mountain people. It is as if the living actors in the “Passion Play” of Oberammergau had been transformed into almost illusive groups in painted terra-cotta. The scenes of the Last Supper, of the Martyrdom of the Innocents, of the Raising of Jairus’ daughter, for instance, are certainly touching in the naive piety of their life-sized realism. But Gaudenzio Ferrari had many  helpmates at the Sacro Monte; and his lovelier work is in the Franciscan Church at the foot of the hill, and in those two, truly Italian, far-off towns of the Lombard plain. Even in his great, many-storied fresco in the Franciscan Church at Varallo there are traces of a somewhat barbaric hankering after solid form; the armour of the Roman soldiers, for example, is raised and gilt. It is as if this serious soul, going back to his mountain home, had lapsed again into mountain “grotesque,” with touches also, in truth, of a peculiarly northern poetry–a mystic poetry, which now and again, in his treatment, for instance, of angel forms and faces, reminds one of Blake. There is something of it certainly in the little white spectral soul of the penitent thief making its escape from the dishonoured body along the beam of his cross.
The contrast is a vigorous one when, in the space of a few hours, the traveller finds himself at Vercelli, half-stifled in its thick pressing crop of pumpkins and mulberry trees. The expression of the prophet occurs to him: “A lodge in a garden of cucumbers.” Garden of cucumbers and half-tropical flowers, it has invaded the quiet open spaces of the town. Search through them, through the almost cloistral streets, for the Church of the Umiliati; and there, amid the soft garden-shadows of the choir, you may find the sentiment of the neighbourhood expressed with great refinement in what is perhaps  the masterpiece of Ferrari, “Our Lady of the Fruit-garden,” as we might say–attended by twelve life-sized saints and the monkish donors of the picture. The remarkable proportions of the tall panel, up which the green-stuff is climbing thickly above the mitres and sacred garniture of those sacred personages, lend themselves harmoniously to the gigantic stature of Saint Christopher in the foreground as the patron saint of the church. With the savour of this picture in his memory, the visitor will look eagerly in some half-dozen neighbouring churches and deserted conventual places for certain other works from Ferrari’s hand; and so, leaving the place under the influence of his delicate religious ideal, may seem to have been listening to much exquisite church-music there, violins and the like, on that perfectly silent afternoon–such music as he may still really hear on Sundays at the neighbouring town of Novara, famed for it from of old. Here, again, the art of Gaudenzio Ferrari reigns. Gaudenzio! It is the name of the saintly prelate on whom his pencil was many times employed, First Bishop of Novara, and patron of the magnificent basilica hard by which still covers his body, whose earthly presence in cope and mitre Ferrari has commemorated in the altar-piece of the “Marriage of St. Catherine,” with its refined richness of colour, like a bank of real flowers blooming there, and like nothing else around it in the  vast duomo of old Roman architecture, now heavily masked in modern stucco. The solemn mountains, under the closer shadow of which his genius put on a northern hue, are far away, telling at Novara only as the grandly theatrical background to an entirely lowland life. And here, as at Vercelli so at Novara, Ferrari is not less graciously Italian than Luini himself.
If the name of Luini’s master, Borgognone, is no proof of northern extraction, a northern temper is nevertheless a marked element of his genius–something of the patience, especially, of the masters of Dijon or Bruges, nowhere more clearly than in the two groups of male and female heads in the National Gallery, family groups, painted in the attitude of worship, with a lowly religious sincerity which may remind us of the contemporary work of M. Legros. Like those northern masters, he accepts piously, but can refine, what “has no comeliness.” And yet perhaps no painter has so adequately presented that purely personal beauty (for which, indeed, even profane painters for the most part have seemed to care very little) as Borgognone in the two deacons, Stephen and Laurence, who, in one of the altar- pieces of the Certosa, assist at the throne of Syrus, ancient, sainted, First Bishop of Pavia–stately youths in quite imperial dalmatics of black and gold. An indefatigable worker at many forms of religious art, here and elsewhere, assisting at last in the  carving and inlaying of the rich marble facade of the Certosa, the rich carved and inlaid wood-work of Santa Maria at Bergamo, he is seen perhaps at his best, certainly in his most significantly religious mood, in the Church of the Incoronata at Lodi, especially in one picture there, the “Presentation of Christ in the Temple." The experienced visitor knows what to expect in the sacristies of the great Italian churches; the smaller, choicer works of Luini, say, of Della Robbia or Mino of Fiesole, the superb ambries and drawers and presses of old oak or cedar, the still untouched morsel of fresco– like sacred priestly thoughts visibly lingering there in the half- light. Well! the little octagonal Church of the Incoronata is like one of these sacristies. The work of Bramante–you see it, as it is so rarely one’s luck to do, with its furniture and internal decoration complete and unchanged, the coloured pavement, the colouring which covers the walls, the elegant little organ of Domenico da Lucca (1507), the altar-screens with their dainty rows of brass cherubs. In Borgognone’s picture of the “Presentation,” there the place is, essentially as we see it to-day. The ceremony, invested with all the sentiment of a Christian sacrament, takes place in this very church, this “Temple” of the Incoronata where you are standing, reflected on the dimly glorious wall, as in a mirror. Borgognone in his picture has  but added in long legend, letter by letter, on the fascia below the cupola, the Song of Simeon.
The Incoronata however is, after all, the monument less of Ambrogio Borgognone than of the gifted Piazza family:–Callisto, himself born at Lodi, his father, his uncle, his brothers, his son Fulvio, working there in three generations, under marked religious influence, and with so much power and grace that, quite gratuitously, portions of their work have been attributed to the master-hand of Titian, in some imaginary visit here to these painters, who were in truth the disciples of another–Romanino of Brescia. At Lodi, the lustre of Scipione Piazza is lost in that of Callisto, his elder brother; but he might worthily be included in a list of painters memorable for a single picture, such pictures as the solemn Madonna of Pierino del Vaga, in the Duomo of Pisa, or the Holy Family of Pellegrino Piola, in the Goldsmiths’ Street at Genoa. A single picture, a single figure in a picture, signed and dated, over the altar of Saint Clement, in the Church of San Spirito, at Bergamo, might preserve the fame of Scipione Piazza, who did not live to be old. The figure is that of the youthful Clement of Rome himself, “who had seen the blessed Apostles,” writing at the dictation of Saint Paul. For a moment he looks away from the letters of the book with all the wistful intelligence of a boy softly touched already by the radiancy of the  celestial Wisdom. “Her ways are ways of pleasantness!" That is the lesson this winsome, docile, spotless creature–ingenui vultus puer ingenuique pudoris–younger brother or cousin of Borgognone’s noble deacons at the Certosa–seems put there to teach us. And in this church, indeed, as it happens, Scipione’s work is side by side with work of his.
It is here, in fact, at Bergamo and at Brescia, that the late survival of a really convinced religious spirit becomes a striking fact in the history of Italian art. Vercelli and Novara, though famous for their mountain neighbourhood, enjoy but a distant and occasional view of Monte Rosa and its companions; and even then those awful stairways to tracts of airy sunlight may seem hardly real. But the beauty of the twin sub-alpine towns further eastward is shaped by the circumstance that mountain and plain meet almost in their streets, very effectively for all purposes of the picturesque. Brescia, immediately below the “Falcon of Lombardy” (so they called its masterful fortress on the last ledge of the Pie di Monte), to which you may now ascend by gentle turfed paths, to watch the purple mystery of evening mount gradually from the great plain up the mountain-walls close at hand, is as level as a church pavement, home- like, with a kind of easy walking from point to point about it, rare in Italian towns–a town full of walled gardens, giving even to  its smaller habitations the retirement of their more sumptuous neighbours, and a certain English air. You may peep into them, pacing its broad streets, from the blaze of which you are glad to escape into the dim and sometimes gloomy churches, the twilight sacristies, rich with carved and coloured woodwork. The art of Romanino still lights up one of the darkest of those churches with the altar-piece which is perhaps his most expressive and noblest work. The veritable blue sky itself seems to be breaking into the dark-cornered, low-vaulted, Gothic sanctuary of the Barefoot Brethren, around the Virgin and Child, the bowed, adoring figures of Bonaventura, Saint Francis, Saint Antony, the youthful majesty of Saint Louis, to keep for ever in memory–not the King of France however, in spite of the fleurs-de-lys on his cope of azure, but Louis, Bishop of Toulouse. A Rubens in Italy! you may think, if you care to rove from the delightful fact before you after vague supposititious alliances–something between Titian and Rubens! Certainly, Romanino’s bold, contrasted colouring anticipates something of the northern freshness of Rubens. But while the peculiarity of the work of Rubens is a sense of momentary transition, as if the colours were even now melting in it, Romanino’s canvas bears rather the steady glory of broad Italian noonday; while he is distinguished also for a remarkable clearness of  design, which has perhaps something to do, is certainly congruous with, a markedly religious sentiment, like that of Angelico or Perugino, lingering still in the soul of this Brescian painter towards the middle of the sixteenth century.
Romanino and Moretto, the two great masters of Brescia in successive generations, both alike inspired above all else by the majesty, the majestic beauty, of religion–its persons, its events, every circumstance that belongs to it–are to be seen in friendly rivalry, though with ten years’ difference of age between them, in the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista; Romanino approaching there, as near as he might, in a certain candle-lighted scene, to that harmony in black, white, and grey preferred by the younger painter. Before this or that example of Moretto’s work, in that admirably composed picture of Saint Paul’s Conversion, for instance, you might think of him as but a very noble designer in grisaille. A more detailed study would convince you that, whatever its component elements, there is a very complex tone which almost exclusively belongs to him; the “Saint Ursula” finally, that he is a great, though very peculiar colourist– a lord of colour who, while he knows the colour resources that may lie even in black and white, has really included every delicate hue whatever in that faded “silver grey,” which yet lingers in one’s memory as their final effect. For some admirers indeed he is definable  as a kind of really sanctified Titian. It must be admitted, however, that whereas Titian sometimes lost a little of himself in the greatness of his designs, or committed their execution, in part, to others, Moretto, in his work, is always all there–thorough, steady, even, in his workmanship. That, again, was a result of his late-surviving religious conscience. And here, as in other instances, the supposed influence of the greater master is only a supposition. As a matter of fact, at least in his earlier life, Moretto made no visit to Venice; developed his genius at home, under such conditions for development as were afforded by the example of the earlier masters of Brescia itself; left his work there abundantly, and almost there alone, as the thoroughly representative product of a charming place. In the little Church of San Clemente he is still “at home” to his lovers; an intimately religious artist, full of cheerfulness, of joy. Upon the airy galleries of his great altar-piece, the angels dance against the sky above the Mother and the Child; Saint Clement, patron of the church, being attendant in pontifical white, with Dominic, Catherine, the Magdalen, and good, big-faced Saint Florian in complete armour, benign and strong. He knows many a saint not in the Roman breviary. Was there a single sweet-sounding name without its martyr patron? Lucia, Agnes, Agatha, Barbara, Cecilia–holy women, dignified, high-bred, intelligent–  have an altar of their own; and here, as in that festal high altar-piece, the spectator may note yet another artistic alliance, something of the pale effulgence of Correggio–an approach, at least, to that peculiar treatment of light and shade, and a pre-occupation with certain tricks therein of nature itself, by which Correggio touches Rembrandt on the one hand, Da Vinci on the other. Here, in Moretto’s work, you may think that manner more delightful, perhaps because more refined, than in Correggio himself. Those pensive, tarnished, silver side-lights, like mere reflexions of natural sunshine, may be noticed indeed in many another painter of that day, in Lanini, for instance, at the National Gallery. In his “Nativity" at the Brera, Procaccini of Verona almost anticipates Correggio’s Heilige Nacht. It is, in truth, the first step in the decomposition of light, a touch of decadence, of sunset, along the whole horizon of North-Italian art. It is, however, as the painter of the white- stoled Ursula and her companions that the great master of Brescia is most likely to remain in the memory of the visitor; with this fact, above all, clearly impressed on it, that Moretto had attained full intelligence of all the pictorial powers of white. In the clearness, the cleanliness, the hieratic distinction, of this earnest and deeply-felt composition, there is something “pre-Raphaelite"; as also in a certain liturgical formality in the grouping of the virgins–the  looks, “all one way,” of the closely-ranged faces; while in the long folds of the drapery we may see something of the severe grace of early Tuscan sculpture–something of severity in the long, thin, emphatic shadows. For the light is high, as with the level lights of early morning, the air of which ruffles the banners borne by Ursula in her two hands, her virgin companions laying their hands also upon the tall staves, as if taking share, with a good will, in her self- dedication, with all the hazard of battle. They bring us, appropriately, close to the grave of this manly yet so virginal painter, born in the year 1500, dead at forty-seven.
Of Moretto and Romanino, whose works thus light up, or refine, the dark churches of Brescia and its neighbourhood, Romanino is scarcely to be seen beyond it. The National Gallery, however, is rich in Moretto’s work, with two of his rare poetic portraits; and if the large altar-picture would hardly tell his secret to one who had not studied him at Brescia, in those who already know him it will awake many a reminiscence of his art at its best. The three white mitres, for instance, grandly painted towards the centre of the picture, at the feet of Saint Bernardino of Siena–the three bishoprics refused by that lowly saint–may remind one of the great white mitre which, in the genial picture of Saint Nicholas, in the Miracoli at Brescia, one of the children, who as delightfully+  unconventional acolytes accompany their beloved patron into the presence of the Madonna, carries along so willingly, laughing almost, with pleasure and pride, at his part in so great a function. In the altar-piece at the National Gallery those white mitres form the key-note from which the pale, cloistral splendours of the whole picture radiate. You see what a wealth of enjoyable colour Moretto, for one, can bring out of monkish habits in themselves sad enough, and receive a new lesson in the artistic value of reserve.
Rarer still (the single work of Romanino, it is said, to be seen out of Italy) is the elaborate composition in five parts on the opposite side of the doorway. Painted for the high-altar of one of the many churches of Brescia, it seems to have passed into secular hands about a century ago. Alessandro, patron of the church, one of the many youthful patrician converts Italy reveres from the ranks of the Roman army, stands there on one side, with ample crimson banner superbly furled about his lustrous black armour, and on the other–Saint Jerome, Romanino’s own namesake–neither more nor less than the familiar, self-tormenting anchorite; for few painters (Bellini, to some degree, in his picture of the saint’s study) have perceived the rare pictorial opportunities of Jerome; Jerome with the true cradle of the Lord, first of Christian antiquaries, author of the fragrant Vulgate version of the  Scriptures. Alessandro and Jerome support the Mother and the Child in the central place. But the loveliest subjects of this fine group of compositions are in the corners above, half-length, life-sized figures–Gaudioso, Bishop of Brescia, above Saint Jerome; above Alessandro, Saint Filippo Benizzi, meek founder of the Order of Servites to which that church at Brescia belonged, with his lily, and in the right hand a book; and what a book! It was another very different painter, Giuseppe Caletti, of Cremona, who, for the truth and beauty of his drawing of them, gained the title of the “Painter of Books.” But if you wish to see what can be made of the leaves, the vellum cover, of a book, observe that in Saint Philip’s hand.–The writer? the contents? you ask: What may they be? and whence did it come?–out of embalmed sacristy, or antique coffin of some early Brescian martyr, or, through that bright space of blue Italian sky, from the hands of an angel, like his Annunciation lily, or the book received in the Apocalypse by John the Divine? It is one of those old saints, Gaudioso (at home in every church in Brescia), who looks out with full face from the opposite corner of the altar-piece, from a background which, though it might be the new heaven over a new earth, is in truth only the proper, breathable air of Italy. As we see him here, Saint Gaudioso is one of the more exquisite treasures of our National Gallery. It was thus that at the magic  touch of Romanino’s art the dim, early, hunted-down Brescian church of the primitive centuries, crushed into the dust, it might seem, was “brought to her king,” out of those old dark crypts, “in raiment of needle-work"–the delicate, richly folded, pontifical white vestments, the mitre and staff and gloves, and rich jewelled cope, blue or green. The face, of remarkable beauty after a type which all feel though it is actually rare in art, is probably a portrait of some distinguished churchman of Romanino’s own day; a second Gaudioso, perhaps, setting that later Brescian church to rights after the terrible French occupation in the painter’s own time, as his saintly predecessor, the Gaudioso of the earlier century here commemorated, had done after the invasion of the Goths. The eloquent eyes are open upon some glorious vision. “He hath made us kings and priests!” they seem to say for him, as the clean, sensitive lips might do so eloquently. Beauty and Holiness had “kissed each other,” as in Borgognone’s imperial deacons at the Certosa. At the Renaissance the world might seem to have parted them again. But here certainly, once more, Catholicism and the Renaissance, religion and culture, holiness and beauty, might seem reconciled, by one who had conceived neither after any feeble way, in a gifted person. Here at least, by the skill of Romanino’s hand, the obscure martyr of the crypts shines as a  saint of the later Renaissance, with a sanctity of which the elegant world itself would hardly escape the fascination, and which reminds one how the great Apostle Saint Paul has made courtesy part of the content of the Divine charity itself. A Rubens in Italy!–so Romanino has been called. In this gracious presence we might think that, like Rubens also, he had been a courtier.
90. *Published in the New Review, Nov. 1890, and now reprinted by the kind permission of the proprietors.