Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 18, 2005
Giancarla Periti, ed. Drawing Relationships in Northern Italian Renaissance Art: Patronage and Theories of Invention Intro. Charles Dempsey. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2004. 252 pp.; 44 b/w ills. Cloth $120.00 (0754606589)
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This collection of essays is the record of a symposium held at the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome in July 2000. Organized by Giancarla Periti, the subject of that event was broad, covering both ecclesiastical and secular patronage in northern Italy (principally Emilia-Romagna, but also parts of current-day Lombardy) and Inventio—artistic invention—as it was conceived and practiced there. That many of the participants have long been interlocutors—either as students at Johns Hopkins University, working with Charles Dempsey, who wrote the book’s introduction, or as colleagues from other projects—provides another unifying component to the selection. Ashgate is to be commended for publishing books of this kind, which allow research presented at thematic conferences to find permanent expression, although the value of this one would have been enhanced by more careful editing (especially of the translated texts) and more legible and sharply printed illustrations.

As Dempsey states in his introduction, most of the artists discussed here were either neglected or misunderstood by Giorgio Vasari; Dempsey goes so far as to say that the biographer’s lumpenization of northern Italian artists under a single rubric represented their “virtual erasure” (5). Local authors struggled vigorously against this prejudice, beginning with Alessandro Lamo on the Cremonese artists in 1584, and culminating in Malvasia’s Felsina pittrice on the Bolognese school in 1678. More recently, a number of the authors included in Drawing Relationships have resumed the struggle, working from various angles: by giving their attention to artists and works of art previously neglected; by defending the historiographical importance of the schools under discussion and of their later historians; and by close scrutiny of patrons and the rich cultural context they provide. The essays in this volume contribute to an extensive and thriving scholarly discourse on these issues that is equally apparent in recent research on the art created in Piedmont, Lombardy, and the western Venetian terraferma—everywhere north of the Apennines. Varied as these essays are, certain broad themes link them, as they are more or less divided between those that examine the prominent secular, humanist culture that informed commissions (Stanko Kokole on Agostino di Duccio in the Tempio Malatestiano, Alessandra Sarchi on Alberto Pio’s studiolo, Giancarla Periti on the Camera di San Paolo, and Mary Vaccaro on Fontanellato) and those that dwell on the complex moment in sacred art and devotion preceding the Council of Trent (Marzia Faietti on the Confraternita del Buon Gesù in Bologna, Carolyn Smyth on Pordenone’s frescoes in the Cremona Cathedral, and Alessandra Galizzi Kroegel on Girolamo Genga’s altarpiece in Cesena).

To this reader, the most resolved of the contributions is that of Mary Vaccaro on Parmigianino’s c. 1523–24 Diana and Actaeon scenes in Count Galeazzo Sanvitale’s Camerino in the Rocca di Fontanellato outside Parma. In recent years this brilliant decoration—at first glance so lush and joyous, but with obvious notes of tragedy and ambiguity—has been interpreted as a memorial to the death of a child born to Galeazzo’s wife Paola Gonzaga in 1523. With new documentary evidence, Vaccaro shows that there was a birth, but not a death (the son, Eucherio, became Bishop of Viviers in France and lived until 1571). She suggests that the program is a subtle reflection—possibly invented by Paola—on themes of chastity, birth, identity, and the almost casual potential for tragedy that lurked behind all lives in the period. This accords well with the inscription on the ceiling “respice finem” (consider the end), an adage written by Solon, whose message about assessing one’s life only at its end was also taken up by Ovid in a passage on Cadmus, Actaeon’s grandfather.

While each of the contributions is of considerable interest, in several cases I wished that the material had actually been pushed even further. This is true of Giovanna Perini’s essay on “Emilian Seicento Art Literature and the Transition from Fifteenth- to Sixteenth-Century Art.” Perini’s work on Malvasia and other seventeenth-century writers on the arts has been so groundbreaking that one looks forward to reading anything new by her. Her topic is an interesting one, as the artists at the cusp of the sixteenth century—particularly Francesco Francia and Perugino—were seen by Vasari to have had a very particular style, characterized by a sweet devotional tone, that was rapidly superceded, in Vasari’s opinion, by the full blast of the maniera moderna. Later, however, Francia would be one of Malvasia’s heroes (Perini emphasizes that Malvasia locates him at the very beginning of modern art, “rather than [as] an epigone of the Quattrocento” (42)). But the author does not immediately dive into this topic, instead commencing (somewhat oddly) by mentioning Correggio as the only exception to Vasari’s patronizing view that northern Italian artists worked under a heavy burden that could not be fully overcome—that of having been born outside Tuscany or central Italy. True, Vasari did say that Correggio was a “beautiful genius” and the first to paint in the modern manner in Lombardy; but it is all-too-well-known that he immediately added that “if he (Antonio) had gone forth from Lombardy and lived in Rome, he would have wrought miracles” (quoted from the de Vere translation, 1996 ed., vol. I, 646), thus proving rather than breaking the rule. Perini then turns rather meanderingly to a discussion of the various centers in Emilia-Romagna, speculating on the development (or non-development) of local literature on art in them, focusing principally on Malvasia and Francesco Scannelli in Cesena (about whose Microcosmo della pittura she has some interesting things to say). Only at the end does she return to her principal subject—the transition from fifteenth- to sixteenth-century art—and make a case for Malvasia’s underlying association of Francia and Raphael, for Francia’s elevated status as an artist especially as the sixteenth century got underway (gleaned from documents, not critical writings), and for the revaluation of the art of Amico Aspertini in Malvasia’s text. But it is really only in Dempsey’s introduction that one finds a subtle analysis of Vasari’s discussion of Francia’s maniera devota (2–4); I wanted to know more about the Bolognese point of view from Perini’s contribution.

Marzia Faietti’s contributions to the study of Bolognese drawing and painting, and above all to the work of the individualistic Amico Aspertini, have also been fundamental. Here she analyzes the statutes and membership lists (brought to her attention by Elena De Luca) relating to the Confraternita del Buon Gesù, a Franciscan confraternity inspired in part by the preaching of San Bernardino and to which Aspertini belonged, along with numerous other Bolognese artists, most notably Sebastiano Serlio. This was clearly one of the most prestigious such organizations in the city, boasting members from such families as the Duglioli and the Ercolani (patrons of Raphael), the Magnani, the Malvasia, and the Paleotti, as well as writers and scholars such as Achille Bocchi. The social aspect of the organization must have been of importance to the artists, and Faietti speculates that some of Aspertini’s patrons may have become acquainted with him through the confraternity. Faietti is drawn to this associative and sociological aspect (she looks forward to a careful investigation into the members’ social composition), and has also been able to piece together various aspects of the decoration of the church and oratory of the Buon Gesù, now destroyed, including references to Aspertini’s chiaroscuro istorine under its portico. Yet she only reaches the most substantive part of her text at the end, when she looks at the books owned by the confraternity (listed in its statutes and kept in the oratory) and its devotional practices in relation to Aspertini’s paintings and drawings. This is a fascinating and complicated issue from both ends—because of Aspertini’s astonishingly unusual and expressive depictions of the Pietà and other scenes of the Passion, and because of the opportunity to analyze the required readings and various exercises of the confraternity. She makes a good beginning, but here, too, I looked forward to reading more on the topic. Faietti ends her paper by presenting a recently attributed painting and drawing: the first a Crucifixion; the second, a Franciscan scene. The painting, which seems to be an important addition to Aspertini’s oeuvre, is scarcely legible in the illustration.

Each of the essays has something to commend, as in the interesting new identifications made by Kokole for Agostino di Duccio’s Tomb of the Ancestors in Rimini (although his dense arguments are not always easy to follow), and the refinement of the iconographical program of Genga’s altarpiece for S. Agostino in Cesena made by Alessandra Galizzi Kroegel. Carolyn Smyth brings her characteristically acute eye to Pordenone’s frescoes in the cathedral of Cremona, although she doesn’t resolve the longstanding conundrum concerning the decision by the massari to terminate Romanino’s contract and turn instead to Pordenone. (What does she mean when she says that Pordenone was sure to bring “a quality of righteousness” [102; emphasis in original] to the work that Romanino might lack?) Alessandra Sarchi has brought to our attention a little known studiolo designed for the learned Alberto Pio da Carpi in the ‘Rocca Nuova’ in Carpi, which is to be understood in the context of the other northern Italian decorations based on the Muses, such as that in Ferrara. She has attributed the frescoes to Bernardino Loschi, a court painter, but more could be said of the elaborate decorative aspect of the ceiling, which, as she mentions, seems close to the work Alessandro Araldi was doing at about the same time in Parma. Lastly I come to the contribution of Giancarla Periti, the editor of this informative volume, who examines some of the still unanswered questions about Correggio’s sublime room for the Abbess Giovanna da Piacenza, clarifying relevant familial ties and discussing her apparent love for “the language of hieroglyphs, for its components of brevitas and obscurity” (159). This learned taste for the genre of aenigmata, so frustrating for modern viewers in their attempt to understand each of Correggio’s scenes, was certainly widespread in her circle. Fascinating in this regard is a design for a tomb for Canon Vincenzo Carissimi (fig. 8.7) in which images from the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili were to be carved as a sort of epitaph on the monument. In the book they are explained with the phrase “Endurance is the ornament, care, and protection of life” (162)—but the viewer of the tomb was apparently meant to recognize and understand the meaning of the helmet, bucranium, and bird-headed lamp without written assistance. No wonder the meaning of some of Abbess Giovanna’s decoration continues to elude us.

Andrea Bayer
Curator, Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.