Egerton R. (Egerton Ryerson) Williams.

Lombard towns in Italy; or, The cities of ancient Lombardy online

. (page 14 of 47)
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the young courtiers reflected their levity, and greater by the
contrast appeared the proud, passionate, but lovely face of
Salome, whose compressed, down-drawn lips and fixed eyes
betrayed the storm within her.

What a marvellous stride forward from the unreal images
of the Giottesque school had been achieved by Masolino in
figures such as these! All their details showed what a
power of realistic execution he had developed from within
himself: not only were the solidity, the tactile values,
rendered tangible by indiscernible shadings, the costumes
and draperies fitted with natural folds that revealed the
firm limbs beneath, and the different parts of the human
body justly proportioned and attached; but, beyond all these
was the truly marvellous quality of the fleshwork, — in



164 LOMBARD TOWNS OF ITALY

moulding, consistency, delicacy, softness, and a colouring
exquisite beyond compare. Of all Masolino's accomplish-
ments this last is both unique and supreme; the first to
strike the delighted eye in looking at his work, and the last
to linger in the mind, as a happy memory; not only an in-
finite advance over the productions of all preceding and
coexisting artists, but a creation that in my judgment has
never since been surpassed. The tinting of the skin, in
the females and the young men, was of a most delicious
pink, imperceptibly graduated, that can be likened only to a
peach-blow vase, or a rose-petal in its first bloom, — the
pink that we see sometimes in the faint flush of a perfect
complexion of sixteen years; it was not laid upon the cuticle,
but seemed to permeate the whole tegument evenly, from
within ; it was not a blush, but the gentle glow of perfect
health in a youthful body. This exquisite hue, which has
emerged from the whitewash in such remarkable preserva-
tion, was complemented by the pliable texture of the skin,
its evident malleability and firmness conjoined, its perfect
contours, its transparent delicacy and fairness ; while its
shapely moulding was done in an indefinable manner, with-
out apparent shading, that yet gave an assured effect of
corporality.

The tender cheeks and long, slender necks of the women
were therefore of a loveliness most singular and unforgettable ;
and the young men, with their curling fair hair, were almost
equally attractive. It was the same in the other pictures:
all over the chambers shone these beautiful, unsmiling, softly
erubescent faces. But on the same degree were the hands
also ; in fact — and I say it without being carried away
by enthusiasm — I have never seen any hands quite so grace-
ful and expressive as the major part of these. Of the same
excellence in their fleshwork, perfectly modelled and life-



THE TOWNS OF THE OLONA VALLEY 165

like, they were at once elegant in shape, alluring in pose, and
of an astonishing eloquence in gesture; their movements
were neither violent nor theatric, but every graceful finger
seemed replete with meaning. Especially fine were the three
pairs of lovely hands in the group of Herodias, Salome and
the startled handmaiden.

In the same picture was seen also the final act of the
Baptist's story, — the entombment of his mutilated body, far
up on the mountain-side in rear; there a few little figures
were to be espied, laying the corpse in a sarcophagus, while
one of them knelt beside it in tears. This was, then, the
last tableau of the whole series, which together represented
the principal events of St. John's life, — commencing with
the writing of his name by Joachim, on the left wall of the
outer room. But upon the left and entrance walls the
painting had not been successfully restored, as elsewhere, —
fortunately but little to be noticed, on account of the presence
of the doorway and window. To left of the doorway there
was dimly visible a group of grave men standing, of whom
but two or three remained distinct; but the last two heads
upon the left were as dignified, strong, and full of character
as any of the Brancacci Chapel, — perhaps more so. To
right of the doorway there could be made out what was
evidently a Visitation, — with one very lovely young female
head just peeping from the submerged spectators. Upon
the vaulting lingered the four Evangelists, done in a more
careless manner. On the left wall naught remained but
the figures of Joachim, his wife, and the infant St. John,
with the perspective of a long, vaulted hall upheld by col-
umns; the old man, with a sweeping white beard, was
writing the chosen name upon a table, and his wife stood
by, holding the child. This scene must once have been very
effective.



1 66 LOMBARD TOWNS OF ITALY

The wide pointed archway dividing the rooms had not
been omitted from Masolino's labours: on its front side, to
right, there appeared a soldier slaying a man lying at his
feet, probably intended for the execution of the Baptist, —
a striking picture, in both senses; above the arch were two
flying angels, holding a scroll over the keystone; upon the
left, — all had been destroyed. The broad soffit was covered
with six seated figures of saints, in separate compartments,
— aged, snowy-bearded men, engaged in reading or writing ;
the two lowest upon the left side were gone, the others still
clear and realistic, — especially the St. Ambrose and St.
Jerome, with their severe, ascetic faces, expressive of deep and
holy thought; which proved the master to have been as
expert in the portrayal of such characteristics as he was in
youthful comeliness.

Coming to the rear chamber, — which was considerably
smaller than the outer, having been designed simply for the
altar upon its dais — I observed to left a scene of the
Baptist preaching to a crowd of people, now mostly de-
stroyed ; but the other walls were resplendent with four
grand tableaux, finely preserved, and the vaulting was radiant
with celestial beings. Here was the acme of Masolino's
labours. On the right was a daring theme, ingeniously
conceived and effectively carried out, — St. John in prison,
seen only through the outer bars of his cell, guarded by
a soldier. From that inner duskiness stood forth his care-
worn face and attenuated, kneeling form, as he raised his
eyes heavenward in anguished prayer; his sufferings, his
want, his enthusiastic faith, his devotion of self, were all
stamped upon that meagre, holy countenance, and cleverly
accentuated by the gloom and the grating. Adjacent on
the rear wall, below, he had been brought up from his prison
into the presence of the King and Queen, and was delivering



THE TOWNS OF THE OLONA VALLEY 167

to Herod that awful admonition for his wickedness; its
severity was evident in the saint's glowing eye, in his out-
stretched denunciatory finger, and in the clearly alarmed
soldier who clung to him behind, fearful of danger to the
sovereign and anxious to drag back the prisoner to his cell.
This jailor's face is one of the most expressive of the whole
series.

As for the other three faces, their perfect identity with
those of the same characters in the subsequent scenes well
shows Masolino's minute care ; and that of Herodias here,
still cold and disdainful, is the most striking of the series in its
wondrous modelling and delicate skin. Unmistakably belong-
ing to a middle-aged woman, and of irregular features, yet
it is made surpassingly lovely, and keenly alive with intelli-
gence; her agitation is shown in the beautiful hand, which
is slightly lifted in dismay. She is indescribably charming, in
spite of the proud, selfish character marked in the mouth and
eye. In effective contrast with her elegance stands the
rough, emaciated figure of the saint, his gaunt limbs and
naked feet protruding from the single, dilapidated garment,
his fanatical expression deepened by the long, untrimmed,
black hair and beard. Yet this is in no way overdrawn.

He appears again, to still better effect, in the scene upon
the opposite side of the rear window, where he is identical
in form, but clad in a dark cloak and undyed goatskin shirt;
listening to his words is a gathering of country folk, in-
cluding Christ and several of the Apostles, — the head of
the Saviour being distinguished by its pure, serene, thoughtful
expression. This was evidently the meeting of Jesus and
St. John. The following, supreme scene of the latter's life
is placed just above, filling the whole upper half of the
arched back wall, — the baptism of the Saviour. Located
thus appropriately, above the altar, where it commands all



1 68 LOMBARD TOWNS OF ITALY

of the enclosure, it is also the chef d'ceuvre of the series.
Here Masolino has excelled himself. Its tremendous land-
scape of rugged mountains, stretching afar in imposing, par-
allel chains, that enclose a weird and barren-looking valley,
— forms an effective setting for the great action in the
foreground, accentuating its sublimity, and drawing at once
the attention of whosoever enters the chapel.

Down the middle of the strange valley flows a winding
stream, in whose rippling water, at the centre of the fore-
ground, stands the comely figure of the Christ, naked but
for the loin-cloth, submerged as far as the knees; His head
is slightly bent, His eyes down-cast, His hands somewhat
raised in an unconscious attitude of emotion, as St. John
pours the cupful of blessed liquid upon His crown. The
latter kneels upon the right-hand bank, a little raised, — the
same, gaunt, skin-clad devotee, — stretching out one arm to
perform the ceremony. Behind him four men are removing
their garments, evidently for the purpose of receiving the
same rite, — • probably intended to represent disciples, for
two have heads identical with apostles in the last mentioned
tableau ; the other two have entirely undressed, one facing
the spectator and the second showing his back. Thus did
Masolino effect a natural demonstration of his study of the
nude; and these results are marvellous, standing forth pre-
dominant in the picture. The remaining figures, to the left
of the Christ, consist of three delightful young angels, hold-
ing His garments, clad in plain dark robes but with lovely
heads.

Here again is magnificent composition: the grand back-
ground with its far perspective, the free spacing, the natural
but balanced grouping centering in the Saviour, the dramatic
significance of disposition and gesture, all concentrate the
attention upon the supreme ceremony. And there one sees



THE TOWNS OF THE OLONA VALLEY 169

a form of unsurpassed shapeliness, perfect in proportions, stal-
wart yet fair, and of undeniable materiality and firmness of
flesh, which have been rendered with consummate skill; in
general poise, and in the shape and gesture of the hands, it is
graceful beyond expression; so that when one remembers the
inability of Masolino's predecessors to portray the nude at all,
or even properly to indicate a body within a garment, when
he thinks of their ignorance of the proportions and articula-
tions of the human frame, — he gazes in amazement at this
beautiful Christ, wondering at the genius that within one
lifetime had made such a giant evolution.

This first true exposition of the human body is completed
by the naked figures on the right, — figures with more of virile
power and firmness and less of grace, but of astonishing
realism in every limb and line; that bared back must be
said to be perfect, — not a muscle omitted or misplaced. I
can think of nothing that was done to equal these forms for
over half a century thereafter, — nor until Signorelli's work
at Orvieto, about 1500. And what is it that they remind
us of so strongly, — these stalwart men undressing by a
stream? They were the first, and real, precursors of Michael
Angelo's great cartoon of the Bathing Soldiers surprised by
the Enemy, which was designed for Florence's Palazzo Vec-
chio nearly a century later.

Upon the vaulting of the rear chamber, finally, I inspected
with much pleasure the composition of the Eternal Father sur-
rounded by angels, in Masolino's entirely different vein. He
was indeed versatile. This was a work entirely decorative,
with an eye to beauty alone; and so he abandoned realism
for the charming forms and hues of the Angelico manner.
In the azure heaven sparkling with golden stars appeared
the half-figure of the Almighty, within a black medallion ;
roundabout fluttered nine angels, emerging from little clouds,



170 LOMBARD TOWNS OF ITALY

clad in flowing robes finely draped and of the tenderest
bright tints; the shining wings were small, the hair golden
and fluffy, and the sweetly rounded, roseate young faces
w r ere all directed toward the Father. The very simplicity
of the composition, its freedom from numbers, background
and accessories, augmented its loveliness of form, and colour.

Italy has produced an elaborate quarto volume, with fifty
full-page photogravure plates, upon the rare artistic treasures
of this little town: it is entitled, " II Borgo di Castiglione
Olona," and is written by the talented Dr. Diego Sant'
Ambrogio. 5 Upon my return to the inn I found that the
worthy Braga's were in possession of a copy, which they
are accustomed to allow visitors to examine, though it is
too heavy and valuable to be carried about. — By 5 o'clock
I was on my way back to the railroad; and as we neared
the brow of the long ascent from the vale, my last look
at the secluded village, tucked away down there for so many
centuries, between its castle-hill at one end and its collegiate-
hill at the other, was not unaccompanied by emotion: for it
had this day shown me beauties that I should never again
find elsewhere, — the inspired beginnings of our modern
painting.

I stayed at Varese for awhile longer, enjoying the de-
lightful drives and walks about the rolling countryside, with
its ever pleasing prospects of the lakes and mountains, and
its countless charming villas, ideally situated; a visit to some
of these is well worth while, — such as the Villa Ponti,
and the Litta Modignani, with its relics of Garibaldi's battle,
which there took place. A large part of the district can
also be covered by trips in the electric cars, including the
interesting northern shore of Lake Varese, with its many

5 Published by Calzolari and Ferrario, 6 Via Benvenuto Cellini,
Milan.



THE TOWNS OF THE OLONA VALLEY 171

prosperous little towns. — But at last, one morning, I bade
adieu to the uplands, and took my seat in an early train, at
the other station than the one where I had arrived, — bound
for the city of Busto Arsizio. This I knew to be a very
modernised manufacturing town; but it contains one im-
portant survival of the Renaissance, — a church from Bra-
mante's own designs, which is decorated with paintings by
Luini, Lanini, and Gaudenzio Ferrari; those of the latter
artist being of especial merit.

This railway line I found to be run by electric power;
the handsome new coaches were built in the American style,
with a single long, open compartment to each car, having
seats facing forward, divided by the aisle; the locomotives
were massive double-headed motors, taking their energy
from a third rail, and capable of great speed. The power, I
was informed, comes from the large falls of the Ticino
canal at Vizzola, just west of Busto Arsizio, where is lo-
cated the greatest electric generating plant in Europe; a
good part of the water of the Ticino — here the boundary
of Lombardy — is conducted by this canal nearly 5 miles
from the river, to plunge into the artificial turbine-pits ; and
the resulting energy is transmitted far and wide over the
plain, furnishing a dozen different towns, including Busto,
Legnano and Saronno, with the power for their lights, tram-
ways and manufacturing plants, as well as running the rail-
ways of the district.

The train bore me a little west of south, diverging from the
Olona River, at a rapidity remarkable for Italy. The swell-
ing uplands were soon left behind, and the great plain
stretched once more around me, in all its closeness of culti-
vation. At Gallarate we joined with the branch lines leading
to the foot and middle of Lago Maggiore; then turned to
the southeast, reaching Busto in some ten minutes more.



172 LOMBARD TOWNS OF ITALY

This little city of 20,000 people lies about three miles west
of the Olona River, and nearly 25 miles from Milan; it
was a smaller place in mediaeval times, — never of any ac-
count in history, though included in the possessions of the
lords of Milan, — and has been recently built up through
its manufacturing. When I emerged from the station, at
the southeastern side of the town, I noticed at once an air
of intense business in its streets, a thronging and a bustle,
quite indicative of its commercial spirit. The long main
thoroughfare, leading northwest, — a section of the ancient
highway from Milan to the foot of Lago Maggiore — was
lined by modern, uninteresting, stuccoed buildings of good
size, with shops fairly up to date.

Following this avenue — of old the Via Milano, but now
rechristened after the everlasting Venti Settembre, — and
traversing the Piazza Garibaldi, surrounded by cafes, I
reached the second Piazza, of S. Giovanni, having the church
of that name upon the right side, facing north. It was a
large stuccoed edifice of the rococo period, with a lofty,
handsome, red-brick campanile beside the right transept, and
a curious frescoed shrine upon the outside of the right wall
of the nave, adjacent to the sidewalk of the street. Through
its barred opening I saw a crowned, gilt Madonna upon an
altar, other gilded statues in niches, painted putt'i frolicking
over the wall-spaces, and a recess upon the right piled hor-
ribly with human skulls and bones, around a crucifix. The
utter decadence of its period was further demonstrated by
the fading frescoes on its outer wall, about the opening;
they represented sporting skeletons, crowned with laurel,
embracing voluptuous females, and above these, several of
the old Greek goddesses. This was indeed extraordinary
decoration for a Christian edifice, — • the most extreme ex-
ample I had ever found of the debased neo-classic manner.



THE TOWNS OF THE OLONA VALLEY 173

Adjacent, in the open, stood an awful baroque statue to
the " Beatae Julianae," dated 1782, — a white sandstone fe-
male of sickening pose and expression, upon a red granite
pedestal. She was rivalled in ugliness by the fagade of the
church, which was an unformed mess of vilest rococo orna-
mentation — save the word, — including a lot of dwarf-
obelisks tipped with balls, and grotesque statues with whirl-
ing garments. Its central bronze doors were quite unusual,
showing scenes from the Baptist's life in an exceedingly im-
pressionistic manner. But this predecessor of Rodin had not
achieved great success. The spacious, finely proportioned
interior of the edifice, of good renaissance design spoiled by
gaudy decoration, proved to be noteworthy only for its curi-
ous plaster reliefs, painted in imitation of polished bronze,
posted around the walls, and a weird ancona in the right
transept that might be called the apex of these baroque
horrors; it was an enormous plaster construction represent-
ing an oval of coloured clouds and putti-heads, enclosing a
figure of Christ upon another cloud, draped in an intensely
vivid scarlet robe. Words could not do it injustice.

But one block farther north, however, appeared the edi-
fice designed by Bramante, whose purity and simple grace
seemed most delightful after this rococo barbarism. It was
the church of S. Maria, standing upon the right side of the
piazza of the same name, with its northern fagade faced upon
a narrow street issuing easterly: a cube-shaped building, of
cream-coloured stucco, capped by an octagonal drum of nearly
equal breadth ; the latter part was ornamented with a hand-
some gallery, of four round arches per side, resting upon
slender doric columns connected by a balustrade ; and the flat,
tinned dome was surmounted by an octagonal, columned
lantern of two stages. The two facades were identically
simple, each being pierced by a single doorway of marble,



i 7 4 LOMBARD TOWNS OF ITALY

with a plain circular window above it, and two at the sides;
these portals were framed by pilasters, with caps made of
distorted masks and horns of plenty, supporting a high en-
tablature topped by limestone statues ; and their lunettes held
decaying frescoes, of the Madonna with angels or putti. On
the south rose the graceful, detached campanile, of stucco
painted brown and grey, with a belfry of double arches,
tipped by a square lantern. In all these quiet, harmonious
lines I saw the unmistakable imprint of the great Umbrian.

The beauties, as usual with Bramante, lay mostly in the
interior, for whose effect everything was planned; this nave
was not only imposing in its proportions, and charming in all
its parts, it was also finely decorated ; — a structure delight-
ful to the eye, and increasing in effectiveness the more it was
studied. Square in shape upon the ground, it became octag-
onal through projecting quarter-domes at the upper corners,
so that eight huge ornamental arches ran around the walls;
the rear one enclosed the high-altar recess, of moderate
depth; they all rested upon tall pilasters with ornate faces,
painted with arabesques and putti on golden ground. In
their eight spandrels were frescoed medallions containing
busts; on the four quarter-domes at the angles were four
larger frescoes, three of them modern, the fourth a splendid
work of Gaudenzio Ferrari.

It contained seven of his lovely angels, — five playing in-
struments of music, and two, above the others, singing from
a long scroll; all were united in that abandon of joyous mel-
ody, and distinguished by that full beauty of form, feature
and pose, that harmony of graceful gestures and rhythm of
movement, that gaiety of colouring — now, alas, greatly
faded — and that expression of rapt, heavenly happiness,
which are so striking and characteristic of the master's
genius. This painting was unfortunately in a sad condi-



THE TOWNS OF THE OLONA VALLEY 175

tion. The other three contained similar groups of playing
and singing angels, likewise disposed and gaily, tinted; but
what a difference, — in their lack of harmony of colours and
action, and their doll-like faces devoid of meaning.

Over the great arches, all the way around, ran an arcade
of niches framed with pilasters and mouldings, holding 32
lifesize statues of saints, in grey plaster; thence sprang the
curve of the dome, in each of whose eight divisions there was
a circular window, with a couple of painted female figures
beside it, of heroic size. These were the saints and sibyls
executed by Luini; and he did not seem to have taken any
special pains with them, — probably on account of their
height from the floor — having evidently confined himself
to a decorative purpose only. In such a work, too, his pu-
pils doubtless did a large part of the colouring. It is deco-
rative, and the figures are fairly lifelike, but that is all I can
say of them in their present state.

The other important paintings I found in the little choir.
Upon the insides of its front piers, facing each other, were
firstly the two figures of the Virgin and the announcing
angel, by Ferrari's pupil, Lanini, — rather insipid and ex-
pressionless. Next, upon the left wall, was a large fresco of
the Magi by the same hand, not well ordered but of natural,
vigorous, lifesize characters, significant and graceful; his
principal charm, the brilliant colouring, had much faded.
Upon the opposite wall, at the sides of a window, were an
angel playing a violin and a Nativity, also by Lanini; the
latter showing the same serious fault of poor composition, —
being, in fact, an aggregation of crowded heads; at any rate,
it was practically ruined. But now I had reached a genuine
treasure, the foremost of the city, — its celebrated ancona by
Ferrari himself, which he painted in 1539.

This was a large canvas over the high-altar, in a splendidly



176 LOMBARD TOWNS OF ITALY

carved gilt frame of six compartments. The principal
tableau was an Assumption : above the throng of apostles and
friends, gazing as usual with awestruck faces and uplifted
arms, soared the lovely, rounded form of the Madonna,
borne upon a cloud and accompanied by a flock of winged
cherubs; her face, beautiful though not very refined, was
upturned with a proper expression of rapture; like the disci-
ples below, she was clad in a simple, unadorned robe, — here



Online LibraryEgerton R. (Egerton Ryerson) WilliamsLombard towns in Italy; or, The cities of ancient Lombardy → online text (page 14 of 47)