PAINTING IN CENTRAL ITALY DURING THE 16TH CENTURY. INTRODUCTION.

The Italian Renaissance entered its maturity beginning in the first years of the 16th century, a period known in the History of Art as the High Renaissance. For some art historians this period began between ca. 1495 or 1500 and culminated in 1520 with the death of Raphael; while for other historians the High Renaissance ended ca. 1525 or 1527 with the Sack of Rome (others even extend it to 1530). During this period a new stage in the History of Art was inaugurated, not only in Italy, but throughout Europe. From that moment on, European art showed extraordinary cohesion; it evolved, it knew alternatives, but its characteristics didn’t disintegrate until well into the 19th century.

When studying the Italian Renaissance of the Quattrocento, mainly in Florence, Rome often resonates as a distant obsession for all artists. Masaccio, Brunelleschi and Donatello had all visited Rome to see its “miracles”. Full of curiosity, they toured its ruins, and were able to contemplate marbles and vaults of ancient Roman monuments. But in the second half of the 15th century things changed rapidly; Florentine artists no longer came to Rome as scholarly travelers, but called upon by the pontiffs to attend to the works of decoration and embellishment that were being undertaken in the Eternal City. However, Leonardo da Vinci, the hero of the then new investigations that led painting from the harmonization and positioning of things in their natural environment to their fusion with it in art, lived for a few months in Rome later in his life, and it is not certain that he accomplished any of his work there. This brilliant artist who lived on horseback between the 15th and 16th centuries, the first modern spirit tormented by mechanical inquiries, an intellectual who was interested in everything, with an indefatigable desire to know never satisfied, died at the age of 67 in 1519. After a laborious life, he left only a little more than half a dozen works completely finished; but, as Vasari said, “he did more with words than with deeds”.

Leonardo left a multitude of disciples, although none worthy of being the successor of such a great master. Some of them understood something of his genius; others did nothing but imitate his style, vulgarizing the dark and mysterious tones of his paintings, reproducing the delicate gestures of his feminine type with an affected style. Vasari gave us an idea of ​​how absorbing Leonardo’s personality must have been for his disciples: as the painter had no other relationships and had no family, he felt a deep affection for the young apprentices who, attracted by his genius, flocked around him. One of them, Francesco Melzi, who in Leonardo’s time was a handsome young man, was his executor and heir to his writings. Another, Vasari continued, Andrea Salaì, “was very vague in grace and beauty, he had beautiful curly and upright hair, for which Leonardo was very delighted and taught him many things of art”. Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio and Andrea Solari were, together with Bernardino Luini, the only truly personal disciples of Leonardo. Sometimes these disciples did not adopt Leonardo’s grave tone in painting except in portraits; in their portrayals of Virgins and mystical saints they were predominantly optimistic and sweet, depicting a domestic, every-day air.

Of all these disciples of Leonardo, the one who has achieved the greatest reputation is Bernardino Luini (ca. 1480/1482-June 1532), perhaps born in Runo, a commune of Dumenza, near Lake Maggiore. He signed as Lovinus and all his artistic activity was spent in Lombardy. For a long time, Luini has been considered as a ‘sweet’ painter, a sentimental vulgarizer of Leonardo’s pictorial conception. And yet, with his Lombard good sense, with his deep sense of life and nature, with his ability to express himself in a very concrete way, Luini was the best representative in northern Italy of the typical style of the High Renaissance of the 16th century. In his works Luini also had a certain “archaic” character, well drawn, of an artist ‘grounded’ to earth, which has made him to be appreciated by critics of our time. He painted many Virgins, all with a gesture of affectionate piety that has been highly esteemed by collectors of our day; sometimes on either side of the Virgin there is a saint with the same pleasant aspect. All his figures have a languid gesture, somewhat monotonous, but he often managed to produce truly beautiful types such as the famous Madonna and child holding an apple (today in Berlin) and the Madonna of the Rose garden (in the Pinacoteca Brera in Milan), painted approximately ca. 1510-1525. Vasari praised some of his frescoes on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which he painted in the Villa la Pelucca near Milan. A reflection of what Luini’s paintings on pagan subjects would be are given by the frescoes originally in this Villa La Pelucca that were later transferred to the Pinacoteca Brera in Milan. They show us graceful representations of nymphs and ancient divinities. Another group of frescoes by Luini still exists in the church of Saronno, in Lombardy, where he repeated the ancient Giottesque themes of the life of the Virgin, but with modern grace.

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Madonna and child holding an Apple, oil on wood panel, by Bernardino Luini,, ca. 1510-1525, 53×42 cm (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin).
Madonna of the Rose Garden, oil on wood panel, by Bernardino Luini, ca. 1510, 70 x 63 cm (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan). The painting of Bernardino Luini was strongly influenced by the works of Leonardo da Vinci, whom had visited Milan during the late 15th century and again briefly in the early 16th century. Leonardo, as a young artist in Florence, also worked in several compositions with almost the same theme portrayed in this painting: the Christ child reaching for flowers. Luini worked on variations on this theme, like the Christ child holding an apple to his mother (see picture before). In this particular painting portrayed above, Luini shows a baby Jesus pointing at a vase with his left hand, referring to his mother as the mystic vessel, while with his right hand holds the stem of the Columbine (Aquilegia) with a red flower symbolizing his future Passion. It also seems that Luini is indebted to Leonardo not only for the portrayal of the same motif but for other aspects of the painting as well: the dark background, the softness of the forms, the emphatic use of chiaroscuro, the sweet sentiment of the figures, the turning pose of the Child. This painting was originally held in the Certosa di Pavia.
Nymphs Bathing, fresco transferred to panel, by Bernardino Luini, ca. 1541, 135 x 235 cm (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan). Bernardino Luini originally painted this fresco for a series he produced for the Villa La Pelucca, a country estate of the Milanese nobleman Gerolamo Rabia. Most of the surviving frescoes are in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan (23), though others are in the Wallace Collection in London (2), the Louvre in Paris, the Musée Condé in Chantilly, France (2) and a private collection (1). The fresco pictured above may be part of the story of Diana and Callisto as recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and his poem Fasti. In this fresco, Luini’s composition involves a diagonal and a frontal patterns, with countervailing volumes represented by the bathing girls and areas of bright color. While the simplicity of forms is the dominant note of this fresco, the balanced pastoral scene builds up an ample and satisfying atmosphere in its spaced-out perspective planes. The nudes have often been described as chaste and restrained.
Marriage of the Virgin and Jesus among the Doctors, fresco, by Bernardino Luini, ca. 1525-1532 (Santuario della Beata Vergine dei Miracoli, Saronno, Lombardy, Italy). Bernardino Luini was responsible for the series of frescoes that adorn the walls of the apse, the presbytery, the anti-presbytery and those below the dome of the church of Santuario della Beata Vergine dei Miracoli in Saronno; he also painted the figures on the vault of the Cenacle’s chapel and a Nativity placed in the cloister. Since this church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, these frescoes depict Marian scenes. The fresco pictured above, representing the mystical marriage of the Virgin to Jesus, is located in the anti-presbytery, and together with the frescoes of the Adoration of the Magi and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, they constitute one of the highest points reached by Luini in the fresco technique. In the composition of these scenes, the viewer can recognize the great narrative qualities of Bernardino, with a multitude of characters, arranged on different planes, and shown wearing colorful attires; their faces are lively and expressive, and seem to move in a calm and persuasive atmosphere. Bernardino was also a master in applying perspective, in particular, here we can see a skillful use of perspective illusionism that makes the spectator to have the impression that the figures painted on the scenes come towards him/her.

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After this Saronno series, Luini painted in the church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore in Milan, around 1522-1524, another group of frescoes with scenes portraying episodes of the Life of San Maurizio. Also, for the Villa la Peluca, he painted frescoes depicting scenes from the Legend of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, which lent more to display his inventiveness. One of these frescoes is considered his masterpiece. It represents the moment in which the angels, taking through the air the body of the virgin martyr of Alexandria, are going to deposit it in the opened sepulcher destined for her in the convent on Mount Sinai. The Byzantine convent of Sinai had been very famous throughout the Middle Ages for housing the relics of Saint Catherine; the pilgrims who visited the Holy Places deviated from their path to make that stopover. In Luini’s fresco there is nothing to indicate the Sinai or the convent: there are only three flying angels that support the saint’s body, already rigid, although for them it seems very light. Attentive, they descend from above with their precious cargo wrapped in a cloak to deposit it in an open Roman sarcophagus, which has a relief in grisaille with two tritons. The contrast between the gray tones of the sarcophagus with the brightly colored robes of the angels is of a beautiful effect.

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Frescoes on the Life of San Maurizio by Bernardino Luini, 1522-1524, (San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, Milan). In the Benedictine convent church of San Maurizio in Milan the nuns’ enclosure was separated from the section of the church for the laity by a partition (tramezzo in Italian). The partition was integrated into the rhythm and articulation of the nave with the series of pilasters arches continuing across the partition. Bernardino Luini was commissioned to decorate these walls with frescoes. This decoration was donated by Alessandro Bentivoglio, son of the former ruler of Bologna, and his Milanese wife, Ippolita Sforza Bentivoglio. Both the donors are depicted together with female saints in the side arch bays. The portraits face the altar, above which, in the middle, where the altarpiece would later be located, there was originally a tall grill, behind which stood the nuns’ chancel. In the upper register of the painted wall, on either side of the Assumption of the Virgin, are two scenes from the legend of St. Maurice, the patron saint of the church. Such architectonically articulated barriers were frequently repeated in later churches in Milan.
Saint Catherine’s Body Carried by the Angels, fresco transferred to panel, by Bernardino Luini, ca. 1514, 123 x 228 cm (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan). Gerolamo Rabia, an aristocrat fond of literature, the ancient world and architecture, commissioned Luini to decorate several rooms in his country estate of Villa La Pelucca, which still exists but is now a retirement housing. This particular fresco stood over the door of a chapel dedicated to St. Catherine. Much admired for its simple purity and beloved by art critics of the 19th century, it depicts angels delicately bearing the Saint Catherine’s body from Alexandria to Mount Sinai after her martyrdom. The contrast between the rigid line of the sarcophagus and the plastic freedom of the figures profiled in flight emphasizes the figure of the saint. It is almost as if she were being pushed back by the stony hardness of the rigorously geometrical tomb. Accompanying the sinuous and springing line of the angels, and the soft and heavy rhythms of the lifeless body, the refined passages of tonal colors between the monochrome sarcophagus and the angel’s clothing make this fresco one of the mot successful of Luini’s poetic achievements in painting.

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However, the artist who had to introduce a bit of the Lombard artistic force into the Tuscan school was Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, better known by his nickname il Sodoma, born in 1477 in Vercelli, in Lombardy. After being influenced by the artistic spirit of Leonardo, he went to Tuscany, where he became naturalized. Thus, the painting of central Italy, exhausted by the imitators of the disciples of Perugino and Botticelli, received new blood thanks to Sodoma, who contributed no less to the renewal of the dying artistic schools of Siena and Umbria. A disorganized genius, perhaps his artistic faculties began to decline, his spirit languished, and despite the fine clothing of his characters, his figures turned out to be no more than poor mannequins. But when he worked with all the fullness of his strength, what an extraordinary facility he had for the creation of original themes! In Siena, where he settled in 1501, Sodoma would be understood better than anywhere else: there he married and there he died in 1549. Along with Pinturicchio, Sodoma was one of the first to bring the style of the High Renaissance to Siena. Siena was by tradition the city of excessive and refined luxury. Sodoma rewarded his new homeland for his adoption with admirable paintings: his frescoes in the church of San Domenico, especially the famous Saint Catherine fainting who passed out in the arms of her companions. At the top appears the Divine Husband, whose vision causes the abduction of the nun, and perhaps this figure of Christ is inferior to the rest of the painting; but in the fainted saint, what abandonment, what a successful way to express, with the paralysis of the senses, the inner feelings of the Saint!

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Above and below: View of the Cappella di Santa Caterina in the Basilica of San Domenico, Siena. For the Cappella di Santa Caterina, Sodoma executed the mural decoration in 1526. This chapel was built in the late 15th century to house the relic of St. Catherine’s head and thumb in a marble tabernacle. Sodoma transformed this space to appear as if it was an open loggia resting on piers. The real altar is continued to the side as a painted balustrade in perspective, above which, in a wide opening on the left Catherine is seen fainting (see pictures below) and, on the right, she appears in ecstasy.
Saint Catherine faints after receiving the stigmata, fresco, by Sodoma, 1526 (Cappella di Santa Caterina, Basilica of San Domenico, Siena).

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Another depiction of Christ Bound to the Column, from the Pinacoteca of Siena, with a Herculean torso, but bent in gallant flexion and with a rare expression in his gaze, truly constitutes a type parallel to that of the fainted saint Catherine; these are the two figures by Sodoma that are the most memorable. However, this artist, whose sensitivity seemed to run out before he finished a painting, had the constancy to complete a series of 26 frescoes representing episodes of the Life of Saint Benedict in the cloister of the convent of Monteoliveto, as a continuation of the same series begun by Luca Signorelli in 1498. Vasari tells several anecdotes from Sodoma’s life in the cloister. These frescoes are, like all the works of Sodoma, a paragon of beauty and also of vulgar follies. He portrayed himself in one of the frescoes, still young, with a theatrical sword, long hair and covered with a cape, followed by some small dogs, a marmot and a duck, in a similar way the eccentric decadentists of the 19th century would later portray themselves trying to make the same display of aestheticism of Sodoma, though with less artistry, of course.

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Christ Bound to the Column, fresco transferred to panel, by Sodoma, ca. 1511-1514, 140 × 101cm (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena).
General view of the fresco cycle by Sodoma in the the Great Cloister of the Abbazia, Monteoliveto Maggiore (Territorial Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore) in Tuscany. This abbey comprises a jumble of structures linked by three inner cloisters of different sizes and with different functions. The Great Cloister (Chiostro Grande) was frescoed by Luca Signorelli with nine scenes on the west side (1497-1499) and by Sodoma with 28 scenes (1505-1508 and after 1513). The fresco cycle includes 36 scenes from the Life of St. Benedict, Sodoma placed the scenes with the greatest number of figures were placed in the corner bays where they could be appreciated from a greater distance. The life of St. Benedict was considered as a reflection and ideal of the monastic life. The frescoes were based on the saint’s biography written by Gregory the Great in about 593-594.
Life of St. Benedict, Scene 1: Benedict Leaves His Parent’s House, fresco from the cycle on the Episodes of the Life of St. Benedict, by Sodoma, 1505-1508 (Abbazia, Monteoliveto Maggiore, Tuscany). In this scene, St. Benedict is depicted leaving his parent’s house in Norcia to study in Rome. He is accompanied by his nurse, Cirilla. The young saint, seated on a very lively and temperamental white horse, stands out effectively against the broad landscape. He has turned in the saddle to look back at his parents, who are staying behind, while a groom sets out ahead. The composition was inspired by the first scene painted by Pinturicchio in the Piccolomini Library in Siena.
Life of St. Benedict, Scene 3: Benedict Repairs a Broken Colander through Prayer, fresco from the cycle on the Episodes of the Life of St. Benedict, by Sodoma, 1505-1508 (Abbazia, Monteoliveto Maggiore, Tuscany). Here, Benedict repairs a broken colander through devotional prayer (to the left). Sodoma made sure he would be forever associated with this fresco cycle by including a prominent self-portrait in the scene (the man in the center holding a sword). His depiction of himself dressed in an elegant costume and sporting a long wavy hair, turning his back on the crucial event of the scene in his eagerness to make eye contact with the viewer, goes a long way toward confirming Vasari’s description of him as an impossible eccentric.
Life of St. Benedict, Scene 13: Benedict Frees a Monk, fresco from the cycle on the Episodes of the Life of St. Benedict, by Sodoma, 1505-1508 (Abbazia, Monteoliveto Maggiore, Tuscany). St. Benedict here is seen freeing a monk who has been possessed by a devil by whipping him (right).
In a number of scenes Benedict is required to be stern with his weaker brothers, either because they have become possessed by demons or because they have given in to their desires.
Life of St. Benedict, Scene 30: Benedict Foretells the Destruction of Montecassino, fresco from the cycle on the Episodes of the Life of St. Benedict, by Sodoma, 1505-1508 (Abbazia, Monteoliveto Maggiore, Tuscany). This scene depicts Benedict foretelling the destruction of Montecassino.
In this and other similar scenes Sodoma illustrated successive phases of a single event, thus depicting moment-by-moment developments within a particular episode. In this scene the viewer is far more captivated by the massive rump of a horse looming up in the foreground, and reminding us of the paintings by Uccello or Piero della Francesca, or the two men scuffling on the right than by the actual subject matter, which is presented only in a tiny secondary scene in the background (extreme right upper corner).

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For a brotherhood in Siena he also painted a Saint Sebastian, perhaps his masterpiece. Here Sodoma shows no difficulties in the composition: a naked body, of an androgynous beauty, slightly bent in a martyrdom that seems sensual. The saint appears as a modern Ganymede or Hylas in this work kept in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Finally, Sodoma went to Rome in 1508, called by the banker Agostino Chigi, administrator of the Pope and almost a minister of the papal finances. Chigi took the Lombard painter with him to work in the Vatican, and his success there was absolute. Sodoma lived in Rome until 1513, and Raphael himself portrayed with him as his main collaborator. But if the art of Sodoma disappears in the Vatican rooms, overshadowed by those by Raphael, on the other hand, in another work also painted in Rome as a special commission from Agostino Chigi, is where we can best appreciate the style of the Lombard painter. Chigi, who lived in the Palace of the Chancellery, ceded by the Pope, had a residence built on the other side of the Tiber for his coming wedding to Octavia Piccolomini. This mansion, which was later acquired by the Farnese, is today known as the Farnesina. Its architecture, which on the façade has no more than exquisite decorative pilasters, was the work of Baldassare Peruzzi. On the first floor, Sodoma decorated the banker’s sleeping chamber, depicting in it several somewhat emphatic scenes from the Story of Alexander the Great. But in one of the wall panels of this room, the portrayed subject has singular interest for the History of Art; there Sodoma wanted to reconstruct the famous ancient painting by Aetion representing the Wedding of Alexander and Roxana, described by Lucian. This is an exercise similar to that Botticelli did before with the painting of The Calumny, by Apelles. Lucian also detailed the figures in Aetion’s painting one by one, and the one who showed this text to Sodoma must have been a Hellenistic scholar friend of Chigi, surely wishing that the Lombard painter would do no more than a simple graphic illustration following to the letter the paragraphs of Lucian. But Sodoma was no man to be reduced to representing the preliminaries of a wedding as they were painted in Aetion’s picture. In the ancient original, Roxana’s composure and modesty were admired, while in Sodoma’s version the princess has a freer attitude: she unties her tunic from her shoulder to give herself to the hero, who comes to her, while on the floor little cupids joyfully play with the conqueror’s weapons.

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St. Sebastian, oil on canvas, by Sodoma, 1525, 206 x 154 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). One of the most celebrated works of Sodoma, this work was painted on both sides, with the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian (in the recto) and the Virgin in glory with the Child, St. Sigismondo, St. Rocco, and members of Saint Sebastian confraternity (in the verso). This was due to the use of this work as a processional gonfalon*, which required it to be visible from both the front and the rear sides. It was commissioned to Sodoma in 1525 by the members of the company of St. Sebastian in Siena. Traditionally, Sebastian was assigned the role of protector from epidemic illnesses. For many centuries, and in particular between the 14th and 18th centuries, these plagues repeatedly scourged Europe. The iconography of Sebastian’s martyrdom embodied an ideal of strong, youthful beauty, victorious even in the face of the most cruel torments, such as those inflicted by illnesses, then unknown and almost always fatal, but with which man had learned to coexist, by surrounding himself with a network of social solidarity, such as the brotherhoods. In this painting the influence of Leonardo is evident. Sodoma placed the Saint in the center foreground, painting him in a bright light with delicate chiaroscuro shading against a background with a landscape studded with ancient ruins, like the ones Sodoma saw when in Rome. For the figure of St. Sebastian, Sodoma, like his peers, had access to a vast range of ancient Greek and Roman statues, and his greatest inspiration came from the most celebrated and copied sculpture in Rome in the 16th century: Laocoön and his sons. The saint’s expression, weak and suffering, with tears streaming down his beautiful face as he receives the crown of martyrdom from the angel, was the first to appear to the faithful during the processions, arousing the most emotional senses of compassion and faith. But the function of the standard and its message are completed in the scene depicted on the back, a more solemn and official image, celebrating the Virgin, protector of Siena.
Wedding of Alexander and Roxane, fresco, by Sodoma, ca. 1517, 370 x 660 cm (Villa Farnesina, Rome). The banker Agostino Chigi’s bedchamber in his Villa in Rome was frescoed by Sodoma on two of its walls. These two frescoes by Sodoma display a narrative that includes large-scale figures, thus inviting visitors to “be part” of these scenes. The main painting shows the wedding of Alexander the Great and Roxane, one of Sodoma’s most succesful frescoes. The composition is based on an ancient ekphrasis* (a graphic description of a visual work of art). Lucian described a painting by the ancient master Aetion: Alexander handing the crown to Roxane in their wedding chamber. Roxane is sitting on the nuptial bed, with Hephaistion and the god of marriage, Hymen, standing to the side (right); while cupids are playing with the Alexander’s weapons and armor. Sodoma followed the general description of the scene, trying to recreate the ancient painting. However, the stage on which the figures are placed and their distribution in his composition follow a contemporary model: Raphael’s frescoes in the Stanze di Raffaello in the Vatican, inspired mostly by the fresco depicting the Fire in the Borgo. This fresco by Sodoma is often considered a rival as a decorative achievement to the frescoes by the school of Raphael painted in the same villa.
Wedding of Alexander and Roxane (detail), fresco, by Sodoma, ca. 1517, 370 x 660 cm (Villa Farnesina, Rome).

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Later Raphael and his disciples decorated the lower portico of the Farnesina with scenes from the myth of Psyche, but respected, as unsurpassed masterpieces, the frescoes painted by Sodoma. The character of this man is disturbing and difficult to understand, he took long trips to go to horse races, had a fondness for chiromancy, even the Pope knighted him with the Order of Christ and Emperor Charles named him Count Palatine, he also perhaps was the ideal teacher for Raphael and, nevertheless, signed himself with the nickname of Sodoma (Sodom). Sodoma died in Siena on February 14, 1549.

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Ekphrasis: (From the Greek “ek” and “phrásis”, ‘out’ and ‘speak’ respectively, and the verb “ekphrázein”, meaning “to proclaim or call an inanimate object by name”). The description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise. It is a vivid, often dramatic, verbal description of a visual work of art, either real or imagined. In ancient times, it referred to a description of any thing, person, or experience.

Gonfalon: A type of heraldic flag or banner, often pointed, swallow-tailed, or with several streamers, and suspended from a crossbar in an identical manner to the ancient Roman vexillum. It was first adopted by Italian medieval communes, and later, by local guilds, corporations and districts during the Renaissance. The difference between a gonfalon with long tails and a standard is that a gonfalon displays the device on the non-tailed area, and the standard displays badges down the whole length of the flag. The gonfalon has long been used for ecclesiastical ceremonies and processions.