Like an Immense Autumnal Ghost

Written by  Grazia Agostini
The progressive dissolution of forms in Bastianino's painting.
Visiting the rooms of the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Ferrara and lingering only over the paintings of Bastianino is rather like going back over the various stages of a pictorial and spiritual itinerary that is one of the most important in the history of art in Ferrara.The altar pieces (because here we are dealing, mostly, with large paintings) arrived in the Museum at different times and in different ways, a fact due to external conditions or precarious states of repair. Some works found temporary refuge in the Museum, others only passed through. There has never been any particular desire to make a comprehensive public collection of the corpus of an artist whose critical fortunes have always been controversial and not devoid of periods in the shadows.

In more recent times, on the other hand, works by Bastianino have been painstakingly traced on the antiques market or acquired by the State (the Scenes from the Life of St Romanus, in 1973) or by the Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara (the Visitation, in 1991).

Despite the random nature of the purchases, the works by Bastianino in the Pinacoteca are a homogeneous set of paintings, all on religious subjects and all demonstrative of what is referred to as the painter's "foggy" or "misty" style. They are works that speak a different language to that adopted by Bastianino for the secular decorative work he undertook for the glittering Este court.
The paintings in the Pinacoteca, on the other hand, are elaborated in accordance with a different stylistic register, adopted by the artist above all for his religious compositions, to this day somewhat disconcerting and hard to interpret. The painter's complex career can be reconstructed by selecting, in the course of a well-planned visit to the Pinacoteca, only a few exemplary cases.

This itinerary ought to begin with the last painting to arrive in the Pinacoteca: the Last Judgement from the Church of San Cristoforo in the Charterhouse of Ferrara.
On 5 August 1565, the monks of the charterhouse encharged Camillo Filippi, together with his sons Cesare and Sebastiano, with the task of executing two anconas for the altars in the transept of their church: the Ascension of Christ and the Assumption of the Virgin, a subject later changed - but we do not know when - to that of the Last Judgement.

The theme of the Judgement must have struck Bastianino as particularly stimulating, involving as it inevitably did a sort of challenge with another Judgement, frescoed by Michelangelo a score of years before on the rear wall of the Sistine Chapel. This challenge was taken up by Bastianino in the Charterhouse in the form of the canvases collocated in the panels of the ancona, where Bastianino's brief was to replicate the Prophets and the Sibyls in the Sistine. During that same period, Bastianino returned to the theme of the Judgement, but on a far vaster scale, in the fresco made for the semi-dome in the apse of the Cathedral. The influence of Michelangelo is, of course, a recurrent motif in the work of this painter.
While the basic idea behind the Judgement is a re-elaboration of Michelangelo's terribilità, the other paintings in the Pinacoteca mark an ever more solitary path toward a style that was harder to understand and less flattering to the eye of the beholder, a style in which the models provided by Emilian, Venetian, or Roman painting are re-elaborated more and more as they are gradually assimilated into a personal style in which quotations become less literal and less recognizable.

Another painting from the Charterhouse is the next milestone: the Saint Christopher, probably painted shortly after the restoration of the church in the aftermath of the earthquake of 1571.
The painting, dedicated to the patron saint of the Charterhouse, is an undeniable blend of Venetian models and a Michelangelesque antecedent, the Prophet Ezekiel, already painted for the ancona in the Charterhouse. The saint is portrayed "LIKE an immense autumnal ghost" (Arcangeli).

It is impossible by now to reconstruct the reactions of the clients and of the faithful when faced with such an unappealing interpretation of the gigantic saint who bore Christ on his back, a saint very dear to popular devotion and to the popular imagination. Perhaps that was the moment when the critics and historiographers of the day began to have their first doubts about certain aspects of Bastianino's style.
True, the critical destiny reserved for Bastianino's painting, and for the whole of the second half of the Cinquecento in Ferrara, was to remain forgotten for many years or, rather, to resurface solely in the literature on local art, without ever being subjected to accurate critical revision.

The reassessment of the Ferrara school began with Lanzi and, later, with Gruyer.
Then came Longhi's "Workshop", which saw to the rehabilitation of the brighter stars of the Renaissance as far as Dossi. But the others seem to have been left trapped within a sort of hazy "comet's tail" in which the crisis affecting the Duchy dominated a panorama with little room for artistic events.

The Conversion and the Baptism of St Romanus (now in the Pinacoteca) were executed for the high altar of the church dedicated to the holy martyr and commissioned by the Merchants' AND Drapers' Guild. Hints of classical sculpture appear in the first episode in which St Lawrence is portrayed nude in the act of converting St Romanus who, dressed as a soldier, is observing his martyrdom. In the other scene, St Romanus bends to receive baptism. Neither scene has any truck with details and the large figures and surrounding elements seem to swell until they all but invade a neutral and abstract space.
A similar setting, devoid of all connotations, appears in the Annunciation painted in the Eighties for the chorus of the Confraternita del Buon Amore. After the suppression of the oratory the great painting was moved to the Church of St Apollonia, and thence to the Pinacoteca. The altarpiece features the traditional iconography of the Annunciation, with the Virgin distracted from her meditations by the appearance of the angel and the dove of the Holy Spirit within a glory of cherubim. Here the artist has completely abandoned Mannerist composition, just as he has eschewed any form of preparatory drawing.

A similar dematerialization and transposition to a more intimate and dreamy atmosphere applies to other paintings that nonetheless possess traditionally codified iconographical elements. This is the case of one of the most popular subjects: the Madonna and the saints.

In all likelihood, the painting in the Pinacoteca of the Madonna and Child, St Lucy, St Matthew and the Angel was executed for the Augustinian nuns of the Nunnery of Santa Lucia around 1582, the date of the consecration of the nunnery. Here too, we find a disjunction of form that is similar to paintings from Titian's last period or Michelangelo's last drawings.
A profoundly visionary tone pervades one of Bastianino's few "ecstasies": the St Cecilia, made for the Church of Santa Maria in Vado. A blurred giantess, almost devoid of body and substance, she is unaware of her own self as she contemplates the divine. The painting was bought by the town council of Ferrara in 1834 to constitute, along with another six works, the nucleus of the future Pinacoteca Civica.

This method of painting on Bastianino's part has opened up a dialogue with modern sensibilities, which are more prepared to accept those stylemes that local art critics never managed to appreciate. The equivalence with the crepuscular poetry of Tasso constitutes the preferred interpretative key to the painter's later work.

There is no proof that the two artists ever frequented each other: perhaps they met during the early, happy days at court, as we are led to surmise by the sonnet dedicated by the poet to the young painter. Far from being a pictorial expedient, and far less so a flaw, Bastianino's "fog", the veil that covers and obscures the colours and deprives bodies of all consistency, becomes the expression in paint of the melancholy inspired by the decline of the Ferrarese court.

The comparison between Bastianino and Torquato Tasso came up again in the Pinacoteca in 1997 in the course of the exhibition Tasso, Tiziano e i pittori del parlar disgiunto, in which Bastianino's interrupted and fragmentary style was likened to that of painters of similar inclination: from the late Titian, to Tintoretto, Barocci, and Jacopo Bassano.

The comparison between these painters and the poet of Gerusalemme springs from the recognition of a similar sentimental disposition to interpret the crisis affecting a world: in 1577, when Bastianino was beginning the Judgement, Tasso was at the start of his tragic peregrinations from prison to mental asylum.

But the parallel does not arise solely from a consonant state of mind. On the contrary, it is the breaking up and dismemberment of the stylistic discourse and the abolition of traditional syntactical elements that make it possible to compare Bastianino's style to that "parlar disgiunto" that Tasso had recognized as a component of his own style, as mentioned in his letter of 1573 to Scipione Gonzaga.