Bastianino's "Judgement"

Written by  Francesco Arcangeli
As the Fondazione plans the restoration of this extraordinary work, we are reprinting one of the most important texts on this topic.
Thus we come to the Last Judgement in the vault of the apse of Ferrara Cathedral: Filippi's greatest work. With regard to dating I cannot argue with the terms established incontrovertibly by Cittadella. Filippi, better known as Il Bastianino, committed himself to producing the fresco in three years; and in fact it is recorded in the Register of the Cathedral Workshop that, in 1581, the master was paid the balance of the 300 golden scudi, the agreed price.

It is almost certain that the three working seasons between 1578 and 1580 saw Bastianino tackle and realize this great project. So Bastianino was awarded the commission and he showed he was up to the task. To have an idea of his status as an artist all we need do is consider the immense strides that took him, in the space of twenty years, from the production of grotesques to this enormous fresco.
It was by no means a critical failure, even though his fame was not propelled to the highest levels. As the historian Agostino Faustini boldly opined: «in which, competing with Michel Angel Buonaruota, he has bested him, if not in drawing, at least in colouring, & in Decoration».

The phrase was taken up again by Lanzi, who renewed it critically: «a work certainly close to that of Michelangiolo, with which the entire Florentine school has nothing comparable to offer. Here there is masterly drawing, a great variety of images, good composition, suitable repose for the eye. It seems incredible that Bastianino could have emerged looking so fresh and so great from [his treatment of] a subject already dealt with by Bonarruoti. It is clear that like all true imitators he did not copy the figures of his model, but the spirit and genius».
I imagine that Bastianino must have thought this no easy task, given that the place, the holiest and most prestigious in all Ferrara, and the subject, handled with such overwhelming power by Michelangelo, really put him to the hardest kind of test. But he probably had time to think about it all through the winter of 1577 and 1578, a lengthy gestation period after which he was able to execute the work with prolonged and happy vigour.

Some critics have talked of «transparent weightless plastic masses that pass like pale shadows, but with the distant rumble of the flood». In point of fact there is something riverine about this work, an abandoning of the compositional idea within the vortex that is taking shape around the figure of Christ: naturally this is a deliberate abandoning (dictated by the desire to follow the great semicircle of the apse, as if those bodies, floating against a sky ash-grey and blue as if after a cloudburst, were drifting off harmoniously, drawn by some immense celestial undertow); but it is not Michelangelo's imperative will that fills the large rectangular space with hidden harmony and above all with overwhelming effect.

Every form that in Michelangelo is used to perforate and lacerate space, or rather, to create it forcibly with every foreshortening, every twist, every plunge, in Bastianino is used to impress its rotundity fluidly on the sky; as flowing and varied as can be, yet immensely docile. I think that Bastianino showed brilliant intuition in realizing that the wonderfully rhythmic motif of the angels bearing the signs of the Passion on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel was one perfectly suited to his own style. Proof of this can be had in turning a photo of Michelangelo's Judgement upside down and observing the two groups: the germ of Bastianino's grandiose "orchestration" ought to be evident. The Christ is no longer a "deified stone'' spurred INTO ACTION, but a slow, solemn round pebble that sinks leaving great concentric circles ALL around it.
This conception strikes me as being worthy of a place half way between Michelangelo's Judgement and the infinite, boundless, stormy, but in the final analysis concentric, ocean of Tintoretto's Gloria del Paradiso in the Ducal Palace in Venice. By this I do not mean to imply that Tintoretto, who went to Mantua in 1580 to install the paintings he had made for the Gonzagas, had made a detour to nearby Ferrara (where Bastianino's Judgement had yet to be unveiled), nor that Bastianino's fame was potent enough to attract an established master such as Tintoretto; I simply mean to say that by that time the Ferrarese painter had made enormous progress.

The inevitable comparisons between Dosso-Ariosto (or Ariosto-Titian) have struck me for some time as seductive but generic, while that between Tasso and Bastianino now seems less and less so, and the painter emerges well from such a comparison. When it comes to infernal themes, indeed, the disturbing poetry of the demons, depicted low down in his Judgement, more than bears comparison with the hellish council in the Gerusalemme. «Chiama gli abitator dell'ombre eterne...»; cultivated Italians are familiar with the verses, beautiful but too deliberately sonorous, with which Tasso tackles the same theme that Bastianino imagines, this time, with a subtler rapture.

One could produce an infinity of details to demonstrate that the master's inspiration was not limited only to his "decorative" qualities, but subtends every part of his drama. I do not think we are overdoing things if we compare the large detail in the centre with Titian's Annunciation in S. Salvatore's, with those angel's heads, almost as sensual as Renoir's portraits of his children. Now I am not suggesting that Bastianino has equalled the glory of a model that was as awesome in its own way as Michelangelo's; but it may not be denied that the two works possess an analogous sense of upheaval.

The artist must have devoted tireless attention and feeling, as well as physical and psychological presence to his fresco. He peopled it, as one did, with familiar faces; starting, probably, with his own. The St. Sebastian, plump but not excessively Apollonian, slightly absorbed, with a hint of disdain in his glance, has been recognized as his self portrait.

Now, I don't think it fanciful to say that this St. Sebastian, even though his may almost seem a generically angelicized boyishness, in reality corresponds to the face looking out (younger, naturally) from between the Virgin and the Priest, in the large Circumcision in the Pinacoteca; the same face also resembles the one on the extreme top right of the Judgement in the Certosa and, finally, the one in the corner of that fine picture of The Virgin, St. Lucy and St. Matthew, formerly the property of the nuns of the Order of St. Lucy and now in the Pinacoteca di Ferrara.
It is precisely this comparison with these groups of "intentional" figures, frequent in Bastianino's work, that persuades me that Bastianino peopled that part of the Judgement with his own family: himself, his mother, father and brother.

Behold him then, Bastianino, handsome, a little plump, disdainful, a touch effeminate, meditative: a real self portrait, ideal and real. The same head, of almost exactly the same age, appears in the altarpiece; the heads in both the fresco and the oil painting convey a similar sense of inner maturity. Barotti's well turned phrase about bodies that seemed like "a piece OF glassware blown IN one single breath" seems singularly apt here - even more so than it does to the Judgement in the Certosa.
In their full, potent, pacified humanity, and in the drapery, from which the light seems to ooze out from rather than strike, these pictures are not different in any respect. The Virgin's tunic is a genuine masterpiece, as is the background: imposing columns, the antique vastness of the tent; and the sorrowful silence of the forlorn landscape, where Titianesque russets despair beneath a sad sky. One might say that here Bastianino was aware of a pause, an equilibrium between dream and human credibility that causes his aesthetic path briefly to cross that of Veronese.

To get back to the Judgement, this is how the resurrection of the flesh struck Bastianino: in comparison with the living tragedy of the rents opened in the sky by the bodies of the resurrected, as in Michelangelo, here there is the lethargy of those who, it seems, have not yet grasped the fact of their own beatitude. The terrible and tacit daydream of the work in the Cappella Paolina is muted by the sad, profound elegy of flesh that is apparently undefiled, sensually useless, and yet still veiled in its humours as in a cold shroud.

In the case of these figures too references to apparitions in the style of Goya do not seem out of place, despite a substantial difference in feeling. However it would be fitting to establish another very close kinship with the majestic St. Cecilia, once in S. Maria in Vado and now in the Pinacoteca. Of course, as is often said, Bastianino may have been thinking of Raphael's St. Cecilia, but the reference is only passing.

The feeling emanating from this soft, powerful virago, even though she was once the offspring of Michelangelo and Titian, and - just for once - of Dosso, is completely original. But, in comparison with the radiant appeal of Dosso's seeresses, she is a sort of faded Isis, grieving in a decay barely kept at bay and surrounded by agitated angels worn as fraying sails, with those great instruments, and the trumpet whose cold radiance cannot sound the resurrection; only Gotterdammerung.