A Courtly Hero

Written by  Andrea Emiliani
Bastianino as he emerges from Francesco Arcangeli's seminal work.
Following the publication of his book on Bastianino, published by the Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara at the end of 1962, Francesco Arcangeli complained that not so much as one reviewer had made any effort to discuss his work.

The complexity of the material, the difficulty involved in collocating the painter in the second half of the Cinquecento, and the somewhat embarrassing personality of an artist who had no history until Arcangeli slotted him into his right place in the history of Ferrara and Northern Italy, made this a tricky case indeed. Throughout Arcangeli's innovative study, Bastianino constantly emerges as the unexpected protagonist of a courtly life that had reached a point marked by a kind of bitter and weary decadence.


The problem with Bastianino, arguably both in life and in death, was that he did not seem to fit in with any of the main known artistic co-ordinates. Collocated without any immediate identity of his own between the later Titian and the later Michelangelo, he lived a latent life, devoid of any true artistic visibility. Just consider the way his chromatic forms emerge in the half light of Ferrara's churches, an image redolent of foggy days.
Such forms could hardly fail to call up Venice, but how to link Titian with this mysterious refraction? Here too Arcangeli provides us with an instrument wholly rooted in Ferrara and in the work of Torquato Tasso: this is what the poet called parlar disgiunto, of which more later.

It would seem highly contradictory to assign a destiny to a spirit so enthralled by the luminism of Titian and the mysticism of the Michelangelo of the Cappella Paolina in the Vatican. Two completely different old men, they were nonetheless destined to leave an undying mark in their penitential years. It is for this reason that their destiny cannot be measured against everyday life, which was the great consequence of the exhortatory evangelical message of the Tridentine Council. The story of such men cannot endure the counterpoint of a minor history.

The establishment of Bastianino's image derives from the dimension invented by Longhi in 1934. Faced with the submerged gleaming of the Judgement in the apse, he evoked the Celtic propheticism of William Blake. In this he had been helped by the critic Baruffaldi with his views on Bastianino's "veiled taste" for the local fogs. The Ashen Titans were interpreted as Michelangelesque aspects of a form that was no longer triumphant but, if anything, penitential. This was followed by a splendid insight in which he maintained it was possible to descry in Bastianino the capacity to "transmute artistic rather than NATURAL DATA".
An exile in his native land. No one resembled Bastianino, not even within the walls of Ferrara. Basically, the key problem in Bastianino's work regards the reasons for that swelling and levitation of this human stuff with no access to a diurnal, recognizable naturalism, but which carries on prospering coldly, thrusting itself into the surrounding shadows: without the physiological richness of a living organism, without symbolic promise, and without even a chance to metamorphose.
As for the transmutation of artistic data, this is the condition of courtly cultures, which have art grow on art, on pre-formed distillations of form and quintessences that, needless to say, are extremely refined.

An anticipation of Bastianino's Titanism is perhaps imaginable, today, in the unclothed figures of the Arti Liberali, once in the Johnson Collection, virile bodies more denuded than liberated in space, in classical poses overloaded with incipient corpulence: before silent horizons. Dosso, for example, was an artist who worked on art, devoid as he seems to be of any naturalistic structure. He was an artist who colonized that space the court placed between itself and the everyday world. For his part, Bastianino also absorbed the loss of religious faith that had accumulated in a complex society like that of Ferrara.

Bastianino really does seem to have been heavily influenced by two great artistic careers that had come to a close: those of Titian and Michelangelo. His was an evolution that revolved around itself, his style was not modelled along sequential lines. Relationships in the world of culture and stylistic conventions are always distant ones.

Not so long ago I came across a possible source of enlightenment in the words of Torquato Tasso, who, in 1575, spoke to Ferrante Gonzaga of what he described as il parlare disgiunto ("disjointed style "), which lent itself particularly well to the dissolution of the syntactic process within discourse and to the establishment of a system of expression made of analogies and concordances.

This is arguably an insight parallel to the one that, in those very years, governed the relationship between light and colour in Italian painting between Emilia and the Veneto, or rather, between Emilia and the Adriatic, a free insight that unites Bassano and Barocci, Veronese and Titian, including the great Titian of the last years.
Titian's Transfiguration of Christ in San Salvator's in Venice is central to this complex comparison. What's more it was the composition in which Arcangeli himself had attempted to pinpoint the origin of much of Bastianino's drive to attain emulsions of colour and light.

"Rien est matériel dans nature" Medardo Rosso used to say: and Arcangeli recalled this when he was rounding off his description of Bastianino's career. A "buried romantic", he wrote, almost as if the painter had suddenly shifted from a transparent swamp to a chromatic standstill, sealed up a slate-coloured sky. From a maximum of corrupt and scourged materiality, Bastianino's matter lets its luminous outward appearance shine forth: and it does so by revealing the intense texture of the brushstroke that frees itself of all weight.