Bastianino in San Paolo

Written by  Vittoria Romani
The modern reassessment of the painter began with the works in the Carmelite church.
The damage caused in Ferrara by the earthquake of 16 November 1570 is mentioned in a treatise by Pirro Ligorio, the "antiquarian" in the service of Duke Alfonso II d'Este since 1568. After discussing the damage to the castle, Ligorio moves on to deal with the churches, pointing out that the tragic event had caused the collapse of the façade and the sides of the church of San Paolo.

This evidence is backed up by the pastoral visit of Monsignor Giovan Battista Maremondi on 14 September 1574. In the meanwhile, between these two dates, work had begun on the reconstruction of the church after plans by Alberto Schiatti. The church was to be consecrated in 1618. While work on the church of San Paolo was underway, Bastianino and Ludovico Settevecchi, together with a team of artists, were busy decorating the 'Camera dello Specchio' in the Castle to designs now believed to be attributable to Ligorio.

1577 was the year in which Bastianino was commissioned to paint the Last Judgement in the apsidal semi-dome of the Cathedral, part of a number of projects for the renovation and redecoration of the city's churches. This large-scale restoration effort also involved at least two leading figures of the new generation of artists born around 1550 (Bastianino was born in c. 1532): Domenico Monio and Ippolito Scarsella, known as Scarsellino, both of whom interest us here because they worked in San Paolo.
By the time Bastianino arrived in San Paolo he had already painted the altarpieces for the transept of the Church of San Cristoforo in the Charterhouse, reconsecrated in 1572.
The Last Judgement, which was entirely his own work, and is to be seen today in the Pinacoteca, bears evocative witness to the difficult challenge that has earned Bastianino a very special role within the Cinquecento: to combine the "terribilità" and heroic titanism, by then without hope, of Michelangelo's nudes in the Sistine Judgement with the palette of the Veneto school, and with particular reference to Titian's late style.

The work in the Charterhouse marks the beginning of Bastianino's "foggy" style, a metaphor for the autumn of the Renaissance and of the crisis of humanist culture, which was far more acute in Ferrara, inasmuch as it was the seat of a court that had contributed so much to the edification of the ideals underpinning that same culture in the days of Alfonso I and Dosso Dossi.

But the court of Bastianino's day no longer enjoyed the prestige and the power it had known under Alfonso I. Bastianino's Michelangelo is not the heroic artist of the Sistine ceiling, but the ever more tormented and dramatic author of the Last Judgement and the frescoes in the Cappella Paolina.
Nor was his Titian the vital and splendid painter of the Bacchic fables executed for Alfonso I's 'Camerino', but the painter of ultimate works, pervaded by a dramatic and violent vision of ancient myth, and the extremely pious works painted for Philip II.

Bastianino was able to provide an original response to these developments. By adapting to changed days - the conformism and the gloominess of Spanish Italy, the climate of the Counter Reformation, the crisis affecting the House of Este - he had avoided the contest with Michelangelo's "terribilità".

He had extended the dimensions of the massive and clumsy bodies, but he had weakened the substance and reduced the weight with his "foggy" technique. He had followed the concept of colour espoused by Titian in his last period: a palette that fatigues and consumes, but attenuates the sense of drama, transmuting it into an elegiac tone. In this visionary and impotent melancholy, in this oneiric atmosphere where figures seem doomed to disappear definitively, there is a last echo of the warmth of life. Bastianino had found his own highly original expressive tone.
The Last Judgement in the Cathedral, executed between 1577 and 1581, has always been seen as the necessary premise to the altarpieces in San Paolo, considered Bastianino's artistic testament. And the modern reassessment of the painter began with the fresco and the altarpieces in the Carmelite church.

The oldest part was considered to be the Resurrection of Christ, in the fourth altar on the left, some of which has clearly been copied from the Judgement in the Cathedral. The records are silent about the commissioning of the work. But it is possible that the portrait toward the base of the frame is that of Giovanni Antonio Crispi, legal expert, counsellor to Alfonso II and the brother of Orlando, who owned, as we shall be seeing shortly, the altar with the Annunciation in the nave on the other side of the church.

In the adjacent altar, the altarpiece by Bastianino shows the Circumcision and it is flanked by an antependium portraying an Adoration of the Shepherds with a nocturnal setting. Bastianino had already tackled the subject in one of the altars in the Cathedral - today in the Pinacoteca - usually dated at the early 1560s, which betrays a rather less corrupt form of Michelangelesque influence at least as far as concerns the power expressed by the bodies, which are characterized by a greater tautness of line. The scheme is barely different in terms of the spatial and compositional concept, but here lassitude of form has been emphasized to a far greater extent.
In the antependium, the artifice of nocturnal light inspired by the famous Night painted by Correggio for the Pratoneri altar in the church of San Prospero in Reggio Emilia, now in the Gemälde Galerie in Dresden, is charged with a new significance that is wholly different to the work in the manner of Correggio that the Carracci were doing at the time. Virtuoso, proto-Baroque stylemes are employed to express a "larval" vision of the figures that free themselves of the shadows just enough to be recognized.

In order to anchor this evocative language more firmly to a specific date I tried to find some information on the Brusatini, who Brisighella suggests were the owners of the altar, which is today devoid of coats of arms or other clues. And in fact research confirmed this ownership: in the spring of 1593 Bartolomeo Brusatini made arrangements for the decoration of the altar, a fact that would seem to point to an intention to commission an altarpiece.

Moving to the opposite nave, the last altar before the transept houses the Annunciation, the third altarpiece painted by Bastianino for the church of San Paolo. The rather different look of this picture is connected to its base: no longer canvas, but a wooden panel that has not been subjected to any recent intervention, unlike the two paintings described earlier.

In this case too the painter had tackled the same subject a short time before he began the frescoes in the Cathedral. Today in the Pinacoteca, this other painting was originally intended for the church of Sant'Apollonia, and is inspired by an altarpiece painted by Titian in his late period for the church of San Salvador in Venice.

The great swollen body, which tapers off toward the head, emerges from the dark background to be limned by the halo of light coming from the dove, a light that reveals the presence of silent and somehow flabby cherubs on the right, and of the sorrowful angel that some mysterious force is holding suspended above the Virgin.

The portrait on the right is that of Orlando Crispi, the donor of the painting. A member of an old aristocratic family originally from Savoy that had settled in Ferrara in the Sixteenth century, Orlando was the brother of the better known Giovanni Maria, who was a legal expert and counsellor to Alfonso II and was one of the reformers of the city's university in 1579.

Upon his death in 1589, Giovanni Maria left a large bequest to the duke and was buried in the church of Gesù. Orlando is mentioned in the sources as the purchaser, in 1601, of the castle of Montalto and the title of count that went with it.