Chronicle of a Rediscovery

Written by  Ranieri Varese
Bastianino's status in Papal Ferrara.
The century that has just ended has witnessed the quasi-total rediscovery of Sebastiano Filippi. Ignored by Nino Barbantini in his 1933 catalogue of Ferrarese painting, the importance of Bastianino was pointed out the following year by Roberto Longhi, who expressed the hope that the forgotten painter might become the favourite of some young critic.

This invitation was taken up in 1963 by Francesco Arcangeli. His monograph and the exhibition organized by Jadranka Bentini in 1985 represent a benchmark for all subsequent contributions on this theme. Of course, this topic is far from worked out, but the frame of reference and the commentaries have now reached a level that prevents us from talking in terms of oblivion and underestimation. What remains, however, at least in part, is to define the way in which the city has recognized and promoted the work of Bastianino over the years: from modern times back to the two and a half centuries (1598-1860) during which Ferrara was a part of the Papal State.

It has taken some time to dispel the nineteenth-century commonplace that would have us believe, erroneously, that Ferrara passed from the golden age to a grey and mediocre period devoid of events and history. It is worth the effort, therefore, to go back over a series of thoughts and judgements that should provide us with a better understanding of the reasoning behind the criticism of Bastianino's painting and, at the same time, to take stock of the vivacity, the culture and interests, as well as the conventions and restrictions of a society that was never minor or subordinate.
As early as the seventeenth century, despite the general political situation and the teething troubles of the new government, texts appeared on the history of Ferrara. In the following century, efforts to construct and maintain the memory of the city grew even wider in scope. The final date we have chosen is Laderchi's piece (1848), which was appended to the second edition of the last and posthumous volume of Frizzi's history.

We are recounting these opinions here firstly because Laderchi's discourse was included in Antonio Frizzi's history, a work that is almost emblematic of eighteenth-century Ferrarese culture, and, therefore, in a certain sense it tends to emphasize a sense of continuity; and secondly, because his writings bring together much of the previous literature.
While Torquato Tasso dedicated a much-quoted sonnet to "messer Bastianino pittore eccellente", it is the large number of commissions and the number of paintings in the churches and palazzi of Ferrara that bear real witness to a fortunate career that seems to have been beyond discussion at the time.

Demand came from different social strata: from country priests and the Cathedral Chapter to private individuals. Such good fortune does not mean unanimous consensus. By the 17th century there was already a tangible coldness toward Bastianino's work that was not a cancellation of his memory but a sign of the emergence of varying opinions, a climate of opinion best expressed by Suberbi and Faustini.
Mention is made of various works that were destined always to attract the attention of local historians, for example the frescoes in the Cathedral and the panel paintings in the Charterhouse. The upshot of all this is the emergence of a diversity between the work of Bastianino and that of other local painters, which led to much debate: a diversity that lay not only in his use of Michelangelesque models, but also in the way he chose to do this.

The period under consideration here was dominated by two main critical issues: Bastianino's "Michelangelism" and the hazy, non-perfect style of the paintings. It should also be pointed out that critical judgements of Filippi were conveyed by two more or less parallel schools of thought, aimed, however, at two different types of reader.

The literature of handbooks, of which there was a plethora in eighteenth-century Ferrara, was aimed at a non-specialist readership glad to receive and accept the models and values suggested therein. But the handbooks were not autonomous, they drew their information and opinions from a cultivated and erudite, non-provincial, debate that represented an overall framework within which all phenomena could be categorized.
As far as the figurative arts are concerned, two texts in particular dealt with these issues and it is from these texts that the various handbooks were to descend in a more or less direct line: these works are the Vite (Lives) written by the parish priest Girolamo Baruffaldi at the end of the seventeenth century, unpublished until the nineteenth century, and Cesare Cittadella's Catalogo istorico.

While Baruffaldi's text was not published until 1844, we cannot underestimate its importance or its impact. The Vite, constructed along the lines of Vasari's model as was the case in many places in those days, were known and circulated in manuscript form; when the work was eventually published it was not a matter of presenting a recently unearthed treasure but of the wider diffusion of material that local historians had already consulted regularly. Baruffaldi collected previous comments and opinions and projected them into the century that was to come.

According to Baruffaldi, Filippi was a painter doomed to be more admired than understood, largely on account of what he called his "terribile maniera", and the "velame", or veil that obscures colours and figures thus leaving the lingering doubt as to whether this was the result of negligence or art.
The compilers of the handbooks either made no comment, like Scalabrini who, although he mentions the works, never adds so much as one adjective with which to qualify them, or they tried to conceal the problems and the intellectual disquiet aroused by the painter's work.
The same holds for Cesare Barotti, who makes frequent use of the adjective "majestic" and talks of "praiseworthy efforts", for example with regard to the St Christopher in the Charterhouse. Barotti's observations regarding the use of chiaroscuro, "a most essential thing IN a painter" should be understood as indicative of a limitation: an incapacity to attain that crispness, orderliness, and clarity then felt to be a primary quality in a painting. Frizzi followed this line.

This rapid glance at the handbooks reveals, I think, two things. Baruffaldi's promptings were largely ignored and the awkwardness and effort involved in understanding and explaining Bastianino's work are concealed by a paucity of adjectives and even of terminology. Other names are pointed out as worthy of attention: Garofalo, Bonone, and Scarsellino.

Another absence is, if possible, even more demonstrative and exemplary. The most important chronicler, with ambitions to being a historian, of eighteenth-century Ferrara was Andrea Bolzoni. His engravings represent various events in the history of the city, like the famous map of Ferrara, and the works and monuments that make it remarkable. He worked with, among others, paintings by Garofalo, Giuseppe Avanzi, Carlo Bononi, and Giacomo Paroloni: but not so much as one print of a painting by Bastianino, not even the fresco above the choir in the Cathedral whose Michelangelesque style and collocation would seem to make it a work worth commemorating.
Cesare Cittadella, another author of the lives of the local artists, wanted to make an organic picture of figurative art in the city over the centuries. He points out the importance of study and constant application, as well as the need to copy the ineluctable models of the great masters: all the most important Ferrarese painters did so, from Garofalo who copied Raphael; Carlo Bononi, Correggio and the Carracci brothers; and Sebastiano Filippi, who copied Michelangelo.

In motivating his work, Cittadella cites the fact that Baruffaldi's lives had never been published and the persistence of the unmerited oblivion to which Bastianino had been consigned. Cittadella attempted to right this wrong by making Bastianino understandable both in terms of his quality and of his defects.

He also stresses Bastianino's apprenticeship under Michelangelo, in order to confer some of the master's qualities upon the pupil. And he eliminates all mention of "velame", only obliquely touched on in the description of the Judgement in the Cathedral, in which it is seen as an expedient enabling the artist to shift from the light coloured areas to the dark ones without tiring the eye, while much emphasis is laid on the beauty of the Annunciation in the Church of San Paolo.

Cittadella also points out other, and more usual, defects like Bastianino's excessive rapidity of execution and, at times, shortcomings in terms of finish. Finally, among the problems that prevent an assessment, he suggests a hint of Ferrarese xenophilia that penalizes local artists.
Thus normalized, the painter's rightful place in the Ferrarese tradition was restored, but he was still not loved, nor was this state of affairs modified by Luigi Lanzi's positive judgement in his Storia pittorica dell'Italia.

Before Laderchi, in the following century, mention ought to be made of the guidebook by Ginevra Canonici Facchini, who mentions the works without any qualification: the artists she lists as "illustrious" are others: Dosso, Garofalo, and Giambattista Aleotti. With regard to the life of Sebastiano Filippi, Laderchi cites Baruffaldi's opinion almost to the letter, and rounds off his description by defining him as an "artistically expert " painter, but one lacking in "lofty inspiration AND careless IN his inventions".

From Baruffaldi to Laderchi the formulas are repeated; a conclusion in line with the judgements passed by the academic and enlightenment, neo-classical and purist Ferrara in the period spanning Devolution and the annexation.