On the Scene of the Drama

Written by  Giuliana Marcolini
Bastianino's "LAST Judgement" in Ferrara Cathedral.
After more than four centuries, the Last Judgement, the fresco by Bastianino in the apsidal semi-dome of Ferrara Cathedral, has been restored. The operation, sponsored by the Fondazione della Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara has successfully restored the painting to its original beauty.

Bastianino was commissioned to decorate the cathedral's semi-dome in 1577, a task that took him three years to complete. The painting, which had been subjected to desultory dusting with brooms that scratched it, candle and incense smoke that blackened it, water seepage from the cracks in the vault of the apse that made it damp, and the more or less inexpert hands that tried to restore it, arrived in the mid Nineteenth century in a condition that was not of the best, but not disastrous.

Gregorio Boari, who in 1852 was encharged with the first real restoration of the fresco, found out on his first inspection that the largest and finest part of the painting was intact. While his restoration of the Last Judgement was underway, the artists Tellini and Pagliarini were at work restoring the great gilt stucco decorations that cover the walls of the choir in the apse, beneath the frescoed semi-dome. In the mid Nineteenth century, therefore, the complex constituted by the semi-dome and the walls of the choir could be admired as it had appeared in 1584, when they removed the scaffolding used by the stucco artists who decorated the choir, Rossi and Monferrati.

After Boari's restoration, the fresco was left at the mercy of events, not the least of which was the air raid of 28 November 1944, which resulted in the destruction of the sacristy and considerable damage to the apse.
In 1957, following a joint move on the part of the Curia and Ferrariae Decus calculated to raise public awareness of the problem, it was possible to commission a new restoration of the Judgement, made financially possible thanks to funds received from the State. The restorer Guido Gregorietti cleaned the painting and filled in the cracks and empty spaces in the plaster, but his work did not stand the test of time.
Now, in 2000, thanks to the latest restoration, we can once more admire the great fresco in all its evocative power.

The theme of the Last Judgement was not a new one as far as the artistic representation of religious subjects was concerned. By the time Bastianino was at work on his version, Michelangelo had already produced his and in fact the great Tuscan painter's influence had an important effect on Bastianino's work.

But here, over and above commentaries and stylistic analyses, our aim is to consider Bastianino's work from the point of view of a spectator watching a theatrical drama.
Let us reconstruct the script that the director Bastianino used to stage his pictorial transposition of the drama: The Last Judgement. At the end of the days granted humanity by God, the Son of Man will assign to each of us a place in which to spend eternal life.
It will be a place of eternal joy or eternal damnation: this will depend on how we have lived our lives on earth. This, briefly, is the theme of the drama of divine judgement. In the course of the judgement, three scenes will unfold.

The three scenes upon which the drama hinges are represented pictorially by Bastianino contemporaneously on the great stage that is the semi-dome of the apse.
But each of the three scenes takes place on a specific part of the stage, each with its own particular setting.

The first scene, that is the appearance of the Supreme Judge and his retinue, occupies the whole central part of the semi-dome, in order to emphasize both temporal priority and the key nature of the event. The scene against which all this takes place is illuminated by the transfused light of great white clouds.

The scenes depicting the other two events, the judgement of the elect and the sentencing of the reprobates, are located along the outer semicircular border of the semi-dome; the diversity of these scenes is emphasized by the type of background, a blue field, gloomy and sombre near the Inferno and above the beach (the right-hand scene), and luminous on the opposite side (left-hand scene).

The drama is performed by a numerous cast that the painter has move in ways that depend on their roles. The principal role is that of Christ, the Supreme Judge, around whom other actors play a variety of parts, either as "straight men" or authentic leading men in the various individual actions.

In the centre of the stage, the absolute protagonist of the three scenes, stands Jesus Christ, who appears in all his power, his feet resting on a cloud and suffused with light. His gaze and his gestures are directed menacingly downward, towards the damned.

At the centre of the first scene, on the right of this Man-God, is the Virgin Mary, whose gaze is directed at the elect but is brimming with sorrow for the damned. And alongside the Madonna, very close to Christ, is the apostle St Thomas, who, genuflecting, is looking at Christ's ribs. At Christ's feet there are the Angels who, to the sound of trumpets, emphasize every moment of the drama. Around Christ stand the Apostles and a group of extras bearing the symbols of martyrdom.

Still among the actors in the first scene, on Christ's right, beyond St Thomas, the painter has included St Sebastian, identifiable thanks to the bunch of arrows he holds in his right hand, the symbol of his martyrdom. Behind and alongside the saint appear other characters: these are Bastianino himself, his mother, and his woman.
The artist wanted a part for himself in the drama and he placed himself beside the saint whose name he bore. Bastianino was in the habit of inserting intentional groups of characters in many of his compositions, among which he appeared, often together with several family members.

A thoughtful director, Bastianino introduced a series of characters that act out their part in the first scene with studied and plastic gestures: St Lawrence Martyr, holding in his right hand the gridiron on which he was roasted; and an attractive virgin, perhaps another martyr, who is surrounded by other naked martyrs including the converted soldier St Romanus.

Alongside the many identifiable characters stand the ranks of nameless "extras" in the second scene, who convey the pervasive sense of joy that dominates the part of the picture in which the painter portrays the elect chosen to spend eternity close to God. And it is with these characters that Bastianino brings to bear all his skill in the construction of images that draw the attention to a point on the stage in which something particularly important is taking place.

The third part of this drama is played out on the left-hand side of the stage, and, while it is the most terrifying scene of all, it is also the most evocative and spectacular.
The protagonist of this scene is Satan, who, as Christ's evil alter ego, plays the role of the eternal castigator; he is the rebellious Angel, damned in his turn for all eternity, surrounded by a host of rebellious spirits immersed in the burning flames. Bastianino portrays the damned by painting them in poses typical of the sins that led them to be judged worthy only of eternal punishment, just as Dante in his Comedy invented punishments designed to suit the sins in question.

In conclusion, let us take a look at the extreme left hand side of the stage, where Bastianino has placed the protagonists of an event that concerned him personally, characters to whom he devoted the most dramatic parts of the entire representation. These characters are the beauteous Livia Grazioli, the woman who married him and then gave herself to another, and the man who took Bastianino's place in Livia's affections. Bastianino consigns Livia to the sufferings of hell, where her white figure lies in the clutches of a black demon. Then comes the terrible scene of the punishment of his rival, the man guilty of having coveted, and taken, his neighbour's wife.

This drama continues and will continue to run just as its director conceived it, a vivid warning to all those who, on entering Ferrara Cathedral, turn to look at the stage on which it is represented.