“But there were Venetian towns without the traditions of even of the Schools of Vincenza and Brescia, where, if you wanted to learn painting, you had to apprentice yourself to somebody who had been taught by somebody who been a pupil of one of Giovanni Bellini’s pupils. This was particularly true of the towns where in that long stretch between the Julian Alps and the sea, known as Friuli. Friuli produced one painter of remarkable talents and great force, Pordenone, but neither his talents nor his force, nor even later study in Venice, could erase from his works that stamp of provincialism which he inherited from his first provincial master.”
|Map of Northern Italy.|
I’ve been pondering what Berenson meant by Pordenone’s provincialism. This word is one of several that Berenson produces when he wants to nail a painter, or a whole school of painting, to the cross on his art history Golgotha. Berenson dismissed the whole of the Milanese school with the epithet “pretty, ”and “provincialism”, coincidentally another P word, seems to be equally worthy of condemnation in his eyes. To understand Berenson’s meaning of the word, we have to appreciate how much schools of painting lying inland from Venice were seen by Berenson and his ilk as weak echoes of the ateliers of that great centre. This view was not only held by Berenson, but his contemporary, Giovanni Morelli, who spoke of local schools in terms of climate, culture and the ethnographic:
|View of Bergamo|
“By the Venetian school, however, I do not mean that of Venice alone. Properly speaking, this should be so, but in these days it is usual to include in this category all the schools of painting included in the territory once belonging to the Republic in North Italy, which felt the influence of the capital in a greater or lesser degree without losing their distinctive and local characteristics. This individuality of each school- the direct outcome of diversity of race, natural scenery, soil, climate etc, more strongly developed in some districts, less strongly in others- cannot, of course, be adequately studied in picture galleries, the contents of which are for the most part eclectic in character. It must be studied in the district where it originated, in the history of which it forms so integral a part.”
Berenson places the same emphasis on the soil as Morelli, though he is loath to use the word “Venetian” to cover all of Northern Italian painting; hence his construction of a model in which towns like Bergamo and Brescia are artistic backwaters compared to the “metropolis” of Venice. However, Berenson’s view of provincialism proves to be highly selective: towns like Verona are to be distinguished from other schools like Brescia and Vincenza, whose painters are wanting in taste, chiefly because their schools grew away from Venice and Verona, the latter redeemed by Mantegna’s influence. Painters that hail from towns like Brescia and Cremona are likened by Berenson to “Eclectics” – an idea also used by Morelli- of a later day, by which he means the Carracci who moved operations from Bologna to Rome in the seventeenth-century, thus ushering in the mainstream academicism of the 17th century.
Giovanni di Antonio de Sacchis (Il Pordenone), Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints, c. 1525, Parish church, Susegana (Treviso), oil on canvas.
Giovanni Antonio Pordenone who came from Friuli – see top right of map- shows every sign of “metropolitan” training, as can be seen in this fascinating altarpiece executed in 1525, still in situ in the Susegano, Treviso. There are the obligatory Bellinesque figures, as with his St Peter, and the musical angel; maybe a nod to Giorgione in the head of St Catherine, just a little too stylized that it stands out against the stark realism of his Baptist and the aforementioned St Peter. His Madonna is a nice combination of realism and the lurking beauty of Giorgione. Perhaps this offers a clue to the idea of provincial style in Pordenone. The painter strives to maintain a sense of the commonplace by inserting figures that are aggressively naturalised, despite having been exposed to the training of the Venetian workshops. Pordenone’s wonderful St Peter is derived from Bellini, but has the realism of the live model to me, someone known to the artist, not a pensive philosopher based on imagination and the canons of classical taste, as in Bellini’s insulated sacred conversations.
Giovanni di Antonio de Sacchis, (Il Pordenone), Pilate Judges Christ, 1520, Cremona Cathedral, fresco.
A defining feature of “provincialism” for Berenson was the exaggeration of colour which isn’t so evident in this altarpiece. However, if we step back a few years, we can see idiosyncratic colours in Pordenone’s frescoes for Cremona Cathedral (1521-22), a passionless colour that was shared by other painters who worked on this commission, including the Brescians Romanino, Bembo and Melone. Perhaps Berenson might have added “wilful eccentricity” to his list of provincial attributes, as in this fresco of Pilate Before Christ, Il Pordenone goes out of his way to break all the rules of composition.
Pordenone's horse seems to leap out of the wall at us, brutish torturers grimace comically, expressive faces lurk in the gloom, whilist Pilate washes his hands, unperturbed by the tumult raging around all him. As for Christ, instead of showing his calm grandeur, he seems wretched and abject, his knees buckling under him, much like the composition itself.
Girolamo Romanino, Christ before Pilate and the Flagellation, 1519, Cremona Cathedral, fresco.
A comparison between Pordonone and Romanino’s versions of the same subject demonstrate competing provincial styles. Romanino’s has a clear composition, with some wonderful vignettes of street life, completely at odds with the compositional whirlwind of Pordonone.
Despite the tyranny of the pervasive colour, which has probably faded over time, Romanino seems to be able to assimilate the drama of Venetian art, its historiated quality, into his own frescoes, with largely successful results.
Giovanni di Antonio de Sacchis, (Il Pordenone), Golgotha, 1521, Cremona Cathedral, fresco.
Absolutely nothing prepares us though for Pordenone’s Golgotha, which blows all definitions of “provincialism” out of the water. Here we have painting that goes beyond eclecticism, oversteps mannerism, rushing headlong into the frankly outrageous. It’s as if Pordonone wanted to stun the congregation into stupefaction with his overpowering style.
View of the nave and the inner façade of Cremona Cathedral, frescoes by Il Pordonone.
And what do we make of the fact that Romanino was discharged from the commission so that Pordonone could take over in 1521? This overblown style seems to have found favour with a provincial audience. According to S.J. Freedberg, the theatrical style of this crucifixion was conceived with the aim of communicating with “popular and provincial audiences” that Pordenone’s own origins had equipped him to understand. Much more could be said of the theatrical illusions of these pictures responding to popular and provincial sentiment. Berenson is silent on this matter.
Giovanni di Antonio de Sacchis (Il Pordenone), St Lorenzo Giustiniani and Other Saints, 1532, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice, oil on canvas, 420 x 220 cm.
Later in his career Pordonone would take his “provincialism” back to the “metropolis” of Venice, duelling unsuccessfully with Titian for commissions. We’ll end with a Venetian altarpiece, created for the Madonna dell’ Orto, now in the Accademia, the Blessed Lorenzo Giustiniani and Saints (1532). This work betrays the influence of Michelangelo in its rhetorical orotundity and monumental forms; the athletic St John seems to meld Michelangelo’s muscular figures with the Belvedere Torso, which incidentally can be seen on a ledge in the earlier altarpiece in Susegano. Painted for the Canons of St Giorgio in Algae, known as the “turchini”on account of their deep blue habit, the Blessed Lorenzo illustrates the blending of Roman grandeur, Venetian colour and the provincial residue that Berenson so loathed. Personally, I think this is what gives the altarpiece its individual character. The kneeling St Francis seems orientated towards the popolani, the people; his dirty feet pointing outward to the viewer seems to look forward to the direct realism of Caravaggio's paintings, which communicate piety at street level- back to the dirt and soil of the people. Though Berenson would not agree, I think here Pordonone successfully absorbs his provincial art within the styles of Venetian, and even central Italian art.
Bernard Berenson, Italian Painters of the Renaissance: Venetian and North Italian Schools,. Phaidon, 1968, first pub. 1952.
S.J. Freedberg, Painting in Italy 1500-1600, (New Haven and London, Yale University Press), 1993.
Giovanni Morelli, Italian Painters: The Galleries of Munich and Dresden, (1907, orig. 1893).
Giovanna Nepi Sciré and Francesco Valcanover, Accademia Galleries of Venice, (1985).