The cathedral of Placentia, after being destroyed by fire, was rebuilt in the twelfth century, and is in an antique style. The interior possesses all the imposing solemn effect arising from space; it is more than usually lofty, and the duomo, in particular, is very grand.
This church is more especially interesting from the fresco paintings of Guercino, Caracci, and other masters, with which it is enriched, and which are in general highly esteemed. Placentia, as I have already noticed, is the first place where this style of painting is presented to the traveller who enters Italy from the north; which, together with the high name of the masters, whose works these frescoes are, has no doubt had considerable effect in influencing opinion. Such artists have indeed great claims to our deference, yet I can praise only what I feel to possess merit; and I own I experienced a sensation of disappointment in viewing these paintings, in the general effect of which my expectations were by no means realized. Among the excellencies of which fresco painting is peculiarly susceptible, the facilities it presents of giving an easy flow, a freedom of hand, and roundness of contour, together with a richness and brilliancy of colouring, are chiefly remarkable. The larger portion, however, of this collection, is totally wanting in these points, the outline being frequently harsh, the draperies voluminous, and the tone of colouring sombre, without any of that freshness or beauty of tint, which forms the best character of this style of painting. The ceiling of the cupola, by Guercino, is divided into compartments, in each of which is an evangelist with angels hovering round him. These groups are finely executed; and the tone of colouring is good. Below this the space is occupied by lesser angels forming the frieze; and still lower are figures representing sibyls. The symbolical representations of Virtue, Modesty, Humility, and Charity, occupy the groins, or corners, from which rises the great cupola.
These are the paintings of Franceschini; their heavy forms rise to a gigantic height, and carry a due proportion of voluminous drapery to cover this expanse of body and limb. Near to these, are Moses and Aaron, by Caracci, also coarse and ungraceful figures, incorrect in drawing, and without dignity. There are also three paintings by Procaccini, the Assumption of the Virgin, David playing on the harp, and St Cecilia on the violoncello, which are generally mentioned with distinction.
The great altar piece of the Cathedral, an oil painting by Procaccini, representing the death of the Virgin, is fine, but so dark and dingy as to render the figures almost invisible, and having been carried away in the time of the revolution, it suffered so much, and is altogether so dirty, and even torn, that it is difficult to judge of its merits. In one of the chapels there is an excellent picture by the same artist, representing St Martin giving his cloak to the beggar; the figures of the saint and the beggar are finely executed, and the horse is admirable, a Vandyke horse. But in this composition we find the same style of colouring prevail, a cindery, dull red, mixed with black; the whole so dark as to render the objects almost unintelligible. In another of these chapels there is a very fine picture, representing St Catherine, the child, and St Girolamo, a copy from Parmegiano; the original, brought back from Paris, being in Parma. In a small side chapel I found a Holy Family, an admirable picture, believed to be by Caracci, although this is uncertain. The child is represented asleep, Mary putting her finger on her lip, as a token of silence to John the Baptist, while Joseph is seen in the back ground reading. This subject, so often repeated, and treated with such various degrees of excellence, ever possesses a singular charm, presenting a character of domestic simplicity infinitely touching. The journey, or flight,–the care of Joseph, Mary’s gentle aspect, her maternal solicitude, the Ass, and all the combining circumstances indicating flight and banishment,have always produced in my mind a peculiar feeling of tenderness and softened melancholy.
On the opposite side to this there is a painting representing St Francis after death; he is lying surrounded by angels, ready to receive his soul; a mournful and fine picture; the foreshortening of the hand of the saint, in particular, is admirable.
In a side altar there is an oil painting, by Sacchi, representing our Saviour appearing to the two disciples, also good; but the hand of our Saviour, forming a sort of triangle with those of the disciples, comes so near as seemingly to join’ them, and occasions a confusion very injurious to the effect of the picture. The fresco painting of the ceiling of this chapel, by Caracci, of the resurrection, is beautifully composed, and finely executed. In the choir of the Cathedral there are two paintings; one on either side, of 20 feet in height, the work of Laland, a young artist of Placentia, who had studied long in Rome. These spaces were formerly occupied by superb paintings, by Caracci, carried to Paris during the revolution, and now in Parma. Laland was permitted to select for this work any scriptural subject most pleasing to himself; or best suited to his talents; but probably his mind, fixed by the recollections of the exquisite beauty of the pictures of Caracci, boldly resolved on repeating the same. Like Phaeton, he was nothing doubting; and, although his end was not as tragical, his defeat (if he were conscious of it) must have been as mortifying. The subject of the first of these pictures, is the death of the Virgin; angels are strewing flowers over her body, while the apostles are seen weeping and mourning. The other represents the approach of the apostles to the tomb of Christ after the resurrection. There is in these works both a bulkiness of drawing, and a power of composition, which is imposing, but with this great fault, that there is no pencil-ling. In order to preserve the general effect, the colours are left broad, flat, and unwrought. The Virgin is finely drawn, and the grouping of the angels beautiful; but the other figures reminded me of Gil Bias’s robbers in the cave,dark, grim, and ferocious. The other picture has still less merit; the figures of the apostles are old and mean. In both pieces, with much inaccuracy of drawing, there is a total absence of dignity or grandeur. But, nevertheless, such is the effect produced by the mass of colours, the size, and the subjects, that on a cursory view they seem to have possessed sufficient merit to obtain considerable reputation, as well as the praise of several writers, in particular of Mons. Millin, whose eulogium pronounces, that for grandeur of style, and beauty of design, the artist of these works deserves to rank high in the schools of Lombardy.
The walks round Placentia are very interesting; its rivers, in particular, are very fine: the Trebia sometimes covers a space of no less than five miles, as may be seen from the immense width of the channelly bottom, ex-posed to view, in the summer season, when its waters are reduced to a narrow stream. At no great distance from the city there is a narrow mountain, three hundred feet high, curious for the fossils found in it.