Lombard Vignettes – Lanini At Vercelli

The Casa Mariano is a palace which belonged to a family of that name. Like many houses of the sort in Italy, it fell to vile uses, and its hall of audience was turned into a lumber-room. The Operai of Vercelli, I was told, bought the palace a few years ago, restored the noble hall, and devoted a smaller room to a collection of pictures valuable for students of the early Vercellese style of painting. Of these there is no need to speak. The great hall is the gem of the Casa Mariano. It has a coved roof, with a large, flat, oblong space in the centre of the ceiling. The whole of this vault and the lunettes beneath were painted by Lanini; so runs the tradition of the fresco-painter’s name ; and though much injured by centuries of outrage, and somewhat marred by recent restoration, these frescos form a precious monument of Lombard art. The object of the painter’s design seems to have been the glorification of Music. In the central compartment of the roof is an assembly of the gods, obviously borrowed from Raphael’s “Marriage of Cupid and Psyche ” in the Farnesina at Rome. The fusion of Roman composition with Lombard execution constitutes the chief charm of this singular work, and makes it, so far as I am aware, unique. Single figures of the goddesses, and the whole movement of the scene upon Olympus, are transcribed without attempt at concealment. And yet the fresco is not a bare-faced copy. The manner of feeling and of execution is quite different from that of Raphael’s school. The poetry and sentiment are genuinely Lombard. None of Raphael’s pupils could have carried out his design with a delicacy of emotion and a technical skill in coloring so consummate. What, we think, as we gaze up-ward, would the master have given for such a craftsman? The hardness, coarseness, and animal crudity of the Roman school are absent; so also is their vigor. But where the grace of form and color is so soft and sweet, where the high-bred calm of good company is so sympathetically rendered, where the atmosphere of amorous languor and of melody is so artistically diffused, we cannot miss the powerful modelling and rather vulgar tours de force of Giulio Romano. The scale of tone is silvery golden. There are no hard blues, no coarse red flesh-tints, no black shadows. Mellow lights, the morning hues of primrose or of palest amber, pervade the whole society. It is a court of gentle and harmonious souls; and though this style of beauty might cloy, at first sight there is something ravishing in those yellow-haired, white-limbed, blooming deities. No movement of lascivious grace as in Correggio, no perturbation of the senses, as in some of the Venetians, disturbs the rhythm of their music ; nor is the pleasure of the flesh, though felt by the painter and communicated to the spectator, an interruption to their divine calm. The white, saffron-haired goddesses are grouped together like stars seen in the topaz light of evening, like daffodils half smothered in snow-drops, and among them Diana, with the crescent on her forehead, is the fairest. Her dream-like beauty need fear no comparison with the Diana of the Camera di S. Paolo. Apollo and Bacchus are scarcely less lovely in their bloom of earliest manhood ; honey-pale, as Greeks would say ; like statues of living electron ; realizing Simaetha’s picture of her lover and his friend.

It was thus that the almost childlike spirit of the Milanese painters felt the antique ; how differently from their Roman brethren ! It was thus that they interpreted the lines of their own poets :

E i tuoi capei piû volte ho soinigliati Di Cerere a le paglie secche o Monde Dintorno crespi al tuo capo legati.t

Yet the painter of this hall—whether we are to call him Lanini or another—was not a composer. Where he has not robbed the motives and the distribution of the figures from Raphael, he has nothing left but grace of detail. The intellectual feebleness of his style may be seen in many figures of women playing upon instruments of music, ranged around the walls. One girl at the organ is graceful; another with a tambourine has a sort of Bassarid beauty. But the group of Apollo, Pegasus, and a Muse upon Parnassus is a failure in its meaningless frigidity, while few of these subordinate compositions show power of conception or vigor of design.

Lanini, like Sodoma, was a native of Vercelli ; and though he was Ferrari’s pupil, there is more in him of Luini or of Sodoma than of his master. He does not rise at any point to the height of these three great masters, but he shares some of Luini’s and Sodoma’s fine qualities, without having any of Ferrari’s force. A visit to the mangled remnants of his frescos in S. Caterina will repay the student of art. This was once, apparently, a double church, or a church with the hall and chapel of a confraternita appended to it. One portion of the building was painted with the history of the saint ; and very lovely must this work have been, to judge by the fragments which have recently been rescued from whitewash, damp, and ruthless mutilation. What wonderful Lombard faces, half obliterated on the broken wall and mouldering plaster, smile upon us like drowned memories swimming up from the depths of oblivion ! Wherever three or four are grouped together, we find an exquisite little picture—an old woman and two young women in a doorway, for example, telling no story, but touching us with simple harmony of form. Nothing further is needed to render their grace intelligible. Indeed, knowing the faults of the school, we may seek some consolation by telling ourselves that these incomplete fragments yield Lanini’s best. In the coved compartments of the roof, above the windows, ran a row of dancing boys ; and these are still most beautifully modelled, though the pallor of recent whitewash is upon them. All the boys have blonde hair. They are naked; with scrolls or ribbons wreathed round them, adding to the airiness of their continual dance. Some of the loveliest are in a room used to stow away the lumber of the church—old boards and curtains, broken lanterns, candle-ends in tin sconces, the musty apparatus of festival adornments, and in the midst of all a battered, weather-beaten bier.