Through the loveliest Arcadian scenery of woods and fields and rushing waters the road leads downward from Varese to Castiglione. The Collegiate Church stands on a leafy hill above the town; with fair prospect over groves and waterfalls and distant mountains. Here in the choir is a series of frescos by Masolino da Panicale, the master of Masaccio, who painted them about the year 1428. ” Masolinus de Florentia pinxit” decides their authorship. The histories of the Virgin, St. Stephen, and St. Lawrence are represented ; but the injuries of time and neglect have been so great that it is difficult to judge them fairly. All we feel for certain is that Masolino had not yet escaped from the traditional Giottesque mannerism. Only a group of Jews stoning Stephen and Lawrence before the tribunal remind us by dramatic energy of the Brancacci chapel.
The baptistery frescos, dealing with the legend of St. John, show a remarkable advance ; and they are luckily in better preservation. A soldier lifting his two-handed sword to strike off the Baptist’s head is a vigorous figure full of Florentine realism. Also in the Baptism in Jordan we are reminded of Masaccio by an excellent group of bathersone man taking off his hose, an-other putting them on again, a third standing naked with his back turned, and a fourth shivering half-dressed with a look of curious sadness on his face. The nude has been carefully studied and well realized. The finest composition of this series is a large panel representing a double actionSalome at Herod’s table begging for the Baptist’s head, and then presenting it to her mother Herodias. The costumes are quattrocento Florentine, exactly rendered. Salome is a graceful, slender creature ; the two women who regard her offering to Herodias with mingled curiosity and horror are well conceived. The background consists of a mountain landscape in Masaccio’s simple manner, a rich Renaissance vil-la, and an open loggia. The architecture perspective is scientifically accurate, and a frieze of boys with garlands on the villa is in the best manner of Florentine sculpture. On the mountain-side, diminished in scale, is a group of elders burying the body of St. John. These are massed together and robed in the style of Masaccio, and have his virile dignity of form and action. In-deed, this interesting wall-painting furnishes an epitome of Florentine art, in its intentions and achievements, during the first half of the fifteenth century. The color is strong and brilliant, and the execution solid.
The margin of the Salome panel has been used for scratching the chronicle of Castiglione. I read one date, 1568, several of the next century, the record of a duel between two gentlemen, and many inscriptions to this effect “Erodiana Regina,” “Omnia prætereunt,” etc. A dirty, one-eyed fellow keeps the place. In my presence he swept the frescos over with a scratchy broom, flaying their upper surface in profound unconsciousness of mischief. The armor of the executioner has had its steel colors almost rubbed off by this infernal process. Damp and cobwebs are far kinder.