Lombard Vignettes – San Maurizio

The student of art in Italy, after mastering the characters of different styles and epochs, finds a final satisfaction in the contemplation of buildings designed and decorated by one master, or by groups of artists interpreting the spirit of a single period.

Such supreme monuments of the national genius are not very common, and they are therefore the more precious. Giotto’s chapel at Padua; the Villa Farnesina at Rome, built by Peruzzi and painted in fresco by Raphael and Sodoma; the Palazzo del Te at Mantua, Giulio Romano’s masterpiece ; the Scuola di San Rocco, illustrating the Venetian Renaissance at its climax, might be cited among the most splendid of these achievements. In the church of the Monastero Maggiore at Milan, dedicated to San Manrizio, Lombard architecture and fresco-painting may be studied in this rare combination. The monastery itself, one of the oldest in Milan, formed a retreat for cloistered virgins following the rule of St. Benedict. It may have been founded as early as the tenth century ; but its church was rebuilt in the first two decades of the sixteenth, between 1503 and 1519, and was immediately afterwards decorated with frescos by Luini and his pupils. Gian Giacomo Dolcebono, architect and sculptor, called by his fellow-craftsmen magistro di taliare pietre, gave the design, at once simple and harmonious, which was carried out with hardly any deviation from his plan. The church is a long parallelogram, divided into two unequal portions, the first and smaller for the public, the second for the nuns. The walls are pierced with rounded and pilastered windows, ten on each side, four of which belong to the outer and six to the inner section. The dividing wall or septum rises to the point from which the groinings of the roof spring; and round three sides of the whole building, north, east, and south, runs a gallery for the use of the convent. The altars of the inner and outer church are placed against the septum, back to back, with certain differences of structure that need not be de-scribed. Simple and severe, San Maurizio owes its architectural beauty wholly and entirely to purity of line and perfection of proportion. There is a prevailing spirit of repose, a sense of space, fair, lightsome, and adapted to serene moods of the meditative fancy in this building which is singularly at variance with the religious mysticism and imaginative grandeur of a Gothic edifice. The principal beauty of the church, however, is its tone of color. Every square inch is covered with fresco or rich wood-work mellowed by time into that harmony of tints which blends the work of greater and lesser artists in one golden hue of brown. Round the arcades of the convent-loggia run delicate arabesques with faces of fair female saints—Catherine, Agnes, Lucy, Agatha —gem-like or star-like, gazing from their gallery upon the church below. The Luinesque smile is on their lips and in their eyes, quiet, refined, as though the emblems of their martyrdom brought back no thought of pain to break the Paradise of rest in which they dwell. There are twenty-six in all—a sisterhood of stainless souls, the lilies of Love’s garden planted round Christ’s throne. Soldier saints are mingled with them in still smaller rounds above the windows, chosen to illustrate the virtues of an order which renounced the world. To decide whose hand produced these masterpieces of Lombard suavity and grace, or whether more than one, would not be easy. Near the altar we can perhaps trace the style of Bartolommeo Suardi in an Annunciation painted on the spandrils—that heroic style, large and noble, known to us by the chivalrous St. Martin and the glorified Madonna of the Brera frescos. It is not impossible that the male saints of the loggia may be also his, though a tenderer touch, a something more nearly Leonardesque in its quietude, must be discerned in Lucy and her sisters. The whole of the altar in this inner church belongs to Luini. Were it not for darkness and decay, we should pronounce this series of the Passion in nine great compositions, with saints and martyrs and torch-bearing genii, to be one of his most ambitious and successful efforts. As it is, we can but judge in part; the adolescent beauty of Sebastian, the grave compassion of St. Rocco, the classical perfection of the cupid with lighted tapers, the gracious majesty of women smiling on us sideways from their Lombard eyelids—these remain to haunt our memory, emerging from the shadows of the vault above.

The inner church, as is fitting, excludes all worldly elements. We are in the presence of Christ’s agony, relieved and tempered by the sunlight of those beauteous female faces. All is solemn here, still as the convent, pure as the meditations of a novice. We pass the septum, and find ourselves in the outer church appropriated to the laity. Above the high-altar the whole wall is covered with Luini’s loveliest work, in excellent light and far from ill preserved. The space divides into eight compartments. A Pietà, an Assumption, Saints and Founders of the church, group themselves under the influence of Luini’s harmonizing color into one symphonious whole. But the places of distinction are re-served for two great benefactors of the convent, Alessandro de’ Bentivogli and his wife, Ippolita Sforza. When the Bentivogli were expelled from Bologna by the papal forces, Alessandro settled at Milan, where he dwelt, honored by the Sforzas and allied to them by marriage, till his death in 1532. He was buried in the monastery by the side of his sister Alessandra, a nun of the order. Luini has painted the illustrious exile in his habit as he lived. He is kneeling, as though in ever-during adoration of the altar mystery, attired in a long black senatorial robe trimmed with furs. In his left hand he holds a book; and above his pale, serenely noble face is a little black berretta. Saints attend him, as though attesting to his act of faith. Opposite kneels Ippolita, his wife, the brilliant queen of fashion, the witty leader of society, to whom Bandello dedicated his Novelle, and whom he praised as both incomparably beautiful and singularly learned. Her queenly form is clothed from head to foot in white brocade, slashed and trimmed with gold lace, and on her forehead is a golden circlet. She has the proud port of a princess, the beauty of a woman past her prime, but stately, the indescribable dignity of attitude which no one but Luini could have rendered so majestically sweet. In her hand is a book ; and she, like Alessandro, has her saintly sponsors, Agnes and Catherine and St. Scolastica.

Few pictures bring the splendid Milanese court so vividly be-fore us as these portraits of the Bentivogli : they are, moreover, very precious for the light they throw on what Luini could achieve in the secular style so rarely touched by him. Great, however, as are these frescos, they are far surpassed both in value and interest by his paintings in the side chapel of St. Catherine. Here more than anywhere else, more even than at Saronno or Lugano, do we feel the true distinction of Luini—his unrivalled excellence as a colorist, his power over pathos, the refinement of his feeling, and the peculiar beauty of his favorite types. The chapel was decorated at the expense of a Milanese advocate, Francesco Besozzi, who died in 1529. It is he who is kneeling, gray-haired and bare-headed, under the protection of St. Catherine of Alexandria, intently gazing at Christ unbound from the scourging-pillar. On the other side stand St. Lawrence and St. Stephen, pointing to the Christ and looking at us, as though their lips were framed to say : ” Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow.” Even the soldiers who have done their cruel work seem softened. They untie the cords tenderly, and support the fainting form, too weak to stand alone. What sadness in the lovely faces of Sts. Catherine and Lawrence ! What divine anguish in the loosened limbs and bending body of Christ; what piety in the adoring old man ! All the moods proper to this supreme tragedy of the faith are touched as in some tenor song with low accompaniment of viols ; for it was Luini’s special province to feel profoundly and to express musically. The very depth of the Passion is there ; and yet there is no discord.

Just in proportion to this unique faculty for yielding a melodious representation of the most intense moments of stationary emotion was his inability to deal with a dramatic subject. The first episode of St. Catherine’s execution, when the wheel was broken and the executioners struck by lightning, is painted in this chapel without energy and with a lack of composition that betrays the master’s indifference to his subject. Far different is the second episode when Catherine is about to be beheaded. The executioner has raised his sword to strike. She, robed in brocade of black and gold, so cut as to display the curve of neck and back, while the bosom is covered, leans her head above her praying hands, and waits the blow in sweetest resignation. Two soldiers stand at some distance in a landscape of hill and meadow; and far up are seen the angels carrying her body to its tomb upon Mount Sinai. I cannot find words or summon courage to describe the beauty of this picture—its atmosphere of holy peace, the dignity of its composition, the golden richness of its coloring. The most tragic situation has here again been alchemized by Luini’s magic into a pure idyl, without the loss of power, without the sacrifice of edification.

St. Catherine, in this incomparable fresco, is a portrait, the history of which so strikingly illustrates the relation of the arts to religion on the one hand, and to life on the other, in the age of the Renaissance, that it cannot be omitted. At the end of his fourth Novella, having related the life of the Contessa di Cellant, Bandello says : ” And so the poor woman was beheaded ; such was the end of her unbridled desires; and he who would fain see her painted to the life, let him go to the Church of the Monistero Maggiore, and there will he behold her portrait.” The Contessa di Cellant was the only child of a rich usurer who lived at Casal Monferrato. Her mother was a Greek ; and she was a girl of such exquisite beauty that, in spite of her low origin, she became the wife of the noble Ermes Visconti in her sixteenth year. He took her to live with him at Milan, where she frequented the house of the Bentivogli, but none other. Her husband told Bandello that he knew her temper better than to let her visit with the freedom of the Milanese ladies. Upon his death, while she was little more than twenty, she retired to Casale and led a gay life among many lovers. One of these, the Count of Cellant in the Val d’ Aosta, became her second husband, conquered by her extraordinary loveliness. They could not, however, agree together. She left him, and established herself at Pavia. Rich with her father’s wealth and still of most seductive beauty, she now abandoned herself to a life of profligacy. Three among her lovers must be named : Ardizzino Valperga, Count of Masino ; Roberto Sanseverino, of the princely Naples family; and Don Pietro di Cardona, a Sicilian. With each of the two first she quarrelled, and separately besought each to murder the other. They were friends, and frustrated her plans by communicating them to one another. The third loved her with the insane passion of a very young man. What she desired, he promised to do blindly ; and she bade him murder his two predecessors in her favor. At this time she was living at Milan, where the Duke of Bourbon was acting as viceroy for the emperor. Don Pietro took twenty-five armed men of his household and waylaid the Count of Masino as he was returning, with his brother and eight or nine servants, late one night from supper. Both the brothers and the greater part of their suite were killed ; but Don Pietro was caught. He revealed the atrocity of his mistress ; and she was sent to prison. Incapable of proving her innocence, and prevented from escaping, in spite of fifteen thousand golden crowns with which she hoped to bribe her jailers, she was finally beheaded. Thus did a vulgar and infamous Messalina, distinguished only by rare beauty, furnish Luini with a St. Catherine for this masterpiece of pious art ! The thing seems scarcely credible. Yet Bandello lived in Milan while the Church of St. Maurizio was being painted ; nor does he show the slightest sign of disgust at the discord between the Contessa’s life and her artistic presentation in the person of a royal martyr.