Lombard Vignettes – The Certosa

The Certosa of Pavia leaves upon the mind an impression of bewildering sumptuousness : nowhere else are costly materials so combined with a lavish expenditure of the rarest art. Those who have only once been driven round together with the crew of sight-seers can carry little away but the memory of lapis-lazuli and bronze-work, inlaid agates and labyrinthine sculpture, cloisters tenantless in silence, fair painted faces smiling from dark corners on the senseless crowd, trim gardens with rows of pink primroses in spring and of begonia in autumn, blooming beneath colonnades of glowing terra-cotta. The striking contrast between the Gothic of the interior and the Renaissance façade, each in its own kind perfect, will also be remembered ; and thoughts of the two great houses, Visconti and Sforza, to whose pride of power it is a monument, may be blended with the recollection of art-treasures alien to their spirit.

Two great artists, Ambrogio Borgognone and Antonio Amadeo, are the presiding genii of the Certosa. To minute criticism, based upon the accurate investigation of records and the comparison of styles, must be left the task of separating their work from that of numerous collaborators. But it is none the less certain that the key-note of the whole music is struck by them. Amadeo, the master of the Colleoni chapel at Bergamo, was both sculptor and architect. If the façade of the Certosa be not absolutely his creation, he had a hand in the distribution of its masses and the detail of its ornaments. The only fault in this otherwise faultless product of the purest quattrocento inspiration is that the façade is a frontispiece, with hardly any structural relation to the church it masks ; and this, though serious from the point of view of architecture, is no abatement of its sculpturesque and picturesque refinement. At first sight it seems a wilderness of loveliest reliefs and statues—of angel faces, fluttering raiment, flowing hair, love-laden youths, and stationary figures of grave saints, mid way-ward tangles of acanthus and wild vine and cupid-laden foliage ; but the subordination of these decorative details to the main design—clear, rhythmical, and lucid, like a chant of Pergolese or Stradella—will enrapture one who has the sense for unity evoked from divers elements, for thought subduing all caprices to the harmony of beauty. It is not possible elsewhere in Italy to find the instinct of the earlier Renaissance, so amorous in its expenditure of rare material, so lavish in its bestowal of the costliest workman-ship on ornamental episodes, brought into truer keeping with a pure and simple structural effect.

All the great sculptor-architects of Lombardy worked in succession on this miracle of beauty ; and this may account for the sustained perfection of style, which nowhere suffers from the languor of exhaustion in the artist or from repetition of motives. It re-mains the triumph of North Italian genius, exhibiting qualities of tenderness and self-abandonment to inspiration which we lack in the severer masterpieces of the Tuscan school.

To Borgognone is assigned the painting of the roof in nave and choir—exceeding rich, varied, and withal in sympathy with stately Gothic style. Borgognone, again, is said to have designed the saints and martyrs worked in tarsia for the choir-stalls. His frescos are in some parts well preserved, as in the lovely little Madonna at the end of the south chapel, while the great fresco above the window in the south transept has an historical value that renders it interesting in spite of partial decay. Borgognone’s oil-pictures throughout the church prove, if such proof were needed after inspection of the altar-piece in our National Gallery, that he was one of the most powerful and original painters of Italy, blending the repose of the earlier masters and their consummate workmanship with a profound sensibility to the finest shades of feeling and the rarest forms of natural beauty. He selected an exquisite type of face for his young men and women ; on his old men be bestowed singular gravity and dignity. His saints are a society of strong, pure, restful, earnest souls, in whom the passion of deepest emotion is transfigured by habitual calm. The brown and golden harmonies he loved are gained without sacrifice of lustre : there is a self-restraint in his coloring which corresponds to the reserve of his emotion ; and though a regret sometimes rises in our mind that he should have modelled the light and shade upon his faces with a brusque, unpleasing hardness, their pallor dwells within our memory as something delicately sought if not consummately attained. In a word, Borgognone was a true Lombard of the best time. The very imperfection of his flesh-painting repeats in color what the greatest Lombard sculptors sought in stone—a sharpness of relief that passes over into angularity. This brusqueness was the counterpoise to tenderness of feeling and intensity of fancy in these Northern artists. Of all Borgognone’s pictures in the Certosa, I should select the altar-piece of St. Siro with St. Lawrence and St. Stephen and two fathers of the Church, for its fusion of this master’s qualities.

The Certosa is a wilderness of lovely workmanship. From Borgognone’s majesty we pass into the quiet region of Luini’s Christian grace, or mark the influence of Leonardo on that rare Assumption of Madonna by his pupil, Andrea Solari. Like every-thing touched by the Leonardesque spirit, this great picture was left unfinished ; yet Northern Italy has nothing finer to show than the landscape, outspread in its immeasurable purity of calm, be-hind the grouped Apostles and the ascendent Mother of Heaven.

The feeling of that happy region between the Alps and Lombardy, where there are many waters—et tacitos sine labe lacus sine mur-mure rivos—and where the last spurs of the mountains sink in undulations to the plain, has passed into this azure vista, just as all Umbria is suggested in a twilight background of young Raphael or Perugino.

The portraits of the dukes of Milan and their families carry us into a very different realm of feeling. Medallions above the doors of sacristy and chancel, stately figures reared aloft beneath gigantic canopies, men and women slumbering with folded hands upon their marble biers—we read in all those sculptured forms a strange record of human restlessness resolved into the quiet of the tomb. The iniquities of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, it gran Biscione; the blood-thirst of Gian Maria; the dark designs of Filippo and his secret vices; Francesco Sforza’s treason; Galeazzo Maria’s vanities and lusts ; their tyrants’ dread of thunder and the knife ; their awful deaths by pestilence and the assassin’s poniard; their selfishness, oppression, cruelty, and fraud; the murders of their kinsmen; their labyrinthine plots and acts of broken faith—all is tranquil now, and we can say to each what Bosola found for the Duchess of Malfi ere her execution :

Much you had of land and rent ; Your length in clay’s now competent: A long war disturbed your mind ; Here your perfect peace is signed!

Some of these faces are commonplace, with bourgeois cunning written on the heavy features ; one is bluff, another stolid, a third bloated, a fourth stately. The sculptors have dealt fairly with all, and not one has the lineaments of utter baseness. To Cristoforo Solari’s statues of Lodovico Sforza and his wife, Beatrice d’ Este, the palm of excellence in art and of historical interest must be awarded. Sculpture has rarely been more dignified and true to life than here. The woman with her short clustering curls, the man with his strong face, are resting after that long fever which brought woe to Italy, to Europe a new age, and to the boasted minion of fortune a slow death in the prison palace of Loches. Attired in ducal robes, they lie in state ; and the sculptor has carved the lashes on their eyelids heavy with death’s marmoreal sleep. He, at least, has passed no judgment on their crimes. Let us, too, bow and leave their memories to the historian’s pen, their spirits to God’s mercy.

After all wanderings in this temple of art, we return to Antonio Amadeo, to his long-haired seraphs playing on the lutes of Paradise, to his angels of the Passion with their fluttering robes and arms outspread in agony, to his saints and satyrs mingled on pilasters of the marble doorways, his delicate Lavabo decorations, and his hymns of piety expressed in noble forms of weeping women and dead Christs. Wherever we may pass, this master-spirit of the Lombard style enthralls attention. His curious treatment of drapery, as though it were made of crumpled paper, and his trick of enhancing relief by sharp angles and attenuated limbs, do not detract from his peculiar charm. That is his way, very different from Donatello’s, of attaining to the maximum of life and lightness in the stubborn vehicle of stone. Nor do all the riches of the choir—those multitudes of singing angels, those Ascensions and Assumptions, and innumerable bass-reliefs of gleaming marble moulded into softest wax by mastery of art—distract our eyes from the single round medallion, not larger than a common plate, inscribed by him upon the front of the high-altar. Perhaps, if one who loved Amadeo were bidden to point out his masterpiece, he would lead the way at once to this. The space is small ; yet it includes the whole tragedy of the Passion. Christ is lying dead among the women on his mother’s lap, and there are pitying angels in the air above. One woman lifts his arm, another makes her breast a pillow for his head. Their agony is hushed, but felt in every limb and feature ; and the extremity of suffering is seen in each articulation of the worn and wounded form just taken from the cross. It would be too painful, were not the harmony of art so rare, the interlacing of those many figures in a simple round so exquisite. The noblest tranquillity and the most passionate emotion are here fused in a manner of adorable naturalness.

From the church it is delightful to escape into the cloisters, flooded with sunlight, where the swallows skim and the brown hawks circle and the mason-bees are at work upon their cells among the carvings. The arcades of the two cloisters are the final triumph of Lombard terra-cotta. The memory fails before such infinite invention, such facility and felicity of execution. Wreaths of cupids gliding round the arches among grape-bunches and bird-haunted foliage of vine ; rows of angels, like rising and setting planets, some smiling and some grave, ascending and descending by the Gothic curves ; saints stationary on their pedestals and faces leaning from the rounds above; crowds of cherubs and courses of stars and acanthus-leaves in woven lines and ribbons incessantly inscribed with Ave Maria ! Then, over all, the rich red light and purple shadows of the brick, than which no substance sympathizes more completely with the sky of solid blue above, the broad plain space of waving summer grass beneath our feet.

It is now late afternoon, and when evening comes the train will take us back to Milan. There is yet a little while to rest tired eyes and strained spirits among the willows and the poplars by the monastery wall. Through that gray-green leafage, young with early spring, the pinnacles of the Certosa leap like flames into the sky. The rice-fields are under water, far and wide, shining like burnished gold beneath the level light now near to sundown. Frogs are croaking ; those persistent frogs whom the muses have ordained to sing for aye, in spite of Bion and all tuneful poets dead. We sit and watch the water-snakes, the busy rats, the hundred creatures swarming in the fat, well-watered soil. Nightingales here and there, new-comers, tune their timid April song. But, strangest of all sounds in such a place, my comrade from the Grisons jodels forth an Alpine cowherd’s melody—Auf den Alpen droben ist ein herrliches Leben !

Did the echoes of Gian Galeazzo’s convent ever wake to such a tune as this before ?