The Church of Saronno is a pretty building with a Bramantesque cupola, standing among meadows at some distance from the little town. It is the object of a special cult, which draws pilgrims from the neighboring country-side ; but the concourse is not large enough to load the sanctuary with unnecessary wealth. Everything is very quiet in the holy place, and the offerings of the pious seem to have been only just enough to keep the building and its treasures of art in repair. The church consists of a nave, a central cupola, a vestibule leading to the choir, the choir itself, and a small tribune behind the choir. No other single building in North Italy can boast so much that is first-rate of the work of Luini and Gaudenzio Ferrari.
The cupola is raised on a sort of drum composed of twelve pieces, perforated with round windows and supported on four massive piers. On the level of the eye are frescos by Luini of St. Rocco, St. Sebastian, St. Christopher, and St. Anthonyby no means in his best style, and inferior to all his other paintings in this church. The Sebastian, for example, shows an effort to vary the traditional treatment of this saint. He is tied in a sprawling attitude to a tree ; and little of Luini’s special pathos or sense of beautythe melody of idyllic grace made spiritualappears in him. These four saints are on the piers. Above are frescos from the early Bible history by Lanini, painted in continuation of Ferrari’s medallions from the story of Adam expelled from Paradise, which fill the space beneath the cupola, leading the eye upward to Ferrari’s masterpiece.
The dome itself is crowded with a host of angels singing and playing upon instruments of music. At each of the twelve angles of the drum stands a coryphæus of this celestial choir, full length, with waving drapery. Higher up, the golden – haired, broad-winged divine creatures are massed together, filling every square inch of the vault with color. Yet there is no confusion. The simplicity of the selected motive and the necessities of the place acted like a check on Ferrari, who, in spite of his dramatic impulse, could not tell a story coherently or fill a canvas with harmonized variety. There is no trace of his violence here. Though the motion of music runs through the whole multitude like a breeze, though the joy expressed is a real tripudio celeste, not one of all these angels flings his arms abroad or makes a movement that disturbs the rhythm. We feel that they are keeping time and resting quietly, each in his appointed seat, as though the sphere was circling with them round the throne of God, who is their centre and their source of gladness. Unlike Correggio and his imitators, Ferrari has introduced no clouds, and has in no case made the legs of his angels prominent. It is a mass of noble faces and voluminously robed figures, emerging each above the other like flowers in a vase. Each too has specific character, while all are robust and full of life, intent upon the service set them. Their instruments of music are all the lutes and viols, flutes, cymbals, drums, fifes, citherns, organs, and harps that Ferrari’s day could show. The scale of color, as usual with Ferrari, is a little heavy; nor are the tints satisfactorily harmonized. But the vigor and invention of the whole work would atone for mi-nor defects of far greater consequence.
It is natural, beneath this dome, to turn aside and think one moment of Correggio at Parma. Before the macchinisti of the seventeenth century had vulgarized the motive, Correggio’s bold attempt to paint heaven in flight from earthearth left behind in the persons of the apostles standing round the empty tomb, heaven soaring upward with a spiral vortex into the abyss of light abovehad an originality which set at naught all criticism. There is such ecstasy of jubilation, such rapturous rapidity of flight, that we who strain our eyes from below feel we are in the darkness of the grave which Mary left. A kind of con-trolling rhythm for the composition is gained by placing Gabriel, Madonna, and Christ at three points in the swirl of angels. Nevertheless, compositionthe presiding, all-controlling intellectis just what makes itself felt by absence ; and Correggio’s special qualities of light and color have now so far vanished from the cupola of the Duomo that the constructive poverty is not disguised. Here, if anywhere in painting, we may apply Goethe’s wordsGefühl ist Alles.
If, then, we return to Ferrari’s angels at Saronno, we find that the painter of Varallo chose a safer though a far more modest theme. Nor did he expose himself to that most cruel of all degradations which the ethereal genius of Correggio has suffered from incompetent imitators. To daub a tawdry and superficial reproduction of those Parmese frescos, to fill the cupolas of Italy with veritable guazzetti di rane, was comparatively easy ; and between our intelligence and what remains of that stupendous masterpiece of boldness crowd a thousand memories of such ineptitude. On the other hand, nothing but solid work and conscientious inspiration could enable any workman, however able, to follow Ferrari in the path struck out by him at Saronno. His cupola has had no imitator ; and its only rival is the noble pendant painted at Varallo by his own hand, of angels in adoring anguish round the cross.
In the ante-choir of the sanctuary are Luini’s priceless frescos of the “Marriage of the Virgin” and the “Dispute with the Doctors.”
Their execution is flawless, and they are perfectly preserved. If criticism before such admirable examples of so excellent a master be permissible, it may be questioned whether the figures are not too crowded, whether the groups are sufficiently varied and connected by rhythmic lines. Yet the concords of yellow and orange with blue in the “Sposalizio,” and the blendings of dull violet and red in the “Disputa,” make up for much of stiffness. Here, as in the Chapel of St. Catherine at Milan, we feel that Luini was the greatest colorist among frescanti. In the “Sposalizio” the female heads are singularly noble and idyllically graceful. Some of the young men too have Luini’s special grace and abundance of gold-en hair. In the “Disputa” the gravity and dignity of old men are above all things striking.
Passing into the choir, we find on either hand the “Adoration of the Magi” and the “Purification of the Virgin,” two of Luini’s divinest frescos. Above them in lunettes are four Evangelists and four Latin Fathers, with four Sibyls. Time and neglect have done no damage here ; and here, again, perforce we notice perfect mastery of color in fresco. The blues detach themselves too much, perhaps, from the rest of the coloring; and that is all a devil’s advocate could say. It is possible that the absence of blue makes the St. Catherine frescos in the Monastero Maggiore at Milan surpass all other works of Luini. But nowhere else has he shown more beauty and variety in detail than here. The group of women led by Joseph, the shepherd carrying the lamb upon his shoulder, the girl with a basket of white doves, the child with an apple on the altar-steps, the lovely youth in the fore-ground heedless of the scene; all these are idyllic incidents treated with the purest, the serenest, the most spontaneous, the truest, most instinctive sense of beauty. The landscape includes a view of Saronno, and an episodical picture of the ” Flight into Egypt,” where a white-robed angel leads the way. All these lovely things are in the “Purification,” which is dated Bernardinus Lovinus pinxit, MDXXV.
The fresco of the “Magi” is less notable in detail, and in general effect is more spoiled by obtrusive blues. There is, however, one young man of wholly Leonardesque loveliness, whose divine innocence of adolescence, unalloyed by serious thought, unstirred by passions, almost forces a comparison with Sodoma. The only painter who approaches Luini in what may be called the Lombard, to distiuguish it from the Venetian idyl, is Sodoma; and the work of his which comes nearest to Luini’s masterpieces is the legend of St. Benedict, at Monte Oliveto, near Siena. Yet Sodoma had not all Luini’s innocence or naiveté. If he added something slightly humorous which has an indefinite charm, he lacked that freshness, as of ” cool, meek-blooded flowers” and boyish voices, which fascinates us in Luini. Sodoma was closer to the earth, and feared not to impregnate what he saw of beauty with the fiercer passions of his nature. If Luini had felt passion who shall say ? It appears nowhere in his work, where life is toned to a religious joyousness. When Shelley compared the poetry of the Theocritean amourists to the perfume of the tuberose, and that of the earlier Greek poets to ” a meadow-gale of June, which mingles the fragrance of all the flowers of the field,” he supplied us with critical images which may not unfairly be used to point the distinction between Sodoma at Monte Oliveto and Luini at Saronno.