Despotism was a boon to Italian art. A dozen rulers competed in seeking architects, sculptors, and painters to adorn their capitals and their memory; and in this rivalry they spent such sums as democracy rarely spares to beauty, and such as would never have been available to art had the proceeds of human labor and genius been equitably shared. The result was, in Renaissance Italy, an art of courtly distinction and aristocratic taste, but too often circumscribed, in form and theme, to the needs of secular potentates or ecclesiastical powers. The noblest art is that which, out of the toil and contributions of multitudes, creates for them a common gift and glory; such were the Gothic cathedrals and the temples of classic Greece and Rome.
Every critic denounces the duomo of Milan as a plethora of ornament confusing structural line; but the people of Milan have for five centuries gathered fondly in its cool immensity, and, even in this doubting day, cherish it as their collective achievement and pride. Giangaleazzo Visconti began it (1386), and planned it on a scale befitting the capital of the united Italy of his dreams; 40,000 people should find room there to worship God and admire Gian. Tradition tells how, at that time, the women of Milan were afflicted with a mysterious disease in their pregnancies, and many of their babies died in infancy; Gian himself mourned three sons painfully born and all soon dead; and he dedicated the great shrine as an offering Mariae nascenti, “to Mary in her birth,” praying that he might have an heir, and that the mothers of Milan might bear a wholesome progeny. He summoned architects from France and Germany as well as from Italy; the northerners dictated the Gothic style, the Italians lavished ornament; harmony of style and form faded in a conflict of counsels and two centuries of delay; the mood and taste of the world changed during the process; and those who finished the structure no longer felt as those who had begun it. When Giangaleazzo died (1402) only the walls had been built; then the work marked time for lack of funds. Lodovico called in Bramante, Leonardo, and others to design a cupola that should bring the proud wilderness of pinnacles to some crowning unity; their ideas were rejected; finally (1490) Giovanni Antonio Amadeo was drawn from his labors on the Certosa di Pavia, and was given full charge of the whole cathedral enterprise. He and most of his aides were rather sculptors than architects; they could not bear that any surface should remain uncarved or unadorned. He consumed in the task the last thirty years of his life (1490–1522); even so the cupola was not finished till 1759; and the façade, begun in 1616, was not completed till Napoleon made that consummation an imperial command (1809).
In Lodovico’s day it was the second largest church in the world, covering 120,000 square feet; today it yields the specious honor of size to St. Peter’s and the cathedral of Seville; but it is still proud of its length and breadth (486 by 289 feet), its height of 354 feet from the ground to the head of the Virgin on the spire of the cupola, the 135 pinnacles that splinter its glory, and the 2300 statues that people its pinnacles, pillars, walls, and roof. All of it—even the roof—was built of white marble laboriously transported from a dozen quarries in Italy. The façade is too low for its width, and yet hides the exquisite cupola. One must be poised in midair to see this maze of praying stalagmites rising from the earth; or one must travel again and again around the great dolmen, amid a shower of buttresses, to feel the extravagant majesty of the mass; or one must come through the narrow and swarming streets of the city, and suddenly emerge into the vast open square of the Piazza del Duomo, to catch the full splendor of façade and spire turning the sun of Italy into a radiance of stone; or one must crowd with the people through the portals on some holyday, and let all those spaces, pillars, capitals, arches, vaults, statues, altars, and colored panes convey without words the mystery of faith, hope, and adoration.
As the cathedral is the monument of Giangaleazzo Visconti, and the Certosa of Pavia is the shrine of Lodovico and Beatrice, so the Ospedale Maggiore, or Great Hospital, is the simple and stately memorial of Francesco Sforza. To design it in a manner “worthy of the ducal dominion and of so great and illustrious a city,” Sforza brought in from Florence (1456) Antonio Averulino, known as Filarete, who chose for it a stately form of Lombard Romanesque. Bramante, the probable architect of the inner court or cortile, faced this with a double tier of round arches, each tier surmounted by an elegant cornice. The Great Hospital remained one of Milan’s chief glories till the Second World War left most of it in ruins.
In the judgment of Lodovico and his court the supreme artist in Milan was not Leonardo but Bramante, for Leonardo revealed only a part of himself to his time. Born at Castel Durante near Urbino, Donato d’Agnolo began his career as a painter, and received the nickname Bramante as meaning one consumed with insatiable desires. He went to Mantua to study with Mantegna; he learned enough to paint some mediocre frescoes, and a splendid portrait of the mathematician Luca Pacioli. Perhaps in Mantua he met Leon Battista Alberti, who was designing the church of Sant’ Andrea; in any case repeated experiments in perspective led Bramante from painting to architecture. In 1472 he was in Milan, studying the cathedral with the intensity of a man resolved to do great things. About 1476 he was given a chance to show his mettle by designing the church of Santa Maria around the little church of San Satiro. In this modest masterpiece he revealed his peculiar architectural style—semicircular apses and sacristies, octagonal cupolas, and circular domes, all crowned with elegant cornices, and all crowded one upon another in an engaging ensemble. Lacking space for an apse, Bramante, frolicking with perspective, painted the wall behind the altar with a pictured apse whose converging lines gave the full illusion of spatial depth. To the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie he added an apse, a cupola, and the handsome cloister porticoes that were another casualty of the Second World War. After Lodovico fell Bramante went south, ready to tear down and rebuild Rome.
The sculptors at Lodovico’s court were not such giants as Donatello and Michelangelo, but they carved for the Certosa, the cathedral, and the palaces a hundred figures with fascinating grace. Cristoforo Solari the hunch-back (il Gobbo) will be remembered as long as his tomb of Lodovico and Beatrice survives. Gian Cristoforo Romano won all hearts by his gentle manner and beautiful singing; he was a major sculptor at the Certosa, but after Beatrice died he yielded to a year of urging and went to Mantua. There he carved for Isabella the pretty doorway of her Paradiso study, and cut her likeness in one of the finest medallions of the Renaissance. Then he moved on to Urbino to work for the Duchess Elisabetta Gonzaga, and became a leading figure in Castiglione’sCourtier.The greatest medallion carver of Milan was Cristoforo Foppa, nicknamed Caradosso, who cut the gleaming gems that Beatrice wore, and earned the envy of Cellini.
There were good painters in Milan a generation before Leonardo came. Vincenzo Foppa, born at Brescia and formed in Padua, worked chiefly in Milan; his frescoes in Sant’ Eustorgio were renowned in their day, and his Martyrdom of St. Sebastian still adorns a Castello wall. His follower Ambrogio Borgognone has left us a more pleasing legacy: Madonnas in the Brera and Ambrosiana galleries at Milan, in Turin, and Berlin, all in the pure tradition of warm piety; a delectable portrait of Giangaleazzo Sforza as a child, in the Wallace Collection in London; and, in the church of the Incoronata at Lodi, an Annunciation which is one of the most successful renderings of that difficult theme. Ambrogio de Predis was court painter to Lodovico when Leonardo arrived; he seems to have had a brush in Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks; he may have painted the captivating angel musicians in the London National Gallery; but his finest relics are two portraits now in the Ambrosiana: one of a very serious young man, identity unknown;* the other of a young woman, now generally identified with Lodovico’s natural daughter Bianca. Rarely has an artist caught the conflicting charms of a girl innocently demure and yet proudly conscious of her simple beauty.
The cities subject to Milan suffered from the luring of their talent to the capital, but several of them managed to earn a place in the history of art. Como was not satisfied to be merely a Milanese gate to the lake that gave it fame; it was proud, too, of its Torre del Comune, its Broletto, above all of its majestic marble cathedral. The superb Gothic façade rose under the Sforza rule (1457–87); Bramante designed a pretty doorway on the south side, and on the east Cristoforo Solari built a charming apse in Bramantean style. More interesting than these features is a pair of statues adjoining the main portal: on the left Pliny the Elder, on the right Pliny the Younger, ancient citizens of Como, civilized pagans finding a place on a Christian cathedral façade in the tolerant days of Lodovico the Moor.
The jewel of Bergamo was the Cappella Colleoni. The Venetian condottiere, born here, desired a chapel to receive his bones, and a sculptured cenotaph to commemorate his victories. Giovanni Antonio Amadeo designed the chapel and the tomb with splendor and taste; and Sixtus Siry of Nuremberg surmounted the sepulcher with an equestrian statue in wood, which would have won a wider fame had not Verrocchio cast the great captain in prouder bronze. Bergamo was too near to Milan to keep its painters home; but one of them, Andrea Previtali, after studying with Giovanni Bellini in Venice, returned to Bergamo (1513) to bequeath to it some paintings of exemplary piety and modest excellence.
Brescia, subject at times to Venice, at times to Milan, held a balance between the two influences, and developed its own school of art. After disseminating his talent among half a dozen cities, Vincenzo Foppa returned to spend his declining years in his native Brescia. His pupil Vincenzo Civerchio shared with Floriano Ferramolo the honor of forming the Brescian school. Girolamo Romani, called Romanino, studied with Ferramolo, later in Padua and Venice; then, making Brescia his center, he painted there, and in other towns of northern Italy, a long series of frescoes, altarpieces, and portraits, excellent in color, less laudable in line; let us name only the Madonna and Child, in a magnificent frame by Stefano Lamberti, in the church of San Francesco. His pupil Alessandro Bonvicino, known as Moretto da Brescia, brought this dynasty to its zenith by blending the sensuous glory of the Venetians with the warm religious sentiment that marked Brescian painting to its end. In the church of SS. Nazaro e Celso, where Titian placed anAnnunciation, Moretto painted an equally beautiful Coronation of the Virgin, whose archangel rivals in delicacy of form and feature the most graceful figures of Correggio. Like Titian he could paint, when he wished, an appetizing Venus; and his Salome,instead of revealing a murderess by proxy, shows us one of the sweetest, gentlest faces in the whole gamut of Renaissance art.
Cremona gathered her life around her twelfth-century cathedral and its adjoining Torrazo—a campanile almost challenging Giotto’s and the Giralda. Within the duomo Giovanni de’ Sacchi—named Il Pordenone from his native town—painted his masterpiece,Jesus Carrying His Cross. Three remarkable families contributed successive generations of talent to Cremonese painting: the Bembi (Bonifazio, Benedetto, Gian Francesco), the Boccaccini, and the Campi. Boccaccio Boccaccini, after studying in Venice and burning his fingers in a competition with Michelangelo in Rome, returned to Cremona and won acclaim by his frescoes of the Virgin in the Cathedral; and his son Camillo continued his excellence. In like manner the work of Galeazzo Campi was carried on by his sons Giulio and Antonio, and by Giulio’s pupil Bernardino Campi. Galeazzo designed the church of Santa Margherita in Cremona, and then painted in it a magnificent Presentation in the Temple. So the arts, in Renaissance Italy, tended to mate in one mind, and flowered under geniuses of such versatility as not even Periclean Greece had known.