Artists of the Pustertal

Innichen centre. Innichen/San Candido is a typical town of the Pustertal, with steep shingled roofs, Baroque churches and the jagged peaks of the Dolomites reaching into the sky.

The Pustertal (in Italian, Val Pusteria) is a valley in the mountainous South Tyrol region of Northern Italy, the region on the border of Italy and Austria and known in Italian as Alto Adige. Until the end of the First World War, this was territory that belonged to the Empire of Austria-Hungary. Two rivers flow along the valley: the Rienz, which flows west into the Eisack from the watershed at Toblach; and the Drau/Drava, which flows east into Austria and Croatia, eventually emptying into the Danube. What might appear at first sight to be a remote alpine valley, hemmed in by vast dolomitic peaks, cloaked in larch and fir and snowed in for much of the year, has in fact always been an important trade route and has been inhabited for a very long time, by prehistoric humankind and subsequently by Illyrians and Rhaetians—and then by the Romans, who left traces of a settlement named Sebatum in the town of St Lorenzen. The Pustertal was also an important outpost of early medieval Christianity: the Benedictine abbey at Innichen/San Candido, with its beautiful and imposing Romanesque church, was founded in 769 in ‘campo gelau’, the ‘icy field’.

In the 15th century, the Pustertal gave birth to a thriving school of painters and sculptors. Most worked in a northern Gothic style and many of them still remain anyonymous. Their names have not come down to us and very little, if anything, is known of their lives. Instead we have works attributed simply to the ‘Master of Uttenheim’, for instance, or the ‘Master of Niederolang’. Other masters are known by a first name appended to the town or village where they were active: ‘Leonhard of Brixen’ and his pupil ‘Simon of Taisten’ are two examples. Although the output of these painters and sculptors is primitive and stylised in many ways, it is always lively and amusing, often with humorous interjections and wry comments on everyday life. The world that they depict, in their scenes from scripture and hagiography, is the world in which they lived, with the features and lineaments of the people who inhabited the Pustertal at the time, as well as their costumes and landscape. It is also through these artists that the ideas of the Renaissance first reach the alps. While the talents of many of them might be said to be homely, there was clearly collaboration and an exchange of ideas going on; and some of the artists travelled to central Italy, bringing back a lot of what they had learned of perspective and depiction of the human form. Among them, one true genius emerges: Michael Pacher (1430/5–98. Born in the 1430s, he began his apprenticeship in Bruneck, from where he went to Padua, where he came into contact with the Venetian and Florentine art that was to have such a profound and visible influence on his own. Pacher is one of the greatest masters of the Tyrolean late Gothic, credited with bringing Italian Renaissance ideas of art to the Alps. He later opened a workshop in Bruneck, before moving to Salzburg, where he died.

Frescoes and altarpieces by the hands of these artists are preserved in churches and museums throughout the Pustertal region, in the places underlined in red on the map below.

What to see

1. Bressanone/Brixen. The Diocesan Museum in the Hofburg, the former seat of the Prince-Bishops, has two rooms devoted to sculpture and painting by Leonhard of Brixen, an artist who ran a successful workshop which he later passed on to his son.

Figure from a group depicting the Coronation of the Virgin, with the narrow, elongated nose often seen in Leonhard of Brizen’s work.

2. Novacella/Neustift. The excellent museum of the Augustinian priory has works by many artists of the Pustertal school, among them Friedrich Pacher (who may have been Michael Pacher’s brother), Leonhard of Brixen, the Master of Uttenheim and Master of Niederolang. The former high altarpiece of the priory church, by Michael Pacher, is now—thanks to Napoleon—in Munich.

From the collection of Neustift Abbey: Ascension of Christ (c.1515) by the Master of Niederolang, an artist who takes his name from the Pustertal village known as Valdaora in Italian. While the faces are sometimes cartoonish, recognisable expressions are nonetheless captured. Is the man looking out at us, top right, a self-portrait of the artist?
From the collection of Neustift Abbey: St Augustine in his Study by the Master of Uttenheim (c. 1470). The saint meditates on the mystery of the Holy Trinity, symbolised by the haloed head with three faces in the top right of the picture space. The texture of the gold brocade drapery is beautifully rendered, as is the expression of curiosity on the face of the woman sneakily looking over Augustine’s shoulder. Uttenheim, the village from which this artist takes his name, is in the valley leading north from the Pustertal, at the head of which is Campo Tures/Sand in Taufers. The altarpiece from the church there, by the same artist, is now in the Belvedere in Vienna.
Another scene from the same altarpiece as above, by the Master of Uttenheim. Here St Augustine (in pale brown) is shown rapt and wide-eyed as he listens to the preaching of St Ambrose in Milan, sitting next to a fashionably dressed young man similarly captivated. Ambrose appears to have got into his stride, ticking items off on his fingers. Meanwhile two members of his audience, a man in the back row and a woman at the front, have fallen fast asleep.

3. San Lorenzo/St Lorenzen. The parish church has a very fine gilded and painted sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Michael Pacher. The Child holds a bunch of black grapes, one of which he has plucked to taste.

Madonna and Child by Michael Pacher, in the church of San Lorenzo/St Lorenzen.

4. Tesido/Taisten. Here the parish church has a tiny ceiling boss of the Madonna and Child by Michael Pacher. The little chapel of St George has exterior frescoes by Simon of Taisten.

External frescoes of St Christopher are a feature of churches and chapels in the South Tyrol. This example, which adorns the chapel of St George in Tesido/Tasiten, is by the eponymous Simon of Taisten, thought to have been born in the village. Simon is known to have been an astute businessman as well as an artist and the workshop which he ran was a successful one, concentrating on frescoes in the dry, summer months and on painted panels for altarpieces in the winter. He also produced secular works for his patrons.

5. San Candido/Innichen. The exterior of the south portal of the old abbey church has a fresco of the patron saints St Candidus and St Corbinian by Michael Pacher. Deep in the forest to the north of the town is the little chapel of St Sylvester, which has charming apse frescoes attributed to Leonhard of Brixen.

The Visitation, attributed to Leonhard of Brixen, in the tiny chapel of St Sylvester above San Candido/Innichen. The Virgin Mary, pregnant with Jesus, is shown greeting her kinswoman Elizabeth, who despite her advanced age, is miraculously also pregnant, with John the Baptist. The artist charmingly depicts the two babies in embryo.

6. Campo Tures/Sand in Taufers. The castle has paintings by Michael Pacher.

7. Monguelfo/Welsberg. Outside the parish church is a painted tabernacle with a Madonna and ChildCrucifixion and other scenes by Michael Pacher. Though only partially conserved and much restored, it is perhaps the best place in the Pustertal to gain an impression of how modern this artist’s style was, and must have seemed in his day.

Head of the Virgin, from the tabernacle in Monguelfo/Welsberg. Michael Pacher is not known to have gone to Florence, but he did go to Padua, where Donatello was at work. Looking at the face and hair of this Madonna, it is difficult to imagine that he did not at some point see the art of Botticelli or Ghirlandaio.
Detail from Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1480s) in the Uffizi, Florence (photo: Wikimedia).

8. Brunico/Bruneck. Although Bruneck, where Michael Pacher lived and had his studio, has no works by the master, the building where he lived and worked, on the main street of the old town, is proudly emblazoned with his name.

Façade of the building where Michael Pacher had his studio, in Bruneck.

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