Currently the posts are filtered by: Northern Italy
Reset this filter to see all posts.

Lorenzo Lotto: Portraits

"Assumption of the Virgin", Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

“Lorenzo Lotto. Portraits” is the title of an exhibition currently running at the National Gallery in London. It has come from the Prado in Madrid, in slightly slimmed-down form. Not all of the works on show in the Prado can be seen in London (the catalogue is teasingly tantalising in this regard) but there are still a great many treats in store. This is a splendid show, for anyone who already loves Lorenzo Lotto just as much as for those who have yet to be introduced to him.

 

Lotto was born in Venice in 1480. He was greatly influenced by the school of art of his native city but his working life was an itinerant one, spent in Treviso, Bergamo, Venice and the Marche, where he died. He was a deeply religious painter and has left behind him many altarpieces (the devotion often leavened with an infectious sense of fun) but his bread and butter also came (when it came—and in Lotto’s case it was always intermittent) from portraiture, likenesses of members of the increasingly affluent and aspirational middle class of administrators, clerics, artisans and merchants.

 

The painting which begins this article, the Assumption of the Virgin from the Brera in Milan, is not part of the current show. The reason for including it here is because it epitomises the art of Lotto. He was of all the Renaissance masters the one with the greatest sense of humour. Here we see the Virgin, borne aloft on her statutory latex cloud, with the Apostles agog and incredulous beneath her. But Lotto makes us laugh with the witty details. One of the Twelve has taken out his pince nez, the better to view the spectacle. Another, Doubting Thomas, is in danger of missing the whole show. We see him off to the right, sprinting down the mountainside, drapery afloat. We can almost hear him crying, “Wait for me!”

 

If this is the Lotto you love, this exhibition will show you another side of him. There are not many jokes here, probably because his sitters didn’t want to be made fun of—nor did the artist dare to poke fun, in case he did not get paid. A good many of the works displayed here were painted in exchange for bed and board. Lotto never had much money.

 

Nevertheless, he loved a game and he loved a symbol. Some of the portraits include an elaborate rebus, playing on the sitter’s name. Lucina Brembati, for example, wealthy matron of Bergamo, is portrayed (c. 1528; on loan from the Accademia Carrara) with a crescent moon in the top left-hand corner, with the lettters ‘CI’ included within it. The Latin LUNA (moon), with the addition of CI, makes the name Lucina. Another Bergamo patron, painted in 1523 (on loan from the Hermitage), earnestly points to a red squirrel, rather bizarrely (but very sweetly) asleep beneath his cloak. It stands for constancy, a virtue that this new bridgeroom (portrayed with his very young and scared-looking wife) is going to do his level best to embody.

 

One of the heaviest symbolic portraits is the very first in the exhibition, the warts-and-all likeness of Bishop Bernardo de’ Rossi (1505; lent by the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples), a well-fed young thug with incipient rosacea, clutching a scroll which may allude to a successful lawsuit brought against opponents who had plotted his assassination. The portrait originally had a cover, likewise painted on a wooden board, an elaborate allegory of the progress of the soul. On the right we see a spent and drunken satyr, having given the best of himself to wine. On the left, an immature putto cluelessly dabbles with Art and Science, embodied by a pair of compasses and a recorder and pipes. Above them a tiny figure—De’ Rossi’s soul?—studded with four pairs of wings like a seraph, is determinedly making his way up a steep cliff towards a mackerel sky, as blushful as the bishop’s own complexion.

 

Let us not say, then, that the exhibition contains no jokes. There is a particularly good one in the portrait of Andrea Odoni (1527) from the Royal Collection in London. The wealthy Venetian antiquary poses with his treasures: a head of Hadrian, a Diana of Ephesus. Behind him stand two more: a Venus at her bath, foot daintily raised above a basin of water, into which a statuette of a drunken Hercules is casually urinating.

The "Assumption of the Virgin" in situ in Asolo cathedral.

Even in his altarpieces Lotto includes portraits. One of the delights of this show is the altarpiece of the Assumption from the cathedral of Asolo in the Veneto. In situ it is difficult to appreciate because it can only be viewed from a distance. Here in London, one can get right up to it and inspect the features of the Virgin as she ascends on her cloud. This is no saintly Mother of God. She has been given the mature, worldly features of the redoubtable Caterina Cornaro (1454–1510), Venetian noblewoman and sometime Queen of Cyprus, who retired to Asolo and gathered about her men of literature and learning. The font in Asolo cathedral bears her coat of arms.

 

As the exhibition catalogue admits, “Lotto was not the greatest portraitist in Renaissance Italy and Titian has a better claim to this privileged title in Venice; yet no other painter’s portraits—not even Titian’s—could probably stand up to such a major exhibition without seeming monotonous or creating a sense of déjà vu.”

 

It is true. In Venice, Lotto (1480–1556) was completely surpassed by Titian (1488–1576). In Bergamo by Moroni (1520–79). His draughtsmanship (particularly of the sitters’ hands) is often clumsy. But the life of the imagination and the sense of personality is never so vivid or so manifoldly felt as it is in the idiosyncratic works of poor Lorenzo Lotto.

Lorenzo Lotto: thought to be his self-portrait (in red) among the paupers begging for alms.

Poor Lorenzo. In 1542 he painted what might be his self-portrait, among the paupers begging for alms in the wonderful Charity of St Antoninus altarpiece from the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice (one of the wonderful things that the show achieves is to have found a rug that matches the pattern of the carpet in the painting). Four years later, in Loreto, Lotto made his will. “Art,” he admitted, “did not earn me what I spent.” He died in 1556, melancholy and discouraged, in penury. A painting containing another putative self-portrait survives in Loreto, a Christ and the Adulteress (c. 1550), where a bearded figure in the crowd puts his finger to his lips in a gesture that warns us to “Speak no evil.” It is tempting to believe that Lorenzo Lotto was just such a man: broad-minded, tolerant and merciful.

 

This exhibition is poignant in the way it reveals to us a genius unrecognised in his lifetime and the injustice that that entails. We still have not learned to spot talent until it is too late. This show reveals to us an artist who, in a way that so many artists do not, leaves traces of himself in all his works. Lorenzo Lotto speaks to us down the centuries. We long to tell him how much we would have appreciated his work—if only we’d been there.

 

Lorenzo Lotto. Portraits. At the National Gallery, London until 10th February 2019.

Extreme dairy farming in Sauris

View of Sauris di Sotto. Photo: Johann Jaritz.

Visitors to the holiday resort of Forni di Sopra in the Carnic Dolomites, close to the source of the Tagliamento river, will be surprised to see that there is not much of a river in town. This is because a large proportion of the water is tapped at source and piped along an 18km tunnel bored in the rock to the northeast, to Sauris/Zahre (Friuli), to help fill an artificial lake which powers a hydroelectric plant completed after WW2. The dam—and more than that the all-weather motor road required for the building process (both engineering feats at the time)—marked the end of the isolation of Sauris, a settlement scattered on a plateau some 1200–1400m above sea level.

 

Before the road was built, access was severely restricted; indeed it was total isolation in the winter months up until the early 1950s, when as soon as it was practicable at the end of winter, an athletic carabiniere would be dispatched on foot all the way to Sauris from Forni di Sopra to check up on the community. Unlike the other Dolomites villages that used to make a living by dairy farming and kept their cows in the valleys in winter, moving them to the high pastures (malghe) in the summer, the people of the alpine plateau (then as now in the low hundreds) overwintered at high altitude and it must have been hard.

 

They lived in isolation for months but they are still here to tell the story. Indeed, as Sauris re-invents itself as a successful year-round holiday resort and purveyor of speciality foods, it is also going back to its roots, which sheds some light on the origins of such a challenging lifestyle.

 

The key is the language. Centuries of isolation have preserved the 'Lingua Saurana', which is now recognised by the Italian state as a separate language. You may not hear much of it spoken these days (apparently it is mainly used within the family) but it has its own museum (in Sauris di Sotto; open in the summer Mon, Thur, Fri 10–12 & 4–6; Sat and Sun 10–12 & 3–6), choir, publications, poetry and liturgical texts and it is taught in the local school, though after the first wave of enthusiasm it is now no longer compulsory, just an option. Eminent philologists have pored over it. A variant of German, it has over the centuries incorporated some of the local Friulano from the neighbouring valleys and a number of German elements from across the mountains; its roots, however, are further away, in southern Bavaria; it is a form of the Mittelhochdeutsch of the 13th century. Documents (unfortunately lost in a fire) testified to a community from 1280. According to local lore, the founding fathers were a couple of stray soldiers/deserters who abandoned the wars that were ravaging Europe and embraced extreme dairy farming. They had with them some relics of St Oswald, which fostered pilgrim traffic and accounts for the dedication of the present church. (Quite what Durham Cathedral, which boasts the complete body of this 7th-century Northumbrian saint, makes of the matter is not known.)

 

Today the Sauris plateau is for the discerning. There is no through traffic, which means the only visitors are people that chose to negotiate the winding road from Ampezzo; but one is richly rewarded. The endless meadows are wonderful, the air is the cleanest ever, the water is like nowhere else. Sauris has re-invented itself out of these unique attributes. Pork is cured here and prosciutto di Sauris is now a recognised delicacy. Beer in the characteristic white bottles requires no pasteurisation; it has a growing number of devotees. Whether the Saurians will be able to revive the local art of weaving (flax, hemp and wool), with the women preparing the thread and the men doing the weaving, remains to be seen. Presently good food is at the forefront and one would be well advised to pay a visit in the summer, especially at weekends in July and August, to sample it at the open-air market.

 

by Paola Pugsley, author of Blue Guide Aegean Turkey: From Troy to Bodrum.

Raphael in Bergamo

Raphael's 'St Sebastian'

There are two exhibitions in the two neighbouring Lombard towns of Bergamo and Brescia in northern Italy which are drawing crowds of visitors, especially from Italy itself. Bergamo has chosen Raphael since the town’s art gallery, the Accademia Carrara, owns one of his early masterpieces (St Sebastian), just restored. Brescia has chosen Titian in order to celebrate his beautiful polyptych of the Resurrection painted for the high altar of a church in the town and the exhibition illustrates the work of an important group of contemporary local painters (including Moretto, Savoldo and Romanino) whose production is seen in the context of the Venetian school. Brescia’s Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo reopened this year (on 17th March), after eleven years of closure.

Since the towns are so close together, both have advertised each other’s exhibitions and visitors to both are given a reduced-price ticket.

The exhibition in Bergamo, Raffaello e l’eco del mito (scheduled to close on 6th May but hopefully may be kept open for longer) is in the newly restored rooms on three floors of a former convent directly opposite the Accademia Carrara, which makes this an opportunity to visit the town’s picture gallery too, which was excellently rehung a few years ago.

The exhibition is particularly interesting in the sections which illustrate works by painters which Raphael must have seen as a young man. These include two panels by his cultivated father Giovanni Santi, loaned by the Galleria Corsini in Florence. Santi died when Raphael was only 11 years old but scholars agree that he must have started Raphael out on his career. Perugino, a decisive figure in the young Raphael’s development as a painter (although Raphael is not actually documented in his bottega) is represented with three masterpieces: his own St Sebastian (signed on the arrow!) from the Hermitage, his Mary Magdalene from the Uffizi (the pose very similar to Raphael’s St Sebastian, and also just restored) and his Madonna and Saints from a church in nearby Cremona. The first and last are works little-known to the general public and so this provides an opportunity to see them. The two painters from Umbria, Pinturicchio (whom Raphael knew in both Siena and Perugia) and Luca Signorelli (whose wonderful Crucifixion has been lent by the Galleria Nazionale in Urbino) are present to underline Raphael’s pride in his Umbrian origins (he signed his paintings “Raphael Urbinas”).

The comparison of Raphael’s St Sebastian with two works of the same subject by Leonardesque painters from Milan, Boltraffio and De Predis, is particularly interesting as they both portray the young saint with long golden curls, but holding an arrow as identification (instead of the more usual iconography of the nude figure of the saint at his martyrdom, pierced with arrows): they are thought to predate Raphael’s work of the same subject by a few years. They come all the way from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The autograph works by Raphael on exhibition, all of them chosen to illustrate his production between 1500 and 1505, include his famous portrait of Elisabetta Gonzaga from the Uffizi. The sitter, with her heavy eyelids, is not flattered by the artist, but the brown and gold tones of her dress and jewels provide a magnificent contrast to the countryside in the background, lit up by the sunset.

His exquisite tiny St Michael Archangel from the Louvre has extraordinary monstrous creatures accompanying the dragon. The scene, with a building in flames in the background, is derived from the Apocalypse. But the light, graceful figure of St Michael, who has just landed, seems unaware of any hindrances to his plan to banish the Devil. Still in what looks like its original frame, this is surely one of Raphael’s highest achievements in a painting of this size (31 x 27 cm). The small Prayer in the Garden from the Metropolitan in New York, is one of the most memorable of his works on show, since Raphael demonstrates how he can take a familiar subject and raise its significance to a level perhaps never reached by another artist.

But his very beautiful St Sebastian is certainly the most important work in the show and it has been specially restored at the Brera for the exhibition, with later accretions of yellow varnish now removed.

The exhibition is accompanied by an excellent catalogue, as well as a smaller version for just a few euro. For the Titian exhibition in Brescia, see here.

Reviewed by Alta Macadam. Alta is currently at work on a new volume, Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes, to be published later this year.

Titian in Brescia

Titian's portrait of the doctor
Gian Giacomo Bartolotti

Tiziano e la pittura del cinquecento tra Venezia e Brescia is an exhibition curently running (until 1 July) in the Museo di Santa Giulia in the Lombard town of Brescia. The centrepiece is Titian’s Averoldi polyptych—although it is in fact only present in a dramatic video show as the curators wisely decided to leave it in situ the church of Santi Nazaro e Celso, for which it was painted and where it has been ever since the great artist delivered it there in 1522 (it is not far away from the exhibition venue). It is a magnificent work, unusual in the fact that it is divided into the form of a polyptych with smaller scenes around the central Resurrection which include a particularly beautiful Annunciation (the Angel and the Madonna in two separate panels), as well as a St Sebastian, which is a remarkable study of human anatomy: it has been recognised that the intrinsic drama of the nude figure shows the influence of Michelangelo’s Slaves as well as the Hellenistic statue of the Laocoön, which was discovered in Rome at just about this time.

Titian is again documented in Brescia as an old man in his 80s, when he accepted a commission to paint three large canvases for the upper floor of the famous building known as the Loggia. The subject of the central panel was the Apotheosis of Brescia, represented by a matronly lady magnificently dressed, and the other panels personified the age-old activity of the production of arms in the town with Vulcan in his forge, as well as the agricultural activity in the countryside around Brescia, symbolised by the goddess Ceres. Palladio, when on a visit to the town to advise on the architecture of the Loggia,recorded his admiration for these works, which were unfortunately lost in a fire which devastated the building only six years after they had been installed. For the exhibition they have been reconstructed as far as possible in a video, based on an engraving made in the 18th century.

Another connection the great artist has with Brescia is the Triumph of Christ woodcut owned by the Musei Civici. This is one of five versions, produced in five blocks, of a drawing by the artist based on the theme of a Classical ‘Triumph’. Rather bizarrely it shows Christ seated on a chariot pulled by the four symbols of the Evangelists and accompanied by the four Doctors of the Church (resembling the bodyguards who run beside the Pope’s car today). The procession which precedes and follows the chariot is made up of crowds of figures from the Old and New Testaments. The version preserved in Brescia has been recognised as a first edition (and dated 1517).

However the exhibition is perhaps especially interesting for its study of the three principal artists born in Brescia who were contemporaries of Titian: Moretto, Giovan Girolamo Savoldo and Girolamo Romanino. Their works demonstrate not only how closely they must have looked at Titian’s work, as well as that of Lorenzo Lotto (the Venetian artist who was least influenced by Titian), but who at the same time clearly managed to create a school of their own. We are shown a wide range of their production, which underlines their ability to produce paintings of religious subjects which often concentrate on naturalistic details, and intimate, almost cosy, settings, and even include night scenes, as well as portraits of great ingenuity. The curators have suggested that there is little doubt that the young Michelangelo Merisi, thought to have been born at Caravaggio in the Bergamasco in 1571, must have studied their work before leaving for Rome, where he was to became Italy’s most famous painter of the 17th century.

This exhibition is in many ways a revelation of the skill of the local painters but also an opportunity to admire great works by Titian, and in particular two of his male portraits (c. 1515–20): the famous Mosti Portrait (from the Pitti) and the much less well-known portrait of a man identified as the painter’s doctor Gian Giacomo Bartolotti da Parma, today preserved in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It is the most memorable work in the show.

Reviewed by Alta Macadam. Alta has recently spent two weeks in and around Brescia preparing text for the forthcoming Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes.

Dürer in Milan

Dürer's first known painting (1490),
a portrait of his father.

A major exhibition is in progress (until 24 June) in the Palazzo Reale in Milan: Dürer and the Renaissance (between Germany and Italy). One wonders if the title was chosen rather to entice visitors than to explain the true content of the show: ‘Dürer’ without ‘the Renaissance’ may have been a good deal less of a draw. But in fact the works on show display above all the extraordinary artistic powers of Dürer, not only as an engraver and woodcutter but also as a draughtsman and painter in oil and watercolour. The works by his contemporaries, displayed alongside, are often put into the shade by the great German’s skills. The choice of these works is not always particularly logical. But (again, perhaps to be sure to draw the crowds?) the visitor is given a very special opportunity to see Leonardo da Vinci’s unforgettable St Jerome, lent by the Vatican Pinacoteca, as well as two of his drawings from Windsor.

The first two paintings on show are both by Dürer and both from the Uffizi: the Adoration of the Magi and a portrait of his father, his first known painting. In the same room is a drawing of a Battle of Marine Gods, divided into two parts since Dürer added a scene to an earlier representation of the same subject by Mantegna, a clear indication of the close relationship between these two artists and a demonstration of how Dürer studied the technique of the most skilled Italian engraver at work in his lifetime. These two sheets are here brought together, the first from the Albertina in Vienna and the latter from the Rijksprentenkabinet in Amsterdam.

One wall of this first room has a series of studies of horses, showing some of the very earliest known drawings by Dürer as well as his celebrated engraving of The Knight, Death, and the Devil, dated 1513 (this, like most of Dürer’s most beautiful engravings in the exhibition, comes from the Schȁfer Collection in Schweinfurt).

The exhibition also documents Dürer as a theorist, with his treatises on proportion and measurement and his clear fascination with Leonardo’s studies. A drawing in red chalk by Leonardo (one of the two on loan from Windsor) is a reminder of the famous artist’s sojourn in Milan: it is a view of the Alps as seen from the city (today, on a clear day from the roof of the Duomo, the mountains are still just as visible).

One of the most intriguing protagonists of the exhibition is Jacopo de’ Barbari, whose bird’s eye view of Venice in the year 1500, printed by the German Anton Kolb at his shop on the Rialto from six wood blocks, has been lent by the Correr Museum (it is a pity they didn’t also send the six original blocks carved by De’ Barbari which, incredibly enough, have survived). It is interesting to note that this woodcut was, in the past, attributed to Dürer himself, since little was known about De’ Barbari, and his dates are still uncertain. He almost certainly met Dürer in Venice and he is also recorded as having visited Nuremberg, Dürer’s native city. One of the few other works known by him is also on display: a very fine engraving of Pegasus (on loan from Amsterdam). Both De’ Barbari and Dürer are recorded as having worked for Maximilian I. Indeed, the Habsburg emperor was Dürer’s most important patron and the huge triumphal arch he designed for him (in a series of no less than 192 woodcuts), with allegorical and historical scenes, is also on display (recomposed from the 36 surviving original blocks and supplemented with photographic reproductions of the missing ones). Maximilian died in 1519, so that another commission to produce a triumphal procession to celebrate the ruler, some 50m long (made up of 192 blocks, eight of which are on display) was interrupted: this was perhaps a blessing for posterity since it meant that Dürer could turn to other works and other media. On the wall close by, an exquisite small drawing of a procession (from Berlin) demonstrates how he could also work on a much smaller scale: ‘As I grew older, I realised that it was much better to insist on the genuine forms of nature, for simplicity is the greatest adornment of art.’

Another famous Venetian, Giorgione, whose influence on Dürer has long been recognised, is represented with his remarkable Old Woman (from the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice). On Dürer’s two visits to Italy (in 1505–7; and earlier in 1494, though that visit is undocumented) he also came into contact with Giovanni Bellini and was particularly inspired by his portraits. In Dürer’s letters he writes of the great Venetian painter, now in old age, whom he felt was the only Italian who seemed to appreciate his artistic skills. He also boasts that when his Madonna del Rosario was completed for the church of San Bartolomeo at the Rialto, which served the German community in the city, both the Doge and the Patriarch came to see it. (When the church was renovated in 1610, the altarpiece was sold and is now in the National Gallery of Prague: it is sadly only represented in this exhibition by a copy—albeit a good one—made around the time it left Italy.)

The work chosen to represent the exhibition (and used on the cover of the catalogue) is Dürer’s Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman, a small oil painting known to have been made during his stay in Venice in 1505 (lent by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna). It is exhibited next to his beautiful large Portrait of a Peasant Woman (with a bashful smile), in charcoal and green wash, drawn in the same year (the notable creases may indicate that it was made on the artist’s way to Italy so that he had folded it up during the journey). Another portrait, of a young woman with a jewel hanging from her red beret, painted two years later, is just as beautiful, but it could be argued that these three works have little to do with Venetian portraiture except in their format. A small group of portraits painted against striking green backgrounds perhaps demonstrate a reciprocal influence (particularly the portrait of a young man in a black hat by the Bergamo painter Andrea Previtali and that of a similar subject by Dürer, both painted in Venice in 1506). The best work in this group, though, a portrait of a woman by Lorenzo Lotto, is far distant in atmosphere from Northern European portraiture.

Bizarre elements in Dürer’s oeuvre include engravings of a chained monkey depicted beside a Virgin and Child, and a faun in an idyllic setting with his (human) wife and child. His skill in watercolour is demonstrated by images of a huge crab and a duck (hanging by its beak).

The curators have been careful to keep strictly to the short period in which Dürer made his two presumed visits to Italy and this adds greatly to the interest of the exhibition. Much magnificent art was produced in these few years from 1490 to 1510, by Dürer and his contemporaries, and examples have been gathered together here from many different parts of Europe. It is doubtful that we will see again for many years so many outstanding examples of Dürer’s work in one place. An occasion not to be missed, especially as a visit provides the added advantage of its venue: Palazzo Reale in Piazza Duomo in Milan.

By Alta Macadam. Alta has just returned from a research trip to Milan for the forthcoming Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes. She found the city vibrant and a wonderful place to visit, with much in progress on the contemporary front, new urban areas with innovative architecture, many museums opened in the last few years, and the historic ones (notably the Brera) keeping up with fresh ideas on display to increase the enjoyment of a visit. The new Blue Guide is due out at the end of 2018.

12.03.2018
13:04

Pictures from Lake Maggiore

Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes is timetabled to appear at the end of this year. Here are some images from a recent research trip to Lake Maggiore.

The castle of Angera looms tall over the southern end of the lake. In the possession of the Borromeo family since the mid-15th century, it was once one of a pair of fortresses with the Rocca at Arona, on the opposite shore. Together they controlled the lake. Ferries connect the two towns. The Angera castle is open to visitors from March to October. The castle of Arona was destroyed by Napoleonic troops in 1800.

Arona’s castle may be no more but this town, with its pleasant waterfront, is a good place to see art in situ. The church of Santa Maria Nascente has a lovely early work (1511) by the native artist Gaudenzio Ferrari. The central panel of the Nativity is illustrated here (above left). Further up the lake in Cannobio is another, later altarpiece by Ferrari, of the Way to Calvary (illustrated above right).

The islands are one of Lake Maggiore’s most famous attractions. Isola Bella (illustrated above left) was laid out for Carlo III Borromeo over a period of 40 years (1631–71), with tiers of terraces built out onto the lake and filled with imported soil and exotic plants (as well as white peacocks). At night they are illuminated and form a truly extraordinary sight. The island, still owned by the Borromeo family, is open to visitors between late March and late October.

Isola dei Pescatori (illustrated right), once occupied by a hamlet of fishermen, is now mainly given over to tourism. It is extremely pretty from the water, accessible by regular boats, and offers some good places for lunch.

From the little town of Stresa, a cablecar takes you to the top of Mt Mottarone (1491m) via Alpino, where there is a botanic garden. The trip is highly recommended. The views from the summit are genuinely magnificent. On a clear day you can see a total of seven lakes. On hazy days, you are treated to a vista of layered mountain peaks.

Natural and man-made attractions around the lake include the deep and narrow gorge of the Orrido di Sant’Anna, behind Cannobio, crossed by a tiny hump-backed bridge and offering an excellent place to have lunch; and one of the loveliest of the famous ‘Holy Mountains’ of Piedmont, a cluster of chapels and shrines above Ghiffa. The ‘Sacri Monti’ were conceived during the period of the Counter-Reformation, as bastions of the Catholic faith as well as places for pilgrimage and meditation. The shrines and chapels typically house lively statue groups in painted terracotta. Illustrated here is the Baptism of Christ (1659), a composition made all the more effective by the fact that you can only glimpse it through a grille. The vivid blue eyes of Christ shine luminously in the semi-dark.

Pallanza, the west-facing part of Verbania, the largest town on the lake, is home, on its headland, to the famous Villa Taranto, with famous botanical gardens laid out by a retired Scottish army captain, Neil McEacharn (for more on him and his story, see here.

Many of the lakeside towns are graced with grand hotels and villas from the great age of northern European resort tourism in the 19th century. The Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées in Stresa opened in 1863 and has had many famous guests during the course of its existence, both in fact and in fiction (Ernest Hemingway uses it in A Farewell to Arms). Contemporary architecture has given Verbania the ‘Il Maggiore’ concert hall and events space (Salvador Pérez Arroyo, 2016).

20.12.2017
20:00

Christmas with the Gonzaga

'Morel Favorito', one of the famous Gonzaga equestrian portraits in Palazzo Te.

A wonderful time to visit Mantua and Sabbioneta is the week before Christmas. Empty of tourists and Italian school trips it is likely you will be the sole visitor to Mantegna’s famous Camera dei Sposi in Mantua’s Palazzo Ducale and, indeed, the only foreigner in this very beautiful town. The streets are crowded with local residents who also flock in also from the countryside to do their Christmas shopping but also simply to enjoy the crowd of merry-makers with street markets, music and delicious food.

 

The large tourist office right in the centre in Piazza Mantegna is open all day every day and will supply you with all the information you could possibly need as well as a ‘Mantova Card’ which for just €20 allows you free entrance everywhere in Mantua and Sabbioneta, as well as free transport.

 

The vast Palazzo Ducale is undergoing exciting changes under its new director from Austria, Dr Assmann, who arrived two years ago. You can now walk through some of the courtyards and the visit includes four rooms of the Gonzaga’s classical antiquities (Greek originals as well as Roman), recently opened in a splendid display with ingenious lighting from below (and heating beneath the carpet). Indeed perhaps the only drawback to visiting Mantua at this time of year is the freezing cold temperatures (most days below zero) becasue the vast halls and galleries of Palazzo Ducale are otherwise without heating. But you become lost in wonder at the extraordinary energy that the Gonzaga rulers and Isabella d’Este (who married Francesco II) put into decorating their residences in the late 15th century (with, in the early 16th century, the visionary skills of Giulio Romano). We know that the Gonzaga were particularly devoted to horses and dogs, and fine portraits of their animals in several rooms, here and in their summer villa, the masterpiece of Giulio Romano, Palazzo Te at the other end of town (where each horse seems to have ‘stood’ for its portrait and where the favourite dog of Isabella’s son, the first Duke Federico II, is immortalised in a relief showing him sitting on his sarcophagus in a secret garden amidst carvings of other animals from Aesop’s Fables).

 

The bus line to Sabbioneta, which takes around an hour, is free with the Mantova Card and there you can walk in this tiny town planned at the end of the 16th century by another eccentric Gonzaga, Vincenzo, who after a successful operation on his brain to relieve his migraines (the hole in his head was discovered when his tomb was opened) decided at the end of his life to create an ideal city here, taking his inspiration from ancient Rome.

 

As in Mantua, the chief treasures of Sabbioneta are the ceilings, whether carved or painted, and the long Galleria is an unforgettable sight, as is the Theatre. Like Mantua, this sleepy little remote town is full of jollifications for families just before Christmas, including mulled wine in the piazza, and bagpipes played in the streets. You can now walk along a grassy path beneath the walls at the edge of the ploughed fields, and appreciate how well Sabbioneta has been preserved.

Trompe l'oeil in the Galleria in Sabbioneta. Note the playful cavorting putti: a variant of Manneken pis on the left and another performing a handstand on the right.

Mantua has always been difficult to reach by train—it is still approached by single-track railway lines from the south (Modena) and the north (Verona)—but for all that the trip is a memorable experience and, as the director of Palazzo Ducale proudly showed me on the graph in his office, the number of visitors is steadily growing. The culinary delights, from the ubiquitous sbrisolona (a delicious crumbly biscuit with almonds which puts Scottish shortbread to shame) to mostarda (made with fruit and a sharp syrup of mustard), can be tasted in numerous good trattorie as well as in very cheap bakeries. Although the boat trips on Mantua’s three lakes are suspended in winter, you can take a bracing walk or bike ride (again provided free with your Mantova Card) along the lakes, since they all now have bike lanes in their parks.

 

You couldn’t do better than choose Mantua for a winter holiday.

Alta Macadam, who was in Mantua and Sabbioneta for four days this week, is preparing new text for a forthcoming Blue Guide to the area.

A people who changed history

Silver belt ornament with twin horse heads (7th century)

The exhibition currently running in Pavia near Milan (Longobardi. Un popolo che cambia la storia) has been given a good amount of publicity in Italy since it is the first time artefacts produced in the period when the Lombards dominated the Italian peninsula have been collected together from many different institutions. More than 300 works have been lent by upwards of 80 museums and institutions, and some of the artefacts are displayed for the first time. You can see the exhibition in Pavia, in the Castello Visconteo, until 3rd December; then it travels to Naples (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, 21st Dec–25th March); then to the Hermitage (spring 2018). The show is spectacular, featuring Lombard gold jewellery found in tombs and the bas- reliefs sculpted for early Christian churches, beautifully displayed in the vaults of the huge castle which was built in 1360 by Galeazzo II  Visconti. Pavia was the capital of the Goths under Theodoric but is particularly famous for the subsequent period, when for two centuries from 572 it was capital of the kingdom of the Lombards. The kings established their residence in a palace here from 626 onwards and the reign of Liutprando (712–44) has been recognised as the most important period for the arts.

The sub-title of the exhibition, ‘a people who changed history’ underlines the result of recent scholarship which gives greater importance to the few centuries following the conquest of Italy by the ‘bearded barbarians’ known as the Lombards in 568. They adopted the Arian faith in the 7th century and by the 8th century they had occupied some two thirds of Italian territory. Their presence in Italy was subsequently marked by the spread of Catholicism.

Although there are no labels in English, the videos, multimedia supports and touchscreens which accompany the display are sufficient to explain the complicated history of this former nomadic tribe from beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. For some 50 years they settled in the former Roman province of Pannonia (present-day Hungary). The Lombard period in Italy saw a fragmentation of power into various dukedoms. Apart from Pavia, the most powerful were Spoleto (in Umbria), Cividale (in Friuli) and Benevento (in Campania). When Charlemagne arrived with the Franks and crowned himself King of the Lombards in Pavia in 774, the peninsula and the powers around the Mediterranean began to lose their importance while the Holy Roman Empire (only formally brought to an end in 1806 by Napoleon) became established north of the Alps.

Left-hand leaf of the 10th-century 'Rambona Diptych', showing the Crucifixion and the She-wolf of Rome nursing Romulus and Remus.

Amongst the most memorable exhibits are the gold jewellery, some worked with filigree, and especially the exquisite pieces from the Museo di Antichità in Turin, the Museo Civica in Tortona, and the Museo  Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. There are also two exceptional pieces, one in rock crystal and the other in light and porous sepiolite, known as ‘sea foam’. Larger jewels showing Byzantine influence, today preserved in museums as far apart as Cagliari and Potenza, are also displayed. There are two coloured-glass horns, one of which, in blue glass of the 6th or 7th century, was found in Ascoli Piceno (Marche) and is perfectly preserved. Finds from a rich 7th-century tomb unearthed beneath the church of Santa Giulia in Lucca include a shield with appliqués of Christian symbols (Daniel and his lions, and peacocks). Bronzes which once decorated horses’ bridles come from Molise; and a fascinating little bronze figure of a warrior (proudly displayed on its own) comes from Pavia’s own Museo Civico. The finest of the many Christian bas-reliefs are those from a church in Milan dating from the 7th century showing two lambs adoring a jewelled Cross, and one of a peacock made in the following century found in the monastery of San Salvatore in Brescia (and lent by the Museo della Città there). Among the later works is an exquisite 10th-century ivory diptych found in Macerata and commissioned by the first abbot of the monastery of Rambona (lent by the Vatican Museums): the scenes include a Crucifixion with the personifications of the sun and moon and the wolf nursing Romulus and Remus.

A last room (on the ground floor) proudly records the history of Pavia itself and how the town developed under the Lombards, and how this period of glory was remembered in succeeding centuries.

Visitors are then directed to a part of the Castello Visconteo that has recently been renovated to preserve the treasures from the Lombard period. Here one of the most memorable exhibits is a ‘camp’ saddle found in the bed of the Ticino river. Delicately made in bronze (with a restored leather seat) it could easily be folded up or erected in a hurry as the situation required—a unique find from the period.

The Musei Civici in the castello also include a large picture gallery with paintings from all periods and including some masterpieces by Antonello da Messina, Giovanni Bellini, Hugo van der Goes and many others.

Pavia, with its lovely paved and cobbled streets, is a delightful place to wander and its churches well worth visiting (and three of their crypts dating from the Lombard period are open specially during the exhibition period). If you stay the night, local trains every half hour from the station take you to Pavia’s most famous building, the Certosa di Pavia. Delicious pastries are to be had at Vigoni (Strada Nuova 110).

by Alta Macadam

Latest

Baroque-era spinach patties
Perfect paprika chicken
A spring recipe from 1891
Master of Leonardo
News from Florence
Gellért 100
Unsung Hero
The Corvina Library
Modernists and Mavericks
Dracula: An International Perspective
Lorenzo Lotto: Portraits
Leonardo's Leicester Codex
A tale of two Camparis
Best restaurants in Brescia
Budapest Art Nouveau
Transylvanian Book Festival
Flawless ... and 100 years old
Extreme dairy farming in Sauris
Islamic Art in Florence
The Seuso Roman silver: on display at last
The Wonders of Pontormo
Builders of Budapest
Crowded Times
Good news from Florence
The Heartwarming Middle Ages
Waves of Art Nouveau
Bookshops in Budapest
Budapest at the Biennale
Living with Leonardo
The Zeugma Mosaics Saga
News from Syracuse
Raphael in Bergamo
Titian in Brescia
Comments and Updates on Blue Guide Budapest
Heroism on the Danube
The 'Romanesque Hall' in Budapest
Dürer in Milan
Re-interpreting the Trojan Horse
Charles I: King and Collector
Fleming and Honour Remembered
Pictures from Lake Maggiore
A late Art Nouveau treasure in Budapest
Anna: Female destinies in Transylvania
What’s on in Florence
Art Within Limits
A Time in Rome
Diana Athill, 'A Florence Diary'
Season’s Greetings
Christmas with the Gonzaga
Aegean Turkey: Troy to Bodrum
Collectors in Florence
European rail changes 2018
A people who changed history
Return to 'A Room with a View'
Italian island food
The Scythians at the British Museum
Rogues' Gallery by Philip Hook
Ferragamo's Return
Silence of the looms
Grammar and Grace
The Seuso Saga
Giuliano da Sangallo
The Black Fields of Kula
Leonardo's "Adoration of the Magi" restored
Venice before Easter
Selectivity at the Uffizi
Guide to the Via Francigena
What Ariosto could see
News from Florence: Giovanni dal Ponte
More than just the David
The formidable Empress Matilda
Life, Art and Kenneth Clark
Hedonist's travel, Hungarian wine
Remarkable Manuscripts
Abstract Expressionism at the RA
Comments on Hungarian Wine: A Tasting Trip to the New Old...
Transylvania Launched
Which 50 Sites of Antiquity?
A Treasure in Cagli
The Transylvanian Book Festival
Comments on Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Târnava...
Roman Brixia
The new Museo degli Innocenti
Wine guide wins prize
Jesters at the Court of the Medici
Budapest, Freedom and the Olympics
The Roman Forum Reconstructed
Bernini's Beloved
Blue Guide Paris on Amazon
The Imperial Ramp in the Roman Forum
Sabbioneta, Cryptic City
Secret delights of Florence: the Bellini private museum
Cutting-edge mosque design in Albania
St Francis in Florence
To Austria’s Lake District by rail
Pilgrimage pathways to and from Rome
Five major London museums
Napoleon and Paris: Dreams of a capital
Whither Tate Britain?
The many lives of Nasreddin Hoca
Lesley Blanch: On the Wilder Shores of Love
The Middle Ages on the Road
Hellenistic bronzes in Florence
Europe by rail - an introduction
Frescoes in a convent of a closed order of nuns
Michelin starred Paris
A Michelangelo discovery?
Jan Morris: Ciao, Carpaccio: An Infatuation
The Venus de Milo fights back
Winter in Florence: a new look at Donatello
Tea (or coffee) with the Sultan
Artwork of the Month: January. Medieval stained glass
Which? ranks Blue Guides #2
Giacomo Leopardi: A poet in film
Sassoferrato and the Aion Mosaic
The Aventine and Turner in Rome
Artwork of the Month: December
Rendez-vous with Art
Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age
Giovanni Battista Moroni
London The Information Capital
Changes to European rail services for 2015
Comments on Blue Guide London
Egypt, Greece, & Rome
The Medici Villas of Tuscany and Tourism
Artwork of the Month: November. Reason, Unreason and the...
The first collectors of 'Primitives'
From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town
Artwork of the Month: October. The Arch of Constantine
Sorting out the Uffizi
Waging war with a view
Dull London? Surely a mistake
Artwork of the month: September. Watercolour of the Great...
Italian Venice: A History
A tale of three museums
Rissëu
All Aboard the Cheese Train
National Gallery London to allow photography
Artwork of the Month: August. Bust of Augustus Caesar from...
Sacred Splendours: reliquaries of Florence's pious grand...
Book Review. Helena Attlee: The Land where Lemons Grow
Holiday reading
Artwork of the Month: July. The Phaistos Disc
Budapest to Vienna and Salzburg by Railjet
Marvellous and Macabre: the art of Jacopo Ligozzi
David Esterly - The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of...
Artwork of the month: June, Pordenone's Noli me Tangere
Budapest to Serbia by EuroCity Avala
Saving the Great Bear: Trieste's floating crane
News from Florence
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Baccio Bandinelli: a rehabilitation
Artwork of the month: May. "Flora", Pompeii
Travelling around Britain in style
In praise of plague cakes
Princesses from the Trabzon Empire
Artwork of the month: April. The Seuso Silver
Uffizi selfies come to Budapest
Florentine Mannerists at Palazzo Strozzi
Rome: seasonal stations
Sustainable living in Bolzano
Artwork of the month: March. Murillo's Flower Girl
Tastes change
Francesco Laurana's serene beauty
Being Mithridates
Florence and Buda: two cities of learning
Thoughts on Rome
Copyrighting Heritage
Food is the new Florence
A Grumpy Visit to Westminster Abbey
The Honey Of Hybla
So what is the Turkish Van?
The Pike: by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
Smoothly off the buffers
Under Another Sky
'Art under Attack' at Tate Britain
Comments on Smoothly from Harrow
Renaissance art from Florence to Paris and back
Comments on Blue Guide Venice
Hepworth's "Winged Figure": 50th anniversary
Tying the Knot in Urfa
Venice and the Politcs of Washing
Comments on Staten Island: A Blue Guide Travel Monograph
Comments on Short Guide to London 1953
Turin restored and rejuvenated
A palatial art museum in Trieste
The cloisters of Santa Maria Novella
The wonderful Palazzo Grimani, Venice
Pope Benedict: an unorthodox farewell
Obscure St Valentine and his famous Feast Day
Burano in February
The St Agnes lambs
Leonardo’s “Adoration of the Magi” in restoration
Cathedral picks: Exeter
The real Patrick Leigh Fermor?
The joy of Giambattista Tiepolo
Leonardo’s “Battle of Anghiari”
In praise of Venice’s water transport system
The Red Rooms at the Uffizi
The Blue Rooms at the Uffizi
A trip to the Port of Trajan, outside Rome
Pour l’honneur de la France
An early-morning visit to Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, Rome
Church of SS Luca e Martina reopens above Roman Forum
How the tide turned at the Milvian Bridge
A compelling reason to visit Trapani province
St Augustine and his mother at Ostia
Visiting St Paul’s in London
Hadrian, Antinoüs and the Christian Fathers
Earliest-known image of a martyrdom
Can’t face the Vatican crowds? Try San Lorenzo
Turin, Pisa and mathematics
Ideal cities are all around us. It’s simply a matter of...
On Canaletto and Guardi and Venetian Light
Mithraism: a Roman Mystery Religion
Random Musings on Pontormo and Vermeer
The Amphitheatre of Londinium
Edward Lear and Crete
A handful of favourite things to see in Sicily
The mystery of the veiled virgins
Venice without the crowds
Cividale del Friuli and the Lombards
The Trouble with Snake Goddesses
The tragedy of Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico
Oranges, lemons and relic cults: an escape from the queues...
City Picks: Verona
Hitherto unknown language discovered in east Anatolia
Painting of the Day
Museo Barracco: a little-visited gem
Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome
Staten Island: Upcoming Exhibition …
International Gothic at the Uffizi
Celebrating Santa Rosalia, patron of Palermo
Delhi Ghost Trail
Comments on Pilgrim's Rome: A Blue Guide Travel Monograph
The Roman Villa at Balácapuszta (Baláca, Nemesvámos,...
The Bard of….Messina? Was Shakespeare Sicilian?
Rereading Ruskin
Sicily’s emblem: the Trinacria
Luca Signorelli on exhibition in Umbria
The Tribuna of the Uffizi reopens
The Venice equivalent of the anonymous Tweet?
Comments on Blue Guide Sicily
Sicilian Holiday Reading
Attila the Hun and the Foundation of Venice
Death in Venice cocktail a hit
The Gentry: Stories of the English
381 years ago this June
Brooklyn Bridge: a New York landmark
A Venetian Update
Sixth-century church to reopen
Roman Aquileia
Springtime in Friuli
Northern Italy dining and accommodation recommendations
Al Dente: Madness, Beauty & the Food of Rome
A celebration of Lucca
Romantic music in a Baroque setting
Blue Guide India Delhi Launch
Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life
The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution
Comments on Blue Guide India
The Roman Forum
Whispering City: Rome and its Histories
The 15th-century Health Museum at Edirne
City of Fortune, How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire
Books about Istanbul
Comments on Blue Guide Istanbul
Comments on Blue Guide Florence
Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor
Comments on The Venice Lido: a Blue Guide Travel Monograph
Comments on Blue Guide Literary Companions: Rome, London,...
Comments on Blue Guide Italy Food Companion
The 54th Venice Biennale stars Tintoretto
Holy Bones, Holy Dust
RECOMMENDED PLACES TO STAY AND EAT ON CRETE
Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity
Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us
Comments on Blue Guide Turkey
Comments on Blue Guide Rome
Comments on Blue Guide Hay-on-Wye
Comments on Blue Guide Greece the Aegean Islands
Comments on Blue Guide Crete
Comments on Sites of Antiquity: from Ancient Egypt to the...
Comments on Blue Guide Tuscany
Familiar face
Comments on Blue Guide Concise Italy
Comments on Blue Guide Paris
Comments on Blue Guide New York
Comments on Blue Guide Central Italy
Comments on Blue Guide Southwest France
Blue Guide Northern Italy
Comments on Blue Guide The Marche & San Marino
Comments on Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London
A day trip to Ostia Antica from Rome - highly recommended
Comments on Blue Guide Southern Italy
Comments on Blue Guide Concise Rome
A day trip from Venice up the Brenta Canal
A day trip to Murano from Venice
Pietrasanta, Pisa: in search of Stagi
Reading list for Venice
Reading list for Florence and Tuscany
The Best Credit / Debit Card for Travel
Ruskin on Venice
Reading list for Rome
Comments on Blue Guide Greece the Mainland

Archive

follow us in feedly