With Milan at its center, present-day Lombardy includes Varese and Como to the northwest; while Pavia, Cremona, Brescia, Bergamo, and Mantua are its other major cities. In the sixteenth century, Mantua was an independent state ruled by the Gonzaga family, while Bergamo and Brescia were both part of Venice’s western terraferma. The proximity of the latter two to Milan, however, is deeply significant for the development of their artistic schools, and their painters are frequently grouped with other Lombard artists.
The Sforza dukes presided over their court, one of the most magnificent in Europe, at the Castello Sforzesco in the heart of Milan. The dukes were great patrons of the arts, founding churches and building grand castles in neighboring Pavia and Vigevano, as well as in Milan. At their suggestion, the French, under Charles VIII, first entered Italy in 1494—it was a disastrous invitation, ultimately leading to the loss of Milanese independence. In 1499, Louis XII drove out the Sforza duke Ludovico. Milan and its territory fell definitively under imperial domination following the Battle of Pavia (1525), which Francis I lost to the Habsburg emperor Charles V. Although Francesco II Sforza was made duke, it was at Charles’s sufferance, and after Francesco’s death in 1535 the city was ruled by Spanish governors. These political twists and turns had a major impact on the local community of artists.
The course of artistic development in Milan at the end of the fifteenth century and well into the sixteenth was set by the arrival of two of the geniuses of the High Renaissance: Donato d’Agnolo Bramante, the painter and architect, who was born near Urbino and took up residence in the late 1470s, and the Florentine Leonardo da Vinci, who was invited to Milan in 1482 or 1483. Their example was to revolutionize all of the arts in the city, and both had significant followers.
Bramante (1444–1514), best known as the brilliant architect of the Tempietto in Rome, is less well known as a painter. However, in his earlier career in Milan, he produced a number of frescoes noteworthy for their forceful figure style and for elaborate architectural settings with classicizing ornament and carefully calculated perspectives. He had one outstanding pupil, Bartolomeo Suardi (ca. 1465–1530), known as Bramantino after his teacher. Bramantino painted panels and frescoes, prepared cartoons for an extraordinary set of tapestries (the Trivulzio Months, 1501–9; Civiche Raccolte d’Arte Applicata, Castello Sforzesco, Milan), and designed architecture: in all of these activities, he expressed a preference for clearly defined spaces and rather austerely beautiful monumental architecture (12.178.2). Bramantino was the most innovative artist of his day in Milan, and in 1525 he was named official painter and architect to Duke Francesco II Sforza.
The fascination with perspective and acute foreshortening, classical architecture, and the depiction of space remained strong among Milanese painters well into the sixteenth century. This predilection can be seen in a monumental work of the period, Christ Blessing (22.16.12), by Andrea Solario (ca. 1465–1524), who came from a family of Milanese sculptors. Trips to Venice and probably to Rome influenced his artistic development and, from 1507, he worked at least two years in France for Cardinal Georges d’Amboise (1460–1510) at his Château de Gaillon. Solario’s stay there is one of the first major instances of an Italian Renaissance artist at work in France, and his jewel-like paintings were much coveted and had a major impact on French artists. But his career was based in Milan, and there he was one of Leonardo’s most distinguished followers.
Leonardo’s impact on the local art scene—he worked in the city from 1482 to 1499, and again from 1506 to 1513—was incalculable, though not completely positive from the point of view of many modern-day critics, who attacked the leonardeschi as “macabre embalmers of busts in wax and skin.” Indeed, their many works are marked by a somewhat frozen character. Nevertheless, several adherents were very talented, successfully grafting Leonardo’s ideas onto more traditional modes and capturing the movement, unity, and expressivity that were his—and Raphael’s—contributions to sixteenth-century painting.
Along with Solario, among the most gifted artists in the master’s circle were Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (1467–1516) and Giampietrino (active by ca. 1495, died 1553). Leonardesque precedents are evident in their works in myriad ways, large and small. In Solario’s Christ Blessing, for instance, the figure’s strong rhetorical gesture was inspired by hand gestures found in The Last Supper. The panel painting Girl with Cherries (91.26.5), attributed to Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis (active by 1472, died after 1508) but possibly by Boltraffio, aspires to the brilliant example set by Leonardo’s portraits in the studied quality of the hands and slight twist of the head. The soft lighting and keen observation of nature seen in Giampietrino’s Diana the Huntress (1989.21) are vital elements of Leonardo’s painting. And in another of Solario’s works, the impressive Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist (32.100.81), the dynamic contrast between Salome’s skin tone and the ruddy executioner’s arm is a technique that grew out of Leonardo’s interest in the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness and what that juxtaposition can evoke about a figure’s character.
The Western Veneto
Bergamo and Brescia saw a remarkable flowering of the arts in the early decades of the century, with the advent of strong schools of local painting and the arrival of talented “foreigners,” mostly from Venice. In both cities, artists were attracted to Venice and Milan by turns; this push and pull is one of the recurrent and fascinating aspects of their painting. The three principal Brescian painters—Moretto, Romanino, and Savoldo—would have a profound impact on Italian art thanks to their influence on a young artist born in the region later in the century: Caravaggio, who admired their approach to sacred painting, with its deliberately humble, earthy character.
The paintings of Girolamo Romanino (1484/87–?1560) brought him both fame and notoriety. He was accused on occasion of transgressing the bounds of the appropriate and the decorous in his imagery, creating paintings that some contemporaries deemed “bizarre.” In works such as The Flagellation (1989.86), Romanino fused the colore of Titian and the dramatic expressivity of German prints in a realistic and unconventional style. His contemporary, Alessandro Bonvicino (ca. 1498–1554), called Moretto da Brescia, looked south for inspiration. Working principally as a portraitist and a painter of religious subjects, Moretto transmitted a genuine understanding of Central Italian art to his hometown; Giorgio Vasari found his painting to be imbued with a classicism similar to Raphael’s. At the same time, Moretto was keenly aware of contemporary Venetian art, particularly that of Titian and Lorenzo Lotto, and his work represents a successful synthesis of Venetian and Milanese traditions (28.79).
Along with other Brescian painters, Moretto strove to interpret sacred themes in light of the fervent desire for church reform and renewed piety on the part of the lay community that swept through northern Italy from the 1520s, following Martin Luther’s break with the Catholic Church. Moretto himself participated in this movement by his involvement in confraternities, such as that of the Santissimo Sacramento based in Brescia’s cathedral. By the end of his life, when he painted the somber Entombment (12.61), such activities were being censored by Rome, accompanied by attempts to impose artistic orthodoxy. However, the deeply devotional cast of much Brescian art from the 1520s to the 1550s is one of its principal contributions.
The last artist in the Brescian triumvirate, Giovanni Gerolamo Savoldo (1480/85–after 1548), did not settle in his native city; he traveled to Parma (1506) and Florence (1508) and by 1521 was living in Venice, where his work was well known. Savoldo was famous in his lifetime for his depictions of the Magdalene, wrapped in a silken cloak and glancing at the viewer, and for his nocturnal scenes. Saint Matthew and the Angel (12.14) is one of the most evocative of such themes di notte in Italian painting, emphasizing the saint’s humble surroundings and lack of adornment. Because of these qualities, Roberto Longhi, the critic who reintroduced the Brescians to modern viewers, considered Savoldo’s Saint Matthew to be the paradigmatic pre-Caravaggesque work of art.
The great tradition of Brescian painting was continued into the next generation in the career of Giovanni Battista Moroni (no later than 1524–1578). Born in Albino, a town near Bergamo, he studied with Moretto—from whom he openly borrowed motifs in his religious painting—in the early 1540s. He was active in Trent but then returned to Bergamo and, ultimately, to Albino. There, he became one of the most outstanding portrait painters of the sixteenth century—but one who worked in a very particular vein. He built upon the naturalistic tendencies of the Brescians, even outdoing them with his incisive observation and forthrightness (30.95.255).