National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 14, 1969

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Two Lombard Decorative Reliefs

by Ulrich Middeldorf

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2  

What a contrast there is between the towns on the hills and in the valleys of central Italy and those in the plains north of the Apennines. Narrow streets, skimpy squares, austere, almost grill buildings in the former; large avenues, spacious squares, often surrounded by arcades, and splendidly grouped and decorated buildings in the latter. Here a strong rationality and economy, there a gay, even luxurious display. This difference in style of life is most clearly reflected in the dwellings of the leading families. We are used to thinking of the Renaissance palaces in terms of the Palazzo Medici, the Palazzo Strozzi and others like them in Florence, and may forget that their sober, classical facades find their perfect match in the highly decorated, often colourful facades of the palaces of Bologna, Ferrara, Cremona and other towns in Emila, Lombardy and the Veneto.

In the Po valley good building stone was less easily available than in central Italy. Hence brick and its decorative counterpart, moulded or modelled terracotta, have here been more generally employed for buildings than in any other parts of Italy. A particular type of brick architecture was developed here, beginning during or even before the Romanesque period, which found one of its high points in some Lombard palaces of the 15th century. The National Gallery of Canada has been fortunate in acquiring two decorative fragments which probably come from one of the most famous and most sumptuous of them, the Palazzo Fodri in Cremona (figs. 1, 2). (1)

Terracotta decorations in building were nothing new in the Mediterranean and Near Eastern area. Ever since Babylonian times they were used; they were popular with the Greeks, the Etruscans, the Romans. When the old practice was later taken up again, it was in a different context and with different intentions. And yet some gossamer thread connects our two reliefs with the old classical tradition.

In 1490, Benedetto Fodri, a member of an ancient patrician family of Cremona, concluded a contract with the architect Guglielmo da Bocoli (called De Lera) for a complete rebuilding and redecoration of his house. Previously he had contracted with two stonemasons, Giovanni Pietro da Rho and Nicolao da Porleggia (or Porlezza) from Brescia for the furnishing of decorative marble work. In 1493, Alberto Maffiolo from Carrara received the commission for the splendid marble doorway on the facade. The building remained in the family till 1578, when it was sold to the convent of Santa Marta in Valverde. It underwent various other changes, among which apparently were some unfortunate restorations which may have substantially changed its character. That of 1930, which was undertaken by order of the present owner, the Cassa di Risparmio, has established its present aspect. (2)

The confused history and the uncertain condition of the building are worth mentioning for a number of reasons. In the process of restoration some pieces of the decoration may have been discarded or replaced. In this fashion our two pieces may have found their way into the antiquarian market. On the other hand, here is an opportunity to clear up a long-standing case of serious misinformation. Everywhere publications have presented an interior facade of a Palazzo Stanga in Cremona - not the one from which the Louvre acquired the famous doorway - as the epitome of Lombard terracotta architecture of this period; and this facade shows the same decorative reliefs as the Palazzo Fodri. Consequently these reliefs are frequently published as belonging to this Palazzo Stanga. According to reliable information, however, this facade is a romantic reconstruction, partly in stucco, in which use was made of the motifs, or perhaps even of actual fragments, of the terracotta decoration of the Palazzo Fodri. (3)

Our reliefs correspond to individual sections of a 2.62-metre-long frieze (103 1/8 in.) which is repeated along one side of the court yard of the Palazzo Fodri between the arcades and the upper loggia (fig. 5) and which is continued on two other sides by the repetition of another similar scene (figs. 3, 4). (4) In the frieze culminates the whole decorative scheme of the courtyard, with its columns and decorated pilasters, its elegant capitals all of stone, the richly decorated terracotta mouldings and a narrower, figured frieze under the eaves. We have to imagine the whole discreetly tinted, with perhaps a blue background, and enriched with a great deal of gilding.

What does the frieze represent? Certainly, it has an obvious resemblance to Roman sarcophagi or Roman mythological or historical reliefs. We see a mêlée of nude warriors, and at the right Jupiter on a chariot: classical motifs indeed. The frieze under the eaves depicts the triumph of Bacchus. (5) But these classical elements do not make sense, and, surprisingly enough, a few contemporary figures mingle with the pagan ones (fig. I). Whereas in Tuscany such a decoration would be made to express a carefully elaborated, of tell obscure program, which would require that each section of a frieze should contain a specific episode - witness the friezes of the Villa of Poggio a Caiano and that of the house of Bartolomeo Scala in Florence (6) - here one and the same motif is repeated till the available space is filled. Obviously there cannot be any deeper meaning. The friezes have a purely decorative function, and are only meant to give a general classical flavour to the architecture. This is quite in accordance with the difference between the two regions of Italy hinted at in the beginning.

The trickiest problem connected with the two reliefs is that of attribution. Neither the stonemasons who furnished decorative marble work nor Alberto Maffiolo, who made the marble portal, can be held responsible for the terracotta decoration. Two specialists in terracotta who were active in Cremona, Rinaldo de Stauris and Agostino de Fondulis, have been suggested, but without any conviction. (7) The same is true for Pietro da Rho. (8) It is not even said that these decorative friezes are specifically Cremonese. The Museum of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan owns a set of fragments of an identical frieze; and those were found in Milan, at the demolition of a house in Via Vittorio Emanuele. (9) It is a fact that the Lombard sculptors of this period moved easily from place to place; moreover, terracotta plaques were easily shipped. The exact relation between our reliefs and those in Milan could only be established by a careful comparison of their measurements, not only overall, but also of specific parts. Such a comparison would tell us whether one set might have been copied from the other or whether both were taken from the same mould.

To the unbiased eye, the artistic character and quality are clear. The elegant young men in their tight- fitting clothes and with their sharp angular movements in one of our reliefs find their prototypes in the work of Amadeo, the leading sculptor of the period in Milan and Pavia. The best parallel is even available locally, in the reliefs of a chasse for some martyrs (formerly in the monastery of San Lorenzo, and today incorporated in two pulpits of the Cathedral of Cremona), which Amadeo signed and dated in 1482. (10) Here we find the same sharply cut faces, framed by long hair falling in a large wave over the shoulders and back. Not that the reliefs of the Palazzo Fodri could be directly attributed to Amadeo; their author must have been one of the sculptors who gathered around him and created a general fashion from his style. Many of them are even known by name, but unfortunately the whole group has thus far been so little studied that identification of any one of them as the author of our reliefs is still impossible. Thus it may suffice if we conclude that we have here two beautiful and typical examples of the Lombard school of Renaissance sculpture whose achievements, though differing in kind, rival those of the better known contemporary sculptors of Venice and Tuscany. (11)

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