Back at the start of the 17th Century, a new technique was developed in Northern Italy to create fake marble marquetry – a much cheaper method of reproducing ‘commesso’ – the artistic effect of marble mosaic using ‘pietra dura’ (hard stones) which had its heyday from the 14th to the 17th century.
This new technique was called ‘scagliola’ (large slither or scale) and it derived from the skills already developed in the use of plaster for internal decoration known as stucco. A certain Guido Fassi from Carpi, a city between Mantova and Modena, is accredited with the introduction of scagliola in Italy and Carpi rapidly became a centre of excellence for the technique. However, the most successful family of scagliola artisans was forced to move away from Carpi to Milan in the mid 17th century when the father, Battisti Leoni, committed a murder and fled to avoid imprisonment.
He and his three sons set up a new workshop in Milan and before long had completed commissions for decorating the altars of churches across the Po Valley and the table tops for nobility from Genoa to Amsterdam.
Also by the mid century, the technique had arrived in the Val D’Intelvi – the valley which links Lake Como with Lake Lugano – where it immediately took root given the pre-existing tradition in stucco, stonework and the other decorative arts as well as architecture. The first scagliola altar front (known as paliotto) in the Val D’Intelvi is attributed to the priest artisan Carlo Belleni (1612-1683) and found in Gottro on Lago Ceresio, the name given to the eastern end of Lake Lugano. The craftsmen of the Val D’Intelvi rapidly developed their skills deploying a distinctive set of design features and undertaking commissions across the Province of Como, and more broadly over the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The Val D’Intelvi is a beautiful but relatively remote part of the province of Como straddling the Italian side of the border with the Swiss Federation. For historical reasons, the area had always produced numerous families who perfected craft skills employed in construction. There is good reason to believe that it was the stonemasons from this remote far-northern corner of Italy who led the adoption of the Romanesque style of ecclesiastical architecture across Western Europe.
Our previous article Como’s Artistic Tradition – A Pan-European Legacy: Maestri Comacini identified the influence of these itinerant ‘maestri comacini’ in the 13th century and how they established freemasonry as an early artisan guild set up to protect the secrets of their trade – their ‘mysteries’. Now in the 17th century, Counter-reformation Europe was gripped by the baroque style of architecture and design. It would be a second wave of itinerant ‘magestri comaschi’ deploying their skills in stucco, scagliola and fresco painting to spread this ornate decorative style across Europe.
Scagliola was born out of stucco, plaster work, which had developed in Rome during the Renaissance as a cheaper option to marble. The techniques were first defined in a tract by Alberti in 1542 but examples had been produced in the workshops of Raphael from the 1520s. Stucco designs could be polished, painted, bronzed or gilded. Or painted sections could be polished to resemble ‘pietra dura’ as developed in Carpi to become what became known as scagliola. Stucco designs were made from a variety of plaster but the preferred final layers for scagliola were made from gypsum rather than lime. This would be mixed with water and animal glue and then coloured. There are numerous examples of impressive stucco work across the Province of Como such as the interior of Santa Cecilia in Como itself decorated in 1687-88 by an Intelvi artisan, Giovanni Battista Barbarini from Laino.
Other fine examples can be seen in the chapels of the UNESCO site, the Sacro Monte di Ossuccio. These were produced by Agostino Silva (1628-1706) from Morbio Inferiore, a town just over the Swiss border from Como and Cernobbio.
Scagliola work was usually reserved for the front panels of the church altars, known as ‘paliotti’ in Italian. Here the idea was to imitate ‘commessi’ mosaic work to the same aesthetic effect but at a fraction of the cost and time to produce. The earlier Carpi paliotti tended to be monochromatic but the styles developed in the Val D’Intelvi were bright and colourful including a rich variety of patterns and designs. The background colour was normally black. This was produced by colouring the plaster with ‘nerofumo’ also known as lampblack – a pure carbon produced by collecting the soot from burnt oil. The other main colour used to mix and in pure form was white – a lime white known as Bianco San Giovanni which originated from Florence. The following recipe for its production was written by Cennino Cennini (1346-1427) in his book ‘Il Libro dell’Arte’.
‘…take good white air-slaked lime, put it, in the form of powder, into a pail for the space of eight days, adding clear water every day, and stirring up the lime and water thoroughly, so as to get all the fatness out of it. Then make it up into little cakes; put them up on the roofs in the sun; and the older these cakes are, the better the white will be. If you want to make it quickly and well, when the cakes are dry, work them up with water on your stone; and then make it into little cakes and dry them again; and do this twice and you will see how perfect the white will be. This white is worked up with water and it wants to be ground thoroughly. And it is good for working in fresco, that is, on a wall without any tempera.’
The artist’s palette was completed with blue derived from either azurite, indigo or lapis lazuli. Red was obtained from vermilion, cinnabar, hematite for a dark red or crimson. Yellow came from ochre ( a natural clay) or orpiment. The base of the paliotti was made from a plaster mixed with broken up bricks or roof tiles and sand. Quality gypsum for making the plaster for the upper layers was taken from the local mines at Limonta, just to the east of Bellagio or Nobiallo, to the north of Menaggio. Marble quarries in nearby Musso (white marble) and Varenna (black marble) and the stone quarries at Moltrasio ensured the craftsman of the Val D’Intelvi had all the raw materials needed for their crafts.
While the Val D’Intelvi had a long tradition of craftsmanship, its prominence in the production of stucco and scagliola maybe would not have developed if Como, being on the border between the catholic world of Italy and the Calvinism of some of the Cantons in the Swiss Federation, had not been on one of the front lines of the Catholic Counter Reformation. Also Northern Italy had received many catholic refugees fleeing from Protestant Northern Europe during the Thirty Years War and they were intent on securing and declaring their faith by commissioning works in the style that reflected the religious affirmation and exuberance of the Counter Reformation, namely the Baroque. The artisans of the Val D’Intelvi, used to long periods of itinerant work and outward emigration, were thus poised to dominate Europe once again.
The predominant position of Val D’Intelvi craftsman is best exemplified by their role in constructing Ludwigsburg Palace, the largest palatial estate in Germany commissioned by Eberhard Louis, Duke of Wurttemberg in 1707.
When Duke Louis’ architect Johan Nette died in 1714, the sculptor Donato Frisoni, originally from Laino in the Val D’Intelvi, was appointed to take over responsibility for completing the original section of the palace and extending it. Frisoni employed hundreds of his fellow countrymen but the main craftsmen he employed all originated from the Val D’Intelvi, namely Paolo Retti (Frisoni’s nephew), Giambattista Carloni from Scaria, the Scotti from Laino and the Ferretti from Castiglione. The scale of the works was immense. Paolo Retti was organising up to six hundred and fifty workers at one stage consisting of stone masons, cutters and labourers.
Val D’Intelvi craftsmen were to be found wherever the baroque style was in favour, particularly in cities across Catholic Mid and Eastern Europe such as Prague, Vienna, Passau and Salzburg. Salzburg Cathedral was designed by Santino Solari (1576 – 1646), born in Verna in the Val D’Intelvi. Construction was also done entirely by craftsmen from the Val D’Intelvi.
Giambattista Carloni not only worked on the Ludwigsburg Palace but was also responsible for producing ten altars and the stucco decoration in Passau Cathedral. The whole of the interior decoration of the cathedral was project managed by another Intelvi resident, Carlo Lurago from Pellio. These two became the most prominent promoters of baroque decoration across Eastern Bavaria.
Giambattista Carloni’s two sons, Diego (1674-1750) and Carlo (1687-1775) were also employed at the Ludwigsburg Palace. Diego was a sculptor and master of stucco and scagliola whilst Carlo was an artist. They, like all the other master craftsmen from the valley, worked predominantly abroad returning from time to time to their towns of origin. These two brothers became internationally renowned protagonists of rococo – the lighter but highly decorative style that developed out of the baroque. Along with their successful careers in Stuttgart, Vienna, Passau and in Italy, they decided to gift the parish church of Santa Maria in their home town of Scaria with a complete interior and exterior makeover. Carlo also added some delightful frescoes on the wall of the portico added to the side of the nearby Romanesque church of Saints Nazaro and Celso.
As with the story of Como’s group of world renowned abstract artists, ‘the astrattisti comaschi’ , one is left wondering what were the circumstances that led to this intense concentration of artistic talent within such a small defined area. I have alluded to some possible geopolitical causes but maybe the most significant influence was family.
For example Paolo Retti, the architect cited as collaborating with Frisoni on the Ludwigsburg Palace was not just Frisoni’s nephew. Paolo’s father Lorenzo was a stucco master as was his brother Donato. His other brother Leonardo was an architect. Craftsmen would marry into other craftsmen families from the valley. Connections to family and place of origin gave these itinerant workers the freedom to travel for years on end knowing there was always a welcome back home. Travelling for work exposed them to different techniques and ideas while family pride also drove them to perfect their skills and to innovate.
Thus there have been two clear eras over the last nine hundred years when the ‘maestri comaschi’ have had a disproportionate influence over European art or architecture. It is difficult to foresee how this success could be replicated again given modern methods of design and production but their legacy has at least ensured, due to the need for restoration, that their old skills remain current. Students at the School of Artisan Crafts at the Villa Fabris in Verona still learn how to create and restore scagliola!