The start of the 17th century saw a major development in artistic style as signalled by Caravaggio’s ‘Calling of St. Matthew’. Caravaggio, the revolutionary force behind this change whose actual name was Michelangelo Merisi, was born in Milan in September 1571. On moving to Rome in the 1590s he gradually developed an entirely naturalistic style that banished all flying putti alongwith the other previously favoured accoutrements of the so-called mannerists. Caravaggio influenced all subsequent art throughout the century through deploying dramatic effects of light and shade, vivid colour and a photographic capture of movement.
Rome at that time was the centre of the European artistic world as Paris would become in the twentieth century. Another artist from Lombardy, Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli, from the town of Morazzone in the Province of Varese, also learnt his trade in the studios of Rome at the same time as Caravaggio. He shared the same interest in colour and movement and the depiction of strong emotion but there was also a pronounced sensuality in some of his work. Both Mazzucchelli and Caravaggio had to leave Rome precipitously with Caravaggio fleeing south to Naples to avoid arrest for murder and Mazzucchelli, now better known as Il Morazzone, going north to Milan following an argument over a woman.
Milan and Borromeo
The church was the main source of patronage of the arts and, while Caravaggio and others could determine style, technique and treatment, the commissioners would determine the subject matter. Morazzone arrived in Milan at the moment when its cardinal was giving a massive boost to local artists by establishing an artistic academy. This was Federico Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan from 1595. Federico Borromeo had been brought up and educated by his even more famous cousin, Carlo Borromeo. Carlo had been a leading force in the Council of Trent which ran from 1542 to 1563. The council’s purpose was to define and oversee the execution of the Catholic Church’s response to the threat of Protestantism. Carlo Borromeo was sanctified in 1602 having achieved great fame and popularity through his saintly record, for his concern for the poor and his personal generosity in funding schools and churches, For both Carlo and Federico, the arts offered a powerful means of retaining the population’s loyalty to the Catholic church and discouraging the influence of Protestantism and Calvinism from seeping into Lombardy from the Swiss Cantons.
Federico set about encouraging a flourishing artistic community in Milan and so became the major patron of what came to be called Lombardy Baroque. in 1609 he established the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan which nine years later was enlarged to house a collection of paintings and sculpture. In 1621 it became the art school ‘Accademia Ambrosiana’ under the presidency of the painter known as ‘Il Cerano’. The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana still exists and contains a priceless collection of works from the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
Morazzone had returned to Lombardy in 1598 and, while having absorbed some of the stylistic trends from Rome, he certainly did not buy into the entire naturalism of Caravaggio. The church in Milan and Lombardy in general, being under the strong counter-reformist influence of the Borromeos, was still firmly wedded to flying putti and winged angels, and Morazzone duly obliged. One of the major counter-reformation initiatives promoted by Carlo Borromeo had been the commissioning of ‘Sacri Monti’ in Piedmont and Lombardia. Morazzone painted frescoes in three of the chapels on the Sacro Monte di Varallo. He also decorated the Flagellation Chapel on the Sacro Monte di Varese. His links back to Carlo Borromeo continued with works commissioned in Arona, Borromeo’s birthplace and a series of paintings depicting the life of Carlo Borromeo for Milan’s Duomo.
However, in 1608 he moved to Como where he would spend the next five years – a period in which he is said to have produced his best work.
Morazzone’s move to Como led him to accepting commissions from the Diocese of Como which had one of the largest areas of responsibility of any diocese in Northern Italy. The diocese covered the current Province of Como but also Lecco, Varese, the Valtellina, Lugano and beyond to encompass a large part of Ticino. The Valtellina was at the time on the front line of the religiously inspired Thirty Years War with the protestant-run Grisons Canton losing control of it in 1619 to Catholic Spain, the rulers of Lombardy.
By basing himself in Como, Morazzone could thus be considered a propagandist through his art for the counter reformation – a position very similar to that of Pieter Paul Rubens working in Antwerp directly on the border between Catholic Belgium and Protestant Holland. Both artists had adopted some of Caravaggio’s stylistic innovations but both also retained a place for flying putti and other supernatural conventions.
Morazzone completed a set of frescoes in the sacristy of Como Cathedral which unfortunately are not normally on public view. In the left-hand nave of the cathedral, there is a banner of his depicting the patron saint of Como, Saint Abbondio. The Chiesa di Sant Agostino, just outside of the old town, has a side chapel almost totally decorated by him. It’s the second chapel off the left-hand nave and it contains two large and two small canvases by Morazzone who also painted the chapel’s frescoes. The Como art gallery, the Pinacoteca in Via Diaz, has a large semi-circular canvas of his on display commissioned for the now demolished church of San Giovanni Pedemonte. The Church of San Giovanni Pedemonte with its large monasterial complex was demolished to make way for Como’s main railway station which continues to bear the same name.
After his time in Como, he worked on the Sacro Monte of Orta, the Carlo Borromeo Chapel in Borgomanero, and the Certosa outside of Pavia. He famously collaborated with two other stars of Lombardy Baroque – il Cerano and Giulio Cesare Procaccini – to produce ‘Il Martirio delle Sante Rufino’ better known as the ‘Quadro delle tre mani’ now on display in Milan’s Pinacoteca della Brera. This work was commissioned by an aristocrat Scipione Toso who fell victim in 1631 to the devastating outbreak of plague in Milan depicted in Alessandro Manzoni’s classic ‘I Promessi Sposi’.
Morazzoni left a lasting legacy within the artistic community of Como. He had undoubtedly influenced taste amongst the wealthy aristocrats and church leaders commissioning works either for the redecoration of churches or to adorn their own villas in town or on the lakefront. His conservative brand of baroque went down well in this provincial outpost on the frontline in the religious fight against Calvinism.
Following generations of artists came to be recognised as ‘Morazzonian’ if displaying a similar chromatic style or selecting to treat biblical subjects or scenes in similar ways.
The best known of these ‘Morazzoniani’ were two of his pupils, the Recchi Brothers (Fratelli Recchi). Having learnt their craft as apprentices to Morazzone, the brothers, Giovanni Paolo and Giovanni Battista, set up their studio in Como’s Via Borgo Vico. Their reputation grew steadily with commissions for canvases and frescoes to decorate churches across the Diocese. They followed in Morazzone’s steps by also working on the Sacro Monte di Varese being responsible in 1648 for the frescoes in the eighth and ninth chapel. They were also commissioned to decorate many of the interiors of the aristocratic villas in the centre of Como, as in the example of the so-called Sala Recchi in Palazzo Lambertenghi, the friezes in the Palazzo Odescalchi, frescoes in the town hall – Palazzo Cernezzi, and in Palazzo Rusca.
Giovanni Paolo is considered the more skilled artist of the two brothers however Giovanni Battista was better known as an architect. In fact Giovanni Paolo moved to Turin in 1646 with Giovanni Battista’s son, Giovanni Antonio, to undertake commissions for the Savoy Royal Family including frescoes within the Palazzo Reale.
He returned to Lombardy in 1676 and then, towards the end of his career he worked again with his brother on the exterior and interior of their local church, the ancient Basilica di San Giorgio in Via Borgo Vico collaborating with two other nephews, Raffaelo and Carlo. One of Giovanni Paolo’s last works is the magnificent fresco of Saint George slaying the dragon in the dome of this church executed in 1686 shortly before his death. Previously the two brothers had undertaken prestigious commissions for altarpieces across Lombardy in towns across Lake Como, in Varese, Ticino, the Valtellina and Bergamo. Their altarpiece for the now defunct Church of San Marco in Via Borgo Vico is on display in Como’s Pinacoteca in Via Diaz. The art gallery was originally known as Palazzo Volpi for which Giovanni Battista Recchi actually designed one of the wings.
The artistic and architectural legacy inherited by modern-day Italy is beyond the country’s economic ability fully to maintain. There is of course an immense cost associated with maintaining ancient buildings and works of art but it is also true that there is considerable value in their capacity to attract and retain visitors. Local residents in and around Como are justifiably proud of their artistic and cultural inheritance and there are some very active local associations promoting knowledge and appreciation of the treasures on our doorstep. However it does seem to me that more, much more, could be done to make visitors and residents from abroad aware of this patrimony. Como Companion has over time put a spotlight on the surprisingly rich cultural heritage to be found within this small lakeside city on the edges of the Milanese conurbation and at the foot of the Alps. I will also try to make access to some of these treasures easier by identifying sources of further information in English and, where these may not currently exist, by suggesting some specifically thematic itineraries for readers to follow at their leisure. I hope in the very near future to start this series with an itinerary for the early Baroque in and around Como which will include where to see works by Morrazone and the Recchi brothers.