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Christoph Wilhelmi

A portrait cycle of a high caratic courtly society in the Renaissance

Anonymous portraits, for which the painters remain unknown, have a difficult existence, and for the most part, remain tucked away in storage. So it is in part for an astounding cycle of portraits which has sunken into a Sleeping Beauty oblivion within various collections. Only the place of origin is known.

The insignificant place, S. Martino Gusnago, in the back country of Lake Garda (between Brescia and Mantova) consists of only 125 houses. It does not appear in any art guidebooks, although a cycle of 44 remarkable Renaissance portraits once hung there. Even though it is no longer completely extant, a large portion of these panel paintings are in the collections of two important museums; i. e., twelve in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Panel No. 05.2.1-12); six at the Victorian and Albert Museum in London (Medieval & Renaissance, Room 64, The Wolfson Gallery). Others are found in private collections for which there is no access. Unfortunately, only four of the panels in London are available on the Internet.

Because these artworks belong to the forgotten treasures of the Renaissance, the original painters of these panels have not been able to be identified. In 1905, A. J. Koop suggested that Bramantino (ca. 1456–1530) may have been the artist. Others – ‘by common consent’ – agreed. In 1953 W. Suida repeated the attribution.

Bramantino went to Milan in 1474 and was active in the neighbouring duchy until 1499. Stylistically he seems to be the best possibility because similar architectural details in the panels appear exactly in his known paintings. However, the attribution to Bramantino would require a date for the cycle after 1480/90, this dating appears to be too late and therefore, improbable. In New York these paintings continue to be simply listed as the work of ‘The Italian (Lombard) Painter’. However, this attribution is not satisfactory. For this reason an attempt will be made here to open up a new, factually-based direction in the search for this artist.

The colouring of the cycle is unusual, i. e., warm beige/brown wood tones are used throughout. At least this is the case with the only available colour reproductions, the V&A panels. For this reason and because of the thoroughly consistent suggestion of a niche, one has the impression of a panel set in marquetery. These facts lead one to look for the original artist in the area of marquetery. Unfortunately, this area of handcraft needs much more scholarship. Contracts for sacristy cupboards and choir stalls were normally extensive and, for the most part, handled by family workshops. During this time and in this area the following artists come to mind: Pier Antono Abbati with Lorenzo da Lendinara, Bernardo Canozi (1425-1477), and Domenico da Piacenza. For these artists we have only a few dates. However, Canozi, for example, along with his work in wood also was a typographer and a painter. Because workshops in Florence or Milan are less likely, a conclusion is very difficult. It may be possible to find the original artist among those who worked in both painting and woodworking, and therefore used concepts of marquetery in his portraits.

A second problem arises in that no convincing attempt has been made to explain the occasion for the gathering of the illustrious company represented in the cycle of portraits. While Koop (p. 135) provides some names, he does not document his suggestions. As a result the subject is omitted. Obviously the seemingly unimportant location did not promise a fruitful conclusion.

The tempera paintings on pine panels in New York are nearly square ca. 45.7 x 46.4 cm; presumably, the panels in the Victoria and Albert Museum are also. Together they were apparently a part of the wall decorations in the ballroom of the Gonzaga Margrave’s manor house, the Palazzo Secco Pastore (the V&A presumes they were located in a studiolo).

03--585-Palazzo-Secco-Pastore-S.-Martino-Gusnago-StraßenfrontPalazzo Secco Pastore S. Martino Gusnago

The arrangement of the paintings appears to have been on the two long sides of the hall, in the center of which one can imagine a double row with eleven paintings in each row. The order in which the panels were hung is known no longer, unless the reproduction in
The Burlington Magazine reflects a portion of the arrangement. In this case a fluted vertical of wood between the panels served as a division. Under this is a moulding decorated with acanthus leaves.

The original order in which the portraits were hung no longer can be reconstructed.

The grouping of three figures in the 1905 reproduction (top of p. 140) suggests there may have been additional facing pairs of figures. If this arrangement continued, remains unclear. In any event, the arrangement of the Twelve Heads (the official nomenclature of the twelve panels in New York) seems to be random. Of these only a third are portraits of women. What is important is, above all, that a significant number of the extant panels attest to their obvious quality, especially in the consistency of execution. However, it remains controversial, whether this portrait cycle is of gente; i.e., random persons and therefore had a purely decorative function, or if it were intentionally a focus on the individualism which was developing at that time.

When observing the collection in New York, it occurs to the viewer, that the posture is not generally the same, rather there are deviations. This strengthens the impression that a real person appears in the portrait. In addition, there are strong variations in the head coverings. These show striking differences which seem to indicate specific persons. A man wears a gold cap under his black hat which was popular among German business people; e. g., Cranach’s painting of a nobleman from 1532.

The countless black berets have no single form. On several, the brim of the hat has added decoration which later became known as imprese (cf. essay Barett·Plakette·Devise·Imprese by Christoph Wilhelmi). As a result the portrait cycle of Gusnago replaces the previous first documentation of this fashion illustrated in the Cronica Napolitana, 1494, and stands at the beginning of the trend since so far Gusnago has been dated to 1474. Through this, the cycle additionally wins a place in the history of fashion.

01--585-Palazzo-Secco-Pastore-S.-Martino-GusnagoPalazzo Secco Pastore, S.Martino Gusnago. Front to the Garden

Palazzo Secco-Pastore(the name originates in the 18thcentury) today serves as a tourist attraction. The regional authority of Ceresara describes it as a »typical residence of the Gonzagas«. Indeed, the area belongs to the northernmost portion of the Gonzaga Margraviate of Mantua. The architect of the building is given as Luca Fancelli (1430 Florence-1495), a member of a family of artists. Unfortunately no details concerning the origins and the cultural historic context of the portrait cycle have been found; therefore, they must be reconstructed.

The passionateness of the Margravian Gonzaga family often is associated first with the marriage of Isabella d’Este (1474-1539) in 1490. Itis not generally known that Ludovico III (1412-1478) hired Pisanello around 1447 to decorate a hall in the Palazzo Ducale with frescoes, now lost, which depicted scenes of knighthood at the Court of King Arthur.

In this connection a note by Martin Warnke in his publication Der Hofkünstler (p. 42) is informative: when Gianfrancesco Gonzaga in 1420 decreed that all artists who settled in Mantua, would be guaranteed a fixed commission for five years, thereby demonstrating the necessity to form strong bonds between artists and the court in the pursuit of prestigious cultural policies.

02--585-vorbild Justus van Gent and Petrus Hispanus: Part of the studiolo of Federico da Montefeltro's in Urbino. 1473/77

It has been long presumed that the court of Mantua, following the model of Urbino, had ordered a gallery of famous men, viri illustri. Until now, the search for such a collection has been unsuccessful. The studiolo of Margrave Federico da Montefeltro in Urbino (1476) still preserves its original installation of portraits of uomini famosi in two rows above the height of the doors. This installation by the artists Justus van Gent and Pedro Berruguete is especially original; colourful, yet with more intensity and with richer contrasts.

In Italy sometimes it was common to have portraits of rulers in a sort of gallery of ancestors, other times collections of intellectual heroes celebrated by the Humanists were popular; e.g.; philosophers, authors, etc. The popularization of science in the Renaissance led to a desire to be surrounded by images of their scientific heroes in the manner of an ancestor gallery. That is particularly true »when they became famous in the service of the state, through extraordinary performances in war and peace, in the arts and other activities« (Giorgio Vasari).

Unfortunately over the generations the rich collection of paintings in Mantua was dispersed; e. g. when the Gonzaga organized a sale due to financial pressures, in the first decade of 17th. However, the sale did not affect the portrait cycle in remote Gusnago; increasing the value of the ensemble. The presence here of women and men appears to bring together portraits of the Gonzaga circle of friends. This concept is consistently realized in the style of a single painter who until now is unknown for his work for the Gonzagas.

Only later Vespasiano Gonzaga (1531-1591) had the idea of building a long gallery – a Gallery of the Famous – in his small residence in Sabbioneta. Because he had no successors, his art collection was broken up and today the building stands empty so that his original concept is not visible. This makes an analysis of the Gusnago collection all the more rewarding because it is singular in its concept.

Today, one can obtain an idea of such a viri illustri gallery (scholars cite Petrarch’s De viris illustribus, 1338) by visiting the corridors of the Uffizi in Florence where the – though third-rate – Collezione Iconografica hangs. It is also known as La seria Giovianao la colleczione diritratti uomini illustri (1536/43). It contains portraits of earlier intellectual greats. For the interested one could say they had a pedagogic function since most of the names of the portrait subjects were given.

Somewhat earlier in the Italian High Renaissance the fashion arose for portrait medals which were copied from antique coins. Similarly, as in Gusnago, only bust portraits or half-length portraits are used. Margaret Daly Davis (p. 372) determined that, following antique models, the most common persons portrayed are »four types of uomini illustri …: military leaders, kings, historians, poets«. Additionally she suggests »philosophers, orators, statesmen and grammarians«.

These were and continue to be sought and treasured mementos which especially the Humanists exchanged as a sign of friendship. Erasmus of Rotterdam, for example, sent his likeness to high-ranking individuals who sent him their images. This was especially the practice between princes. The Gonzagas frequently used this gesture, for example Francesco II Gonzaga had depicted his victorious battle on the reverse side of a medal (see Wilhelmi, Porträts der Renaissance, p. 45).

But back to the order of portraits in Gusnago. The surviving paintings of the gallery clearly show an other tendency, that is, not to focus on ancestors nor to represent war heroes, despite the fact that the then owner of the house was a condottiere. There is reason to presume that Secco was not the originator of the portrait cycle. When he left the house in 1491 he was only interested in selleable inventory, such as tapestries, carpets, silver, etc., to raise money to pay a 12,000 Scudi ransom. He ignored the portrait cycle leaving it in place so that it remained in the place of origin until ca. 1881. This lets one conclude that the contents of the portrait gallery had only a significant meaning to the Gonzaga builders. As a result, the represented court society gives an impression predominantly of youth depicting very few older men.

The rigidly designed heads seem not to be formulaic despite their uniform profile positioning. Through the use of differentiating details, they are in no way stereotypical. It is striking that there are no weapons to be seen in any of the portraits, and, at the same time, in individual portraits of nobles a sword is almost always at their side. This fact bespeaks a peaceful and perhaps a cultural event such as a festival.

In point of fact, it was not just in Florence under the Medici, but everywhere at the time in provinces following the lead of the Medici, academies were founded in which people with interests in poetry, music and philosophy gathered together. The number of such associations founded through mutual agreement is legion ─ and is a subject 04--Andrea-Mantegna--Ludovico III.-Gonzaga.-il-TurcoAndrea Mantegna: Luigi il Turco.
Detail of the Fresco in the
Camera degli sposi. 1474
that has not yet been thoroughly researched.

When the portraits were first produced, according to temporary accounts, the resident of the Palazzo Secco Pastore was apparently the condottiere Francesco Secco (1423-1496) and the owners of the palace were the Gonzagas. In 1440 Secco came from the court of Mantua for training and in 1451 married Caterina Gonzaga, the illegitimate daughter of Luigi il Turco. One might assume the house in Gusnago was thought of as a kind of dowry although throughout his career as a condottiere, Secco did not often reside there while he pursued his military commitments. For example, in 1464-1465 he also worked for Duke Francesco Sforza in Milan. The duke was so pleased with Secco’s cooperation and his military successes that he recommended him to the King of Naples, Ferrante d’Aragona (1451-1504) for the king’s rapid deployment force.

Ferrante had taken over »the most brilliant royal court of the early Renaissance« from his father Alfonso V d’Aragona (1386-1458). »Famous Greek and Jewish scholars, refugees from Constantinople following the Turkish conquest in 1453, and persecuted Jews from Spain appeared at the court and elevated the study of ancient languages to a level never before reached«. (Christoph Toenes and others, p. 331). In addition Alfonso added much to Neapolitan architecture.

Ferrante was not the legitimate son of Alfonso, however in 1443, as a precautionary measure, the father in the church of San Lorenzo Maggiore had his son proclaimed as his successor. In 1460 a rebellion of nobles erupted led by Giovanni d’Angio (Anjou 1424-1470) whose ancestors had ruled the kingdom for a period following the Hohenstaufen. »Ferrante … entered a life-threatening battle situation 08--UK-Ferrante-I-von-Neapel.-Louvre-ParisUnknown artist: Ferrante I. Louvre, Parisnear Sarno« (Rolf Legler, p. 357). Secco with his mercenaries was able to rescue Ferrante. Out of gratitude Ferrante allowed Secco to use the family name, d’Aragona — an absolutely extraordinary honor. As a result in 1476-77, Secco with Ludovico Sforza and Rodolfo Gonzaga, was invited to the wedding of Ferrante in Naples.
This friendly relationship between the princes suggests strongly that Ferrante with his entourage made a return visit to Gusnago. On such an occasion a great celebration would most certainly be provided as was customary between friendly princes. This event is apparently the occasion for which the portrait cycle was created. this suggests that Panel 05.2.6 likely portrays King Ferrante himself. He is always portrayed with shoulder-length dark brown hair. Unfortunately, the imprecise depiction of the decoration on his beret, the imprese, does not permit a definite solution.

0527-Unknown Artist: Luigi il Turco? Panel 05.2.7Panel 05.2.7 shows a stocky man with a type of turban. His figure shows many similarities to a person depicted in the Mantegna fresco (above), namely Luigi il Turco, the patron of Secco.
In addition, Panel 05.2.11 depicts a Doge. Given the time here, Doge Niccolò Marcello who ruled from 1473-1474, is the only possibility. His likeness is similar to the portrait Titian painted including his receding chin. One can conclude from this fact that the Gonzaga had invited friendly rulers of neighboring states to the festivities.

The color Panel 0112567 of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, shows a young man with shoulder-length hair. The portrait could be of Ferrantes’ son, Federico d’Aragona (1451-1504) who at the time would have been a young man in his early twenties. Certainly the initials on his beret raise a question to 06--052.6-Unknown artist: Ferrante d'Aragon ? Panel 05.2.6resolve. Could the initials RA perhaps stand for ‘ragazzo Aragona’? His garb has True Love Knots as well.

The only person who appears as a soldier wearing a helmet, is found in Panel 0112560 in London. His helmet draws attention and emphasizes that he is a prominent member of the festivities. Could this be Francesco Secco, the condottiere? However, at the time of the cycle’s origin he was ca.50 years old.

It gradually emerges that the gathered guests in the portraits are either part of a family event linked to the Gonzaga or to a cultural event which had taken place. There is also the possibility that the two jaunty young men (Panel 05.2.2 and 05.2.12) were invited poets, not necessarily representative of the nobility, who performed their works as part of the 05211-DogeUnknown artist: Doge Maecello? Panel 05.2.11festivities. Among the poets who might be considered is Pietro Jacopo de Iennaro (1436-1508) who was active at the court of Naples; he can be found in Venice after 1472. However, since images of poets who were commoners were seldom painted, there is no possibility to compare portraits because at the time not as many types of people were portrayed in paintings as later in the 16th century.

In addition it is worth noting that in the portraits of two ladies (Panels 05.2.1 and 05.2.9), their garments are emphatically adorned with bows ─ so-called True Love Knots (see Wilhelmi, Porträts der Renaissance, p. 25) ─ from which one might conjecture they had been promised as brides to a partner whom from the portraits we can only guess, unfortunately. Because the second lady is wearing a sort of tiara or at least a very filigreed piece of 10--O112567RAvermutlicher-Sohn-Ferrantes-ragazzo-AragonaUnknown artist: The son of Ferrante:
ragazzo Aragona? Panel 011256
jewelry, one might contemplate that she represents the new Queen of Naples, Joanna of Aragon (1454-1517). King Ferrante had been married to her, his second wife, since 1476. Likewise, the subject in Panel 05.2.1 could be Anne of Savoy (1455-1480), the bride of Federico d’Aragona, whom he married in 1478. At the time of the creation of the cycle, Anne already had been promised to Federico.

The wedding of Francesco Secco with Caterina Gonzaga had already taken place in 1451; as a result, their wedding could not have been the occasion for which these guests were brought together. One can suppose it is possible this illustrious company was assembled to celebrate another wedding around 1477. Typically such occasions would offer equestrian events, musical performances and, above all, feasts. The musical portions consisted primarily 11--O112560Francesco-SeccoUnknown artist: Francesco Secco?. Panel 0112560of songs with texts provided by the poets whose presence the courtiers thoroughly enjoyed as the later example of Torquato Tasso demonstrates.

Regrettably, only a portion of the portraits can be clarified here. This is partially the result that the tempera panels have never been restored. This is a particular disadvantage with the distinguishing features of the imprese which through the aging process of the painting, have become largely illegible. In any case, the available photographs of the five imprese Koop mentions are, with one exception, unfortunately not optimal. In any event, the research presented here provides a clearer overall context, a more concrete orientation and a more illuminated background.

Höfling-FerrantesUnknown artist: A courtier of Ferrante?After over one hundred years it is about time the responsible museums and the private collectors of the portrait cycle make possible a temporary reassembling of the dispersed panels so that a colloquium can be organized to discuss further clarifications of the complexities, of which Koop in 1905 wrote a propos these panels: »Such grace and refinement, such delicately restrained characterization, are found only in the great masters of the period«.

  © Translation Jim Savage DMQ, 2020

condottieridiventura.it/francesco-secco (16.1.2020)
Margaret Daly Davis: Die Renaissance-Medaille in Italien und Deutschland
A.J. Koop. The Burlington Magazine. London 1905 (m.vam.ac.uk/collections/item/0112556)
Jan Lauts/Irmlind Luise Herzner: Federico da Montefeltro. Berlin 2001
Rolf Legler: Der Golf von Neapel. Cologne 1995
Christof Thoenes a.o. In: Reclams Kunstführer: Neapel. Stuttgart 1983
Martin Warnke: Der Hofkünstler. Cologne 1996, p. 42
Christoph Wilhelmi: Barett·Plakette·Devise·Imprese in: www.renaissance-port.de (s. Essay)
dto. Porträts der Renaissance ─ Hintergründe und Schicksale. Berlin 2011

Image sources
Katherine Baetjer: European Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum. New York, 1986, p. 103
Medieval & Renaissance, Room 64, The Wolfson Gallery (14.1.2020)
Federico Zeri: Italian Paintings of the Metropolitan Museum. New York, 1986, p. 103 klären, ob enthalten
http://m.vam.ac.uk/item/O112556/male-profile-bust-tempera-on-spruce-unknown/ (14.1.2020)
http://www.comune.ceresara.mn.it/index.php?option=com_content&%20view=article&%20id=195:palazzo-secco-pastore&%20catid=58&%20Itemid=127 (6.1.2020)
wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludovico_III._Gonzaga#/media/Datei:Andrea_Mantegna_081.jpg (7.1.2020)
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dc/Ferdinando_I_Napoli.JPG (18.1.2020)

In point of fact, it was not just in Florence under the Medici, but everywhere at the time in