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An Italian painter and the greatest master of the Piedmontese School, b. at Valduggia, near Novara. Italy, c. 1470: d. at Milan, 31 January, 1546. His work is vast but poorly known. He seems never to have left his beloved Piedmont or Lombardy save perhaps on one occasion. He had seen Leonardo at work in Milan (1490-98), and learned from him lessons in expression and in modeling. But he owed more to his compatriots in the North: to Bramante and Bramantino in architectural details, above all to Mantegna, whose frescoes of the "Life of St. James" inspired more than one paintings at Varallo.
Nothing is more uncertain than the history of this great man. His earliest known works belong to the years 1508 and 1511; at that time he was about forty years of age. He would seem to have been formed in the good old Milanese school of such men as Borgognone, Zenale, and Butinone, which kept aloof from the brilliant fashion in art favoured by the court of the Sforzas, and which prolonged the fifteenth century with its archaisms of expression. Gaudenzio, this youngest and frankest of this group, never fell under the influence of Leonardo, and hence it is that on one point he always held out against the new spirit; he would never daily with the paganism or rationalism of Renaissance art. He was as passionately naturalistic as any painter of his time, before all else, however, he was a Christian artist. He is the only truly religious master of the Italian Renaissance, and this trait it is which makes him stand out in any age where faith and single-mindedness were gradually disappearing, as a man of another country, almost of another time.
When we consider the works of Gaudenzio, more especially his earlier ones, in the light of the fact that the district in which he was born was in the direct line of communication between North and South; and reflect that what might be termed the "art traffic" between Germany and Italy was very great in his time, we are forced to recognize that German influence played a considerable part in the development of his genius, in so far at least as his mind was amenable to external stimuli. He is, in fact, the most German of the Italian painters. In the heart of a school where art was becoming more and more aristocratic, he remained the people's painter. In this respect his personality stands out so boldly amongst the Itatian painters of the time that it seems natural to infer that Gaudenzio in his youth travelled to the banks of the Rhine, and bathed long and deep in its mystic atmosphere.
Like the Gothic masters, he is perhaps the only sixteenth-century painter who worked exclusively for churches or convents. He is the only one in Italy who painted lengthy sacred dramas and legends from the lives of the saints: a "Passion" at Varallo; a "Life of the Virgin", and a "Life of St. Magdalen", at Vercelli; and at times, after the fashion of the cinquecento, he grouped many different episodes in one scene, at the expense of unity in composition, till they resembled the mysteries, and might be styled "sectional paintings". He was not aiming at art, but at edification. Hence arose a certain negligence of form and a carelessness of execution still more pronounced. The "Carrying of the Cross" at Cannobio, the "Calvary" at Vercelli, the "Deposition" at Turin, works of great power in many ways, and unequalled at the time in Italy for pathos and feeling, are somehow wanting in proportion, and give one the impression that the conventional grouping has been departed from. The soul, being filled as it were with its object, as overpowered by the emotions; and the intellect confesses its inability to synthesize the images which rise tumultuously from an over excited sensibility. Another consequence of this peculiarity of mental conformation is, perhaps, the abuse of the materials at his disposal Gaudenzio never refrained from using doubtful methods, such as ornaments in relief, the use of gilded stucco worked into harness, armour, into the aureolas, etc. And to heighten the effect he does not even hesitate to make certain figures stand out in real, palpable relief; is fact some of his frescoes are as much sculpture as they are painting, by reason of this practice.
His history must always remain incomplete until we get further enlightenment concerning that strange movement of the Pietist preachers, which ended in establishing (1487-93) a great Franciscan centre on the Sacro Monte de Varallo. It was in this retreat that Gaudenzio spent the years which saw his genius come to full maturity; it was there he left his greatest works, his "Life of Christ" of 1513, in twenty-one frescoes at Santa Maria delle Grazie, and other works on the Sacro Monte dating between 1523 and 1528. It was there that the combined use of painting and sculpture produced a most curious result. Fresco is only used as an ornament, a sort of background to a scene presenting a tableau vivant of figures in terra-cotta. Some of the groups embrace no less than thirty figures. Forty chapels bring out in this way the principal scenes in the drama of the Incarnation, Gaudenzio is responsible for the chapels of the Magi, the Pietà, and the Calvary.
In his subsequent works, at Vercelli (1530-34) and at Saronno (in the cupola of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, 1535), the influence of Correggio is furiously blended with the above-mentioned German leanings. The freshness and vigour of his inspiration remain untouched in all their homely yet stern grace. The "Assumption" at Vercelli is perhaps the greatest lyric in Italian art; this lyric quality in his painting is still more intense in the wonderful "Glory of Angels", in the cupola at Saronno, the most enthusiastic and jubilant symphony that any art has ever produced. In all Correggio's art there is nothing more charming than the exquisite sentiment and tender rusticity of "The Flight into Egypt", in the cathedral of Como. The artist's latest works were those he executed at Milan, whither he retired in 1536. In these paintings, the creations of a man already seventy years of age, the vehemence of feeling sometimes becomes almost savage, the presentation of his ideas abrupt and apocalyptic. His method becomes colossal and more and more careless, but still in the "Passion" at Santa Maria delle Grazie (1542) we cannot fail to trace the hand of a master.
Gaudenzio was married at least twice. By his first marriage a son was born to him in 1509 and a daughter in 1512. He married, in 1528, Maria Mattia della Foppa who died about 1540, shortly after the death of his son. These sorrows doubtless affected the character of his later works. Gaudenzio's immediate influence was scarcely appreciable. His pupils Lanino and Della Cerva are extremely mediocre. Nevertheless when the day of Venice's triumph came with Tintoretto, and Bologna's with the Carraccis in the counter-reform movement, it was the art of Gaudenzio Ferrari that triumphed in them. The blend of Northern and Latin genius in his work, so characteristic of the artists of the Po valley, was carried into the ateliers of Bologna by Dionysius Calvaert. It became the fashion, displacing, as it was bound to do, the intellectual barrenness and artistic exoticism of the Florentine School.