Saturday, 4 January 2014

The Montalto Madonna and the intellectual and spiritual life of Cardinal Peretti di Montalto

My thought soars not so high ; though duly bent
In reverence, and awe, and long attent,
To study Nature and the works and ways,
So wondrous, that surround us : but no mind,
Whom earthly fetters bind,
Though led to truth, and swift to utter praise,
Can pierce the crystal that enshrines above
The Flower of endless Love ; …

Torquato Tasso (1544-1595) 'The Nativity' Rome, December 1588

The poetic extract above precisely demonstrates the ease with which the sixteenth-century patron moved between the intellectual and religious; for them, there was little distinction. With this in mind this essay sets out to explore how a private devotional image can provide an insight into the mind and life of the commissioning patron. Although we cannot be certain how individual spiritual or even intellectual experience manifested itself in relation to small devotional images, Burt Treffer offers a useful line of thought. His method applies a mix of pictorial analysis and iconography, investigation into the purpose of the painting and who it was for, as well as a close reading of the associated literature.2 

A recently rediscovered devotional image by Annibale Carracci The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist, or the Montalto Madonna (National Gallery, London) (c1600) is perfectly placed to demonstrate and reflect the pursuits of its first owner, the Roman Cardinal Deacon Alessandro Damasceni Peretti di Montalto (1571–1623). Taken in its wider context, this small painting on copper enables the art historian to explore reformation church politics, familial ambition as well as flourishing city wide intellectual pursuits. 

I open with the Council of Trent and the subsequent reform and reinvigoration of the Catholic church. Everything – from the increasingly devout humanism, adoration of the Virgin, and the emphasis on communicating emotion in a new, more direct way – follows from this increasingly militaristic and jubilant Church and its artistically influential adherents. I outline Carracci's move to Rome and his experimental change in style and give an in depth analysis of the Montalto Madonna. As Cardinal Peretti di Montalto is primarily remembered for his court circle of musicians and composers, I draw extensively on music and poetry to emphasise common themes within the intellectual and spiritual gamut of sixteenth-century liberal and fine arts.3 And finally I take the two connected themes of light and prayer and how the painting opens up a line of communication between the Virgin and viewer.

The use of images and objects in Christian private and public devotions have a long history, from the earliest Christian frescos and tombs of the Rome catacombs, to the redefinition of the post Trent image. The emerging ideas from Trent's twenty-fifth decree, stated that as long as the image, relic or statue wasn’t venerated in an idolatrous way, they were useful as teaching aids, exemplars and, most importantly, inspiring private devotions.4 The Church grasped the power of the visual and recognised the mysterious qualities of these objects and images to inspire and reconnect people with their faith. Reindert Falkenburg describes these material objects as having a 'spirituality' and continues, 'the devotee wanted to find an inner and direct connection to God', and 'text and image (paintings, sculpture etc) provided the tools that enable the soul to prepare for this meeting'.5 St Teresa of Avila confirms this manner of worship and advises, 'do you know when the gazing on the representation of Christ is a good and holy practice in which I take pleasure?...To gaze on His picture rouses the soul to fervour'.6 When surrounded by light, music and residual incense, an image such as the Montalto Madonna would have been saturated with a divine quality that the cardinal would have appreciated on all levels.

In the introduction to the recent translation of Giovan Pietro Bellori's Lives of the Artists, 'the principal purpose of [Bellori's] lecture was to clarify to artists themselves the intellectual quality of their work, not denying but exulting their adherence to nature. Sifting whatever in nature they wish to imitate through the selective and speculative sieve of the inner idea, painters are like poets who exercise the imagination, and not like artisans who engage in a physical practice'.7 Carracci's style underwent a marked change when mid-career, he moved from Bologna to Rome in November 1595. He immersed himself in the intellectual and religious ideas circulating in the Roman cardinal courts and his already assimilative artistic imagination ensured a particularly fruitful time into the late 1590s. As an established artistic name, he was quartered in the Palazzo Farnese where he started work on the enormous ceiling projects. This contact with the evolving humanistic classicism of Rome, where he also had ample opportunity to examine the antiquities, influenced and shaped his art immeasurably, especially in in his monumental fresco cycles. However in this essay, I am not dwelling on his large scale works, but his more intimate and private works of art on the experimental medium of copper which he was producing at the same time.8

Oil on copper painting was a technique practised primarily by northern painters, who depicted the natural world in perfect miniature. Denis Calvaert introduced the technique to artists in Bologna and the practice spread through his pupils and collaborators, with many Italians adapting their own styles by the end of the sixteenth-century, for example, Antiveduto Grammatica. By the time Carracci appeared in the mid 1590s, Rome was an important centre for the production of works on copper and a melting pot of various regional styles. The bright, reflective metal surface offered a luminosity unparalleled by fresco or canvas so for artists adept in colour, delicacy and precision, such as Carracci, it was a medium with unlimited potential.

The small-scale Montalto Madonna (35 x 27.5cm), according to the National Gallery, London notes, is dated to about 1600 – mistakenly in my view if it is part of this collection of copper works done in 1597-98.9 Even when thought lost, this small painting was known through contemporary engravings, as well as the written descriptions of Bellori and Carlo Cesare Malvasia. Bellori was aware of the limitations of pictorial description, as he says, 'the delight of painting resides in sight, which has little to do with hearing', and I would add reading to that observation. He writes,
In the other painting on copper there is the virgin seated on the cradle, and while she embraces Jesus on her lap, who holds an apple, the young St John gazes at him and tugs at the virgin's mantle, and at the side Joseph pauses from reading a book, with his spectacles in his hand. Because of its beauty this little picture was copied continually while it was at the villa Montalto, it was already then been worn away in the hands of copyists10

Bellori's remark about the Holy Family is as true then as it is now. Despite restoration, the painting is in such bad condition that we have to rely on the resultant engravings of the reprehensible and damaging methods of the copyists to clarify the background scene.11 What was lost with the original over the intervening few hundred years, was the rich colour, subtlety of tone and the Raphaelesque sweetness of the Madonna and Child which copyists had failed to capture. The familial composition is enhanced by the balance of colours; the gold of Joseph's cloak and the burnished curls of the children, the white of the linen and pages of Joseph's book and Mary's entire swirl of red and blue are perfectly harmonious.

In the centre of the painting, with a fluted classical column rising behind her, Mary is barely seated on the edge of the woven crib. Her pose of bent foot and knee, with 'active' drapery suggests that she is about to rise and meet the viewer to invite them into the family unit, and possibly an intellectual family disputation. Bearded Joseph, leans earnestly through a red draped opening, and is either in serious conversation with St John, possibly about a book he has been reading, or they are simply gazing at Mary. Both are unaware of the viewer. Clutching his russet apple, Jesus seems to both embrace his mother and the viewer because of his elegantly twisted pose, despite avoiding our direct gaze. An engraved close up of the landscape behind the Virgin shows a wild hillside with an unidentifiable gatehouse against the skyline with the delicate trees, which may or may not be a ruin – it is certainly not designed in the Italian villa tradition. At the bottom of the hill, there are two people, possibly fishing in a stretch of water. There are not enough iconographical clues to firmly identify the people or the buildings. I've searched for clues in the patron's stemma and name, and whilst Montalto ('high mountain') could describe the landscape, it's still not a satisfactory explanation for the scene. Perhaps Carracci was simply following the northern European tradition of early landscape painting.12

The main reason for focussing on this painting is because we know who commissioned it, unlike the other ones. Cardinal Peretti di Montalto received his title at fourteen from his uncle Felice Peretti, after the latter was elected Pope Sixtus V on April 24, 1585. Bellori saw Carracci's Holy Family sometime before 1672, when it had already passed from the Montalto family into the collection of Lorenzo Salviati, but he confirms Peretti di Montalto as its first owner.13 Two large scale studies examine his monumental contribution to renaissance music, however, they also include information about the decoration and style of his villas and gardens, the contents of his vast library, and his household expenditure.14 This particular cardinal nephew was distinctly aware of the importance of courtly pomp and ceremony to bolster the image of the pope and Rome as all powerful, 'the cardinal's familia had become one of the indispensable elements of that "appearance." The magnificence that was required of cardinals must, in fact, be seen as part of a coherent, long-term program for bringing the image of Rome into line with its new function as the capital of the Papal State as well as the capital of Christendom'.15 And he did not disappoint. This cardinal's patronage proved to be extravagantly wide ranging and as John Walter Hill elaborates, 'he gave financial support to scholars of sacred literature, and to jurists, philosophers, poets, painters, singers and instrumentalists, ecclesiastics, and translators and kept a large number of the same at his court'.16

As part of this political awareness and magnificence, it is interesting to note the changing ways that the Virgin was being portrayed at this time. Although Carracci was reworking and reinterpreting a classical Raphaelesque form, other contemporary images of Mary had changed. Thomas Worcester suggests, 'there are much less tender more militant images of the Virgin Mary in post Tridentine Italy [..] Mary underwent a progressive militarisation she had triumphed over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and over the Protestants at White Mountain in 1620'.17 The new Feast of the Rosary was designed to commemorate the Lepanto victory and Pope Pius V's newly reformed Ave had become a battle cry against all heretics, both within Europe and without.18 Carracci's Madonna is not militant but I think a certain political statement could be read in to this commission. Donna Spivey Ellington draws our attention to a profoundly important point made in a lecture given by Francis Panigarola in 1589, 'Mary herself had been designated the Roman church as her own, in as much as her son was the true founder of the greatness of Rome as the Church's capital city'.19 Given that Sextus V was redesigning the city, there is a connection between the Church/Pope/Mary to the physical and spiritual space of Rome. The city then, is hers, and Peretti di Montalto is welcoming the image of her into the papal family.

One of many manuscript guides to the libraries, churches, palaces and art collections of Rome, written between 1660-1664, was Fioravante Martinelli's Roma ornata dall'architeturra, pittura e scultura.20 It mentions about eighty Montalto Villa paintings and sculptures providing evidence that Peretti di Montalto was a keen collector and patron of contemporary Italian artists of the late sixteenth/early seventeenth-century.21 Martinelli was a keen 'antiquarian and in both classical and early Christian archaeology. At the same time he was a singularly careful and conscientious historian of art' so a relatively reliable primary source.22 In it he describes first the external house and gardens with names of the architects and fresco painters. He then takes the reader through the villa, floor by floor, room by room listing works of art and artists, when we come to an upper loggia. Before we come to the final room , he says, '[n]ell'altra seguente la Madonnina con S. Gioseppe, Christo, e S. Giovanni quadro in rame ad olio รจ di Annibal'.23 That is all he says. No other painting is mentioned as sharing the space and he is quite clear in other rooms where he lists more than one. The loggia rooms either side contain a mix of the sacred and mythical, for instance there is Rape of the Sabine Women on copper by Antiveduto Grammatica (1571-1626), a couple of crucifixions by Antonio Tempesta (1555-1630) and a Christ being carried to burial by Alessandro Turchi (1578-1649).24

This description of the location of the painting and the subjects/material of the surrounding work is helpful in a number of ways. The juxtaposition of the classical, mythical and biblical in the collection demonstrates the blurring of intellectual distinctions in the cardinal's world. One way of illustrating changing attitudes towards the classical is how poets were starting to address the muses. A renaissance poet would traditionally address them at the start of any large scale poem in the classical humanist tradition even if they didn't actually pray to those gods, it was strictly poetic conceit. However in the late sixteenth-century this was in flux. For instance, in Tasso's epic poem Jerusalem Delivered (1581), his explicit religious feelings meant he invoked the Virgin instead. He consciously turns away from the mythological to the unequivocally religious,

O heavenly Muse, that not with fading bays
Deckest thy brow by the Heliconian spring,
But sittest crowned with stars' immortal rays
In Heaven, where legions of bright angels sing;
Inspire life in my wit, my thoughts upraise,
My verse ennoble, and forgive the thing,
If fictions light I mix with truth divine,
And fill these lines with other praise than thine.
(Book 1, Verse 2)

 He overtly states that he takes inspiration from the Virgin, who is surrounded by the songs of the angels in Heaven, he is praising her and only her. Later in The Nativity he writes that 'Mute is Apollo now, silent in his cave'. The age of the old gods, or even making reference to them, is now past. Similarly Carracci paints the classical architecture in his copper series as derelict and weed infested, the pagan temples are columns are crumbling, as entirely as Anubis's bare temples.25 In literature, as well as art and architecture, 'the mythological apparatus, though admitted by the Council of Trent, was entirely transformed by genuinely modern criticism and irony, and even by competition with a direct nature poetry'. Carracci's large scale 'gods and goddesses in love' ceiling project was done with a knowingness and injection of humour which stripped the pagan mythology of its power, leaving a stunning piece of early baroque decoration.

There is a second reason why the location of the painting is important. As the sole painting in a room within a suite in the loggia, it was clearly a highly regarded, valuable piece and required no other painting to distract the viewer. Despite the fact it was it was not positioned in a chapel but in a private room, I would suggest that it – and any other religious piece – was still a devotional piece. Stephanie Walker et al point out, that 'personal devotions can be performed in any private room at the palace. According to the account of his personal attendant, Cardinal Francesco Barberini would make his private devotions, and say mass in his private chapel...soon after rising in the morning; only later would he hear a public mass said by a chaplain in the main chapel'.26 It is possible that other cardinals would follow a similar pattern in their own religious practices, especially as the Holy Family was alone, with no pagan accompaniment.

There was an increasing appreciation of these expensive jewel-like works of art by the sophisticated, rich and highly educated Roman patrons who were looking to increase their collections of remarkable objects.27 The study of the natural world was fascinating the European intellectual elite. All manner of wonders were being revealed by the experiments of the early natural philosophers, then displayed in their cabinets of curiosities, studioli, or Wunderkammern. Like the method of painting on copper itself, it has been suggested that the fashion for these small paintings had been imported from the north of Europe. By the 1590s, Francesca Cappelletti suggests, 'possibly because of the influence exerted in Rome by the taste and collections of Farnese and the Medici, virtuoso paintings on copper or stone had gained prominent positions in other collections'.28 For example, Zucchi's Coral Fishers (1585) decorated Cardinal Ferdinando's studiolo in the Villa Medici in Rome.29 Paintings with copper supports would be appropriate for patrons who had an interest in the study of metallurgy; Vannoccio Biringuccio writes of copper being nourished by the influence of Venus, and due to disunited imperfections in its substance, an impure metal.30 Combining cutting edge theoretical metal craft with esoteric Florentine tastes and creating something acceptable to the fashionable Roman post-Tridentine world is something that Carracci achieved brilliantly with his religious works on copper. It is as if the pagan metal has been reborn as a sacred object to be venerated, which is precisely why his painting sits alone; away from both the classical and Peretti di Montalto's other paintings on copper.

The cardinal was renowned for his association with music and the arts, and rather less the study of nature. So for a window into his views I turn to Tasso, whose work seems to reflect the discussions of the cardinal's court artistic circle. The poet's connection with the papal family was quite extensive and many musical manuscripts which the cardinal had in his vast library of at least 1680 volumes, used his poetry. In the quote at the start of the essay, Tasso agrees that it is good to study the wondrous ways of nature but says that it has to be done with reverence and awe, as befits God's work. He reminds the inquisitive that that no matter how much we learn, humans will never understand the powers of God; even prayer and worship cannot break through to the empyrean heaven, the dwelling place of the Divine. The sentiment behind this extract from The Nativity is perfectly in tune with the ideas of this period, as Helmut Hatzfeld states, 'the Counter Reformation stood for the divine paradox of mystery and faith as being superior to human rationalizing'.31 The love of God that pours out from this place, as Carracci represents in the painting of the Holy Family is not something to be questioned rationally, but accepted emotionally. This sentiment is what is communicated through much of his work and enhanced by the cardinal's innovative household musicians.

There is more to be said about the cardinal's musical innovations than I can manage here, however to say nothing would be negligent in the extreme. As Guido Bentivoglio noted, 'above all he loved music, and he maintained in his household truly excellent virtuosi of that profession'.32 He was also willing to share his talented group of people with his equally wealthy and fashionable friends, such as the Florentine Medici, ensuring that he was well known for his virtuosic connections and influence on fashion. The main musical development for which his household musicians were famous was 'monody'. Monody was a new musical form which came out of Florence in the 1590s and can be defined as an 'accompanied Italian solo song, especially secular, of the period c1600–40. The term can either denote an individual song or define the entire body of such songs (and solo recitatives in operas and other works can also be described as monodic)'.33 Although this definition stresses the secular, there were many monodic religious pieces composed, and it is in these I am primarily interested. The style quickly spread and with it, a new vocabulary, a new notation and a new way of communicating a line of music to an audience.34

There are two elements to which sets the musical form apart from the traditional renaissance polyphony exemplified by Palestrina, Byrd and Victoria. The first was the growing importance of the text of the word in determining the character of the music, as Murray C. Bradshaw states, 'expressing the text was a holy purpose for [...] these first monodists who sought out not only the surface meaning (ratio) but the inner meaning (sensus) as well. They avoided madrigalisms, so scorned in 1581 by Galilei, who, in his Dialogo della musica of 1581, thought that "the most important and principal part of music" was the "imitation of the conceptions that are derived from the words" rather than obvious word paintings'.35 The second new feature was a clear awareness of tonality which emphasised and expressed the meaning of the words in a subtle way. It was a radical departure and a marked shift away from the polyphony so decried by the Council of Trent, Bradshaw concludes, 'both of these procedures, gathering up different text to make new ones and then imposing on the new texts are refrain-like or sectional structure, reflected the personal and forceful spirit so typical of the early seventeenth-century Catholic thought...they were above all a mirror of the new discipline, clarity, and order that had settled over Catholicism with the 'emphatic decrees' of the Council of Trent'.36 The texts of the Psalms and other religious pieces were finally heard with a new purity and clarity, ornamented with what John Playford calls 'graces', that is to say, trills and 'gruppo or double relish'.37 The technically demanding vocal line is lightly accompanied by a restrained lute, harp, bass continuo or similar, which is normally improvised.

This new setting of words and music had evolved from a place of tradition and conveys passion and emotion successfully because of its freshness and spontaneity. James Haar confirms this mix of new and old, 'composers continued to set old poetry along with the newer madrigal, often mixing new musical technique with with older verse'. 38The same could be said of Carracci's art of the 1590s. One particular monodic composer, Gabriele Fattorini (active 1598–1609) can be compared with Carracci. Fattorini 'held on to the traditional style [text and music] of the past but fused it with the energy of the new monody and with a new personal and vibrant approach to the sacred texts'.39 When Marcia Hall states that Carracci and his patrons 'understood that the reform of painting could be brought about only from a position within the tradition' and though these small pieces were as conventional and traditional as any of his altar pieces, these 'private moments' demonstrate his wit and his instinct for capturing spontaneity.40 The new materials and influences surrounding him meant that he could take something as ultimately traditional as a Madonna and child and produce a work of art which was as fresh and modern as any discerning patron would require. Fattorini's music was coming from the same place and its emotional appeal segues perfectly with the Montalto Madonna.

The spiritual life of the mid to late sixteenth-century was a continuous quest towards devotional mysticism, with Mary as a focus. This view of the importance of Mary in the post-Trent church is echoed by Thomas Worcester, who says, 'in Italy and elsewhere in the Catholic world, the century or so after Trent saw renewed zeal in Marian devotion in part as a response to Protestant denigration of her cult, in part simply as a focus of Catholic piety of popular and elite'.41 The Montalto Madonna allows us to investigate this focus in two separate yet connected ways, light and prayer.

The main difference between this image and Raphael's Holy Families is the way that Mary is gazing out of the picture, responding to the light source to the bottom left. In contemporary light conditions, flickering candles would have highlighted the white draperies, and golds of flesh and hair, resulting in the comparative disappearance of the background and other members of the family. 

The subject may be a holy family but the Virgin is listening to us, rather than interacting with them. When Hatzfeld writes, 'with the particular fusion of darkness and light which baroque painting expresses by its chiaroscuro, we enter more deeply into the fundamental concepts of the Counter Reformation, where the overflowing of the heavenly light into the darkness of death is the eschatological, metaphysical, moral, and artistic topic par excellence' I do not think it excessive.42 Although Carracci did not delve into full chiaroscuro in the same way as Carravaggio did to incredible effect, his Holy Family and other copper works use light and dark in other ways. There is no doubt that heavenly light overflows from his sweet Virgins and Christ, in the case of the Temptation of St Anthony Abbot, their figures are bright against the comparatively subdued theatrical backdrops. This triumph of light over dark, life over death is acknowledged by Christ holding an apple, which symbolises his role as the life-bringing second Adam, 'For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead'.43 By fusing symbolism, the use of specific materials and lighting to mystical effect, Carracci ensures the viewer's direct emotional engagement in their prayers to her.

Mary's centrality is key and devotions to her contain light as a recurring motif. She is variously described in prayers, psalms and songs as 'daughter of the light eternal', 'light in darkness' and the starry etymology of her name was debated by early church fathers.44 The breviary celebrating the Feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary was initially celebrated in 1513 then established by Peretti di Montalto's uncle Sextus V in 1587. So it is reasonable to conclude that light-filled meditations on the name of Mary were important to this family. Indeed, Spivey Ellington writes 'prayers [and I would add singing] to the Virgin have always constituted the most frequent and pervasive means of honouring her and, amongst such prayers the 'Ave' continued to be the form especially favoured by the Church after Trent'.45 There is none of the familial abstraction of Raphael's Virgins, that is to say, though Mary is holding Christ, she is not looking at him, nor at St Joseph or St John. This acknowledgement of the the viewer, as though he/she have entered their private, intimate pictorial space, demonstrates her willingness to listen to prayers and take them to God on our behalf.

My point here is that the Virgin Mary is directly engaging with the viewer and in communication with him/her. A performer appearing in the candlelight singing a psalm to exhort the audience to praise the Lord would be a dramatic, yet intimate spiritual experience. Alternatively, a prayer-like aria delivered in this way, whilst the cardinal offered appropriate meditative mental prayers could be extremely effective. A small, devastatingly appealing piece of music would resonate with the ears, just as the simple luminosity of the painting would hypnotise your gaze. How can the Virgin in the picture not be moved by our emotional, heart-wrenching pleas? If Tasso achieved a glittering luminosity through language, Carracci used oil on copper supports and Gabriele Fattorini created a pure clarity with musical lines, light and emotion is central to these writers, artists and musicians. 

At first glance the Montalo Madonna is a traditional depiction of the Holy Family with apparently little to recommend it, aside from its charming delicacy. However when this private devotional image is reimagined and returned to its original time and place, it provides the art historian with a window into the soul of the cardinal who commissioned it. I opened by stating that the sixteenth-century patron made little or no distinction between the intellectual and the religious, and the different facets of the painting that I have discussed prove this. Its physical materiality – the copper and oil – takes on a spiritual role through the subject matter, yet that same material provides an insight into a changing intellectual world view. Part of what makes these copper religious paintings so interesting intellectually is precisely this ambiguity; they fulfilled a dual role. It was a private devotional object to be kept in the cardinal's apartments for his own meditation and carefully orchestrated worship, a conduit for exploring his relationship with the Divine; for the devout – and I have to believe these late sixteenth-century Cardinals were – the fruit of this worship is clarity, 'knowledge, appreciation, possession and enjoyment of God himself'.46 Prayer may bestow all these benefits but the collections that these churchmen built up was also a public display of erudition and patronage which was expected of them. God's business was not only private, in this age of reformation and renewal, it was also public.

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