Lacrime di Smalto: Plastiche maiolicate tra Marche e Romagna nell’età del Rinascimento
Exhibition & Catalogue Review
Rocca Roveresca, Senigallia, 12.04.2014- 31.08.2014
This April a small exhibition on devotional maiolica opened at the Rocca Roveresca in Senigallia, a small town on the Adriatic coast not far from Ancona. The exhibition is titled Lacrime di smalto: Plastiche maiolicate tra Marche e Romagna nell’età del Rinascimento. It was curated by Claudio Paolinelli, and it will close on 31 August 2014. The catalogue of the exhibition, edited by Claudio Paolinelli with the cooperation of Justin Raccanello and an introduction by Timothy Wilson (Ancona: Il lavoro editoriale, 2014), is bilingual and contains a remarkable set of illustrations of works, from public and private collections, including some that were not available for loan.
Formerly part of the Duchy of Urbino, Senigallia is well known because it was the place where Cesare Borgia, known as ‘il Valentino’, killed the opponents that had plotted against him. The duke, a ‘grandissimo simulatore’ according to Machiavelli, invited his enemies to Senigallia pretending to be willing to settle all the disputes among them, but then had them strangled. Cesare Borgia embodies the dark side of the Italian Renaissance: cunning, violent, merciless, he fought without remorse to build a state of his own in the centre of Italy. The colourful pieces gathered in the shady rooms at the ground floor of the Rocca tell a completely different story: a story of devotion and meditation in a land heavily influenced by Franciscan spirituality. Popular devotion in the Marche was intense, and centered around the well known sanctuaries of Loreto and Tolentino. Pilgrims from all over Europe walked the dusty roads of the Appennini, on the boundary with Umbria, while merchants, in the nearby towns of Pesaro and Ancona, succesfully traded with Northern Europe via Venice and the Balkans. In addition, relations with Florence and Tuscan culture were both active and perilous. This cultural transfer to and from the Marche influenced the production of glazed ceramics, and artists soon specialised in small devotional sculptures often intended for private devotion.
The long-lasting tradition of glazed ceramics in the area now comprised between Marche and Romagna determined the rise of a common language, which, as Paolinelli hypothesizes, could be also dependent on a workshop whose members operated separately moving from town to town. Unfortunately, we lack documentary evidence of the existence of such a workshop for the Marche, and only stylistic analyses can be carried out.
The catalogue of the exhibition provides an excellent set of comparisons among pieces produced in the area comprised between Faenza and Ostra Vetere, from the last quarter of the XVth to the first decades of the XVIth century. The influence of Florentine artists like the Della Robbia was not the only essential cause for the development of such production. Equally fundamental was the knowledge of northern cultures, particularly German and Flemish, which was made possible by commercial relations, by pilgrimages, and by the presence of artists such as Giusto of Gand. This perhaps would not have been enough, but an intense spirituality centred on Marian devotion and on the practice of meditation spread all over the region. The influence of the Franciscan movement coming from Umbria, and the incredibly high number of confraternities testify to an intense religiosity belonging also in the private domain.
The title of the exhibition effectively explains the affective tone of these works. The term Lacrime, ‘tears’, points towards a penitential attitude, a sense of contrition peculiar to these maiolica sculptures. By being especially focused on the two main moments of the life of Christ – His birth and death – these small sculptures or targhe seem to follow the template of analogous wooden works, mainly northern. The relief or in-the-round sculpture, the use of vivid colours, and the insistence on moving details tend to establish an emotional and meditative rather than merely contemplative connection between the work and the beholder.
Nativity scenes were among the most popular subjects. Those on display follow a rather fixed pattern, based on the division of space: the lower part shows the Holy Family; the upper part illustrates pastoral scenes and sometimes landscapes with towns and castles, as in the case of the beautiful Nativity now in Krakow, Wavel Royal Castel (unfortunately only reproduced in the catalogue). Usually, all around the frame there is an inscription that reads the passage from the Gospel of Luke with the announcement of the Nativity.
One of the most remarkable pieces in the exhibition is a Virgin adoring the child (from the Musei Civici, Pesaro), which is what remains of a presumably larger group including St. Joseph, the ox and the donkey. The child lies on the grass while in front of him kneels the Virgin, dressed in a starry, cobalt blue mantle.
The Virgin is often represented with the child in different positions: standing, standing in a niche with angels, seated. The seated Virgin and Child from a private collection in Rimini is a piece of extraordinary quality, dressed in a bright green robe and, again, a cobalt blue mantle. According to the curator, this piece seems to be influenced by Giovanni Bellini’s style, testifying to the relations between the Veneto and the Marche. As a matter of fact, such relations largely informed the visual culture of the Marche, starting from Vivarini and Crivelli to Lotto, Savoldo and Titian.
The importance of the Marian devotion, certainly related to the sanctuary of Loreto, can be witnessed in one of the most extraordinary objects on display, an inkstand with a presepe (Cento, private collection). The inkstand itself is accompanied by the open section of a vase, decorated as a heavenly vault. Inside, the Virgin and the shepherds are adoring the newborn Child. The Virgin stands at the centre of the scene, higher than the other figures, while St. Joseph stands isolated at one corner of the scene. The back of the inkstand is decorated with trees and yellow and blue stripes.
Even more fascinating is a small landscape with St. Paul the Hermit and St. Anthony the Abbot (Cento, private collection). The two hermits are displayed with their symbols, the raven and the rosary, at the foot of a mountain which is being climbed by a scorpion and a snake. The piece appears to be an invitation to meditate on the ubiquitous presence of temptation and sin. As Paolinelli points out, this typology of works was particularly popular in Tuscany, where the Della Robbia workshop produced a high number of such domestic devotional objects.
Among these less common scenes, one could mention a beautiful targa [plaquette] from the Gardiner Museum in Toronto (unfortunately not on display, but reproduced in the catalogue), showing the Sacrifice of Isaac in the very moment when Jacob is about to strike his blindfolded son. Another beautiful targa from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston shows the Visitation. Mary and Elizabeth are represented looking intensely at each other’s eyes, Mary’s left hand touching her cousin’s pregnant belly, while her right hand holds Elizabeth’s right. The setting is clearly domestic, and a servant carrying a basket on her head is attentively looking at the scene.
As I said before, this exhibition hints to a religiosity centred on the two main moments of the birth and death of Christ. The Lamentation and the Pietà (or Vesperbild) are some of the favourite subjects, as testified to by the beautiful Lamentation now in the Museo Diocesano in Ancona (formerly in the San Ciriaco Cathedral next door). Destroyed during the Second World War, the work has been restored so that the beautiful colours, particularly those of the velvet robes worn by the two figures holding the body of Christ, can be fully appreciated. The Virgin and the three Marys are copiously crying over the body of Christ, where no traces of blood can be found.
As Paolinelli points out, this is the only Lamentation where the body of Christ lies on the Virgin’s knees, thus echoing the model of Northern Vesperbilder. A beautiful example of this iconography is the Pietà now in Faenza, at the Museo internazionale delle Ceramiche, where the dramatic nature of the scene is stressed by the violent torsion of Christ’s body and by the blue wrinkles around the Virgin’s eyes.
The amazing Lamentation dated 1487 now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is characterized by the intense green colour and the refined velvet and brocade robes worn by the seven standing figures or the Lamentation now in the Museo Civico Parrocchiale in Ostra Vetere and formerly in the church of the Santissimo Crocifisso, that bears the coat of arms of the Montefeltro family. Such works could be displayed either in private houses or in churches.
The Lacrime di smalto exhibition is an excellent attempt at exploring the incredibly rich and still understudied spirituality of the Marche in the time of their splendor, when religious anxieties were articulated through a most innovative artistic expression.
More information about the exhibition can be found here.