Gesualdo in the context of Renaissance art

Gesualdo in the context of Renaissance art

Martin Kemp, Emeritus Research Professor in the History of Art at Oxford University

Not the least of the virtues in I Fagiolini’s wonderfully imaginative re-staging of music in fresh contexts is that it throws up a series of fascinating historical questions. I’ve encountered some of these in my writings as an art historian, and I offer two of them here. This first is centered upon “invention”, “imagination” (fantasia), originality and license. The second upon whether art at this time was seen as expressing the individual personality of its maker – encapsulated in the tag “every painter paints himself”. I’ll finish with some observations on the extraordinary altarpiece that Carlo Gesualdo commissioned for S. Maria delle Grazie in Gesualdo.

Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Gesualdo. Photo credit: Alex Ross

Invenzione and fantasia

Once the Renaissance had adopted the idea from Pliny’s Natural History that a succession of artists had made distinctive contributions to the “progress” of art, something of our notion of originality was implied. It was evident to Renaissance writers on art, most notably Giorgio Vasari in his Lives, that different artists of their times were contributing to “progress” on an individual basis and that they each had their own style. Lomazzo in Leonardo’s Milan recognised that there could be “equal excellences” amongst artists who were recognisably individual. He looked to astrology to explain their different temperaments.

Renaissance discussions of what we call originality orbited around key terms: invenzione from rhetoric and poetics; fantasia, from both poetics and faculty psychology (as combinatory imagination); and ingegno, not “genius” in the romantic sense but as supreme innate talent.

Against this are set the absolutes of the perfect imitation of nature and ideal beauty. How could there be absolute goals and room for individuality? If there are standard “musical” proportions for a beautiful body, how was there scope for artists to portray beauty in diversely individual ways? Renaissance art theory never really resolved the dilemma of individuality and absolute style.

Laurentine library

The classic Renaissance text on originality is Vasari’s discussion of Michelangelo’s innovatory Library at S. Lorenzo in Florence. He writes that “all architects owe him [Michelangelo] an infinite and permanent obligation, because he broke the ties and chains that had kept them previously to a common road”. But Vasari also believed in absolute standards. He seems to have been untroubled by the potential contradiction.

I sense that comparable tensions between rules and originality were current in the world of music – but that is for others to say.

(I don’t think, by the way, that the term “Mannerism” helps much here. In art history it was initially applied to the wild men of the earlier 16th century, such as Rosso and Pontormo, but was then used to designate the art of the mid-century generation who cultivated “the style” (il maniera), which was full of self conscious artistry, not least in complex and difficult things, such as foreshortening – and, perhaps, counterpoint! But I don’t see why we should expect the visual and musical arts necessarily to pursue parallel courses. The visual imitation of nature was a constant in art theory. Music is clearly not founded on “mimesis” in this literal sense.)

“Ogni dipintore dipinge se”

“Every painter paints himself”. This was something of a commonplace, known to both Leonardo and Michelangelo. It did not mean that the artist literally produced a series of self-portraits but that the temperaments of artists (generated by the balance or imbalance of the four humours) were discernable in their works. Thus, as its most literal, a lazy artist would portray slow-moving figures, while a virtuous artist would be adept at producing pious works. However, rather than rejoicing in what we would see as personal “expression”, Leonardo saw this individual dimension as something to be overcome. When Michelangelo was asked why the ass in a fellow painter’s work was the best thing in the picture, you can imagine his reply. Leonardo, Vasari and Michelangelo certainly would not have approved of the idea that Gesualdo’s music should be cherished for its direct relationship to his pathological behaviour.

In more general terms, there is a difficulty in making the equation that art = temperament before the Romantic generation. The two most murderously violent artists of all time were Benvenuto Cellini and Caravaggio. Both escaped execution because of the regard in which they were held by powerful patrons. Cellini, trained as a goldsmith, is a sculptor of suave refinement and controlled expression. Caravaggio creates pictures that are direct and confrontational. I do not think there is a simple rule to applied here.

Caravaggio -Taking of Christ - Dublin

I suspect the position with Gesualdo is exceptional, in that his art seems to be linked to biography in a consciously direct way, certainly after his murder of his wife and her lover. He seems to be expiating personal sin, pain, grief and guilt in a way that no visual artist could have done (not least given the system of patronage). The only obvious exceptions in art are the late Pietàs and Crucifixion drawings by Michelangelo, which were generated in a highly personal way.

Michelangelo crux

The “Pala del Perdono”

This remarkably personal thrust in Gesualdo’s creations is manifested in the altarpiece he commissioned from Giovanni Balducci for S. Maria delle Grazie, attached to the Capuchin monastery that he had set up in his town of Gesualdo. I imagine he had taken high-level clerical advice as to how to cancel his sin, and was instructed to pay for the church and monastery. He also constructed a Dominican monastery dedicated to the Rosary. He was investing a lot of money in his salvation.

Balducci is by no means an inventive artist and his style is relatively sober (boring?) in a Counter-Reformation manner. But the content of the painting is very remarkable. It combines a Sacra Conversazione and donors with a Last Judgement. Christ as salvator mundi is flanked by the intercessory Virgin and St. Michael, the implacable archangel who presides over the Judgement. On one side stands St. Francis (perhaps in the person of Matteo Bassi, founder of the Capuchin offshoot of the Franciscans), while on the other is St. Dominic. Below them is the Magdalene on the left, a penitential saint, and the major Dominican nun St Catherine of Siena on the right, holding the heart she exchanged with Christ. At the base of the altarpiece is the kneeling Carlo Gesualdo, presented by his famed uncle Carlo Borromeo, and his second wife Leonora d’Este (whose face was at one point painted out and re-emerged during restoration). So far, none of this iconography is exceptional. What is remarkable is the central scene of the Last Judgement in which three condemned souls sink into the menacing fires of hell, while two of the elect are elevated by guardian angels. The Judgment is overseen by triumphant putto. The whole ensemble is orchestrated for the pardonning of Gesualdo himself and his personal admission to heaven. The Virgin, St Francis and St. Catherine implore the Son of God to have mercy, while the Magdalene draws Gesualdo’s attention to Christ as his redeemer. St. Michael points to the composer and mercifully indicates that he should be admitted to heaven. This unique iconography must have been devised by Gesualdo as a deeply personal statement to reassure himself and ourselves of his final salvation.

Carlo Gesualdo with Carlo Borromeo

The altarpiece confirms that Gesualdo was prepared to break the normal rules of decorum governing the expression of deeply and overtly personal motifs in those works of art which he generated. In music as in art?

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This blog accompanies Betrayal: a polyphonic crime drama, a music and dance-theatre project inspired by the life and works of Carlo Gesualdo with shows in London, Cambridge and Salisbury May/June 2015. More information here and via the links on the left.