During the 18th Century, the area of Lake Iseo saw a considerable growth in building and decorative work as well as painting. The churches which had, in part, been renovated at the beginning of the 17th Century as a result of the visits of Charles Borromeo, were further extended, to reach, in most cases, almost monumental dimensions. During this work, not only local painters, but also those of wide renown were asked to decorate the vaults of the new buildings.
The artists called to the area came from different places, had different training and it seems that no particular preferences were shown: painters from Emilia, Lombardy and Veneto all worked in the area in similar numbers and this is also true for the painters from Brescia and from Bergamo who were intertwined with the various figurative arts.
Although not all of them can be identified, many of the painters belonged, for stylistic reasons, to the group of artists originating in the area of Lake Como and the Val d’Intelvi (Intelvi valley) or the Ticino area which either preceded or followed Carlo Innocenzo Carloni the most important and “international” exponent of that group who produced frescoes and various beautiful paintings in Fraine. Itinerant artists of Lombard tradition, characterised by a cursive painting style accompanied by decisive and bright shades, similar in certain respects to the production of Pietro and Paolo Antonio Corbellini and of Carlo and Pietro Scotti, worked on the vaults of the parish churches in Pilzone, Sulzano (here also in the sacristry, 1763), Siviano, Peschiera Maraglio and in the oratory of Santa Maria in Castro. Giulio Quaglio, the painter from Val d’Intelvi, is also present in the church of San Martino in Sarnico with a Saint Martin in glory in the vault and an altarpiece depicting the Vision of Saint Anthony of Padua.
A painter from Como, Giovan Francesco Gaggini, who worked for a long time in Piedmont and then in Brescia, also belongs to this group of artists although his style is different, not so much in the shades of colour which are always bright, but in his round and almost infantile faces. He painted in the sanctuary of San Zenone in Sale Marasino before 1748, at the same time as the illusionistic mural painters Giacomo Lechi (or Lecchi) and Giuseppe Castelli, both from Monza, who decorated the great dome with illusory architectural painting. The presence of these painters from western Lombardy may have favoured the appointment of an artist of noble family, Giovan Battista Sassi, to paint one of the most significant altarpieces in the area of Lake Iseo (circa 1740). Of Milanese origin, but having trained under Franceso Solimena from Naples very active in Brescia and the surrounding area, Sassi painted, for the altar of the Rosary, vigorous yet tender figures, with a play of bright shades of colour on pastel tones. The little known Filippo Velizzi from Como was responsible for the trompe l’oeil decoration of the two chapels of the parish church of Sale and the inner façade of Santa Maria in Valvendra in Lovere.
Of completely different origin is the figure painter Francesco Monti and the illusionistic mural painter Giovanni Bernardo Zanardi to whom the completion of the frescoes in the same parish church of Sale Marasino was entrusted, work that was carried out between 1748 and 1754, following the partial lack of success of the Lecchi. From Bologna, the painters had an academic training and a solid background in drawing and they had already absorbed in their homeland the sense of a light and swift moving style of painting. They were probably called to Sale following the successful outcome of the fresco work in Santa Maria della Pace (St. Mary of Peace) in Brescia (1738-1746). In San Zenone, Zanardi designed faux architectures and oeils-de-boeufs in which to depict some episodes from the Bible and allegories, presenting an alternative model to the one used at the time and mainly representing events of the saints or of the Virgin Mary in white plaster, mixtilinear frames, some of which were gilded.
Towards the middle of the century, Monti worked in the oratory in Conche, on mural paintings painted in the dome and the high altar altarpiece which, unfortunately, was stolen in 1974, and also in Zone, in Peschiera Maraglio and in San Giorgio in Lovere. The work carried out in the parish church of Sarnico dates to a few years later. In all of these works, the painter depicts elegant figures that reflect the style of Parmigianino, but also hint at the style of the Venetian Giovan Battista Pittoni.
Although they were not of the same origin, a further two painters adhered to a particular trend of Bologna painting and they were Ferdinando Cairo from Casale Monferrato and Bernardino Bono from Brescia who were inspired by the genteel classicism of Marcantonio Franceschini, an artist who was active in Brescia with some works or through the presence of his pupils. The rigorous fresco with an Allegory in the vault of the sacristy of San Nicola in Riva di Solto is attributable to the first of the two; around the middle of the century, the second produced altarpieces and frescoes on the east coast of the lake and on Monte Isola and, perhaps, even a frontal of the altar in Predore. The three paintings in the parish church of Sale Marasino (which were paid for in 1755 and 1756) and in Sant’Antonio in Marasino, the painting in Vesto di Marone (1762), a painting which is attributed to him in Siviano and which derives from a model of the famous Venetian Giovan Battista Pittoni and, finally, the Visitation in Carzano show that he was influenced by a strong and static classicism that was almost too conventional.
Equally significant, especially on the Bergamo side of the Lake, was the presence of many painters from Veneto, some of whom were of a certain standing, underlying the importance that these new sacred buildings had, and not only for the local people.
Amongst these painters, one who is outstanding is Francesco Capella., from Venice who became a naturalised as a Bergamask. The masterpieces of his mature years (about 1765 to 1770) include the beautiful high altar altarpiece in the parish church of Sarnico, where the lesson learnt from his master Giovan Battista Tiepolo is set in a brighter form with defined contours animated by a play of shadows. In the meanwhile, Giambettino Cignaroli from Verona arrived in Solto Collina for work on a great altarpiece on the high altar almost at the end of his life and in fact, the work that was started in 1770 was completed by his pupil Pio Piatti.
Naturally, there is no lack of artist from Brescia and Bergamo. Of the first mention should be made of Domenico Voltolini, a painter who was omnipresent in the territory of Brescia. Availing himself also of the help of assistants, the artist left frescoes, some of which were unfortunately later repainted, in the vault of the parish churches of Marone, Pilzone, Zone, in the churches of San Gregorio in Toline, San Marco in Cremignane, Santa Maria del Mercato in Iseo and on the outside of the small temple in Zone. Some paintings on canvas can also be attributed to him in Marone, Pilzone (on the high altar), Paratico, in San Giorgio in Lovere and in Sulzano.
Although a little repetitive (he reused the same designs and cartoons several times), Voltolini continued a 17th Century tradition linked to Francesco Paglia, refusing in a certain sense the “barocchetto” (late-Baroque) style and choosing instead a transparent matter, marked by shadows which perhaps is the most interesting aspect of his painting.
However, the presence of Francesco’s sons, Antonio and Angelo Paglia, is rarer: the first signed and dated two lovely altarpieces in shades of pink, light blue and pearl grey in Cremignane d’Iseo (1729) and in the church of Madonna della Ceriola on Monte Isola (1733) and probably painted a Saint Francis of Paola which is now housed in the sacristry of the church in Peschiera Maraglio; the latter has for some time been recognised as the painter of two charming oval paintings, the Mystic marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saints Lucy and Agatha next to the high altar in Fraine.
A stronger connection with rococo can be seen in the altarpiece by Clemente Tortelli from Chiari (Brescia) (dating from the 1740s) which forms the most precious jewel of the high altar in San Martino in Marone for the bright brushwork and lightness of the medium, techniques gathered from meetings with Sebastiano Ricci and Gian Antonio Pellegrini from Venice.
Finally, the frescoes of the pupil of Monti from Brescia, Francesco Savanni, were only saved in part from subsequent additions. Towards the middle of the 18th Century he achieved a pleasantly narrative style with strong foreshortening, in the vaults of the parish church of Tavernola.
Amongst the painters from Bergamo, mention should be made of Antonio Cifrondi of Clusone whose work is present in Lovere in San Giorgio (1710-1712), in Santa Maria in Valvendra and in San Giovanni in Monte Cala and shows rapidly applied paint and hints of the naturalistic world, as was his custom.
A peak of excellence is reached with the beautiful altarpiece that is, unfortunately, by an unknown artist, depicting the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa in Santa Maria della Neve in Predore, showing interesting Neapolitan undercurrents. Again by an unknown artist, but of great quality is the small altarpiece depicting Saint Lucy and Saint Apollonia in the church of San Pietro in Paratico.
The choice in figurative art continued to move between the end of the 18th Century and the start of the following century towards “barocchetto” even as the century progressed and other places were marked by neoclassicism. The works of Vincenzo Angelo Orelli, originally from Locarno but mostly active in the area of Bergamo, bear witness to this. He was appointed to paint the altarpiece representing the Communion of Saint Mary Magdalen in 1798 in Tavernola and frescoes in 1813 in Santa Maria in Solto Collina, which sadly have now been repainted; also the altarpiece in Santa Maria della Neve in Predore is similar to his work. More inclined towards neoclassical rigour, although in controlled proportions and still with a link to 18th Century tradition is the work of Sante Cattaneo from Salò who painted the vault of the sanctuary of Santa Maria Assunta in Pisogne (1798) and in 1808 produced the altarpiece of San Luigi Gonzaga (St. Louis Gonzaga) in Tavernola. He probably also painted the Mysteries of the Rosary in the parish church of Marone and perhaps in part those in Sulzano.
To find a painter who was closer to the new neoclassic style, it was necessary to summon Felice Campi from Mantua, a prestigious figure of the Academy of his city, to paint an Assumption in the parish church of Pisogne, with the limitation, however, of readopting the 16th Century model of Correggio as seen in Parma Cathedral, and certainly not a classicist style.