Images of the Counter Reformation in the area of Lake Iseo
The area of Lake Iseo was also involved in the process of renewal promoted by the Catholic Counter Reformation. The Council of Trent issued some rather vague indications that were more clearly defined in the Instructionum Fabricae et supellectilis ecclesiasticae written by Charles Borromeo and published in Milan in 1577. These indications had a great influence even in subsequent centuries, especially in the outlying areas that were more difficult to reach.
Charles Borromeo visited the shores of Lake Iseo during his apostolic visit in 1575 (to the dioceses of Bergamo) and in 1580 (to the dioceses of Brescia). This visit gave rise to indications regarding the restoration of buildings and the renewal of religious vestments and altars and suggestions concerning the depiction of holy subjects as well as advice for a better regulated devotion. Bishop Bollani of Brescia and Bishop Cornaro of Bergamo, who maintained regular correspondence with Borromeo himself, interpreted how his advice should be applied. Even the actions of their successors especially those of Bishop Gregorio Barbarigo of Bergamo, who recognised Borromeo as a perfect model to be followed, echoed back directly to the results of the Council of Trent.
The first effect of the ecclesiastical reorganisation was the rationalisation of the boundaries of the parishes, based on distances, demographic changes and the actual decline of several rather isolated baptismal churches. Borromeo gave great consideration and attention to confraternities and their altars. The first provincial Council of Milan in 1565, from which followed the diocesan synods in Bergamo (1568) and in Brescia (1574), underlined the importance attributed to the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament to stress the centrality of the Eucharist, but also the importance of providing each parish with a firm organisational base and control. This gave rise to the institution of the altars of the Christian Doctrine or of the Blessed Sacrament, which were recognised as privileged places for Catholic teaching and for the spreading of the correct religious norms established by the sessions of the Council of Trento and interpreted by the provincial Councils. The members of the confratermity were responsible for the decoration of the high altar and the care of the church as it became the backbone of the parish.
Even the confraternities of the Holy Rosary, who had been present since the beginning of the 16th Century, experienced a period of renewed dissemination following the victory at Lepanto against the Turks (1571) which was attributed to a particular intercession of the Virgin Mary and the institution of the Feast of the Rosary (1573).
The western side of Lake Iseo was famous for its quarries of dark stone (in Leède and Bögn districts) that was very similar to the more highly valued “pietra di paragone” (Lydian stone) used as a base for the scagliola technique imitating marble and marble tarsia. In 1671, the Silva, later called Selva, moved to Riva di Solto bringing with them the high quality craftsmanship of the stone cutters of Val d’Intelvi and took advantage of the abundance of raw material, including Sarnico stone and marble from nearby Rezzato. This art reached its peak after the Corbarelli from Florence had produced the altars in the abbey of San Paolo d’Argon (St. Paul of Argon) (1690), providing the model for all the Eucharistic tables in the area. Proof of this is given by the altars in the churches of Riva di Solto and Tavernola, but also of those further up towards the Valle Camonica (Camonica valley) and on the Brescia side of the lake.
The specific features of the artists working in Brescia and Bergamo between the 15th and the 16th Centuries is the attention to the communicative aspects of the art, in the sense of their devotional value. If the bluntness of Romanino’s message in Tavernola and in Pisogne did not manage to meet with the absolute approval of the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the subsequent decades, being little inclined towards taking the human and popular aspects of the Holy Bible to extremes, the intense and more profoundly “decorous” style of the painter Moretto from Brescia and his pupil Moroni from Bergamo met with quite a different reception. The clarity of their colour and arrangements together with the placidity and gentleness of the gestures was in evident contrast with the more laboured and unnatural results of mannerism, the artificialness of which was never appreciated in the area of Lake Iseo. The painter Giovanni Paolo Cavagna from Bergamo constructed his works focusing on a clear definition of the figures and their gestures which sometimes led to early 15th Century or neo-Moretti style results and some of his paintings have become examples of art that falls entirely within the Counter Reformation style rather for their form than their content: the Deposition of Christ in the parish church of Vigolo, the Baptism of Jesus in San Martino and the Annunciation in the Santuario della Torre in Sovere; however, it was his son Francesco who painted the Madonna and Child and saints in the parish church of Sarnico. The mannerists from Brescia copied some of Moretto’s figures in an almost paratactic arrangement, in a extreme need for clarity, such as Orazio Pilati in the Virgin Mary in glory with the saints Francis, Domenic and Catherine in San Zenone in Sale Marasino (circa 1550).
The painter was asked to communicate a message that was free of ambiguity: a certain explanatory nature is often counterbalanced by the strength of the expressions or by the reassuring gentleness on the faces of the characters. In the 1560s, Pietro Maria Bagnatore painted the Risen Christ with angels bearing symbols of the Passion for the old parish church of Marone, in which a very human Christ presents a large cross to the faithful while the angels display the instruments of torture; there is no room for misinterpretation, the painting literally narrates a crucial moment of the Holy Bible. The Catholic teaching and the three persons of the Trinity are unmistakably specified in the beautiful painting of the Trinity in glory in the church of Santi Pietro e Paolo in Pregasso, attributed to Ottavio Amigoni (circa 1650), a didactic as well as thrilling painting with the dark colour of the sky, the gesture of God the Father embracing the cross, signifying consubstantiality with the dying Jesus. The Council of Trent placed the dogma of the Eucharist, which was bitterly criticised by the Protestants, as the focal point of the sacred building. In the standard with St. Christopher for the parish church of Siviano, Amigoni depicts two angels bearing a bright host to signify that the child on the giant’s shoulders is Christ; the angelic figures, that are actually out of proportion, state very clearly the role of the monstrance and the host as the real presence of Jesus. This interpretation should be given to numerous paintings of the Last Supper including those by Antonio Gandino in Zone, by Cavagna in Lovere, but also to the Institution of the Eucharist in Siviano (1651) once again by Amigoni: in this way the painters mentioned above distinguished themselves as the main interpreters of the lines of thought of the Catholic Reform in the territories of Brescia and Bergamo.
The veneration of the saints, the value of which was rejected by the Protestants, was the object of great attention. The most significant example is a beautiful painting by an unknown artist which has hung since 1947 in the parish church of Predore depicting the Madonna and Child and Saint Felix of Cantalice, the first Capuchin monk to be named a saint (1625); such a representation was necessary to confer greater moral value to the proclamation of the Gospel.
Charles Borromeo, who died in 1584, was beatified in 1602 and canonised in 1610, literally became the face behind the Reformation. The widespread dissemination of his image was the proof of the presence of Christ in the Church and in his prelates. The need to have tangible signs of his passage remains in the legend of the footprints left by Borromeo on a stone near San Pietro di Pregasso in Marone and in the painting of the Fiammenghino showing the arrival of Saint Charles Borromeo in Sale Marasino (parish church of Sale). In San Pietro in Lamosa, in Provaglio d’Iseo, the Altarpiece of the Rosary by Francesco Giugno celebrates the protagonists of the Battle of Lepanto (1571); his presence at the very side of the painting seemed by then to have become essential in order to celebrate the triumph of the Church.