Considered to be one of the leading exponents of Venetian figurative art in the first half of the 16th Century, many of the works by the painter Girolamo Romanino are preserved in the territory of Brescia where his house, workshop and family were located and this allows due consideration to be given to his long and very fruitful working life. The Pinacoteca Civica (Public Art Gallery), for example, houses some of his important works, while others are distributed in various churches throughout the city, some still being in their original locations. However, the richest and most interesting path showing the works of Romanino follows the itinerary that meanders along the shores of Lake Iseo through Franciacorta and Valle Camonica (Camonica valley).
A good starting point for the itinerary is the church of San Pietro (St. Peter) in Tavernola Bergamasca where, in about 1512, Romanino painted two mural paintings depicting Madonna and Child, St. George, St. Maurice and the Saints Peter and Paul presenting the offerors and a Crucifix with bystanders. These were the years in which Brescia was invaded by the French and many were forced to leave in order to seek political and economic stability. Amongst them was Romanino, reputedly an exile on the lakeside where the temporary governor of the city had also found refuge and from where he would move on to Padua. In all likelihood, the painting in Tavernola Bergamasca should not be considered the only painting by Romanino in existence on Lake Iseo.
In fact, recent studies have attributed an earlier cycle to the painter located on Monte Isola in the Oratorio of San Rocco (Oratory of St. Roch) next to the parish church in Peschiera Maraglio. The two pieces of pictorial evidence show that these are amongst the painter’s first experiences with mural paintings featuring in particular the heavy use of graphic finishing lines made with the tip of a brush: this was one of Romanino’s distinguishing traits and also that of many other painters of the time who used prints as a way to train and progress and as an inventory from which to draw not only figurative models but also technical devices to be adopted in their painting.
At the beginning of the 1520s, while busy working in Brescia, Romanino also received prestigious appointments from the surrounding area. For example, in Capriolo in Franciacorta, it is still possible to admire today on the altar of the Scuola del Santissimo Sacramento (Blessed Sacrament) in the parish of San Giorgio (St. George) a large arched panel depicting the Resurrection. Painted in about 1525 and featuring a chromatic intensity and an audacious composition, the work was produced just a few years before one of the important commissions that would open up the way for the painter towards the north of the province, the decoration of the refectory of the guest quarters of the Olivetan abbey in Rodengo Saiano. The room had been completely covered in wainscoting and by an illusory architecture which is still partially visible that acted as a background to an iconographic programme related to the theme of hospitality in view of the purpose of the room. Today it is no longer possible to assess the impact of the original work. In 1864, part of the work was detached: two scenes showing the Supper at Emmaus and the Supper in the House of Simon the Pharisee are currently exhibited at the Pinacoteca of Brescia. A painting has been left at Rodengo Saiano called the Madonna and Child and the young St. John the Baptist and two panels depicting respectively Christ and the Samaritan and a pantry with kitchenware, as well as two angels holding the coat of arms of the Olivetans above an entrance door. The bright colours set against contrasting hues, the torsion and large scale of the figures and a style of painting already largely based on the use of wide and wavy brushstrokes, prove the developments in the painter’s techniques at the end of the 1530s: the paintings have, in actual fact, been dated around 1528.
On the contrary, some mural painitngs that were originally situated in the chapel of San Rocco next to the parish church of Villongo San Filastrio date from the mid 1520s. The remains of a small cycle with a Madonna and some saints may, according to many scholars, be ascribed to the hand of Romanino. However, not everyone agrees with this theory. Others tend to recognise in the paintings and the sinopie that have been left on the wall following the detachment of the fresco, the hand of the painter Callisto Piazza from Lodi, at a time of his production in which his style and technique had many obvious points in common with those of Romanino.
A few years later, Romanino was to go up the shores of Lake Iseo and reach Valle Camonica. His works in Pisogne, Breno and Bienno, considered to follow in chronological order, belong to a context that benefited from a situation of particular political stability, established by the Treaty of Bologna in December 1529 and the great economic revival. In fact, the Republic of Venice had consolidated its dominion over the territory and undertaken policies to support the individual municipalities. This climate led to the return of artistic commissions and the arrival of the painter after his completion of the work in the Magno Palazzo in Trento and a house in San Felice on Lake Garda.
First of all, what distinguishes the mural painting of Santa Maria della Neve (St. Mary of the Snows) in Pisogne, Sant’Antonio (St. Anthony) in Breno and Santa Maria Annunciata (St. Mary of the Annunciation) in Bienno is its civil and communitarian nature. Promoted on behalf of their respective communities by the civil authorities of the three locations acting as public patrons of the buildings, the three works represented a considerable effort towards updating the existing decorations. The dates of the work are not documented specifically, but are linked, as far as Pisogne is concerned, to a credit agreed by Romanino in 1534 with those commissioning the work, for Breno to the transfer in 1535 of the Blessed Sacrament from the parish church to Sant’Antonio, and for Bienno to the settlement of a dispute regarding the ownership of the church in 1540. In Pisogne the paintings which extend throughout the church, represent the theme of the Stories of the passion and the resurrection of Christ. In Breno, in the chancel, a cycle unfolds showing salient episodes from the Bible and the book of Daniel dedicated to the exemplary events in the lives of the kings Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar and Darius the Mede who experience the divine faculty of giving or taking away the kingdom according to whether power is exercised more or less correctly: a meaning which is directly linked to the political functions of the church as the place of investiture of the Captain of the Valley nominated by the Senate of the Republic of Venice. In Bienno, the themes are taken from the narration of the life of the Virgin Mary in the Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de Varagine and the paintings are located in the sanctuary with an unusual chiastic arrangement that infringes the written order. The three cycles are characterised by the free use of painting techniques: distorted anatomical forms, touches of solid colour, the extensive use of paint that is only hinted at, visible plaster all of which point to a new expressive phase in the painter’s development. It represents the desire to underline the virtue of an immediate and contemptuous style of painting and forms one of the most modern and innovative cultural styles of the 1530s that was evidently highly valued by the people of Valle Camonica who commissioned the works.
Apart from the mural paintings, a painting is preserved in the Museo Camuno (Museum of Camonica Valley) in Breno in Valle Camonica showing Christ on the Cross which can be dated to about 1550. The canvas is painted on both sides. On the back, the sketch of a Madonna and Child and Saint Catherine can be seen which Romanino did not complete, as various pentimenti show. Two reassembled fragments of a tempera painting are also on display in the same room of the museum depicting Heads of Prelates which was supposedly to be used as an organ shutter. Even now a debate continues as to whether the work is ascribable to Romanino or Callisto Piazza. Again in Breno, in San Valentino (St. Valentine) a panel can be seen showing the Madonna and Child and the young St. John the Baptist between the saints Valentine and Maurice which is considered by some to be one of the artist’s early works.
For more information:
NOVA A., Romanino, Torino 1994.
FORESTI G., TOGNAZZI G., MARAZZANI S., Romanino a Tavernola, Sarnico (Bg) 2006.
Romanino un Pittore in rivolta nel Rinascimento italiano, catalogo della mostra (Trento, Castello del Buonconsiglio, 29 luglio – 29 ottobre 2006), a cura di CAMERLENGO L., CHINI E., FRANGI F., DE GRAMATICA F., Cinisello Balsamo (Mi) 2006.
BALLARIN A., La Salomè del Romanino ed altri studi sulla pittura Bresciana del Cinquecento, a cura di Savy B. M., Padova 2006.
Romanino al tempo dei cantieri in Valle Camonica, a cura di Gheroldi V., Gianico (Bs) 2015.