The Fantoni and 18th Century sculpture

The religious buildings in the area of Lake Iseo provide the best proof of the progressive diffusion of elaborate sculptural models between the 17th and 18th centuries in Bergamo and Brescia. As fas as marble sculptures are concerned, the important productions of the workshops of the sculptors Selva and Manni from Ticino (who had for some time settled in Bergamo) co-existed with those of the Brescia marble workers from Rezzato. The picture should be completed with a mention of the presence of the Calegari, refined sculptors of marble responsible for the statues on the high altar in San Martino in Marone, Santa Maria Assunta in Paratico and the Virtues on the altar of San Luigi Gonzaga in the parish church of Tavernola. The beautiful altar of Mary Immaculate in San Giorgio in Lovere, the masterpiece of Antonio Calegari, comes instead from the church of San Barnaba in Brescia.

Wide proof is also available of plaster sculpture: an outstanding example is provided in the church of  San Lorenzo in Fraine, where Beniamino Simoni, modeller and woodcarver, worked on the plaster decoration of the nave with figures of saints in niches which blended perfectly with the frescoes by Carloni in one of the most significant interiors of 18th Century in Lombardy.

Highly significant works preserved in the parish churches and in the oratories of the lakeside centres reveal the good fortune encountered by wood sculpture. This type of sculpture imposed itself owing to the variety of solutions available and the newly acquired skills of the craftsmen.

The most highly documented presence is that of the woodcarvers Fantoni from Rovetta. Their workshop was active from the early 16th century, but it was only with Grazioso il Vecchio that it  acquired a more articulated structure, thanks to the presence of his sons Andrea, Donato, Giovanni Antonio, Gianbettino and Giovanni and then of his grandsons Grazioso il Giovane, Francesco Donato and Giovanni Grazioso. Such a precise chronological order (from 1630 to about 1770/80) coincides with the development from a purely baroque taste to the lighter forms of the barocchetto (late-Baroque) style and then subsequently to rococo and, finally, early examples of an early classicism.

The Fantoni were able to draw from the wide repertoire of models (drawings and sketches) sent to the workshop (and which are still preserved in the Casa Museo (museum-house) in Rovetta), thanks to which they managed to impress a substantial homogeneity on the local artistic style.

An exemplary case is that of the Sepulchre for the church of San Giovanni Battista in Zone, which was produced between 1689 and 1691 with the fundamental contribution of the young Andrea. Don Bartolomeo Belotti, parish priest of Zone, had suggested using the 16th Century Mourning in the church of the Carmine in Brescia as a model with some alterations, for example the introduction of handkerchiefs in the hands of the mourners, inspired by the religious plays, to accentuate the drama of the gestures. This model was then to inspire all the subsequent works produced by the workshop, from the Calvary in Castelfranco in Rogno (1694), to the Sepulchres in Rovetta (1699-1711), Clusone (1726, 1742), Ardesio (1770, 1782), up to the monumental groups in Santa Maria della Torre (St. Mary of the Tower) in Sovere (1711, 1757) and the Shrine of the Via Crucis (The Way of the Cross) in Cerveno (1763-1783).

 Andrea must be acknowledged as having been the inventor of new iconography, as confirmed by the group Allegory of Salvation in carved and painted wood for the Oratorio del Crocefisso in Solto (1717), which was popularised by engravings and a replica was made for the church of Grumello del Monte (1748).

Of the numerous statues on a religious theme the carved and painted “life-sized” ones are worth mentioning (the Dead Christ in the parish church of Sale Marasino, dated 1754, Saint Anthony of Padua in the church of Santa Maria in Valvendra, dated 1730, the statues of Our Lady of the Rosary in Toline and in Sarnico). The dressed figures, wooden mannequins dressed in embroidered clothes, should also be mentioned for their rarity. The most recurring figure is that of the Virgin Mary: the ancient cults of Our Lady of the Rosary and of the Madonna of the Carmine were extended to the whole of the Catholic church in 1716 and in 1726. Documents show requests sent to the Fantoni for Bossico (1699-1711), Solto Collina (1741), Peschiera Maraglio (1764), Parzanica (1768), Ceratello (1783). Many of the statues have been lost: of those still remaining mention should be made of Madonna of the Carmine in Solto Collina, while of the statue produced for the church of Ceratello only fragments of the head, of the hands and the figure of the Child remain which were subsequently incorporated into the 20th Century statue of the Virgin Mary.

However, it is on the altars (frontal, tabernacle, frame for the altarpiece) that the Fantoni demonstrated their real abilities, thanks also to their entrepreneurial skill that enabled them to supply products in wood and, as a result of collaboration with other sculptors, also in marble: the high altar with the “Roman-style” thabor (1718-1720) for the Franciscan Friars of  Santa Maria in Valvendra is the most outstanding example.

In the previously mentioned parish church of Zone, it is possible to see the monumental working of the frame for the baroque altarpiece with two Solomonic columns supporting a ledge decorated with allegorical figures that runs from the altar of the blessed sacrament to the monumental solution adopted for the high altar. A different model, inspired by ephemeral apparatus, was presented in the mid 18th Century for the altar of the Rosary in Provaglio d’Iseo,  where the angels hold a flying drape in front of the columns. An important sculptural group, part of which comes from the altar of the Rosary that was destroyed, can be seen  in the church of  San Giorgio in Lovere: the remaining parts are the table with a refined decoration in rocaille style set against a background of mirrors, akin to the taste of Antonio Fusi, two wooden Angels (1717) to be compared with those, again by the Fantoni, on the high altar, the statue of St. Joseph (1718) and that of St. Joachim (1719).

The skill of the workshop emerges in the great works achieved such as the extraordinary organ case in the parish church of Solto Collina which was started in 1705, and still to be completed in  1726. In San Gregorio in Toline, the Fantoni workshop completed in the first decade of the 18th Century and between the 1760s and 1770s the entire furnishing of the sanctuary, with the choir stalls, the ciborium with two angels at its side and the modern frame for the altarpiece.

Amongst the last pieces of evidence of the work of the Fantoni are the altar of the Rosary in the parish church of Tavernola (1784-1798), by the hand of Donato Andrea, the architectural structure of which gradually adapts to the classicism of the late 18th Century, and the frame of the altar of  Mary Immaculate commissioned by the Franciscan Friars on the Isola di San Paolo in 1757, with the statues of David and of Salomon. In 1783, following the suppression of the convent, the altar was purchased for the oratory of the Beata Vergine in Castro, where it was used to frame a fresco. Unfortunately, the group was damaged by theft in 2010: a sign of the fortune of the sculptors, but also of the fragility of artistic heritage.

If, as far as painting is concerned, there was a keen prevalence of artists from Brescia and non-local artists even in the territory of Bergamo, few artists seem to have weakened the monopoly held by the workshop in Rovetta. The Pialorsi, known as the Boscaì, who worked in Levrange in Valle Sabbia (Sabbia valley) are said to have produced the Emilian-style frame for the high altar of the parish church of Sale Marasino between the 1740s and 1750s  and the altar of the Rosary in the parish church of Peschiera Maraglio.

Research on the Ramus has underlined the intense activity of the workshop between Trentino and Valle Camonica (Camonica valley), Valle di Scalve and Val Seriana. In the territory, their presence is limited for the moment to the monumental tabernacle in Zorzino and the work on the church in Gratacasolo.

Finally, Giovanni Giuseppe Piccini produced the unique thabor showing the figure of God the Father which is kept in the parish church of Sarnico (although it originally came from a church in Val di Scalve).


Marco Albertario

For further information:

SINA A., Il Carteggio Bellotti-Fantoni per le opere d’arte di Zone e di Cerveno, in “Memorie storiche della diocesi di Brescia”, III, 1932, pp. 61-70.

I Fantoni. Quattro secoli di bottega di scultura in Europa, a cura di R. Bossaglia, Vicenza 1978.

RIGON L., L’altare della Beata Vergine del Rosario nella parrocchiale di Tavernola: testimonianze dagli archivi documentari della Fondazione Fantoni di Rovetta, Sarnico (Bg) 2008.

VOLTA V., Carteggi fantoniani d’area camuno-sebina e della Franciacorta, Brescia 2015.

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