The period of peace and of relative prosperity, guaranteed by Bergamo becoming a possession of the Republic of Venice (1428) and the Treaty of Lodi (1454), gave rise to ideal conditions for undertaking a renovation of both religious and civil buildings. However, many edifices demonstrate how the architectural and figurative Renaissance in the area of Lake Iseo did not truly flourish in a clear and uniform way, but, on the contrary, tended to blend with gothic elements that were still in use until the end of the century and beyond.
As far as the architecture is concerned, new foundations were established and numerous extensions and renovations of medieval buildings took place such as those in Vello, Sant’Antonio di Marasino (St. Anthony in Marasino), San Pietro di Tavernola (St. Peter in Tavernola), Santi Cassiano and Ippolito di Gargarino (St. Kassian and Hippolytus in Gargarino), San Pietro di Provaglio (St. Peter in Provaglio), San Paolo in Sarnico (St. Paul in Sarnico). The architectural model, if it is right to speak of a model, that spread is not an exclusive feature of the Lake Iseo area, but can even be found in Valle Camonica (Camonica valley), in Franciacorta and in the valleys of Bergamo. This model concerns a church with a single nave featuring brickwork arches on which the gable roof rests, often with exposed beams, while the quadrangular sanctuary is roofed with a vault; the façade is decorated with a stone portal. Many variations were added to the basic “layout”, all of which were dictated by structural requirements or questions of space (as in Tassano) or by the wealth of the client. In the baptismal church of Pisogne and in the nearby Santa Maria della Neve (St. Mary of the Snows) blind arches were added below the roof eaves on the façade.
Blind arches and segmental trefoil arch windows were also used in Santa Maria in Valvendra (St. Mary in Valvendra) in Lovere, which was started in 1473, even if the architectural-structural solutions adopted here, especially in the sanctuary, are unique to the Lake Iseo area, so much so that it suggests the adoption of a model originating from more contemporary centres. In any case, the Lombard culture is not the only trend adopted: on the side of the building of Santa Maria in Valvendra under a Renaissance style porch, an unusual portal with interwoven mouldings can be traced back to the tradition of South Tyrolean stonecutters.
The most significant proof, both pictorial and sculptural, of the spread of antique art throughout Bergamo and Brescia can be found in the two municipalities in the north of the lake (Lovere and Pisogne). Amongst the leading figures, mention should be made of the da Cemmo family which, in the last two decades of the century, held a sort of monopoly over the building work in Valle Camonica and carried out work as far as Bagolino, Brescia and Cremona, but failed to make further headway and stopped in Pisogne where it left one of the most significant pictorial cycles in Santa Maria in Silvis (St. Mary in Silvis). In decorating the church, Giovan Pietro da Cemmo added architectural elements and medallions with profiles of faces marking a firm adhesion to the models of ancient art. The same also applies to the fresco painters who worked in the sanctuary of San Pietro in Tavernola, bringing a stylistic and architectural style inspired by examples from Milan and of Bramante.
This style is also reflected to the full in the portals made of Simona stone (local sandstone) produced by Damiano Benzoni from Milan who trained in Giovanni Antonio Amadeo’s workshop in Milan. His portal for the church of Santa Maria della Neve includes profiles in medallions added to the sculptural decoration and other portals were made for the churches of Santa Maria in Silvis in Pisogne and Santa Maria in Valvendra in Lovere. The two portals in Pisogne also show rare examples of free-standing sculpture in white stone. In the architectural works, the elements that bear the greatest witness to the new styles are indeed the sculptural details: window mouldings, entrance portals and the capitals supporting the vaults. Without any documentary evidence, it is only possible to suppose that the work was of local production, performed with the assistance of skilled Lombard workers.
The renewed devotion and spread of confraternities encouraged the diffusion of cycles depicting stories of Christ and the Virgin Mary. If nothing can be said of the lost partition painted wall in the monastery of the observant branch of the Franciscan order in Lovere, the cycles of Gandizzano, Pisogne, Solto Collina, Gargarino, Zone (Santi Ippolito and Cassiano) and Provaglio have been preserved. A no less important role is played by prints, especially those depicting Christ’s Passion, which are often the favourite means for spreading the iconographic and stylistic models of countries lying beyond the Alps: on this matter, reference to Martin Schongauer can be seen in the cycle in Provaglio d’Iseo and to Albrecht Dürer in S. Maria della Neve in Pisogne.
From a general point of view, the artistic environment appears to be a patchwork, characterised by the presence of a series of artists, most of whom had not yet made a name for themselves, had different backgrounds and had undergone different training, even if some shared similar stylistic features.
For the Bergamo side of the lake, it seems that the artistic guidelines came from Val Seriana rather than Valle Camonica. While Giacomo Borlone worked in the oratorio del Crocifisso (Cross oratory) in Solto Collina, a truly varied catalogue of frescoes by unknown artists can be seen in Parzanica (Santa Trinità (Holy Trinity)), Gargarino (Santi Ippolito and Cassiano) and Zorzino (San Bernardino (St. Bernard), detached frescoes now in the parish church).
On the lake, the work of the painter Domenico Toselli from Provaglio, who worked in private houses and in the church of San Pietro in Lamosa, can be admired, as well as the group of painters, who were not local, who undertook a vast series of frescoes depicting the Stories of Christ in the church of the Santa Maria Maddalena’s Confraternity (St. Mary Magdalene) in Provaglio. By an unknown artist, the work entitled Pietà with Saints Cosmas and Damian in San Paolo in Sarnico dates from the last quarter of the 15th Century. The fresco painters who for more than a century alternated in the church of San Pietro in Lamosa are fascinating for the diversity of their backgrounds and the same also applies to the craftsmen who produced the votive offering in Santa Maria del Mercato (St. Mary of the Market) in Iseo. Furthermore, the decoration in the chapel of San Pietro in Lovere (1493/94) is unique in the territory around the lake as it gives proof of the presence of a South Tyrolean artist and shows that Lake Iseo was a place through which various craftsmen passed.
This variety of styles also characterises the first quarter of the 16th Century. Between the 15th and 16th centuries, the workshop known as that of the Maestro dei Santi Ippolito and Cassiano (for the painting cycle produced in the church of the same name in Zone) proposed somewhat clumsy and old fashioned patterns in the area of Lake Iseo (in Gandizzano, Marasino, Santa Eufemia di Nigoline) although they met with the approval of those commissioning the works of art.
At the same time, documents report the presence on the lake of artists who were more aware of the new techniques developed in the main centres of Lombardy.
In Santa Maria in Valvendra in Lovere the Floriano Ferramola from Brescia (1514) and Andrea da Manerbio (1535) succeeded each other in the work done in the chapels of Mary Immaculate and St. Joseph. The absolute masterpiece of the Renaissance, however, is represented by the shutters of the organ painted by Ferramola and Moretto, although they were commissioned in 1515 for the old cathedral in Brescia and transferred to Lovere only in the 18th Century.
The noteworthy artist responsible for the decoration of the Oratorio di San Rocco (Oratory of St. Roch) in Peschiera, who has been identified by some as being Romanino, arrived at the lake between the first and second decade and also worked in Tavernola. The artist’s next phase at Santa Maria della Neve in Pisogne provides evidence of the dynamics of the cultural “renovation”. In fact, the church had perhaps been decorated towards the end of the century by the da Cemmo (of this work only some sinopie remain in the sanctuary and the decoration of the outside chapel). After less than half a century, the entire decoration was sacrificed in favour of a new cycle commissioned from Romanino. On the contrary, there is the unknown fresco painter who in 1539 produced the cycle of the Passion in the church of Gandizzano, using a rather outdated style and taking inspiration from the noble models of Romanino.