'... will from now on be the standard work on the artist.' John Steer, The Art Book
'These two weighty volumes are a magnum opus in every sense of the term.' Apollo
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Giovanni Antonio da Pordenone is a key figure of the Golden Age of Venetian and Veneto art, but his place in the canon of major Renaissance artists is still unclear and the full extent of his influence has often gone unrecognised. This comprehensive study both catalogues his output and examines the social, cultural, and historical context of a career that moved between the most modest provincial places and the highest reaches of Venetian state patronage. There are extensive catalogue entries on all his accepted and collaborative works, with special emphasis on the many difficult problems of condition and bibliography, and the substantial and much-needed corpus of illustrations, which includes a section of colour plates, does justice to both the main body of his oeuvre and the often-neglected minor parts of his numerous cycles.
'... will from now on be the standard work on the artist.' John Steer, The Art Book
'These two weighty volumes are a magnum opus in every sense of the term.' Apollo
1500-1508: ORIGINS AND EARLIEST WORKS It is against this unpromising background of provincial culture, patronage and art that Pordenone emerges at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The very backwardness of his origins and the great distance he travels from them to his artistic maturity help account for the many unanswered questions about Pordenone's earliest work. It is one of the rare moments of an otherwise well-documented career when we cannot, with certainty, identify what he produced, and the little we know about his life is not very helpful.
We can at least be fairly sure that Giovanni Antonio was born in Pordenone, the son of a prosperous master mason and perhaps building entrepreneur, Angelo, originally from the district of Brescia ("Magister Angelus Brixiensis murarius") and Maddalena, of unknown family background. He is usually said to have been born 1483/84, but we should remember that this is a traditional dating based on Vasari's assertion that he died in 1540 (he actually died in January 1539) aged fifty-six, although there is some circumstantial evidence in favor of it.
Up until modern times there has been uncertainty about Pordenone's names, due both to an error by Vasari and the fact that the artist himself used multiple names in legal documents. Vasari said that his cognomen was Licinio, a mistake giving rise to numerous confusions with the Bergamask family of painters, which is still sometimes repeated today. In fact, as we see in many documents and in the first full signature on a painting at Valeriano, his family name was "Sacchis" or "Sacchiense." Other patronymics that appear in documents are "Corticellus," from the place of origin of his father in the Bresciano, and "Lodesano," from the place of origin of his grandfather. The name "Regillo" is found occasionally in documents, especially late in Pordenone's life, and then is adopted by his descendants, though its source has never been satisfactorily explained. At any rate, the artist was most often simply called some form of Giovanni Antonio da Pordenone, which is how he usually signed his paintings, and he has been known by this name, or simply "Il Pordenone," ever since.
In documents of 1504, the first we have for him, Pordenone is already a master ("Magister Joannes Antonius pictor"). By October first of that year, while still a minor requiring the guarantee of his father, he is in a position to marry, since he signs a marriage contract with the first of his three wives, Anastasia, daughter of "Magistro Stephano Bellunensi de Giamosa" in Pordenone, although the dowry is not handed over until 22 December 1505. Soon after this Pordenone must have moved to Spilimbergo, probably to seek employment in his art, since the inscription on the 1506 Valeriano triptych speaks of him as "abitante in Spilimbergo."
To these few documented facts of his early years little can be added, and in general there is a bare minimum of biographical information for his entire life. There are numerous preserved contracts and payments, which establish clearly the outlines of his career, and many business transactions unrelated to art that suggest his growing prosperity and considerable entrepreneurial energy as measured by the numerous purchases of land and houses, which sometimes become a form of moneylending since he leases and eventually sells back the property to the original owner. They also help us to see what was probably a man of considerable and rising social ambition, a provincial version of the Renaissance artists' ideal, suggested to us by the growing importance of his patrons, his own eventual ennoblement by the king of Hungary and the elevated status of his heirs. But these are not the kind of documents that afford direct glimpses into character and personality. In the absence of diaries, letters and intimate recollections we must attempt to interpret the dry facts of his life and analyze the biographical as well as the critical traditions that spring up over the centuries. And, inevitably, no matter how objective we attempt to be in our understanding of his art, we will read the man in his pictures.
This will be a continuing process, but for now we can raise one or two preliminary questions about his education and his personality. There is a persistent early tradition of Pordenone as something of a gentleman painter, lively and gracious in conversation, a talented musician (or at least a lover of music) and even author of works in Latin. It is an idea expressed in one form or another, not only by Vasari, but even slightly earlier by Paolo Pinozz and, as far as music is concerned, by his countryman Marcantonio Amalteo, who could have known Pordenone personally. How much of this is merely a reflection of the Renaissance ideal of the learned gentleman artist, with the particular Venetian emphasis on musical ability, we cannot be sure. Certainly it goes against the normal view of the man as an earthy, robust, largely self-educated provincial. But these early sources are not easily dismissed, and let us remember that there were public schools in Pordenone when he was growing up, and it is certainly possible that the son of a master mason could have attended them. Moreover, there was a sophisticated literary and humanist circle in Pordenone created by Bartolomeo d'Alviano after the town became his feudiary in 1508 as reward for his military service to the Venetian state. Our knowlege of this so-called "Accademia Liviana," which seems to have flourished only very briefly, is limited indeed, and we have no way of knowing if Pordenone was associated with it. But we should not underestimate Pordenone's ambitious, competitive nature, including later his determination to succeed at the highest reaches of Venetian culture and patronage, which could have served as a drive towards "improving" himself.
That he was competitive, ambitious, aggressive, quick-tempered -- ideas that early biographers at least imply -- seems probable. Our very first document for him involves a criminal judgment in his favor that resulted from his being slapped in the face, and at the other extreme of his life, most writers, starting with Vasari, suggest that he died by violent means. In between, one of the few documented biographical episodes of his life involves a bitter and bloody dispute with his brother Baldassare over their father's inheritance that leads to the murder of a third party (though Pordenone is exonerated). In addition, as we shall see, the tradition of his aggressive attempt to displace Titian in Venice in the 1530s has strong circumstantial support. All this is not to make Pordenone a Caravaggio avant la lettre, but these few bits of documentary biography support the view of the man that will emerge from his art with all its dash and speed of execution, frequently violent themes and forceful, expressive forms.
We only reach solid ground in Pordenone's career with the frescoed triptych in the parish church of the country town of Valeriano (plate 4; color plate 1), which is signed and dated 1506. By this time Pordenone is already about twenty-three years of age and had been an independent master at least since 1504 and probably earlier. As an increasing number of authors have recognized, the innumerable haphazard and unargued attributions made in an understandable attempt to flesh out Pordenone's early years as far back as 1500 have all failed to convince. On technical and aesthetic grounds alone, we can exclude from Pordenone's oeuvre a large number of extremely weak paintings, including a group of crude anonymous frescoes once said to be painted by the pre-adolescent artist. More significant have been the attempts to see Pordenone's participation as a garzone or semi-independent master in Gianfrancesco da Tolmezzo's fresco decorations. Since he is the best candidate to be Pordenone's master, this is a perfectly reasonable undertaking, but it has never been carried out logically, with commentators content to enumerate what they consider the best parts of these cycles. Part of the difficulty in finding Pordenone's presence in Gianfrancesco's works may be due to the likely fact that he had been with the older master only briefly and while very young.
Since Fiocco attributed the polished, but archaic, Langston Douglas Madonna and Child Enthroned (now Springfield, Museum of Fine Arts; figure 19) to Pordenone as reflecting a presumed Ferrarese experience of 1508, it has sat fitfully in Pordenone's oeuvre. When the old frame was removed to reveal on its painted, illusionistic frame a date of 1500 and the initials that Creighton Gilbert ingeniously read as Pordenone's, Fiocco's attribution, if not his Ferrarese thesis, seemed to be confirmed. But many art historians were still unconvinced because the Springfield painting seemed both too mature for a seventeen-year-old artist and too lacking in Veneto characteristics. In fact, the recent attributions of it to the Bolognese milieu may well be a better way to account for these qualities.
These disappointing results then force us back to the Valeriano triptych as our starting point. An extremely informative cartellino painted illusionistically on one of its pilasters (plate 5) tells us that "Zuane Antonius De Sacchis" (that is, Pordenone) painted this St. Michael on the sixth day of 1506 (presumably January) for a certain "M. Durigo de Lasin," who commissioned it "per sue Devotione." To this standard formula was added the interesting bit of information that Pordenone was at this time living in Spilimbergo. It seems likely that after his marriage at the end of 1505, the young artist moved to Spilimbergo to seek his fortune in an area of the Friuli where there was a considerable amount of patronage.
The lords of Spilimbergo, unlike most of the feudal nobility of the Friuli, took a genuine interest in artistic patronage, although on a modest scale and with purely local talent. The facade of their castello, for example, was painted in a crude but energetic style which was for a long time attributed to Pordenone, but as I noted in the introduction, is now convincingly given to Bellunello (figures 3-4). The counts were also constant patrons of the grandiose Trecento Duomo of Spilimbergo whose decoration runs continuously from the fourteenth century to modern times, and in which Pordenone painted, on and off for at least a decade, the elements of the great organ complex. Other paintings by Pordenone, which no longer survive, are recorded by sources as existing in the town, end among them may have been works executed in this early period. The three known projects by him from the second half of the first decade are in country villages within a few kilometers north of Spilimbergo, and it is to this activity that Vasari may be referring when, at the beginning of the artist's life, he reported that Pordenone worked many months in the countryside experimenting with, and mastering, the art of buon fresco. It is probably not merely coincidental that Gianfrancesco da Tolmezzo may have made that town a center of his activity since we find several of his fresco cycles in the region and hear of the counts of Spilimbergo giving him a piece of land in 1481.
The three saints of the triptych (Valerian, Michael and John the Baptist) are placed within a fictive architectural enframement, which fragments the composition into a naive bright profusion of multicolored sections, in part masking the strong illusionistic drive behind it. The figures are drawn with sharp contours and modeled in a flat generalized manner, which creates brittle surfaces onto which detail is as if incised. There is little evidence of Pordenone's ability to master contrapposto, create movement or treat the figures in three dimensions. St. Michael's movement is awkward and aspatial (plate 7), and Pordenone even has difficulty making St. John's slight turn to the center convincing. Though he is as stiff as the other two saints, by showing Valerian almost frontally, Pordenone is able to transform his stiffness into a kind of taut elegance which is iconographically appropriate, and in his face to use abstracting shape and finely drawn and modeled detail to advantage (plates 5-6). There is also a wholeness and fluency in the conception of this figure that contrasts with the angular, piecemeal structure of the other two and the highly fragmented architecture. It is Pordenone's first approach to cinquecentesque form.
If the Valeriano triptych is on the whole quite constrained formally, from the technical point of view there are already signs of Pordenone as the great frescante. In certain areas, such as the impressive, weighty passage of drapery held by St. Valerian, there is a rough freedom in the handling of fresco and impetuousness in the way contours are unevenly drawn in broad short strokes. Although in some of the flesh parts modeling is indicated by a ruddy hatching technique that still recalls the Tolmezzini, other areas of deep shadow soften the form and give it a feeling of plastic substance. Mastery in the use of fresco, of which these are the first significant indications, will be a prerequisite for Pordenone's great expansive decorative projects of the future.
As one would expect from an ambitious young artist who had already been working for a few years at the beginning of the century in the western Friuli, the Valeriano triptych demonstrates Pordenone's familiarity with a wide range of Friulian artistic culture as well, possibly, as artists in the wider Veneto area. As a type, the frescoed altarpiece was common throughout the Friuli in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as it was in other provincial areas, because they were cheap to produce. The particular arrangement of the triptych, in which the central figure is in a niche and the side figures in a separate contiguous space, probably originates with Bellini's Frari triptych, but can also be found in a modest local derivation such as Domenico da Tolmezzo's painting from the Udine Duomo (now Museo Civico; figure 5). The stiffness of bearing, brittle surfaces and sharp contours found in the Valeriano painting are still very much in the tradition of Gianfrancesco da Tolmezzo as are the pointed, disarticulate types and the characteristically Friulian wig-like hair of St. Michael (compare Gianfrancesco's Prophets at Socchieve). The facial types of all three Valeriano saints find reasonably close prototypes in Gianfrancesco's oeuvre. The illusionistic drive behind the complex, multipart architecture is a reflection of a late Quattrocento tradition in the Friuli that is found in Gianfrancesco as well as other artists such as Bellunello and Pietro da Vicenza.
But are these somewhat general associations enough to establish the likelihood that Gianfrancesco was Pordenone's master? In modern times the majority of scholars have, indeed, accepted the idea, and certainly there is plausibility in the proposal since Gianfrancesco was the major artist of the older generation active in the Friuli, especially on the right bank of the Tagliamento, when Pordenone must have been serving his apprenticeship. Moreover, in the period around the turn of the century and later he was active in nearby Cordenons (1499), Torre, Castello d'Aviano (1507), and in Pordenone itself. But the heavy materiality of draprery, rough textural quality of surfaces, passages of modeling in chiaroscuro, and approach to Cinquecento breadth of form that mark at least the most advanced parts of the Valeriano triptych are very different from Gianfrancesco's deep hollow folds, precise metallic surfaces, graphism in both the contours and the hatching, and sometimes fussy elaboration of detail.
On the other hand, the case for Gianfrancesco's mastership may be strengthened by closer examination of some of his latest works such as the Pentecost fragment from the Pordenone Duomo (c. 1500; figure 11) or the Madonna and Child panel in the Accademia Gallery (c. 1500-5), which have greater breadth and some softening of form, and in the Pentecost Apostles, richer characterization of type. A particularly instructive late work by Gianfrancesco is the Madonna and Child with Male Saint (figure 12) once in the mountain church of Madonna del Sasso at Invillino in the Carnian mountains. It was already fragmentary and very damaged when it was photographed before being destroyed in World War II, but does not deserve the neglect it has known since it does communicate a vivid impression and must have been one of Gianfrancesco's latest and most mature paintings. Compared to many earlier works by Gianfrancesco, there is a fineness and precision in the drawing of the Virgin's oval face, subtle touches of modeling that lend it roundness, and a greater suggestion of structure in the Virgin's hand, all of which make it a more believable predecessor for a figure like St. Valerian than anything previous in Gianfrancesco's oeuvre. The fragmentary visible parts of the male saint seem even closer to the triptych in its heavy folds and deep chiaroscuro, although extreme caution is demanded by the state of the work in the photograph. None the less, if I were asked to find signs of a younger more forward looking artist (that is, Pordenone) in Gianfracesco's late works, this modest fresco fragment would be my candidate.
All this supports, but perhaps is short of proving, that Pordenone was actually apprenticed to Gianfrancesco da Tolmezzo. If this relationship ever existed, by the time of the Valeriano triptych it is no longer dominant and Pordenone is clearly looking beyond the confines of Tolmezzian art. He shows an awareness of other artists in the Friuli and other currents in the nearby Veneto. Indeed, it would be useful to outline the major non-Tolmezzian options to which Pordenone could have been responding in his first years of independent activity.
Important works by Alvise Vivarini would have been accessible in the Veneto at Belluno (Berlin, now destroyed) and Treviso (now Accademia, Venice), and the Murano School was a dominant force in the terraferma generally. There does indeed seem to be some community of mood with Alvise in the melancholy spirit and taut elegance of St. Valerian, and the representation of St. Michael may originate in the Vivarinian orbit. As already indicated in the introduction, the towering figure of Bartolomeo Montagna had great influence in the Friuli (in part through Pietro da Vicenza), and possible indication of this may be a certain monumentality of bearing, broad oval facial structure and convoluted (if less metallic) drapery folds, especially in the figure of St. Valerian Although the situation is complex and the role of intermediaries possibly important, the bearing and facial type of St. John recall the same saint in Montagna's altarpiece now in the Museo Civico of Vicenza. Closer at hand in the Trevigiano (especially in the area of the diocese of Ceneda around Conegliano) and in the Friuli itself, Pordenone could have found another source of relative modernization in some of the same directions, in the works of Cima da Conegliano. That the young Pordenone would look to the orbit of the nearby Trevigiano for models and patronage for an escape from his own provincial milieu is not surprising. The first definitive steps towards a Venetian modernization of his art will take place in 1511 at San Salvatore di Susegana (in the Cenedese) and his breakthrough to achievement of the highest level occurs in 1520 in the Malchiostro Chapel of the Treviso Duomo. Perhaps as early as 1506, then, Pordenone also looked in the direction of the complex Trevigiano artistic environment, which Mauro Lucco has described as confluence of the Venetian and Lombardesque cultures, and as an important crossroads of style for the Veneto. That same complexity of style that is represented by the art of Pier Maria Pennacchi or the much discussed Onigo monuments may already be reflected at Valeriano.
While we cannot be certain that any one of these Veneto artists exercised direct influence over Pordenone's earliest development, the painters and works mentioned here are a helpful context against which to view the Valeriano triptych as a product of the eastern Veneto as much as it is a product of the western Friuli. Familiarity with the artistic culture of this part of the Veneto, far from being exceptional, is to tee expected at this time in the Friuli. After all, as we have observed, part of Giovanni Martini's education was with Alvise; Pellegrino da San Daniele's Osoppo altarpiece seems to show the influence of Montagna and perhaps Bellini and Alvise; even Gianfracesco's education was essentially in the Murano School, and by 1500 he was influenced by Montagna.
The Valeriano painting seems to support the idea that Pordenone had a local Friulian education, probably under Gianfrancesco da Tolmezzo, perhaps the kind of elementary training one would get in the family workshops typical of the Friuli, but which he could not get from his own father, who was a master mason. From an early moment, however, he turned avidly to other artists active in the Veneto, especially in the nearby area of the Trevigiano, whose art would also be available in secondhand form in his own Friulian predecessors. As already indicated, he would not have had to travel far from home to see works by these artists, and there is no reason to believe that he was aware at first hand of the Bellinesque tradition in Venice (not to mention Giorgione's art), or at least that it had any real impact on him. This picture of a short apprenticeship with as limited a master as Gianfrancesco and a hungry assimilation of more up-to-date artistic currents is, in a sense, not too far from Vasari's view of Pordenone as self-taught.
Viewed critically, the Valeriano triptych gives us an ambiguous picture of the young artist. In spite of signs of ambition, it is a wholly quattrocentesque provincial work that may reflect some awareness of non-Bellinesque currents in the Veneto. It is a painting that shows us an artist who is struggling with basic problems of representation (for example, contrapposto) and is far from approaching a characteristic personal style. Without the signature, one would have been hard pressed to attribute it to Pordenone based on his later works. It is unusual in the sixteenth century to find an artist of major talent who at the age of twenty-three, after several years of practice, had not attained mastery of his craft or achieved an identifiable, personal mode of expression. This is probably not to be explained only as a matter of retarded personal development but also must be understood in terms of a provincial situation in which Pordenone was likely to have a deficient apprenticeship and to have lacked the stimulus of interesting commissions, cultured patrons and high level competition.
The unhappy history of misattributions to Pordenone's earliest years chastens anyone from entering the discussion without trepidation. As already observed, it is possible that the contado to which Vasari says the young artist escaped from the plague and began his career is the countryside around Spilimbergo and includes frescoes in Valeriano, Gaio and Vacile. Of these, unfortunately too damaged to judge with any assurance is the shallow little cupola with God the Father and the four Evangelist symbols in the parish church of Gaio (plates 8-10). An evident coarseness in the execution, which is however, not very far from the earliest parts of the nearby Vacile vault, and its generally Tolmezzian character, have occasionally led to doubts about the authorship of this modest fresco, but the plastic energy, incipient roundness of form and signs of ambitious torsion in the animals take it beyond the Tolmezzian world, as does the suggestion of illusionism in the way God the Father looks down at the observer. But these works in the Spilimberghese are not true juvenilia, and one feels that it should be possible to find some evidence of Pordenone's activities before 1506. That evidence may yet be found in the Spilimbergo area or perhaps in the countryside around Pordenone, but for now the best painting to fill the period before 1506 is a fresco not from the contado, but in the Duomo of Pordenone's hometown itself.
It is a full-length, almost life-size Madonna and Child (plates 2-3) standing on a crescent moon, frescoed on a pier -- the same one on which Pordenone was later to paint Sts. Erasmus and Roch (plate 85). Although the attribution to Pordenone does not prove itself, on balance it is likely to be by him, and it is surprising that it has been generally overlooked by art historians. The Virgin's melancholic dreaminess recalls the figure of St. Valerian as do some of the facial features (shape of eyes and mouth) if not the overall shape of the face which is more oval. One can imagine the plastic materiality of the drapery in St. Valerian as an outgrowth of the ridged, highlighted, angular drapery folds of the Virgin, while the whole structure of her robes is more closely recalled in the Christ at Vacile of about 1508. The fairly rigid design of the Duomo Madonna is somewhat loosened by rather free lighting effects as in the Virgin's hair, which looks ahead to a similar treatment in St. Valerian. The red, violet, orange-yellow and dark green color scheme is reasonably close to the Valeriano triptych as is the illusionistic drive behind the architectural enframement, which consists of alternating fictive blocks of red and white veined marble in the pilasters and the arch. One is reluctant to make too much of such a decorative motif, but this imitation marble frame is almost a "signature" of the young Pordenone. It is, for example, similar to the arches at Valeriano and the frescoed frames of the soffit saints at Vacile (plate) but, as far as I know, is otherwise rare in the Friuli in this period.
In its less consistently plastic and rhythmically coherent drapery, crisper more brittle surfaces, more explicitly graphic modeling and more calligraphic outlining of form, the Virgin clearly anticipates the triptych, perhaps dating from 1504 when Pordenone is still documented in his hometown. In spite of this immaturity, the melancholy expression and long proportions which, like the painted architecture, seem to take into account a view from below, and the introduction of a simple, slightly curving contrapposto, contribute to a provincial graciousness in the Virgin. While the Duomo Madonna may already reflect the influence of the same Veneto artists as the Valeriano triptych, it is also more clearly Tolmezzian in its ridged, angular drapery folds, facial type and more evident graphism. It may also reflect more clearly than is easily visible at Valeriano the interest in another Friulian artist, now of a younger generation, Pellegrino da San Daniele. Pellegrino, and perhaps Cima, could help account for Pordenone's ambition to unify drapery into great sweeping folds -- an elementary idea, but one not really found in Gianfrancesco. A painting like Pellegrino's 1501 St. Joseph altarpiece in the Udine Duomo (figure 16) could have been a source for the broad treatment of drapery and the idea of articulating the body with it, as well as a source for experimentation with lighting effects found in the Madonna. The comparison also shows us that at this time Pellegrino is still the most technically accomplished and modern master in the Friuli.
Finally, the only other viable candidate for a work near Pordenone's origins is the radically damaged fragment of a fresco representing the Magdalene, which was detached by Giancarlo Magri from the arcade wall of S. Francesco in Pordenone (now Museo Civico; plate 1). Although our ability to attribute it or judge its importance for understanding the very young Pordenone are compromised by its condition, the melancholy air of revery, and the morphology and relative degree of structure in the right hand seem close to the Duomo Madonna. The "signature" fictive marble enframement lends circumstantial support to the attribution. With these two works then, perhaps we do, after all, have a little apercu near the beginnings of Pordenone's independent activity, which may he about the time of our first documentation for him in 1504 in his native town.
The frescoed choir of the little country church of Vacile (plate 11), about four kilometers north of Spilimbergo, is the culmination of this first, almost exclusively provincial, phase of Pordenone's development. The vault (plates 12-27; color plates 2-3), which is a typically Friulian ribbed structure of five major and three truncated fields (forming something like a three-quarter dome) and the soffit of the arch are moderately well preserved, but the frescoes on the walls are a total wreck (plates 28-41). These walls were apparently hammered and whitewashed in the last century and then only gradually uncovered in phases since 1939. What remains after this treatment are a few outlines of the composition and a few well-enough-preserved fragments to be able to judge style and technique. But slight as these remains are, they did not deserve the near total neglect that they had known before the extensive restorations in the wake of the Friulian earthquake of 1976. This is especially true since the walls seem to represent a considerable stylistic break from the vault and perhaps a significant turn in Pordenone's career. As such, the style of these fragments will be discussed briefly with contemporary works in the next chapter.
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