Bramante and Bramantino
BRAMANTEDonato Bramante, the great High Renaissance architect, was also a considerable painter, although only a single panel picture and fragments of two or three fresco cycles have survived. He was probably born at Monte Asdrualdo (today Fermignano), a village just outside Urbino. Vasari says that he was seventy-years old when he died, implying that he was born in about 1444. Almost nothing is known of his early life, but it seems likely that he was brought up in Urbino and trained as a painter in the workshop of the Ducal Palace. According to a mid-seventeenth-century source (Saba da Castiglione), he was a follower of Mantegna and Piero della Francesca; Vasari says that he studied the works of Fra Carnovale (a native of Urbino who had worked in Florence under Fra Filippo Lippi). He is first documented in 1477 in Bergamo, where he painted some frescoes on the Palazzo del Podestà (some fragments of which have survived). By 1481, he was at the court of Ludovico il Moro at Milan, arriving shortly before Leonardo da Vinci.
Bramante stayed some twenty years in Milan. After the city fell to the French in September 1499, he went immediately to Rome and spent the rest of his life there. After demonstrating his genius in the last years of the pontificate of Alexander VI, he became architect to the new pope, Julius II, for whom he begun the rebuilding of St Peter’s and the Vatican. There is no evidence that he practised seriously as a painter in Rome (though Vasari says that he frescoed the arms of Alexander VI over a door of San Giovanni in Laterno). He died on 11 March 1514 and was buried in Old St Peter’s.
Bergamo. Palazzo della Ragione.
Three Greek Philosophers. Fragments of frescoes.
These are very damaged fragments of the frescoed decoration once on the front of the Palazzo della Ragione (town hall). The decoration included, between the first-floor windows, figures of ancient philosophers in architectural frames. According to Marin Sanodo’s Itineraio of 1483, the frescoes were painted when Sebastiano Badoer was pretore (magistrate), that is in 1477. Marcantonio Michiel confirms the attribution in his Notizie of 1525, but (mistakenly) says that the frescoes date from about 1486. Remains of the frescoes were discovered under five layers of plaster when the palazzo was being renovated in 1927. Fragments were detached in 1931; these were placed at first on the staircase but are now displayed in the great hall on the first floor. Two of the surviving figures are identified by inscriptions. One represents Chilon of Sparta and the other (noticeably weaker in execution) Epimenides of Knossos. Only the head and shoulders survive of a third figure, which has no identifying inscription.
London. British Museum.
Temple in Ruins. Engraving on paper, 70 x 51.
This celebrated large print – signed ‘BRAMANTUS FECIT IN M[I]L[AN]O – is one of Bramante’s few securely dateable works. It was engraved from his design in 1481 by the Milanese goldsmith Bernardo Prevedari. The subject is mysterious. A number of unidentified figures – a monk kneeling praying in the foreground, two men chatting on the left, and a group of soldiers and horsemen (one resembling Ludovico il Moro) on the right – are scattered around the vast interior of a half-ruined temple of grandiose yet eclectic design. For all its complexity, the temple is a logical structure, rigorous in perspective and capable of being built. Only two impressions of the print are known – one in the British Museum and the other in Milan (Civica Racolta di Stampe).
Christ at the Column. Wood, 93 x 62.
Christ, half-length, with chestnut red beard and hair falling in ringlets to his shoulders, is bound to a rectangular pilaster decorated with floral reliefs. His haggard face, eye sockets and cheeks deeply sunken, contrast with the sculptural, smoothly modelled torso. On the left, a window, with a pyx on its sill, opens onto a river landscape with pavilions, boats, walled hill towns and rocky mountains hazy in the distance. The picture is the only surviving panel painting attributed to Bramante. It came from the abbey of Chiaravalle, near Milan, where it stood over the altar of the second chapel of the right transept. It may have been commissioned by Asciano Sforza, brother of Ludovico il Moro, who was abbot in commendam of the abbey from 1465. It was transferred to the Brera for safekeeping in 1915. It was (doubtfully) attributed to Bramante in a late sixteenth-century source (Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo’s Idea del Tempio della Pittura of 1590). The attribution is now generally accepted, though some late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century art historians (including Crowe and Cavalcaselle in their History of Painting in North Italy (1871) and Venturi in L’Arte (1924)) preferred an attribution to Bramantino. The picture is usually dated around 1480-90. It is in a fragile condition and has suffered from repeated problems of flaking. There was a major restoration in 1923 and further treatments were needed during the 1970s and 1980s. Restoration was required again recently, after exceptionally cold weather at the beginning of 2017 caused the wooden panel to shrink and the paint to buckle in places.
Famous Men (‘Uomini di Casa Panigarola’). Frescoes (transferred to canvas).
These eight fresco fragments, bright in colour and bold in handling, were detached from the walls of a room in the Casa Panigarola-Prinetti (now demolished) in the Via Lanzone in Milan. They were bought by the Brera in 1901. The Casa Panigarola-Prinetti was acquired in 1486 by the poet Gaspare Visconti, and the decoration was probably commissioned shortly afterwards. (Bramante witnessed a legal document in the house in 1487.)
Seven of the fragments are of single figures, well over life size, which stood in niches with architectural frames. Only two (one showing a man with a broadsword and the other a man with mace) are still full-length (285/300 x 127). The other five (showing a stout man crowned with laurel, a young man with a lance or halberd, a young man in armour, an old warrior in a helmet, and a young singer) have been cut down to bust-length (90/120 x 113/127). According to a late sixteenth-century source (Lomazzo’s Trattato dell’Arte of 1584), the figures portray ‘masters of arms’, including Pietro Sola, maestro d’arme of Ludovico Il Moro, the painter and swordsman Beltramo Gariboldi and (the otherwise unknown) Giorgio Moro.
The eighth fresco fragment (102 x 127) was painted over a door. It shows a pair of half-length Greek philosophers, Heraclitus of Ephesus and Democritus of Abdera, separated by a globe of the world. The two philosophers were represented by classical writers (including Horace, Lucian, Juvenal, Seneca and Cicero) as reacting in opposite ways to human folly: Democritus laughed, while Heraclitus wept. Bramante's fresco is the earliest surviving painting of a subject that was to attain wide popularity, particularly in the Netherlands of the seventeenth century. The sculptural frieze above the fresco may represent the god Saturn (above the saturnine Heraclitus) and the god Jupiter (above the jovial Democritus).
Milan. Castello Sforzesco.
The Argus (Panoptes) of classical mythology had a hundred watchful eyes. He is elegantly posed, full length and almost nude, in an ornate portal at the bottom of a flight of steps. He holds in his left hand a club and in his right hand a caduceus entwined with green vipers (symbol of the Visconti, the former ruling dynasty of Milan). This headless but otherwise well-preserved figure was discovered under plaster in 1893 over a door of the Sala del Tesoro (Ludovico Sforza’s treasury) in the Cortile della Rocchetta of the castle. The medallion of fictive bronze beneath the figure contains a scene of the Weighing of the Gold, while the two porphyry roundels at the sides show Mercury playing Music to Argus and Mercury killing Argus. The decoration of the Sala del Tesoro was completed by winter 1493. The fresco has been variously attributed to Bramante, to Bramantino, and to a collaboration of the two.
BRAMANTINOBartolommeo Suardi, called Bramantino, was a Milanese painter and architect. His nickname, which he used in legal documents from early in his career, suggests that he was a pupil or close follower of Bramante, with whom he tends to be confused in Vasari and other early sources. Facts about his life and works are few. There is indirect evidence (a document of 1490 implying that he had already reached the age of majority of twenty-five) that he was born by 1465. He trained as a goldsmith and may have started relatively late as a painter. In December 1508 he is recorded in Rome, where he may have worked on some project for Julius II in the papal apartments before Raphael arrived. In May 1525 he was appointed painter and architect to Francesco II Sforza. He died in 1530.
His pictures are rare and (since hardly any are documented and none is dated) their chronology is uncertain. They confirm the influence of Bramante, and perhaps also of Bramante’s inspiration Mantegna. But their style evolved considerably, becoming less linear, softer and more rounded. In his last works (such as the Uffizi Madonna and Saints), the figures are curiously formless and expressionless, the Madonnas round-faced and mournful and the attendant male saints absent and rather effete. His pictures generally feature architectural backgrounds. Their iconography is often inventive and unusual. He was the most original painter of an early sixteenth-century Milanese school otherwise dominated by the influence of Leonardo. He wrote a treatise on perspective (now lost).
Boston. Museum of Fine Arts.
‘Madonna del Latte’. Wood, 46 x 35.
The Virgin, hair bound in a scarf and wearing a dark blue mantle over a bright red dress, nurses the Child, who stands on a flat rock. The fresh branch growing from the tree stump on the left probably symbolise the Resurrection. In the background, a fortified town and, in the left distance, a lake shrouded in mist. This little panel was published in the Burlington Magazine as a work of Bramantino by Roger Fry in 1913, when it was still in the collection of Percy Moore Taylor of London. It was bought by the Boston Museum the same year for $7,732. The attribution was questioned in 1930 by Philip Hendy (in Art in America), who suggested the name of the Cremonese painter and illuminator Antonio Cicognara, but it has been otherwise generally accepted. The panel has been considered Bramantino’s earliest surviving work.
Bucharest. Art Museum.
Mourning over the Dead Christ. Wood, 100 x 80.
Cut down on the left, leaving just the head of the grieving Magdalen; the dead Christ was probably originally in the centre of the composition. A comparatively late work. Acquired around the beginning of the twentieth century by the Romanian royal family from Felix Bamberg.
Chicago. University. Smart Museum of Art.
Gathering of Manna; Raising of Lazarus. Wood, 27 x 43/45.
Nothing is known of the provenance of these two small panels, which (to judge from their size, their shape and their somewhat sketchy technique) might have belonged to a predella. They were attributed to Bramantino in the first catalogue of the Kress collection (compiled by Wilhelm Suida in 1951) on the strength of stylistic similarities with the Tapestries of the Months (Castello Sforzesco, Milan). The attribution received the distinguished support of Roberto Longhi and Bernard Berenson, but has been contested by a number of art historians. Other attributions have been to Cesare Cesariano, a Milanese follower of Bramante, the Brescian Girolamo Romanino and a ‘Cremonese painter close to Boccaccino’. At the Chicago University museum since 1973.
Cologne. Wallraff-Ricartz Museum.
Philemon and Baucis. Wood, 58 x 78.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Philemon and Baucis were elderly peasants. Zeus and Hermes, wandering through Phrygia disguised as mortals, came to their humble hut and offered hospitality. The picture illustrates both the meal, during which the wine bowl miraculously kept refilling itself, and the subsequent transformation of the hut into a marble temple. Bramantino’s treatment of this unusual subject has been interpreted as referring to the Supper of Emmaus and as illustrating the Christian concept of the Eucharist in a Classical setting. The picture was attributed to Bramantino by Giovanni Morelli, after earlier attributions to Mantegna and Ercole de’ Roberti. Usually considered an early work. Bequeathed with the Wallraff collection in 1824.
Columbia. University of Missouri Museum of Art.
Madonna and Child. Wood, 46 x 36.
The Virgin, shown half-length against a background of trees, supports the naked Child on her right arm. He was probably originally holding a piece of fruit or a bird. The little panel is very damaged – abraded throughout. It is probably a very late work, close in style to the Flight into Egypt (of about 1522?) in Locarno. First recorded in 1915, when it was still in Milan (with the dealer Antonio Grandi) and was published as a work of Bramantino by Gustavo Frizzoni in L’Arte. Acquired by Samuel H. Kress in 1935 from Conte Contini Bonacossi and allocated to the Columbia museum in 1961.
Florence. Uffizi (Contini Bonacossi Collection).
Madonna and Child with Saints. Wood, 205 x 166.
None of the eight saints is certainly identifiable. The kneeling man, pointing to the Christ Child and turning towards the spectator, is probably John the Baptist, and the white-bearded, bare-chested man standing behind him could be Jerome or Job. The bishop behind the Virgin's left shoulder might be Ambrose, and the Roman soldier, standing at the right edge with a long sword, could be George or Sebastian. The altarpiece is probably one of Bramantino’s last works (late 1520s?). It came from the Milanese church of Santa Maria del Giardino, which was demolished in 1865. After passing though the collections of the Castelbarco family and of Gian Giacomo Poldi-Pezzoli, the picture was acquired by Conte Alessandro Contini Bonacossi from Principe Alberico Trivulzio. It was one of thirty-five paintings from the Contini Bonacossi collection acquired by the Italian State in 1969 after a long legal battle with Conte Alessandro’s heirs. Recently restored for the Bramantino exhibition held at Lugano in 2014.
Locarno. Santa Maria Assunta (Santuario della Madonna del Sasso).
Flight into Egypt. Wood, 150 x 131.
The picture is situated in the south aisle of the pilgrimage church. It is Bramantino’s only signed work (though the signature –‘BRAMANTINVS’ , bottom centre – has sometimes been suspected). First recorded in the church in 1625. A late work: a fresco formerly in the Oratorio was dated 1522. Restored for the Bramantino exhibition held at Lugano in 2014.
London. National Gallery.
Adoration of Magi. Wood, 57 x 55.
The Virgin is seated on a huge stone block – presumably the cornerstone of biblical metaphor – in front of a ruined (or unfinished) classical edifice. Two of the kings are on either side of the foreground, one holding a gold vase and the other a bowl of rose quartz. The two figures flanking the Virgin have sometimes been identified as the third (Moorish) king and St Joseph or John the Baptist, and sometimes as the prophets Isaiah and Daniel. Much restored (including the heads). On the right, in front of the mountain peaks, an angel floats on a cloud (perhaps bringing the good news to the shepherds). An elaborate system of perspective lines, incised in the gesso, converge on a vanishing point just below the Virgin’s knees. This surprisingly small panel (it has the aspect of a monumental altarpiece in photographs) was presumably painted for a private patron rather than for a church. It is probably one of Bramantino’s earlier works (late 1490s or early 1500s?). Bequeathed to the National Gallery in 1916 with the collection of Sir A. H. Layard, who had acquired it about 1863 from the Manfrin collection in Venice. Originally ascribed to Mantegna, it was recognised as a work of Bramantino after Layard had it cleaned and restored in Giuseppe Molteni's Milanese studio. It is probably Bramantino’s most reproduced picture.
Madrid. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection.
Man of Sorrows. Wood, 109 x 71.
Christ, eerily illuminated by moonlight, displays the wounds in his hand and side. The boat with pavilions in the left background also appears in Bramante’s Christ at the Column in the Brera. The Man of Sorrows has also sometimes been attributed to Bramante – for example, by Rudolf Heineman in his 1937 catalogue of the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection and (by Philip Hendy?) in the catalogue to the exhibition of pictures from the collection at the London National Gallery in 1961. But most critics think that it is an early work of Bramantino, painted when he was still heavily under Bramante’s influence. The picture’s history can be traced back to 1590, when it was inherited by the Contessa del Mayno of Genoa from the Pusteria della Porta family. It remained with the Del Mayno family until the twentieth century, and was bought by Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza in 1936 from the Contessa Mocenigo-Soranzo.
Mezzana (near Somma Lombardo). Parish Church.
Pietà with Saints; Pentecost. Wood, each 207 x 147.
These two damaged panels were transferred to the church, after restoration in 1930, from the Sanctuary of the Madonna della Ghianda at Somma Lombardo. The presence of Sebastian and Job among the saints in the Pietà suggests that it was commissioned as a votive picture for protection against the plague. The Pentecost resembles the Madonna and Saints in the Uffizi (Contini Bonacossi) in both style and composition.
Crucifixion. Canvas, 372 x 270.
Christ is crucified between the two thieves, whose crosses are daringly foreshortened. The large foreground figures, draped in voluminous robes, are mainly those traditionally depicted in Crucifixions. The Virgin swoons into the arms of Mary Salome and Mary Cleophas, the Magdalen seems to be attempting almost to climb the cross, and St John the Evangelist weeps. The imposing figure on the right in a yellow robe might be Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea. The curly haired man gazing at the viewer on the extreme right has the character of a self-portrait. Some of the religious symbolism is medieval and rarely seen in Crucifixions of this date. The sun and moon, represented with human faces turned to witness the tragic event, refer most obviously to the eclipse that occurred at Christ's death; they might also carry some other meaning, perhaps symbolising the New and Old Testaments, the dual nature of Christ as divine and human or the triumph of light over darkness. An angel, blessing, and a devil, holding an invisible soul, kneel on clouds at the sides of the cross. The skull at the base of the cross is Adam's skull, which, according to popular legend, was buried at Golgotha (which means 'place of the skull'). The imaginary Jerusalem in the background seems to have been inspired largely by ancient Roman monuments. However, the classical edifice prominent on the right resembles the Trivulzio Mausoleum, which Bramantino himself designed in about 1512. The huge altarpiece – by far the largest surviving painting by Bramantino – entered the Brera in 1805. An attribution to Bramante, recorded in the Brera’s first inventory, was corrected to Bramantino by Crowe and Cavalcaselle in 1871. There is no record of the provenance of the picture, which was once assumed to have come from the church of Santa Maria di Brera (demolished to make way for the new picture gallery). Germano Mulazzani argued on the evidence of the unusual religious iconography (1974 Burlington Magazine) that it was painted for Milan Cathedral at the time of the Council of Pisa (1510-11). But earlier and later datings have also been advanced. Restored in 1992.
‘Trivulzio Madonna’. Wood, 61 x 47.
The figure at the left edge of the picture is not St Joseph but the donor, who has been identified as Gian Giacomo Trivulzio. Trivulzio was created Governor of Milan and Marshall of France after commanding the French army that overthrew Duke Ludovico Sforza in 1499. He appears to have been Bramantino’s most important patron – commissioning the famous tapestries representing the months of the year (now in the Castello Sforzesco), the family mausoleum attached to the façade of the church of San Nazaro Maggiore, and probably the Brera Crucifixion. The Madonna was already attributed to Bramantino when it was in the collection of Cardinal Cesare Monti, who left his pictures to the Arcivescovado at Milan in 1650. It was transferred to the Brera in 1896.
Madonna with Two Angels. Detached fresco, 240 x 135.
The angel on the left displays the motto ‘SOLI DEO’ (‘To God Alone’). The base of the Virgin’s throne is decorated with an unusual palm motif. Detached from the façade of the Broletto Nuovo (or Palazzo della Ragione) in the Piazza Mercanti at Milan. It entered the Brera in 1808 with an attribution to Bramantino, which has never been doubted. A late work.
Nativity with Saints. Wood, 86 x 85.
The three kneeling saints on the left, adoring the Child, include Francis (with his stigmata); the other two could be Bernardino and Dominic. The female figure standing on the right has been identified as the Tiburtine Sibyl, and the man on the extreme left wearing a laurel wreath as Augustus. Nothing is known of the picture’s history before it entered the Ambrosiana. It is probably one of Bramantino’s earlier works, painted in the 1490s.
‘Madonna delle Torri’ (‘San Michele Altarpiece’). Wood, 122 x 157.
The picture is remarkable for its religious imagery. The enthroned Virgin offers a palm frond to St Ambrose, who kneels impassively in profile on the left with the foreshortened corpse of an Arian heretic at his feet. The Child turns to welcome the soul held by St Michael, who kneels impassively in profile on the right with a vanquished devil in the form of a giant frog or toad lying on its back. According to a description of 1605, the picture was the main panel of an altarpiece that also included an image of God the Father (above) and statues of the Virgin and Angel of the Annunciation (at the sides). Recently discovered documentation suggests that the altarpiece was commissioned in 1505 for the church of San Michele in Corso di Porta Nuova. It later passed to the Oratorio di San Michele alla Chiusa, and by 1802 it had been acquired by the Melzi family. Donated to the Ambrosiana in 1872 by Duca Ludovico Melzi d’Eril. The picture was framed as a triptych until 1956, when it was restored as a single panel. Discoloured varnish was removed in 2003.
Pietà. Detached fresco, 96 x 154.
Christ supported in the tomb by the Virgin, St John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene, with Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea standing behind on the left. The grieving St John recalls the weeping Heraclitus in Bramante’s fresco from the Casa Panigarola-Prinetti (now in the Brera). This damaged and fragmentary fresco is, perhaps, Bramantino’s best-authenticated picture, recorded by Vasari, Lomazzo (who copied it and wrote a sonnet in its praise) and other early chroniclers over the entrance door of the church of San Sepolcro. The lower part was lost in 1713, when the fresco was removed with its section of wall and reinstalled over a new door. It was moved inside the church in 1872 and transferred to the Ambrosiana in 1934.
Milan. Castello Sforzesco.
‘Noli Me Tangere’. Detached fresco, 214 x 105.
From the Milanese church of Santa Maria del Giardino. The church was demolished in 1865, and the detached fresco was donated to the city’s art collection in 1867. It has sometimes been ascribed to Bramantino himself and sometimes to his workshop or school.
Tapestries of the Months. 485/520 x 455/485.
These tapestries have been described (by William Suida) as ‘the most imposing examples of the early art of tapestry weaving in Italy’. Each of the twelve represents a month of the year (which started in March on the old calendar). The inscriptions on the pedestals identify the months the figures personify and their occupations, and the medallions above identify the patron as ‘Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, Marchese of Vigevano and Maresciallo of France’. The tapestries were manufactured in a workshop in Vigevano (probably situated in the splendid old Sforza castle, which had been given to Trivulzio by Louis XII). Payments to the weaver ‘Maestro Benedetto da Milano’ and his four assistants are recorded between 3 February and 17 December 1509 in Trivulzio’s account book. Unfortunately, the account book does not specify the artist who drew the cartoons. It was only in 1871 – when the tapestries were exhibited in public for the first time in the Salone of the Giardini Pubblici – that their design was attributed to Bramantino. They came to the Castello Sforzesco with the Trivulzio collection in 1935. Restored in 1989 and rehung in 2012 for the exhibition Bramantino a Milano.
Lamentation (‘Werner Pietà’). Wood, 195 x 152.
Once in the church of San Barnaba at Milan. Acquired by the museum in 1985 as an autograph work of Bramantino but now considered an old copy. The composition may date from about 1513, when the monks of the abbey at Chiaravalle acquired a Pietà by Bramantino.
Milan. Santa Maria delle Grazie.
Madonna and Child with St James and St Louis. Fresco.
There are no early references to this monochrome frescoed lunette, which is in the little cloister, over the door leading to the old sacristy. It was attributed to Bramantino by Crowe and Cavalcaselle (1871). In 1503, Bramantino is known to have made a copy (now lost) of Leonardo’s great Last Supper in the refectory of the convent.
New York. Metropolitan Museum.
Madonna and Child. Wood, 34 x 29.
The Virgin stands behind a table in the middle of a large courtyard, with a battlemented wall and towers in the background. The Child reaches for an apple (representing Original Sin), which she holds in her right hand. A vase of red carnations (symbolising the Incarnation or the Passion of Christ) rests on the corner of the table. The little panel is in poor condition; it was previously considerably repainted and cleaning has shown the surface to be badly abraded. First recorded only in 1906, when it was in the collection of Count Victor Goloubew of Paris (with an attribution to Francia). Acquired by the museum in 1912. Another version (illustrated in the 1968 edition of Berenson’s Central and Northern Italian Painters) was formerly in the Simon collection at Berlin and the Gronau collection at Kassel. A mature work, perhaps painted shortly before Bramantino’s trip to Rome in 1508.
Voghera (30 km southwest of Pavia). Castello Visconteo. Sala delle Muse.
The fragmentary frescoes, which also include a Madonna and Child, were discovered during restoration work in the late 1990s. They probably date from the early years of the sixteenth century. The Castello has been open to the public since 2007.