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Joško Belamarić ; Institut za povijest umjetnosti Centar Cvito Fisković, Split

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The Chapel of the Blessed John of Trogir is the most graceful architectural and sculptural unit in the Croatian early Renaissance, and the most elegant space of the time outside Tuscany. We still have in our possession its baptismal certificate, as it were, an uncommonly detailed contract concerning the beginning of its construction entered into on January 4, 1468, in Trogir, between the master of the fabric of the cathedral, Niccolò Ciprianus, the stone mason Andrija Aleši and Coriolanus Cipiko, who had a power of attorney from Niccolò di Giovanni Fiorentino. From the point of view of sculpture, however, the chapel is primarily the work of Niccolò di Giovanni (recorded for the first time in 1464, in Šibenik).
The formation of the liquidly folded clothing, often not at all accounted for by the movements of the limbs themselves, and the lithe and bony arms with the quivering vivacity of the fingers are characteristic of Niccolò. In the inventory of the sculpture of the time in Dalmatia, we will not easily find anyone carving “sculture togate” with such an auto-mannerism. Still, in contrast to the formalism of most of Donatello’s heirs, among whom he has to be counted, Niccolò had enough talent to reach the ultimate borders of Renaissance naturalism in the rendering of human expression.
The iconography of the chapel is entirely medieval, but is transposed into the architectural vocabulary of the Renaissance. The model for it was the chapel of the patron saint of Zadar, St Simeon, incorporated in the Church of St Mary the Great, which disappeared as early as the 16th century. It might be said that the programme of the chapel in Trogir is an iconographic amalgam of elements of the Last Judgement cycle. It is brought to a close by the Coronation of the Virgin (completed not earlier than the late 1470s). Nine concerned angels (coro de anzeli) alongside the broad throne, shown in high relief (de più che mezo relevo), clearly counting on the view from the chapel from below, are representatives of the nine choirs of angels. It is worth keeping in mind at least the figure of the eyes, nose and mouth of which are visible beneath the billowing veil of stone. In this piece of bravura sculpture Niccolò seems to be anticipating Antonio Corradini (1688-1752) who patented and developed this theme, “a far trasparire il modellatodei corpi sotto le vesti”. It seems that, at that time, there were no equivalent attempts to try in the facture of the stone to depict in a painterly way the transparency of the material, except in the case of two works of Mino da Fiesole – Madonna and Child in the Cleveland Museum of Art from the Ciborio della neve once on the papal altar in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, and the Madonna from the Kress Collection in the National Gallery in Washington – where the sculptor attempted to depict an ear pushing through the folds of the silken maphorion.
All in all this solution suggests the familiar pathos-formula that is given
by Alberti’s description of an ancient picture with a depiction of the sacrifice of Iphigeneia: “They praise Timanthes of Cyprus for the painting in which he sur passed Colotes, because, when he had made Calchas [a priest] sad and Ulysseseven sadder at the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and employed all his art and skill on the grief-stricken Menelaus, he could find no suitable way to represent the expression of her disconsolate father [Agamemnon]; so he covered his head with a veil, and thus left more for the onlooker to meditate on about his grief than he could see with the eye.” (De pictura, 42). In my judgement, this representation in Trogir, previously unnoticed, should be added to the proofs of the way Niccolò resorted to the suggestions given in De pictura, particularly those related to Alberti’s theory of expression. Alberti’s resources were – as is known – primarily Quintillian (Inst. Orat. 2.13), Cicero (De Oratore, 22:74) and Pliny, as well as Valerius Maximus (Memorabilia, VIII, 11, 6). Pliny says that a painter had curtained the father’s face
“which he was unable to depict in an appropriate way” but adds: “Indeed Timanthes is the only artist in whose works more is always implied than is depicted, and whose execution, through consummate, is always surpassed by his genius” (Hist. Nat. 35: 73-74). Cicero thought that the painter was masterly, like a consummate orator, in choosing decorous restraint instead of indecorous expression of the emotions. And Quintillian too concluded that Timanthes had settled the insoluble problem of the direct portrayal of over-powerful paternal feelings, leaving them to the observer’s imagination. Alberti goes a step further, saying that Timanthes did not leave the viewer just to conjecture about the paternal feelings, rather than he contemplated them – meditaretur – the verb used in the 15th century for a kind of thought and feeling that a religious painting should evoke. According to Alberti, then, the artist did not hide Agamemnon’s head because it would be inappropriate to show the great pain that he was, as father, going through, rather in order to intensify the emotional content of the picture and its effect on the observer. Expressions of sorrow, pain, despair and resignation on the faces of the angels around the synthronos in the Trogir scene are sequenced in an expressive crescendo, with the intention of the sculptor in the face hidden in the billowing pleat of Christ’s robe to show the emotional climax of the scene that bears all the features of what Alberti calls a historia. Instead of the standard choir of angel choristers and musicians – dead silence. Much in the chapel can be described in the terms and phrases from De pictura.
One of the chief preoccupations of Alberti was the physical expression of mental states related, for example, to the depicting of laughter and the movements of inanimate things like the hair. Some of Niccolò’s spiritelli, putti and seraphs, and the statues in the chapel are as if they were intended to respond to the challenge that Alberti’s writing poses. One could, for example, make a whole gallery of faces on the topic of the rhetoric of hairstyles of the Fiorentino’s figures. They often seem like wigs, and, one would say, literally follow Alberti’s proposal: “I should like all the seven movements I spoke of to appear in hair. Let it twist around as if to tie itself in a knot, and wave upwards in the air like flames, let it wave beneath other hair and sometimes lift on one side and another.“ (De pictura, 45).
I believe we will not go far wrong if we assume that Niccolò had Alberti’s remark in mind when he carved silken tunics and loincloths for his spiritelli: „The pleasing result will be that those sides of the bodies the wind strikes will appear under covering of the clothes almost as if they were naked, since the clothes are made to adhere to the body by the force of the wind; on the other sides the clothing blown about by the wind will wave appropriately up in the air. But in this motion caused by the wind one should be careful that movements of clothing do not take place against wind, and that they are neither too irregular nor excessive in their extent.“ (De pictura, 45)
There are several other works of Niccolò di Giovanni of marked pathosformulae that might be interpreted as ideal specimens of what Albert seeks from a well composed historia. Indeed, Samo Štefanac has already written of the Lamentation Over The Dead Christ (1469) in the lunette of the Sobota Tomb in the Church of St. Dominic at Trogir in which Christ is shown according to the Alberti description of a Roman sarcophagus with a depiction of Meleager’s death, underlining in particularly the function of the figure of John the Evangelist, with his frontally fixed gaze, in the role of the figure that leads the viewer into the historia, suggesting the conclusion that Niccolò knew De pictura, as well as Donatello’s later works. The composition of the relief is without doubt Niccolò’s invention, of vibrant and genuinely touching emotions, and is indeed along the lines laid down by Donatello, but in the execution a much larger part of Aleši’s chisel has to be assumed. So great is the difference in the quality that divides this Lamentation from that which Niccolò only a year or two later carved on the Altar over the tomb of Petar Cippico in the Church of St. John the Baptist at Trogir.
Štefanac sees in the readability of the composition of the Cippico Lamentation, also a possible confirmation of the assumption that Niccolò knew Alberti’s treatise, especially the locus classicus that says that for more exalted emotion it is better to show fewer figures (De pictura, 40). This is a relief that was ascribed to Niccolò by Folnesics, who stated that it would surely have been ascribed to Donatello himself had it lain in Tuscany. In the whole and in all the details it would seem that it is a literal and consistent illustration of Alberti’s requirements, illustrated with the picture of an ancient sarcophagus: “They praise a ‘historia’ in Rome, in which the dead Meleager is being carried away, because those who are bearing the burden appear to be distressed and to strain with every limb, while in the dead man there is no member that does not seem completely lifeless; they all hang loose; hands, fingers, neck, all droop inertly down, all combine together to represent death. This is the most difficult thing of all to do, for to represent the limbs of a body entirely at rest is as much the sign of an excellent artist as to render them all alive and in action. So in every painting the principle should be observed that all members should fulfil their function according to the action performed, in such a way that not even the smallest limb fails to play its appropriate part, that the members of the dead appear dead down to the smallest detail, and those of the living completely alive.” (De pictura, 37). Or, as Dante would say: Morti li morti, vivi parean vivi. (Purg. XI, 66-67).
In Trogir and Dalmatia it was very possible that Niccolò’s historia would be received with a great deal of empathy. It is enough to call to mind the heritage of the Laments. The anonymous “makers” from the 13th century on were dramati sing the theme of Mater Dolorosa, the gestures of her pain and the rhetoric of her dirge. The highly ritualised Planctus was subjected to the rules set by a centurieslong tradition of fixed rhythmical gestures, in fact, in a paradoxical way, impersonal gestures, excluding any conduct that might cross the line behind which it would be dangerous for the physical integrity of the person performing them. It is very clear: the lamentations funeraticiae that were performed by these wailers were subject to a whole forest of ritual conventions related to “this is the way one weeps”, in spite of the constant demand that the planctus should be constantly stylistically renewed and thematically varied.
The central topic – so characteristic of the ancient world of Mediterranean religions – was: to know how to weep (saper piangere) over death. With the high tide of Christianity this specific cultural institute came under fierce and lasting attack, for of course all these pagan customs were a direct antithesis to the Christian ideology concerning death, which did not accept that people should behave, to use Paul’s phrase “like the others, who have no hope”. The Catholic Church, then, for centuries, endeavoured to modify these rituals and to replace them with its own funeral rite, giving it a Christian meaning. Among the oldest items of information about Dalmatian wailers is a mention of them in a description of Dubrovnik, written in 1444 by a teacher of the school in Dubrovnik, Filip de Diversis of Lucca. At the end of the 15th century, the Dubrovnik Republic banned them. The Šibenik Humanist Juraj Šižgorić describes the wailing of women that were more moving than the keening of Thetis. Historian Krsto Stošić says that in his time, in the 1930s, on the island of Krapanj, there was still a “wailing school” where the women were taught how to “cry nice”. This custom, which for centuries there had been efforts to stamp out, and which has impressive reflections in Croatian Renaissance sculpting, only recently died out.
There is no wonder then that there should have been such a highly expressive motif of the Lamentation on the altar over the tomb of Petar Cippico (“one of the first archaeologists of Humanist Europe” – says Mommsen), commissioned by his son Coriolanus, a Humanist of the highest calibre, or that Niccolò di Giovanni and his workshop should have carved a whole series of reliefs on the same theme in Trogir, on Čiovo, in Split, Hvar and Jelsa.
There are of course a number of other equally convincing signals that confirm Niccolò’s great familiarity with Alberti’s writing, as well as his sure mastery of it, particularly with respect to one of the key problems that he raised – the concept of the composition (compositio), as a whole hierarchy of forms and elements that in concinnity (concinnitas) made up the whole of the picture. We are sure that he understood more than well that the greatest value of the historia was in the invention itself. What a pity it was that Niccolò did not make historiae with depictions of the four miracles of the saint on the three sides of the marble sarcophagus that, according to the contract, should have stood in the altar in the chapel.

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