Giacomo Jaquerio and Castello della Manta: new attributions
Between the Duchy of Savoy and the Marquisate of Saluzzo: a new proposal for Giacomo Jaquerio in Carmagnola and some reflections on the Manta Castle cycle
In 1936, Don Michele Marchetti, rector of the church of Sant’Agostino di Carmagnola in the province of Turin, published a small volume dedicated to the history of the building. The book describes some interesting frescoes on the walls and columns of the church (formerly the seat of the Eremitani), for the most part rediscovered by Marchetti himself in the years before. At the same time, photographers Marco Sansoni, commissioned by the Frick Art Reference Library in New York, and Turin-based Guido Cometto extensively documented the works after their discovery. Despite the early attention paid to these frescoes, which can be dated back to the 15th century, they remained largely excluded from the historical-artistic debate on Piedmontese art in the years after.
While waiting for a deeper analysis of these paintings and more generally of the church and its furnishings, which are now owned by the municipality, here we want to focus on a particular fresco of remarkable quality. Never considered in artistic literature before, it is placed on the left wall of the presbytery, to the right of a door to the left aisle. It depicts a holy bishop in a chair, identifiable as Saint Augustine by virtue of the black Augustinian garment he wears under the cope, seated on a stone throne that is embellished with some carved plant motifs. His gaze is turned towards the faithful, who benefit from his blessing imparted with his right hand, while with his left hand he probably had to support the crosier, an object whose pictorial traces have been lost. Behind him is a drape of honor, which reveals Gothic windows and slender columns on the back, simulating the interior of a liturgical building. It is merging into a painted architectural canopy, which presumably surmounted the holy bishop, as the still preserved studded pendant keys would seem to suggest. The frescoed panel, closed at the bottom and on the right by a frame with plant motifs interspersed with clypei, is now damaged on the left and at the top, in the latter case due to the insertion of a 17th century decoration.
At the moment, it is not possible to hypothesize whether this Saint Augustine constituted an isolated representation, or whether it was part of a more complex decorative series in the presbytery. It is certain, however, that its realization covered a panel, presumably depicting a saint, part of the same decorative series on its right, to which the depictions of Saint Betigunda and the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian belong. Before being rediscovered almost certainly during the restorations commissioned by Marchetti, the three works were hidden by a thick layer of plaster and by the wooden choir, now placed some centimeters away from the wall to allow partial visibility.
Unfortunately, the current state of conservation of this Saint Augustine is mediocre, showing a widespread impoverishment of the pictorial film, enough to flatten the surface. The current conditions make even more precious the photographic documentation by Guido Cometto, surely taken before March 1935, in which the fresco was immortalized in much better conserved condition. In this case, photography succeeds more easily in bringing out the expressive power of the human figure, as well as the preciousness of some details of the face and of the bishop’s miter, revealing itself to be an essential aid in the stylistic analysis of the skilled artist who created it.
Observing the Carmagnolese fresco as a whole, the stylistic resemblance with works by the Turin painter Giacomo Jaquerio is clear. Documented to be active from 1404 to 1453, he was one of the main protagonists of the early 15th century painting in the Western Alps. This consonance can be verified by observing the strong and lively realism of the face of Saint Augustine, from the intense gaze that emanates all the sense of authority of the famous Doctor of the Church, mitigated by a veil of silent benevolence and compassion. An expressive force, combined with a skilful modeling of the flesh, finds its most direct comparison with the prophets of the northern wall of the presbytery in the abbey of Sant’Antonio di Ranverso, the only signed work by Jaquerio. Presumably made around 1413-1415 at the behest of his tutor Jean de Polley, these works are the true manifesto of Jaquerian realism, developed in close contact with the highest achievements of the art of the French courts, in particular with the paintings by Jacquemart de Hesdin and, specifically for these figures, by André Beauneveu. The Saint Augustine is a worthy companion of King David in the Antonian abbey, placed frontally and with an intense gaze turned towards the observer; or of the first prophet of the series on the left, unfortunately partly lost due to damaged plaster.
Even as we look deeper, we find yet more support for the comparison with Giacomo Jaquerio. The artist’s precise render of the beard and the hair of the saint, with small curls at their ends, is typical of some of his characters. In particular, we can mention one of the Ranverso’s prophets, the fifth from the left, who turns his eyes to the sky, but also the two surviving panels of the polyptych the Turin painter made for Vincenzo Aschieri, prior of the abbey of Santi Pietro and Andrea di Novalesa from 1398 at least until December 1452, and probably destined to adorn the main altar of the abbey’s church (now at the Museo Civico di Palazzo Madama). In the two panels depicting the Vocation and Liberation of Saint Peter, which can reasonably be placed between the first and second decade of the 15th century, the first of the apostles has the same wooly beard and hair, as well as almost the same physiognomy of the Saint Augustine in question.
In the painting, the protagonist was most likely wearing a cope that, from his legs to the floor, featured soft and elaborate folds, perceptible above all in Cometto’s photograph, despite the underexposure of the shot. Again, the way of rendering the drapery unites it with Jaquerio’s frescoes such as the Angel with the Lute of Geneva (approx 1411-1414), and above all the Virgin and Child from the Ranverso presbytery, a painting that presents again the folded flap of the fabric, revealing the inner lining of ermine fur resting on the figure’s legs. Even the decorative motif that closes the panel of the holy bishop of Carmagnola and adorns the base of the throne, composed of a thin and simple wavy branch with fleshy leaves, resonates in the frieze painted as a false relief that closes the throne of the Virgin in the Antonian preceptory. At this point, it seems fair to ask whether the enthroned Saint Augustine in Carmagnola, perhaps reminiscent of figurative examples such as the prophets illuminated by Beauneveu in the Psalter of the Duke of Berry (Bnf, fr. 13091), was surmounted by an elaborate and three-dimensional canopy similar to the majestic one overlooking the Madonna and Child in Ranverso, which is of French inspiration.
All things considered, the attribution of the painting in question to Giacomo Jaquerio appears justified. The high quality of the work confirms this theory; the fresco seems to marry perfectly with the autographed creations of the Turin painter, moving away from other works in which the Jaquerian language is interpreted by his assistants, starting with the Stories of Saint Anthony in the presbytery of Ranverso. In this cycle, we can identify the intervention of a painter close to Jaquerio, but with a more graphic and flattened style, someone whose work is also recognizable in Pianezza (the presbytery of San Pietro), in Geneva (the chapel of Tous-les-Saints in Saint-Gervais), and in Pinerolo (facade of the building on via Principi d’Acaja 36).
A Suggested Date for Giacomo Jaquerio’ Saint Augustine in Carmagnola
Once the stylistic aspects have been clarified, the problem of dating the fresco remains to be addressed, taking into account the objective difficulty in defining a chronology of Giacomo Jaquerio’s works, as none of them are dated. The comparisons proposed here would suggest that the Saint Augustine in Carmagnola was painted at a similar time as the frescoes in the presbytery of Ranverso, or as the panels from the Novalesa abbey–both these works are agreed to be from the 1420s. Stylistic similarities between the painter of the Saint Augustine in Carmagnola and Jaquerio’s above-mentioned works fade when compared to his later fresco cycles. Think of the paintings in the Ranverso sacristy, presumably made in the 1430s, where a new and more marked realism emerges; or the cycles of Pianezza (around 1425) and of the chapel of San Biagio in Ranverso (1435), where the monumentality and heroism of the painting in question is gone–two features also found in the prophets and the Virgin on the left wall of the presbytery of Ranverso, as well as most of the scenes with the life of the Virgin in the same Antonian abbey, probably traced back to a younger Jaquerio.
The dating of the Saint Augustine must also take into consideration the historical events of the Augustinian complex of Carmagnola, which are only at first sight incompatible with a late dating of fresco. Thanks to the manuscript Memoriale Quadripartitum by the Augustinian monk from Carmagnola Gabriele Bucci (circa 1430-circa 1497), we are aware of how already in March 1397 it was decided to erect an Augustinian convent–at that time the cross was placed on the construction site of the church. Probably due to the political instability of the marquisate of Saluzzo, on which Carmagnola depended, and of the city itself, which was given as a pledge to the Dauphin of France from 1375 to 1410, the foundation of the church was postponed to 1406. A notarial document by Giovanni Milanesio and transcribed by Bucci in his Memoriale describes the celebration for the start of the building’s construction, which took place on May 26, 1406, in the presence of some massari of the church. This source also specifies how, on this day, the foundations of the “trunarum”, the church’s vaults, were started–two ampoules of wine and oil were placed “subter duas pilias que sunt retro magnam truinam” (under the two pillars that stand behind), to be identified with the pillars of the vault of the main nave towards the presbytery. The following information is taken from the books of the municipal ordinates from the years 1434-1440, the first to be preserved, in which it emerges how the community of Carmagnola was involved in the construction of the Eremitani convent. Although in a later document it is clearly specified how the city intervened in the construction of the church and part of the monastery, there is no mention of finished construction of the former, but only a list of expenses to rebuild the dormitory (1435), which evidently had to already exist, and probably to build the chapter house (1436). In 1437, the document mentions how two ambassadors were sent to the Marquis of Saluzzo “ut placeat dare licentia aperiendi ecclesiam sancti augustini.” (to give permission to open the church of Saint Augustine). This information leads us to think that the church building was already finished, only awaiting its official opening upon completion of the monastery structures.
To better clarify the events of a construction site from early 15th century North-West Italy, we can compare the other great architectural enterprise within the same Turin diocese and from the same time: the Collegiate Church of Chieri. The construction began in 1405, and the church was consecrated only in 1436. The structure must already have been largely completed, as confirmed by the numerous foundations and endowments of chapels already a few years after the start of the works, as well as from the artistic testimonies datable between the 1420s and 30s. Furthermore, it is well known how the ecclesiastical construction sites were started from the presbytery area, also in order to allow the celebration of functions at the high altar in a short time.
These considerations, in addition to the clear stylistic indications provided by the analysis of the Saint Augustine, allow us to hypothesize that the presbytery area of the Augustinian complex of Carmagnola was enriched with decorative works in its early stages. Initially, a painter of low caliber, figuratively oriented towards a Lombard style, not too dissimilar from the Alexandrian Giacomo Pitterio and, above all, from the Pavese Dux Aymo–the latter was attested in the Savoy western Piedmont already between the first and second decade of the fifteenth century– must have created a first succession of panels with sacred scenes: the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, the Saint Betigunda, and at least one other fresco. A few years later, it was likely decided to renew the decoration of the presbytery, entrusting it to an artist of much greater stature such as Giacomo Jaquerio.
In order to define a more precise chronology, the documentation on the Turin painter’s life comes in handy. He was attested for the first time in Turin in 1404, together with his brother Matteo. From 1411 to the end of 1412, he was a documented resident in Geneva at the service of the local duke–it is during these years that he presumably created the Musician Angels for the chapel of Jean de Brogny. Between 1415 and 1418, he was at the service of the princes of Savoia-Acaia in Pinerolo, and in 1426 he was active again for Duke Amedeo VIII in Thonon. In the following years immediately, he was documented in Turin and Geneva, apparently settling in the Piedmontese city until the end of his life, in 1453.
A few gaps in this documented chronology exist. Excluding the one between 1404-11–these years are too close to the foundation of the Augustinian complex in Carmagnola–and the period after 1427, which is badly reconciled with the style of the painting in question, it is therefore probable that the realization of the Saint Augustine should be dated between 1415 and 1426. The historical events of the Augustinian construction site, which lasted until 1436, and the presence of a first decoration, lead us to prudently move the first chronological reference at least towards the beginning of the 1430s. From September 1418, Jaquerio disappeared for eight years from the Savoy documents, while the family workshop in Turin was managed (perhaps in his place) by his brother Matteo, who in November 1418 also appears as court painter for the Savoia-Acaia. If it was produced in these years of documentary silence, the fresco of Carmagnola could confirm that Giacomo remained working in Piedmont, perhaps moving to other cities to serve other demanding clients precisely over the years in which his art was at its best. After all, Carmagnola, although not far from Turin, was still part of the territory of another state, namely the marquisate of Saluzzo.
Beyond the impossibility of establishing whether the representation of Augustine was decided by the Augustinian college alone, or if it had been chosen in agreement with the community and the city authorities, the activity of Jaquerio in Carmagnola is of greater interest when compared with the history of the city and its close relationship with Valerano. This was the refined client of the frescoes at the castle of Manta, the most famous (and problematic) 15th century painting cycle of the western Alps, and among the masterpieces of international Gothic at a European level, a cycle that has long since been traced back to a skilled and anonymous contemporary of Jaquerio.
A Reflection on the Castello della Manta’s Painting Cycle
The Marquis Tommaso III, who in 1413 was forced into submission to the Savoy, died between 1416 and 1417, bequeathing the state to his son Ludovico, aged six or seven. To manage this delicate moment for the marquisate, the regency was entrusted to his wife Margherita di Roucy, flanked by Tommaso’s trusted men, including his illegitimate son Valerano, known as Burdo, who, in the following years, played an increasingly central role in state management during the youth of his stepbrother. The paternal trust enjoyed by Valerano, at a time when relations with the new rulers had to be defined, emerges from the words of the testament of Tommaso, who arranged for his son to be “castellanum et rectorem” (castellan and ruler) of Carmagnola, a strategic city of considerable importance for the marquisate, so that Valerano was “magis propinquior illustrissimis dominis de Sabaudia ad eis debite et fideliter serviendum et eorum parendo mandatis pro Ludovico filio pupillo his atque universali heede” (to be nearer to the most illustrious lords of Savoy, to serve them duly and faithfully, and by complying with their orders for Ludovico the son of an orphan, and for his general heir).
Imagining Jaquerio active in the marquisate in the years in which Valerano was governor of the state, and more precisely in the city where the illegitimate son of Tommaso III had to occupy a position of great responsibility, certainly does not leave us indifferent, making it more than plausible to think of a direct acquaintance between the skilled Turin painter and the highly refined client from Saluzzo. However, there is no concrete evidence of Jaquerio’s activity within the borders of the marquisate, so it remains speculation and limited to the central decades of the first half of the 15th century.
The Carmagnola attribution could therefore give new life to one of the most complex art historical questions of the Piedmontese late Gothic: the identity of the workshop active for Valerano in the residence of his fief of Manta around 1420, as well as, in the years immediately following, of the active painters in the churches of the same urban center. In particular, the debate on castral paintings, attributed in the past to a large part of the leading exponents of Piedmontese painting (from Bapteur, to Dux Aymo, from Jaquerio to Iverny) had found a secure landing in the authoritative judgments by Giovanni Romano from 1992. The scholar highlighted how they converge in “stylistic elements of the more international Jaquerio and […] the traits of extreme refinement dear to Aimone Duce”, in a game of relationships including the frescoes of the religious buildings in Manta. The pictorial results in Saluzzo could be seen as a reflection on the figurative experiences from Pinerolo, the seat of the principality of the Savoia-Acaia, in whose castle (destroyed in the 17th century) the court painters Giacomo Jaquerio and the Pavese Aymo worked together between 1415 and 1418.
Given the complexity of the attribution, the theory was therefore supported with prudence, identifying the extraordinary painter of the Manta castle as a ‘heroic’, but still anonymous, supporter of Giacomo Jaquerio. After about twenty years, Romano returned to the puzzle, asking himself a significant question, namely whether, “given such quality, the master [of the Manta] should be recognized as an autonomous artist or Jaquerio himself, in an especially fruitful moment of his artistic life.” From this consideration, which has largely escaped scholars up to now, there is an unexpected re-opening to the attribution of the Saluzzo frescoes by the late Piedmontese art historian.
The hypothesis that Valerano may have employed Jaquerio is plausible. From 1418, like Dux Aymo, the Turin artist freed himself from court commitments with the Savoia-Acaia family, a collateral branch of the dukes that would become extinct with the death of Prince Ludovico on December 11, 1418. The years in which the frescoes at Castello della Manta were painted would match with those in which Jaquerio was absent from the Savoy and Turin documents, to appear instead as a painter at the Carmagnola “di Valerano.”
However, the general analysis of the cycle still poses issues for a solid attribution. Some stylistic features partially differ from the Jaquerio of the presbytery in Ranverso–it must be emphasized, the only verified work of his–or in the sacristy of the same church. These are the eyes of the characters, which often have a considerably elongated and thin shape, a detail rarely present in the Ranverso frescoes and in the Presentation at the Temple of the Marian chapel, but widely found in the saints of the presbytery in Pianezza.
The major difference, well highlighted by the studies of Bernardo Oderzo Gabrieli, is technical. In Manta, there is an extensive use of a large, elaborate and rich decorative repertoire (stencils, pellet ornaments, metal foils), which is essentially absent in Ranverso although being well documented in the works of other artists, first of all Dux Aymo, a painter with evocative and elegant Lombard-style cadences, whose style has recently been compared to the paintings of the Saluzzo castle. However, in his higher quality work, namely the cycle of the Mission chapel in Villafranca Piemonte, the artist from Pavia does not seem to show such pictorial skills as to be able to attribute to him the direction of the paintings in Manta. Furthermore, it should not be forgotten how some of the stencils used for the Saluzzo cycle also return to the decorative repertoire of a painter such as Guglielmetto Fantini from Chieri who, beyond his possible involvement or not in the Manta construction site, reveals an indisputable experience in regards to Jaquerian painting.
Beyond these problems and historical considerations, and in the absence of documentation on the artists active in those years for the Marquises of Saluzzo, according to us Jaquerio remains the artist that is closest to the frescoes in Manta. Among those we know, he seems to be the only one showing the necessary skills to conceive of such an extraordinary work and to realize it using valuable aids.
Let’s take the heroes depicted on the northern wall of the Saluzzese castle. The physiognomy of Charlemagne and Julius Caesar, as well as details such as the wrinkles, beard, and hair, are close to the Prophets of Ranverso and even to the Saint Augustine in Carmagnola. There is no shortage of interesting comparisons with Jaquerio in the figures of the Heroines, such as Sinope.
Her ivory face, shadowed only where strictly necessary, highlighted by the chromatic lighting of the blond hair and the contained expression of amazement, unite the picture to the the archangel Gabriel frescoed on the right in the scene of the Annunciation at the sacristy of the Ranverso abbey.
The representation of the astonished and thoughtful expressions of other characters, including those of the Fountain of Youth in Manta, features relevant similarities with Jaquerio’s work.
For now, the large black holes that dot the pictorial landscape of western Piedmont’s art history still demand a certain caution. Pending new findings, the answer to the Manta question will first have to pass through a careful review of the figure and activity of Jaquerio–even more so, of his collaborators. It will also be necessary to know how his painting, the preciousness and the variety of materials, could change depending on the support, the context–until now Jaquerio is known mostly for wall paintings and always of sacred subjects–and the client too, who in the case of an illustrious cycle such as Manta, presumably had to demand a certain degree of richness in the ornamentation typical of profane interiors. Finally, we will have to evaluate to what extent other artists such as Dux Aymo himself, active with Jaquerio in the same years at the Pinerolo castle, may have influenced his technical choices.
In conclusion, the rediscovery of the fresco of Saint Augustine in Carmagnola, beyond its undeniable importance for the reconstruction of the pictorial activity of Giacomo Jaquerio, a historiography that didn’t feature new additions for some time, shows how much the territorial research, together with the documentary investigation, can still lead to unexpected findings that bring up crucial questions relating to historical-artistic facts in need of adjustment.
October 25, 2022