How Lombardy met Northern Europe through Alessandro Sforza and Zanetto Bugatto*

Federico Cavalieri (from Nuovi Studi 27, 2022-2023 anno XXVII-XXVIII)

Zanetto Bugatto sheds light on the appreciation for Flemish artists emerged in Milan after mid-XV cent

The Lord of Pesaro and youngest brother of the duke of Milan Alessandro Sforza travelled to France to the court of Filippo il Buono of Borgogna between 1457 and 1458 for “vaghezza de vedere paesi, costumi, signore et altre cose notabile fora del mondo nostro me hanno tracto per tutto dove sono andato”, as he wrote to his sister-in-law Bianca Maria Visconti on his return. In reality, the trip was supposed to be, at least in the original intentions, a pilgrimage to Saint-Antoine-de-Viennois to atone for his attempt to strangle his second wife Sveva di Montefeltro. The woman herself had then been forced to shut herself away in a convent, with the approval of Francesco Sforza and that, perhaps more interested, of Federico da Montefeltro; the Lord of Pesaro had in any case committed himself to never remarry.

On his way back via Verona, Alessandro was met with a ducal injunction to return immediately to his domains, without passing through Milan, to avoid arousing unnecessary suspicion.

However, his stay in the so-called “paesi dellà” offered him, among other things, the opportunity to commission three paintings “de man de Ruzieri”: the Trittico Sforza today in Brussels (Museé Royaux des Beax-Arts de Belgique, inv. 2407) and two portraits “in duy ochij”, one of the duke of Bologna Filippo il Buono and another of himself (these last two probably went lost). The information and attribution to the great Rogier van der Weyden are derivable from an inventory realized only a few decades after the journey. We do not dispose of elements that allow us to legitimately suppose that the duke Francesco had the opportunity to see the panels personally. However it’s implausible that neither him nor Bianca Maria knew anything about them.

Rogier van der Weyden: Crocifissione con Alessandro Sforza e i figli Costanzo e Battista; Natività di Cristo, Sant’Ippolito (?) e San Francesco; San Giovanni battista, Santa Caterina martire e Santa Barbara (trittico Sforza). Bruxelles, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts
Rogier van der Weyden: Crocifissione con Alessandro Sforza e i figli Costanzo e Battista; Natività di Cristo, Sant’Ippolito (?) e San Francesco; San Giovanni battista, Santa Caterina martire e Santa Barbara (trittico Sforza). Bruxelles, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts

Over the decades, a consistent biography has been compiled, albeit not entirely useful. Regarding this delicate painting, created with the closest fidelity to Rogerian style except from the somewhat restless composition, a long debate has ensued on the authorship (the master, the workshop, the master with the workshop, Memling, the master and Memling…) and, almost equally so and sometimes confusingly, on the iconography. Who are the three lavishly dressed characters painted at the foot of the cross? Even the Encyclopaedic Catalogue of Early Netherlandish Painting of 1996 is deficient and does not point to studies just prior to its publication or perpetuates uncertainties where there should be none. Anyway, facts are clear. As for the identities of the three individuals – the adult on the right, the boy and the young woman on the left – there are no doubts: they are the Sforza lords of Pesaro around 1460, the heraldry and the news about the tryptic provenience confirms it. There is no point here in refuting the arguments of those who mistake the Sforza wave motif for the strongly different vair of the Varano family, to whom the mother of the boys belonged. Within the Lombard studies, however, the clear differences between the strictly Sforzesco heraldry, with the white and azure wavy and, in the breeches, the reds, whites and blues, and the ducal (Visconti) one with the white and the morello, are often overlooked. But so be it.

After Sveva was forced to take monastic vows, the family consisted of an adult and two teen-agers between 1457 and the early 1460, year of Battista’s marriage. In the same period, Sforza’s solitary “pleasure” trip to the north also took place.  

Dressed ‘à la franzosa’, Alessandro was in France, Burgundy, Flanders and perhaps even in England at a time when the Tudor and the Lancastrian were fighting fiercely for supremacy. As he wrote to his sister-in-law, Alessandro mainly brought back from his trip ‘el stomacho molto travagliato’ but we do not know if this was really the only thing worth mentioning. Nor do letters from Duke Francesco to his ambassadors or the correspondence between Alessandro and Bianca Maria shed any light on this. It’s impossible to establish the extent of truth that all these papers contain today. While the Lord of Pesaro was away, however, his children were being watched over by the Duchess of Milan and, on the spot, by the Umbrian-Marchigian Piersanti da Sarnano and Benedetto Reguardati to whom, as was often the case, Francesco preferred to leave his children.

The issues related to the tryptic are others, and perhaps more interesting. Assuming that Alessandro commissioned it on occasion of his trip (this is the most likely hypothesis) but, due to the time he was unable to take it with him to Italy on his return, various questions arise. If it was completed later on, as it is likely to be, when Battista was already married to Federico of Urbino (8th February 1460), then why does his father’s portrait, painted on a small fragment of parchment applied to the panel, bears little resemblance to the model, with its pronounced, hooked nose and an almost emaciated face, that stands out on the medal signed right after his death, 1475 ca., by Gianfrancesco Enzola? Such a metamorphosis seems rather unlikely. And why, on the other hand, can Battista’s portrait be easily compared to the torso of Francesco Laurana (Florence, Bargello) likely carved from the funerary mask (the woman died in 1472)? And why does his father’s portrait coincide with the image of the young Costanzo, with a rigorous numismatic profile, also left by Enzola in 1475? What pictural/graphic/sculptural basis did the Flemish painter rely on? And when?

8. Gianfrancesco Enzola: Alessandro Sforza, medaglia. Washington, National Gallery of Art.

The inventory of the Sforza library of Pesaro, published in 1886 but dating back to 1500, records the three artworks linkable with the voyage of Alessandro: a Cristo in croce cum li paesi (the tryptic), a portrait of the Sforza, and one of the Duke of Bourgogne Filippo il Buono, all three attributed to Rogier van der Weyden. When did the paintings reach Pesaro? Passing through the way of Venice or that of Milan? Did anyone see them before they arrived in the Marche region? When did the two portraits take another route and their traces were lost until today?

The separation took place, however, by the 18th century, as demonstrated by a very interesting literary recovery by Mauro Natale. The tryptic certainly arrived in Bologna before 1720 and was put up for sale. Further evidence would help in dating the little San Girolamo now preserved in the Accademia Carrara of Bergamo, which derived from the Sforza triptych in a way less banal than has been observed so far. In fact, the panel faithfully reproduces, with the addition of colour, not only one of the grisailles on the verso of the triptych but also some details of the landscape taken from different points on the recto of the work. Our fellow Andrea De Marchi is certain that this work belongs to the ‘Cagnola group’, to which we will return a little later: while noting the strong links, the writer unfortunately does not have as much certainty.

It remains that the story of the Sforza Triptych, perhaps a marginal one, is a clue to the fact that between the end of the sixth and the beginning of the seventh decade of the 15th century, even the Milanese court probably had the occasion to hear about the northern Ars Nova.

2. The most appreciated protagonists 

Looking for suitable masters for the decoration of Sforzinda on behalf of Francesco and Bianca Maria – we are around 1461 – even a Florentine with good knowledge of Rome, such as Filarete, wrote:  “si vorrebbe vedere se nelle parti oltramonti ne fosse nessuno buono, dove n’era uno valentissimo, il quale si chiamava maestro Giovanni da Bruggia, e lui ancora è morto. Parmi ci sia uno maestro Ruggieri, che è vantaggiato ancora; uno Giacchetto francioso ancora, se vive, è buono maestro, massime a ritrare del naturale”. The architect had a precise idea of what he was talking about: “E così se ai a fare a tempera et anche a olio, si possono mettere tutti questi colori. Ma questa è altra pratica et altro modo; il quale è bello, chi lo sa fare. Nella Magnia si lavora bene in questa forma; maxime da quello maestro Giovanni da Bruggia, e maestro Ruggieri; i quali anno adoperato optimamente questi colori a olio”. To be noticed is the use of the term “Magnia”.

It is not entirely clear where Filarete precisely acquired his knowledge from, although Roman acquaintances will undoubtedly have helped him. The fact remains that, although concise, the sentences are striking, denoting a non-trivial degree of information on the Flemish and French painting scene.

There were, after all, many official occasions to circulate the news. The Council of Mantua had attracted many Burgundians to Italy, and in the summer of 1459 two important figures from the court of Filippo il Buono had passed through Milan: Jean de Croy, Lord of Chimay, and Jean, Duke of Clèves. The first one is, almost certainly, the addressee of one of the three copies of the letter of recommendation prepared in the ducal chancellery for Zanetto Bugatto leaving for Flandres, written about a year and a half later, while a portrait of the latter is known to have been painted by Rogier (Louvre, Paris). In 1461 the Milanese ambassador Pospero da Camogli, a figure whose cultural background should be explored further, was in Brabante to deal with political matters, but did not neglect to write to the Duke “havendo io veduto de li edifici de questo paese assai, m’hè paruto conveniente mandarne qualche insegna (…) perché l’industrio Bartholomeo, architecto de vostra Excelentia veda li designi de altre natione”. It was Prospero himself, a personality who will fall out of favour with the new duke, to intercede with the Dauphin in order to appease the difficulties in the economic agreements between Zanetto Bugatto and Rogier van der Weyden.

Rogier van der Weyden:  Jean I duc de de Clèves. Parigi, Louvre.
Rogier van der Weyden: Jean I duc de de Clèves. Parigi, Louvre.

At the end of February 1462, the papal legate Francesco Coppini from Prato, arrived in Milan. He had spent the last two years shuttling between England and Flanders, in the middle of the conflict between York and Lancaster, trying to play a visible role with a debatable mediation between the contenders that would earn him credit in the Curia. Counting also on the Sforza’s well-known Roman contacts, he perhaps hoped that his diplomatic activism would earn him the cardinal’s purple (which was not to be).

Who knows whether he took with him on his journey the triptych of the Resurrection of Lazzaro, signed by the Franco-Flemish artist Nicolas Froment on the 18th May 1461, on the reverse of which his portrait of Coppini as a donor stood out under the cup’s talking weapon; or whether he at least had the opportunity to show it to or talk to Sforza about it. Returning to Florence, he then donated the triptych to Cosimo de Medici (today it is in the Uffizi), who had enough connoisseurship to assess its not very high level.

In March 1463 Antonio, Gran Bastardo di Borgogna, was in the Sforza capital. His imposing features are known from a superb portrait by Rogier van der Weyden (Brussels, MRBAB), of which there is at least one replica, possibly from his workshop (Los Angeles, Getty Museum). Book lover, he possessed a remarkable collection of manuscripts (about 50 have been identified), many of them illuminated. In addition to Rogier, he was in contact with the atelier of Memling and with Italian medalists. 

A case in point is that of the Portinari family, with their efficient international communication network that had its Milanese referent in Pigello. Long before Tommaso undertook to astound the Florentines with Hugo van der Goes’ triptych (Florence, Uffizi) and Memling’s triptych (Danzig, National Museum) – which did not arrive in Italy because it was seized by Polish pirates – Pigello was flattering the duke and the Milanese with the stupendous chapel at Sant’Eustorgio and with the Banco Mediceo’s palazzo.

Among the painted scenes there was also a Giustizia di Traiano, a theme with a humanistic flavor which, on four large frescoes painted around 1439 by Rogier van der Weyden for the Hall of Justice in Brussels City Hall, was juxtaposed with the Giustizia di Herkinbald, combining Flemish and classical traditions (and here a question arises as to the nature of the wall paintings in the Fiandre, which we don’t know much about). The artworks are partly known thanks to a tapestry dating back no later than 1461 that is preserved in Berne. (Historisches Museum).

On a minor note: in October 1469, the Borromeo ledgers record the purchase of “three depinte telle fiamenghe” paid just over 32 lire, not a large sum, to a certain Gio van Matheo toschano. An example of these substitutes for the more expensive tapestries might be the two modest Flemish canvases in the Ala Ponzone Museum in Cremona.

With the exception of the Zanetto Bugatto affair, these events do not seem to have triggered any profound reactions in Milanese painting, but an assessment is still a little premature: the fresco with the Nordic Crucifix in the small oratory in Buccinasco, which has only recently been rediscovered and attracted attention, is there to prove it. Another, as will be seen shortly below, is the case of the Cristo davanti a Pilato di Chiaravalle and the Uomo di dolori of Brugherio.

Maestro della Madonna Cagnola (Zanetto Bugatto) o maestro di cultura flandro-tedesca: Crocifissione. Buccinasco Castello, Santa Maria Assunta (già San Michele).
Maestro della Madonna Cagnola (Zanetto Bugatto) o maestro di cultura flandro-tedesca: Crocifissione. Buccinasco Castello, Santa Maria Assunta (già San Michele).

Zanetto Bugatto, it is worth reiterating, did not go to Flanders at the behest of the dukes but on his own initiative, or so the documents seem to tell us: the safe-conduct dates December 1460 and the departure probably took place a few weeks later. In the documents, published by Malaguzzi Valeri more than a hundred years ago, it is explicitly stated that the dukes approved and did not put any obstacle in his way, but the request had come from the young man and so had the name of the bottega at where he wanted to train. This emerges from documents drawn up in person, on the very days when the costs of the journey were also decided. On Zanetto’s return in 1463, the duchess called herself the promoter of the journey (‘altre volte deliberassimo…’), but it all sounds like rhetoric or taking credit by someone who was powerful enough to do so.

It is not clear who the ‘Magister Guglielmus’ was with whom he wanted to perfect himself (Spicre?), but then things took another turn and the name Rogier van der Weyden came up. In a letter of 1461, Prospero da Camogli asked Cicco Simonetta to intercede so that Sforza would contribute 25 ducats, half of the annual sum to be paid for the apprenticeship on which Zanetto Bugatto and Rogier van der Weyden had come to an agreement at the end: the rest, evidently, was to be paid by the painter. That the dukes might have looked favourably on the young man’s enterprise is possible, but that this affair says anything definite about their taste is yet to be proven.

What may have driven Zanetto Bugatto northwards was a contact in Milan with ‘Guascono franzoso’ (Gaston du Lyon), the Dauphin’s ambassador, for whom the young man had painted a portrait of Ippolita Sforza to take to Genappe. The subsequent intervention of the Dauphin himself in his aid would otherwise be more difficult to explain. But the real reasons for these trips are not always known to us: it will be recalled that van Eyck, court painter to Philip the Good, carried out secret missions for his duke, including one to Portugal, and, on a much more modest level, the figure of Jehan Gillemer, an itinerant miniaturist who also visited Milan and was later tried for espionage in 1471. The sojourn of the Milanese Zanetto Bugatto in Brussels lasted little more than two years: the safe-conduct for leaving the Sforza domains was issued at the end of December 1460, an inconvenient time to set out on the road to the Alps, while the confirmation of his entry into Rogier’s workshop is dated early March 1461. In May 1463 Zanetto Bugatto was again in Milan, the first ambassador on Lombard land of the Ars Nova of Flanders.

Despite acknowledging that the gaps in our knowledge are still very wide, we can nevertheless state with a good margin of certainty that Zanetto Bugatto was not the mediocre painter that some critics would like to turn him into. There was no lack of ducal commissions (on the death of Bianca Maria on 23 October 1468, the painter claimed, for example, a credit of 350 lire ‘pro resto’, a figure that, if referred to a single work, could be the balance of the fee for, say, a polyptych). Zanetto Bugatto must, however, have had closer and more frequent contacts with Galeazzo Maria, with whom he was continuously engaged from at least 1468 to 1474 (without ever becoming a stipendiary, a possibility that did not exist in Milan). In 1471, for example, he accompanied the duke to Mantua to see the progress of Mantegna’s work in the castle, naturally in the ‘Bridal Chamber’, and took the opportunity to show Gonzaga two of ten gold medallions he had custom-made. The objects were worth more? than 10,000 ducats each, and to call them luxurious would certainly be an understatement: on the front and back two Sforza feats and the two profile portraits of Galeazzo and Bon were represented: under the former was the signature “OPVS ZANETI PICT”  as on Pisanello’s medals and in particular the one dedicated to Filippo Maria Visconti. Similar, in fact, is the emphasis on the qualification of ‘painter’. Zanetto’s gold medals and Mantegna’s frescos, after all, give the measure of the two apparently divergent but subtly similar paths that the courts of Milan and Mantua had taken towards the Renaissance.

Once again, however, it seems that his Gonzaga trip took place following his explicit request to the Sforza.

And again. As proof of his status at court are the notes found by Carlo Cairati – and generously made available to the writer – concerning not negligible works carried out in the late summer of 1471 in the chapel of Cicco Simonetta’s house in Pavia (?) (see a forthcoming contribution by Cairati). Hard to imagine that a painter serving the 

top of the duchy could have been the inert copyist who painted the panel of Santa Maria in Decinisio near Sormano, as some would have it.

Pittore lombardo dell’ottavo decennio del sec. XV, dal Maestro della Madonna Cagnola (Zanetto Bugatto): Adorazione del Bambino con due donatori, Santa Caterina martire, San Girolamo, San Giovanni battista, Sant’Ambrogio, San Bernardo da Chiaravalle, una santa e Annunciazione. Sormano (Como), Santa Maria del Sasso a Dicinisio.
Pittore lombardo dell’ottavo decennio del sec. XV, dal Maestro della Madonna Cagnola (Zanetto Bugatto): Adorazione del Bambino con due donatori, Santa Caterina martire, San Girolamo, San Giovanni battista, Sant’Ambrogio, San Bernardo da Chiaravalle, una santa e Annunciazione. Sormano (Como), Santa Maria del Sasso a Dicinisio.

Little do we know about Zanetto’s possible relations with French painting, beyond his brief trip in 1468. In 1461, but probably already for a decade, Fouquet was active in Tours, where he continued to work until after 1475 and where some documents even mention him as ‘peintre du roy’ Louis XI (the same one who, like Dauphin, had helped Zanetto Bugatto in Bruxelles). Whether the Milanese had had the opportunity to travel to France on other occasions, and when, is a matter of conjecture: there is plenty of room in his biographical events.

The figurative evidence remains, indeed dominated by Flemish taste but with some elegant French accents. We are referring, of course, to the polyptych from which the story of Zanetto’s rediscovery began: a truly monumental work, albeit incomplete, enriched in its final years by the stupendous and hesitant Sant’Orsola in her teens and the Cristo sorretto dall’angelo, known only in photographs. There may be some doubt as to the composition of the polyptych and the position of the various panels, but it does not seem relevant to such a masterpiece. Whether this was the figurative apparatus of the high altar of the Certosa di Garegnano, as has been assumed, is a problem that we willingly leave to others. Some elements would suggest it, not least the shy Ursula.

Although several colleagues are still uncertain about the effects of the trip to Flanders, it is necessary to reiterate that Zanetto’s return did not lead to a clear diffusion in Milan of the portrait ‘in duy ochij’ or other similar stylistic features of clear Flemish ancestry. That inheritance, which had to be diluted in a daily practice in close contact with the many Lombard masters, is rather to be sought in the folds of a phase of Foppes’ evolution, either in Stefano Fedeli and Gottardo Scotti, or in the mists that still shroud the formation of Bergognone, perhaps even in Zenale’s early days.

On possible Lombard echoes of Zanetto’s art, the writer has already expounded, sometimes too timidly. Add to this everything that Andrea De Marchi writes here. 

Twist of fate: despite its Flemish kinship, and Rogerian in particular, and its close chronology, the Cristo of Buccinasco does not seem to the writer to be comparable except in a very general way to works in the Zanetti area. It has a Nordic character, perhaps with some French accents (see the Crocefissione  in Bourges Cathedral), but more Alpine than Flemish, despite the partial derivation from Rogier van der Weyden’s Crocefissione in the Escorial, demonstrated above all by the fluttering of Christ’s loincloth and the intense figure of Saint John, with his long curly hair and the dry and deep folds of his cloak.

It is likely that the painter also had other models in mind, as attested by a series of graphic and illuminated proofs, identified and generously pointed out to the writer by Francesco Gonzales. The two Buccinasco grievers had in actual fact considerable success in the Germanic area and beyond. It is worth recalling here those that appear on a Middle Rhine miniature of 1481, the most similar as far as their poses and drapery are concerned (Mainz, Priesterseminar, Hs. 5,) and also the two mourners on a Reliquary now in the Musée de Cluny in Paris (inv. Nr. C1, 19968).Not to mention the cascade of ‘steps’ that the drapery creates on the right shoulder of St. John in Israhel van Meckenem’s miniature by Master E. S., Vienna, L.IX.33.36.

Even without precise models, for the painting in Buccinasco, the straightforward German language of all that blood dripping from Christ’s forehead, arms and torso would be enough: who, speaking Italian or Flemish, would have allowed themselves such a taste for the macabre? This does not seem to be the case with Zanetto’s always noble and compassionate, introspective and almost ‘shy’ language. But on this and Zanetto’s career in general, see Andrea De Marchi’s timely analysis in this same article: the writer’s opinions coincide almost one hundred per cent… 

3. “Nella sua corte fu oltremodo splendidissimo”

In continuity with Francesco Sforza’s interested protectionism, capable of enhancing the best of the genius loci, is the first important painting commission of Galeazzo, still subject to his mother’s inference. Less than two months after the ducal nomination, on May 12th, 1466, the young man commissioned Foppa to fresco a Madonna col Bambino adorata dal duca in Santa Maria delle Grazie in Monza.21. The harmony between mother and son, evidenced for instance by the double initials flanking the coats of arms carved on the Loggia degli Osii, did not last long, however: having shrugged off the intrusive matron (“per dio gratia son in età et in grado che nessuno me ha ad dare dele scurriate sul culo”), Galeazzo showed less and less concern foror the sensitivity of his mother or his subjects. His decision to abandon the Corte d’Arengo and return to live in the castle, cautiously opposed by a non-airy Milanese like Pietro Pusterla, was unequivocal.

In addition to politics, administration, court organisation, relations with his subjects, the abandonment of his father’s footsteps soon became evident also in his cultural and artistic choices. Not that Galeazzo ceased to employ local artists: against the various commissions to Bembo, Vismara, Marchesi etc., there is little evidence to the contrary – Baldassarre d’Este, Mantegna, Antonello da Messina – representative, however, of an openness and fickleness that his father lacked.

Crushed in historiography between two stereotypes – the wise duke, Francesco, and the shrewd but cultured duke, Ludovico – the irrepressible Galeazzo Maria has perhaps been underestimated as an art patron. If coherence and refinement were not always the prerogatives of his choices, there is however the quantity to suggest that the figure deserves a closer look: between castles, votive chapels, sanctuaries, altarpieces, reliquaries and so on, the ten years of his government left a vast and deep trace, buried in documents and sometimes obscured by the radiant sunset of his brother Ludovico’s court. 

From a young age, Galeazzo had been more fond of chivalric literature than of the classics, and this special northern inclination was accentuated when he finally had the purse strings in his hand. 

While his father had worked hard to obtain the Madonne by Desiderio da Settignano, Galeazzo instead pursued Nordic works: in May 1472, upon learning of “un tedescho in casa de Sforza, quale ha una Maestate molto bella”, he ordered the man to join him in Pavia, taking the artwork with him, “perché desideramo vederlo et faremo cosa gli piacerà”.

Nothing is known about what happened to the work afterwards, perhaps a painting, but this is not an isolated case: in 1476, Galeazzo managed to get his hands on another Maestà, painted by the Genevan Hans Witz, of course without paying for it (more on this later).

Francesco pursued an ideal of classicism by being the first of the Italian lords to introduce his own life-size effigy, in rigid profile, on coinage, and Galeazzo partially distorted the idea by minting twelve solid gold medallions, worth over ten thousand dukes each, with portraits of himself and his wife, two of which he took to Mantua in 1471 to impress the Gonzagas.

Early ideas for the duke’s flat in the castle of Porta Giovia included a stream of “velluti piani, zettonini vellutati, zettonini rasi, damaschini cremisili similiter veluti cellestri, verdi et morelli”24 which would not have disfigured Coudenberg’s palace, and the choice of the fresco decoration was a temporary (in intentions) stopgap dictated by haste and the need to save money.

There is probably little or nothing left of the unfinished Ancona delle Reliquie , but the many documents studied by Marco Albertario now allow for a clearer reconstruction of its history.. In 1474, however, a respectfully desperate Gadio asked the duke to decide whether he finally wanted it to be set up in the chapel of Pavia or in the one in Milan. The imperial chapel of Karlštejn Castle has been evoked in connection with this grandiose feat of painting and gilded carvings, and it would be interesting to know if such a model was indeed in the duke’s mind.

On the occasion of Galeazzo’s wedding, a cascade of fleurs-de-lis invaded the Milanese heraldry: note, not Savoy crosses, although Bona was a Savoy as well as Louis XI’s sister-in-law. Even Filippo Maria Visconti, who certainly had no great affection for his consort, had not allowed himself such a disrespect.  And yet the capitals of the Milanese castle, probably the ducal altar of the Seven Saints or the Resurrection, in the Cathedral, and the Ancona delle Reliquie. And yet the capitals of the Milanese castle, and probably the ducal altar of the Seven Saints or of the Resurrection, in the Duomo, and the Ancona delle Reliquie and even ‘la faciata del pallatio de Broleto de Mediolano’ were populated with snakes, eagles and lilies: Visconti (Sforza), Empire, France. And such regal weapons were still kept, in the Palazzo Reale, until a few decades ago. The fleur-de-lis, then, dominated on the famous jacket that is beautifully displayed in the portrait painted by Piero del Pollaiolo (Florence, Uffizi).

Piero del P1ollajolo: Galeazzo Maria Sforza. Firenze, Galleria degli Uffizi.
Piero del Pollajolo: Galeazzo Maria Sforza. Firenze, Galleria degli Uffizi.

Francesco had dreamed of the construction of a triumphal Caesar arch in Cremona, celebrating him together with Bianca Maria. Struck by a sudden bout of thanatophobia in 1471, Galeazzo instead dreamed of an imperial mausoleum for himself ““in modo del baptisterio de S[an]to Johanne Baptista de fiorenza o de pisa””, with his bronze effigy inside.

A miniature that adorns a page of Fidelfo’s Divis Principibus (Paris, Bibliothéque Nationale, ms. 8128) was made for Francesco, with the two dukes and a parade of strapping young mem, which perhaps echoes the Foppesco fresco of the Banco (assuming this was actually made, a fact that is doubtful): an image depicting the dukes with a dozen sons that was meant to remind the Milanese that, one or the other, there were enough Sforzas to rule the state for the next hundred years and more (this was not the case).

Of an entirely different nature is the miniature depicting Galeazzo leanding an ear to various members of his entourage, found in the Opusculumm super declarationem arboris consanguinitatis et affinitatiatis by Gerolamo Mangiaria (Paris, Bibliothéque Nationale, ms. lat 4586). It appears to stage the words of a professional courtier such as Giovan Matteo Bottigella in 1468: “perché il mazore piacere et consolatione possa havere in questo mondo è quando io posso vide- re la presentia Vostra et contemplarme in essa como fanno li sancti ne la Maiestà divina”. Although of much more modest quality, the miniature is reminiscent of the one showing Filippo il Buono and his court, probably from the workshop or based on the drawing by Rogier Van der Weyden (Brussels, Bibl. Royale ms. 9241).

It might be somewhat arbitrary to extract from the bizarre fabric of works realised, initiated, or merely dreamed of by Galeazzo examples that suggest a specific fondness for the ponentine, but there are indications of such a predilection.

From the time of his adventurous return from France, there was no shortage of opportunities for contact with the northern courts. The Milanese Archbishop Stefano Nardini, engaged in the delicate negotiations for the duke’s marriage to Bona di Savoia, had a tapestry depicting the Storie della Passione  made in a Flemish-Burgundy workshop, which he donated to the Milan Cathedral in the autumn of 1468, where it still kept today (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo)31. In 1470, Anselme Adournes, an important public figure of Lucca origin (Adorno), was in Milan in the company of his son Jean, on his way to the Holy Land. Shortly before leaving, the man had drafted that famous will with references to two tablets depicting San Francesco “cvan meester Jans handt,” on whose controversial identification with the works in Turin (Sabau da Gallery) and Philadelphia (Museum of Art, Johnson Collection) much has been written. Adournes was kindly received by Duke Galeazzo and had enough time to write a brief description of the Sforza capital before leaving.

A list of payments from 1475 refers to a ‘Maistà del crucifiso portato de Franza per uso del signore’. 

The illuminated manuscript known as the Ore nere di Galeazzo Maria Sforza (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Codex Vindobonensis, M. 1856) was produced and illustrated in Flandres, probably in Bruges, around 1470. It’s a precious masterpiece of the most exquisite Flemish-Burgundy tradition that, despite being known for some time, still raises questions: it is not known how or when it came into the possession of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, whether by purchase or as a donation. The duke’s initials, in square capital letters, adorn the title page and suggest a date sometime after 1466 (and obviously before December 1476). It should also be noted that while the pages of the manuscript have a black background, the colour of this initial seems to lean towards blackish: this is the case, it would be one more clue to the fact that the manuscript did not originate for the Duke of Milan but only became his after being completed.

Miniatore fiammingo circa 1470: Imprese di Galeazzo Maria Sforza; Cristo davanti a Pilato. Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek,  ms. 1856, Das schwarze Gebetbuch des Galeazzo Maria Sforza), cc. 1r e 51v.
Miniatore fiammingo circa 1470: Imprese di Galeazzo Maria Sforza; Cristo davanti a Pilato. Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, ms. 1856, Das schwarze Gebetbuch des Galeazzo Maria Sforza), cc. 1r e 51v. Herzogs Galeazzo Maria Sforza von Mailand. Fotografische Reproduktion.

Almost at the end of his career – but he, of course, did not know this – Galeazzo attempted to hire Antonello da Messina, who perhaps better than anyone else could have offered him, particularly in portraiture, an appreciable blend of northern and southern styles.

There was of course no return, during the short period of his rule, to the days of Giovannino de’ Grassi, when Jean Mignot or Jacques Coene could be as comfortable in Pavia as in Berry’s court. The phenomenon was less incisive, unable to distract the Milanese – artists and patrons alike – for long from the growing attraction of the “taste for the antique” and the Renaissance style, but it was an interesting moment, and the abrupt interruption in the church of Santo Stefano of the vain duke’s career (“indebitamente sonno pomposo un poco, non è gran peccato in un signore”) contributed, in its own way, to point the way.

Ludovico Sforza had no difficulty, however, in preserving the memory of his father and erasing that of his brother.

4. “Zohanni de Savii depintore de Savoia

The story that links the painter Hans Witz to Milan, the subject of a brief contribution by Evelin S. Welch and then of an in-depth study by Stefania Buganza37, deserves to be remembered. In summary: in the spring of 1476, Galeazzo learned that Branda Castiglioni, Bishop of Como, had returned from his diplomatic mission to Geneva with a painter in tow, and that the latter, a guest in the bishop’s Milanese house, had brought a Maestà painting with him. 

Fearing the troubles brewing in the skies of the Duchy of Savoia, particularly regarding the Duchess, the painter had decided it was best a change of scenery. Castiglioni’s protection would have helped him get away from Chambery and guaranteed him; and then, who knows, some new work would have come out of it too: Milan had many opportunities to offer, if only for the endless Duomo building site.

Another important character who accompanied the bishop, that ‘Marchio’ Pallavicinus who has been turned into ‘Marco’ by some scholars, without realising that he was a marquis and wondering who he was, also enters the story.

The duke, as mentioned, had the artist and the work sent to the castle of Galliate and then ‘retende la maestà e remandò el maestro indereto’ without paying a penny. In order not to “dare turbamento al Signore del pagamento,” Castiglioni offered 50 ducats to the painter, who, however, would not listen when he realised that the bishop intended to deduct the expenses he had incurred for a hospitality in his own house that had been going on for many months. Some time after the duke’s death, Witz – who in the meantime had painted “un quatretto che veramente non vale il quarto de quello chel domanda” – turned to the duchess, perhaps hoping that his Savoy origins might help him obtain full payment. What happened to the Maestà is not known: Castiglioni himself ignored it, who in his counter-supplication to Bona imagined her to be “appresso o vero in possanza della Celsitudine vostra”38. In 1476 Hans was thus in Milan and remained there at least until the summer 1478, when he started to work for the duchess Bona with a fixed income. 

It is curious that the Milanese deed of 1478 makes no mention of the fact that the artist must have worked for the Dukes of Savoy, a strange omission at a time when he was actually  entering the service of Bona. A case of homonymy? Indeed, it is possible that several masters with the same name existed, active as painters and glassmakers in the Savoy states, probably related to each other and even to the more famous Konrad .However, the painter was hired at twenty florins a month (about eight ducats), which was not a huge but decent sum of money. The episode can also be read as an attempt to impart a Savoyard twist to the court’s art, which was only possible as long as the duchess remained in power (and she did not stay in power for long): one can thus understand the decision to give a painter a fixed salary, a practice foreign to the tradition of the Sforza court, but normal for the Savoy.

Explicit echoes of this brief pro-Savoy season, however, were not to be found in Lombard painting: it was the time of Bergognone’s maturation, Leonardo had not yet arrived and Bramante had been there, perhaps, only a few months. However, the attempt at Savoy’s pictorial enfeoffment was of an ephemeral nature, since as early as September 1479 Ludovico il Moro succeeded in ousting the widow from effective control of the duchy. And Ludovico had different ideas in all fields.

The figure of Branda Castiglioni, Bishop of Como (1415-1487), great-grandson of the namesake prelate, nevertheless deserves more attention than he has so far received from historians of Lombard art. As a patron, he wouldn’t certainly be put in the shade by Ambrogio Griffi or Giovanni Matteo Bottigella, if anything. In addition, that Castiglioni was familiar with art beyond the Alps is certain, since he moved to Normandy as a young man: in 1439 he was a deputy at the chapter of Bayeux, later serving as archdeacon of Coutances, canon of Vireville, and subsequently of Liège Cathedral. He did not return to Italy until 1465, and on the way to Rome he did not neglect to bring Louis XI’s greetings to the Milanese ducal couple.

He was repeatedly engaged with embassies in France and Savoy, first for Galeazzo and then for the regent Bona, and it was during a diplomatic mission that he welcomed in his entourage the painter Hans Witz, as noted. Nor was such open-mindedness toward the north lacking in family traditions: in the collegiate church of Castiglione, an art jewel created by his famous namesake, there were ivory and coloured stone carvings similar to those spread “apud Germaniam”. 

In relatively recent times but with quite a different hype, two paintings of evident Nordic culture, more precisely Germanic, have been discovered in Lombardy: a mural and a panel. They depict Cristo davanti a Pilato, painted on an interior wall of the Oratorio di San Bernardo in Chiaravalle Milanese, and a Cristo di dolori fra sant’Ambrogio e Sant’Agostino on a square panel, formerly in the church of Sant’Ambrogio in Brugherio, but probably originally in an important Milanese church, as evidenced by the large carved wooden altarpiece that housed it, now lost. The panel is now in the Museo Vescovile di Bressanone due to the total lack of sensitivity of ecclesiastical and secular men of culture who allowed this unnecessary exile of an extremely rare piece, deeply rooted in Milanese history.

Jos Amman von Ravensburg: Cristo di dolori fra Sant’Ambrogio e Sant’Agostino, San Tommaso Didimo, San Giovanni evangelista, Dio Padre, colomba dello Spirito Santo, San Pietro, San Paolo. Bressanone, Museo diocesano (da Brugherio, Sant’Ambrogio).
Jos Amman von Ravensburg: Cristo di dolori fra Sant’Ambrogio e Sant’Agostino, San Tommaso Didimo, San Giovanni evangelista, Dio Padre, colomba dello Spirito Santo, San Pietro, San Paolo. Bressanone, Museo diocesano (da Brugherio, Sant’Ambrogio).

The close cultural affinity is evident, the identity of hand perhaps a little less so because of the mural’s current poor condition, but intriguing nonetheless. These are paintings that date back to the mid-15th century or shortly thereafter, with a strong “Upper Rhineland” imprint that takes up motifs that are also Flemish without being overwhelmed by them. They recall, on the one hand, what remains of the decoration of Otto III von Hachberg’s tomb in the Cathedral of Constance, and on the other hand, the wonderful cloister of Santa Maria di Castello in Genoa, which we know was decorated by Giusto di Ravensburg (Joos von) and workshop around 145142. What is important to emphasise here is the very strong proximity between the painting in Brugherio and those in Genoa, and the somewhat less obvious one (perhaps), with Chiaravalle.

The personality of Hans Witz, as it has been patiently and meritoriously recovered by Stefania Buganza, does not seem to be able to resolve all questions. Beyond dating problems (the painter’s career would have been extraordinarily long), there are also stylistic ones.The painter who went to Milan showed a degree of expressive modernity in step with the times. We know that the Genoa frescoes are mid-century and, by stylistic similarities, the ones in Constance (c. 1445, Bishop Otto III Hachberg died in 1451), Chiaravalle, and the Brugherio panel appear to be so too. Although the temporal distance would allow one to think of the evolution of a single painter, the persistence of late Gothic stylistic features in the Germanic sense also makes it possible to think of a different hand working here, very close to that of Giusto di Ravensburg. The hand of a painter of not strictly Wittzian training, an expression of a “conciliar” culture, a culture of the Bodensee, as De Marchi put it. However, one will notice subtle differences, all to be explained, between the Virgin and the angels on the balcony and the mighty figures of the Crocifissione below, with almost primitive but very powerful expressions.The Hachberg tomb, still very much relevant in 1466 when it inspired the author of the Grande Vergine di Ensiedeln, is very damaged in the properly pictorial part, but the faux architecture and sculptures are perfectly consistent with Genoa, Brugherio and Chiaravalle: German ornaments painted with an  almost Flemish expertise. As for Genoa we have the date, at least the initial one. With regards to the other two a later date is proposed hypothetically here: c. 1455-1460. The Genoese decoration is more extensive and assumes the intervention of several hands. Chiaravalle seems to be the most modern piece of the entire group. Chiaravalle seems to be the most modern piece in the entire group. It is perhaps worth reiterating that this nucleus of works of Germanic influence, whether or not regarded as entirely homogeneous, has little to do with Zanetto Bugatto’s history and culture

Jos Amman von Ravensburg (?): Madonna col Bambino e angeli; Crocefissione tra i due dolenti, San Pietro e San Paolo che presentano il vescovo Ottone e un altro offerente (1445), foto storica. Costanza, Duomo, sepolcro di Ottone III von Hachberg.
Jos Amman von Ravensburg (?): Madonna col Bambino e angeli; Crocefissione tra i due dolenti, San Pietro e San Paolo che presentano il vescovo Ottone e un altro offerente (1445), foto storica. Costanza, Duomo, sepolcro di Ottone III von Hachberg.

Like in La Settimana Enigmistica – a weekly Italian word puzzle and word search magazine -, for both Giusto and Zanetto Bugatto, the “dot-to-dot” is there, but the erased or hidden dots are too many to offer us two completely intelligible images.

It’s almost painful, after so many years, to have to return to reiterate concepts that seemed to be established but are still being questioned. In the aftermath of the damaged fragments of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Vigevano, twenty-five years ago Maria Teresa Binaghi Olivari judged Zanetto Bugatto as a “good but not excellent” painter: there is a certain delight in ‘épater le bourgeois’ from the text, which is well understood after so much squabbling by scholars. And yet…

How long will it have to be repeated that there are only a few fragments in Vigevano? That the flat and mediocre Madonna Lanz today in Maastricht is not derived from the Cagnola? Or that getting lost in the collective endeavour of the vault of the Ducal Chapel in Milan Castle hasn’t led to anything accurate so far? One could go on and on.

Zanetto Bugatto, works ( a few, if we also take into account the workshop) and documents assure us, was not a painter to be confused among the various Bembo, Zavattari, Vismara etc., not all of them yet well-defined but interesting figures nonetheless. Zanetto Bugatto stood on a higher level, that of Foppa or Mantegna, compared to whom he had only the misfortune to live and produce for a much shorter period of time.

If there is still a need to convince oneself that it is not historically plausible that the painter would have willingly copied to put together a modest altarpiece like the one in Sormano (Santa Maria in Decinisio), monumental far more in intention than in result, then it will be necessary to line up the painter’s high-ranking commissions, largely lost or known only through documents. To this long and prestigious list, as we have seen, the unpublished papers found by Carlo Cairati are now to be added, attesting to Zanetto Bugatto’s work carried out on behalf of Cicco Simonetta, i.e., number two (three, if including Bona) in Milan in the hierarchy of power in the early days of Galeazzo’s government Then Cicco also fell out of favour…

* The original title of the essay is: “Altra Pratica e altro modo”. The Relationships Between Lombardy and the North in the painting of the fifteenth century, chapters of a narrative [Ed.]

February 22, 2024