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“Reflecting on history, on what happened in the past, is an exercise in anamnesis that helps us ponder what is to come”

The Seicento in Lombardy

March 24, 2020

“Many aspects of the plagues of 1576 and 1630 are frighteningly and astonishingly close to what we are currently facing today, despite the four hundred years that separate us from those tragedies.” Giovanni Agosti, a historian and art critic, took part in the Triennale Decameron project with his reflections on the plagues that swept through the city of Milan, and on the role played by art within the setting of these epidemics.

“Almost every day now, as we read the papers or talk with our friends, we find mention of Manzoni and his The Betrothed as part of an attempt to understand something of what is happening to us right now. And that’s only reasonable. Rarely have the devastating effects of the pestilence on society and on the bodies of human beings attacked by this type of disease been expressed with such clarity, quality, profundity and humanity."

Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed, ed. 1840

"In 1973, during the celebrations of the centenary of Manzoni’s birth, the city of Milan put on a magnificent exhibition at the Palazzo Reale, under the title Il Seicento Lombardo – “seventeenth-century Lombardy”. The exhibition emerged from a number of considerations about Manzoni and, at the same time, it was a sort of tribute to Roberto Longhi, the greatest historian of twentieth century art who, more than anyone in the century, had explained the role that the people of Lombardy had played in the history of Italian art. The exhibition focused on the horrors and terror of the plagues and attempted to provide an explanation using figurative art as its means. It tried to see how this medium had reacted to the terrible effects on human health and how, centuries later, this cataclysm had been conveyed, in a way that is at once poetic and anthropological, in the greatest Italian novel of all".

Il Seicento lombardo. Exhibition catalog Milano Palazzo Reale, Electa, 1973. On the cover Tanzio da Varallo
Il Seicento lombardo. Exhibition catalog Milano Palazzo Reale, Electa, 1973. On the cover Tanzio da Varallo
Il Seicento lombardo. Exhibition catalog Milano Palazzo Reale, Electa, 1973. On the cover Francesco Cairo
Il Seicento lombardo. Exhibition catalog Milano Palazzo Reale, Electa, 1973. On the cover Francesco Cairo
Il Seicento lombardo. Exhibition catalog Milano Palazzo Reale, Electa, 1973. On the cover Tanzio da Varallo
Il Seicento lombardo. Exhibition catalog Milano Palazzo Reale, Electa, 1973. On the cover Tanzio da Varallo

"The three-volume exhibition catalogue in a slip-case, with superb graphics, contains some historiographic masterpieces, such as the essay by Testori Sennacherib and the angel, one of his finest works. From the entire corpus of seventeenth century works in Lombardy, reduced to just the first thirty years, Testori then selected a single painting – the vast canvas in the Nazzari Chapel in San Gaudenzio in Novara, one of the greatest of all Tanzio da Varallo’s works".

"Some of the earliest artists included in this exhibition – Cerano, the greatest of them all, Morazzone, Tanzio da Varallo, and Procaccini, all the way through to Cairo, and ultimately Nuvolone, as the plague receded into the past – found themselves in the period between the two plagues. Between 1576-7 and 1630 there were two outbreaks of the disease: the first was that of Charles Borromeo, we might say, and the second that of this cousin Federico. These two devastating epidemics, each with its own symptoms, affected and scarred the body of our region. They left their mark not so much in terms of the huge number of deaths as in the fact that, in a certain sense, they became part of the DNA of Lombard culture."

Adorazione dei pastori, Giovanni Battista Crespi (Cerano), 1590/1600, Turin, Galleria Sabauda

"Anyone with an interest in these matters can go onto the internet and watch the series of videos entitled “Io e... “, made by Anna Zanoli in the early 1970s. This is one of the great works of Italian television, from a time when the leading names of Italian culture were asked to talk about a particular work of art that had special meaning for them. For the series, Giovanni Testori selected Tanzio da Varallo’s “plague-ridden” painting from the entire corpus of art history. Maria Bellonci, for example, chose the Camera degli Sposi, while Renato Guttuso talked about David’s The Death of Marat, and Giorgio Bassani talked about Caravaggio’s The Burial of Saint Lucy. Federico Fellini did not choose just a single work but rather the EUR district in Rome. But, above all, there is the video with Pier Paolo Pasolini in which “Io e...” becomes the city of Orte: his reflections start with architecture and then spread out to the shape of the city and civilisation in a way that is almost incomparable in terms of its clarity, depth and drama."

“Io e... “ by Anna Zanoli, Giovanni Testori and Tanzio da Varallo, RAI 1973

“Io e... “ by Anna Zanoli, The EUR district commented by Fellini, RAI 1972

“Io e... “ by Anna Zanoli, Pier Paolo Pasolini "La forma della città", RAI 1973

"I feel the need to reflect on this subject of the two plagues because, in a certain sense, those who are my age – in other words, those who are approaching sixty – are basically experiencing their second plague. I belong to a generation that, due to its conditions and its lifestyle choices, somehow managed to make it through the tragedy of AIDS back in the early 1990s. And I cannot help but compare what I feel today with what I felt back then. It’s something I do just about every single day."

"One image I would like people to reflect on is this extremely rare etching that shows the city of Milan as it emerged from the plague of 1576. It is a print by a Trentino artist named Nunzio Galizia and it shows us what the city of Milan was like when the plague came to an end. Nunzio Galizia shows us the structures that had been built for the plague because, then as now, they had had to deal with the problem of not having enough hospitals.”

Veduta prospettica di Milano, Nunzio Galizia, 1576

Credits

Texts by Giovanni Agosti

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