A Cremonese among the Venetians. The Madonna of Altobello Melone at the Carrara Academy.

The Hall of the Veneti at the Carrara Academy in Bergamo preserves a youthful summit by Altobello Melone of Cremona: the Madonna and Child with St. John. That is why it is a singular work.

As soon as one arrives in the hall of the Veneti at the Carrara Academy in Bergamo, after laying eyes on Altobello Melone’s Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist, one will realize that the caption accompanying the painting tends to emphasize the artist’s provenance, anticipating a possible question from the public: why a Cremonese among the Venetians? The cartouche will then read about Cremona’s peculiar position in the early sixteenth century: the city was Venetian for ten years (from 1499 to 1509), then returned to the Duchy of Milan, then was again disputed, then was finally assigned to Milan in 1526, despite a subsequent and unsuccessful attempt by the Venetians to bring it back under their rule. In this situation, Cremonese painters were looking around: Giulio Campi, for example, had probably trained in Mantua, Gian Francesco Bembo reveals a certain closeness to Roman culture, and Altobello Melone was instead interested in what was being painted in Venice. And his Madonna and Child with St. John is, according to the person who wrote the short text illustrating it to museum visitors, a painting that tells the historical moment very well since it coexists with both the Lombard experiences on which Altobello is presumed to have been trained (it must be said very little is known of his life) and the echo of Venetian artistic culture.

The panel in the Carrara Academy is in all probability the oldest work that can be referred to Altobello Melone. His Virgin has a sweet, oval, expressive face. And it is very naturalistic, the clearest sign of the painter’s Lombard culture. She is seated on a throne partly covered with a fabric of damask, iridescent, reddish silk, which is surprising for its singular texture with figures of cherubs. The Virgin holds the Child in her arms: with her right hand she holds him behind her shoulders, with a delicate gesture of her left hand she supports his feet. He with his little hand touches her uncovered breast and looks towards us, clutching a goldfinch with the other, an allusion to the Passion: the work also surprises visitors to Carrara because of the naturalness, the spontaneity of these glances. Just as spontaneous is the boredom of the little Saint John, who is not a participant in the scene, intent only on caressing his lamb. As any child would. Beyond the throne, on the left, we see a mountain landscape: a town built on rock, a grove, the cliff that opens up in the distance and lets us see other hills as far as the eye can see, classical ruins on the slopes of the mountain, two characters meeting and talking, one of them with a greyhound dog in tow.

Altobello Melone, Madonna and Child with Little Saint John (c. 1510; oil on panel, 53.8 x 66.4 cm; Bergamo, Accademia Carrara)
Altobello Melone, Madonna and Child with St. John (c. 1510; oil on panel, 53.8 x 66.4 cm; Bergamo, Carrara Academy)

The layout has clear Bellinian and Cimesque ancestry: the composition with the Madonna taken from the knees up, seated three-quarters up on a throne that occupies half the composition and is inserted above a vast landscape that appears only in a portion of the painting, cannot but refer us to the ideas of Giovanni Bellini and Cima da Conegliano. Altobello’s Madonna, in particular, has been approximated to those of Cima: the setting is quite similar to Cima’s panels preserved in the Museo Atestino in Este and the Uffizi, not to mention the group of Madonnas all taken from the same cartoon and which are now preserved in several museums, from the National Gallery in London to the Louvre via the LACMA in Los Angeles. Cima, too, had a habit of leaving a gap open for himself to explore in depth, as we see Altobello doing on the left.

The Cremonese artist, however, does not simply want to stick to the patterns of the Venetian masters, not least because others of his countrymen had done so before him: just look at some of Boccaccio Boccaccino’s Madonna, which draws on the same experiences. Altobello Melone manifests the intent to remain in the wake of a successful model, but he immediately poses the problem of renewing it. Alessandro Ballarin, echoing the remarks of Federico Zeri who first published Altobello Melone’s Madonna , called it “his first essay in an exclusively Venetian key,” meaning, however, by “Venice” not only “the city of Bellini, Cima and Giorgione, but also the city of Dürer.” and thus, in his view, we are here faced with “one of the most vivid reflections of Dürer’s Venetian industriousness between 1505 and 1507.” Dürer’s reflections would be to be found above all in the harshness of the drapery, with those sharp folds (look, for example, at that of the veil that runs parallel to the face, diagonally: it seems starched), the sharp transitions of light and shadow, the lapels that seem to us almost unnatural, the stiff flaps that seem almost to have a metal core. For an effective term of comparison, one could take Dürer’s Madonna of the lucherino preserved in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin: the sculptural evidence that supports the Nuremberg artist’s work reaches the young Cremonese almost unchanged. His is thus one of the most Nordic works in early 16th-century Lombardy: then, as his career continued, Altobello Melone’s painting would follow other models of reference, but his beginnings are under the banner of the more Germanic Venice.

It is these singularities that most captivate those who see Altobello Melone’s painting in the Venetian room at the Carrara Academy. The original way in which Altobello Melone approaches a scheme that had by then entered fully into a tradition, the simplicity and sincerity of the attitudes of the characters, who appear as close as perhaps even those of the Veneti could never seem to be, the meticulousness that the artist pours into the description of the landscape. Those who pause before Altobello’s Madonna, however, cannot help but notice one last peculiarity, namely the colors in which the Virgin is clothed. One would expect her to be wearing a red robe and blue mantle, as per traditional iconography: here, on the contrary, in addition to the white veil she wears a green velvet robe and a red mantle. It is likely that the artist was well acquainted with Giorgione’s Castelfranco Altarpiece: the great painter, for the large panel destined for the chapel of Tuzio Costanzo in the cathedral of his hometown, had painted the Madonna in the same, identical and unusual colors that Altobello, some five years later, would choose for his own. To understand why Giorgione’s unusual choice was so unusual, Argan had imagined a palette “in relation to the alchemical symbols of ’viriditas’ and ’rubedo,’ the apexes of the amorous operation of ’coniunctio,’ emblems of the fiery light of revelation and of vegetal vitality.” From this singular code would have come the completely out-of-the-ordinary color choice. However, the case of Giorgione is not a hapax: they are rare, but in the early sixteenth century Veneto there are Madonnas dressed in the same way. Perhaps it is possible to explain the iconographic anomaly, at least for Altobello Melone, in a simpler way: he wanted to dress the Virgin in the colors associated with the three theological virtues. White for faith, red for charity, and green for hope. A further reason for the distinction of a painting that will surely have made its patron happy.

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