A Van Dyck in a small village in Liguria. The Crucifix of San Michele di Pagana

The Crucifix by Antoon van Dyck (Antwerp, 1599-London, 1641) kept in the parish church of San Michele di Pagana, a small village in eastern Liguria, is one of only two public works by the Flemish artist in Italy, and is one of his most fascinating masterpieces.

Silence is the element that more than any other illuminates the soul of San Michele di Pagana, a village of a few houses guarding a small landing place hidden among the pines and palm trees, along the short road from Rapallo to Santa Margherita Ligure. Certainly not in summer, when even the small beach of San Michele becomes a swarming anthill, where it is complicated to stretch out an arm without risking bumping into a neighbor, a passerby. But in winter, when the small towns of Tigullio snooze lashed by the tramontana, when in the hotels of the Riviera life slows down to a near standstill, when the trains that run nonstop between La Spezia and Genoa stop overthrowing armies of tourists among the villages of eastern Liguria, then here is when one returns to appreciate that dimension of calm praised by so many who have spoken of this place.

Who knows what kind of traveler Alberto Savinio had in mind when in his writings he recalled a stop in San Michele di Pagana saying that one usually goes there to see the painting by Antoon van Dyck preserved in the parish church. Perhaps, the answer had already been given years earlier by Salvatore Ernesto Arbocò, a journalist writing in Ars et Labor in the 1910s: he was convinced that San Michele di Pagana was the “silent destination” of the most sensitive souls who most feel the “religion of beauty.” There is indeed still today an air that invites contemplation, despite the fact that tourism and cementification have bitten even this ancient fishing village. In January, when evening is about to fall, there are good chances to be alone on the beach of San Michele di Pagana. And it is in these moments that one realizes what the silence that so captivated the writers of yesteryear means, that one gets lost in the whitish light of thewinter to follow the rush of the clouds, that one seems to hear Montale’s verses resonate, and one listens to the poetry of the wind that, like a caress, “unravels the line of the sea and disrupts it for a moment, gentle breath that breaks through it and still the path resumes.”

Antoon van Dyck, Francesco Orero in adorazione del Crocifisso alla presenza dei santi Francesco e Bernardo (1627; olio su tela, 325 x 210 cm; San Michele di Pagana, Parrocchiale)
Antoon van Dyck, Francis Orero in Adoration of the Crucifix in the Presence of Saints Francis and Bernard (1627; oil on canvas, 325 x 210 cm; San Michele di Pagana, Parish Church)

Then, we follow the coastline, enter a caruggio, skirt the cemetery and climb to the church, dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, a jewel that shines with paintings by Bernardo and Valerio Castello, Giovanni Battista Carlone, the still unknown Antwerp painter who painted the Nativity and the Flight into Egypt, and many others. Van Dyck’s altarpiece is still in the chapel for which it was intended, and it is one of only two public works by the Flemish artist to be found in Italy (the other is the Madonna del Rosario in Palermo), as well as the only altarpiece he painted in Liguria. In front of a crucified Christ in three-quarter foreshortening we see St. Francis and St. Bernard introducing the figure of the patron, Francesco Orero, a wealthy bourgeois, by profession aromatarius, that is, a dealer in spices and medicines, who also knew how to be a perfumer, inventing and mixing essences for the Genoese nobility. He lived in Genoa, had a brother named Bernardo (that is why Francesco and Bernardo are the two saints who present the commissioner to Christ), moreover his business partner, and had a house in San Michele di Pagana: the family was originally from there, and as early as 1614 Francesco Orero is recorded among the church’s benefactors. The altarpiece commissioned for the church, on the other hand, is placed around 1627, the year in which work began on the marble altar that houses it. It would, however, have come to the church much later, due to the delay in the construction of the altar for reasons we still do not know: when the commissioner passed away in 1643, it was in fact still in the family villa. It would have been Bernardo who had the construction work completed and finally placed the painting in the chapel, fulfilling his brother’s wishes. For a long time tradition insisted on a fanciful anecdote (and perhaps even today someone still insists on it) that Van Dyck had found shelter in San Michele di Pagana, with the Orero family, while he was hunted down by the authorities of the republic because of certain of his amorous intemperances, and that he would pay himself back by painting the altarpiece. But as early as 1909 Gustavo Frizzoni had proposed that the painter and the commissioner had most likely met in Genoa, where they both lived and worked.

Van Dyck chooses to insert his Christ shifted to the left in foreshortened perspective, according to a compositional structure identical to that of the Christ Expiring now preserved in Genoa’s Palazzo Reale, and which the painter had been able to appreciate in Simon Vouet’s Crucifixion in Genoa’s Chiesa del Gesù, but which went back to the inventions of Tintoretto (the Crucifixion of San Cassiano in Venice), another artist with whom the Flemish painter was certainly familiar. High is the realism that inflames with life the figures of the two saints and the patron, so expressive, so moved by sincere feeling. Precisely “on this interweaving of gazes between Christ and the praying person, to which are added the equally intense ones of St. Francis and St. Bernard, who participate in the event,” wrote Giuliana Algeri, “the painter built the entire composition.” The diagonal foreshortening heightens the tension and highlights even more the emotional participation of the patron. Francesco Orero is investigated with descriptive and psychological meticulousness as a skilled portrait painter, and he is rendered while, devout and stunned, with flushed eye sockets, slightly mussed hair and a fashionable goatee of the time well groomed and trimmed, and dressed in the black velvet jacket typical of the nobility Genoese of the time (to which, however, he never succeeded in being ascribed), he kneels bringing his hands to his chest, accompanied by the gesture of Saint Francis, a good-looking young man.

The twilight light that descends from the gash in the clouds and strikes the right side of Jesus’ body with a strong glow, going to create a strong contrast with the area left in shadow, takes on narrative functions. The mystical light then lingers on the tangle of the loincloth, giving prominence to the pearly and silver tones of the vigorous Rubensian drapery agitated by the breeze, descends in an admirable play of contrapposto to bring out the left leg, and then fades away sloping downward. Not, however, without first touching the faces of the two saints and without investing the figure of Francis Orero: a diagonal beam unites him with Christ, testifying to his faith. It is a light “that focuses all on one area of the canvas according to a ’Caravaggio-like’ motif,” wrote art historian Erik Larsen. Van Dyck knew Caravaggio well: he had seen his paintings during his stay in Sicily.

We are here in the presence of one of the pinnacles of Van Dyck’s painting, as Daniele Sanguineti has well pointed out: it is a painting that “shows the ingenious mastery of a refined and ’scornful’ technique capable of pictorial and emotional outcomes of intense drama. The calibrated distribution of characters and color roles is enhanced by the tight dialogue of intertwined gazes, triggered by Jesus’ moving address to Orero. [...] Everything else is a symphony of brown and black tones, often drawn from the brown preparation of the canvas left exposed, while the atmosphere, the faces of the saints and the profile of the Orero, almost a deliberate quotation of an archaic portrait typology, can be fully understood only if traced back to the impact with the direct vision that the painter had, especially in Sicily, of Caravaggio’s works.” The San Michele di Pagana altarpiece had great fortune, attested by the many paintings that took it as a model. And today it can be admired clearly after the restoration that preceded, in 1997, the exhibition Van Dyck in Genoa: great painting and collecting, where Francesco Orero’s altarpiece was the protagonist. Consider that Arbocò, in his 1912 article, lamented its condition: the painting was blackened by candle smoke and attacked by mold, the journalist urged its restoration by calling the attention of the mayor of Rapallo, Plinio Nomellini also took an interest. Fortunately, today Van Dyck’s altarpiece is no longer in that state, it enjoys good care, and the parish even offers a guide to download on their phones to anyone who enters the church to see the painting. Inside, the silence is the same as in the village. While behind, the sea continues to sing its song.