Bernardo Strozzi's Miracle of San Diego: one of the artist's "happiest creations"

"Discovered" in a haphazard way in 1890, Bernardo Strozzi's Miracle of San Diego altarpiece was called by Gustavo Frizzoni one of the Genoese artist's "happiest creations." It is located in the Church of the Annunziata in Levanto.

The circumstances of the “discovery” of the Miracle of St. Diego, a painting that ranks among the most unusual and valuable that Bernardo Strozzi’s inspiration ever produced, are at least fortuitous. It was the art historian Gustavo Frizzoni who noticed this admirable altarpiece in the church of the Annunziata in Levanto at the end of the nineteenth century: the scholar was on his way from his Lombardy region to Tuscany, and departing from Genoa he wanted to stop for a while in the town that, coming down from the north, is encountered before diving into the Cinque Terre. The purpose of the stop in Levanto was precisely a visit to the Annunziata, but for another reason: Frizzoni had heard that the house of worship housed a work by Andrea del Castagno. A painter already rare in Tuscany, let alone in Liguria. And indeed, from this point of view, the trip was a disappointment: “as was to be expected,” Frizzoni would later recount in the account of his trip published in theArt Historical Archives, “I found nothing to confirm such a cerebral attribution.” Nor was Frizzoni able to explain why the idea of assigning to Andrea del Castagno a clearly sixteenth-century work, which the scholar attributed, after the visit, to Pier Francesco Sacchi of Pavia: and even today Sacchi’s is the name considered most plausible for the San Giorgio dell’Annunziata.

The discouragement was immediately redeemed, however, by the vision of the extraordinary altarpiece: as soon as I entered the church, Frizzoni recalls, “I was struck at the sight of a painting of another quality and another time,” in which it was in his opinion easy to discern “the imprint of the fiery brush” of Bernardo Strozzi. It was a painting worthy of arousing admiration in every art lover “for the effectiveness of the masterfully intended pictorial effect,” for its “swiftness of brushwork,” for the “vigor of coloring,” so much so that he could “qualify the work itself certainly for one of the happiest creations of the artist.” Frizzoni’s attribution, removed from the exception of Wilhelm Suida who disputed it in 1906, never raised objections and was later confirmed in archival documents.

But even without looking at the papers, it can be said that the most genuine peculiarities of Bernardo Strozzi’s style can be recognized in the painting. The bright coloring of a Rubensian matrix, evident especially in the reddening of the vivid complexions. The declination of this model according to an intonation of mild Caravaggesque reminiscence, resulting from the effects of light and the realism of feelings, to give the scene a more intimate and collected accent. The “unsurpassed ability,” quoting Piero Donati, “to play on the contrast of warm tones and cold tones,” with the latter being well exemplified by the grays of the hanging lamp and the silk antependium covering the altar. The somber background which, as in other paintings by Bernardo Strozzi, had the function, as Anna Maria Matteucci had written, “to contrast with the violent colors of the illuminated areas, to dialogue with the frequent whites.” The dense, mellow drafting. Certain facial types that recur in other well-known paintings by the Genoese priest.

Bernardo Strozzi, Miracle of Saint Diego (c. 1624; oil on canvas, 287 x 185.5 cm; Levanto, Church of the Annunziata)
Bernardo Strozzi, Miracle of Saint Diego (c. 1624; oil on canvas, 287 x 185.5 cm; Levanto, Church of the Annunziata)

The subject that Bernardo Strozzi found himself painting is approached with great immediacy, to provide the viewer with an emotional and touching interpretation of the hagiographic episode. At the center of the composition, and at the center of the diagonal around which the composition is built, stands the figure of Saint Diego d’Alcalá, a Spanish Capuchin friar, canonized in 1588 and known in life because he was able to procure miraculous healings. And one of these healings is the miracle we witness: in the darkness of a church, St. Diego is laying his hands on the head of an old paralytic who has knelt at his feet, in the company of what is presumably his wife, also kneeling and caught as she looks hopefully at the scene. The group is illuminated by a source coming from the left, which has a narrative function to reveal to the viewer all the details of the story: the illness, the astonishment, the prodigy.

The old man has rested his crutch on his knees and has his eyes fixed on those of Saint Diego, who with his free hand, his left, intimates to him to look at the effigy of the Virgin who is interceding for him: from the half-light of the church, above an altar, emerges, barely distinguishable, a sculpture of a Madonna and Child. Below St. Diego, here is a blond page dressed in seventeenth-century fashion: it is the only anachronistic element in the painting, along with that antependium where the pattern, “as often happens in clothing fabrics, is obtained through the juxtaposition of the cuts of the fabric” (so Donati). The child has his gaze lost in front of him and holds a lamp, a piece of sacred silverware masterfully executed by Strozzi with splendid luministic effects, from which Saint Diego will draw the oil that will be used to perform the miracle. Standing out against the dark background is the saint’s hazy nimbus: a halo that, Daniele Sanguineti has effectively written, “imposes itself [...] more revealing of gaseous energy than true halo.” Sanguineti again remarked how the painting is constructed by a “sophisticated direction” that “panders to the emotional effect of the story and shows the minimal references of a daring setting (balustrade against the light, step, antependium and niche with statue) for the restitution of a real space from which the viewer, observing the canvas, seems to arrive sideways.”

Those who enter the church of the Annunziata in Levanto will find this skillful direction to the left of the entrance, in a somewhat unfortunate position: high up and under a window, in light conditions that, at least to the writer, never happened to be optimal. That same window, which at Frizzoni’s time was broken and was therefore one of the causes of the painting’s ills, was in a very poor state of preservation at the time, since its wall was also “very humid, in the worst spot that could be found in the whole church,” with the result that seepage, rain and wind passing through the shattered window had caused serious damage to the work, so much so that Frizzoni called for prompt intervention to avert the loss of the Miracle of San Diego. The work has since undergone several restorations throughout its history, but that position inside the church must be more or less the same as where the altarpiece originally stood: it was commissioned by the nobleman Pietro Antonio Guano for the family chapel, which was dedicated to St. Diego and had been completed in 1603 (a relative of Pietro Antonio, Angelo, had founded it by taking over the juspatronage from another family, the Belmosto). In 1613 the church collapsed, and following the reconstruction Pietro Antonio decided to refit the family sacellum, commissioning the painting from Bernardo Strozzi: we know this because a document dated April 25, 1625, in which the painter urges the client to pay for his work has surfaced. That delinquent client could not have known that, centuries later, many would come to the Annunziata in Levanto with the specific intention of seeing that painting that was late in paying the master who had executed it for him. And which we can rightly include among the pinnacles of Bernardo Strozzi’s production.

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