Between Venice and Northern Europe: Andrea Previtali's Crucifixion at the Gallerie dellAccademia

The Crucifixion by Andrea Previtali (Berbenno?, 1470/1480 - Bergamo, 1528) is perhaps one of the most underrated paintings in the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice, but to admire it is to enter an extraordinary world, that of early 16th-century Venice.

“Hilly country with a sunken sky” is the phrase that concludes the laconic card reserved for Andrea Previtali’s Crucifixion in the catalog of the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice compiled by Luigi Serra in 1914. The landscape, in that card, is left for last, but it is perhaps the first reason why we usually get lost in front of this canvas by the Lombard artist. It is perhaps a rather unusual crucifixion, although the scene unfolding in the foreground has nothing unusual about it. Christ, as is customary iconographically between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, is at the center of the composition, and this time he is moreover solitary, not even encumbered by the two thieves on either side of him, so that the scene is all for him, as moreover happens in other crucifixions of the Veneto area of the same period. Magdalene embraces the wood of the cross and dissolves into sad weeping, St. John is visibly in despair, the Virgin spreads her arms disconsolately, the pious women stand on their knees expressing their grief in a slightly more compassionate manner. Up to here, nothing strange. Yet it is enough to turn one’s eye beyond the hill of Golgotha, beyond those holm oaks that separate the sacred episode from all that happens around it, to enter another world, a profoundly different and completely changed way, to travel along centuries and places, to leave the Jerusalem of the first century and enter the Italy of one thousand five hundred years later.

The tall trees moved by the wind almost accompany the relative to what is happening behind the protagonists: a leaden sky, crossed by threatening cumulus, promises thunderstorms. The allegorical reference of the clouds is not mysterious: it is the sky that becomes part of Christ’s tragedy. The lush countryside gives way to a turreted village on the left, culminating in the sturdy keep of a castle that can be glimpsed among the foliage of the trees. Further along the roads leading to the town are a few scenes that seem almost indecipherable: knights on their elegant steeds, strange characters assembling around a long staircase, banners popping up here and there.

The insertion of sacred episodes into florid and verdant pieces of landscape is a typical element of Andrea Previtali’s art, and has characterized his production since his beginnings: look, in this regard, at what at the present state of knowledge is considered his first work, the Madonna and Child in a Landscape now preserved at the Detroit Institute of Arts, or the landscape passage that appears in theAnnunciation of Ceneda, in which Crowe and Cavalcaselle had identified “a fresh green tinge akin to that of Giorgione,” a “fresh green tinge similar to that of Giorgione,” the latter painter to whom Previtali, according to the two great art historians of the late 19th century, came close because of his limpidity, the uniformity of his backgrounds, his glazed patinas. Giulio Cantalamessa, in 1897, some 20 years after the rediscovery of the Crucifixion (it was reported by Crowe and Cavalcaselle themselves in 1871, in the sacristy of the Church of the Redeemer in Venice, although its provenance is unknown, since that church was not built until 1577), dwelt on the “group of very thick trees, blackening in the middle,” on the “pleasant village, beaten, on the left, by soldiers on horseback, who by a winding path, among clumps of trees and shrubs, move away; on the right, by Jews covered with turban and zimarra, by workmen and other soldiers half-covered by the line of the hillock, above which their flags emerge brightly.”

Andrea Previtali, Crocifissione (1515-1520 circa; olio su tela, 132 x 215 cm; Venezia, Gallerie dell'Accademia)
Andrea Previtali, Crucifixion (c. 1515-1520; oil on canvas, 132 x 215 cm; Venice, Gallerie dell’Accademia)

The background elements, although they may risk appearing to be an insert that clashes with the main scene, are in fact not Previtali’s invention, although he is credited with the idea of giving the composition greater breadth by developing it horizontally and giving unprecedented relevance to the landscape. Similar views are found in works by other Veneto artists (in those of the early Giovanni Bellini, for example): they serve to give a setting to the crucifixion episode. The city, in fiction, is thus Jerusalem itself, the horsemen are Roman soldiers (on the banners one will notice the inscription “S.P.Q.R.”), the staircase is a clear reference to the martyrdom of Christ, and the characters dressed in garments of oriental fashions, that is, the “Jews” of whom Cantalamessa speaks, serve to give the scene that exoticism that is well suited to an episode that occurred in a distant land. The Venetians, to whom Andrea Previtali, who studied in Venice for a long time, is also to be approached, must have inferred this way of depicting the crucifixion from the works of Nordic artists: for example, at the Ca’ d’Oro itself is preserved a Crucifixion by Jan van Eyck, painted with the help of the workshop, where the Jerusalem that serves as the backdrop to the story appears to us almost like a metropolis of antiquity, complete with towers and skyscrapers ahead of the letter. And equally northern is that loincloth that flutters in so many unrealistic swirls, moved by the same wind that bends the trees slightly: we find it again, identical but mirrored, in Previtali’s Crucifixion in the church of Sant’Alessandro in Bergamo, a painting with which the one in Venice has entirely obvious ties, just as obvious are its relations to the Trinity with St.Augustine and Blessed George of Cremona from the church of San Nicola in Almenno San Salvatore, which features the same type of Christ, itself derived, in a series of continuous cross-references of successive filiations, from those of Cima da Conegliano and Giovanni Bellini.

Further suggestions then loom over Previtali’s painting: the Bergamasque, in fact, had known for certain the engravings of Albrecht Dürer, who had stayed in Venice for a year, from January 1506 to January 1507. A cosmopolitan city, Venice entertained close commercial (and cultural) relations with Dürer’s Nuremberg, and it should not have been difficult for the German to settle in the open lagoon city, which became fertile ground for his ideas, welcomed by a large number of artists, starting with Giorgione himself, who represented one of Previtali’s main points of reference in Venice. The Dürerian element recurs in the art of the mature Previtali, and the Crucifixion is no exception: the landscape bears some resemblance to that which appears on the third sheet of Dürer’sApocalypse , the one with St. John taken to heaven, where the same motif of the city perched on a hill sloping diagonally downward is appreciated. Dürer’s city, however, is firmly clinging to a cliff, while Previtali resolves his view more gently, arranging his buildings along a much less steep and craggy slope, and diluting the rough Dürerian vision in a landscape that has almost a pastoral quality.

It is worth emphasizing that in Previtali the landscape is not merely a narrative device: it is one of the protagonists of his scenes, and it is especially so in his paintings that look to northern European painting. It is a landscape that has the function of accentuating the expressionist character of his works, marked, especially in the final stages of his career, by a strong, almost moving dramatic vein, which here is charged by the nature that surrounds the crucifixion and seems almost to participate in Christ’s drama.

This is the work of a painter “enamored of the Lotto stain,” Cantalamessa asserted: “there is of Lotto the easy and resolving stain,” though not resolved with the same spontaneity and assurance as the model. However, Previtali is so close to Lotto that before 1886, that is, when Giovanni Morelli authoritatively reestablished the correct authorship of the painting, the Crucifixion was attributed precisely to Lorenzo Lotto. In Previtali’s firmament, however, it is perhaps Giorgione’s star that is the brightest. Look, for example, at the cloudy sky: you will notice a glow on the left, like that of lightning. Who knows if Andrea Previtali did not get this cue from a painting that visitors to the Galleries today can admire a few rooms away: the Tempest.

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