Bonifacio Bembo's triptych: last act of Visconti art in Milan?

Bonifacio Bembo's triptych divided between Denver and Cremona is a transitional work between Visconti and Sforza art. We discuss it in this post on our blog. This year the three compartments are reunited after 16 years.

In October 1468, Bianca Maria Visconti, the last duchess of the family that had ruled the fortunes of Milan for nearly two centuries, passed away in Melegnano. Despite the fact that the male line of the Visconti had already died out in 1447 and the Duchy had passed into the hands of the Sforza family through the marriage between Bianca Maria herself and the condottiere Francesco Sforza, after her husband’s death in 1466, Bianca Maria knew how to take over the government of the Duchy with great ability in order to prepare in the best possible way the succession that fell to her son Galeazzo Maria Sforza. These were, in short, the very last vicissitudes of the Visconti at the head of Milan. However, the ungrateful son, endowed with a greedy and arrogant character, did everything in his power to oust his mother from Milanese politics: and in fact Bianca Maria Visconti, in 1467, retired to Cremona, the city of which she held the lordship and where, moreover, she had married.

Bianca Maria, who had pursued humanistic studies and was distinguished for her passion for art, cultivated her interests even in the last two years of her existence in her voluntary retreat to Cremona. A U.S. scholar expert in Renaissance art, Evelyn Welch, speculated in 2010 that in Cremona, also in 1467, Bianca Maria had called one of the family’s favorite artists, Bonifacio Bembo (c. 1420 - c. 1480), to paint an altarpiece to be placed in the church of Sant’Agostino. The painting, to be placed in the chapel dedicated to Saints Daria and Crisante, was to celebrate the anniversary of the marriage between Bianca Maria and Francesco Sforza, which took place on October 25, 1441: the two saints were in fact celebrated on October 25, and the newlyweds had elected them as their protectors. Evelyn Welch believes that this altarpiece, traces of which were later lost, can be traced to the triptych divided between the “Ala Ponzone” Civic Museum in Cremona and theArt Museum in Denver, USA. Since there is a lack of documents that could support this hypothesis, we move in the field of uncertainty, so much so that the latest research by Italian art historians (above all, the most recent ones by Marco Tanzi, who spoke about the painting in a volume of his published three years ago) prefer to backdate the work to a period between 1445 and 1450, mainly for stylistic reasons: there are also those who relate it to a commission received from the noble Cremonese Plasio family, who were the owners of a chapel also inside the church of Sant’Agostino. It is toward these suppositions that the most up-to-date Italian critics prefer to lean. In any case, it is almost certain that the work was in St. Augustine’s.

The three compartments that originally formed the triptych have been exceptionally reunited this year: the public can admire them together at the exhibition Arte lombarda dai Visconti agli Sforza, in Milan (Palazzo Reale), produced by Skira together with the City of Milan, which will run until June 28. This is therefore an interesting opportunity to see the complete work in its three compartments, also considering the fact that the last (and, so far, only) occasion on which the panels had been brought together was sixteen years ago: it was 1999 and an exhibition on the famous Sforza tarots, painted by Bonifacio Bembo himself, was being held at the Pinacoteca di Brera. On the other hand, the “rediscovery” of the three plates, brought together by Roberto Longhi, dates back to 1928: it was he who initiated studies on the artist. And, moreover, the Milanese exhibition is configured as a tribute to the exhibition of the same name that Roberto Longhi curated in 1958 together with Gian Alberto Dall’Acqua, precisely in the rooms of the Palazzo Reale.

Il trittico di Bonifacio Bembo
Bonifacio Bembo’s triptych. From left: Kiss between Saint Anne and Saint Joachim at the Golden Gate (Denver, Denver Art Museum); Coronation of Jesus and the Virgin (Cremona, Museo Civico Ala Ponzone); Adoration of the Magi (Denver, Denver Art Museum)

But back to Bonifacio Bembo’s triptych: the left-hand compartment depicts the Kiss between Saint Anne and Saint Joachim at the Golden Gate, along with the prophet Elisha and Saint Nicholas of Tolentino. The one on the right, on the other hand, shows an Adoration of the Magi: these are the two panels preserved in Denver. The central compartment, the one in Cremona, features the Eternal crowning Jesus and Mary. The identification, proposed in the past by the art historian Germano Mulazzani, of the two central figures with Saints Crisante and Daria seems implausible: it would have helped to enhance the hypothesis of Visconti commissioning, and would have provided an answer to the doubts about which was the lost altarpiece made for Bianca Visconti (although the dating should have been brought forward to the early 1960s for documentary reasons), but it does not seem iconologically correct.

On one thing, however, we can agree: looking closely at the panels of the triptych, one almost forgets about the historical and documentary problems affecting this masterpiece of15th-century Lombard art. For it is a work that combines the naturalism typical of the art of Lombardy with a great elegance that, even if it was not derived from the fact that it was a work directly commissioned by the Visconti, certainly derives from the taste that, over the years, had been dictated by the Milanese court. We are in the midst of the Renaissance, for even if we were to admit the earliest of the proposed dates, we would have to consider that Masaccio had been gone for about twenty years, that Filippo Lippi and Piero della Francesca were in the midst of their maturity, and that Melozzo da Forlì was beginning his own training. But the impression we get, when confronted with the triptych, is certainly not that of being confronted with a Renaissance painting: in Milan, tastes were still strongly influenced by late Gothic art. Here, then, the procession of the Magi echoes that of the very famous Adoration by Gentile da Fabriano: surely Bonifacio Bembo did not see it, but he must have been familiar with the art of Gentile, who in all likelihood was trained precisely in Visconti Milan. Bonifacio Bembo was able to combine the preciousness of the materials, with the finely chiseled golds, the richly decorated fabrics, and even the haloes of the saints treated almost as if they were precious jewels, with a vivid attention to the realistic rendering of the faces: each of the characters in the procession has its own individual characterization. And there is also a remarkable attention to detail, another indication of high refinement: the curls of the Magi, the transparencies of the veil that envelops the Child Jesus, the castle that appears in the background, even the eyes of the horses (joking in front of the work, we said to ourselves that they seem to have given themselves a touch of mascara)... everything is admirably studied.

The rendering of the affections, for Bonifacio Bembo, is also valuable. The kiss between the Virgin’s parents, St. Anne and St. Joachim, is there to prove it to us, but we might also realize it from the tender movement of the Child, still in the Adoration compartment, who, on receiving the homage of the oldest of the Magi, turns almost abruptly toward his mother, holding her by the hand, as a sign of reluctance: a bit like all children do when they receive the attention of people with whom they are not familiar. If, on the other hand, it is necessary to speak of Renaissance, then this can be done for certain aspects such as the spatial arrangement of the three compartments, the profiles of certain characters in the procession of the Magi that almost recall ancient medallistics, but also Pisanello’s contemporary ones, and especially for the classical elements of the central panel, with the space moreover organized on central perspective. A somewhat limp perspective, but one that nonetheless demonstrates, together with the coffered ceiling, the festoons hanging overhead, the wall decorations, and the marble base of the throne, a certain interest on Bonifacio Bembo’s part in the Renaissance recovery of classical art. However, there is evidence that, later in life, Bonifacio Bembo’s art would have undergone a more distinctly Renaissance evolution.

We said earlier that we have no certainty about the occasion on which Bonifacio Bembo’s triptych was made. And we also saw how, according to one hypothesis, it might be the last official act of Visconti art in Milan. But even if it were not, its symbolic role would remain unaffected: with Bonifacio Bembo’s triptych, and with the coeval works, an era was coming to a close. Following the rise of the Sforzas, Milanese figurative culture would begin, later than in other cities in Italy, to dissolve its ties with late Gothic art and embrace the novelties of the Renaissance: this process, slow at first, experienced a significant acceleration precisely after the demise of Bianca Maria Visconti and under the duchy of Galeazzo Maria Sforza. Here, then, is another reason why the triptych is so fascinating: because it marks the closing of an epoch and is situated in an important transitional phase for all of Lombard art. And, for some time yet, we have the opportunity to see all three of its panels together.

Arte Lombarda dai Visconti agli Sforza, ingresso
Lombard Art from the Visconti to the Sforza, entrance. Ph ©Francesca Forquet for Arte Lombarda dai Visconti agli Sforza.

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