Travellers who come to Italy in search of art typically arrive in Florence, Rome or Venice, but one of the best-kept secrets of Italian art is to be found in a region of Italy that you probably fly right over in your search for the giants of the Renaissance: Piedmont, literally “land at the foot of the mountain.” This area of Italy is best known for the superb wines of the Langhe and the gastronomy of the Slow Food movement, but there is an incredible wealth of art and architecture here too (making it a rather ideal destination!). Step outside of the urban elegance of Turin and you will find yourself in a land of impressive monasteries, fairytale castles and frescoed churches.
Despite the barrier created by the Alps to the west, Piedmont has historically been subject to heavy Provençal-French influence. Many of the noble families of the region had ties to the French Court in Paris, and the most powerful – the aggressively expansionist House of Savoy – held lands on both sides of the Alps. Much of their territory is now Piedmont.
The Medieval and early Renaissance patronage system here is very different from that of Florence, where the powerful and wealthy merchant middle class vied for prestige and political influence by commissioning major public works of art, and the artists generated by the ‘hot-house’ of the Florentine studio system eagerly competed for those commissions. Whilst Piedmont had its wealthy merchants, this was an area where the old feudal system was still alive and well, and the power and legitimacy of the noble families of the area was derived directly from the Valois Kings of France and the Holy Roman Emperors, so civic competition was not an issue. In rural Piedmont, spending money on the fortified strongholds of the nobility and their armed retinues was far more important than the building and decoration of fine town houses and the frescoing of family chapels in their local parish churches.
That is not to say that the churches in the Piemontese countryside went undecorated – far from it, in fact. Even the smallest churches of local communities, and the tiny chapels along the Pilgrims’ Way southwards, were frescoed by a class of itinerant artists, going from place to place, seeking a living wherever they could find it, and then moving on to the next job. They obtained commissions both from local landowners and the Church, and Piedmont is full of their work. It has everything that you would expect from the International Gothic style: brilliant colour, rich gilding and lots of detail combine to create the sort of mystic atmosphere which would aid the faithful in their devotions.
But even well into the 15th century, the International Gothic lingers on in these frescoes. The placing of the figures is what you would expect from the 14th century, with little regard to perspective, and they are often very naïve in execution, but the gaunt muscularity of the near-naked figures in crucifixion scenes harks back even further, to the 13th century. This is a very local, vernacular art that only slowly incorporated new ideas, assimilating them to create a truly Piemontese style. The wandering artists who painted these frescoes were not driven by the relentless search for the new that intense competition in Florence had created, and the result is simply beautiful (or beautiful simplicity). It is well worth making the effort to see the work of these often anonymous artists: the Piemontese Gothic offers vibrant scenes, crowded with wonderful figures that seem to leap from the plaster. This is local religious art, intended for the devotions of the faithful, rather than the public aggrandizement (and perhaps personal salvation) of a wealthy merchant. Simple as it is, it is somehow truly authentic.
Art for the Nobility
So much for the art of the common people, but what of the Nobility? It may come as a surprise to you to learn that within the battlements of some Piemontese castles, art can soar to levels of quality and elegance that will leave you open-mouthed, and would have tourists queuing out of the door if these buildings were situated further south (so it’s probably for the best they aren’t). And if the family which commissioned them were so inclined, this art could be just as loaded with layers of symbolism as any painting by Paolo Uccello. But visually and iconographically this art looks to influences from neighbouring Provence or from beyond the Alps.
Near the town of Saluzzo is the Castle of La Manta. Six hundred years ago it was a fortress held by the Del Vasto family, the Marchesi of Saluzzo, against the growing threat of the House of Savoy, and in 1415 Savoyard forces laid siege to Saluzzo, but without success. The audience chamber of the castle of La Manta is decorated with frescoes that are some of the best known in Piedmont, and – I would argue – some of the very best in Italy. The frescoes, along with others in the castle and its neighbouring church, are widely believed to be by the hand of the anonymous Master of La Manta, and are thought to date from around 1416-24.
From close examination of the frescoes, I would say that there are actually at least three different hands at work here, as part of completely different commissions of differing quality and style, and with a time-span of at least ten years between them. For now however, I am going to concentrate on the frescoes in the audience chamber, which I believe are the work of two principal artists and their assistants.
The Wandering Knight
From the details of clothing and armour, I have no doubt that these frescoes were commissioned by Valerano of Saluzzo in 1416-17, to celebrate his new Lordship of the castle. He was the illegitimate son of the late Marchese Tommaso III, and regent during the minority of the young Ludovico, who eventually succeeded his father in 1424, as Ludovico I. The frescoes decorate the audience chamber where Valerano dispensed justice and received guests, so there is no doubt they were intended to make a very public statement: a declaration of the legitimacy of his regency and the continuity of the House of Del Vasto.
Entering the audience chamber from the opposite end to the fireplace, visitors to Valerano’s audience chamber would have found themselves between two very different cycles of frescoes to their left and right: different in both subject, and also quality. They are held up as a prime example of Provençal-French influence on the art of the region, but I believe only one wall has been painted by a local artist.
The frescoes on the left wall have a clear affinity with the vernacular art of the region, and although they are painted by a very skilled hand, I still have no doubt that they are the work of a local artist. The subject is the legend of The Search for the Fountain of Youth, part of The Book of the Chevalier Errant (Knight Errant), a chivalric romance written by the late Tommaso III. In these distinctly ‘earthy’ scenes, the aged and decrepit arrive from the left, then in the centre of the fresco they are shown disrobing and bathing in the pool of the fountain, which magically rejuvenates them. Even before they have left, many of them decide to make immediate use of their new-found vigour, and around the amorous couples in the pool, comic scenes are taking place between arguing couples, their words spelt out in Provençal French. To the right the scene concludes with the now-youthful characters enjoying a hunt with hawks.
Doomed Heroes and Heroines
On the opposite wall though, the viewer enters a totally different world. This wall is frescoed with a series of much larger figures of The Nine Worthies and Nine Heroines, all great figures from history and legend who embody fidelity to family and city, often falling heroically in battle in this cause. Beneath each figure is their name, together with verses from the Chevalier Errant of Tommaso III, and they are all characters that the wandering Knight meets in the Palace of Lady Fortune in the pages of Tommaso’s romance.
The sheer elegance of these figures is far beyond anything we see on the opposite wall: they exude a sort of other-worldly poise, and are rendered with stunning attention to detail. I would go so far as to say that their faces in particular are as good as anything I have ever seen. This is not only art of the highest quality, but also of the highest allegorical complexity: the figures also represent members of the house of Del Vasto and their spouses, and Valerano himself is here in portrait, in the guise of Hector, son of King Priam of Troy. He is recognizable from the motto leit-leit on the surcoat he wears over his armour. Priam and Hector defended Troy from the invading Greeks, and here the inescapable reading of the fresco is that Tommaso and Valerano were similarly making a heroic defence of their territories against the House of Savoy.
All Things Must Pass
The entire decorative cycle on both walls (and part of a third wall) was intended to be taken as a whole. It was meant to be read from left to right, as seen from Valerano’s seat before the fireplace, progressing down the Worthies and Heroines, around the end wall, and on to the Fountain of Youth. The Worthies and Heroines embody a heroic defence against Savoy, and although the Fountain exemplifies the rejuvenation that the young Ludovico would bring, these events all take place in the Garden of the notoriously fickle Lady Fortune. Valerano knew that the growing force of Savoy would eclipse the House of del Vasto sooner or later, so the Fountain also represents an exhortation to find salvation through God, rather than seek eternal life on Earth, so the frescoes are also saying that all things pass.
A Northern Artist?
But if a local artist painted The Search for the Fountain of Youth, who was responsible for the The Nine Worthies and Nine Heroines? There is absolutely nothing about these beautiful figures to place them in the Provençal-French tradition. In fact, they owe much more to the art of the Northern Europe. This room was a memorial to Tommaso III, and it would be strange if his widow was not at some level involved in a project which was such an important testament to her late husband. She was Margaret de Roucy, daughter of Hugues II de Pierrepont, Comte de Roucy and Braine, and Blanche de Coucy. The artist who executed such fine work was probably found at or through the French Court in Paris, and beyond that, Margaret’s family roots may even have caused her to favour an artist who came from further north: Roucy is in northern France and was close to the border with Flanders. From the style of the figures, and from important details of the armour they wear, I believe that the author of these breathtaking frescoes was quite possibly a Flemish artist.
Whoever did paint these wonderful frescoes, Piedmont has a wealth of art to offer the visitor, and I strongly advise you to take the time to visit ‘the land at the foot of the mountain’.
Piedmontese medieval art: a book about art and amour
This analysis is part of the initial research that Chris Dobson conducted for his book “Art and Arms in the Western Alps: Milan, Savoy and “the French style” 1400-1500“. Read also his useful page on art and events in Piedmont.