Il Gran Teatro Montano. Saggi su Gaudenzio Ferrari Giovanni Testori; new edition Giovanni Agosti 414pp, Feltrinelli, Milan, 2015
Despite being the owner of the two Annunciation panels by Gaudenzio Ferrari now in the National Gallery, Sir Henry Layard addressed, in 1887, the statues at the Sacro Monte in Varallo as ‘objects of wonder and admiration to innumerable pilgrims’ yet ‘the bad taste of the colour and clothing make them highly repugnant to a cultivated eye’ – an opinion he shared with Bernard Berenson, Walter Pater, Charles Eastlake and most Italian connoisseurs.[i] It was in response to such inveterate underestimations of Gaudenzio’s activity at the Sacro Monte – to which two early exceptions are English books by Samuel Butler and Ethel Halsey – , that Giovanni Testori in 1965 gathered five essays (two of which are unpublished) in his Gran Teatro Montano.[ii] In addition to the original text, this new edition includes essays by Testori from 1956 (the year of the monographic exhibition on Gaudenzio in Vercelli) to 1985, spanning the author’s life-long interest in the painter.[iii] An introduction and an afterword by Giovanni Agosti frame the essays, analysing the book’s birth and legacy. In honour of their aesthetic value and innovative importance for the first edition, all the original images are included, to which a few are added. The importance of the illustrations is nonetheless scaled down by Testori’s alluring writing style, evidenced in two previous reprints of the book, which lacked images.[iv] Such a style is indebted to both Roberto Longhi (whose Officina Ferrarese Testori read as an eleven-year-old-boy) and a Lombard lineage of expressionist writers such as Carlo Emilio Gadda, thus resulting in a linguistically laborious “emotional critique” – as Testori himself defined it. This, combined with the very subject of the Sacro Monte, which is still relegated to an art-historical “periphery”, left the book overlooked on the international stage. Indeed, the book has perhaps represented an unyielding barrier for the up-to-then lively international scholarship on Ferrari. The intention to shift and expand the terms of the discussion on Gaudenzio as a sculptor and architect – as he is referred to in the earliest sources – is one of the book’s chief virtues and has stood the test of time. In this connection, stylistic critique is not separated from technical examination and Testori’s uneven attributional whirlwind is occasionally sharp-eyed. However, among the main theses of the book is the view of Gaudenzio as the alleged “director” for the whole Sacro Monte – which is however impeded by the account of a 1514 source, frequently bypassed by Testori.[v] Furthermore, the broad ambition of the book is clearly to structure a new image of Gaudenzio through the prism of his work at the Sacro Monte. This aim is, however, highly problematic. Not only does it overshadow the importance of Gaudenzio’s works elsewhere, but it also reshapes the image of the artist through his least documented phase – where ideology is left room to grow. On the Sacro Monte’s stage Gaudenzio is forced to play far too distinctive a role in the fight between realism and abstraction as well as between the dialect of the periphery and the language of the centre – as later formulated by Enrico Castelnuovo and Carlo Ginzburg.[vi] Here, as scholars have already shown, Testori pursues his own 1960s ideological agenda, attaching our own time’s historiographical urgencies onto Gaudenzio’s history.[vii] The editorial work, which is valuable and accurate, shows to what extent the book was a milestone in Gaudenzio studies. However, fifty years later, the case-by-case survey of attributional results could have been paired with a thorough appraisal of Testori’s methodological conduct; and with some bibliographical references to research dealing with the Sacro Monte from different perspectives, such as David Freedberg’s.[viii] Giovanni Agosti has shown the many ways the present can profitably blur into the past; to which end, interpretation needs to be balanced by as much philological attention as methodological self-awareness – both lacking in Testori’s book.[ix] In fact, some forthcoming research will hopefully channel the overwhelming amount of research on Gaudenzio into one exhaustive monograph or exhibition, which may meet modern scholarly demands, making use of a convenient form while exposing its ideological underpinnings.
[i] Franz Kugler, Handbook of Painting, Austen Henry Layard ed. (London: Murray, 1887), 426.
[ii] Giovanni Testori, Il Gran Teatro Montano. Saggi su Gaudenzio Ferrari (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1965); Samuel Butler, Ex Voto: An account of the Sacro Monte at Varallo-Sesia (London: Trübner, 1888); Ethel Halsey, Gaudenzio Ferrari (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1904).
[iii] Anna Maria Brizio, et al., Mostra di Gaudenzio Ferrari (Milan: Silvana, 1956).
[iv] Giovanni Testori, ‘Il Gran Teatro Montano: Saggi su Gaudenzio Ferrari’, in Giovanni Testori, La realtàdella pittura: Scritti di storia e critica d’arte dal Quattrocento al Settecento, Pietro Cesare Marani, ed. (Milan: Longanesi & C., 1995), 31–91; Giovanni Testori, Il Gran Teatro Montano: Saggi su Gaudenzio Ferrari (Milan: Medusa, 2010).
[v] Alberto Durio, Il Santuario di Varallo: secondo uno sconosciuto cimelio bibliografico del 1514 (Novara: Tip. E. Cattaneo, 1926).
[vi] Enrico Castelnuovo and Carlo Ginzburg, ‘Centro e periferia’, in Giovanni Previtali, ed., Storia dell’Arte Italiana, vol. I., Questioni e metodi (Turin: G. Einaudi, 1979), 283–352.
[vii] Paolo Venturoli, ‘Le statue in legno e in terracotta della Cappella della Crocifissione e il problema di Gaudenzio scultore’, in Elena De Filippis, ed., Gaudenzio Ferrari. La Crocifissione del Sacro Monte di Varallo (Turin, Allemandi, 2006), 35–56.
[viii] David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 192–245.
[ix] See Giovanni Agosti, Su Mantegna. I, La storia dell’arte libera la testa (Milan: Feltrinelli, 2005).