by Roderick Conway Morris

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Art in Trento and Verona in the late 15th and early 16th century

By Roderick Conway Morris
TRENT, Italy 3 October 2008
Umberto Tomba
'Madonna of the Umbrella,'
by Girolamo Dai Libri, is in the Verona show.



On the eve of Good Friday in March 1475 an infant here went missing. His corpse was found on Easter Sunday. Trent's tiny Jewish community was accused of strangling Simonino ('Little Simon') and ritually bleeding him to mix his blood with their Passover bread.

Despite the initial skepticism of the authorities in Rome, eight Jewish men were tortured and burned at the stake, their property confiscated and their wives and children forced to become Christian.

The prince-bishop who presided over these events was Johannes Hinderbach. This paradoxical figure could be described as the first humanist bishop of Trent. Yet he was the prime mover in the prosecution of the Jews, in pressing for the canonization of Simonino as a martyr and in establishing a cult church devoted to him (partly financed by the goods seized from the Jews). Hinderbach, who was the owner of an important library of Latin manuscripts, also took the opportunity to harness the new technology of printing to rush out the sensational 'Story of a Christian Child Murdered at Trent,' graphically illustrated with 12 woodcuts - the first book ever to be printed in the city - which was widely distributed across Europe.

Trent then lay in a border region, where two worlds, that of German and Italian speakers, the northern Gothic and southern Renaissance arts, coexisted, overlapped and intermingled. In the last two decades of the 15th and the first two of the 16th century, the region saw two major armed conflicts, during which the Venetian Republic failed to annex Trent and the Venetian city of Verona was for seven years occupied by German imperial troops.

The artistic and intellectual life of this turbulent era are now the subject of two exhibitions. 'The Renaissance and the Passion for the Antique: Andrea Riccio and his Time,' at Castello del Buonconsiglio and the Diocesan Museum in Trent, focuses especially on the sculpture and humanist culture of the era, while the gifted but comparatively little-known Veronese miniaturist and painter is the subject of 'Girolamo Dai Libri' at the Museo del Castelvecchio in Verona. (The Trent show, at its two locations, continues until Nov. 2, the Verona exhibition until Feb. 15.)

Andrea Riccio was born in Trent in 1470, five years after Johannes Hinderbach ascended the bishop's throne there. His father, Ambrogio di Cristoforo di Briosco, was an itinerant goldsmith (there is a processional cross in the Diocesan Museum show attributed to him). Riccio ('Curly') was the nickname Andrea acquired on account of his abundant curls (bursting out from beneath his beret in a bronze self-portrait bust here from Vienna).

After training as a goldsmith, Riccio had to abandon this calling because of a disability, possibly arthritis, and turned to sculpture, which allowed him to model in softer materials, such as wax and clay. Donatello's extended residence in Padua had made it a center of bronze sculpture, and this part of the world established a near monopoly on making small bronzes inspired by classical literature and mythology. These were especially in demand in the learned circles of Padua's ancient university - where indeed the future Prince-Bishop Hinderbach had studied, graduating in law in 1452 - and Riccio eventually spent most of his working life there.

Riccio became the greatest exponent of Padua bronze-making, covering the gamut of genres from classical statuettes to inkstands and oil lamps in the form of animals and satyrs. His monumental candlestick for the Santo Basilica is of extraordinary beauty and complexity. This gathering of his works amply demonstrates why he was so valued in his lifetime and has been by connoisseurs ever since.

There are also some striking examples of his surviving terra cottas. Indeed this exhibition amply supports the view of Charles Avery, a leading expert on Riccio, that had his monumental figurative works been made of more durable materials, the sculptor would long ago have taken 'his rightful place as one of the great inventive artists of his day, alongside such sculptors as Antonio and Tullio Lombardo, and painters of the stature of Giorgione and Titian.'

Hinderbach remained in power until 1486. During his rule he undertook extensive works to transform the Castello del Buonconsiglio from a fortress into a residence fit for a Renaissance prince. He numbered among his friends some of the most renowned scholars of the age, among them Enea Silvio Piccolomini, elected pope in 1458, and the Greek cardinal Bessarion. Hinderbach, self-described as a 'cultivator of the Antique,' had in his library one of only a handful of manuscript copies of Alberti's seminal 'On Painting' (on display at the Diocesan Museum show) and a rare collection of Ovid (found, according to one of his own annotations, among the goods requisitioned from Trent's Jews).

Hinderbach's successors continued his policy of modernizing the city following classical and Italian models. Prince-Bishop Georg von Neideck, the incumbent from 1505 to 1514, called in Veronese organ builders to construct an enormous new instrument in the Duomo, and the Veronese painter Giovanni Maria Falconetto to paint monumental doors for it, with images of Saints Peter and Paul and the Annunciation against the latest fashionable backdrop of Roman architecture and ruins, including the Colosseum. (When war broke out with Venice, Neideck exempted Falconetto and the other artists in the city from the imperial decree expelling Venetian citizens.)

During the same period, a new crucifixion scene with life-size figures carved and painted in the old German Gothic manner, was placed before the high altar, next to the organ. The altar of the cult church of Simonino was meanwhile furnished with an elaborate altarpiece in the same traditional German style, the only surviving part of which, the undeniably dramatic but inflammatory scene of the supposed murder of Simonino by the Jews, features in the Diocesan Museum exhibition.

Neideck's first choice of artist for the organ doors was Girolamo Dai Libri ('of the books'), who declined the commission. Girolamo got his nickname from his father, Francesco, a miniaturist in whose footsteps he followed. When Girolamo's first large-scale painting, a 'Deposition of Christ,' was unveiled in about 1500 at the Santa Maria del Organo church in Verona, it was received with wild enthusiasm by the public.

Girolamo's first wife died very young, leaving him with two young children to care for. The tenderness and acute observation of infants is one of the charming features of his painting. In his Nativity scene, for example, known as the 'Crib of the Rabbits,' he artfully captures the moment when the baby Jesus twists his head, his attention drawn by two superbly rendered rabbits.

The artist's powers in painting nature in general are no less compelling. Beautifully depicted vegetation and spreading fruit trees, potent Marian symbols, became a hallmark of a series of lovely Sacred Conversations of the Madonna and Saints. Some of the finest of these are still in Verona, such as the 'Madonna of the Umbrella' on show at the Museo del Castelvecchio, while others at the Metropolitan in New York, the National Gallery in London and the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin should now receive renewed attention as a result of this stimulating exhibition.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023