EX-VOTOS, APOSTOLIC MISSIONS AND BERNARDINO DA FELTRE: HIS INFLUENCE AND ART IN THE CASE OF BARTOLOMEO MONTAGNA
Bartolomeo Montagna’s nearly forgotten contribution to Renaissance Painting of the Veneto merits revisiting through a brief examination of the controversial Monte di Pietà as related to an altarpiece he painted for the Franciscan Church of San Marco in Lonigo, near Vicenza, Montagna attained status of celebrated painter in Venice after he received his first public commission in 1482. By 1485 Montagna’s altarpiece production thrived in Vicenza, Padua, Verona and throughout the Veneto, which made him an industrious and recognized painter by 1500. Here The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Sts. Francis and Homobonus, Bernardino da Feltre and Beggar, circa 1512, tempera on canvas, now in the Berlin, Gemäldegalerie shall be given primary focus with respect to the influence of Bernardino da Feltre.
Bernardino da Feltre, the Monte di Pietà and Vicenza
The figures of Blessed Bernardino da Feltre, who was never canonized, and St. Homobonus (1) were employed with some frequency in Northern Italy, though Homobonus less so than Bernardino. The presence of Bernardino da Feltre may appear innocuous as a Franciscan advocate of charity upon first glance; however, the beholder should consider that he became one of the most passionate Franciscan preachers from the 1470-90s. The effects of his fervent preaching against Jewish money-lending, especially in Mantua, Cremona, Pavia, Padua, Treviso, Vicenza and throughout northern and central Italy, inspired the flourishing of Monti di Pietà, or Christian money-lending establishments. The Monti di Pietà provided a Franciscan alternative in an attempt to interrupt the loan businesses of Jewish lenders, and Bernardino da Feltre advocated donations for the Monti di Pietà as a step toward salvation. (2) As Bernardino preached from town to town, funds poured into the local Monti di Pietà. Vicenza was no exception, and Bernardino gave sermons on numerous occasions in 1493 and 1494 at the request of its citizens. He preached as many as ninety sermons at Vicenza’s cathedral. (3) Nearby Lonigo is registered as having had a Monte di Pietà by the time of the Pope Leo X (1513-1522). Ultimately, the Monte di Pietà was not so much a charitable alternative to usury, but in point of fact, according to Franciscan scholar Vittorino Meneghin, it developed into another lending/earning establishment. (4) It is relevant that Bernardino da Feltre was the son of a wealthy noble notary, and therefore wise to finance; often arguing in support of the Monti di Pietà charging an interest rate to support its administration. Thus, the distinction between the two established loan systems becomes blurred. In the literature, it is fascinating to observe that the motives of Bernardino da Feltre are historicized differently. In one camp, Bernardino da Feltre is seen as preaching fervidly about the Monte di Pietà and its connection to Christian salvation. (5) In the other, scholars have argued that Bernardino preached only in towns with significantly populated Jewish communities with the objective of one, dispersing the Jewish community, and two, destroying their businesses. (6) In one particular case, Bernardino preached in Trent on Easter just before nine Jews were arrested, accused of the murder of a boy named Simon, and tormented until they confessed. As a late fifteenth-century depiction shows, the local Jews were charged - typically falsely - with having tortured and killed the two and half year-old Simon in order to use his blood for making Passover matzo. (7) Regrettably, the practice of charging Jews with ritual murder created an epidemic of similar cases in Northern Italy and Austria. (8) After Bernardino’s death in 1494, the Monti di Pietà continued to thrive; however, the War of the League of Cambrai, 1508-1517, in addition to the growing population in the Veneto, had disastrous effects and put the Franciscan institution in peril. (9)
In looking to fifteenth-century images of Bernardino da Feltre including Montagna’s, one finds that they are not extremely common. According to Meneghin’s survey of Bernardino da Feltre’s iconography, the incidence of Bernardino’s portraits from the late fifteenth century typically correspond to where he gave sermons and established Monti di Pietà throughout the Veneto, Umbria, and Emilia Romagna. (10) A number of visual examples present a window into the depth of Bernardino’s effectual nature as a speaker, a proponent of the Monte di Pietà and Franciscanism in the Veneto and beyond. As was the case in Vicenza, Bernardino gave sermons on a variety of occasions in Faenza, as this canvas was to commemorate his memorable orations.
The portrait shows Bernardino dressed as a Franciscan, hooded with presumably golden rays that issue from his head, a standard iconographical feature indicating the image postdates his life. Meanwhile, a donor is portrayed kneeling in the left lower corner. Bernardino holds a cartouche in his left hand with the maxim written, “Diligere Mundum,” which refers to the First Epistle of John’s “Do not love things of this world (2:15)”, and a clear allusion to the steps taken towards salvation. These same features are seen in another painting of Bernardino by an unknown Ferrarese painter, dated to 1507. Bernardino holds the typical sign for the Monte di Pietà, a mound topped with a standard flying the flag of the Resurrection, which bears an image invoking pathos: Christ, Man of Sorrows. Usually the emblem of the Monte di Pietà also contains the words “Curam illius habe,” or “Give them to the Host,” allusive to the request for charity as seen in the Umbrian example painted by Giovanni di Pietro, otherwise known as “Lo Spagna” The Veronese painter Paolo Morando, called Cavazzola, painted a profile portrait intended as one of a cycle of paintings for a chapel in the Church of San Bernardino in Verona. Here Bernardino gestures as if in the act of sermonizing. Filippo Mazzola, father of the famous Parmigianino, painted a half-length sacra conversazione with Bernardino da Feltre in Parma. While the original context of this oil on panel is uncertain, it is known that Bernardino gave sermons in Parma between 1485 and 1492. Thus, the possibility remains that Mazzola himself might have had contact with the Franciscan missionary. Here Bernardino’s physiognomy is very similar to the features seen in Lo Spagna’s portrait, taking into account the round bulbous eyes and mustache, though the symbol of the Monte di Pietà is an abbreviated Man of Sorrows. Because in many instances the paintings of Bernardino da Feltre were intended as ex-votos honoring his sermons, I pose the following question: Where does Montagna’s sacra conversazione, incorporating Bernardino da Feltre, fit into this tradition? Undoubtedly, the presence of this figure forces us to observe this understudied work in a new light.
State of Conservation
In Montagna’s San Marco altarpiece, the beggar, pendant figure to Bernardino, appears original, as is the miniature figure of St. Catherine of Alexandria. The apparent diminished size of Bernardino is curious, though interesting to note that according to his biographies, he was apparently diminutive in stature. The Bishop of Padua was recorded as having called him, affectionately, “piccolino,” or “parvulo.” (11)
As a part of the recent technical investigation conducted by the Berlin Gemäldegalerie in 2004, the x-ray assemblage reveals that Bernardino da Feltre was likely added later, due to the fact that the figure is extremely light in intensity, almost invisible compared to the other figures in the painting. (12) Further examination reveals that the podium and socle were finished before Bernardino was added, thus he is most likely not a part of the originally planned painting. The letters “M.D.” on the throne base likely refer to Mater Dei, given the titular dedication to the Immaculate Conception. The Church of San Marco was re-consecrated and three additional altars were built on June 3, 1512. (13) Given the evidence of Montagna’s stylistic maturity observed in this work, such as his interest in saturated tones, movement of human form and the blurring of hard contours, it seems probable that Montagna would have produced this altarpiece for the new structure, and thus a date of 1500 for Montagna’s painting is premature. Vicentine Church historian, Francesco Barbarano, gives an account of San Marco’s six altars and describes them as they appeared in the mid-eighteenth century. According to Barbarano, the confraternities of Lonigo maintained these six altars, though Barbarano does not specify patrons to altars. (14)
By 1512 Vicenza and its provincial territory, including Lonigo, had long since restored its allegiance to the Venetian Republic, yet the war of the League of Cambrai persisted. It is known that the Monte di Pietà in Vicenza was affected adversely during these years. If the loan establishment in urban Vicenza had exhausted its funds in this time of extreme need, then can we assume that there were similar conditions in rural Lonigo during the League of Cambrai years? I suggest here that Montagna finished the altarpiece around 1512 and upon presentation to his patron, a local confraternity in Lonigo, it was decided to augment the composition to include Bernardino da Feltre in the interest of re-awakening his memory and donations given to the local Monte di Pietà. Bernardino’s presence in Lonigo was never documented, however he spoke many times in nearby Vicenza, Padua and Verona. Moreover, as his ex-voto portraiture tradition suggests, imagery of Bernardino da Feltre is strictly connected to commemorating his sermons, thus the appeal for donations.
Regrettably, the specifics of Bartolomeo Montagna’s commission remain obscured by the lack of archival information, as none of the convent’s inventories mention the painting. The San Marco in Lonigo altarpiece thus stands as a cultural marker of Franciscan rhetoric: promoting propaganda against Jewish money lending practices, and endorsement for the use of Monti di Pietà reflects Vicentine local piety.
(1) George Kaftal, Saints in Italian Art: Iconography of the Saints in the Paintings of North East Italy. Florence: Sansoni, 1978, 425. In North Eastern Italy, Kaftal cites only two others in addition to Montagna, one in the Basilica San Marco and another by Domenico da Tolmezzo (1479) in Udine at the Museo Civico.
(2) Renata Segre, “Bernardino da Feltre: I Monti di Pietà e I Banchi Ebraici,” Rivista storia italiana, vol. 90, Issue 4, (1978): 888.
(3) Vittorino Meneghin, Bernardino da Feltre e I Monti di Pietà (Vicenza: 1974), 393-5.
(5) Meneghin, 388-90.
(6) Segre, 825. For example, oddly Bernardino da Feltre never preached sermons in his native Feltre. Monte di Pietà was founded as late as 1542.
(7) Dana E. Katz, “The Contours of Tolerance: Jews and the Corpus Domini Altarpiece in Urbino,” The Art Bulletin 55 4 (December 2003): 652.
(8) Leon Poliakov, The History of Anti-Semitism (New York, Shocken Books, 1965), 148. Here is an exerpt from the Franciscan preacher’s sermon at Trento, “Jewish usurers bleed the poor to death and grow fat on their substance, and I who live on alms, who feed on the bread of the poor, shall I then be mute as a dog before outraged charity? Dogs bark to protect those who feed them, and I, whom am fed by the poor, shall I see them robbed of what belongs to them and keep silent? Dogs bark for their masters; shall I not bark for Christ?” Furthermore, the site of Simon’s execution later became a pilgrimage site.
(9) Meneghin, 401-2.
(10) See Meneghin, Iconografia del B. Bernardino Tomitano da Feltre. Venice: San Michele in Isola, 1967.
(11) Meneghin, (1967), 11. Bernardino Guslino da Feltre was his earliest biographer in 1696 and Simone da Marostica in 1871.
(12) See Elizabeth Carroll. “La Pala Ritrovata: Una rivisitazione della Pala d’Altare di
Bartolomeo Montagna, già nella Chiesa di San Marco a Lonigo.” Arte Documento 20 (2004):112-117.
(13) Pomello, 68. Cites the documentation as, “…si legge nei atti di Pietro Giovanni da Schio.”
(14) Francesco Barbarano de Mironi, Historia Ecclesiastica della Città, Territorio e Diocesi di Vicenza 1649-1762, Vicenza: Carlo Bressan, 1761., vol. VI, 48
Images courtesy of Berlin Gemaldegalerie and Vittorino Meneghin
Elizabeth Carroll Consavari, Ph.D.
Department of Art and Art History