by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |

Marco Palmezzano: Who he?

By Roderick Conway Morris
FORLI, Italy 27 January 2006
Musei Civici di Forlì
Annunciation by Marco Palmezzano, 1495-97



In his roll call of the most illustrious painters of his age, the great Renaissance mathematician and humanist Luca Pacioli cites Piero della Francesca, Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Signorelli, Mantegna, Melozzo da Forli and his pupil, Marco Palmezzano.

The last name stands out. Who he? For, even if one or two of them have experienced ups and downs in their fame, every other artist on the list is a familiar name five centuries after Pacioli drew up his list.

The first exhibition to be devoted to Palmezzano was held here in 1938, not the time or place to revive international awareness of a forgotten Italian artist. Palmezzano had the misfortune to come from the town where Mussolini began his career (he was born in a village nearby). Ironically, one of the curators was a prominent antifascist - although Mussolini was distinguished by his lack of interest in art.

Now, nearly 70 years later, the artist is the subject of an excellent exhibition, 'Marco Palmezzano: The Renaissance in Romagna,' featuring his own work flanked by relevant pieces by his contemporaries at the restored San Domenico Monastery, Forli's new civic museum. After April 30 when this, the first temporary show to be staged there, closes, many of the paintings will continue to be visible at the museum and in churches in the town and region.

Palmezzano was born in 1459. After his initial training under Merlozzo da Forli, who had collaborated with Piero della Francesca and was widely esteemed as a master of perspective and foreshortening techniques, Palmezzano went to Rome in the early 1490s, a period of intense artistic activity in that city, encouraged not least during the papacy of Sixtus IV by the building of the eponymous Sistine Chapel and other projects that attracted ambitious artists from all over the peninsula. This was also the era of the rediscovery of ancient Roman decorative art, especially in the caverns or 'grottoes' opened up as a result of the excavation of Nero's by-then subterranean Golden House, which lent these revived motifs the name 'grotesques.' They were to become a standard element in Palmezzano's altarpieces.

The artist may then have gone on to Jerusalem to join the team doing frescoes at the Holy Cross church there, but documentary evidence for this is lacking. He is, however, noted as being in Venice in 1495, and he acquired property there. Shortly thereafter, he was evidently back in Forli, where he spent the rest of his long and industrious life, apparently with only brief excursions connected with commissions in other places in the region and perhaps one of two trips further afield, until his death in 1539.

Venetian painting in general, and the work of Giovanni Bellini and Cima da Conegliano in particular, were to remain the most powerful influence on Palmezzano's output. Moreover, he remained faithful to the Venetian style of the later 15th and early 16th century to the end of his days. Mannerism entirely passed him by and he seemed immune to subsequent developments even in Venetian painting.

In fact, Palmezzano could study Venetian painting in his own part of the world - there was a celebrated Giovanni Bellini altarpiece, for example, not far away in the coastal town of Pesaro, which unquestionably inspired him. However, he subsequently drew on later compositions, painted in Venice after his 1495 visit, which suggests that he returned to the lagoon city at least once, 10 to 15 years after his first stay there.

Palmezzano's striking conservatism, his dogged cleaving to the techniques and spirit of late-15th-century art, which he had thoroughly absorbed and reproduced with masterly control and apparently profound conviction, has tended to obscure elements of originality in his work. This theme is taken up by Timothy Verdon in a stimulating essay in the exhibition catalogue.

One of the most attractive facets of the artist's oeuvre are the distinctive and suggestive landscapes that form the backdrops of many of his altarpieces. These are a blend of the ideal and lyrical, and of the observed reality of the Apennine foothills and mountains to the south of Forli, for which Palmezzano clearly had a real affection. These landscapes are also employed to subtle and imaginative effect to convey the symbolic religious messages of the works.

Landscape plays a major role in what is perhaps Palmezzano's masterpiece, his 'Annunciation' altarpiece for Forli's Carmelite church, dated at 1495-97, now owned by the city's civic museum. The figures, drapery and architectural setting are superbly executed. The picture contains wonderful details, such as the way a sudden breeze appears to winnow the pages of the Virgin's book lying on the lectern. On a hill in the background, reached by a winding path, is a church, very likely a reference to the order's chapel, dedicated to the Virgin, on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land. Palmezzano directly connects the Virgin with the church by juxtaposing the detail in the distance with her raised hand, which appears at once to be acknowledging the angel and blessing the church. Thus, while dwelling on the drama of the image in the foreground, the viewer's gaze is directed by the Virgin's gesture to take in, almost subliminally, the symbolically rich landscape in the background.

Significantly, too, as Verdon argues (presuming the present dating of this 'Annunciation' to be correct), in this work Palmezzano actually anticipates Venetian painters in bringing landscape into such central focus in a large-scale altarpiece.

The luminous, timeless tranquility of Palmezzano's painting starkly contrasted with the violent realities of life in his home town, which during this epoch was notoriously lawless even by contemporary Italian standards. The leading families, of which Palmezzano's was one, were locked in an endless cycle of confrontations, brawls, assassinations and revenge killings, which continued even after Pope Julius II brought this turbulent border area definitively into the Papal States in 1506.

Uncharacteristically pertinent to this murderous and anarchic environment was the artist's 'San Giovanni Gualberto adoring the Cross and St. Magdalene.' Unusually, Palmezzano represents the saintly monk not in his habit but in the knight's apparel of the days previous to his life-transforming experience, highlighting the young blood as against the venerable mystic.

Giovanni Gualberto was an 11th-century Florentine, whose brother was murdered on the eve of Good Friday. The following day Gualberto caught up with the fugitive killer on the road and drew his weapon to avenge the death. But moved by the man's pleas for mercy and his sword's sudden likeness to the cross, he embraced the man and forgave him. He then repaired to a nearby church to give thanks, and the figure of Christ on the cross there seemed miraculously to give a nod of approval. Gualberto renounced the world, became famed for his holiness, later founded the Vallombrosan Order and was sanctified.

Over 20 years after tackling this subject, Palmezzano found himself before his own picture, at the altar dedicated to the saint at the San Mercuriale (a Vallombrosan church) in Forli's central square, with other members of his clan, exchanging the kiss of peace and taking a solemn oath to end a feud with a rival family.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023