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Adoration of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception

Federico Borromeo before the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception

Carlo Francesco Nuvolone (1609-1661). Chiesa Collegiata di Santa Maria. Arona. 1642.

Carlo Francesco Nuvolone was born in Milan in 1609. His father was Panfilo Nuvolone, a Mannerist painter. Carlo Francesco studied at the Ambrosiana academy in Milan. He was a pupil of Giovanni Battista Crespi called Il Cerano and with Il Morazzone, Giulio Cesare Procaccini and other artists, he was one of the excellent Baroque Milanese painters that epitomised the splendid Milanese revival in art. This splendour of art could rival with what happened in Rome and Paris. Nuvolone worked for churches for abbeys and he also made portraits. He had nice gifts for composition and colours. He produced many altarpieces, painted frescoes, and his work was thus mostly religious since that was where most of the Milanese creation was directed to, the Spanish rulers over the city being less interested in decorating and embellishing their possessions. Nuvolone was an artist who absorbed the new tendencies in art, the styles of his contemporaries. Yet he also could show powerful pictures of his own design. He died in 1661.

Nuvolone’s picture of ‘Federico Borromeo showing the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception’ dates from 1642. Cardinal Federico Borromeo had died in 1631, so this picture was painted in memory of the Cardinal. Milan’s beginning of the seventeenth century was of Federico Borromeo. The cardinal was born in 1564, already a cardinal at the age of twenty-three (he was consecrated in 1587). He was made Archbishop of Milan in 1595 by Pope Clement VIII. He was also the cousin and successor of Saint Charles Borromeo, San Carlo Borromeo, and these two men truly ruled Milan by their example of virtue, dignity, religious zeal, as well as by their energy in the service of Milan. Moreover, Federico Borromeo loved the arts and he had the wealth to acquire art. He also had a profound interest for the sciences. Borromeo was a learned man, not just a younger cousin that had been chosen to a family function. He had studied at Bologna University, at Pavia and in Rome. He favoured education for the Milanese. He was the Italian counter-weight to the Spanish rulers of the city and he balanced their arrogance with patience and magnificence. He was a very pious man and a charitable man. During the great famish and plague of 1627 to 1628 in Milan, he managed his clergy in the treatment of the disease. Many priests died, but Borromeo inspired them to tend to the sick. He comforted the sick himself, fed the poor from out of his own churches and became thus much beloved by the people of Milan.

Federico Borromeo founded one of the first public libraries of Italy, the Ambrosian Library, and he was a real maecenas for the arts in Milan. In the Ambrosian library he assembled not only books but also scientists, men like the mathematician Bonaventura Francesco Cavalieri. Federico Borromeo brought Cavalieri in contact with Galileo Galilei. In 1621 he founded the Ambrosiana gallery, which still exists today as one of the great museums of paintings in Milan, and he brought his private collection to that gallery. He bought many paintings from Milanese artists and filled his churches with their work. He also admired foreign artists however, such as artists from as far as Flanders. He corresponded with Jan Brueghel of Antwerp and bought from him many fine Flemish landscapes, a genre that was not in favour in Italy at that moment, but that appealed to the Cardinal. Borromeo founded churches and colleges. He worked at the Duomo of Milan. He died in his beloved city in 1631. His fame continues to this day.

Carlo Francesco Nuvolone must have many times met Cardinal Federico Borromeo. With time, the impression the master had of the Cardinal must have even improved and softened, for he painted Borromeo with a face that expresses only kindness and intelligence.

Nuvolone painted Cardinal Federico Borromeo presenting the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, the ultimate symbol in Roman Catholicism of goodness of heart, forgiveness, charity and intercession with God. The figure of the Holy Virgin is the figure of intercessor with God the Father that represents most the link between God the Father, the Son, and humanity. Borromeo shows peace and sweetness to the viewer. He shows the Virgin with his two hands, wholeheartedly, and he emphasises that the dignity and authority of his function in the church is nothing compared to Mary’s qualities. The cardinal wears the purple that was the colour of emperors only in antiquity, but his face is not haughty and he attracts the viewer not to his humble person, but directs him or her to the virgin immediately and totally. Such was the message of piety and religious devotion to the true values of love in Christianity of Federico Borromeo and of Nuvolone. Of course, the Cardinal was a keen administrator and manager and he must have kicked to action many a man, but it is only in goodness that Nuvolone remembers the Cardinal.

Federico Borromeo has a dignified, soft but sophisticated face. It is the face of a scholar that Nuvolone shows. The fine moustache and beard have gone white and thinned, but Borromeo remained a man who cared also for himself and for his appearance. His eyes are soft and mild, and his mouth a little sad. Borromeo has made his the worries of the world, so he has become silvery-white on them and the wrinkles around his eyes denote the work spent in the service of his flock, which was the entire Milanese population.

The Cardinal shows the Virgin to the viewer. The Mary that is depicted is the Lady of the Apocalypse of Saint John, the woman that God has placed to crush the dragon of evil. We receive thus again a message of goodness prevailing over the world. The dragon is indeed a terrifying beast, with a horrible, long snout and red-flaming tongue protruding from an impressive set of teeth. Despite its fierceness, the immaculate Virgin dominates the animal easily, unarmed and with her bare feet.

In the figure of the Virgin, Nuvolone proved that he was the true Baroque artist. Nuvolone painted cardinal Borromeo with a gesture that shows the Virgin, a gesture that is a movement in the picture and not a static poise. Thus, the Cardinal is a dynamic figure. It was not evident to lend the impression of movement in paintings, but the Baroque painters and Nuvolone in particular learned how to instil these impressions of dynamic views very efficiently. They had at their disposal quite limited means for that in the art of painting, but they became masters in showing motion in their works. The figure of the Virgin too, is a very dynamic figure. Nuvolone made her twist her body in a graceful bend to look at the dragon beneath her. Therefore, she turns her body and also her right knee. In order to emphasise the movement further, the Virgin extends her left arm outwards to form a counter-weight. Her right arm points to the heavens and it also strengthens the equilibrium of her body. The arm keeps her body to the right side of the view. If Nuvolone had left the figure like that, it would have seemed that the Virgin would soon fall to the right side of the frame. There would have been no balance in the figure. So, Nuvolone needed a mass of colours to check the movement to the right. He solved the issue by letting the wind blow into the blue cloak of the virgin, opening the cloak and blowing the cloth gloriously in marvellous shades and chiaroscuro of blue, to the left. This blue mass of colours balances the outstretched left arm and hand of Mary. It balances the flowing gown and accentuates even more the expression of movement in Mary’s figure. It would be hard to bring more sense of motion in a figure of a painting, while still preserving balance. Carlo Francesco Nuvolone succeeded wonderfully in this task.

The Virgin is clad in a white robe and a blue cloak. The blue colours envelop the Virgin and Nuvolone gave by some miracle of his art a feeling of the heaviness of the cloth, so that the Virgin seems enveloped in warm velvet despite the coldness of the blue hue. Nuvolone painted the blue cloak in darker tones and yellow and red glows soften the pureness of the colder blue. The blue colour however contrasts finely with the broken white and with the light brown hues on Mary’s robe. This contrast makes a striking area of colours in the centre of the picture, attracting the eye of the spectator. Nuvolone demonstrated his skills in chiaroscuro and in shading, in depicting the contours of Mary’s body by play of light on the robe alone. The light plays downwards, from the golden heavens down, all the way along Mary’s upper body, arms, and her long legs. Borromeo shows this marvel of a figure of the painted Mary.

We must linger on Mary’s figure. It has always been a wonder in art to make a painting or a sculpture of a human body and to show it in a way that suggests not only grace and movement, but that is also original and natural. Artists could spend weeks of trials and drawing sketches at finding the exact, new poise that was both surprising and fine. Few painters and sculptors have really succeeded in the act. The textbook example is Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ picture of ‘The Source’. Nuvolone succeeded as well as Ingres, two centuries earlier, in finding a poise for the Virgin that was natural and new, gracious, light, delicate, and dynamic. The curves of Nuvolone’s Virgin are as fluent, evident, consistent and balanced as the lines of Ingres’ nude. But Nuvolone’s Mary is a lot livelier and shows the inspiration of love.

The spectator’s view may be attracted first to the bright red figure of Borromeo. Cardinal Federico Borromeo points upwards and towards the Virgin. The Virgin points to the heavens. That heaven is filled with brightness, just above the Virgin. Mary suggests that the true powers all originate in these heavens, in God, and when her right arm links her to God, the look of her eyes go towards the evil, to the dragon under her feet, to the temptation of mankind. She channels the powers of god to the dragon.

We find the Cardinal at that lower level too, a position of humility, for Nuvolone has not placed the Cardinal at the height of the Virgin. Nuvolone regarded and painted the Cardinal as a pious, humble and gentle man, who did not seek to be assimilated with kings or saints. Mary is a queen all right, for she wears the crown of her status. There existed many paintings in the Renaissance and in Nuvolone’s own times made on the theme of the ‘Coronation of the Virgin’, so Nuvolone could crown Mary with a golden royal crown without theological problems. The Cardinal’s gesture, Mary’s gesture to the heavens, and the white light above Mary, form an upward aspiration in the picture that is the elevation to spirituality, bringing an additional sublimation and inspiration of fine feelings in the viewer. The viewer’s eyes are directed by the painter to the golden heaven, where God’s light breaks through the clouds. There, the angels, emanations of God, come in pairs and always one angel looks upward, the other downward. In the very bright light we find Mary’s face, sweet and mild, a face with very regular and soft features.

Carlo Francesco Nuvolone’s painting ‘Federico Borromeo showing the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception’ is truly a masterpiece of composition, of colours and of mastery of details. Nuvolone expressed apparently easily, almost nonchalantly, the spiritual aspiration of the Cardinal, as well as the noble, devoted character of the wise Cardinal of Milan. Nuvolone was a very intelligent artist, who sold simple pictures that were however extremely sophisticated in all aspects of the art of painting and showed true genius.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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