Defendente Ferrari: escape from the Renaissance
Defendente Ferrari keenly sought refuge in dreams during an era that instead celebrated the triumph of reality.
In the apse of the church of Sant’Antonio di Ranverso, called the Precettorìa degli Antoniani, one can admire the great Polittico della Natività painted in approx 1532 by Defendente Ferrari. The church is in the lower Susa valley, where the large religious complex founded in 1188 welcomed pilgrims on the ancient Francigena route, a busy path between northern and southern Europe for several centuries. The canonical order of St. Anthony of Vienne provided assistance to sick pilgrims – the monks were specialists in the treatment of herpes zoster (the fire of St Anthony in Italian) and ergot infection. The pig fat was the secret to their effective cure. According to a medieval vulgate, Saint Anthony the Abbot had miraculously ascended to heaven in the company of his favorite pet animal: a pig.
In the great altarpiece created in Ranverso by Defendente Ferrari, the figure of the saint emerges in the lateral compartment of the polyptych in a quilt of gold; he holds a stick in his left hand and a bell in his right. At his feet is a black pig and the flickering, stylized flame, a symbol of the pains caused by herpes. Seven stories from the saint’s life are represented on the dais. Here, Defendente’s brush moved as though it were touched by a clear breath of alpine snow, imbued with naturalistic precision of Flemish inspiration.
The fusion of Gothic elegance and Flemish painterly aspects is remarkable in the oeuvre of Defendente. These features emerge in the landscapes of the predella, especially in the characters and in the glimpses of everyday life such as the flask that hangs from a beam in the stable of the Nativity or Adoration (1511) of the church of San Giovanni in Avigliana near Turin. On the other hand, there is no shortage of colored marble inlays and architectures built with perfect geometrical perspective typical of Tuscan Renaissance – see the central nativity scene in the Ranverso polyptych, or in the Triptych of the Nativity, Adoration of the Magi and Deposition of Christ (1523) in the Galleria Sabauda in Turin. The latter is set in a ruinous architecture, composed of ancient elements typical of Piedmontese Renaissance buildings. Next to the collapsed capitals, indices of the fall of the ancient world, seemingly made of a poor and therefore more human material, there is the child lying on a hem of the maternal mantle of a deep night blue, edged with moss green. The new world walks in the darkness of nature until it reaches the light above a stable.
In the Triptych of the Nativity, Adoration of the Magi and Deposition of Christ, humanity and humanism are fused, but do not conform to that model of the “preordained loggias and rooms between the Tiber and Arno” as Giovanni Testori wrote in his work La Realtà della Pittura, which is responsible for the rediscovery of ancient painters from northern Italy – those of the “Gran teatro montano,” as he titled one of his memorable essays. The name of Defendente Ferrari, who was a stranger to the Tuscany and Rome-oriented mainstream Italian Renaissance history, disappeared for centuries. Furthermore, after the suppression of religious orders at the end of the 18th century, many of his polyptychs were dismantled and dispersed in various museums in Italy, Europe and the US.
Simone Baiocco, a curator at Palazzo Madama in Turin and scholar of the artist, stresses the centrality of the Ranverso polyptych to understand the work of Defendente Ferrari, not only because this painting is exceptionally preserved in its overall structure, including the case and the two large doors that close it – a typology of Nordic origin. It is also because of recent attribution history. In the 1860s, the Barnabite priest Luigi Bruzza found the contract for the construction of the polyptych of the nativity, commissioned to a certain “Deffendente de Ferrariis de Clavaxio (Chivasso) pinctore”, in the municipal archive of Moncalieri. Thanks to this discovery, which brings the name of Defendente to light for the first time in relation to the painting, scholars would again browse the archives of the Municipality of Chivasso to find traces of the artist’s activity. His paintings were previously attributed to other artists, sometimes high-sounding names such as Albrecht Dürer for example. From the discovery of Bruzza, through comparisons and research of homogeneous stylistic traits, many paintings scattered in various churches of Piedmont or held in museums and private collections found a new author.