Italian Lakes (2013)

ART AND ARCHITECTURE

Beyond a northern Italian aesthetic, there are few obvious unifying strands running through the bewildering array of art and architecture found in the Italian Lakes. From Gothic cathedrals to Venetian art, all styles are represented.

As a crossroads between the Alpine and Mediterranean worlds, the lakes have dipped into a dressing-up box of architectural styles, from Roman to Rococo, and Baroque to Belle Epoque – occasionally all at once, when wealthy owners have turned their residences into kingdoms of kitsch. The lure of the lakes continues to attract waves of outsiders, eager to buy a neoclassical villa or shape a home in their own eclectic image.

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Venetian customs house, Lazise.

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Artistically, the lakes have been influenced by Venetian and Lombard schools of art, depending on the vagaries of the patrons of art and the creative powerhouses of the day. One can tease out a love of colour and light, the legacy of effervescent Venetian art, and a passion for realism and veracity, the legacy of the more sober Lombard tradition.

The cosmopolitan nature of this corner of Italy has produced an alluring hybrid of architectural styles: from Romanesque to Rococo, Baroque to Belle Epoque.

Underlying this is a deep affinity for the Romanesque, a natural bond for any area so steeped in the grandeur of Roman civilisation. Yet any shared aesthetic is diluted by regional diversity, reflecting the historical power shifts in the lakes. Add to the mix the progressive, cosmopolitan nature of this northern corner of Italy and the result is a melting pot of styles: austere Romanesque segues into pinnacled Gothic and princely Baroque, before pausing for breath for florid Art Nouveau or Fascistic Monumentalism. In essence, the lakes represent one of the most beguiling architectural hybrids in Italy.

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Fresco from Santa Trinità, Torri del Bonaco, Lake Garda.

Anna Mockford and Nick Bonetti/Apa Publications

The Venetian legacy

Regional rivalries and separate histories are reflected in the local architecture and shape broad differences between Lombardy and Piedmont, or Trentino and the Veneto. This is not a clear-cut regional divide that reflects modern-day boundaries: the Venetian Empire once ruled much of the lakes and has left a Venetian imprint on modern-day Lombardy, particularly in Bergamo and Brescia, including a fondness for balconies and astronomical clocks. The Venetian Republic marked the territory with stone lions, which symbolised the might of La Serenissima. (The symbol was in honour of St Mark, traditionally represented by a lion.)

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Mosaics from the Roman villa at Desenzano.

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Modern Veneto is far smaller, but the Venetian spirit, along with the odd lion, survives on the eastern shore of Lake Garda. The port of Lazise has a 16th-century Venetian Customs House, while Peschiera lies snug in Venetian bastions. Elegant Verona remains Venetian, even if its architecture owes as much to the preceding Scaligeri dynasty, which left the city and lakeside resorts with battlemented castles and bridges. The legacy also lingers on in the regional art galleries, where Giovanni Bellini’s luminous Madonnas remind us that the Venetians were the supreme artists of colour and light.

If Verona is the standard-bearer for Venice, Milan represents Lombardy, and Brescia is caught between the two. When Brescia fell under the sway of the Venetian Republic in 1427, the new rulers created the symbol of Renaissance Brescia, Piazza della Loggia, which was graced with loggias, porticoes and an astronomical clock. The centrepiece, La Loggia, was the town hall started by Sansovino and completed by Palladio in 1562. This public building thus bears the imprint of two of the Venetian Republic’s greatest architects.

Roman Playground

The Romans established colonies in Brescia, Como, Milan and Verona, but Lake Garda was their playground, especially the spa resort of Sirmione. Evocative ruins of a villa associated with Catullus, Rome’s greatest lyric poet, are visible (for more information, click here ), matched by Desenzano’s mosaics from a 3rd-century AD villa.

As Brixia, Brescia was a prominent Roman city and still has the greatest concentration of remains north of Rome, with new villas recently unearthed. The Amphitheatre stands close to the Forum and the Capitolium, with the Capitoline Temple erected by Emperor Vespasian in AD 73.

Several Pompeian-style Roman villas are incorporated into Brescia’s exceptional Santa Giulia Museum, which displays busts, statuary and mosaics from lakeside villas, as well as the Winged Victory , the greatest Hellenistic sculpture in Lombardy.

The finest Roman remains are visible in Verona, where the Arena is second only to Rome’s Colosseum. Designed to hold the entire 20,000-strong population, it is the third-largest in the world and the best-preserved. Even if critics decry the Amphitheatre as a place where the frame outshines the picture, the site has resonance, and the rosy pink marble steps will survive us all.

Lombard longevity

Lombardy has exerted even more influence. Medieval merchants who grew rich on silk and weaponry, the astute Lombards built to last, from Romanesque abbeys and monasteries to Gothic town halls and cathedrals, culminating in the pinnacled splendour of Milan’s Duomo.

If the Lombard work ethic and ingrained Catholicism manifested themselves as cathedrals and monasteries, Piedmontese religiosity often took the form of shrines and statuary. On Lake Orta, Piedmont has one of the finest Sacri Monti, the devotional shrines and Marian sanctuaries that add an air of spirituality to this corner of the lakes (for more information, click here ). Lake Maggiore, the principal patch of Piedmont on the lakes, is a shrine to a living dynasty, the princely Borromean clan, who created palaces on the Borromean Islands, a vast monument to the sainted Charles Borromeo (1538–94) in Arona, and a magnificent castle on the far bank (for more information, click here).

In mountainous Trentino, north of Lake Garda, the rugged, borderlands nature of the region deems that castles are the greatest legacy, along with grand palaces linked to the prince-bishops who once treated Trentino as their personal fiefdom. The further north one goes from Lake Garda, the greater the sense of an Alpine spirit, with a Tyrolean stamp on the villages, a clear legacy from the era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

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Piazza della Loggia, Brescia.

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Architecturally, the lakes come together in the Renaissance, Baroque and neoclassical eras when villa-building flourished, with ever-grander bucolic residences built on the shores of lakes Como, Maggiore and Garda. The lakes then returned to being a sought-after retreat, much as they had been in their original Roman heyday.

From Roman to Romanesque

If the Romans treated Lake Garda as prime real estate, with the spa resorts a favoured location for their villas, the Longobards treated Lombardy, particularly Brescia and Pavia, as their power base and spiritual home. The Longobard era (6th–8th centuries) and the Caroliningian era (8th century to the early 10th century) were a golden age for Brescia and Lake Garda, even if many churches were incorporated into later medieval structures, as with San Severo in Lazise or San Zeno in Bardolino. Brescia’s Santa Giulia displays Italy’s most precious artwork from the Longobard era which, in true Italian fashion, recycles earlier treasures: The Cross of Desiderius , created for the last king of the Lombards, is a glittering 8th-century masterpiece, studded with Roman gemstones and cameos.

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Cross of Desiderius, Museo di Santa Giulia, Brescia.

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In the former Roman colonies of Brescia, Milan, Como, Bergamo and Verona, the imprint of Roman architecture was reinterpreted as Romanesque. Sant’Ambrogio in Milan, dating from the 9th century, is the prototype of the Lombard Romanesque, and spawned a rash of similar churches all over the Lombardy side of the lakes. Set on a colonnaded quadrangle, the church is characterised by a triangular facade, porticoes and decorative blind arcading, known as Lombard bands. Capitals carved with mythical beasts reflect a love of sculpture that reached its apogee with the Maestri Comacini and Maestri Campionesi, the lakes’ travelling confraternities of master builders, stonemasons and sculptors (for more information, click here ).

Grotesques and Giants

The lakes are dotted with memorable statues, from the grotesque Baroque creatures on Isola Bella to Canova’s neoclassical couple, Cupid and Psyche , in Villa Carlotta. In Val Camonica, the church of Santuario di Via Crucis displays a series of distinctly kitsch Stations of the Cross, with 200 life-size 18th-century statues.

Strangest of all is a huge bronze statue of St Charles Borromeo, the éminence grise of the Counter-Reformation, in the lakeside town of Arona. Known as San Carlone (Big Saint Charlie), the statue invites visitors to climb the stairs inside and peer out at the lake through the eyes of the saint.

The Romanesque phase was one of the most glorious eras, especially in Lombardy and Verona. Como has always been an aspirational city, beginning with its early prominence as a Roman town. As a result, the Romanesque style is woven into the warp and weft of the city fabric, from facades and fortified towers to the simplicity of the church of San Fedele. By comparison, Verona’s San Zeno Maggiore stands out as the most elaborate Romanesque church in northern Italy, with its rose window encased in a superb facade, matched by a magnificent sculpted porch and ornate bronze door panels. But the strength of the Romanesque style is that its architectural vigour extends to the smallest churches in Val Camonica, which stand as stark beacons above the valley.

Gothic glories

The Gothic style, imported from France, has less resonance in the lakes, with several stunning exceptions. Milan’s Sant’Ambrogio might be the blueprint for Lombard Romanesque churches, but the city’s Duomo, Europe’s largest Gothic cathedral, is more eclectic. A Milanese expression, “lungo come la fabbrica del Duomo” (as long as the building of the cathedral), speaks volumes for the Milanese sense of urgency. This daring, unfinished masterpiece was started in 1386 and seamlessly blends Gothic, Baroque, neoclassical and neo-Gothic styles. Flying buttresses and soaring pinnacles contrast with the excessive width preferred by native Lombard builders. Unlike French Gothic, which strived for spirituality through towering verticality, Lombard Gothic stresses width and solidity, sense over sensibility, and power over principle – the solid values of the merchant class.

In Como, the Duomo, begun in 1396, has an intricate gabled facade and spans the transition from late Gothic to Renaissance, with a richly sculpted main portal. Flanking the cathedral is the bell tower and magnificent Broletto, the former town hall, an arcaded Gothic affair with triple-arched windows.

In the early 15th century, many cities were under Venetian sway, which can be seen in Brescia’s graceful Renaissance squares and an astronomical clock tower. The Serene Republic also fortified its trading posts on Lake Garda, including the walled port of Lazise. Most charming of all is the Venetian influence on Bergamo, from the Gothic windows to the heraldic lions, the symbol of La Serenissima. Bergamo, a perfectly preserved medieval hill-town, retains its Venetian soul: 400 years of rule have left their mark in the elegant architecture and symbols of the Serene Republic. The Renaissance masterpieces extend to sculpture, notably in the Cappella Colleoni, designed as a funerary monument to the legendary condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni, a rich mercenary leader, blessed with a jewel box of a mausoleum, swathed in Lombard Renaissance finery.

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The Duomo in Milan.

Glyn Genin/Apa Publications

Castles and convents

As a gateway to Alpine Europe, the lakes are also castle country, with most medieval ports possessing a hulking fortress. Two imposing medieval castles stand above the fray: Sirmione’s Rocca Scaligera, a moated 13th-century fortress crowned by swallow-tailed battlements, and Angera’s Rocca Borromeo, a brooding Borromean stronghold on the quieter side of Lake Maggiore.

As fears of invasion faded, feudal castles were transformed into luxurious villas. Near Lake Iseo, Castello di Bornato is a crenellated medieval castle which opens onto a Renaissance villa and Italianate gardens. On Lake Garda, Riva is dominated by the Rocca, a moated medieval castle that typifies the transition from feudal fortress to patrician residence.

Although still framed by corner towers, the original fortress, complete with arsenal and barracks, gave way to a Renaissance pleasure palace for the ruling prince-bishops of Trento, with the residence further domesticated in Austro-Hungarian times.

Despite a flurry of building, the Renaissance was far from being the coherent, revolutionary force that it was in Tuscany. Although the region possesses pure Renaissance churches, far more are hybrids, the result of changing tastes and gradual accretions. Whether in convents or villas, the Renaissance was constrained to accommodate other styles. Santa Caterina, overlooking Lake Maggiore, is typical, one of the finest monastic complexes in Lombardy, and a harmonious mixture of periods, from the Gothic bell tower and frescoes to the Renaissance porch looking across to the Borromean Islands.

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“The Poor Man’s Sistine Chapel”, by Romanino, a Brescian painter, in Santa Maria della Neve.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

In Brescia, Santa Giulia Museo della Città, set in a former convent, is both the best history museum in northern Italy and a beguiling complex showcasing Brescia’s past that embraces Roman villas, a Byzantine basilica, a nuns’ choir and a Romanesque oratory, all built on the same site.

Landmark villas

As for palatial residences, many were orignally built as convents. On Lake Como, the lovely Villa Balbianello is a prime example. It started out as a Franciscan foundation before taking the secular path to paradise. Many of the 16th-century waterside villas have lost their Renaissance spirit, but Villa Cicogna Mozzoni, outside Varese, remains a true Lombard Renaissance villa. Another Lake Como landmark, Villa d’Este, is part authentic, part hybrid: although transformed into a palatial hotel, this 16th-century former royal residence is still framed by Mannerist gardens enlivened by statuary, secret grottoes and a grand water stairway.

The Walls of Death

Gothic and Renaissance art is well represented in the region, particularly in the form of frescoes, which depict a wider range of subject matter than found in most of Italy. North of Lake Garda, Trento’s Renaissance facades are surpassed by the Gothic frescoes in the city’s Castello del Buonconsiglio, depicting the agricultural calendar.

On Lake Maggiore, the monastery of Santa Caterina is home to a chilling Gothic Danse Macabre , a Dance of Death complete with a very grim Grim Reaper. Other scenes depict the vanity of human wishes: both a merchant engrossed in his accounts and a courtier in love with his lady are faced with their own mortality.

Clusone, in Bergamo’s Valle Seriana, displays even more disturbing Dance of Death frescoes, which decorate the facade of the Chiesa dei Disciplini. Held up as a moral lesson, the Gothic frescoes compare the different attitudes towards death held by the wealthy and the poor.

On Lake Iseo, Santa Maria della Neve is a showcase to Renaissance painter, Girolamo Romani, known as ‘Romanino’ (c.1484–1559). The Brescian-born painter is renowned for his realistic and dynamic portraits of contemporaries. Known as a poor man’s Sistine Chapel, the church is frescoed with peasant-like faces that are still found in Val Camonica.

Baroque extravagance

The Baroque style found its truest expression in Turin, rather than Milan, but on the lakes is best represented by the Borromean follies. Although Isola Bella began as little more than a rock with a view, it became both a Baroque masterpiece and a hollow exercise in one-upmanship. Somewhat ironically for a family whose motto is humility, the turreted Borromean palace is a bombastic affair. From the gilded throne room to the Empire-style ballroom, ostentatious salons are encrusted with stuccowork and emblazoned with heraldic crests. Lapses in taste are redeemed by the genuine grandeur of the cantilevered spiral staircase and by an art collection of 16th–18th-century Venetian and Lombard artists. If the overwhelming impression is of an official residence, the Rococo palace on the adjoining Isola Madre represents a warmer, more private side to the princely clan. Outside the major cities, true Baroque works are rare. On Lake Orta, the lofty sanctuary of Madonna del Sasso, perched on a granite outcrop, is a frescoed Baroque church with stunning views over the mountains and lake.

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Madonna with Child (1475, detail) by Bellini, from the Castelvecchio in Verona.

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Although a stifling, passionless form, the neoclassical spirit found its greatest expression in lakeside villas and in Milan’s covered galleries, which are a triumph of engineering. Galleria Vittorio Emanuele remains the quintessential Milanese shopping mall. On Lake Como, the austere neoclassical Villa Melzi is set in the first “English” gardens on the lake, while Villa Olmo is a grandiose gem, matched by formal gardens and a lakeside promenade.

Villa Carlotta may be a Baroque villa with a theatrical staircase, but the exuberance acts as a foil to the cool neoclassical interior, which is bursting with statuary, including Canova’s celebrated Cupid and Psyche .

Lombard and Venetian art

The lakes are particularly rich in Renaissance and Mannerist art in the Venetian and Lombard traditions, though individual geniuses such as Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea Mantegna and Caravaggio transcend neat categories. Works by the Lombard masters can be admired in churches and galleries all over the region, especially in Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera, the finest collection of northern Italian art.

Venetian art is the most prestigious affair, with greater influence and more brilliant masters, ranging from Giovanni Bellini to Veronese, Titian and Tintoretto, all of whom are represented in the lakes. Venetian sensibility reflected a shimmering, watery world. While lacking the purity and perspective of Florentine art, it embodies a poetic, painterly sensibility at odds with the rational, monumental and sculptural Florentine style. Giovanni Bellini (c .1430–1516) is considered the founder of the Venetian school, the painter who freed art from its Byzantine stiffness, creating luminous Madonnas, and infusing his art with light, literally seen as a medium of grace. His work is on display in Castelvecchio in Verona, along with other late Gothic and Renaissance Venetian art, including works by Pisanello, Tintoretto, Veronese and Jacopo Bellini.

In the same gallery is The Holy Family by Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini’s Paduan brother-in-law and the artist from the Venetian school who most influenced him. Also in Verona, San Zeno Maggiore is home to Mantegna’s Virgin and Child , an altarpiece that echoes the shape of the rose window. Instead, Mantegna’s Dead Christ (c .1480) is one of the masterpieces in Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera. This disturbingly brilliant work, an exercise in bold foreshortening, was found among the artist’s possessions after his death. The Brera displays masterpieces from all Italian schools, including works by Caravaggio as well as by Piero della Francesca, depicting the duke of Urbino in Milanese armour in his Montefeltro Altarpiece (1475).

It is invidious to single out Renaissance artists who most shaped the lakes, but Leonardo da Vinci stands out. Invited by the duke of Milan, Leonardo used his Milanese sojourns to develop his sfumato technique, the smoky shading that accentuated his mystique. In Milan, The Last Supper (Cenacolo Vinciano) is one of the world’s most evocative paintings, set in the monastic refectory it was designed for. After a controversial restoration, the masterpiece has regained its lustre. Leonardo chose to use the techniques of oil painting rather than the more durable techniques of fresco-painting, but against all the odds the fragile work has survived both the passage of Napoleonic troops and Allied bombing, which destroyed the rest of the monastery in 1943.

Given Venetian rule over much of the area, combined with La Serenissima’s artistic pre-eminence, the Lombard/Venetian distinction is often blurred. Titian, very much a Venetian artist, created the Averoldi Altarpiece (1522) for Brescia’s church of Santi Nazaro e Celso. The poignant depiction of St Sebastian, with its muscular realism portrayed in a vivid style, greatly influenced the Brescian school.

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Accademia Carrara, Bergamo.

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Home-grown genius

Although not in the same league as the Florentine or Venetian schools, the Lombard Renaissance flourished with the works of Vincenzo Foppa (1427–1514), leader of the Brescian school, whose Mercanti Altarpiece is a highlight in the city’s Martinengo gallery. Girolamo Romanino (d. 1561) is one of the finest home-grown Renaissance artists, with his pioneering realism and common touch seen in memorable works throughout Lombardy, particularly around Lake Iseo and Val Camonica. Bergamo’s Accademia Carrara, a repository of Venetian and Lombard art, displays works by the Gothic master Pisanello, as well as luminous paintings by Giovanni and Jacopo Bellini. It is matched by Brescia’s Martinengo gallery, showcasing the Brescian masters, including Moretto, the most grandiose and classical of artists, who presages Caravaggio in his muted colour palette and brooding sense of chiaroscuro.

The most celebrated Lombard artist is Caravaggio (1573–1610), often called “the master of chiaroscuro” and a founder of modern painting. As a force of nature, an anarchic rebel of an artist, Caravaggio created works of unparalleled drama and intensity. His paintings on display in Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera and Pinacoteca Ambrosiana include A Basket of Fruit , deemed one of the earliest Italian attempts at still life.

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Triennale Design Museum, Milan.

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The march to modernity

For all its love of the past, the region is not marooned in an artistic time warp. Architecturally, the Mussolini era left a disquieting imprint on the lakes, especially in the public squares of Milan, Varese, Brescia and Bergamo. But such ponderous Monumentalism also produced the masterpiece that is Milan Central Station.

As the most forward-looking region in Italy, Lombardy claims the greatest spoils in terms of modern art and design, rivalled by Piedmont. In Varese, Villa Panza is a showcase of American Abstract art and contemporary installations, while Bergamo’s modern art gallery displays works by Kandinsky and Graham Sutherland. Milan, the modern design mecca, boasts the Triennale exhibition hub, with the alluring new Design Library and Design Museum.

In Rovereto, north of Lake Garda, the Museo de Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (MART) is one of Italy’s finest modern art museums, and is a bold venture aspiring to “the Guggenheim effect”. The MART showcases modern European artists, including Picasso, Dalí and Miró, and covers Symbolism, American Pop Art and Italian Arte Povera. The strongest collection features the Futurists, an Italian-centred movement that emphasised dynamism, revolution and constant change, led by Marinetti, Boccioni and local artist Depero. The Futurist Manifesto decried the bourgeois past – “We will destroy museums and libraries” – but fortunately their works are on display here, in true bourgeois fashion.

As for domestic architecture, the lakes’ enduring appeal to wealthy outsiders has encouraged a new wave of eclecticism, particularly on Lake Como, Italy’s Beverly Hills, but also on Lake Maggiore and Lake Garda. Not that lavish tastes are new to the lakes. Just as 19th-century composers and opera divas fell for Moorish follies and neoclassical gems, contemporary movie stars and media moguls opt for pastiches of French Norman châteaux, Scottish baronial castles, Belle Epoque villas and Palladian piles. The marriage of money and bad taste means that a Swiss mountain chalet, a miniature Versailles or a glorified hunting lodge are equally probable. The Italian Lakes have seen it all.