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Pordenone and the Translocal Alternative

Jason Di Resta, [The Johns Hopkins University]
Samuel H. Kress Fellow, 2010 – 2012

Itinerant artists working in Italy at the start of the sixteenth century consistently undermine art-historical correlation of styles with geographical areas. Consequently, artists who spent their careers traveling and whose works manifest translocal aspirations have been marginalized by regionally based taxonomies of style that favor the traditions of Florence, Venice, and Rome. A growing awareness of the stylistic multiplicity of early modern Italian art has foregrounded the shortcomings of such taxonomies, making the question of how to address the dynamics of artistic mobility and exchange an urgent one. Past studies have approached this question by adopting the dichotomy of center and periphery, which reifies stylistic hierarchies and all of their ethical, political, and cultural associations. The center/periphery model, however, depends on point of view, and the dynamic of filiation it proposes does not adequately account for the variability of artistic influence.


Giovanni Antonio de’ Sacchis, called Pordenone, frescoes in central dome, 1530 – 1532, Santa Maria di Campagna, Piacenza. Author photograph

My dissertation focuses on how the religious paintings of the peripatetic artist Giovanni Antonio de’ Sacchis (c. 1484 – 1539), known as Pordenone, respond to the artistic practices of each locale in which he worked. Pordenone’s paintings resist affiliation with a single tradition by articulating a double imperative of identification with and differentiation from the artistic values that were coming to define the modern manners of Italy. The calculated heterogeneity of such imagery does not simply revise prevalent practices with an alternative vision; these paintings also have the potential to reveal what is distinctive about their place of production, for the particularity of a place often becomes apparent in the artistic responses it generates. These responses, moreover, explore the possibilities of Christian image making just before and during the Reformation. Pordenone’s paintings exploit the potential of self-reflexive motifs, confronting the contradictions of a religious culture that prioritized an imageless ideal while conceding a vital role to material images in the practice of devotion. My dissertation addresses these issues in four sections, organized by image type and place: altarpieces in Pordenone (the artist’s birthplace), mural paintings in Cremona, domes in Piacenza, and organ shutters in Spilimbergo.

Following the annexation of his native city to the Venetian terraferma, Pordenone painted two altarpieces for the local church of San Marco. These paintings, completed between 1515/1516 and 1533/1535, deliberately contaminate Giorgione’s and Titian’s poetic approaches to naturalistic representation with a number of boldly satirical features and uncanny juxtapositions, such as a mélange of pastoral motifs with crude, indecorous details. The unresolved thematic and formal tensions of these altarpieces incite reflection on the representability of the divine just as they resist the impression of what Enrico Castelnuovo and Carlo Ginzburg call the “symbolic domination” of Venetian painters in the provinces.

In Cremona cathedral Pordenone contributed five scenes from the Passion (1520 – 1522) to a fresco program for the walls of the nave and counterfacade. These gruesome depictions of Jesus’ suffering magnify the challenge to see beyond Christ’s debased appearance by compounding it with an optically confounding assault on the beholder. By transgressing the picture frame and projecting figures into the viewer’s space, Pordenone’s paintings present a mode of address that is striking in its immediacy and disarming in its cognitive dissonance. Pordenone’s performance at Cremona can be characterized as an extreme form of artistic alterity that is simultaneously inflected by the eschatological precepts of the Passion narrative and directed against local competitors.

Conversely, in his frescoes for the three domes of Santa Maria di Campagna in Piacenza, Pordenone renovated a local idiom of dome decoration, discarding projective illusionism to foreground the architectural superstructure with figural decoration that eschews the innovations of Antonio Allegri da Correggio’s dome frescoes in nearby Parma. The sheer size of the fictive framework, crowded with grotesques and scenes from biblical and Roman history, intensifies the prominence of marginal imagery to the point of calling into question the very status of such artifice for visualizing Christian truth.

Pordenone’s success among cosmopolitan audiences did not halt his activity in remote areas. His commitment to serving smaller towns in Lombardy, Veneto, and Friuli, I argue, stemmed from a desire to establish himself as the primary source for local practice. The organ shutters he painted for Spilimbergo cathedral, for example, include The Fall of Simon Magus, a rare subject in Friuli at the time. Aside from establishing local precedent, this painting, in which a maker of spectacular illusions is unmasked and destroyed by Saint Peter, itself raises questions about the trickery of a painter famous for his own daring illusionism. The imitative references and oppositional tactics that subtend the artist’s unruly images do not connote cultural backwardness or delayed artistic taste, nor do they bear the mark of artistic self-alienation. Instead, Pordenone’s paintings emphasize the intractable force of a translocal alternative.

During academic year 2012 – 2013, Jason Di Resta will be a Dean’s Teaching Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University, where he will complete his dissertation.

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