A journey between reality, divine intercessions and secularism
If a beautiful angel of God can defeat and drive away a withered old woman, a metaphor for the plague that corrupts bodies and brutalizes the soul, then it is true that beauty will save the world. We are talking about the group that the Flemish sculptor Le Court created for the Venetian church of Santa Maria della Salute, built in 1630 as a message of thanks at the end of the plague that had devastated the peninsula, especially Venice, Milan and Naples.
Venice had already seen this theme addressed in 1549 by (photo 6) Tintoretto who had depicted San Rocco with his head surrounded by a light that illuminates the surrounding environment, an allusion to healing or at least to the hope brought to the plague victims.
However, Tintoretto depicted an event that he had imagined, and it shows in the work. Moreover, the tragedy of disease is orchestrated with the “staging” of classical nudes surrounded by elegant and sophisticated girls. They were actually dying and prostitutes, who at that time often worked as nurses.
In the 1600s, when the plague exploded in the Venetian lagoon, artists such as Antonio Zanchi and Pietro Negri returned to the theme, albeit with quite different tones. While maintaining a certain elegance, they confer drama to the story, depicting a painful humanity and asking for help from the Madonna.
In 1759 another Venetian, Tiepolo, would give his version of these intercessions that saved from the plague, with a wonderful Saint Thecla dressed like those rich noblewomen, those champagne socialists of an Ancien Régime that was now dying out.
The images of the plague in Milan are connected to the story written centuries later by Manzoni in “The Betrothed”, as well as Gonin’s engravings that were used for the illustrations in the 1940 edition.
However, the paintings of contemporaries like Tanzio da Varallo (photo 19) and Giovan Battista Crespi offer a touch of narrative. In these works, Madonnas do not save the world. However, as in Tintoretto, the mediator is a man: St. Carlo Borromeo. That said, the style is different, in line with the realistic tones of Lombard painting that had was the school from which Caravaggio came.
In Naples, painters such as Mattia Preti, Luca Giordano and Micco Spadaro stand out. The latter is the least famous, despite the fact that has left us a testimony of the event along the lines of a press photographer. In representing Piazza Mercatello he has eliminated all symbolism. The epidemic, having lost its biblical tones of the end of time, shows itself in all its squalor, an immense suffering barely illuminated by the high, distant Madonna statue.
An idolet that is lost in a huge square, depicted in a bird’s eye view and teeming with the sick. The heroic nudes of Tintoretto or the other Venetian representations are nowhere to be found, where the prosaic nature of the disease is redeemed by a high-sounding and elegant language. The Neapolitan plague also refers to the Theatres of Time, horrifying wax statues that the Sicilian Gaetano Giulio Zumbo made for Cosimo III in Florence.
At the time when the French painter Poussin created a biblical episode in his usual calm tones The plague of Ashdod, the horror of the Triumphs has its counterpart in this classic painting. After the great epidemic of the 1600s, episodic outbreaks remain. An interesting example in this regard is Napoleon visits the plague stricken in Jaffa by Jean Gros.
In this work the “salvific” role is attributed not to a Madonna or a saint but rather to a man of power. Napoleon, still a general, is represented as he touches a sick soldier’s bubo, tracing in this the medieval iconography of the thaumaturgical saints who healed with their touch. Already in 1802, the date of the first sketch, there is a “deification” of Napoleon, a subtle operation and ahead of its time compared to that staged by Ingres in 1806 when Napoleon steps forward as emperor by divine right.
After the 17th century, there were no pandemics until the Spanish Flu of 1916, an event illustrated not by painting but by a new art form, photography. These images are no less extraordinary than the paintings described, albeit with a significant difference.
Any reference to the supernatural is banished, humanity is alone and “God is dead”, in Nietzsche’s famous words.
Anna Maria Calabretta