Lombardy : Overview

Visconti Family Coat of Arms

Although the plague did not hit the Lombardy region with as much force as it did in other areas, the waves in 1361 and 1373 were nonetheless devastating. The plague was caused by an mysterious source and none of the known remedies worked, so people had to seek hope in other ways.  Surrounded by death on a scale never seen before, people were forced to face their mortality, and address it in new ways. Due to these circumstances, many turned to religion for hope of salvation from the gruesome epidemic.

Consequently, the art made at this time began to reflect the same shift and had an increased emphasis on religion. Art became focused on protection, and most pieces of the time featured religious imagery. In particular, saints associated with miracles, like Saint Anthony, Saint Christopher, Saint Barnabus, and Saint Anthony Abbott, or their symbols, like the arrows of Saint Sebastian, became popular figures represented in this art. Their unique association with religion and healing made these saints particularly potent on works of art. Patrons like the Visconti family commonly commissioned these works of art to provide an appropriate place for curing prayers.

In a time where death was a constant fear, the way the deceased were represented was extremely important. The tomb of Saint Peter Martyr in the Church of Sant’Eustorgio in Milan is an example of the importance of these monumental arcas. To attract pilgrims and visitors to Milan, patrons commissioned sculptor, Giovanni Di Balduccio, to create a marble tomb for Dominican Saint Peter Martyr. The time and money put into this tomb reveals the significance of religious devotion at this time of devastation in Italy.

Bernabò Visconti commissioned his own tomb before he was murdered by his cousin for control of Milan. This equestrian tomb monument features the ferocious ruler atop his horse in full Visconti armor. His sarcophagus is beneath, supported by pillars. The four sides show different scenes of Christ’s life and other religious figures. Almost all of the saints depicted are either patrons of Milan, Bernabò, or the Visconti family, or associated with the plague or healing.

The Visconti Book of Hours is a prime example of a religious commission during a time of turmoil. Giangaleazzo Visconti commissioned this piece in 1395. The prayer book could have been very comforting at such a stressful time with the Plague making its way through Italy and into Lombardy. A religious text such as the Psalm written on the page featuring a profile portrait of Giangaleazzo could have been an intentional plea to God to spare the commissioner.

The Plague’s religious fervor continued well into the late fifteenth century with plague imagery and iconography still ever present in commissioned pieces. The Trionfo della Morte e Danza Macabra is a startling example of death imagery which can be found on the exterior of the Oratorio dei Disciplini in Cluson, a small town in Bergamo in the Italian region of Lombardy.

Although Milan was slightly spared in first large wave of the plague, they were hit years later and dealt with the same terror and devastation as the rest of Italy at this time. Using commissions to please god and hope to be spared from the deadly plague was not uncommon. At a time where the cities were losing their liveliness, using artwork and religious relics to attract pilgrims were some of the only ways to keep the economy going.