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2021.08.29 10:00

How artists from small Italian region spurred Lithuanian Baroque

Mindaugas Paknys, Orbis Lituaniae2021.08.29 10:00

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania had a veritable artistic explosion in the 17th century, constructing a number of world-class Baroque churches and palaces. Many of those were designed by Italian architects who came from one small region, Ticino.

Prior to the late 16th, few Lithuanian monarchs and nobles took much interest in projecting power through grand archtiecture. In the mid-16th century, a number of artists came to rebuild the Grand Duke’s Palace in Vilnius, invited by Sigismund Augustus. However, few works from this time survive (one is the tombstone of Paweł Holszański, or Paulius Alšėniškis).

The situation changed in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Mikołaj Krzysztof Radziwiłł the Orphan, the chancellor of the Grand Duchy, rebuilt the town of Nyasvizh, constructed a comfortable residence for himself, and founded several monasteries. In the process, he invited several talented architects, sculptors and painters.

After a fire in Vilnius in 1610 ravished the Grand Dukes’ Palace, Italian artists worked on rebuilding it, too. They also built the Royal Chapel of St. Casimir in Vilnius Cathedral.

The best artists of the times worked on these projects, engaged by the rulers Sigismund Vasa and Władisław Vasa.

The first artists to come from the Ticino area by Lake Lugano appeared in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania at the end of the 16th century. One of them was the Jesuit architect Giovanni Maria Bernardoni, who came to build the Jesuit house and church for Mikołaj Krzysztof Radziwiłł the Orphan in Nyasvizh.

Radziwiłł the Orphan made sure that Bernardoni, who came from the town of Lugano, stay longer with him. In the 13 years that the Jesuit architect worked in Nyasvizh, he built the Church of Corpus Christi, the first Baroque church in the Grand Duchy (or he helped to design it), and ten more churches and monasteries for Mikołaj Krzysztof Radziwiłł the Orphan.

The artistic legacy of Ticinese architects

The brothers Jacopo and Constante Tencalla, who worked in Vilnius in the 1620s and 1630s, were just as instrumental in popularising Baroque artistic forms. They came to build and decorate the Royal Chapel of St Casimir in Vilnius Cathedral, and later carried out orders for nobles of the Grand Duchy.

Whereas Jacopo worked more on individual commissions in Lithuania, Poland and Austria, Constante worked only on the palaces of the rulers of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until the end of his life in 1646.

His uncle, Matteo Castelli (d. 1632), who was then Sigismund Vasa’s main architect (he was commissioned to design St Casimir’s Chapel), invited his brother from the small town of Bisones in the Ticino area. Relations, acquaintances and neighbours were drawn into the market for works of art, and later travelled to the Grand Duchy.

Castello, coming from the Ticino area, was probably the first architect in Poland and Lithuania who was also a famous architect in Italy. In Rome, he worked with Carlo Maderno, the pioneer of Baroque architecture, who also came from the area around Lake Lugano.

The architects Giacomo della Porta (d. 1602), Domenico Fontana (d. 1607) and Francesco Borromini (d. 1667), who contributed significantly to the development of Roman Baroque architecture, came from that area too.

Italian architects would often come in entire families. In the mid-17th century, the architect Isidoro Affaitatti came to Poland and was engaged at the royal court. Soon, his sister’s sons, the architects Carlo and Francesco Ceroni, came to work at Pažaislis, as did his niece’s husband Pietro Puttini and his brother Carlo Puttini from Albogasio. At the initiative of the latter, Giovanni Battista Merli, from a neighbouring small town, was invited to decorate the church at Pažaislis with stucco moulding.

At almost the same time, Giovanni Pietro Perti and Giovanni Maria Galli came from the Ticino area and spent eight years making stucco decorations for the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Vilnius. They divided the work thus: one was moulding the figures, the other one was making ornamentations and decorative backgrounds.

The Ticino phenomenon

All these artists and architects were at the top of their profession and could find work in any city across Europe – some did after finishing work in the Grand Duchy. They all contributed to the development of Baroque art.

The geography of the shores of Lake Lugano, from where they all came, is interesting. Most of it was part of the canton of Ticino in Switzerland, the rest was part of Lombardy in Italy and bordered Lake Como and the Como area (the newcomers were sometimes called komaskais).

The area around Lake Lugano is forested and rocky, unsuitable for farming, and difficult to reach. The most popular form of transport is by water. The towns are small. Even today, their populations rarely exceed a thousand people.

In the 17th century, only a few hundred people lived in them. Therefore, the fact that hundreds of very accomplished artists, architects and sculptors came from such a small location is remarkable.

The story is part of the Orbis Lituaniae project by Vilnius University

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