Cremona: Museo Civico ‘Ala Ponzone’

Saint Franciscus meditating – Caravaggio.

Cremona’s civic museum is housed in the Palazzo Affaitati, which was built between 1561 and 1572. It is named after marquess Giuseppe Sigismondo Ala Ponzone, who in 1842 donated his art collection to the city. This collection is the nucleus of the current museum collection, but the museum also has many works of art that were taken from churches elsewhere in Cremona. On three floors we can admire mostly works by local and regional artists. The earliest works date from the fifteenth century, the most recent ones from the twentieth. The museum has two genuine masterpieces: a panel painting by Caravaggio and another panel painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo. These two paintings will be discussed first in this post. Then I will briefly discuss some of the other works in the museum.

Caravaggio and Arcimboldo

Michelangelo Merisi, born in 1571, is hardly known under that name. Everyone calls him Caravaggio, after his place of birth. Caravaggio’s life can only be described as rough. He was frequently involved in fights, committed a murder and died in 1610 under suspicious circumstances, just 38 years old. And yet he can be counted among the greatest painters ever. In his short life he created many beautiful works of art. One of these works, now in the Museo Civico in Cremona, is a painting of Saint Franciscus of Assisi meditating (San Francesco in meditazione). The provenance of the painting is shady. It may have been painted for a Franciscan church or convent, but this has not been documented. What we do know, is that the painting was donated to the city in 1836 by marquess Filippo Ala Ponzone.

It was not until 1943 that art historian Roberto Longhi (1890-1970) suggested that the painting could have been made by Caravaggio. After a thorough cleaning in 1986 Caravaggio’s authorship was no longer disputed, although there is still discussion about whether the painting is an original work or a copy made by the master himself. The panel was presumably painted in about 1606. It is known for its strong imagery. The saint has his hands folded and his eyes are shut. He is focussed on the crucifix lying on a book, which is itself supported by a skull. Stylistically the painting has been compared to two other works by Caravaggio painted around the same time: Supper at Emmaus, which can be found at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, and Saint John the Baptist as a young man, now in the Galleria Corsini in Rome.

L’Ortolano (upside down) – Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593) has previously appeared on this website as co-designer of stained glass windows in the cathedral of Milan. He was also court painter of three successive emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, but he is nowadays best known for his portraits of people composed of vegetables and pieces of fruit. These works are usually bizarre and fascinating at the same time. The Museo Civico possesses one such work, which is named L’ortolano, a name that means ‘the gardener’ or ‘the greengrocer’. If we look carefully, we see a man made up of vegetables. At first glance Arcimboldo appears to have just painted a bowl filled with various kinds of vegetables, but thanks to a mirror we soon realise that the painting needs to be viewed upside down. If we do that, the face of a man appears. L’ortolano is a late work by Arcimboldo. It was painted in 1587-1590 and is known for its strong sexual innuendo. Many of the vegetables have shapes that, either individually or taken together, connect them to the male or female genitalia.

Other works

The Museo Civico owns hundreds of works by about as many artists. In this post, I will speed my way through the museum. Of the painters active in the fifteenth century I would like to mention Antonio della Corna, Benedetto Bembo (ca. 1423-1489) and Benedetto Rusconi (ca. 1460-1525). I had previously seen a Last Supper by Della Corna in Milan and that work failed to impress me, but his works here in Cremona are not bad at all. Benedetto Bembo was probably the brother of Bonifacio Bembo, whose work in the church of Sant’Agostino I have discussed in a previous post. The former Bembo’s Madonna and Child, four angels and a kneeling suppliant can be found in the museum, but there is some uncertainty as to whether he really painted it; for the moment it is just attributed to him. Benedetto Rusconi was a relatively unknown Venetian painter. The style of his triptych (or pentaptych) featuring a Madonna and Child and four saints demonstrates that Italy was beginning to emerge from the Middle Ages.

Tobias and the angel / the Virgin adoring the Child – Antonio della Corna.

Works by Benedetto Bembo and Benedetto Rusconi.

Christ stripped of his clothes – Francesco Bassano the Younger.

The museum furthermore owns works by Boccaccio Boccaccino (died ca. 1525) and Girolamo Marchesi (ca. 1480-1550), both active in the first half of the sixteenth century. We have already seen Boccaccino’s beautiful frescoes in the cathedral of Cremona. Other sixteenth century painters that can be found in the museum are Vincenzo Campi (ca. 1536-1591) and Francesco Bassano the Younger (1549-1592). The former was a scion of a large family of painters from Cremona, the latter of a family of painters from Bassano del Grappa. We have previously seen works that Bassano left in Rome (here and here). Here in Cremona we can admire a painting that shows Christ being stripped of his clothes (Gesù spogliato dalle vesti).

We now arrive in the seventeenth century, which has a pleasant surprise in store for Dutch visitors. The museum has two portraits by our very own Jacob Gerritsz. Cuyp (1594-1652), father of the much more famous Albert Cuyp from Dordrecht. The portraits feature a man and a woman, but unfortunately we do not know who they are. Another fairly well-known painter from the seventeenth century whose work is on display at the museum is Bernardo Strozzi (ca. 1581-1644). His depiction of the Holy Family with the young Saint John the Baptist – a theme that goes way back to Michelangelo – is part of the museum collection, and so is a portrait of Saint Antonius of Padova.

Portraits by Jacob Gerritsz. Cuyp.

The Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist / Saint Antonius of Padova – Bernardo Strozzi.

On to the eighteenth century, when Giovanni Battista Natali (1698-1768) was active. A highlight from the nineteenth century is a nice veduta of Cremona, a view of the city from the other side of the river Po. The large campanile of the cathedral, the Torrazzo, towers literally above all the other buildings. The man who painted the veduta was Felice Giuseppe Vertua (1820-1862). Also from the nineteenth century is a portrait of a girl named Fanny Ferrari, a work by Giovanni Moriggia (1796-1878). Finally we enter the twentieth century. Saltimbanco (the acrobat) by Antonio Rizzi (1869-1940) can be counted among the more famous works from this century. When we visited the Museo Civico, there was a temporary exhibition about the work of Giuseppe Moroni (1888-1959), who like Rizzi was a native of Cremona. The exhibition comprised both religious and non-religious works by Moroni. An example of the latter is Il Nonno (the grandfather).

Cremona – Felice Giuseppe Vertua.

Saltimbanco – Antonio Rizzi / Il Nonno – Giuseppe Moroni.

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