Casale Monferrato: Museo Civico

Basement with an exhibition about Carlo Vidua.

On a sunny Friday morning we reported for duty at the civic museum of Casale. The museum has found accommodation in the former Augustinian convent of Santa Croce. The church of the convent, with its conspicuous brick façade, is now used as a bar and restaurant. Those who want to visit the museum can enter in the cloister behind the church. This cloister has been embellished with three dozen frescoes by Guglielmo Caccia, nicknamed Il Moncalvo (1568-1625). Moncalvo was definitely an accomplished painter, but the state of preservation of his frescoes here is deplorable.

The full name of the museum is the Museo Civico e Gipsoteca Bistolfi. On the first floor we find multiple rooms with paintings, some statues and a special antependium (altar frontal). After visiting this floor one can go back to the ground floor, where the Gipsoteca has five rooms containing work of the sculptor Leonardo Bistolfi (1859-1933), who was born in Casale Monferrato. It should be noted that most works here (and there are a lot of them…) are the plaster models that Bistolfi made before casting the real artwork in bronze or chiselling it in marble. The models are nevertheless interesting in their own right, and there can be little doubt that they can be considered artworks as well. A sixth room features even more work by Bistolfi. The cherry on the cake – and in effect the third museum in the former convent – is a permanent exhibition about the globetrotter Carlo Vidua (1785-1830). Vidua was a native of Casale Monferrato, but he died as a result of an unfortunate accident in the Dutch East Indies.

Judgment of Solomon – Pietro Francesco Guala.

Museo Civico

Niccolò Musso, self-portrait.

The museum offers a lot of work by local painters. The biggest name from Casale was probably Pier Francesco Guala (1698-1757), which explains why we find some of his works in the first room. Guala worked in the style of the Baroque, as is demonstrated by his Judgement of Solomon with its distinctive chiaroscuro effects. The museum is mightily proud of a self-portrait of the painter Niccolò Musso, which it bills as one of the imperdibili, the objects that are not to be missed. Musso too was born in Casale Monferrato, presumably around 1595. His father Pietro, a notary and chancellor of the Senate of Casale, sent him to Rome to study law. However, in Rome the young man seems to have spent more time on the fine arts, which allowed him to become familiar with the work of Caravaggio. It therefore does not come as a surprise that the only work attributed to Musso with certainty shows strong Caravaggist influences. Unfortunately no date of death for Niccolò Musso is known.

The museum also possesses works of painters from the environs of Casale. A good example is the aforementioned Guglielmo Caccia, who was from the town of Moncalvo, between Casale and Asti. Works by Moncalvo’s daughter Orsola (1596-1676) are also well represented in the museum. It should be noted that the collection does not just consist of works by Italian masters. I for instance very much liked a small canvas (26.5 by 35.5 centimetres) by Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625). Admittedly the work is apparently a copy, but it looks quite convincing. The subject of the canvas is Noah having his animals board the ark.

Saint Anthony the Abbot – circle of Tilman Riemenschneider.

Another work by a foreigner is the splendid wooden statue of Saint Anthony the Abbot (251-356). It dates from ca. 1510-1520 and shows strong German influences. According to the museum the maker of the statue was part of the circle of Tilman Riemenschneider (ca. 1460-1531). The statue is also counted as one of the imperdibili, and rightly so. Apart from its beautiful shapes and colours, it also has a number of fine details. Note for instance the little pig at the feet of the saint. The pig did not become Saint Anthony’s attribute until the Middle Ages. Around 1095 the Order of Saint Anthony was founded in France, its members taking care of the sick. They were known for their ability to treat Saint Anthony’s fire (a disease caused by a fungus) with a balm that contained pork fat. Because of their reputation as healers the Antonines were granted the privilege to have their pigs wander around freely (see Pistoia: Cappella del Tau).

The two works in the museum that I liked most are a Spanish altarpiece and a Flemish antependium (paliotto). The altarpiece is a polyptych that dates from the end of the fourteenth or beginning of the fifteenth century. All that is known of the painter is that he must have been from the vicinity of Tarragona in Catalonia.

On the central panel we see a Madonna and Child surrounded by six angels. Christ does not really look like a child: he is about the same size as the angels. In his hand he is holding the dove of the Holy Spirit. Note the robes worn by the Virgin, which feature several griffins. At the feet of the Virgin a monk can be seen kneeling. Judging by his white habit he could be a Benedictine. In the cusp above the central scene we see a representation of Judgment Day: the dead are resurrected from their graves. On the eight smaller panels on either side of the central scene events from the lives of Jesus and Mary have been painted. The bearded men in the smaller cusps are no doubt prophets. Unfortunately very little is known about the provenance of the altarpiece. It was donated to the museum by the banker Giuseppe Raffaele Vitta in 1916.

Spanish altarpiece (end of the 14th or beginning of the 15th century).

Spanish altarpiece (detail).

The antependium dates from the second half of the sixteenth century and is presented as manifattura fiamminga (i.e. ‘Made in Flanders’). The altar frontal is made of wool, silk and silver thread and can be considered strong evidence for cultural ties between Casale and Flanders. The central theme of the frontal is the Circumcision of Jesus. Jesus was, after all, a Jew, so in conformity with Mosaic law he was circumcised eight days after his birth (Luke 2:21). The man holding Jesus can be identified as Saint Simeon by the text on his clothes. Several witnesses to the scene can also be identified. On the left these are the Franciscan preacher Bernardinus of Siena (ca. 1380-1444) and Saint Evasius, the patron saint of Casale, to whom the cathedral of the town is dedicated. The kneeling figure behind the lectern on the right is Giovanni Francesco Capello from Casale. He is the man who commissioned the antependium. Standing behind him is Saint Franciscus of Assisi (ca. 1181-1226). The other kneeling figures are members of the fraternity that Capello had joined. Note that one of the members has covered his face. The nicest detail can be seen in the background. The woven town that we see there is clearly Casale Monferrato, with the tall Torre Civica in the centre. Capello donated the frontal to the Oratorio del Gesù in Casale, which loaned it to the museum.

Flemish antependium.

Gipsoteca Bistolfi

There is not a single museum in the world that owns more works by Leonardo Bistolfi than the Gipsoteca in Casale Monferrato. An accomplished sculptor, Bistolfi was often commissioned to make funerary monuments and other memorials. He was, among other things, responsible for the monument for the fallen of the Great War in Casale itself (1925-1928). Bistolfi usually worked in Italy, but not exclusively. The museum for instance also possesses the plaster model of a relief for the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City (ca. 1908-1911). Most objects in the museum are made of plaster, but in some cases the museum also has the final products in bronze or marble. This is for instance the case with the statue Il Boaro (the cowherd) from 1885, an early work of Bistolfi. Here the preliminary study in terracotta, the plaster model and the bronze statue can be found side by side.

Plaster model of the central relief for the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City (ca. 1908-1911).

Il Boaro (the cowherd) in terracotta, plaster and bronze.

In 2022 a new room was opened in which the Nuova Collezione Bistolfi has been put on display. In this room sculptures, drawings, sketches, photos and other objects can be admired that were donated to the museum by descendants of Bistolfi the previous year. I personally liked the room most because of the frescoes in the lunettes, painted by the aforementioned Moncalvo. Their state of preservation is much more satisfactory than that of the frescoes outside. The subject of the frescoes is the life of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino (ca. 1245-1305), and in the picture below we see a kneeling woman with the saint appearing in the sky and no doubt performing a miracle. Unfortunately I have not been able to establish the exact story that inspired the fresco.

Fresco by Guglielmo Caccia, Il Moncalvo.

Exhibition about the collection of Carlo Vidua

Amulet from Ethiopia in Amharic.

Carlo Vidua was born in Casale Monferrato in 1785 as the son of the Count of Conzano. Travelling was his passion, as is demonstrated by the fact that between 1818 and his death in 1830 he was almost constantly on the move. In 1818-1822 he visited Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, spending a lot of time in Egypt. A second journey in 1825-1827 took him to the United States and Mexico. In the United States he became acquainted with President John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) and also met with the former presidents John Adams (1797-1801), Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), James Madison (1809-1817) and James Monroe (1817-1825). This means that Vidua knew all presidents that the young United States had had up until then, with the exception of George Washington, who had died in 1799. John Adams would pass away not long after the meeting with Vidua, but then again this father of John Quincy Adams was almost ninety years old at the time.

During his third and final journey in 1827-1830 Vidua visited the Far East. He also travelled to the Dutch East Indies, traversing Java, Madura, Ambon and New Guinea before fatally injuring himself on Sulawesi. During a trip to a so-called solfatare near a volcano the globetrotter slipped and landed in the boiling lava with his right leg. Although Vidua received medical aid and was taken to Ambon by ship for further treatment and recovery, he died of his injuries on 25 December 1830. He was just 45 years old. Vidua’s body was taken to Conzano, where the globetrotter found his final resting place.

During his travels Vidua had built up a large collection of souvenirs. Wherever he came he tried to purchase objects that were representative of the areas he traversed. After his death his cousin Clara Leardi donated his imposing ethnographical collection to the municipality of Casale, which became the nucleus of a new museum. Among other things visitors can admire an amulet from Ethiopia with a text in Amharic and the Gospel according to Matthew in Kalmyk, printed in Saint Petersburg. The collection is very diverse and thoroughly absorbing. It fits perfectly into the equally diverse character of the Museo Civico.

Gospel according to Matthew in Kalmyk.

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