Gussola, a Madonna del Ghislina to Borgolieto

One of the most fascinating discoveries I made during lockdown last year, walking the main causeway from Agoiolo to Gussola, was the Church of San Benedetto in the town of Borgolieto. I saw it emerge from a clump of trees and immediately form a picturesque whole; but as soon as I got off the embankment and noticed the elevation of the churchyard (once the Borgolieto cemetery), surrounded by an ancient wall, I felt like stepping back in time: the place itself, in its very particular configuration, denounces the whole is its antiquity, which on the other hand seems to hide the church, somewhat stingy in this sense due to the renovations that it has undergone over time. And I felt the greatest excitement at the sight of the entrance portal, to which an oratory is attached, which is currently not open for security reasons as it is statically endangered. I imagined, probably wrongly, that I was in front of an old pilgrims’ hospice, as it sometimes stood near the Po, while the documented book of Marco Kappa, dedicated to the Church, informs me that it is “a room used as an oratory for the Compagnia del SS. sacrament”.

Here is a “place of the heart” – I said to myself – that must be preserved in its integrity as it is inseparable from its landscape; a unique, unrepeatable place, miraculously handed over to us from a distant past, to speak again in the present, to be preserved as a community’s most precious asset. In fact, I had heard of this place before the fateful meeting Giuseppina BacchiAnimator, together with some of her colleagues from Gussola Middle School, of this very successful event on Saturday, about which I could not say and write better than myself Nazzareno Condina on this headline. From that beautiful party, along with the very accurate historical information I received from lively and enthusiastic 12-year-old students, I realized one fundamental thing, and that is that art will not save the world if we are already hearing the background sounds of an impending war, and neither shall we be enthusiastic about art and history, nor any far-sighted minister, but it will be the children who will save both art and the world, if only we stop stealing their future.

And right here in Borgolieto, a small community has gathered around this class of children from Gussola, willing to regain property, or rather to give back to the world their isolated church, with the aim of sharing their knowledge, their recovery, their protection and their improvement to promote.

Among the passionate supporters of this company for some time Franca Filipazzi he urged me to visit the oratory so that I could give my opinion on the fragments of the frescoes that decorate it. Last Saturday, thanks to Franca, this finally came true and the surprise was no less than the embarrassment that always comes over me when I find myself in front of unknown works of art. Unfortunately I’ve done too many different things in my life, I’ve wasted energy in many directions, and I can’t say that the situation has improved since I’ve been dealing with art history with more commitment and continuity because I have more time spent trying to preserve goods in the study of the same. In front of the faded and badly worn painting depicting a Madonna and Child, as a wall altar of the only altar in this small room, – an altar that has disappeared but whose presence is denounced by a terracotta predella and some hook holes in the wall – a lightbulb went on, or specifically a projection of almost superimposable images built into a video Roberta Ronda e Nicola Turati, accompany the exhibition dedicated to Ghislina currently being set up at the Diotti Museum in Casalmaggiore. I have no doubt that the author of this mural, as well as the arched frame that adorns it and, in all likelihood, the twisted columns that simulate a precious altarpiece with a subtle trompe l’oeil effect, is exactly the right one Marcantonio Ghislina (Casalmaggiore, 1676 – Gussola, 1756), the most important Casalasco painter of the 18th century, although at the moment there is no documentary evidence. And if it isn’t Ghislina himself, it will be the work of a painter from his workshop, for the hallmark is obvious, as I will try to demonstrate. Less certain, on the other hand, is the attribution of the frieze that runs around the room (because of a seventeenth-century taste – but in Ghislina there are also certain anachronisms), where vegetable spirals alternate with fake shelves with swollen volutes and on the four sides of the room, in Cartocci representing emblems that are now almost indecipherable but probably allude to the Virtues of the Virgin.

There is no lack of evidence as to the solution of the false frame and its ornaments, albeit in different declensions, as in the murals of the monastic church of Santa Chiara (1719) in Casalmaggiore.

As for the face of the Madonna, the ties become closer since, beyond the fairly usual typology, there are some typical features concerning chiaroscuro shapes and modalities – note for example the shadow on the cheek and under the lower lip – and which reveal the common matrix as deduced in the works of the assured autograph in Casalmaggiore and Dosolo and pertaining to different periods. From this point of view, the problem of dating the murals of Borgolieto arises, because both a high date and a reference to the painter’s last production, which took place in Gussola, would be plausible. Make no mistake about the relative simplicity of the figures of the Virgin and Child, for what remains of the original paintings is little more than a thin background coat (sinopia in places) on the thin layer of plaster covering what is probably an earlier decoration (as it seems to notice at the detachment points). This seems to fit perfectly with the typical method of execution, both painting on canvas and on the wall, practiced in the Ghislina workshop, where the first thin color design was then enriched by more vigorous brushstrokes aimed at graceful shapes and gifts plastic sense with highlights and shadows. The fake Ancona with the Solomonic columns coupled to each other to support a vaulted and broken tympanum, a specialty of the quadraturists whose tradition has been very present in Casalmaggiore since Christmas and could find the models in the tables that decorate the perspective ( 1693-1700) from Andrea Pozzo (a real handbook for painters and architects) as well as architectural-plastic photographs from the middle of the 18th century, the era of the paintings for Santa Chiara) , as well as a much more advanced one. In addition, Ghislina was active in Gussola in late age and in the church of Borgolieto he recognized two paintings originally placed on the sides of the presbytery, namely Rebecca at the well and Christ and the adulteress. As Roberta Ronda, the painter’s pupil, tells us in the history of the Parish of Gussola (1884), written by the parish priest Francesco Faverzani based on memories left by Don Andrea Ghisline (son of the painter and vicar in Gussola from 1743 to 1764) the author claims that Marcantonio in his old age (now eighty years old) would have painted some frescoes, which resulted in his name still being in the register of money orders on the date 1756, the year of his death. That he was also working in Borgolieto at the same time? If the date 1755 engraved on the tympanum of the entrance to the portico (next to the Oratory of Borgolieto) indicates the year of the complex’s restructuring, the hypothesis of a last Ghislinesco construction site would be credible in these circumstances. Pending documentary confirmations, it is hoped that a speedy consolidation and restoration will take priority for this small building (and then for the Church of San Benedetto) before time and neglect destroy them forever. Now the attribution of the decorations that adorn it to an eighteenth-century master increases its importance and preciousness.

For those unfamiliar with the painter, given the difficulties of finding the sacred places where his works are open, it is worth visiting the above exhibition “Marcantonio Ghislina three hundred years later”, which runs until 22 next to a Recently restored paintings, on loan from Commessaggio, projections and documentary material, four paintings from the maturity of this master are on permanent display.

Walter Rosa


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