23 December 2019

Giovanni Battista Crespi – Baroque artist

Religious painter portrayed saints expressing human emotions


Crespi's painting, St Gregory delivers the soul of a monk, in Varese
Crespi's painting, St Gregory delivers
the soul of a monk,
in Varese
Painter, sculptor and architect Giovanni Battista Crespi was born on this day in 1573 in Romagnano Sesia in the Piedmont region of Italy.

His father was the painter Raffaele Crespi, who eventually moved his family to live in Cerano near Novara. When Giovanni Battista Crespi became one of the chief Lombardy artists of the early 17th century, he was often referred to as Il Cerano.

Reflecting the Counter Reformation pious mood of the time, many of his paintings focused on mysteries and mystical episodes in the lives of the saints, capturing their emotions.

Crespi spent some time in Rome, where he formed a friendship with the Milanese cardinal, Federico Borromeo, who became his patron. Together, they went to Milan, which was under the inspiration of the cardinal’s uncle, Charles Borromeo, and was a centre for the fervent spiritual revival in art.

Crespi formed a style that was Mannerist in its use of colour and in the mystical quality of his figures, although he also gave them realistic details.

Along with other artists, Crespi completed a series of paintings, Quadroni of St Charles, for the Duomo in Milan. He painted an altarpiece, the Baptism of St Augustine, for San Marco, Milan and a painting, Mass of St Gregory, for the Basilica of San Vittore in Varese. Also in San Vittore is his 1617 painting, St Gregory delivers the soul of a monk.

Crespi’s later paintings are impressive because of the human qualities of the figures he portrays while they are going through religious experiences, such as the Madonna of the Rosary in 1615, which is now in the Brera Museum in Milan.

In 1620, Crespi was appointed head of the Accademia Ambrosiana, which was founded by Cardinal Federico Borromeo. Among the artists he taught at the Accademia were Daniele Crespi, who was possibly one of his relatives, Carlo Francesco Nuvolone and Melchiorre Gherardini.

A respected academic as well as an artist, Crespi died in 1632 in Milan.

The Piazza Libertà, the main square in Romagnano Sesia
The Piazza Libertà, the main square in Romagnano Sesia,
where Giovanni Battista Crespi was born
Travel tip:

Romagnano Sesia, the birthplace of Giovanni Battista Crespi, is a town in the province of Novara, about 80km (50 miles) northeast of Turin and about 25km (16 miles) northwest of Novara. One of the famous sights there is the Cantina dei Santi (Saints' Cellar), a room that is the only remaining evidence of the ancient Benedictine monastery of San Silano. The cantina has frescoes depicting the Biblical story of David and King Saul dating back to the 15th century.

The entrance to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the historic library in central Milan
The entrance to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the historic
library in central Milan
Travel tip:

The Accademia Ambrosiana in Milan, where Giovanni Battista Crespi taught, was established in 1618 by Cardinal Federico Borromeo as a place where young Counter Reformation artists could study. He also founded the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana to inspire and support fine art students and the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, a library where they could go to read and research. You can visit the Pinacoteca and Biblioteca in Piazza Pio XI in Milan, which is close to the Duomo and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

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