A room full of heroes: Giacomino da Ivrea’s frescoes at Marseiller (Valle d’Aosta)

While writing my previous post, I came to remember another set of wall paintings I visited several years ago in the Valle d’Aosta, Italy (and I will explain why they came to my mind a little further on). The frescos in question are found in the casa forte [manor house] of the Salluard (or Saluard) family in a small village called Marseiller (Verrayes) and were presumably painted sometime in the 1430s or around 1440. Most likely they were commissioned by Jean de Salluard, notary to the Bishop of Aosta and thus an influential figure in the region. In a 1968 article, Augusta Lange first ascribed the paintings to Giacomino da Ivrea (c. 1400/1410 – c. 1470),1 a local artist first documented in 1426 who left several cycles of wall paintings in the Piedmontese province of Ivrea and in the neighbouring Valle d’Aosta.2

Giacomino da Ivrea, Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Christopher, fresco, c. 1426, Ivrea Cathedral (Image by Laurom via Wikimedia Commons, used under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License v. 2.5)

The attribution proposed by Lange has been widely accepted although it is not without problems. The problems arise mostly from the fact that Giacomino’s documented work only depicts religious subjects (cf. the image above), while the frescoes in Marseiller belong to the realm of secular art, depicting for the most part knights in armour – due to these differences in subject matter there is actually very little that may serve as a point of comparison. Then again, Giacomino’s authorship of the paintings in the manor house is supported by the fact that Jean de Salluard also commissioned him with the decoration of the Cappella di San Michele in Marseiller. But anyway, this post is not intended to be about problems of attribution, so for the sake of convenience let’s just accept Lange’s proposition and refer to the artist as Giacomino…

So, without further ado, let’s enter the painted room on the ground floor of the manor house in Marseiller…

The former Casa Forte dei Salluard at Marseiller (Verrayes) in the Valle d’Aosta – would you have expected to find 15th-century wall paintings behind that door on the right?

The Painted Room in the Casa Forte dei Salluard – the door on the right is the one seen from the outside in the previous image

… a room which, by the way, might well be called a camera picta, although its original owner(s) probably would have viewed it as a modest-sized sala (hall) rather than a camera (chamber). And, as you can see in the pictures, today it is merely a partly-painted room, while the larger portion of its decoration has been lost. Enough survives, though, to still discern the overall concept of the murals: The dado zone of the walls is taken up by the kind of illusionistic decoration known as Tumbling Blocks which had already been a popular feature in wall paintings in Roman Antiquity. Then, the main part of the wall depicts the figures of chivalric heroes, standing on ornamental stone slabs before a highly decorative backdrop, the undulating pattern of which is probably intended to create the impression of a tapestry. The same background is used for the uppermost tier containing a heraldic frieze.

The best-preserved part of Giacomino da Ivrea’s frescoes in the Casa Forte dei Salluard, showing three heroes and the coat of arms of the Visconti

The coats of arms that are still extant belong to the Visconti of Milan, the Duke of Burgundy, and the King of France. Old photographs document two more blazons, vanished today, i.e. that of the Margraves of Saluzzo and one depicting an eagle, probably referring to Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg.3 Thus, the heraldic frieze visually places Jean de Salluard among both the local and international elite of his day and underlines his social aspirations by suggesting affiliation with a rank of noblemen that he presumably didn’t have access to in real life.

Turpin and ‘Renadus’, fresco by Giacomini da Ivrea, Casa Forte dei Salluard, Marseiller

A similar strategy of social identification and ambition seems to be behind the choice of subject for the heroes adorning the walls. Thankfully, all the figures were once identified by inscriptions, and enough of these survive to conclude that the entire room was once decorated with heroes from the circle of Charlemagne, immortalized in such epics and chronicles as the Chanson de Roland and the Historia Karoli Magni et Rotholandi (also known as the Historia Turpini). The two best-preserved figures in the paintings are labeled ep(iscop)us torpini and renadus d(…). While the first one may thus be easily identified as Turpin of Reims, establishing the latter’s identity is slightly more problematic: While Lange suggested the name of Renaut de Montauban, hero of the romance Les Quatres Fils Aymon, more recently Marco Piccat proposed Rainaldus de Albo Spino,4 a character who on the one hand is slightly more obscure than the aforementioned Renaut, but on the other hand actually appears in the Historia Turpini and can therefore claim a stronger connection to the other heroes depicted in Marseiller: Apart from Turpin himself, the ones still identifiable by inscription are Oli(vier) and Mellun (d)’Ayngl(er).

As is well known, the heroes and stories from the ambit of Charlemagne enjoyed long-lasting success all throughout the later Middle Ages. More particularly, they seem to have been especially popular with the counts and dukes of Savoy to whose territory the Valle d’Aosta belonged: Duke Amedeo VIII, for instance acquired a liber Croniquarum Francie – a book of the chronicles of France – in 1434, and an inventory of his possessions from 1440 lists a magnum tapissium Caroli Magni – a large tapestry of Charlemagne.5 When considering these circumstances, it seems likely that the frescoes in Marseiller are a slightly more rustic echo of the kind of palace decoration one would have found at the nearby Savoyan court.

Giacomino da Ivrea, Detail from the series of the Nine Worthies: Joshua (fragmented), King David and Judas Maccabeus, fresco, c. 1440/50, from the Castello di Villa Castelnuovo (Image by Laurom via Wikimedia Commons, used under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License v. 2.5)

The prevalence of such painted decorations in the castles, palaces and manor houses of the upper classes is also demonstrated by another set of wall paintings attributed to Giacomino da Ivrea.6 Now in the Museo Archeologico del Canavese in the city of Cuorgnè, these frescoes (pictured above) once adorned the great hall in the castle of Villa Castelnuovo in the village of Castelnuovo Nigra, about 25 kilometres/15 miles west of Ivrea. Executed around the middle of the 15th century, they depict the then-popular subject of the Nine Worthies, i.e. the nine greatest heroes of all times – three from Greco-Roman antiquity (Hector, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar), three from the Old Testament (Joshua, King David, Judas Maccabeus) and three from the Christian era (King Arthur, Charlemagne, Godfrey of Bouillon).7 The crudely painted, rather stiff figures of these knights in armour greatly resembles those in Marseiller, even though in Villa Castelnuovo they were arranged in a sort of garden setting before a plain white background. However, the upper margin of the paintings is once again marked by the now familiar undulating-ribbons-motif which is so prominent in the Marseiller manor house. And while this may seem a more or less unremarkable detail, it is in fact quite interesting – and it is also the detail which provides the link between this post and the previous one.

As you may recall, the last post discussed 14th-century wall paintings which, for whatever reason, took up ornaments that had been widespread in the 12th and early 13th centuries but had since long gone out of fashion. Now the thing is, something similar appears to be going on with Giacomino da Ivrea and those wavy-ribbons-ornaments.8 As far as I’m aware, this type of ornament isn’t usually found in 15th-century painting, but one does find it in murals from around the year 1200.9 So, once again, the question is: What’s going on here? Now, what I’d like to believe is going on is this: By consciously taking up an antiquated motif from Romanesque art, the artist attempted to underline the fact that the people in the frescoes are heroes from a mythical past. There is only one problem with this theory… Well, actually, there are two: First, the theory is in itself highly speculative. Nonetheless, one would perhaps still find it plausible if we were talking about artists like Jan van Eyck or Pisanello. But, and that’s the second problem, can we really assume that someone like Giacomino da Ivrea was capable of such sophistication? I mean, Giacomino may have been of a certain local prominence, but ultimately he is a figure of merely provincial stature and – as I believe is evident from the images in this post – his paintings are rather crude and lack refinement. So it may be more plausible after all that he was simply an artist of a conservative persuasion, looking to models from the past rather than boldly striving towards new modes of expression.

Actually, that Giacomino was a rather conservative artist is quite apparent from some of the more prominent characteristics of his paintings, too. For instance, the setting of the Nine Worthies at Villa Castelnuovo clearly owes a lot to the frescoes of the same subject in the Castello della Manta near Saluzzo, painted around 1415 by an anonymous artist for the Margrave of Saluzzo.10

The Nine Worthies (plus the first two out of the Nine Great Heroines from Antiquity), fresco, c. 1415, Castello della Manta, so-called Sala Baronale

In Marseiller, too, we find an obvious reference to the art of the previous generation, in this case to Giacomo Jaquerio’s decoration of the courtyard in the Castello di Fenis, again dating to c. 1415. Giacomino’s depiction of St. Georg Slaying the Dragon inserted among the heroes of French romance at Marseiller clearly is based on Jaquerio’s painting of the same subject at Fenis…

Giacomo Jaquerio, Saint George Slaying the Dragon, fresco, c. 1415, Castello di Fenis, Courtyard (Image in Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Giacomino da Ivrea, Saint George Slaying the Dragon (plus the coat of arms of the Duke of Burgundy), fresco, c. 1435/40, Casa Forte dei Salluard, Marseiller

But what a difference there is between the two pictures! When one looks at Jaquerio’s dynamic yet at the same time extremely elegant rendition of the scene, one almost feels sorry for Giacomino’s clumsy attempt to do his model justice.

Of course, what we also have to take into account are the tastes of the people who commissioned these frescoes. Just consider that the Castello di Fenis is only a few miles from Marseiller and that its owners, the noble Challant family, had close connections not only to the Savoyan court but also to the bishops of Aosta. It is more than likely therefore that Jean de Salluard – the bishop’s notary, as you may recall – knew the fresco decoration in Fenis and it may well have been his wish that Giacomino take Jaquerio’s murals as his model. It is well known from other cases that patrons frequently required artists to follow particular models, and in many surviving artists’ contracts the models that are named stem from the previous generation of artists. In that respect, then, the works of Giacomino da Ivrea also bear witness to the continuing influence of artists such as Jaquerio and the anonymous Maestro della Manta, who had created a highly elegant brand of court art in the Piedmont and the neighbouring Valle d’Aosta in the first quarter of the 15th century – a brand of court art that was still deemed relevant and worthy of imitation for decades afterwards. But of course we also need to remember that, as mentioned above, Giacomino was already active by 1426, and Jean de Salluard also must have been a grown man by the early 1420s, as is confirmed by a document of 1423. This means that their artistic tastes were formed precisely at the time when Jaquerio and his contemporaries dominated the field, and it is thus not too surprising that this should have remained their point of reference even later in their life.

Another point of comparison: Giacomino da Ivrea’s attempt at rendering brocade on the tunic of ‘Renadus’…

… and the decidedly more stunning attempt at doing the same in the frescoes at the Castello della Manta

At this point, I believe, I ought to come to something like a conclusion but, to be honest, I’m not quite sure what it is. The thing is, I guess, that I’m growing more and more frustrated with a history of art that is ultimately limited to a history of the most modern, most high-end art of its time. Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be studying high-end art – Jaquerio is definitely one of my favourite painters, and the frescoes in the Castello della Manta are among the most beautiful works of art I’ve ever had the pleasure to lay my eyes upon. The point is, though, if we want to fully understand the visual culture of a certain time and place, we shouldn’t focus exclusively on high-end art and we need to pay attention not only to artists like Jaquerio, let alone van Eyck and Pisanello, but also to ‘minor’ figures such as Giacomino da Ivrea. But I believe I already said something along these lines at the end of my previous post…

  1. Augusta Lange, Notizie sully vita di Giacomino da Ivrea, in: Bollettino della società piemontese di Archeologia e Belle Arti XXII, 1968, pp. 98-102, esp. p. 101. []
  2. For an overview of Giacomino’s work see Franco G. Ferrero and Enrico Formica, Arte medievale in Canavese / Mediaeval Art in the Canavese Conutry, Ivrea: Priuli & Verlucca Editori, 2003, pp. 82-91. []
  3. Cf. Marco Piccat, I frammenti dell’Historia Turpini di Marseiller (Verrayes) in Valle d’Aosta, in: Iconographica 1, 2002, pp. 127-134, esp. pp. 130-131. []
  4. Cf. Lange (as note 1), p. 101, and Piccat (as note 3), pp. 129-130. []
  5. Cf. Piccat (as note 3), pp. 130-131. []
  6. Or, more precisely, to the artist responsible for the paintings in Marseiller who we have agreed on calling Giacomino. []
  7. For these paintings cf. Il ciclo gotico di Villa Castelnuovo – Intervento di salvataggio e valorizzazione, Turin: Edizioni Nautilus, 2006. []
  8. Yes, I am struggling to find adequate terms to describe this type of ornament. And no, this has nothing to do with my English – I have no idea what to call it in German either. []
  9. For instance in the Church of St. Margaret in Lana (South Tyrol/Alto Adige), a picture of which you can see here. The ornament in question is placed prominently on the arch of the central apse. []
  10. Ok, technically for the bastard son of the Margrave, who ruled in lieu of his underage nephew, but let’s not be too pedantic about these things. []

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