By Livia Lupi
Cardinal Branda Castiglioni died on 3 February 1443. An eminent member of an important Lombard family, Branda is particularly famous for his role as patron of the arts, in particular his investment in the art and architecture of the native town of his family, Castiglione Olona, in northern Lombardy. After employing Florentine artist Masolino da Panicale for the decoration of the St Catherine and St Ambrose Chapel in San Clemente, his titular church in Rome, the cardinal hired him again to paint Castiglione Olona’s baptistery and collegiate church, the Collegiata. Masolino frescoed episodes of the life of St John the Baptist in the baptistery and the life of the Virgin in the vault of the choir chapel in the Collegiata. He was accompanied by the Sienese artist Lorenzo di Pietro, known as Vecchietta, who frescoed the chapel in the cardinal’s private palace and who, together with Paolo Schiavo, completed the decoration of the Collegiata’s choir chapel.
In addition to these frescoes, a 1432 letter by Francesco Pizolpasso, bishop of Pavia, informs us that Branda also commissioned Flemish weavers to create tapestries, now lost, with the lives of St Stephen and St Lawrence for the Collegiata, whilst English craftsmen were entrusted with the realisation of the bells for the church. Branda’s international reach demonstrates the ambitiousness of his plans to increase the prestige of Castiglione Olona well beyond the definition of “a Tuscan island in Lombardy,” a formula employed by traditional scholarship and now used to touristically promote the town.
Masolino and Vecchietta’s work, carried out between the mid to late 1430s, was remarkably different from contemporary examples of Lombard art. The use of perspective, an increased attention to naturalism and to architecturally complex settings were no novelty in Tuscany, especially in Florence, where Masolino had collaborated with Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel, but they were considerably more innovative in early fifteenth-century Lombardy. Branda’s interest in Florentine developments is also evident in the construction of the Chiesa di Villa, a parish church facing his private palace in the town’s main square. Although its architect is unknown, scholars have identified several characteristics tying the architectural structure of the church to Filippo Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy for San Lorenzo in Florence.
Branda’s choice of artists to raise Castiglione Olona’s profile testifies to his awareness of the latest artistic and architectural developments, as well as to his extensive international network and influence. A well-travelled, well-educated influential man, Branda died as a very old man in his Castiglione Olona, leaving a profound cultural mark that still characterises it to this day.
Further reading: Dieter Girgensohn. “Castiglioni, Branda.” Dizionario biografico degli italiani, Enciclopedia Treccani.
Carlo Bertelli. Masolino. Gli affreschi del Battistero e della Collegiata a Castiglione Olona. Milan: Skira Editore, 1997.
Eugenio Cazzani. Il cardinale Branda Castiglioni. Milan: Monti, 1988.
Jaś Elsner. “Castiglione Olona in the Early Fifteenth Century.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 57/58 (2010): 156-173.
Masolino, hypothetical portrait of Branda Castiglioni in the Banquet of Herod and Herodias Receives the Head of St John the Baptist, c. 1435, Baptistery, Castiglione Olona. Fresco.
Masolino, Banquet of Herod and Herodias Receives the Head of St John the Baptist, c. 1435, Baptistery, Castiglione Olona. Fresco.
Masolino, Life of the Virgin, late 1430s, vault, choir chapel, Collegiata, Castiglione Olona. Fresco.
Vecchietta and Paolo Schiavo, Life of St Lawrence, late 1430s, choir chapel, Collegiata, Castiglione Olona. Fresco.
Masolino, Life of St Catherine, 1425-31, San Clemente, Rome. Fresco.
Lorenzo di Pietro (Vecchietta), group fo female saints, late 1430s, chapel, Palazzo Branda Castiglioni, Castiglione Olona. Fresco.
Chiesa di Villa, early 1440s, Castiglione Olona.