“Chi dice Azzone, dice Giotto”
“Who says Azzone, says Giotto”
Roberto Longhi, Introduction to Arte in Lombardia, 1987.
In fact, in just under nine months, with determination, energy, and great professional synergy, the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo di Milano was responsible for a restoration project of enormous cultural and religious value. Venetian stucco decorations with delicate neoclassical colours emerged from the blackened walls; archaeological excavations brought forth the historic-artistic importance of the Visconti ducal chapel from the damaged floor; the restoration of the Giotto-esque fresco depicting the crucifixion unveiled secret treasures of religious faith and art.
The origin of this famous fresco has remained unclear and debated through the centuries. While the restoration project undertaken by Veneranda Fabbrica represented a culminating moment in this historic journey, it was in 1932, two years after its rediscovery, that Mauro Pelliccioli presented the Superintendence with an estimate for the restoration of the ‘Crocifissione del sec. XIV’ (Crucifixion from the 14th century), located at the base of the northern side of the San Gottardo bell tower. The fresco was covered in “incredibly hard, petrified” and solidified white plaster that had probably been applied on occasion of Piermarini’s work on the Palazzo Reale, almost two centuries earlier. In 1953 Pelliccioli detached it from the external wall and brought it into the church to help preserve and protect it. In fact weathering was the primary cause of irreversible damage to the work.
However, the fresco on the exterior of the church was originally intended to decorate the walls of an interior space and iconography indicates the presence of a refectory or Franciscan chapter house. In 1300, attached to the Visconti ducal chapel of San Gottardo in Corte, there must have been a cenobium, a small rectangular monastery of the Franciscan Order, as evidenced by a floor plan of the Palazzo Reale dating from 1600 and drafted by Tolomeo Rinaldi, a Roman architect summoned to Milan by the Archbishop Federico Borromeo personally. In 1926, the dismantling of the building, then being used to store sacred objects, led to the discovery of the Giotto-esque work.
It is no coincidence that, in 1335, the famous Tuscan painter from Vicchio was sent to the court of Azzone Visconti, lord of Milan, by the Florentine Republic to act as ambassador of the new art, where, according to Vasari (1568), he “left a few things scattered about the city which to this day are considered extremely beautiful”. Giotto, at that time no longer a young revolutionary artist like for the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, nor an established young painter like for the decoration of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, was, according to Longhi (1958), “an old man who indulged in a rich, shaded, and very colourful style”. This is the reason for which Longhi attributes Milanese painting dating from approximately 1335 to 1345 to the culture of Giotto’s revolutionaries, or rather to the activity of Giotto’s most dedicated followers, known as “Tuscan refugees from Viboldone”: “from the thick and pathetic ‘Crucifixion’ at the base of the San Gottardo bell tower, to the remains of the frescoes in the palace of the Archbishop Giovanni Visconti”.
Today the Church of San Gottardo has found its place within the Grande Museo del Duomo di Milano, where temporary exhibits of contemporary art are displayed alongside the 14th century fresco of the Crucifixion, creating a perfect continuity between past, present, and future and between religious faith and culture.