So what is the startling building, like a marble Wedding Cake, crowding the entrance to Santa Maria Maggiore and obscuring its facade? The ancient and amazing Church, which I blogged about here, has no real front face. The main entrance from the Piazza Duomo is just a very pretty porch in a blank wall; the rest of the building on that side is hidden by this later building. When it was built in the 1470’s, the Sacristy of the Church had to be pulled down to make way for it. Here is another view of it, which shows the contrast with the sober Romanesque architecture of its surroundings.
It may be correct to think the Colleoni Chapel extremely beautiful, although I think it is a bit hideous. It is certainly spectacular, a High Renaissance riot of everything in the catalogue. It has domes, it has roundels, it has pillars in contrasting shapes, it has a rose window, it has a colour scheme of red, white and black, all done in marble lozenges. And on top of this, there are more decorative elements, although they get a bit lost in the overwhelming impact of the whole: reliefs of Biblical scenes and the Labours of Hercules, medallions of Julius Caesar and Trajan on each side of the rose window. Even at the height of Renaissance Classicism, it can’t be said that scenes from pagan myth and history are standard decorations for religious buildings. The general impression is that the man who commissioned this building said, ‘I want everything, and I want it to be very, very expensive.’ He probably did.
The walls and ceiling of the interior are as lavishly decorated as you would expect from the outside, but otherwise there is a lot of empty space. The main feature is an extravagant tomb featuring a crowned figure on a horse, all in gold – this is the founder of the Chapel, Bartomoleo Colleoni himself, who lies buried here, with his daughter alongside in a separate monument. The whole structure is a celebration of this one man, his wealth and power.
Bartolomeo Colleoni is one of the most interesting figures in Bergamo’s history, not because he was extraordinarily powerful, but because his story encapsulates a particular period of the city’s history. He was born in 1395 into a minor noble family associated with Bergamo, which at that time was ruled by the Dukes of Milan, 30 miles away. But this period of Italian history was dominated by wars between the many independent city states which competed for their share of Italian territory and feuds and coups within the city states themselves. This is the period of Romeo and Juliet, or, in real life, the Guelphs, political supporters of the Pope, and the Ghibellines, supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor, who fomented rebellions and tore cities in two. Along with this instability went vicious dynastic struggles, intrigue, murder.
The Colleoni family were Guelphs, out of favour with the ruling Visconti Duke of Milan. While Bartolomeo was still a child, a relative killed his father and brother and seized the family fortress. He was imprisoned himself, but released after his mother paid a ransom. Dispossessed, the young Bartolomeo began his climb back to wealth and power in the obvious way – as a soldier. He began as a nobleman’s page, and went on to distinguish himself in many battles as a mercenary, in a period when mercenaries were all important.
The Italian word condottiere or condottiero is often translated mercenary, but this isn’t strictly correct. The condottiere was the leader of a band of mercenaries – a political power could make a contract (a condotta) with the condottiere for the services of his company – specifying how many men were being provided. These were not enlisted peasants, but professional soldiers with the latest armour and weapons, usually lance-carrying cavalry. The loyalty of the condottieri was wholly conditional on being paid very large amounts of money. They were also liable to change sides at short notice. Condottieri were powerful deal makers and breakers off the field of battle, giving them real power, which sometimes led to high political office.
Bartolomeo Colleoni started out as a man at arms in mercenary companies, but in the 1424 he became the leader of his own – just 20 cavalry. This was in Naples, where he also became the lover of the Queen, Joanna II. By 1428, his company was twice that number, and he was back in the Bergamo area, fighting for the Venetians against his personal enemies, the Duchy of Milan. In this year, Bergamo passed from the control of the Dukes of Milan and became a Venetian possession. Within 4 years Colleoni was leading 300 men at arms; by 1437 it was 800 and he was once again fighting for the Venetians against Milan. In 1441, the Venetians and Milanese made peace, and Colleoni served Milan before being imprisoned by the Duke. In 1447 Francesco Sforza, himself a condottiere became Duke, ending the rule of the Viscontis. Colleoni served him for a while, but finally returned to the Venetians who, in 1454, made him their ‘captain general’ – effectively the head of the armed forces. His commands now numbered thousands.
The reason for Colleoni’s spectacular success was his skill as a general and tactician, especially in deploying the relatively new weapon, artillery. He lived to attain great power and wealth. In 1456 he built himself a castle near Bergamo, which I haven’t seen yet. I have borrowed this picture from Wikipedia.
Originally, this castle was surrounded by defences: it was not ornamental. However, the Venetians retained Bergamo and Colleoni never had to defend his estate, where he died in 1475, surrounded by his large family and his soldiers. He had been created a member of the Venetian nobility and entertained the Danish king at Malpaga. He was a Renaissance man – he had been brought up as an aristocrat, and although his success was based on warfare, he was a patron of the arts and interested in the intellectual culture of the upper classes. He was also enormously keen to be remembered. He left a great legacy to the state of Venice, on condition that the city erected an equestrian statue of him – this was cast in bronze by Verrochio and still stands in Venice. He commemorated himself in the same way in his Mortuary Chapel at Bergamo, but with gold leaf too.
The Chapel tells us a lot of what Bartolomeo Colleoni felt he had achieved. His funerary image is crowned – he was in effect an uncrowned king of Italy, a king-maker and decider of battles. Plenty of retired warlords have ploughed their wealth into religious buildings as a kind of insurance against punishment in the hereafter, but there is nothing repentant about Colleoni’s shrine to himself. The medallions of Caesar and Trajan, conquering emperors of high reputation indicates his vision of himself as a warrior-ruler in the Classical tradition. Hercules was a demi-god who carried out twelve labours to the benefit of mankind: his appearance in the plaques on the Chapel reminds us of Colleoni’s own heroic labours. Despite its Catholic elements, the Chapel seems to me to lack any sense of religious devotion. It is a humanist temple to the attainments of a man who believed he had achieved the Renaissance ideal – he is a warrior, a ruler and politician, an acknowledged aristocrat, a landowner, but also a courtier, a man of the finest tastes in art and culture; modern, but steeped in the values of the noble Classical past, an heir to the Caesars. There could be something sad about the ostentatious tomb of someone so invested in worldly success, but Colleoni’s self-confidence is overwhelming. No doubt he felt entitled to eternal life too, but his Chapel isn’t overly interested in that. ‘Look,’ he seems to say,’I did it.’ And he did.