Laurence Simmons

O Happy Posterity: Laurence Simmons on Marco d’Oggiono and the Plague

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Laurence Simmons reappraises the work of Italian Renaissance painter, Marco d'Oggiono
<p><strong>Marco d&rsquo;Oggiono</strong>&nbsp;<em>Madonna and Child&nbsp;</em>c.1490, tempera on panel, Mackelvie Trust Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased with the assistance of the National Art Collection Fund, 1966</p>

Marco d’Oggiono Madonna and Child c.1490, tempera on panel, Mackelvie Trust Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased with the assistance of the National Art Collection Fund, 1966


‘O happy posterity, who will not experience such abysmal woe and will look upon our testimony as fable.’
—Petrarch, Letter from Parma May 1349 to his friend in Avignon Louis Sanctus.

Marco d’Oggiono was born between 1465 and 1470 probably in Milan.  His father, Cristoforo d’Oggiono, was a professional goldsmith from Oggiono in the Brianza about 40 kilometres north-east of Milan. His mother Elisabetta da Civate was from the nearby commune of Civate. The name Oggiono is derived from the Latin Augionus (place full of water), fitting because the town sits between Lago di Annone, Lago di Garlate and Lago di Pusiano, and water often features in the backgrounds of d’Oggiono’s compositions. Little is known of Marco’s youth and whom he may have trained with, but by 1490, d’Oggiono had met and become in some way associated with Leonardo da Vinci who was then working for Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan; d’Oggiono’s exact working relation with Leonardo is undocumented.  Initially, d’Oggiono also collaborated on works with several of Leonardo’s followers including a joint commission with Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, a Resurrection of Christ between Saints Leonardo and Lucy (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) of 1494, but by the late 1490s he had an independent career and workshop, and was travelling around northern Italy for commissions. D’Oggiono also made several copies of Leonardo’s works, and a version of The Last Supper (1506-9) at the Musée de la Renaissance, Château d’Écouen, serves as one of the best reminders we have of Leonardo’s famous painting in its original condition. At the centre of Piazza della Scala in Milan is a monument to Leonardo da Vinci, by the sculptor Pietro Magni (1872). Around the base there are the statues of the four great disciples of Leonardo: Cesare da Sesto, Andrea Solari, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio and Marco d’Oggiono.

<p><strong>Pietro Magni</strong>&nbsp;<em>Monument to Leonardo da Vinci</em> (detail) 1872, Piazza della Scala, Milan.</p>

Pietro Magni Monument to Leonardo da Vinci (detail) 1872, Piazza della Scala, Milan.

D’Oggiono is not considered a major painter of his period, indeed, several commentators dismiss his work disparagingly. But for his time he was successful and managed to leave his wife financially comfortable, and his sole surviving daughter a considerable dowry of 700 ducats. Perhaps his reputation was simply damaged by the sheer quality of the competition around him. It is the very sense of what seemed mundane, or at best not very interesting, about his work to his contemporaries that attracts us today. It now bears interest and the time has come to reappraise d’Oggiono’s painting.

D’Oggiono’s Madonna and Child (c. 1490) which entered the Auckland Art Gallery in 1966 is the most important Italian Renaissance painting held in a New Zealand collection. What first grabs our attention are Mary’s heavy eyelids, and the ‘bags under her eyes’, as she looks down not at her child, but distracted off to our right, with a resignation which seems to say when will this end. She appears concerned but surrendering; submissive yet doubtful. She is not sad, but serious and self-enclosed. No matter what you do there is something dry and mask-like about this face. It carries some of the paleness of death, even the rosiness of her cheeks look as if they might have been waxed, and yet it is exquisitely alive with the flicker of a rich and complex inner life, and it immediately conveys a thoughtful introspection. The pose captures an uneasy psychology rather than a graceful physiognomy. There exists an abyss between the face the painter seeks to control and the gaze in which the subject’s control is lost. In the struggle between the two something deeper emerges, something that betrays the artist’s personality and suffering.  Traditionally, Mary’s downcast gaze is understood as a premonition of her child’s future, his eventual torture and crucifixion. But this seems too easy, and it misses the sensation of being caught inside a contradiction which the painting generates. I want to suggest that the intensity, the melancholy, the individuality, even the awkwardness of his Madonna arose simply from d’Oggiono’s awareness of death which makes its way into his work.

Mary seems like a statue, someone in another realm. Her face is not expressionless, so much as beyond expression. How has this happened to me, she asks? Among the resignation to her fate, and the sensation of a trapped mind, where, we might inquire, is the motherly love? Christ on the other hand, unlike his mother, has pure mass and weight, and lies splayed across the extent of her gold-lined cloak, spread out on the stone parapet and falling over its edge towards us. This is a ledge that, traditionally again in terms of convention, has the shape of the altar on which the son’s sacrifice was repeatedly offered up to his Father. But it is also a conscious compositional device that ‘leads’ us from our own space and time into the eternal space of the divine depicted. Mary holds the child as if to keep him near and to prevent him falling from the parapet. But as we look we are forced to ask is this really ‘protection’ or is she in fact holding him away from a fuller embrace? Her right hand grasps his thigh with open parallel fingers like a large garden fork. Her left hand rests lightly over his stomach, her forefinger raised. There is nothing here of the very intimate bond between mother and child that is conveyed, say, in the similar subject matter of Antonello da Messina. The child’s gesture of turning his eyes to look at us seems wary as if he knows, and wants to discern how, we are observing him; with wonder or envy. He seems concerned about his image. Is he frightened of us, or of his future? Mary’s face is filled with knowledge, a knowledge held within the self, while her child seems to live easily, instinctually we might even say, within the world that is offered to him. The world of the inner self with all its anxieties belongs to the mother alone. The child, if he is worried, he is worried about us, why we are looking; that is, his attention is focussed on the immediate concerns of the world. He has ruddy cheeks and red hair in tight curls and nothing of the downcast, wan-faced melancholy of his mother. One set of his toes — the big and the index toe — is crossed: as if for luck? The little fingers of his right hand are placed over his mother’s breast exposing her nipple for us to see, perhaps beginning to squeeze it, or at least applying pressure. This gesture indicates not only the literal nourishment he relies on as an infant, but also, again traditionally, his mother’s symbolic role as Madonna del Latte, the Mother Church who gives spiritual sustenance to the faithful. His left hand is placed on the upper part of his mother’s left wrist much as her right hand is placed on his thigh. He is naked but her clothing, a red nursing gown and a cloak in radiant blue lined in gold, is flamboyant, layered and endless in its folds. It provides a vibrant counterpoint to the downcast eyes and is an assertive gesture of magnificence. So it would appear that all the drama enacted here is precise and controlled.

Behind the painting there is clearly a window, the light from it rests on and marks the grey stone sill, and while a gathered red curtain (more folds, this time in the manner of Bellini) throws part of the rear view into obscurity, we discern a distant landscape on both sides. I don’t want to simply read the double background as an allegory. For, although it is without a human presence, it too offers another sort of life to the painting. And the painting may need this because of the fundamental inertia of the figure of Mary at its centre. The landscape background, glimpsed through the uncurtained sides of the window, represents an opening to the world, it ‘opens us up’ to two scenes in the distance, on our left a waterway, on our right a road. Both with a lake and mountains against a bluegreen sky, perhaps the very mountains and lakes of d’Oggiono’s Brianza background, and views from there of the ever-present alps. But there is also (a yellowish) light coming from infront of the painting, from the space of the painter himself (and by implication our spectator space too), and this catches on the sheen of the fabric and the lustre of the hair. It is also reflected in the centre of the child’s eyes. The painting gives us a light that is both from the past (d’Oggiono’s Brianza) and one from the future (Christ’s crucifixion and, even, the future of our own spectator space). That is, in a complicated fashion, the painting seems already in the future but offers us a ‘back to the future’ in order to come forward into the past.

And this is where the theme of death, and not simply prescience of Christ’s death on the cross, that I have suggested marks this painting becomes crucial. I believe it is possible to read in the figure of Mary —  removing the biblical attributes of a Madonna — a displaced self-portrait of the artist, estranged, aloof, instead vividly alone with his fears and apprehensions. D’Oggiono was painting in the aftermath of the massive onslaught of the bubonic plague, known as The Black Death after the dark blotches that appeared on the skin, which first hit Italy in 1348. The poet Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) was one of the first writers to capture its impact and the mood of the time, writing to a friend in France he lamented: “We are continually dying; I while I am writing these words, you while you are reading them, others when they hear them or fail to hear them, we are all dying” (Letter to Phillippe de Cassaboles, c. 1360). The sight of death with its mass graves became a rite of passage providing insight into the fragility of human mortality. It entered the minds of the living, traumatised their imaginations, and made death a familiar and inescapable guest, a silent companion accompanying each one of us, one who would always have the last word.

In recent days much reference has been made to Albert Camus’ interest in the plague, his 1947 novel La peste and its relevance for all of us during coronavirus lockdown. Apparently, sales of the novel have spiked on the internet. Like d’Oggiono, Camus trusted the plague’s extremity, its power to both illuminate human nature and to expose it as if removing its (face) mask of protection. “Each of us has the plague within him,” his character Jean Tarrou says, so “we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him.” We can all be struck down on a whim without warning, and through our own careless actions we can strike down others without cause or even intent. We all carry the plague, this capacity for evil and destruction, within us. (As Christians would say, we are all fallen creatures.) Given that, the relevant question becomes not how to eradicate it — we can’t — but how to live with our knowledge of it, to live with its constant reminder. The closest Camus himself comes to voicing a moral dictum is this: “What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest — health, integrity, purity (if you like) — is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter.” Again the phrase “a vigilance that must never falter” resounds for all of us today. It is the capacity of ordinary people — our healthworkers — to do extraordinary things that The Plague extols. “There’s one thing I must tell you,” Dr Rieux, the novel’s main physician, at one point specifies: “there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is common decency.”

The Black Death, and its subsequent revisitations, was the most devastating event of human history. It shaped lives and attitudes towards death over centuries, although recently we, until now, may have forgotten death’s trenchant hold on our worlds. It entered the minds of those who lived through it; it made death a daily companion, a silent uninvited guest to the family table. In a letter to his brother in a monastery in France — infact, he was the sole survivor of the plague which struck that monastery of thirty-five  monks — Petrarch wrote: “When has any such thing been even heard or seen; in what annals has it ever been read that houses were left vacant, cities deserted, the country neglected, the fields too small for the dead and a fearful and universal solitude over the whole earth?” (Letter to his brother Gherardo, August 1 1348).

The plague also inspired many paintings of suffering and healing dedicated to Saint Roch (San Rocco), the saint protector against the plague. Roch, distributed his worldly goods amongst the poor like Saint Francis of Assisi and left his home in Montpellier, France, to walk into plague-stricken Italy where he cured the sick with the sign of the Cross. He succumbed to the pestilence himself, but recovered and returned to France only to die in prison. D’Oggiono’s San Rocco (Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, c.1520) is the surviving side panel of a triptych. The left-hand side panel, a figure of Saint Sebastian, is now in the Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan. The central panel, probably a Madonna and Child, like the Auckland painting, has been lost. Both saints were invoked for protection against the plague. Saint Roch is portrayed casually standing on rocky ground with a deep valley perspective and blue mountains in the distance. One of his stockings has been pulled down to reveal the sign of the plague on the inner thigh of his right leg. One of d’Oggiono’s final complete works was a polyptych of the Assumption of the Virgin, flanked by ten saints including San Rocco, it was painted for the Church of Saint Eufemia in Oggiono his home town. Marco d’Oggiono was to die in June 1524 from the effects of bubonic plague, his only son Cinzio succumbed to the plague in the same year. Bubonic plague had virulently returned to Milan in 1452, 1468, 1502 and 1523. The plague of 1523 that claimed Marco d’Oggiono and son was the worst since the fourteenth century and, according to a contemporary chronicler, left 100,000 dead within the city walls in the space of four months leaving the city ‘dishabitata, incolta & selvaggia’ (‘uninhabited, unkempt & wild’).

<p><strong>Marco d&rsquo;Oggiono</strong>&nbsp;<em>Saint Roch [San Rocco]</em>&nbsp;c.1520, oil on wood panel, 600 x 276mm, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo.</p>

Marco d’Oggiono Saint Roch [San Rocco] c.1520, oil on wood panel, 600 x 276mm, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo.

Painting in the fifteenth century changed because the fragility of human life changed. Curiously, the bounty of Italian Renaissance painting was to flourish in the dark shadow of the plague. Art also infects: paintings contaminate, metaphorically, and perhaps even microbiologically. For, as has happened during our coronavirus closures, art galleries shut their doors. Viewing painting may also be a form of infection as the mind of the painter percolates, almost inexorably, into the mind of the viewer, as it seems to have done here, I hope, in my account of this work. But, of course, art is also a comfort and a consolation. Then, the existence of paintings — paintings like Marco d’Oggiono’s Madonna and Child — are themselves signs that humanity endures into a future. And in this way, painting is also an antidote, the downward gaze of d’Oggiono’s Mary might cause us to reflect, like Camus’ Tarrou, that the plague is in fact us, the human condition.

Article written by Laurence Simmons, Professor of Film Studies in Media and Communication at The University of Auckland. Laurence co-curated the exhibition Gordon Walters: New Vision and co-edited the accompanying catalogue. His book-length publication on the artist William Hodges is Tuhutuhi, William Hodges Cook’s Painter in the South Pacific (Otago University Press, 2011).  


Albert Camus, The Plague, translated by Robin Buss (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2015).
Samuel K. Cohn Jr. and Guido Alfani, ‘Households and Plague in Early Modern Italy,’ The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 38:2 (2007): 177-205.
Francesco Petrarca, Letters on Familiar Matters (Rerum Familiarum Libri), translated by Aldo S. Bernardo, 3 vols (New York: Italica Press, 2009).
Janice Shell, Marco d’Oggiono: The Legacy of Leonardo. Painters in Lombardy 1490-1530 (Milan: Skira Editore, 1998).