The Suardi Oratory
Trescore Balneario | Itinerari e percorsi
The fresco cycle painted by Lorenzo Lotto and commissioned as a propitiatory offering to ward off flooding
There are some people won’t walk under ladders for superstitious reasons and then there are others, like Count Gian Battista Suardi from the 16th century, who decided to have his chapel frescoed by the maestro Lorenzo Lotto instead, as a means of obtaining divine protection from imminent flooding. (This was perhaps also a metaphor for the Protestant “invasion”.) Today the Count’s villa and its splendid park remain un-submerged and together with these, there is still the marvellous cycle of frescoes in a little chapel. The frescoes contain sacred, esoteric and alchemical references all deriving from the extraordinary and enigmatic imagination of the Venetian artist Lotto, who also painted precious altarpieces and designed the intarsia of the choir-stalls in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo.
As many as 700 years ago, anyone crossing the Val Cavallina in order to reach lake Iseo would have come across the chapel, which later became part of the possessions of the Count Suardi. He commissioned this propitiatory cycle of frescoes when he heard an astrologer’s predictions of deluges and floods to come. These may have been literal or possibly an allusion to the invasion of Protestantism.
In order to realise his project, Count Suardi organised what would today be called an artist’s residency for the painting of the little Oratorio located in the park attached to his villa. Lorenzo Lotto was the artist he invited to set himself up in the country estate at Trescore Balneario. Lotto was one of the great Venetian artists of the High Renaissance and was working in Bergamo at that time.
The chapel is rectangular in shape and rustic, with wood beams and a bucolic atmosphere that the artist carried over into his frescoes, populating them with ordinary country folk, while painting the ceiling with interlacing vine branches.
It is dedicated to Saints Barbara and Bridget, the main protagonists in the cycle of frescoes that was finished by the artist in 1524. On the left wall, Lotto depicts the tragic death of Saint Barbara on the orders of her father after she refused an arranged marriage, a drama painted by the artist as if in technicolor, with vivid detail and luminous tonality.
The leading character on the right-hand side is Saint Bridget, protector of agriculture and the life of the field. The portrayal of her story is interwoven with numerous iconographic and symbolic references intended to counter Protestantism, which was seen at the time as a threat that the German army brought with it as it periodically invaded the Val Cavallina.
Lorenzo Lotto and his assistant
A covered passageway connecting the Oratory with the villa of the Suardis was constructed in the 18th century, together with a bell-tower and small sacristy. One still encounters Lorenzo Lotto himself today, dressed as a hunter and welcoming visitors, in a self-portrait at the entrance to the chapel. He is depicted alongside a feathered friend whose purpose was to draw other birds into traps: a little owl.
Promotional material by Proloco di Trescore Balneario.