Architects and Sculptors from Ticino in 17th century Lithuania

Baroque art patrons lure the most renowned artists to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania

The artists that worked in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania of the 15th to early 16th centuries are rarely mentioned. There are churches, castles and works of art surviving from this period, but the names of their creators remain unknown. A few painters and goldsmiths in the cities have been mentioned, but not much is said about their work. The demand for artists was small, and cases of patronage were few. In the mid-16th century, a number of artists came to rebuild the Grand Duke’s Palace in Vilnius, invited by Sigismund Augustus. However, few works fom this time survive (one is the tombstone of Paulius Alšėniškis). The situation changed in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Mikołaj Krzysztof Radziwiłł the Orphan, the chancellor of the GDL, rebuilt the town of Nyasvizh, built a comfortable residence for himself, and founded several monasteries. In the process, several talented architects, sculptors and painters were invited at his initiative.

After a fire in Vilnius in 1610 ravished the Grand Dukes’ Palace, they worked on rebuilding it.

They also built the Royal Chapel of St. Casimir in Vilnius Cathedral. The best artists of the times worked on these projects, engaged by the rulers Sigismund Vasa and Władisław Vasa. The approach to commissioning artists was different in the 17th and 18th centuries to how it had been before. Then, nobles wanting to avail themselves of the services of the rulers’ artists would invite artists and architects individually.

The first artists to come from the Ticino area by Lake Lugano appeared in the GDL at the end of the 16th century. One of them was the Jesuit architect Giovanni Maria Bernardoni, who came to build the Jesuit house and church for Mikołaj Krzysztof Radziwiłł the Orphan in Nyasvizh. The patron had to be familiar with recent trends in architecture, so Radziwiłł the Orphan ensured that Bernardoni, who came from the town of Lugano, spent longer with him. In the 13 years that the Jesuit architect worked in Nyasvizh, he built the Church of Corpus Christi, the first Baroque church in the grand duchy (or he helped in designing it), and ten more churches and monasteries for Mikołaj Krzysztof Radziwiłł the Orphan.

The artistic legacy of Ticinese architects

The brothers Jacopo and Constante Tencalla, who worked in Vilnius in the 1620s and 1630s, were just as instrumental in popularising Baroque artistic forms. They came to build and decorate the Royal Chapel of St Casimir in Vilnius Cathedral, and later carried out orders for nobles of the grand duchy. Whereas Jacopo worked more on individual commissions in Lithuania, Poland and Austria, Constante worked only on the palaces of the rulers of the Republic of the Two Nations, until the end of his life in 1646. His uncle, Matteo Castelli (d. 1632), who was then Sigismund Vasa’s main architect (he was commissioned to design St. Casimir’s Chapel), invited his brother from the small town of Bisones in the Ticino area. Relations, acquaintances and neighbours were drawn into the market for works of art, and later appeared in the GDL. Castello, coming from the Ticino area, was probably the first architect in Poland and the GDL who was also a famous architect in Italy. In Rome, he worked with Carlo Maderno, the pioneer of Baroque architecture, who also came from the area around Lake Lugano. The architects Giacomo della Porta (d. 1602), Domenico Fontana (d. 1607) and Francesco Borromini (d. 1667), who contributed significantly to the development of Roman Baroque architecture, came from that area too. 

They actively sought relatives, and in the mid-17th century the architect Isidoro Affaitatti, came to Poland and quickly found orders at the court of the ruler. Soon his sister’s sons, the architects Carlo and Francesco Ceroni, came to work at Pažaislis, as did his niece’s husband Pietro Puttini and his brother Carlo Puttini from Albogasio. At the initiative of the latter, Giovanni Battista Merli, from a neighbouring small town, was invited, probably to decorate the church at Pažaislis with stucco moulding. At almost the same time, Giovanni Pietro Perti and Giovanni Maria Galli, inhabitants of the Ticino area, came, and for eight years they made stucco decorations for the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Vilnius. They divided the work in their partnership, something which was not unusual in the history of art (artists often met while working on a project): one of them moulded the figures, the other made the ornamentation and the decorative backgrounds.

The Ticino phenomenon: a small settlement producing hundreds of famous artists

Artists from the Ticino area sometimes turn up again later (although maybe in smaller numbers). All the artists and architects we have mentioned were at the top of their profession and could find work in any city across Europe (some did so after working in the GDL). They contributed to the development of Baroque art in this country.

The painters and architects responsible for creating the Baroque art in the GDL were outstanding.

The geography of the shores of Lake Lugano, from where they all came, is interesting. Most of it was part of the canton of Ticino in Switzerland, the rest was part of Lombardy in Italy, and borders with Lake Como and the Como area (the newcomers were sometimes called komaskais). The area around Lake Lugano is forested and rocky, unsuitable for farming, and difficult to reach. The most popular form of transport is by water. The towns are small. Even today, their populations rarely exceed a thousand inhabitants. In the 17th century, only a few hundred people lived in them. Therefore, the fact that hundreds of very accomplished artists, architects and sculptors from such a small location spread all around Europe is remarkable. The GDL was also influenced by them, and they left clear artistic traces here.

Mindaugas Paknys