Cevc AHAS 7-angl

Emilijan CEVC

The ceiling paintings in »Stara Grofija« in Celje – an anonymous work by an early 17th century painter

In 1926, the original painted ceiling decoration in the Festsaal of the late 16th century palace »Stara Grofija« in the town of Celje was uncovered from under a later canvas covering. The works were carried out under the supervision of the conservator Dr. France Stele, who made the discovery public right away, but he elaborated on the theme later on and published a monograph study, Celjski strop (The Celje Ceiling) in 1929 (reprinted in 1969). All of his findings still hold good today and the present paper only adds some further details to the earlier results.

The dimensions of the ceiling are 14.45 x 9.87 m. Its decoration, painted with tempera on canvas, is mounted on a wooden structure. The decoration consists of two main thematic and compositional components. The central part represents a fantastic architectural composition with an upward flight of storeys of galleries and passages, supported by columns and protected by balustrades. This illusionistic architecture is enlivened by various male and female figures, dressed in contemporary clothing, some of them representing actual persons, others being just staffage figures. The upward flight is emphasized by four small towers in the corners. This central architectural part is framed all around by an illusionistic gallery of the »first floor«. In its corner fields the so-called Four Disgracers of Heaven, i.e. Tantalus, Icarus, Phaeton and Ixion, fall downwards. They are modelled on Goltzius's engravings, which are, in turn, based on the paintings by Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem (1562–1638). The two fields along the shorter walls depict the battle between the Trojans led by Aeneas and the Latins under the command of king Turnus, a motif from Vergil's Aeneid. The scene of the final battle, based on Tempesta's etching, is here divided in half. The fields along the longer walls feature the four seasons represented by seasonal peasant works. The scenes are freely interpreted Sadelerian engravings done after Bassano-related paintings of the Four Seasons.

The central architectural painting draws mainly on Bolognese quadraturism and some other pictorial sources. However, all of the models employed date back from the 16th century, so that the Celje ceiling decoration, which dates from the early 17th century, appears rather conservative.

The present study perceives the models of the anonymous author of the Celje ceiling in the Bolognese circle of the painter Pellegrino Tibaldi (1527–1596). Particularly indicative are Tibaldi's decorations in the Palazzo Poggi in Bologna (the Ulysses and the Phaeton rooms) with central fields encircled by columns darting upwards and interconnected with balustrades. Among other influences, Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine chapel, works by Perino del Vaga (1501–1547) and Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) can also be traced, together with models of actual architecture of the 16th century. The putti floating in the sky between the towers on the Celje ceiling are reminiscent of a similar detail by Perino del Vaga in the Sala dei Pontefici of the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome. Also the painted decoration of the entrance-hall of the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice can serve as a comparison; the »frame« part was painted around 1560 by Cristoforo Rosa (ca. 1520–1577).

Besides Roman and Bolognese formal impulses, some influences of the Dutch late Renaissance and of Hans Vredeman de Vries (1527–1606?) can be traced too, especially in the corner towers. A stylistic resemblance and temporal correspondence with northern art can be observed, without implications of direct connections with Celje, in the octagon by Hellbrunn Castle (corridors in deep perspective, enlivened by staffage figures), painted by Arsenio Mascagni (1579–1636), and in the oeuvre of Kaspar Memberger (1596/99–before 1626), a painter from Constanza active in Salzburg. As to the use of colours, the painter in Celje kept to the restraint colouring of Tintoretto and he also drew on Dutch painting practice.

The palace of Stara Grofija was built by the family of counts Thurn-Valsassina who also commissioned the paintings for the ceiling decoration. The building was probably initiated by Achatius Thurn, and after his death in 1597 it must have been his brother Ambrosius Thurn, well educated in the humanities, who continued the enterprise. As a comparison with his portrait in the copperplate engraving proves, he is depicted in the right-hand corner of the first gallery. Beside him two painters are portrayed, the older one pointing his finger at his young assistant half-hidden behind the corner column. At the side of these three men a peacock is perched on the balustrade – as a warrant of immortality after a well performed task by both the patron and the artist. The overall theme is typical of the time and of patrons. As if by inspiration from Vergil, the ceiling decoration of the Festsaal joins bucolic nature with time, and work with victorious combat and honour, thus creating a glorification of the aristocratic family from the aspect of the patron's humanistic ideals.

Despite all the above-mentioned findings, the painter remains anonymous, a master from the North who also profited from Italian art of the late Renaissance and Mannerism.