Busto of Cesare II Visconti, III Marquis of di Cislago


Sotheby’s London, sale Dec. 10, 2002 Lot 126 Milano, Private collection

White Carrara marble, cm. 96 + 115


This impressive marble bust was sold by Sotheby´s in Florence in 1973 at an auction largely comprising pieces that had been owned by Count Francesco Castelbarco Albani. The catalogue entry read, “Exquisite Baroque bust in marble of an unknown Nobleman wearing an armour with an embroidered jabot, an exhuberant wig and a flowing vest draped on the shoulders; rectangular pedestal with cartouche on a base inlaid with marble of different colours. Probably Roman, late seventeenth century, 99 cm.”
In the second instalment of the bi-monthly Florentine magazine ´Antichità Viva´ that was published that same year, the artwork is annoverated in the section dedicated to the most important artworks presented at auctions held in Florence. The footnote referred to the bust as that of tthe “last of the Viscounts of Cislago”, and repeated the reference to a Roman author from the second half of the seventeenth century. In all likelihood, after the publication of the auction catalogue further research supported this identification – also acknowledged in a picture from Federico Zeri´s photo collection (now in Bologna) – which probably drew from what published in that instalment of “Antichità Viva”. In 2002, the bust truly entered critical debate thanks to Susanna Zanuso, who questioned the attribution by the Sotheby´s catalogue to a Roman author, and instead advanced the authorship of Giuseppe Rusnati and a dating between the seventeenth and the eighteenth century, when the sculptor from Lombardy was protagonist among the sculptors active in Milan at the time.
As the third Marquis of Cislago, Cesare II was son of Tebaldo (Milan, 1601-1674), whose father was Cesare I, who died in 1649. With the death of Cesare II in 1716, died the Cislago branch of the Visconti family, and the title was inherited by Carlo Francesco Ercole Castelbarco Visconti, who passed it on to his descendants. It appears that the Count Francesco Castelbarco Albani, who sold his possessions at the Sotheby´s auction in 1973, did not know the identity of the subject, which seems to corroborate the hypothesis that the bust does not represent one of his ancestors, and that it came in his family´s ownership when they took possession of the small feudal land of Cislago. One engraved portrait remains of Cesare II Visconti of Cislago depicting him with an armour, holding a sceptre in the right hand and the prestigious emblem of the Order of the Golden Fleece. The Marquis was bestowed the coveted collar in 1679. If the man here depicted is indeed Cesare II, then the emblem provides a terminus ante quem for its dating. It is true that the last of the Marques of Cislago had succeeded his father in 1674, and in that year he could presumably have commissioned a marble bust to celebrate his rise to power. Dated between 1674 and 1679, the bust would have been made when Cesare II – born in 1643 – was around thirty-five years of age. In the aforementioned engraving, the Marquis is not wearing the voluminous wig which characterises this bust. It is helpful here to think of the depiction of Francsco I d´Este, who was portrayed with a wig in the famour bust by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1650 to 1651), and painted without one by Diego Velázquez in an equally well-known masterpiece (1638 to 1639; both artworks remain in Modena, in the Estense Gallery). The influence of Bernini´s Francesco I d´Este is particularly relevant to the bust here considered for the ingenious use of a soft drapery to enclose the half-bust, disclosing the image of the subject which appears as if fluctuating above it. This same solution was subsequently adopted by Bernini in an even more prestigious bust, that of Louis XIV of France, made in France in 1665 and since then housed in Versailles. Andrea Baratta attempted to bring together the two Bernini models for his two busts of Francesco II d´Este, made around 1685 and housed in the Estense Gallery in Modena. In comparison with the haugthy grandeur of Baratta´s busts – which Adolfo Venturi describes as almost a ´parody´ of Bernini´s superb portrait of Francesco I – the bust sold at auction in 1973 is a less flamboyant example of Baroque art, while representing no small novelty in the Lombard tradition of the time if a dating from before 1679 can indeed be credited.
It is the flowing drapery encircling the lower part of the figure that inspired Susanna Zanuso´s attribution to Rusnati. Born in 1647, the artist completed his training in Rome between 1671 and 1673, where he studied with Ercole Ferrata, a master from Intelvi in Lombardy. The ´Roman´ character of the bust sold at Sotheby’s was immediately recognised by the contributors to the auction catalogue, and the attribution to Rusnati would confirm that first, generic hypothesis on the bust´s authorship. When he returned to Milan, the sculptor faced the financial crisis that affected the Fabbrica del Duomo: it was only in 1678 that he completed his first statue for the prestigious building – Elisha the Prophet, destined for the northern arm of the church´s cross plan. In those years, Rusnati might have worked outside of Milan too, if so Cesare Visconti of Cislago would have had an easy choice to make when identifying the sculptor to whom to commission his portrait. Art critics have always agreed that Gallarate was Rusnati´s place of birth; unlike his father, he did not invest in land in that area, but his relationship with the local community was strong and lasting. The Viscounts of Cilago were also lords of Gallarate, and the two towns are only a few chilometers apart. Furthermore, fresh from his training in Rome, Rusnati must have been an ideal candidate to sculpt a bust according to the latest models and conventions in portraiture, adopted by artists of the caliber of Bernini, Alessandro Algardi or Giuliano Finelli. As mentioned above, this bust is characterised by a modern inventiveness and seems to engage directly with Bernini´s work Francesco I d’Este, which was well-known from the early days thaks to engraved reproductions.
Our knowledge of Lombard sculture during the end of the seventeenth century is not yet mature enough to offer any certainty regarding the authorship of an artwork of this kind (other names of authors that may be suggested include those of Carlo Simonetta, or of Siro Zanelli). Busts in particular are scarce, however it is important to remember that the post mortem inventory of Rusnati did include two busts, one in chalk and one likely made of terracotta (this is not therein specified), both depicting the “Count of Melagra”, identified as Juan Tomas Enriquez de Cabrera, Governor of the Duchy of Milan from 1678 to 1686. The sculptor would thus have been active as portrait artist already between the eigth and the ninth decade of the century (the inventory also records a terracotta bust of Innocenzo in “giesso imbronzato” [bronzed chalk], for which it is challenging to establish a dating). As no portrait made by Rusnati has survived to this day, stylistic parallels can only be drawn with his sacred production of sacred theme. The drapery recurs in the terracotta model for the David which was destined for the Cathedral in Milan, and presented to the members of the Fabbrica del Duomo in 1679 (Opera del Duomo Museum in Milan). This element reveals Rusnati´s study of the models that Ferrata would have brought to his attention in Roma, starting with the masterpieces executed by Algardi. Even more compelling parallels can be drawn with the mature production of the scuptor, in particular the Assunta at the Collegiate church of Gallarate (1697-1700) and noticeably the two reliefs in the Presbytery of the Certosa di Pavia, Abel´s Sacrifice and Noah´s Sacrifice (dated around the end of the seventeenth century), both of which show the fluid touch of the artist. While these were made much later than the bust here considered (assuming this can be dated before 1679), the two reliefs from the Certosa di Pavia irrevocably demonstrate how little Rusnati´s artistic language changed over the years, and how his foundational juvenile experiences in Rome reached maturity over time. His later work clearly shows the earlier influence of the marble slates of Sant´Agnese in Agone – particularly the one made by his master Ferrata – indicating that when he returned home, the sculptor from Gallarate had already acquired the style which would then characterise the rest of his production.

Andrea Bacchi