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Isidoro Bianchi (Campione d’Italia, 1581 – 1662). Design for a Ceiling Decoration

Isidoro Bianchi (Campione d'Italia, 1581 - 1662), Design for a Ceiling Decoration, Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash heightened with white on tan paper, 298 x 298mm., 11 3/4 x 11 3/4 in.

Plate I. Isidoro Bianchi (Campione d’Italia, 1581 – 1662), Design for a Ceiling Decoration, Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash heightened with white on tan paper, 298 x 298mm., 11 3/4 x 11 3/4 in.


Isidoro Bianchi (Campione d’Italia, 1581 – 1662)
Studies for a Ceiling Decoration
Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash heightened with white on tan paper, 298 x 298mm., 11 3/4 x 11 3/4 in. Collector’s stamp, lower left corner Lodowijk Houthakker (L.3893).

Pia Gallo, New York

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This elegant ceiling design [Plate I] consists of two conjoined sheets, discovered separately by the Amsterdam dealer Lodowijk Houthakker from two different French sources: the sheet with the scroll decorations at the edge (left) from P. Leroux in 1968 and the sheet with the cartouche (right) from Bruno de Bayser in 1971. They record a repertory of variant solutions for the same ceiling decoration, most likely a chapel. Giulio Bora’s suggestion of an attribution to the Ticinese painter and stucco designer, Isidoro Bianchi, a collaborator and successor of Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli, Il Morazzone (Morazzone 1573 – 1625/6), is amply justified by the decorative vocabulary as well as the graphic technique and style of the drawing itself.1

Only for the past ten to fifteen years have scholars begun to extricate Isidoro Bianchi’s brilliant personal style from the general mass of works, above all drawings, traditionally attributed to his more famous older collaborator, Il Morazzone (Morazzone. Bianchi is only documented as working with Morazzone from 1623, when he was already forty-two years old. However, both artists were active in the area around Como beginning c. 1608, when Bianchi would have had plenty of opportunity and motivation to study the work of his only slightly older colleague. While Isidoro’s early work is relatively free of Morazzonian influences, showing a primary debt to Gaudenzio Ferrari, they increased during the second decade of the seventeenth century, reaching a peak when he was actually working in Morazzone’s style as an adjunct to his workshop. After Morazzone’s death, his mantle appears to have fallen on Bianchi’s shoulders. While his conservative Lombard patrons desired the continuance of the styles of the great local masters, including Bernardino Luini, Gaudenzio Ferrari, and Morazzone, Bianchi’s art continued to develop between this legacy and his own personal tendencies for another thirty years. He was a versatile all-round artist, documented as painter, sculptor (above all in stucco), architect, and engineer.

Bianchi was born in 1581 in Campione on Lake Lugano, now an Italian enclave in Switzerland. He married there in 1601, and between 1602 and 1618 his wife bore him six sons, several of whom became his assistants in later years. We know nothing of his early studies. Isidoro’s first documented work was the decoration of the Cistercian monastery of Santa Maria dell’Acquafredda, which he carried out between 1598 and the early 1600’s.

In 1605-6 we find him at the court of Rudolph II in Prague, but the following year he was back in Italy, decorating the chapel of the Madonna del Carmine in the church of Santo Stefano di Viggiù. In 1617-20 he was working in the Palazzo Reale in Turin on ceiling decorations in the Galleria Grande, as well as on stucco figures on the façade, together with the Castelli. The next year he painted his first fresco cycle in the northern country around Lake Como in the parish church of Santa Maria Rezzonico. In 1619, he was doing engineering work for the monks of the sanctuary of the Madonna del Sasso in Locarno and probably also frescoes in the sanctuary of Santa Maria Rovana in nearby Cevio.

In 1623 he joined Morazzone at the Castello di Rivoli, decorating the impressive Sala di Amedeo VIII. Ten years later he directed his own workshop, including his sons, Pompeo and Francesco, in a similar large-scale secular decoration at the Castello di Valentino. They continued to work for him into the 1640’s, after his return to Campione in 1639.

During the 1630’s Isidoro received several important distinctions, which attest to his success as an artist: “Painter to His Highness” (1631), “cavaliere dell’ ordine dei Santi Maurizio e Lazzaro” (1634), a pension from the Duchess Christina (1635), and exemption from taxes from his properties in Turin (1636), where he had bought a house. During this time he continued to work in Lombardy and Piedmont. His restorations and decorations in Santa Maria dei Ghirli in Campione, which began in the 1630’s and continued into the next decade, are considered his masterpiece by many. He also continued his long-time relationship with the Cistercian order.

Isidoro’s activity only intensified as he approached his sixties, producing many works around Lugano and Como. Later he decorated the presbytery of the Duomo of Monza with scenes from Genesis, as well as a chapel at the Sacro Monte of Varallo with his strikingly original Resurrection (1650-54). His final great project was at the sanctuary of Santa Maria della Caravina at Cressogno (Valsolda), which continued from 1648 to 1657. He died at Campione in 1662.

An interesting document published by di Macco (in Romano 1988) attests to the demand for his art, as well as for the importance of drawing in his work as the head of a large studio, in which he assures his patron: “io non mancherò, sebene absente, di fare li disegni.”2

The delicate, creamy textures of the drawing suggest a milieu northwards of Milan up towards Como. Morazzone’s figural representation and handling are notably fuller and heavier than those in the present work, and we must look for an artist with a lighter touch. Here we see painterly, almost evanescent forms over intermittent traces of sharp outlines in black ink. In places these plastically suggestive tangles articulate the anatomy without describing it in any literal way, and linear nodes accent important decorative and anatomical details. [Fig. 11] These emerge as one examines the drawing in greater detail, providing a counterpoint to its soft, sensuous first impression created by the delicate brown washes and white heightening, which was produced by a combination of semi-transparent overlapping layers and parallel hatching from the point of the brush. [Fig. 2] This is typical of Lombard draftsmanship, of Morazzone, his school, and of Isidoro Bianchi in particular.

Fig.1. Isidoro Bianchi, Study for the Adoration of the Magi at Santa Maria dei Ghirli in Campione d'Italia (Statens Museum for Kunst Koberstiksamling, Copenhagen, TU 15/6).

Fig.1. Isidoro Bianchi, Study for the Adoration of the Magi at Santa Maria dei Ghirli in Campione d’Italia (Statens Museum for Kunst Koberstiksamling, Copenhagen, TU 15/6).

These techniques are to be found in a larger compositional study in Copenhagen (Statens Museum for Kunst Koberstiksamling, TU 15/6  [Fig. 1] for the Adoration of the Magi at Santa Maria dei Ghirli in Campione d’Italia. [Fig. 3]  The flowing forms of the present drawing are apparent in the fresco of the Annunciation in the arch in the same chapel [Fig. 4], especially in the angel and in the putti [Figs. 5, 6], who reach out to the Virgin with varied gestures resembling those of the caryatids in the present drawing. [Fig. 8] Further resemblances are to be observed in putti in the ceiling frescoes and stucchi [ Figs. 7, 10], as well as the stucco caryatids in the chapel. Ornamental motifs like the volutes. [Fig. 11] also recall the forms of our drawing. The sharp-pointed pen technique with dense dark brown/black ink [Fig. 8] also appears in a compositional study for the Presentation in the Temple at Windsor Castle [Popham-Wilde, no. 515 (0292), attr. Morazzone: figs. 12, 13], published as Bianchi by Bora in de Angelis (1993).

Further similarities of anatomical proportion and of gesture are apparent in the frescoed running figures in Bianchi’s Chapel of the Resurrection at the Sacro Monte at Varallo [Fig. 14] and a painting of the Immaculate Conception on slate in a Milanese private collection [Fig. 15]. Note the affinity between the ovoid head of one of the caryatids in the drawing [Fig. 16] and the Virgin and putti in the painting. These putti also exhibit another peculiarity of our draftsman’s style, the delicate, twig-like hands and fingers of the caryatids, which do not suggest so much a termination of the limb as a fluid continuation of the gesture into space [Fig. 8], also appear in the putti, in the Christ Child in the study for the Presentation mentioned above [Fig. 17], and in the chapel at Campione. This is an idiosyncratic feature which reflects on the artist’s open, painterly conception of form and is not to be found among contemporary or earlier Emilian or Lombard artists.

The present design has not yet been identified with any surviving project, but, as Bora has pointed out,3 it is most likely related to a chapel in a church. In his fundamental essay on Bianchi’s draftsmanship, Bora observed that Bianchi’s later style, for example in the Windsor study for the Presentation in the sanctuary of Santa Maria della Rovana at Cevio (Cantone Ticino), shows “a predilection for looser, more dissolved atmospheric environments, in harmony with new directions in Lombard art.”4 This tendency (See, for example, the ornamental chandelier [Fig. 18], in addition to the atmospheric treatment of light and space.) is amply apparent in the present ceiling study, indicating that it, too, is to be dated to the later years of Isidoro’s long career.

I wish to thank Giulio Bora, Jonathan Bober, Lucy Vivante, and Helen Burnham for their assistance in researching this drawing.

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Art Market, London; Lodowijk Houthakker

(L.3893); P. Leroux 1968 (left half: big scrolls); B. de Bayser 1971 (right half).

Wanden en plafonds : tekeningen uit de verzameling Lodewijk Houthakker : Nijmeegs Museum “Commanderie van Sint Jan”, 12 januari tot en met 10 februari 1985 : Vleeshal, Grote Markt, Haarlem (dépendance van het Frans Halsmuseum), 1 september tot en met 6 oktober 1985) / [catalogus samengesteld door R.D. Kollewijn]., no. 18, ill. cover.

Kollewijn, R.D., Wanden en plafonds : tekeningen uit de verzameling Lodewijk Houthakker, exh. cat. : Nijmeegs Museum “Commanderie van Sint Jan”, 12 januari tot en met 10 februari 1985 : Vleeshal, Grote Markt, Haarlem (dépendance van het Frans Halsmuseum), 1 september tot en met 6 oktober 1985), no. 18, ill. cover.

Fuhring, Peter (1989), Design into art : drawings for architecture and ornament : The Lodewijk Houthakker collection, (London New York, NY: P. Wilson Publishers Distributed in the USA by Harper & Row, Publishers) 2 v. (792 p.), vol I, No. 289, p. 255.

Related Literature:
Giovanni Romano, ed., Figure Del Barocco in Piemonte : La Corte, La Città, I Cantieri, Le Province. Vol. Arte in Piemonte ; 3. Torino: Cassa di risparmio di Torino, 1988.

De Angelis, Maria , Isidoro Bianchi, (Bergamo [Italy]: Edizioni Bolis, 1993.

Bona Castellotti, Marco, Pietra dipinta : tesori nascosti del ‘500 e del ‘600 da una collezione privata milanese, (1. ed edn., Milano: F. Motta), 2000.

Daniele Pescarmona, Isidoro Bianchi di Campione, 1581-1662, (Cinisello Balsamo, Milano: Silvana), 2003.


  1. While the arguments presented here are my own, I am following Dott. Bora’s initial suggestion of the attribution to Bianchi. (e-mail 9/ 1/09). Nancy Ward Neilson once suggested an attribution to Francesco Castello on the basis of a chapel in the church of S. M. della Passione in Milan, in which Castelli collaborated with M. Gherardini. Bianchi in fact collaborated with Francesco Castelli  and his brother in on façade stucchi for the Palazzo Reale in Turin between 1619 and 29. s.v. Bianchi, Isidoro, in  Allgemeinens Lexikon Der Bildenden Künstler Von Der Antike Bis Zur Gegenwart und zum Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler Des XX. Jahrhunderts, München Leipzig: K.G. Saur E.A. Seemann, 1996.
  2. cited by Bora in Pescarmona (2003), p. 83, n. 12.
  3. Giulio Bora, e-mail 8/12/09
  4. Pescarmona (2003), p. 82