Written sources from the 17th century – by Bernardino Faino (1630-1669) and Francesco Paglia (1660-1701) – record the excitement in front of Santa Giulia crucified in the new church of the Benedictine nuns. These sources also mention the artists: Giovanni and Carlo Carra, sons of Antonio, who owned the most important sculpture workshop in the 17th century Brescia and province. The Carras are responsible for the Ark of Saint Faustino and Giovita in the church in Brescia of ‘Santi Faustino e Giovita’ (1618-1626). When Antonio died (1632), Giovanni and Carlo – the third brother, Stefano, would succeed as an architect – followed the steps of their late father and worked in a sort of symbiosis. The only exception that is worth noting is when Giovanni proudly signs the Altar of Saint Benedict in the ‘Santi Faustino e Giovita’ church (1645-1648).
Therefore even the Santa Giulia in the City Museum is an output of that workshop – but before 1630, when Faino recorded it – though the delicacy in the marble descriptive technique, the fine expression and the gentle progression of shades on the sculpture reveal a different touch from that of Saint Benedict signed by Giovanni. Here the rough outline is sharper and the drapery very schematic, though fascinating. It is only a hypothesis, but Santa Giulia crucified may have been sculpted mainly by Carlo, who worked as only responsible for the building activities of Duomo Nuovo between 1621 and 1659, in the role of “inzegnero soprastante alla fabbrica” (responsible engineer). Carlo also signed the majority of the contracts that survived until today, thus marking his role as coordinator of all activities related to the family workshop.
The rarity of such representation of the martyr from Carthage did not allow Carlo to resort to consolidate models around Brescia, maybe only to the frescoes on the monastery walls, which anyway were too distant in style and difficult to be accessed. The delicate plasticity and the refined polishing of the marble seem to come from the best examples from Brescia area, for example the beautiful Christ from the monument to bishop Bollani (1577-1578), which Alessandro Vittoria from Trento sculpted for the Duomo Vecchio and now is preserved in the City Museum. Either way, the face is designed on a delicate balance of shades, the mouth is slightly open and the expression is the result of a sophisticated harmony even in suffering and ecstasy.
We are at the beginning of the Baroque era, a turning point where the artistic movements in Brescia – whose artists would always be indifferent to the 17th century style of Rome – are still seduced by the late Mannerism that pervaded the workshop of Duomo in Milan. The young Carra in his Santa Giulia manages to play down some formal exaggerations that are typical of Mannerism – elaborated poses, intense expressions and the quasi-metallic perfection of shapes – thanks to his ability to recuperate what we consider a “neo-renaissance” style of Vittoria’s artistry, of his balance and expressive serenity. Brescia though has always been attracted by the ‘mid-tone’: the mixture of sensuality and ecstasy, inherent to the representation of a half naked woman, can only find its space in a dimension made of suppressed passions, of smiles and grief experienced in an individualistic sphere. Carra had to be diplomatic in resolving the inevitabile confusion generated from the approach of the martyr Giulia to the death of Christ. She was chosen as symbol of the female martyr in a female monastery, so Giulia must show her bosom to prove her femininity, with arms wide open, nailed and unveiled. Not even her long hair falls on her shoulders, but is loose on her back. The artist is able to depict Giulia’s modesty in a body that remains still; the expression of ecstasy and pain is entrusted to the vibrant drapery, to the inner emotion of her face towards Heaven.
The time and space of the extremely sensual visions of Roman Baroque are still a long way to come, and will always be. But the artistic unrest of that period cannot be ignored in Brescia: nature, with its multifaceted spirit and necessary mediations, claims its place in the history of local sculpture.
Carlo e Giovanni (?) Carra
Santa Giulia crucified
From Santa Giulia church, second altar on the left
Brescia, Santa Giulia City Museum