The first 'vele'
The restoration process
The “transparents” are translucent paintings on canvas mounted on “boxes” that are lit on the inside and are created in different shapes and sizes. They hang along the streets of the town and on the walls of houses. The portable ones are lamps, which have always been installed everywhere, while the others are, instead, very rare and perhaps unique. The early production between 1790 and 1852 must be distinguished from the subsequent one that only continues (and at times betrays) the original idea. Today there are about 450 of them but not all are displayed. The last one was produced in 2012. They combine several functions by lighting up processions that are held at night, acting as short-lived spectacular decorations, such as arches of triumph, and illustrating the Holy Story. They present popular features to be easily understood, and cultured references as a result of the refined and modern execution, themes and stylistic features.
Some of the early ones are signed and dated within 1792 by Giovanni Battista Bagutti (Rovio, 1742-1823), namely the two series on the façade of the convent and of the Church of St. John, with some of the 10 “doors” or arches that have two tripartite sides (almost all have been replaced by copies or gigantographies). Brother Antonio Maria Baroffio (Mendrisio, 1732-1798) was perhaps the person who conceived it, on his return from the convent in Piacenza, in the Duchy of Parma, where the Bagutti Academy won an award in 1768 for the modern features of works produced in a Neoclassical style. This can be noticed in the painted frames of the “doors,” in the pale cold hues (altered by yellowed wax), and in the balanced scenes that are never too dramatic, though lively and intense.
They depict scenes related to the Passion of Christ but all the ancient series always have at least one non-evangelical episode, like “Jesus Taking Leave of His Mother,” interweaving the “stories” of the Way of the Cross (Via Crucis) and of the Way of the Mother (Via Matrix). The complex criterion that underpins the positions of the first 10 “doors” along the processional route (in a document of ca. 1789) was interrupted by fires and transfers, and betrayed by replacements implemented in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The execution technique is extraordinary. Very few compatible pigments that had no concealing effect were blended with oily-resinous paints on the loose but strong canvases soaked with wax, and no corrections could be made. Bagutti imported at least one pigment from Germany. He probably learned to use wax from French studies on encaustic (hot wax) Roman paintings in Parma, or during journeys to Europe during the Enlightenment when experiments were conducted on “scientific” techniques that can be defined as avant-garde today.