The Illuminator's Art at the Este Court

Written by  Alessandra Chiappini
An extraordinary essay on Renaissance art, the first of a new series sponsored by the Foundation.
Starting with a celebrated and extremely rare text by Hermann Julius Hermann, the Istituto di Studi Rinascimentali of Ferrara, in collaboration with the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio, has inaugurated a new series of essays on the art of illumination as practised in Ferrara.

Hermann, who was connected with the "Vienna School", had his essay published in Vienna in 1900. It is not irrelevant to record that the credit for having theorized and applied a rigorously philological approach to the work of art must go to this "school". Such premises laid the ground for a particular interest in Italian Renaissance art, the maximum expression of stylistic perfection, and scrupulous consideration for the great dignity of what used to be termed "the minor arts".

In the preface, Giordana Mariani Canova reminds us that the work constitutes the first essay to deal specifically with a single school of illumination, fixing the logic of its development within the correct artistico-cultural frame of reference and reconstructing its history through the works, the artists' training and the background of its patrons, with the aid of rigorously researched archive material.
Mrs. Mariani Canova integrates Hermann's considerations with assessments matured in the light of the historical-critical work that came after him and on the basis of illuminated material discovered later and therefore unknown to him.
After a rather nebulous beginning, the Ferrarese school of illumination assumed the connotations of a real art form in the time of Niccolò III, while its golden age coincides with the reigns of Lionello, Borso, and Ercole I.

The art of illumination, although it reflected the personal tastes of each of these princes, nevertheless managed to conserve its own line of continuity and to identify its own line of congruence in that formal nobility enhanced by emotivity that may be descried in all the best examples of Ferrarese illumination.

Hermann wisely relates the development of the illuminated work produced for the court to the way in which the Este rulers gradually enlarged their library, starting from Niccolò III. By way of a parallel, Hermann suggests that the work of Lionello's tutor, Guarino Veronese, made a further contribution to the intellectual growth and development of the tastes of the court and of the city as a whole, from which the illuminator's art also drew new energy.

Hermann did not know any of the codices today ascribed to Lionello's collection. This makes his deductions regarding the innovative import and the quality of the illuminated work produced for Lionello's court all the more admirable. In the light of the material at our disposal today, we can prove what Hermann could only surmise: in Niccolò III's day, illumination was too diversified, too "curious" and overly concerned with the search for an identity to be able to constitute a school in the strict sense of the term.

Only with Lionello did such work acquire an organic sense, a sort of harmonious design that could hardly fail to leave its mark on his plans for an extremely selective personal library, which he wanted filled with philologically irreprehensible texts of pleasing and noble elegance.

The cultural rigour favoured by Lionello was less in evidence under Borso, who commissioned work of outstanding magnificence that revealed a marked taste for the representation of power as splendour, expressed through a willingness to explore new artistic techniques. The fact that illumination became the vehicle for the transmission of a message of sumptuousness and splendour was entirely due to the will of Borso, the city's first ruler to attain ducal rank.

And it should surprise no one that such an intention, mundane and secular, is expressed above all in religious books, bibles and private prayer books (such as the greatest masterpiece of the entire Ferrarese tradition, the Bibbia of Borso d'Este, currently conserved in the Biblioteca Estense in Modena): while it is true that the extraordinary illuminations that embellish these codices, with their continuous references to the world of the court, fix the biblical accounts and devotional practices against a secular background, it is at the same time undeniable that they are in harmony with the stimuli of devotio moderna, an attitude calculated to make the faithful feel directly involved in religious ritual and narrative.

The coming of the printing press and the opening of the first printing shop in Ferrara in 1471, as well as the success of new poetical and literary interests allied to a change in the sensibilities of the court, made no mean contribution to the development of the illuminated book, which spelled the obsolescence of the model that had been so dear to Borso.
The age of Ercole I, which also produced splendid illuminated works (such as the Duke's Breviario, now in the Biblioteca Estense in Modena), therefore witnessed a changing of the guard among the artists as well as the establishment of new tastes, thanks especially to close contact with the court of Milan.

In the meantime the more sober and intimate decorative work applied to manuscripts destined for religious institutions and communities remained at intense levels. The decline of the Este illuminators began some decades before the decline of the dynasty itself: the last masterpieces were the Officio of Alfonso I, now in the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum of Lisbon (but its full-page illuminations are in the Strossmajerova Galerija of Zagreb), and the Messale of Cardinal Ippolito I, now in the Innsbruck University Library.

Experts, as well as those who simply wish to learn more, will find the appendix with the biographical profiles of the illuminators active under Lionello and Borso d'Este is most useful; this addition was not included in the original version of the text edited by Federica Toniolo. As in every similar case, the bibliography contains a wealth of invaluable information, with notes from as early as 1556: it is a really complete bibliography.

Finally, we cannot ignore the pictorial content of the volume, which has two splendid colour sextodecimos with full-page illustrations, thanks to which it is possible to lose oneself at one's pleasure in the vortex of "girari" (spiral patterns) and the other recurrent ornamental motifs typical of the Ferrarese school of illumination, enjoying their perfection even in the tiniest details.