Casa Minerbi

Written by  Ranieri Varese
The past and the exemplary present of a hidden treasure.
Before the large-scale Renaissance additions, the area where the "casa Minerbi" complex now stands was one of the most important parts of the city; densely populated, it housed - as well as the university - numerous magistrate's courts.

In the XIVth century, the group of houses that interests us here, linked up to one another over the centuries, belonged to the Del Sale family, whose presence and importance in Ferrara dates from 1205 to 1587. The family thereafter moved to Ravenna, where the line came to an end with the deaths, in 1837 and 1841, of the sisters Marianna and Benedetta, both spinsters.

Via Giuoco del Pallone is one of the oldest streets in the city; the main entrance to Palazzo del Paradiso, the university building, gave onto it: the students often used to abandon the lecture rooms and go down to the street below to play football, which gave rise to the street's unusual name. Previously it had been known as Strada di Santa Maria delle Bocche, the name of a church subsequently destroyed in the XVIIIth century.
This and the very ancient church of San Clemente, demolished in 1806, housed religious confraternities: it is not impossible therefore to imagine a connection with the Del Sales - the proprietors of the houses nearby and persons of importance in the city - a family from which it seemed natural to seek support and assistance for the decoration of places of worship, perhaps even using the same master then at work in the building.

In the second half of the XIVth century, the Del Sale family was very well-known in the city: Aicardino and Paolo, for example, were town councillors while in 1393 Giovanni Del Sale was appointed guardian to the future marquis Niccolo III, then still a minor.

Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti has advanced the theory that the family name derives from its social function (there was an old court in Ferrara known as the Magistratura del sale): «It is not therefore overbold to think that either by inheritance or by a relatively recent appointment, a Del Sale may have been a magistrate, [or] may have carried out some political, administrative, or religious function; and that he did so within the confines of his own residence.»
Inside the building there are traces of other frescoes, but for now we shall restrict ourselves to observing that the large space whereon the Vices and Virtues are depicted possesses, both in terms of its iconographic programme and in terms of its collocation and conformation within the complex, all the characteristics of a public space.
This is a generously proportioned room that was once self-contained with direct access from the outside.

On the walls are depicted the "cardinal virtues" - Justice, Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance - and the "theological virtues" - Faith, Hope and Charity - accompanied by the corresponding vices. A unitary design underpins the cycle of the Virtues and Vices, which are represented in accordance with a hierarchical vision and a didactic intent that, quite unambiguously, proposes the set of values that observers of the frescoes were intended to live by.

The Virtues are in the upper band, with the Vices in the band below, in accordance with a widespread figurative tradition of which Ferrara possesses other examples (such as the large fresco known as Il trionfo di Sant'Agostino, once in Sant'Andrea's, now in the city art gallery).
Between 1303 and 1305, in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Giotto painted a cycle of frescoes where the Virtues and Vices also appear. These have often been compared to the images in Ferrara, but the link emerged as vague and generic as soon as the correspondences were verified.
The relationships are marginal and superficial both on a formal and iconographic level; it should suffice to remember that Giotto painted figures rigid as statues while the master at work in Ferrara gave a human depth and physical consistency to his figures. As far as concerns the recognizability of the themes, only Folly and Ire, Injustice and Idolatry can be compared.

The decorations inside Casa Minerbi lay forgotten for many years, even though vague references to them cropped up from time to time; these were collected in 1918 by Melchiorri, who wrote: «In Settimio Minerbi's beautiful house, under porticoes supported by marble columns, with a building once owned by the Este family, known as the Osteria del Paradiso, on its left , [...], you can see a room (defaced by the erection of partition walls that deprived it of light and air) frescoed with XIVth century paintings of the theological virtues, holy images, and various characters.»

In 1954, Francesco Arcangeli wrote a brief report that was never published in which he noted a direct link with the frescoes by Giotto in Padua and concluded that «[the frescoes] could be the work of a talented Tuscan master, at work in Ferrara around the middle of the second half of the XIVth century, who had absorbed elements of the culture of the Veneto-Po valley area».
Roberto Longhi, in the Nuovi Ampliamenti of the Officina Ferrarese, written between 1940 and 1955, touches on the matter: «[the Ferrarese frescoes] now reveal parallels with the "Neo-Giottesque" manner typical of Po valley culture, the Paduan school in particular, in the period spanning the two centuries;... the figure depicting Ire painted by the anonymous artist - whose Ferrarese origins are by no means certain - is inspired by its counterpart in the Scrovegni chapel.»

The topic of the recognition of the figurative technique and the formal qualities of the "Casa Minerbi Master" was first tackled in an organic fashion in 1970 by Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti, to whose book the reader is referred for a more detailed analysis. In our view, his conclusions are still both valid and up to date.

But study carried on. Thanks to some extremely praiseworthy documentary research by Adriano Franceschini, we know that from 1376 to 1402 the painter Bartolomeo, the son of Guglielmo da Bologna, was living in the San Gregorio district of Ferrara.
A deed dated May 1378 reveals that Bartolomeo was in contact with Stella Del Sale, while in 1380 and 1393 he was enfeoffed some land by the priors of Santa Maria in Vado. He was active, therefore, in the same areas as the Del Sale family and it is not unreasonable to suggest that he may have been the author of the frescoes.
Albeit summary and schematic, the analysis of the cycle cannot be considered without taking into account the memory of the man who discovered, saved, and preserved it for the city. Giuseppe Minerbi used to relate how, as a boy, he had found his way into those sealed rooms mentioned by Melchiorri, where by the light of a candle he saw, partly obscured by piles of discarded objects, those faces and images that, thanks to him, we can now know in their entirety.

Once he came into possession of the building, the sense of civic responsibility that he unfailingly displayed throughout his life later led him to promote restoration work while public access to the room was guaranteed by the provision of an independent entry.
But Giuseppe Minerbi did not limit himself to this. He also desired and promoted the study of the frescoes, while the book published by ICCRI and written by Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti, his old friend and a man who shared his ideals, also sprang from Minerbi's stubborn insistence.

Today the building is about to be purchased by the town council of Ferrara, which has laudably designated it as the future seat of the city's Istituto di Studi Rinascimentali.