Reading Ferrara

Written by  Alessandra Chiappini
The Foundation and Ferrara's Savings Bank has confirmed its commitment to spread the knowledge of Ferrara's history and traditions through a series of new ventures.
A new book is the first of several initiatives to be launched by the Foundation which, in cooperation with the Dept of Fine Arts and Monuments, has set up a fund devoted to the study of the city's art collections from the Este period onward. Among other things we ought to see the publication of the catalogue raisonnée of the Costabili collection, a task to which the late Emanuele Mattaliano devoted the last years of his life, as well as the hitherto unpublished inventories of collections such as the Barbi-Cinti, Sacrati-Strozzi, Santini, Saroli-Lombardi, and Vendeghini.

This first volume springs from the systematic study of the inventories of inheritances notarized in Ferrara in the Eighteenth century: at the end of the day two hundred art collections were counted, even though not all of these were organized collections in the true spirit of the term. In the case of the most important collections, when drawing up the inventories, the notary availed himself of the services of "assessors" (painters, restorers, engravers), who helped him by attributing a cash value to each piece.

These were works - usually - by well known artists: for example, in 1751 the author of the renowned Pianta di Ferrara del 1747, Andrea Bolzoni, helped the painter Francesco Parolini to make an inventory of the Modoni estate, which also included many series of miniatures. Parolini had just assessed (in 1746) the city's most outstanding collection, left by Archbishop Girolamo Crispi, which numbered a good 536 pieces: on that occasion he had been assisted in his turn by another artist, the painter Giuseppe Antonio Ghedini.
Ghedini turned out to be the most cultivated of his colleagues, perhaps because his activities as a restorer allowed him to attach intelligent attributions to the old works in question, one example of his skill being the fact that he noticed that a picture attributed to Caravaggio (in the Nappi collection) had been retouched by Cozza.

Giovan Battista Cozza, an interesting painter of sacred subjects and the restorer of the doors of Cosmè Tura's organ in the Duomo, also lent his services as a technical expert (the Giovanbattista Tassoni estate in 1727), and he is often present as a collected artist too. The same holds good for other artists of the Ferrarese Eighteenth century: from Giacomo Parolini to Giuseppe Zola, from Giuseppe Avanzi to Girolamo Gregori, from Maurelio Scannavini to Francesco Ferrari, and from Ludovico Campalastri to Alberto Mucchiati.

But perhaps the finest assessor was a specialist restorer: I am referring to Giuseppe Bazoli, the restorer of Garofalo, who when he was drawing up the inventory of the Del Monte collection (1734) gave proof of extreme acumen in attributing a San Girolamo to Tintoretto (but to Domenico) and in recognizing in various pictures copies, and not originals, of Dosso, Guercino and Reni.
The utility of having published these inventories does not lie in having shed light on the biographies of the artists of the Ferrarese Eighteenth century, but in having made it possible to add important pieces to the reconstruction of the story of those art works that passed from public places to private collections or back and forth between the two: one of the objectives of the important exhibition on the Leggenda del collezionismo.

And so by the Nineteenth century some of the pictures assessed the century before found their way into important collections such as the Costabili, Massari and Cavalieri. In our inventories, to give only one example, we rediscover Ortolano's fine Orazione di Gesù nell'orto in the Leccioli collection (assessed at a good 60 scudi), which then went to the Costabili collection before ending up in the rooms of the Pinacoteca in 1874.

With regard to the size of the collections from the Baroque period, there are some happy surprises in terms of numbers: together with the peak figure represented by the Crispi collection, we should mention the Leccioli and Bentivoglio collections (over 200 pieces), the Avogli-Trotti collection (over three hundred, even though not all the items are paintings), the Riminaldi (about 400, subdivided between the town houses and country seats at Boara and Castelmassa). These data confirm that art collecting in Ferrara did not begin after the Napoleonic suppression, and that it was in vigorous life during the previous century.

The nobles and bourgeois of the city sought out still-lives, mythological scenes, portraits, sylvan, marine, and battle scenes. They preferred Emilian painters, but they did not disdain the Venetians, the Flemings, or the Romans as they spun a web of cultural and mercantile relations that have not been studied until now.
An unusual side to collecting that helps to break down the stereotype of a city closed in on itself, tight fisted and petty, provincial and wretched. (Lucio Scardino)

Andrea Faoro
Quadri da stimarsi... Documenti per una storia del collezionismo d'arte a Ferrara nel Settecento
with an introduction by Andrea Emiliani
Ferrara, Liberty House for Fondazione CaRiFe, 1996

The sense of presence and the figurative proposals of Ercole de' Roberti, within a cultural context marked by a series of outstanding figures ranging from Priscian to Tura, has been pointed out by Lionello Puppi in his introduction to the book.
Puppi historicizes the success of Ercole de' Roberti, who was committed along with other local artists to «translate formal suggestions springing from multivarious exterior influences into a renewed and wholly Ferrarese linguistic dimension, and to imbue it with the ferments of a complex cultural situation that left but little space for effusion of the reassuring and bland certainties of classicism»; while underlining the originality of Roberti's contribution, which is, and mark my words, «no arid and vacuous calligraphy but craftsmanship of the highest order, both owing to that degree of suffering it implies and to the artist's inexhaustible human energies».

Within Puppi's critical frame of reference, Ms. Molteni's work achieves some important and significant results, starting from the innovational proposal whereby de' Roberti is to be seen as a major figure in the great workshop of palazzo Schifanoia: until recently, de' Roberti's presence was thought to have been a minor one but now we must take account of Ms. Molteni's rational work of reconstruction, which has paved the way for fruitful debate.

Another change involves Roberti's relationship with Francesco del Cossa, upon whom the painter is no longer seen as depending, even though «his frequenting of the Bologna atelier led Ercole to soften the sharp Turaesque tones of his early work, and to confer upon his figures a more naturalistic plasticity thus emphasizing the attention reserved for the problems of how best to render perspective and the spatial coordination of the episodes narrated».

Once back in Ferrara, Roberti began work on the Lateran altar piece in which he «inaugurates a new language and introduces the city to the Renaissance model of the unified altar piece, of which he developed an independent version that was ahead of its time». Ms. Molteni pauses to analyse many of the episodes: it should suffice to recall the decoration of the Capella Garganelli in Bologna cathedral, of which only a fragment remains, the face of the Madonna in tears, now kept in the Pinacoteca di Bologna.

The fame and critical acclaim accorded this work is borne out by the many copies that have made its reconstruction possible, and while the formal qualities of the paintings have disappeared forever, it is still possible to recognize Roberti's use of the «most advanced conquests of the Renaissance» in terms of both spatial and narrative construction.

The author also deals with the redefinition of the graphical "corpus" and has put the catalogue in order, quite rightly expunging some works. An appendix of documents complements the whole.
The book, whose many fine qualities are enhanced by a wealth of iconographic documentation, represents an indispensable instrument for any scholars who may be thinking of dealing with Roberti and for all those working in the field of Ferrarese painting of the second half of the Fifteenth century. (Ranieri Varese)

Monica Molteni
Ercole de' Roberti
with a preface by Lionello puppi
Milano, Amilcare Pizzi for CaRiFe, 1995.

Guglielmo Giraldi is the subject of this second of a series of monographs on the miniatures of the Este period, fruit of the ongoing collaboration between the Istituto di Studi Rinascimentali and the Foundation. A tailor's son, Giraldi mastered the secrets of the artisanal cultural tradition and, turning his knowledge to good account, he evolved in the direction of a cultivated, intelligent and refined art in which technical skill and a profound knowledge of the subjects he illuminated were the principal ingredients of his interpretative originality.

The heterogeneous nature of his clientele, both lay and religious, laid the ground for the particular freedom of thought and of action he enjoyed compared to others working in his field. All this combined to hone his enterprising spirit, and his workshop - and the number of his helpers - grew steadily, a phenomenon that went hand in hand with his rapidly developing commercial ambitions: in the last years of his life he was also a cartularius, or bookseller.

An avid reader of Piero della Francesca, Giraldi applied a blend of skill and care in interpreting the written page through his own itinerary of images, which was always readable in itself yet never in contradiction with the text. In the architectural perspectives of his vedutas, in his representations of scenes from everyday life - more than in his portrayal of court scenes -, in the mystic sweetness and inventiveness of the fantastic and grotesque motifs he used to ornament the letterheads, one cannot fail to appreciate his extraordinary versatility, his attention to local models, but also - and above all - the peculiarity of his contribution to Renaissance art.

Giraldi has left us a wealth of illuminations, to be found all over Europe, from his Virgil in the Bibliothéque Nationale de Paris, to the Plautus in the Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid, to the scriptural and liturgical manuscripts completed for the Charterhouse of Ferrara, today divided between the Civici Musei d'Arte Antica of Ferrara and the Biblioteca Estense in Modena, to those executed for the cathedral in Ferrara, to the prestigious codexes - humanistic and religious - kept in Modena, to his splendid Dante in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, to the Pliny in the Nazionale in Turin, to the Lattanzio in the Marciana in Venice, to the Strabo in the Biblioteca Municipale in Albi.

Thanks to the joint efforts of Giordana Mariani Canova and Federica Toniolo, this volume marks an important milestone in the study of Ferrarese illumination and represents a valuable reference work for scholars as well as a source of aesthetic pleasure. (Alessandra Chiappini)

Giordana Mariani Canova
Guglielmo Giraldi miniatore estense
with a catalogue of the works edited by Federico Toniolo
Modena, Panini Editore for Fondazione CaRiFe, 1995

It is now thirty years since the Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara published the last monograph on Dosso in Italian, Amalia Mezzetti's Dosso e Battista Ferraresi (1965).
Since then some splendid new pictures have re-emerged, most notably the Allegory of Fortune recently acquired by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles; disappointingly, however, archival research has not resulted in the discovery of any document that might shed new light on the very difficult question of Dosso's chronology, or on that of the early career of Battista.

The most important document relating to Dosso published in recent years (C. Giovannini, in Prospettiva, October 1992) refers to the Sts. Sebastian, John the Baptist and Jerome in the Duomo of Modena, one of the very few works of which the date was already known.
In his handsome new, two-volume monograph, therefore, Alessandro Ballarin bases his close analysis of Dosso's stylistic development not on any newly discovered facts, but on a very careful re-examination of the old ones, paying particular attention to the wider pictorial culture to which the painter belonged.

A central thesis of the book is that Dosso was not only one of the leading painters of his generation to be active in the Po valley, but was also exceptionally well prepared to respond to the fast-moving pace of artistic change in the major centres of Venice, Florence and Rome.
For this reason Ballarin, to a much greater extent then previous writers on Dosso, is concerned to define precisely which works by major "FOREIGN" artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and Fra' Bartolomeo were known to Ferrarese painters, and precisely when.

On this basis, the writer is able to make a convincing stylistic and chronological distinction, for example, between three altarpieces of Dosso's early maturity, which were all traditionally dated at circa 1522, but which Ballarin shows instead to have been painted at intervals of two to three years, in response to changing external stimuli. His discussion of the first of the series, the altarpiece from Codigoro now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, leads him to the conclusion that in addition to the generally accepted visit to Rome in 1520, Dosso must also have made a previous visit, probably early in 1517.

From his analysis of the phase c. 1517-22 Ballarin also concludes that there is no longer any room for the pair of predella panels in the Palazzo dei Diamanti (the Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi) datable on external grounds to 1519; and he accordingly assigns them to an unknown follower of Dosso.

Although this re-attribution implies a still further reduction in the pitifully small number of works by Dosso remaining in Ferrara, it must unfortunately be admitted that Ballarin is certainly correct in this conclusion.
By contrast, I see no good reason to agree with his attribution to Battista rather than to Dosso himself of the Agonia nell'orto, recently acquired by the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara from the Sacrati Strozzi collection, and included in the Leggenda del Collezionismo exhibition. Indeed, a failure to give consistent definition to the artistic personality of Battista may be regarded as one of the weaknesses of the book.

Although other readers will naturally find their points of disagreement with the author, it should be stressed that his book represents a highly important contribution to the study not only of Dosso, but of Ferrarese painting in the earlier Sixteenth century generally. A chapter on Boccaccio Boccaccino sets the scene for developments in the first decade, and in keeping with the spirit of the enterprise, the development of Dosso is carefully interwoven with those of his Ferrarese contemporaries Garofalo and Ortolano. Ballarin's text is complemented by a magnificent corpus of illustrations: no less than 204 in colour, plus more than one thousand in black and white, mostly of exceptionally good quality. (Peter Humfrey)

Alessandro Ballarin
Dosso Dossi. La Pittura a Ferrara negli anni del ducato di Alfonso I (2 tomi)
Padova Arti Grafiche Bertoncello per CaRiFe, 1994 - 1995