The "Singular Renaissance"

Written by  Gianni Venturi
Major works from the Este court symbolize the identity of Ferrara in an outstanding exhibition.
The Brussels exhibition, Une Renaissance singulière: La cour des Este à Ferrare was honoured with the accolade of "official" exhibition in the Europalia celebrations coinciding with the Italian Presidency in Belgium, and the opening ceremony was attended by the President of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi with his wife Franca, and the King and Queen of the Belgians, Albert and Paola.

The exhibition consists of a series of inter-linked sections which together express that idea of magnificence which was the political and stylistic hallmark of the Este state in the days when Ferrara was a state capital. It is no accident that the exhibition concludes with the pamphlet and woodcut announcing the "most happy arrival" of Pope Clement VIII which marked the end of Este power in the city in 1598.

The exhibition opens with a 21 minute introductory film sequence on a big screen, narrating the story of the key events in the new Ferrara renaissance through the works of modern masters who have contributed so much to the history of the cinema and whose interest in the city of the Este is well-known: Visconti, Lattuada, Vancini and the great Antonioni and Olmi.

After this introduction to the city, visitors are next led through a room containing the most famous maps of Ferrara and the Este State, alongside a masterpiece by Titian, originally painted for the court and entitled Ferrara submitting to the Virtues, but known after the Devolution of the city to the Papal States as Spain rescuing religion.
Visitors then move through the Via delle Volte into the courtyard of the Castello, where books, the genealogy of the Este family and marbles of the family, from Borso sculpted by Sperandio to Ercole II by Spani, which used to stand in the loggetta of the Camera di Pazienza in the Castello, and the Romano bust of Beatrice d'Este which is now in the Louvre.

There are also suits of armour and paintings of chivalric events, evidence of the Este taste for tournaments and for demonstrations of their own war-like valour. The exhibition then moves to the second floor, with a series of masterpieces which made Ferrara famous throughout Europe. Here visitors can see three Muses from a total of six which hung in the cabinet of the humanist prince Leonello, including Berlin's Polymnia.

Next comes a corridor with very fine examples of illuminated books, as area in which the Este were collectors second to none: from a facsimile of Borso's Bible, to precious pages from Ercole's Breviary, to Alfonso's Prayer Book, the two separated halves of which are displayed. The amazement of King Albert as he examined these pages was comparable with Queen Paola's reaction to the painting from the Ferrara School showing, through trompe-l'oeil torn paper, a delicate Madonna with Child and Angels by the Maestro del desco di Boston from the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh.

This is the complex high point of the exhibition, bringing together a series of major works seldom seen outside the museums in which they are held. We start with the Pisanello portrait of Leonello, which combines rich decorations and clothing with the nobility of a portrait in the old style, with the face in profile and the unusual hair.
Then, preceded by works by Mantegna, Bellini and Donatello, comes the Tura room, including the Pietà from the Correr Museum and the little-known Madonna with child and saints from the Fesch Museum in Ajaccio. Finally, the Saint John the Baptist by Ercole de' Roberti on loan from Berlin.
The sixteenth century works reveal the splendour and power of the Este, with portraits of Isabella d'Este and Laura Dianti by Titian, and the Ariosto Room which, along with the first editions of the Orlando Furioso and the Commedie, contains two frescos by Niccolò dell'Abate featuring scenes from the Orlando Furioso from Bologna.

The splendour of the Este and Alfonso I's taste as a collector is demonstrated by copies of the Bacchanal which once hung on the walls of his camerino. Of the four great paintings, Padovanino's copies from Titian stand out. A table set with 15th and 16th century glassware and ceramics recalls the attention lavished on banquets, expressions of the opulence and luxury of the Court. The second phase of painting in Ferrara is represented by works by Garofalo, Mazzolino, Ortolano, Scarsellino and Bastianino, including the Melissa (otherwise known as Alcina or Circe) by Dosso Dossi.

The gilded though tragic end of the Este, who were forced out of the city by the Pope in 1598, is represented in a room devoted to Music, Tasso and a selection of seventeenth century paintings based on themes from Tasso's work. Here, besides the edition of the Gerusalemme Liberata illustrated by Monio and the "Tassino" portrait by Iacopo Bassano, there are musical instruments from the period, evidence of the Este passion for music and the Concerto delle dame, a virtuoso ensemble of women's voices, which performed work by Luzzasco Luzzaschi or Gesualdo da Venosa based on texts from the court poets including Tasso and Gianbattista Guarino.