Rooms of the mind

Written by  Gianni Venturi
Dreams and fables from the Castello Estense in Ferrara
The concentrated scientific activity and planning which have resulted in the opening of many of the rooms of the Castello Estense, have also led to the launch of two sumptuous exhibitions which have attracted exceptional crowds.

The project had access, thanks to assistance from the sponsoring organisations, to the material from the Brussels exhibition which ended recently, material which became the benchmark with the exhibition of the works which used to adorn the Camerino dei Marmi. Thus the Castello can now be visited not merely for its own sake, but also because it is host to some of the masterpieces exhibited by the Este as a symbol of their power and the splendour of their Court in Renaissance times.

This exceptional event focuses attention on the underlying purpose of these commissions. In other words, why did the Este entrust the expression of their own charisma and the justification of their own power to writers, musicians and artists? A possible answer lies in the relationship between the works of art and their setting; in particular with the setting par excellence provided by the Castello for whose occupants the works were originally created.

A single example will serve. Anyone who follows the route through the Castello ending with the great hall with frescoes by Bastianino and the Filippi studio, will have a sense of the continuity of an extremely refined culture, beginning to fade but still able to re-work the new ideas arriving from Rome in a sublime fashion under the influence of an interpretation of Michelangelo that distorts the forms of bodies.

In this reference to a Ferrarese destiny alone we could draw conclusions which illuminate that guiding principle linking the works and places in accordance with the fundamental axiom of the individuality of the Ferrara School identified by Adolfo Venturi, then Berenson, and most particularly Roberto Longhi. Let us look, for example, at the Madonna and Child with Saint Jerome and a saint by Tura from the Fesch Museum in Ajaccio.

A century after Bastianino we find a depiction of the human body based on the precepts of physical deformity in no way inferior to the "ugliness" of Bastiniano's corpulent figures. Here the saint (probably Mary Magdalen) has the prominent eyes and swollen neck of a sufferer from Basedow's disease; her hands are twisted with rheumatoid arthritis.

Of course, this stylistic exaggeration serves to underline the "individuality" of a metaphysical and intellectual art that discounts or deforms the Tuscan style to re-affirm the grotesque and the bizarre. This aspect of the culture of Ferrara recurs in many of the works in the exhibition: from Dosso's Stregoneria to Garofalo's Corteo magico, from the so-called Mantegna's Tarocchi to Mazzoni's Christ and so on.

The other dominant aspect, however, highlights that classicism introduced by Leon Battista Alberti and Guarino Veronese into the feudal and "gothic" Este court.

Alberti's fundamental contribution to the new ideology of classicism in Ferrara is evidenced in the exhibition by a series of works which reveal the essence of the new ideas which would be so influential in the building of the new ideal city, the terra nova added to the town by Ercole I creating the myth (and the reality) of Ferrara as the first modern European city.

A classicism allied to a rooted awareness of the northern European culture so essential to the re-invention of a chivalric family like the house of Este, and demonstrated by so many masterpieces in this exhibition: works by Dosso, Garofalo, Mazzolino and Ortolano.

The great exhibition in the Camerino d'alabastro is the most relevant and fascinating in the story of the Castello; the hidden repository of a classicism which is not only a way of seeing reality but a way of interpreting it in harmony with the perfect cadences of ancient times.

The Camerino, that place of study and contemplation of beauty in which Duke Alfonso assembled his most "intimate" treasures, beside the painted rooms decorated with the dazzling Baccanali canvasses of Bellini, Tiziano and Dosso, has now been restored in its entirety in the magical Via Coperta linking the Corte Vecchia with the Castello.

The Camerino marbles, loaned to the Castello through the generosity of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, illustrate the level of culture and artistic refinement achieved by the Este Court in Ferrara in interpreting and construing the idea of the Renaissance.