The Legend of the Art Collections of Ferrara

Written by  Andrea Emiliani
A brief guide to the exhibition in the Palazzo dei Diamanti organized by the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara.


In September 1940, Giorgio Bassani went to visit Roberto Longhi in his house in the hills above Florence. With him were Carlo Carrà and Alberto Graziani, a young pupil of Longhi's who recounted the story as told him by Bassani. The tale went more or less as follows: Miss V. of Florence is sixty years old and the last of an old and noble Ferrarese family. She is a delicate hot house exotic in poor health, who adores and defends from the gaze of outsiders a formidable collection of paintings by Ercole, Cossa, Jacopo Bellini, Tura... Her entire love-life has been dominated and perturbed by a profound attachment to these pictures, mentioned as early as the Sixteenth century in certain morbid letters that an ancestor of hers had written to a friend. The pictures form the backcloth to the events of the woman's love-life.

I don't think Bassani ever wrote this novel, even though its plot closely resembles the stories of Ferrara that he has described so successfully, but this tale strikes one as symbolic and exemplary. Springing from some poetic, secret place within Ferrarese society, it is a compelling passage in the legend of the art collections of old Ferrara, which the exhibition in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of the Palazzo dei Diamanti is about to commemorate today.

The legend of the art collections of Ferrara

The curtain rises to reveal the city walls surrounded by the army of Clement VIII. The Pope had laid claim to the Grand Duchy as the last Duke, Alfonso II, had died shortly before without leaving any male issue.
Pope Aldobrandini's entry into the city was a festive affair, greeted by symbolic structures and decorations painted by Scarsellino and Domenico Monio. Don Cesare d'Este hurriedly left the city and went to Modena. Clement VIII entered the Castle and visited the numerous rooms. Rumour had it that the Pope returned there often, in secret, to contemplate the paintings that formed the allegory of the Triumph of Pleasure in the Camerino d'Alabastro - so-called after the decorations by Alfonso Lombardi - and in the Camerino dorato.

On these walls Giovanni Bellini, Tiziano Vecellio, and Dosso Dossi had left the Renaissance a sensual, pagan and very modern representation of the beauty of existence. For decades and decades the Renaissance desire for perfection, which became elegiac and contemplative, was - in the form of those canvases (which included the Feast of the gods, begun by Giovanni Bellini, and Titian's Feast of Venus, The Andrians, and Bacchus and Ariadne) - to nourish the most fascinating legend of the Baroque period.

Clement VIII's retinue was made up of prelates and high dignitaries of the Vatican Curia. Their number included Scipione Borghese, Maffeo Barberini, destined to become Pope Urban VIII in 1623, and count Enzo Bentivoglio. The sack of Ferrara was a species of training ground for collectors and, for want of a better word, looters.
The presence of artworks, paintings and sculptures, illuminated codices, and gold-work had projected a noble image of Ferrara and its exquisite court all over the world, where it was seen as a magnificent expression of the "style" of power. The courtly life of the city of Ferrara extended well beyond the city walls with their ornamental gardens to nineteen "pleasaunces", noble country houses and suburban villas. The result of this was a continuous demand for art that acquired sufficient consistency to attract all of the seven Muses to the city.

This process soon acquired the dimensions of a social phenomenon: the art of Ferrara left the museums to become a profound structural pillar of the entire community. Ferrara, with its palazzi, churches and sacristies, monasteries, houses, and country villas, as well as its surrounding countryside dotted with castles surrounded by marshland, accumulated a miraculous store of art, a great reservoir whose contents - as recently as the last century - were listed in the thousands of catalogues and inventories that formed the record of the artistic patrimony of the Este family and its enormous buried artistic "power".

In our century, this artistic legend has been commemorated and expressed in deeds and wills, deeds of succession, auction records and sales catalogues; in short, the mass of assorted papers that document a seemingly interminable decline. In theory this process was arrested only with the Italian government's ratification of the first legal safeguards in 1909.
Olden Times and the Art of the Moderns

Any understanding of historical time was extremely relative at least until the advent of 19th century historicism. Consequently, in a 16th century-devoted to the legend of the Renaissance and Classicism, following the innovations of Giorgione and the young Titian, and the adhesion of Dosso Dossi, Girolamo da Carpi and Garofalo, that extensive corpus of old panels (painted by great artists such as Cossa, Ercole and - most important of all - Cosmé Tura), which weighed heavily upon all those parts of the city that had survived, assumed a distant, slightly liturgical aspect.

That unceasing series of altarpieces and polyptychs, not to mention frescoes and decorations, where many anonymous masters and others that had either been inspired by or had adapted to the revolution led by Leon Battista Alberti and Donatello, Roger van der Weiden and Piero della Francesca, exited the artistic stage and entered the world of silence.

Informed by an acute, almost ferocious style, supported by a heroic form of expression that portrayed life as a drama full of great thoughts and exemplary deeds, these paintings gradually gave way to another vision of art. The years of experimental humanism, in the course of which Ferrarese art had touched peaks of modernity, were steeped in that sense of antiquity that the paintings themselves had always called to mind.
The century that had just passed, the 15th with its penchant for scholastic periodization, had already been consigned to "antiquity", but an awareness of the need to "rediscover" and preserve it in the form of collections had not yet arisen. This perception was to come only with the century of Romanticism.

But the art of the Renaissance did not have to wait so long. At the end of the 16th century the desire to form collections was already manifest and had extended to painting. Ferrara possessed an immensity of precious things, enough to supply an art market that had become competitive. This seemed clear to the gold hunters in the train of Clement VIII who, following the papal entry into Ferrara, busied themselves with stripping the city of the most attractive artistic patrimony known to Renaissance classicism. It was here that Pietro Aldobrandini, Scipione Borghese, and Maffeo Barberini laid the foundations of some glorious collections of the future.

Theoretically, the works of art were still at the disposal of don Cesare d'Este who, holed up in Modena, asked news of them from his agents in the occupied city.
But one day the large canvases of the Camerino d'Alabastro and the Camerini dorati disappeared, with all the discretion and silence that only collectors of the first water are capable of maintaining. «Having opened the two doors of the Camerino d'Alabastro we found missing... the undernoted pictures along with their gilt frames».
The agent Roncaglia's alarmed report was followed by a description of the pictures, which were the Feast of the gods, begun by Giovanni Bellini in 1514 and finished by Titian in 1516 (today in Washington); the Feast of Venus, by Titian, which is now in the Prado, as is The Andrians, also by Titian; and finally the Bacchus and Ariadne (The National Gallery, London). There was also a Bacchanal by Dosso.

It is not easy to understand how such a triumph of nudity and seduction could find a place in the Aldobrandini household, and in fact the family never exhibited their trophy. It become known only after 1629, when the Duke of Monterey purchased from the Ludovisi family - heirs to the Aldobrandinis - Dosso's Bacchanal and Titian's Feast of Venus, two pictures that were to inspire the development of Baroque tastes after 1630.

The Return of the Painters of "Old" Ferrara

The captivating history of Renaissance Ferrara did not return to life until the 19th century, when it was rediscovered by historians and art critics alike. Although it was dealt with by Burckhardt in his Civiltà Italiana del Rinascimento (1860), a volume that marked a renewed attention on the part of European scholarship to the dream and the locus of a "golden age" previously immortalized by Torquato Tasso, the civilization of the Estes was once more visited by the Muses thanks to a source of inspiration that came out of Modena.
That this occurred was thanks to Adolfo Venturi, arguably the first scientific Italian art historian. Nor was it by chance that he turned his attention to Ferrara with such fervour: Venturi was encharged with the restoration and preparation of the Museo Civico in Modena, which possessed numerous works of art that had once been part of the Este inheritance.
Unfortunately, between 1742 and 1745, Francesco III d'Este, oppressed and almost destituted by the cost of the Wars of the Austrian Succession, had sold a huge part of his artistic inheritance to Augustus III of Saxony, thereby contributing to the creation of the nucleus of the famous Gemalde Galerie in Dresden.
Alfredo Venturi's task was to narrate this and other events, and at the same time to apply a method to the modernization of the Museo Civico in Modena, a task he undertook in 1882. The one sure way of accomplishing this was not to betray reality and to organize the exhibition with a view to showing people "how it ALL really happened".

The whole of the 19th century was dominated by the idea of the Museum not only as a tool for the organization of culture and historical research but also as a means of conveying the image of power. Around 1840, the art of 15th century Ferrara progressively began to interest the great European museums then taking shape, the National Gallery of London in particular. Groups of connoisseurs began to roam the city's palazzi, churches, monasteries and sacristies, all of which were full to overflowing with pictures and painted panels.

The shrewdest of these was Otto Muendler, a Bavarian in the pay of Lord Eastlake, the first curator of the London National Gallery. Thereafter, the Italians also came on the scene; men such as Giovanni Morelli, to whom the theory of the history of art is indebted for his "scientific" method for the identification and attribution of art works. Another English collector, Sir Henry Layard, also began visiting Ferrara.
The revolutions in taste also brought changes in the economy of the art market and new cultural customs began to assert themselves. The antiques trade is the commercial arm of collecting, and is often run with sagacity and skill, but on other occasions this business is dominated by a rapacious spirit of déracinement, of uprooting, which is capable of destroying the artistic integrity of the original milieu.

Nineteenth century collecting and what may be described as its philological thrust revealed concerns that accelerated the shift towards a modern understanding of the work of art. Obviously, for this to happen, experts, museum curators, merchants, and amateurs had to penetrate the most jealously guarded secrets held within the houses of Ferrara, which possessed a wealth of art works and collections that, from the 17th century onwards, had been put together or maintained with a discretion that bordered on the incredible.

By the time the lengthy task of restoring the frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia had been completed, the theme of the "ancients" had completed its circumnavigation of the historical memory to reappear once more refulgent on the horizon of the world of art. The frescoes had been seen, in a very poor state, by Girolamo Baruffaldi, but before 1710; and he had written about them with interest.
But it is evident that a novelty such as that represented by the frescoes in question could not be properly appreciated before the time was ripe. Venturi himself, in a series of essays written between 1884 and 1890, laid the foundations of the critical model that, in Italian culture, was to dominate the image of Ferrara for years.

From the Treaty of Vienna (1815) onwards, together with the critical divulgation of the characteristics peculiar to pictorial expression, the physical spread of collections and their principal works towards museums and private collections followed a parallel path. There were collections, such as that of the Costabili family, which amounted to hundreds and hundreds of items.
The bourgeoisie that in the wake of the Napoleonic auctions had acquired the ease and the self-confidence engendered by new money showed a certain flexible regard in the way they took the place formerly occupied by the houses of the old nobility.

The Great Ferrarese Collections

The legend of the Ferrarese collections resurfaced after centuries of silence, its obscurity being explained in the very development of a history upon which more and more light was shed with every day that passed. The artistic patrimony of the early 16th century, the age of Alfonso I d'Este, had been carved up systematically by some of the eminent personalities that inhabited the multi-coloured court of Clement VIII Aldobrandini.
But midway through the 19th century those far off "gothic" panels, which by that time had acquired new vigour from the spiritual impetus of the Nazarenes and the pre-Raphaelites, were rediscovered. The force that underpinned this rediscovery and revival of the "primitives", was the same ethical hallmark of the "ancients". But history also marches hand in hand with the enormous chaos that is trade. Cicognara, a historian with an artistic bent, tells of his having witnessed entire baggage trains laden with paintings and antiques leaving Ferrara through the city gates.

Roberto Canonici's was perhaps the oldest of the Ferrarese collections. This patrimony was damaged by a fire in his ancestral home in 1638 and despite repeated offers on the part of Francesco I, it never found its way into the royal palace in Modena. The collection numbered 132 paintings, first and foremost among which were works by the great Venetians, from Titian to Veronese and Tintoretto. This collection was broken up following the sale in 1902. Some works have been identified, including a Circumcision by Garofalo now in Capodimonte, Naples, and another now in the Louvre; Carpaccio's Christ Dead in the Berlin Museum; and other paintings attributed to Tura, Pisanello, and Lorenzo Costa.

Another extraordinary collection that sojourned briefly in Ferrara in the early decades of the 18th century was that of Cardinal Tommaso Ruffo. The inventory was a chronicle of Italian painting from Giorgione to Raphael and also included works by Carracci and Rubens.
The same collection also boasted the Portrait of Juan de Pareja by Diego Velasquez as well as some crowning glories of the last generation of the Bolognese baroque painters, such as Crespi, and of the first neo-Classical generation, such as Donato Cresti. The Cardinal later took his collection to Rome. Other 17th and 18th century collections were those of Girolamo Crispi, the archbishop of Ravenna, the Sacchettis, the Riminaldis, and finally of Cesare Cittadella.

The period of transition between the two centuries was recorded in the Costabili Containi collection, a name that still crops up in the catalogues of the great European museums. The names of two connoisseur collectors - Sir Henry Layard and Lord Eastlake - along with those of Giovanni Morelli, Otto Muendler, and Cavalcaselle appear regularly throughout the Ferrarese century, in that difficult hiatus between the rule of the Church and the government of the new unified Italian State.

These men's visits to Ferrara frequently coincided with those of Ubaldo Sgherbi, a middleman, dealer, and collector in his own right, as well as a central figure in the resurrection of 15th century Ferrarese art.
From Tura to Baldassarre Estense, from Galasso and Gelasio to Pisanello and Ortolano, from Dosso to Girolamo da Carpi, the most famous names were brought together and dispersed once more in printed catalogues.

With regard to the Costabili and Layard collections, there is a page of Adolfo Venturi's that is worth pausing briefly to consider: «Morelli, since 1858, had been at work on an estimate of that collection now dispersed to the four points of the compass... but this estimate was made too soon.... using the simple criteria of an amateur. Morelli wrote that a painting by Lorenzo Costa was a "gallery picture" while he described the same artist's Adoration of the Child as a "perle d'auteur"».

Venturi continued: «Among the many masterworks thronging the Costabili gallery the most highly regarded were a picture by Ortolano, and some paintings by Costa, Ercole, Garofalo, Mazzolino, and Dosso. In the 15th century, two pictures had been spared: Spring by Cosmé Tura and a Christ attributed to Bono ferrarese; these found their way into the Layard collection. A total of eighteen paintings had merited the esteem of Giovanni Morelli in 1858! And the price quoted was extremely low, but a mere eight years later, Morelli, mindful of the sale of the Pourtalès collection in Paris, did not hesitate to double it».

And here is the description of the works' departure FROM Ferrara: «IN the FIRST crate there was an altarpiece by Costa AND two temperas by Ercole Grandi... the SECOND held Saint John by Dosso Dossi, the third held the Portrait OF Andrea Saracco AND the Portrait OF Alfonso II d'Este, again by Dosso, a Pietà by Ercole Grandi and Spring by Cosmé Tura, the fourth contained the Annunciation by Garofalo, Christ at the Column by Bono ferrarese, and Mazzolino's Holy Family AND the Adoration... IN the sixth crate was a portrait OF a married couple attributed TO Garofalo» Sir Henry Layard, HAVING acquired the palazzo Cappello ON the Canal Grande IN Venice, had the collection taken there IN 1875.

The collection was transferred to England following his death. Other collections, such as the Barbi Cinti collection, were slowly and more carefully broken up, as is demonstrated by Cossa's two panels, once part of the Griffoni altar in the church of St. Petronius in Bologna, featuring the saints Peter and John the Baptist.

These panels were first acquired by the painter and collector Enea Vendeghini and then by the collector Giuseppe Cavalieri, who finally sold them to the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. The Christ Dead by Tura is today in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, while the same artist's Crucifixion is now in Brera. Another two masterpieces sold to Vendeghini fortunately found their way to the Pinacoteca di Ferrara in 1975: both by Ercole, these were Saint Petronius, also once part of the Griffoni altar in Bologna, and the most beautiful Madonna and Child with two vases of flowers.

The extraordinary Santini collection was dispersed in 1902. This amounted to 166 pieces, only five of which have been recovered. We should also talk of the 208 paintings amassed by Giuseppe Cavalieri; the Ettore Testa collection; and the even older Varano collection. But the necessary description would require far more pages than are at our disposal here.

The progressive recovery of the historic values of the Estes

We ought, however, to pause briefly to consider the matter of private collections that have, in part, been restored to public ownership.

The basis of this exhibition is made up precisely of works from these collections, which have been acquired by the Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara and the Italian government. For years, major efforts have been made to ensure that some collections remained in Ferrara. The first to be organized was the Massari collection, put together by Duke Galeazzo in 1900 and previously assembled by Giuseppe Saroli (80 paintings in 1873).

The works that came from this collection, from the formidable Saint John the Evangelist by the Florentine painter known as the "Maestro di Figline", a contemporary of Giotto's, to others by Girolamo da Carpi and Giovanni da Modena, are now on show in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Ferrara. We have already mentioned the Vendeghini collection, later known as the Baldi collection, also in the Pinacoteca, well known for the fragment of a panel painted with Mantegna's Death of the Virgin, now in the Prado.

The most recent acquisition of all, again made by the Cassa di Risparmio and the State, is a good 51 works from the Sacrati Strozzi collection.
The Sacrati Strozzis were a family of Ferrarese origins that spent time in Mantua and Florence. In this case it is above all the presence of the two Muses Erato and Urania from the Studiolo di Belfiore, where they were executed by a pupil of Cosmé Tura's, that marks the ideal level of a recovery plan that has emerged as a milestone on the road to a long-dreamt-of possible reconstruction - at least on an experimental level - of the historic and artistic patrimony of the old city of Ferrara.