A Hundred Paintings for Dresden

Written by  Jadranka Bentini
The fraught case of the sale of the Este family's picture gallery to the Elector of Saxony.
While Pietro Ercole Gherardi was diligently drafting the Descrizione delle pitture nell'Estense Ducale Galleria, commissioned by Duke Francesco III, nothing had yet emerged regarding the real design behind the exercise: Augustus III of Saxony's acquisition of the Este family's celebrated picture gallery, arguably the purchase of the century.

The Modenese family's economic difficulties were well known, as was the Ducal art gallery. In 1712 it was visited by Augustus II, the future king of Poland and Elector of Saxony. The Ducal gallery contained the greatest masterpiece of the Po valley Renaissance - Correggio's Notte - a painting that the Elector, a real connoisseur of fine painting, instantly noted. But the whole collection interested the princely collector, who could boast a collection already numbering hundreds and hundreds of Italian, Spanish and Flemish paintings.

«After a great many trials and tribulations I finally managed to have from His Most Serene Excellency the Duke of Modena permission to visit his gallery of Paintings that are hidden underground, some of these are in Modena... and others in Ferrara... I must go there with the greatest possible caution so that no one at court apart from the abovementioned Person may know of this very delicate matter, as many of the Council disapprove of the sale, indeed they have expressly declared that they will not permit it...».
The letter, dated 27th March 1745, was signed in Venice by the court painter Bonaventura Rossi, whose name repeatedly appears in connection with the Elector's Italian purchases, along with that of Count Francesco Algaretti, a Venetian by adoption and a member of an esteemed banking family. Nor should we forget that the king's experts and agents were active in many places, even though it was the influential Count Bruhl who gave instructions regarding purchases.

The sale, as is well known, did not take place without difficulties and misunderstandings, while the on-the-spot inspections prior to its formalization were carried out in absolute secrecy. The purchase, which was contested by no small number of court officials, was agreed at one hundred thousand gold florins, which seems a trifle when one considers that the apparel worn by Augustus II the Strong for his coronation cost a good 340,000!

But the attempt, a rather feeble one in truth, to hold onto Notte and the other four very fine pictures by Correggio, Veronese, Pordenone, and Annibale Carracci led to nothing: the offer overcame all resistance, already severely weakened by legates and councillors for whom the Elector's will represented a chance to gratify their lust for money. Standing head and shoulders above everybody were the marquis Rangoni and Anton Maria Zanetti, who boasted he had transported the entire Ducal gallery to Dresden.
At the end of summer 1746 the Modenese pictures arrived in Dresden and the Johanneum was set up, which was to house the Gemaldegalerie until the beginning of the Nineteenth century. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, then a young librarian in the service of Count van Bunau, was to exclaim three years later: «The royal picture gallery is the most beautiful in the world, now that they have added the paintings from Modena, Prague and various other cities...». And it was precisely the pictures that had come from the Este capital that inspired the rising classical art critic's first aesthetic considerations.

Later, Morelli stated that «in no other gallery on this side of the Alps are Dosso and Garofalo so well and so richly represented as in the handsome rooms of the Dresden gallery». A point that put Ferrara and its school of painting back at the centre of fin de siècle art criticism, by decreeing the fortune of the painters of the age of Alfonso I on a European museographical level, by then almost fully consolidated.

The Dresden sale was a body blow to the collections of the Ferrarese Sixteenth century, in other words, what remained after the Roman cardinals had carried off their share. This story is no better and no worse than many others in terms of the consequences it had on the impoverishment of the Italian national heritage: but such a complete transfer of an entire segment of the Ferrarese painting of the Sixteenth century had an impact (and not only on German culture) that went well beyond the results of the breaking up and dispersion of private collections in Ferrara.