Ancient Tapestries to Be Saved

Written by  Nello Forti Grazzini
The tapestries of the Museo del Duomo in Ferrara.
The project on the part of the Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara to finance the restoration of the eight tapestries depicting scenes frorn the Lives of Saints George and Maurelius belonging to the Museum of the Cathedral of Ferrara represents one of the most meritorious schemes undertaken by a foundation that for many years now has been contributing generously to the conservation and safeguarding of the city's artistic heritage.
The forthcoming removal of the cathedral museum from its present quarters above the atrium of the church offers a perfect opportunity to proceed with the repairs to these magnificent illustrated works.

This means that there will be enough time to get the job done withoul betraying the original design. The eight tapestries, woven by Giovanni Karcher between 1550 and 1553 - four dedicated to episodes involving Saint George, the patron saint of Ferrara, and four dedicated to scenes from the life of Saint Maurelius, the city's first bishop - are works of supreme historic and artistic importance. They are the only examples of woven textile production in Ferrara from the 16th century still surviving in the city and are furthermore the only series to remain complete in the building they were intended to adorn.

According to a commonly held view today, tapestry is the product of a "minor" branch of artistic endeavour. But in past centuries it was seen as one of the most highly prized forms of art. Within the ambit of the court at Ferrara, the popularity of tapestries is datable from the dawn of the 15th century and for the duration of that century the Este lords were enthusiastic purchasers of tapestries.
They also possessed an enormous collection of tapestries of various formats that they used continuously in the Castle and in the suburban villas, when they were not displaying them in the streets during triumphal entries or carrying them with them on their travels. The most valuable and imposing tapestries were purchased from Flemish weavers, but several small mills, producing works of average quality, were opened in Ferrara and run by tapestry weavers called in from France and Flanders.

Wear and tear ruined the tapestries and turnover was continuous, the worn pieces were replaced by new ones, from Ferrara or abroad, and in this way the collection remained in touch with changes in taste. Between the end of the 15th century and the first three decades of the 16th the Ferrarese mills closed down while the acquisition of Flemish tapestries continued even into the Regency of Alfonso I.

Local production again got underway in 1536 thanks to Ercole II, who called in highly skilled tapestry makers from Brussels: the brothers Nicola and Giovanni Karcher and Giovanni Rost. The first and the third of these stayed in Ferrara for a few years only, after which production in Ferrara was under the control of Giovanni Karcher, who created dozens of tapestries - most of which were commissioned by the court - over a span of twenty-five years.
In Giovanni Karcher's tapestries the decorative purpose was frequently united to classical subjects with a fabulous element, according to local custom, with a view to exalting the origins, virtues and deeds of the patron, Ercole II and of his line.

The fact that Giovanni Karcher's tapestries were mainly intended for the court was the cause of the subsequent ruin: after the death of Alfonso II and Ferrara's devolution to the Church, at the end of the 16th century the Este tapestries were moved to Modena where they survived for another two hundred years until the revolutionary pillaging of the 18th century and their definitive dispersion.

By the 19th century there was not a single Ferrarese tapestry left in Modena: the few that had eluded ruin had passed into private hands and left Italy.
Of Giovanni Karcher's work in Ferrara there remained only the eight tapestries in the Duomo, conserved for centuries with infinite care by the priests and shown only on religious holidays until their collocation in the cathedral museum.
The circumstances of their execution are made clear by the contract stipulated on the 15 October 1550 and kept in the State Archives in Ferrara, by the terms of which the tapestry maker undertook to weave the works in two years, using good wool and silk yarn and remaining faithful to the design as established in the cartoons draughted by Garofalo and Camillo Filippi.
The edges, with their highly decorative impact and very "lay" look, reflect the felicitous contribution made by Luca d'Olanda, a northern European painter who had worked with Giulio Romano in the Palazzo Te in Mantua.

The cartoonists, Garofalo and Camillo Filippi, were two of the best known painters of the Ferrarese " school" of the 16th century. The extent of their respective contributions can be deduced fairly clearly from a stylistic analysis of the scenes.

In the four scenes dedicated to Saint Maurelius, the solemn poise of the figures, the magniloquence of the poses, the clearly marked and mordent physiognomy, the renaissance style, inspired by Roman models and enlivenened by a touch of mannerism reveal the hand of Garofalo.
Filippi, a decorator with a delicate touch but one whose style was more naive and less grand, was entirely responsible for the four scenes regarding Saint George.
The first tapestry is extremely pleasing, in which the battle with the dragon is transformed into an amusing fable, but in the subsequent subjects, whose content should have been dramatic, Filippi's rather dull narrative style is less interesting and the eye tends to linger on the lush herbals of the proscenia or lose itself in the pleasant landscapes rather than following the scenes of the protracted martyrdom.

Upon careful examination the scenes from the Lives of Saints George and Maurelius reveal a remarkable figurative disparity; but the unity of the whole was finally affirmed thanks to the homogenizing effect of the edges and, above all, by the weaving skills of the tapestry maker, who brought the diverse parts of the cycle into line with one another in terms of colour and attenuated the stylistic dissimilarities between the models.

Karcher did not limit himself to copying the cartoons: he harmonized and perfected them, thus giving a demonstration of how pictorial models could be improved upon through their transposition into the textile medium.