Do we Still Deserve the Oratorio della Buona Morte?

Written by  Ranieri Varese
A treasure of the arts fallen into oblivion.
Many are the monuments that make Ferrara a fascinating place. One of these, but not the best known, is the Oratorio di Santa Maria Annunziata, in via Borgo di Sotto. Until the Napoleonic repression it used to house the Confraternita della Buona Morte (Confraternity of the Good Death), whose task it was to comfort the condemned.

«This place was first an oratory beautifully built by the Ferrarese citizen Nicolò Zipponari in the year 1370, but for the convenience of worshippers in 1613 it was reduced to a charming ground floor church embellished with noble altars» (Brisighella). Recent renovation work (1950) restored the original single hall on the second floor thus permitting a correct view of the scenes of the Crucifixion that replaced, in the second half of the 16th century, the previous 15th century decorations of which only documentary evidence remains, but which is worth quoting nonetheless.

The historical evidence, remarkable but incomplete, leads us to imagine a situation completely different from the present arrangement. When the church was renovated in the 16th century the altar was left as it was. And this was fortunate because behind the wooden artefact a fragment of the older frescoes was left intact and did not reappear until 1835. This fragment does not coincide with any extant documents.
The importance of the Resurrection of Christ was immediately obvious to experts in the Ferrara school of painting, from the first person to indicate its quality, Adolfo Venturi, to Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti, who was able to demonstrate that the still unknown master was also responsible both for the frescoes in the Vignola chapel and for the ex voto of the noble Coane family, now in the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris.

In the mid 16th century a group of Ferrarese artists was commissioned to create an organic replacement for the previous and, by then, outdated decorative work. The theme was that of the Crucifixion represented as a symbol of eternal salvation attained through suffering.

On a formal level, the unifying characteristics are traceable to the Filippi atelier, whose outstanding exponent was Sebastiano, known as Il Bastianino. The result is representative of a transitional culture that testifies to the decline of Este power and its replacement, politically and intellectually, by the culture of the Counter Reformation.
Today there are two good reasons for the rediscovery of the Oratorio della Buona Morte. The first: to contemplate with a different sensitivity and attention a decorative scheme that is representative, on an equal footing with more famous works, of Ferrarese culture, which is distinguished - in almost all its expressions - not by the presence of a unique masterpiece, but by a sense of continuity and homogeneity within compositions that never fall into banality or repetition.

The Oratory is little known even in Ferrara and most of the tourists on their way to Palazzo Schifanoia barely notice it: this is an error because in this worthy hall the citizens may rediscover that sense of generous participation that moved their ancestors to offer comfort and solace, prayer and meditation, to those afflicted by human frailty. Moreover, through the documentation that still remains, outsiders may perhaps appreciate the culture and history that combine to create the Ferrarese sense of identity.

The second reason: we can hope that new restoration efforts and research will make it possible to recover some part of what has been lost, but perhaps not yet irreparably so. It would be a fine chance to increase our still patchy knowledge of a period and to show that we are worthy heirs to a culture in which we still would like to identify ourselves.