The Art of Dosso Dossi

Written by  Mauro Lucco
Ferrara commemorates one of its greatest artists with an extraordinary monographic exhibition.
On the 1st of April 1606, three people were at prayer in the Duomo of Faenza, when a painting, the first to be seen on entering the nave from the right, attracted their attention.
After having observed it, one of the three, the famous painter Pomarancio, said he did not know who had painted it but he recognized it as beautiful; a second, the renowned art collector marquis Vincenzo Giustiniani, said «Judging by the style I would say it was the work of Dosso». Piqued, the painter looked again; and found Dosso's signature.

This amusing scene has some curious aspects. Giustiniani was too clever a man not to have read Vasari's Lives; and in both the editions of that book (1550 and 1568) the work in Faenza was one of the few paintings by Dossi to receive an honourable mention.

Vasari did not like Dosso and Battista Dossi, for reasons that are still mysterious. Vasari did not hesitate to say that «The name Dosso won greater fame thanks to the pen of messer Ludovico [Ariosto] than by all the paintbrushes and paint he used up in his lifetime.» Even the favour enjoyed by Dosso at the court of Alfonso I was more due to the painter's affability and human qualities than his artistic skills.
After Vasari's negative criticism, Dosso's critical stock soon began to rise again: in his manuscript notes to the Giuntine edition of Vasari, today in the Library of the Archiginnasio in Bologna, Annibale Caracci noted brusquely that the beauty of Dosso's paintings was evident, while by contrast Vasari's were so crude and arid that they were good for nothing except burning.
And, more or less at the same time, Lomazzo was to spend admiring words on the beautiful effects of inner illumination and the evanescence of Dosso's landscapes.

The most thorough research in the Estense archives was carried out at the end of the Nineteenth century by Adolfo Venturi, who recovered some paintings on canvas concealed under false names, and later by Berenson. This was the basis of the first serious modern monograph on the artist: the work of Henrietta Mendelsohn, who arrived at a reliable corpus and an almost equally reliable seriation of it.

But it was Roberto Longhi who brought about a real reassessment of the artist: he saw Dosso as standing virtually at the cross-roads of a cultural situation involving a creative refusal of the Roman classicist experience that he shared with many artists working in the Po valley area.
This entire critical system was unhinged in 1995, when Adriano Franceschini found a document that fixed the date of the execution of the Costabili polyptych, hitherto thought to be from the 1520s, at 1513-1514, with the consequence that the group individuated by Longhi as belonging to the artist's youthful phase no longer had a logic ubi consistam and had to be ascribed to other hands.

Given the date 1513-1514, the influence of Giorgione discernible in the St. George on the right hand side of the polyptych fits better into the intellectual context; which would not be the case if the polyptych were instead collocated in the third decade of the 16th century.
Like Giorgione, in this painting Dosso shows that he was in the habit not of sketching a preliminary image on paper but of proceeding to work directly on the surface to be painted, trying out variations, suppressing them, modifying them, applying paint directly, trusting in the inspiration of the moment or to any new ideas that came along in the meantime, until he found what seemed the most felicitous formula.

Naturally, such a free and relaxed approach to portrayal implies a series of major problems for the iconological criticism of his works. There is no doubt that, within the "culture OF entertainment" in vogue at the Este court, owing to the hermeticism of the portrayal and the felicitously light-hearted tone devoid of any moral preoccupations, Dosso's works must have seemed as belonging to the new Venetian genre of "poesia", in full bloom at the time.
«Painting is really poetry, that is invention, which makes appear that which is not», wrote Paolo Pino, exhorting painters to introduce "brevity", to avoid an overly meticulous attention to detail, and to abstain from trying to concentrate the world in one image.

Dosso adapted himself perfectly to this rule. In point of fact he was never an illustrator so much as an improviser who, starting from a rough draft, expanded and contracted historical time, selected the dates, expanded one episode at the expense of another, worked on details and said nothing about more important issues; he open-handedly distributed different flavours and colours, with a skill that has something magical, almost unearthly, about it.

Such a clear spirit of adventurous romance is what makes the Melissa (or Circe) the closest parallel, in the figurative arts, to Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. Nonetheless, despite this affinity, it is curious that apart from the Duel of Orlando and Rodomonte, painted by Dosso's brother Battista, the Melissa is the only theme truly inspired by Ariosto in all the Dossi's production. Nonetheless, this joyous attitude, this climate of poetic and narrative fable is the only expressive register intensely felt by Dosso. In a certain sense it constitutes the means and the end of his painting, to which all else had to be subjugated.
He shunned the representation of dramas, preferring single figures to group scenes, or at least a treatment of the episode in which the figure is studied on its own, almost without any relationship with the others; even at the tragic acme of his painting, when he was mourning the definitive loss of Dafne in the Borghese Apollo, the suffering, which might have been upsetting, is transmuted into a form of lyricism, almost a positive image of the cathartic power of music and the silence that follows its interruption.

The spontaneous attitude to the isolated human figure would seem to make the art of Dosso particularly suited to allegory. But his allegories justify themselves only within the bounds of a narrative dimension, which justifies the contrast between the beauty and ugliness, the humanity and bestiality, of the Nymph and Satyr in the Pitti Palace, and our virtual inability to understand the real subject of the Travellers in the Forest of Besançon.

Having begun metaphorically with the belly laugh of the Jester of Modena, Dosso's career ended with the apparently ferocious jest of the Allegory of Ercole in the Uffizi, which corresponded to Duke Ercole's interest in the poetics of laughter and aspects of the ridiculous. In between, there was a long spell of amused irony, a desire to laugh and joke that, as we have said, runs though all the works of an artist who unfailingly sent out signals of humour and shrewdness.