Monday, 01 December 2008 15:15

Cosmè Tura and Francesco del Cossa

Art in Ferrara in the age of Borso d’Este: the story of an exhibition.

When, some three years ago, the Mayor of Ferrara asked me to organise an exhibition on a theme which would connect with the project “Ferrara: City of the Renaissance”, I remember feeling both a great enthusiasm born from my long-term passion for historical art in general and particularly Ferrarese art, and at the same time an almost equal apprehension. After reflecting on various ideas, Mauro Natale, specialist in Este art of the fifteenth century suggested to me that we should tackle perhaps the most difficult subject of all - the period of Borso d’Este - and my anxiety increased hugely, but so did my enthusiasm. A fundamental component of this decision was the imminent conclusion of the decade-long restoration of the Salone dei Mesi in Palazzo Schifanoia. Right from the start, the idea of linking the display rooms of Palazzo dei Diamanti and the frescoes in the Schifanoia into a single itinerary was one of the chief motivations for the exhibition. The stars of the show are the painters, sculptors, illuminators and engravers who brought about the radical change with respect to the Ferrara of Leonello d’Este (1441-1450), Borso’s predecessor. In just a few years, these artists were responsible for creating the imaginative and expressive language, secular and ornate, at times even frenetic, which characterised the art of Ferrara between roughly 1450 and 1471. The exhibition is arranged in six distinct sections, intimately connected to one another. Passing through the first two rooms, which are part of the first section entitled “The Padanian Gothic and the International Gothic: Ferrara around 1450”, the visitor will find themselves plunged into the cosmopolitan climate of Leonello’s Ferrara, a crossroads of different figurative cultures without a common matrix. This premise, both fundamental and alien to Borso d’Este’s period, is evoked through the medals and drawings of Pisanello, the the Breviary of Leonello, the Reliquary of Montalto Marche, the sculptures of Michele da Firenze and of the Master of the Mascoli Altar, and in the masterpieces by Jacopo Bellini and Bono da Ferrara. The next section is entitled “The birth of a new language” and entering its two rooms the visitor will find the first signs of movement towards a new language characterised by precious colours and a marked expressivity, which are specific to the Ferrarese School. A guiding role is played by the miniaturists, among whom are particularly noteworthy Giorgio d’Alemagna, Taddeo Crivelli and Guglielmo Giraldi who, as in the sumptuous Missal of Borso, build on late Gothic taste with the geometric forms and luminosity of the Renaissance. An analogous formal mingling also characterises painting: from the elegance of Angelo Maccagnino to the aristocratic eccentricity of Michele Pannonio, who were both influenced, like the young Cosmè Tura, by a knowledge of Flemish painting and in particular masterpieces of Rogier Van der Weyden. There follows the heart of the exhibition, the consecration of the new style in the works of the two great protagonists of the age of Borso: Cosmè Tura and Francesco del Cossa. The third and fourth sections of the exhibition are dedicated to these two artists, from the fifth through to the tenth room. It is here that the visitor will encounter the full maturity of this distinctive figurative language described by Roberto Longhi as “Ferrarese Workshop.” Moving between Mantegna and Flemish painting, Tura invented a visual language at once imaginative and precious, popular and strongly expressive, which is without precedent. His achievement is shown in masterpieces like Madonna and Child in a Garden, in the National Gallery of Art, Washington; the Pietà in the Museo Correr; the Madonna and Child in the Galleries of the Accademia of Venice; or the panels of the Polyptych of San Giacomo: the Saint Anthony of Padua in the Louvre, the San Giacomo Maggiore from Caen and the San Domenico from the Uffizi. By contrast, Cossa produced a softer, more malleable style, naturalistic, joyously coloured and with strong prospective, as shown in his great works such as the Madonna with Child and Angels, form the National Gallery of Art, Washington; the stained glass Madonna and Child from the Musée Jacquemart-André; or the extraordinary Portrait of a Man from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. In the eleventh and twelfth rooms of the Palazzo dei Diamanti, the exhibition concludes with the section “Towards and beyond the Schifanoia.” This describes the artistic situation in Ferrara around 1470. A selection of splendid drawings are the first attractions of this section, which ranges from the preliminary drawings which Cossa carried out for the Schifanoia, to the engravings by the Master of the Sola-Busca Tarocchi. It then proceeds with the absolute masterpieces which documented the success of the Ferrarese formula outside the city of Ferrara, such as Cossa’s Saint John the Baptist from the Brera in Milan, and the Miracles of Saint Vincent Ferrer by Ercole de’ Roberti, from the Vatican Museums, both fragments from the Griffoni Polyptych which the two artists produced for the church of San Petronio in Bologna. The exhibition itinerary concludes with a visit to the frescoes of the Cycle of the Months in the Schifanoia. Here in the last collective endeavour ordered by Borso, “a new madness in Ferrarese art” (Longhi) explodes in the month of September, which marks the debut of the third great personality of this period, Ercole de’ Roberti. Meanwhile in the months of March, April and May, Francesco del Cossa achieves a dazzling visual representation of the court culture and political ambitions of the Duke. Uniting art, astrology, politics, story-telling and propaganda, the Salone dei Mesi constitutes the expressive pinnacle of this period of Ferrarese painting. But, while Borso was celebrating himself on the walls of the Salone, the end of this season was at hand. In 1471, only a few months after the completion of the decoration, Borso d’Este died.


Published in Num. 27
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