A Picture Rediscovered

Written by  Paolo Ravenna
The 'Cathedral' of Giuseppe Coen has come back to light, to remind us of a great nineteenth century artist from Ferrara.
Giuseppe Coen (Ferrara 1810 - Venice 1856) was certainly one of the liveliest, most gifted, and celebrated artists of his time.

As Savonuzzi observed in his seminal work, the Ottocento ferrarese, published by the Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara in 1971, although the fecundity and high quality of Coen's work made him very well known, «ill luck dogged him even after death, and, more than any other local artist, his work has been dispersed». Only a very few of his works have come down to us, while his photographs are even rarer, despite the fact that they were so highly thought of that they were awarded prizes at the World Expo held in Paris in 1855.

For a variety of considerations, I like to think - but this is all subject to verification - he can be attributed with the extraordinary Castle, published as «anonymous photograph, c. 1850». In all probability, it is the oldest photograph of any monument in Ferrara.

Coen was a very gifted painter of vedutas. The historian Abram Pesaro wrote that «towards 1840 he was commissioned to portray the façade of the cathedral and two different points of the Castle of this city from which he drew inspiration for three important vedutas». While the picture of the Castle was published in three different versions, nothing, until today, was known about that of the Cathedral. Savonuzzi wondered: «Did Coen do a Cathedral? Of course he did, since there is still a signed lithograph».
This fortunate circumstance now allows us to answer the question: the picture in question has been found in material owned by a Roman collector who has kindly allowed us to publish it in this magazine.

That this is the important painting mentioned by Pesaro is instantly apparent. It is a large, extremely refined image that encompasses the penetrating gaze of the photographer and the engraver alike, united in the romantic use of colour, modulated between the light and shade of the sunset.

The scene portrayed by the artist amounts to an affectionate and mordantly sagacious slice of city life. The date is around 1840; the Loggia dei Merciai is shown as it was before Canonici's plan (1843), the square is all cobbled and the Listone has not appeared yet. Art as document.

This picture is an expression of Coen's happiest and most mature period, and one that certainly deserves a place, along with its author - and the extraordinary photograph of the Castle, whoever it is attributed to - at the apex of Nineteenth century iconography, and not only of Ferrara either.