Paradise Regained

Written by  Grazia Agostini
The Fondazione's painstaking task of recreating a "paradise lost" that has never quite disappeared from memory.
The magnificentia of the court was tangible in the opulence of the pictures, sculptures, and furnishings that adorned the private and public rooms, the open spaces and smaller rooms in the ducal palaces, and in those of the aristocracy: the decorations and frescoes to be seen there, according to Sabatino degli Adenti, made Ferrara «a heavenly place».

This is the "paradise lost" of Ferrarese art: the long dispersed patrimony that once made up the connective tissue of the city. It has given rise to an enormous "dispersed museum": museums far from Italy still hold the component parts of the figurative culture of Ferrara. All one need do is arrange them in an imaginary planisphere to appreciate the length of the journey made by the works of art first produced in the city of the Estes.

Three years ago, an exhibition entitled La leggenda del collezionismo held in the Pinacoteca nazionale in Palazzo dei Diamanti brought public attention back to the various stages in that long process of dispersal. The extent to which the city's heritage has been broken up emerged clearly from the results of a survey - undertaken in 1998 by Luca Majoli and Oriana Orsi and supported by the Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara - based on the catalogues of private and public collections, which revealed that a good nine hundred paintings have been dispersed.

In the catalogue of the exhibition Il paradiso perduto. Per un archivio della memoria estense (15 April to 12 June 1999) in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, we can once more trace the fundamental episodes in the "diaspora" that saw an impressive number of paintings leave the city on their way to museums and collections throughout the world. The crucial year was 1598, when Este rule came to an end and the city passed into the hands of the Papal State. It all began with an assertive gesture of power: cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, governor of the city, immediately took possession of the large paintings that adorned the private study of Duke Alfonso I, paintings that for over fifty years had been reserved for the admiration of the court and illustrious guests.

Among the Princes of the Church who, like Scipione Borghese, had followed the Pope in the Ferrarese adventure not only out of greed for glory but also because «drunk with the desire to possess paintings», Pietro Aldobrandini had the right of first choice. Annibale Roncaglia, duke Cesare's agent, was the first to express his shock upon seeing the duke's study, the very symbol of the refinement of courtly life, completely empty: the paintings taken down from their positions were at first almost criminally sequestered away in Aldobrandini's Roman residence before they were transferred - for pressing economic and financial reasons - to the richer royal palaces of Spain and, later, to the munificent museums of America and England.

The silence of the next two centuries of Papal domination is broken only by the documents in which we can glimpse intense activity on the part of collectors, not only the Cardinals Legate but also local aristocrats. It was only with the advent of the Napoleonic regime that an authentic earthquake was to shatter the city's long slumbers, so often evoked by foreign visitors.
In 1796 Quatremère de Quincy was already complaining about masterpieces of Italian art that struck him as «mutilated, and torn, neglected, and destined for oblivion» that were destined to «go off to die in foreign lands». This was certainly true in Ferrara's case as the suppression of religious orders and corporations led to the requisitioning of works with which to adorn the salons of Milan's new Pinacoteca di Brera, whose establishment had been strongly desired by the ambitious viceroy of Italy, Eugène de Beauharnais, who wanted it to resemble the Musée Napoléon in Paris.

More works of art, from suppressed churches and convents, were sold at auctions organized to ensure that the coffers of the new Napoleonic government were rapidly filled. Often, the buyers were members of Ferrara's new upwardly mobile bourgeoisie, who were prompted by genuine civic considerations, on the one hand, and a desire to consolidate their newly acquired social status, on the other. This ushered in the heyday of Nineteenth century collecting as connoisseurs and art experts flocked to Ferrara from all over Europe to acquire works for the museums of half the world and to divide up what remained of the city's great figurative tradition.

The creation in 1836 of the Pinacoteca by the city's most enlightened citizens was an attempt to oppose the dispersion, alienation, or sale of these collections, but was enough to stem the great "diaspora".
If knowledge equals possession, the current research project on the paintings that have been dispersed, rediscovered and catalogued will help the city repossess its own cultural framework. Together with this task of theoretical reconstruction and research, the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara is also undertaking, along with the Pinacoteca Nazionale, a complex project aimed at reconstituting the city's historic appearance, through the reacquisition of works removed over the years.
In this way works of diverse provenance have returned to the city. These include the last two pieces from the Sacrati Strozzi collection still on the market: the two fine paintings with Madonna and Child by Giovanni da Modena and Biagio d'Antonio. An auction held by Sotheby's led to the return of the great Crucifixion with Saints Peter and Andrew and the client Bernardino Barbuleio, created for St. Peter's but subsequently a part of the Costabili collection.

Two evocative Landscapes with Figures by Scarsellino came from the English market, traditionally interested in Ferrarese culture. Deeply Ferrarese in tone is the landscape in the background of the Sacra Familia con San Giovannino attributed to Bononi, which had ended up in a Roman collection.

The two sketches by Giuseppe Maria and Luigi Crespi of the two great altarpieces in the church of Gesù with the Miracle of Saint Francesco Saverio and the Ecstasy of Saint Stanislaus Kotka document the decorative opulence of the Eighteenth century period in Ferrara, still poorly known. The last picture to be acquired, the Adoration of the Magi by Niccolo Pisano, was originally Este property. This marks the conclusion of another stage in the long process of Ferrara's reacquisition of its own glorious past, of that paradise lost that has never been quite forgotten.