The Master of the Games

Written by  Jadranka Bentini
Bastianino, the great decorator of the Castle in Ferrara.
Today's restoration of the apsidal semi-dome in the Cathedral of Ferrara is currently revealing the most salient aspects of the artist who frescoed it in 1578, Sebastiano Filippi, known as Bastianino. The fresco in the Cathedral has its counterpoint in the decoration of the rooms (now reduced to three) in the Este Castle that Bastianino worked on immediately after the earthquake of 1570, as part of Duke Alfonso II's reconstruction programme.

In the Castle we find different themes and content: secular and mythological rather than religious; while there is also a difference in the tone of the decoration, firmly anchored to the fantastic world of the grotesque. What does not change is the painter's rapid style, somewhere between the aggressive and the blurred, devoid of any trimmings over and beyond a stark basic outline, somewhat poor in terms of preparation, and mostly finished a secco.

But let's take one thing at a time. First of all, it ought to be pointed out that even before Bastianino decorated the 'Sala dei Giochi' he had worked in the castle on at least two other occasions: in 1565, for the garden party held in the December of that year to celebrate Alfonso's marriage to Barbara of Austria, when the artist made a representation of the renowned Temple of Love; and in 1569, when he was commissioned to restore the room known as the 'Camerino dei Baccanali', because it was "spoilt".
What merits our attention is the quantitative cutback (from the 1560s onward) recorded in the documents regarding the number of artists active at court and the ways in which they were employed. The same sources also suggest a qualitative cutback in the sense that artists in the ruler's service were used indifferently for a variety of projects, but with responsibilities that were limited or conjoint.

What emerges from an analysis of these sources is the lack, during Alfonso II's long rule (1559-1597), of a true painter to the court. And by this we do not so much mean a painter hired by the duke to work for him, as an artist whose work was culturally hegemonic: the ruler's pictorial right arm, as it were, an artist esteemed by the duke insofar as his works lent cultural credibility to a court that had known a greater pomp in days gone by.

While Bastianino was a driving force artistically speaking, he was not the most esteemed artist of his day on a professional level; nor did he ever receive the overall commission for the most prestigious jobs or for the decoration of specific rooms: which shows that it was not so much the figurative or stylistic aspects of a project that mattered, but rather its correspondence with a single iconographic or formal programme. Bastianino worked mostly with Leonardo Brescia and Ludovico Settevecchi.
The three most important rooms in the Castle are attributable to these three artists, but not in equal measure: it seems that Settevecchi was responsible for the great 'Sala dei Giochi', part of which comprised the famous 'Camera dello Specchio', even though there is no doubt that the work was executed by several artists. Nor was any one artist subordinate to another, because it is clear that the execution of the various episodes was divided up between them, a fact that points to a "production management" which was unitary, inflexible, and external to the équipe.

At this point we ought to draw attention to one of the most fascinating characters at court, summoned from Rome to take up the role of professional "antiquary" to the court. This was Pirro Ligorio, the architect and treatise writer who took over from Enea Vico, the man behind the previous line of ducal cultural policy: the collecting of antiquities.

It was Ligorio, therefore, who conceived the redecoration programme for the Castle, which, badly damaged by the earthquake, had to be restored as a symbol of Este power and culture, thus emphasizing its role as a prestigious residence for illustrious guests, now that the dynastic question was becoming more and more pressing in the absence of a direct heir to Alfonso.
We know that the new court antiquary worked on a series of projects involving the frescoes in the 'Camera dello Specchio' in the Castle and the tract De Arte Gymnastica by Gerolamo Mercuriale (Venice 1569 and 1573), which was a dissertation on athletics, a discipline much admired by Alfonso II.
In historical-iconographical terms, this erudite work is based on Vitruvius's interpretation of Greek gymnasia and portrays a series of games as well as gymnastic and gladiatorial exercises, representations of which can be seen in the great stateroom and in the little room alongside it.

From Ligorio the illustrator to Ligorio the artist-designer it is but a short step: designs for the decoration of ceilings, with similar motifs and a scheme in the manner of the artists in consideration here, have emerged thanks to research made by Adriano Cavicchi in the State Archives in Modena. The largest of these drawings is without a doubt the definitive plan for the 'Sala dei Giochi'.

In attempting to trace the hand of Bastianino in all the rooms, to distinguish his work, let us first pause first in the 'Sala dei Giochi' whose cornices and fascias decorated with grotesques betray the sure line and compact spreading of Leonardo Brescia. Here all the evidence points to two hands at work in the portrayal of the Games: judging by structure, spreading, mood, and rhythm, Bastianino was the author of the following scenes: 'il Nuoto', 'il Pancratio', 'la Lotta', 'l'Altalena' and 'gli Altieristi', unmistakable for the sluggish and obsessive way in which the artist renders the physical efforts of the gymnasts.
The mood of the second master of the Games, Settevecchi, corresponds to a more acritical adherence to somewhat threadbare models of paganistic Mannerism; the setting in the style of Dosso, which, although it is implicit throughout the decorative work, is less incisive than in Bastianino's work.

In the 'Camera dello Specchio', Bastianino reveals his finest capacities as a court painter, as indeed he was to become shortly after, in his role as restorer of the paintings in the Duchesses' Room. 'il Tempo', 'la Notte', and 'l'Aurora' are certainly his work. The slow decomposition of matter that seems to corrode the bodies of both men and animals leaves one with no doubts as to authorship.
As in the round of the Seasons in the adjacent room, this work is redolent of that of Girolamo da Carpi, reflected in a more tepid worldliness. But it is a very different matter when it comes to the first two scenes in the 'Camera dello Specchio', namely 'il Tramonto' and 'il Giorno', which are rendered in a range of far more iridescent and differentiated hues.

Recognition of Bastianino's pictorial sensitivity and expertise emerges from the document dated 31 August 1588 in which it is stated that the artist was chosen to decorate the Duchess of Ferrara's personal chapel at court, and to retouch the most valuable paintings kept therein: twenty-four paintings by great masters, including the outstanding Manger-Scene by Andrea Mantegna, today in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.