Out of the Shadows

Written by  Lucio Scardino
A book sponsored by the Foundation tells the story of Ferrara's art galleries in the seventeenth century.
Fughe e arrivi. Collezioni ferraresi del Seicento, written by the present writer in collaboration with Marinella Mazzei Traina, is about to make its appearance, focusing on one hundred private collections in the seventeenth century.

The work has been sponsored by the Bologna heritage department, and fills a number of gaps in the canon and explodes some deep-rooted beliefs. The seventeenth century in Ferrara has always been seen as a time of total decline. Certainly the Annexation of 1598 signalled the start of a gradual, continuous impoverishment of the artistic heritage from the d'Este period, but simultaneously stimulated a new buying public, not as brilliant as their predecessors but not wholly unworthy. Further, other provincial centres also showed signs of artistic degeneration: activity began to be concentrated in the major capitals and the outlying centres progressively declined. Ferrara became the symbol of this new context, as the documents published in the book confirm.

The noble families who did not want to follow Duke Cesare d'Este to Modena continued to compete among themselves; a new bourgeois buying public emerged alongside the church authorities, though the latter remained the stronger.
Among the most sensitive collectors of the time were the Varano family. Fughe e Arrivi publishes the inventories from galleries belonging to both Carlo Varano and his sister Costanza Varano-Calcagnini.
Among the approximately two hundred paintings listed are works by masters such as Scarsellino, Bononi and Guercino.
In 1622, at the age of only 26, the marchese Cesare Turchi died, leaving his heirs around a hundred paintings, major hangings and various poetry manuscripts.

Some of the inventories tracked down by the authors illustrate, sometimes in detail, the background against which these collectors lived their daily lives: luxurious hangings on the walls, Venetian mirrors, refined statuettes on top of the furniture. This was the case not only in Ferrara but in provincial residences too.

For those who are interested in the figures, the largest collection was that of the marchese Roberto Obizzi (three hundred and twenty five paintings). To qualify for inclusion in the book, the inventories which were gradually uncovered in the archives had to feature at least thirty pieces, to suggest that their owners were seriously interested in collecting. As well as changing the landscape for the history of private collecting in the seventeenth century, the documents provided in the book make a fresh contribution to knowledge of well-known palazzi and figures in Ferrara.

For example, the Cybo family inventories - namely those of Francesco, the son of Marfisa d'Este (d. 1608) have been found, containing information regarding the famous Palazzino in Giovecca.
Or those of Ottavio II Thiene, marchese di Scandiano, who rented the Palazzo Schifanoia from the d'Este family in 1623.
The Villa family acquired the Palazzo dei Diamanti from the d'Este in 1642; but an inventory has been found dating a few years earlier (1637) with a list of paintings, furniture and furnishings in the Ripa Grande house which were subsequently moved to Rossetti' s most famous palazzo.
But the "typology" of collecting also affects other still-famous buildings in Ferrara, including the Palazzo Tassoni in via Ghiara, the Palazzo del Seminario in Via Cairoli, and the Palazzo Sacrati in Corso Ercole d'Este.

The book also contains a sort of biographical dictionary of Ferrara's artists in the seventeenth century, providing further information about the great artists (Scarsellino, Bononi, the architect Aleotti) but also rescuing from oblivion the names of artists overlooked in major historiographical sources, such as Alessandrino Casiglieri, Carlo Antonio Griffini, Ludovico Lanzoni, Antonio Mezzi, Francesco Pullini, Carlo Spigo, disinterred only today, some three or four centuries later.

In general, these little known painters were valuers of inheritances and dowries, and their inventories are certainly more interesting than those drawn up by the Monte di Pietà experts (usually tailors), or the notaries themselves.
These artist-experts often provide details of the techniques, dimensions and support of paintings and include the attribution of a work. The difficulty which often arises in reading these old inventories is that of identifying the works: sometimes, however, they can lead to happy discoveries.