The Mysterious Scholars

Written by  Grazia Agostini
Two fine works by Dosso Dossi acquired by the Foundation.
These two paintings form part of a series of which, to date, three others have been identified: two in public collections (one in the Chrysler Museum, in Virginia; the other in Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario) and a third in a private collection.

Each of the five pictures shows a semi-nude male figure draped in red or orange, sometimes with a gold border. The background is a primordial landscape composed only of land and stormy skies, sometimes, as in the Scholar with compass and globe, lit up by the rosy glow of a sunset. The painting of a Scholar with a book is the only one in which there appears some kind of architecture, in the form of a smooth, low wall close by which can be glimpsed trees and bushes with the gold-shaded leaves typical of Dosso.

Some elements (on one canvas the globe and compass, on others boards and books, etc.) all linked with study or research have given rise to the title for the series of Scholars of classical antiquity. As far as the intended use, the subject and the dating of the pieces goes, nothing can be said for certain.
It seems plausible that the series was commissioned from within the D'Este court for use in a place of contemplation, a library or study. As has been noted, the perspective and the sottinsù suggest that they were to be hung high up on walls, probably above cabinets or bookshelves.

Federico Zeri has suggested a reading of the series as a representation of the seven liberal arts (thus implying that two further paintings existed), even though these were generally represented by female figures. For the two works in Ferrara, Scholar with compass and globe would thus represent Astrology and Scholar with a book either Rhetoric or Grammar.

A matter so far unresolved is that of the dates; while Gibbons and Volpe have suggested that they fall late in Dosso's painting career (around 1540), the majority of academics support a date not long after 1520.