The Subtle Art of the Dukes

Written by  Gianni Venturi
Reflections and conclusions on "Il museo senza confini".
Il museo senza confini: Dipinti ferraresi del Rinascimento nelle raccolte romane (Museum without borders: Ferrarese Renaissance paintings in the Roman collections), edited by Jadranka Bentini and Sergio Guarino, has just been published, the last volume in the prestigious Cassa and the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara.

The aim is to trace the forced dispersal of the great ducal collections after devolution to the papal states in 1598, and the transfer of d'Este masterpieces to Roman collections. This important account of the end of the image which the Court of Ferrara had wished to project is not simply a historical reconstruction but attempts to reconstruct the personalities of the collectors - of the dukes and families who chose and loved these pictures, these objects, these books.

"Ruling passions" - the appealing title of an exhibition devoted to the d'Este's collecting habits - reveals not just the individual taste of the d'Este princes but also their intention to signal the image of the Court, based on collections and commissions. The collection of paintings, jewellery, illuminated books, great poetry, the very construction of the image of Ferrara is the Court, or rather is what the court sought to express and communicate, while at the same time representing the individual collectors and their tastes and choices.

During the sixteenth century alone, the three Dukes, Alfonso I, Ercole II and Alfonso II (whose reigns together covered the period 1505-1597) acted in diverse but unified ways to project a Court image which needed, more than ever, to be widely known in order to confirm both its excellence and the possibility of political security.
The human and intellectual characteristics of the d'Este Dukes can be deduced from their cultural choices during each reign. Alfonso I, for example, has seemed in recent times to be obscured behind the complex personality of his second wife Lucrezia Borgia, the powerful daughter of Pope Alexander VI.

Lucrezia's name can summon up a romantic view of the Renaissance, an image of luxury and perversity, sublime artistic expression and savage murder; the name of Alfonso is associated with the idea of a war lord who put his formidable firearms - including the "Giulia", the canon made from the melted down statue of Alfonso's great enemy Julius II - at the disposal of whoever held power.

Yet we should not forget that that Alfonso also employed Ludovico Ariosto, whom he used cleverly as an ambassador to try to placate papal wrath and as governor of the untamed Garfagnana. And it was Ariosto who was able, in his poem, to endower the d'Este dynasty with "authority" over other seignories and princedoms; "authority", in the language of the times, implied a supremacy which was more moral and cultural than political.

It was on this cultural rather than political supremacy that Alfonso I based the military and strategic game aimed at securing his state. Certainly the Duke's glory depended on the outcome of the battle of Ravenna in 1512, where his artillery was decisive in sealing the fate of the coalition. But it is with artists and painters that Alfonso's patronage reached its highpoint, revealing an artistic sensibility which is at odds with the image of a warrior or a politician, or, rather, making us aware that this politician understood how to exploit the resources of the imagination.

It is no accident that Bentini and Guarino devote a separate chapter to the Duke's private apartments, since "it IS hard TO image a MORE marvellous collection OF paintings than that assembled by Alfonso I d'Este for his private apartments, the very incarnation of Renaissance patronage of the arts."

When on 1 December 1598 the courtiers still faithful to Cesare, now far from Ferrara, opened the door of the alabaster rooms on Via Coperta they found them empty of the masterpieces with which Alfonso had decorated his best-loved rooms. The theft had been instigated by Pope Clement VIII.

A sad story, which saw the master works of Bellini, Titian, and Dosso, collected by Alfonso in accordance with a literary and mythological programme provided by Court intellectual Mario Equicola, dispersed into Papal and Roman collections. It is obvious that the decoration of these rooms was not the work of chance. Once again, the decision of the Court to rely on artistic supremacy proved to be a winner.
Nor should we forget how the layout of the Belvedere island in the Po opposite the town shows once again the Ducal intent to impose on both its own citizens and those who gazed enviously on Ferrara from beyond its walls the image of the town as a paradise, protected by arms but also a "TRUE" paradise, a town and a state transformed by the enlightened culture of its prince into "happy Ferrara", the mythical Feronia.

The other side of this picture was that the reality was otherwise; that the town suffered from hunger and famine, that the Duke - as was the dynasty's wont - shifted the blame for hated taxes onto the collectors. But this does not mean that we can accuse Alfonso of a lack of refinement in propelling Ferrara into the ranks of ideal cities.

The Devolution forces us to reconsider the figure of the second Alfonso, grandson of the first, at a moment in cultural history when Ferrara became, for the last time, one of the capitals of the new painting and the new style of representation upheld or constrained by the beliefs of the Counter-Reformation.

Like his grandfather, Alfonso II had two great artists at his Court in Tasso and Bastianino, two figures representing the poetic and pictorial shift towards modernity. Bastianino's painting matches the last Duke's personality: a conception of art which, inspired by Michelangelo, transformed the human body into an exaggerated tangle of limbs and muscles, a mental product rather than a realistic imitation of reality.
A representation of a world twisted and riddled with ambiguity, like the culture of the Este during the final decades of the sixteenth century when the realisation that the capital would inevitably be lost despite every effort, was accompanied by a pervasive approach to art and politics.

Tasso is the most exalted example, caught between the necessary obedience to the Court as a rigid system of duties no longer freely accepted and the duty to religious principle which, though passionately accepted, left room for doubts, uncertainties and existential angst, Bastianino was popular at Court precisely because he interpreted the Roman style of the new painting with the "harmonious ambiguity" veiled in the misty atmosphere of a Ferrara sky. Just as Equicola devised the Bacchanal theme for Alfonso I, it was the classical scholar Pirro Ligorio who inspired the Castello decorations produced by Bastianino and his school for Alfonso II.

A Court in decline, no longer nurtured by a warrior duke but ruled by the gloomy presence of a man who had been the "finest knight IN Europe" in his youth, bearing great hopes for the consolidation of the state, and who failed just because the whole conception of "court", supported by a culture whose supremacy was still the trump card of the state, was in terminal crisis and did not know it.