Ferrara between Nature and Mannerism

Written by  Valentina Lapierre
Paintings from the Fondazione and the Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara shown at the Po Valley Mannerism exhibition in Mantua
Vittorio Sgarbi's exhibition Nature and Manner: the violet ashes of Giorgione between Titian and Caravaggio runs at the Palazzo Te in Mantova until 9 January 2005. An event like this encourages us to consider Mannerism in its Po Valley context, a view which differs from the traditional approach which, following Vasari, focuses on central Italy.

Giorgione and Caravaggio represent the extremes of mannerism; the period is characterised by works which, taking the major Renaissance models - Raphael and Michelangelo - as a starting point, aspire to go beyond Nature to the extent of deforming it.

Ferrara, through artists such as Dosso Dossi, Garofalo, Ortolano, Mazzolino and many others, has made an essential contribution to Mannerism in the region. A number of important works lent by the Foundation and the Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara appear in the Mantua exhibition.

These include a work recently acquired by the Cassa, by a painter whose link with our city is of exceptional importance, Tiziano Vecellio, known as Titian, the direct heir of Giorgione. This is the Portrait of Gabriele Tadino, a work attributed by critics almost unanimously to Titian. We know that in 1524 Carlo V, impressed by Tadino's personality and reputation, offered him the position of commander of artillery in Castille and Aragon, at the exceptional pay of 2000 gold ducats a year.

Fate dealt the general a serious wound in the course of a battle which won him the highest honours; on 11 October 1522, while defending Rodi from the Turks, a shot from an arquebus struck him in the eye, leaving an exit wound behind his ear. After six weeks' convalescence he recovered from an injury which might have killed another man. The surrender and abandonment of the island were inevitable.

Titian, accustomed to highlighting the human characteristics of his sitters, painted a three-quarters view of Tadino so as to make his disfigurement less obvious, seated and wearing a rich fur cloak.

The cross of the Knights of Jerusalem glitters on his breast, and he wears a precious collar, clearly the symbol of some important honour, possibly the office of prior of Barletta, conferred on him in 1525.

In the background a series of cannons are drawn up on parade. The cannons are symbolic of someone who may be considered one of the most important military engineers of the sixteenth century.

The exhibition also features Dosso Dossi's Wise man with a book, a painting which along with four other canvases of similar subjects made up part of a cycle which has not yet been fully reconstructed. The evident inspiration of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel is translated in more markedly physical terms, characteristic of Dosso's style. This series fascinates for its mysterious character: each of the wise men is identified by an attribute, but these elements do not make it possible to identify the iconography. The most likely interpretation is that of Federico Zeri, who sees the cycle as a masculine versions of the Seven Liberal Arts.

Another of the Cassa's recent acquisitions is the Holy Family with St John, St Elizabeth, St Zaccharius and St Francis(?), attributed to Garofalo, one of the variants on the example held in the National Gallery in London (inv.170). Dated at around the 1520s, it clearly owes much to the Holy Family depicted in Raphael's Madonna Canigiani.

There is also a fine Jacob and Rachel at the well, attributed to the Master of the twelve Apostles, the name coined by Claudio Savonuzzi, who identified the main characteristics of the style of this anonymous artist from the twelve paintings of Christ's disciples in the Pinoteca Nazionale in Ferrara.

The subject is taken from the book of Genesis, which describes the meeting of Jacob and Rachel at the well where the young woman came to water her flock. Here the theme is represented as a traditional pastoral scene, a genre much in vogue in 16th century theatrical productions in Ferrara. Particular attention is paid to the depiction of a series of sought-after musical instruments.

This emphasis on music, motivated by the knowledge that the public would recognise the instruments depicted, confirms that this painting was commissioned by a collector sharing the taste and culture of the Duke.

We conclude with the return to nature brought about by Scarsellino, represented here by two works which lie outside the scope of the exhibition in terms of date, but certainly not in subject matter.

The paintings form a part of a series, six of which have so far been identified, and which are brought together for the first time in the Mantua exhibition. Ippolito Scarsella was commissioned by the Nigrisoli family to paint the fantastic origins of their house. The hero of this "domestic epic" is the little Nigersol, prince of Timbuktu, the survivor of a massacre which wiped out the royal family of which he was a member.

With his mother and uncle he fled to Sicily, then to Naples and finally to Ferrara. Scarsellino chose to emphasise the conversion of the family, to which he devotes three episodes; this would have seemed logical to a family like the Nigrisoli which owed its elevation to the nobility to Pope Clement VIII.

The narration starts with the Farewell to Tombut, in which our heroes bid farewell to their city. Scarsellino depicts the African town according the the sixteenth century Ferrara tradition, clearly influenced by Flemish art. There follows the Departure from Africa, depicting the hasty flight of Nigersol and his family.

In the Conversion, Scarsellino emphasises the conversion of the little prince by including two dragons, metaphors for evil and paganism. Little Nigersol has been rescued from the pagan condition of his birth; this has been brought about by his uncle, together with the lion, emblem of the family, and a monk whose prayers have called for this miraculous conclusion. It is this same monk who confirms Nigersol's conversion to Catholicism in The Baptism.

There follows the Hermit's farewell in which Nigersol puts on the white baptismal robe. The story concludes with Nigersol's new realm, in which a certain amount of time has passed and the prince has become a young man. Nigersol's uncle draws the attention of his companions to a castle which is being built, recognisably typical of the Este, which bears the Nigrisoli crest over its entrance.


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