1933-2003. Ferrara and the Great Revival

Written by  Andrea Emiliani
Exhibitions, museums and collecting at the time of the critical discover of the Este renaissance.
Much is said today about the purposes, the methods and of course the impact - both aesthetic and economic - of art exhibitions. In recent decades, these events have been increasingly specialised, and have, at least in theory, consolidated their popularising and educational role. With the passing of the years we are witnessing a continuous and damaging reduction in certain heroic loans of works of art whose combined fragility and quality are such as to make it advisable not to ask their respective museums for them. Over the years a good many exhibitions have benefited local or national tourism rather than advance the cause of historical and artistic research. In other cases a sound cultural project and attention to the originality of the paintings has predominated.

In 1996 Ferrara, supported yet again by the incomparable Cassa di Risparmio, became involved in encouraging and strengthening the reconstruction of the complex history of collecting in the Este city. This tradition forms a unique phenomenon, frozen and suspended in time only to regain its impetus after the unification. An exhibition celebrating its history, La Leggenda del Collezionismo, was held in the Palazzo dei Diamanti.

The story is well known: the literal elimination of one of the most important cities and civilisations in the European political and cultural world by the Church of Rome through the dubious annexation by Pope Clement VIII in 1598 rapidly reduced Ferrara to an image at once static and supremely beautiful: a sort of vast urban still life, famous, silent and lifeless for a period of almost three centuries. The numbed city, dragged soon after into the total disorder of the appalling Thirty Years' War, could do nothing more than sink back into its past, as though it were sinking into the shifting sands of the Po, or - perhaps a better image - into the unmelting ice floes of winter, which would only reveal their contents decades or, indeed, centuries later. The history of modern Ferrara is the story of that emergence during the course of a gradual, slow thaw, as its great figures return to the light of day, once again asserting its tremendous personality and making its distinctive presence felt. To achieve this, it was necessary to act with critical judgement and historical knowledge to revitalise the centuries-old heritage.

The gradual re-emergence of art from the Este period proceeded backwards - from the Renaissance towards the early humanist period - from the high noon of the Este family's glory under Alfonso I in the golden age of Titain, the last Bellini and Dosso Dossi. This is also the period which saw the launch of the extraordinary historical movement that found expression in often secretive private collecting, and in the semi-submerged and unpredictable route which collecting pursued.

The theft from the Camerini committed by the Aldobrandini was like a starting pistol, triggering the accumulation of art treasures in Rome, the vast collections of the cardinals which are still preserved today by the dead hand of inheritance law: Borghese, Spada, Colonna, Barberini, Doria-Pamphilj, Sciarra, Corsini, Albani and many others. The masterpieces of Alfonso's Camerini would return to flourish thirty years later during the neo-Venetian period of the 1630s, as no less a figure than Nicolas Poussin would show.
But the more distant age of Lionello, Borso and Ercole, reaching far back into the XVth century, had to wait for research to uncover ever more ground and evidence. Had to wait, in fact, for the Schifanoia to emerge from beneath the plasterwork, for gates clogged with rust to re-open, for windows to be thrown open in dusty churches and for new access to the noble drawing rooms crammed with the pictures that, piled up and motionless between the lines of Baruffaldi or Barotti, slowly came to life and regained their vigour and personality in the light of critical examination. After Baruffaldi and Barotti, from Laderchi onwards, it was Adolfo Venturi who took on the task, assuming the mantle of Ludovico Antonio Muratori. The age of Jacob Burckhardt began to develop the new European perspectives then fostered by the museum, and the shackles imposed by that magnificent protagonist, the romantic age, began to dissolve.

The first exhibition of art from Ferrara promoted and organised by Venturi at Burlington House in London in1894 marks the point at which the Anglo-Saxon thirst for knowledge came face to face with the equally firm Italian desire for method.
Sir Austin Chamberlain was unable to contain the enthusiasm of his wife Lady Ivy for Italian art. The lady's fervour was responsible, in 1930, for the gigantic exhibition of art from the Italian renaissance, for which Mussolini, as head of the Italian government, made available a vast collection of masterpieces in an entirely modern display of news management, despite all the objections raised by the king, Vittorio Emanuele III, and by fine art authorities. The extraordinary success of this exhibition, which showed Italian masterpieces from Duccio to the twentieth century, helped to restore the dictator in the eyes of the English and French public after the damage caused to his reputation after the death of Giacomo Matteotti (1924).
A few years later, in 1935, the 'iniquitous sanctions' declared by the United Nations after the Italian invasion of Ethiopa were softened in their turn thanks to a second, spectacular exhibition held in Paris in the Petit Palais on the Champs Elysées, displaying some 500 master works and dedicated to Italian art From the primitives to the Twentieth Century.

Despite a couple of major initiatives in Florence (the Baroque at Palazzo Strozzi in 1922, and the Eighteenth Century in Palazzo Pitti in 1927), it was only after the world economic crisis that work to protect the artistic heritage really began, based on the valuable law passed by the Giolitti government as far back as 1909, thanks to Luigi Rava, Giovanni Rosadi and in particular Corrado Ricci, the new director general. A conference promoted by Daniel Wildenstein in Paris in 1930 bears witness to how lively the debate on museums and their role in society had become in Europe and the United States.

At around this time there were also a series of exhibitions in Italy that had a reasonable and consistent degree of success in highlighting the links between historical events and local genius, the spirit of place and the creative virtues of communities. Led by this gradual critical revival, and by the coincidental events of those years (such as the return of the celebrations of Ariosto, the new work in the Padana Etrurian and the discovery of the town of Spina) it was possible - especially after Nino Barbantini's return from Venice - to celebrate the art of Ferrara in the magnificent Renaissance exhibition which, coming in 1933, also naturally received political support from Italo Balbo, then a key figure in relations between Ferrara, Roma and Venice.
Similar work soon followed in the north. A Correggio exhibition in Parma in 1934, Fourteenth century painting in Rimini organised by Cesare Brandi in Rimini (1935), Sixteenth century painting in Brescia (1936), Renaissance painting in the Romagna in Forlì (1937) all spring to mind, not to mention the splendid series of Venetian exhibitions - Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto etc. and the subsequent exhibition in Florence, Bologna etc. All this work, however, took place against the background of the new race laws and the coming of World War II.

Nevertheless, the type of exhibition held in Ferrara for two successive years in Palazzo dei Diamanti had signalled remarkable progress, if seen in the context of the thorough-going work of investigation focusing on the origins of the Este civilisation. The critical model, the path adopted by modern critics, was mainly that proposed by the undoubted intelligence of Bernard Berenson and developed in his North Italian Painters of the Renaissance published in 1897. And this was also the main focus of campaign launched at the same time by Roberto Longhi, who began his teaching career at Bologna University on 1 December1934 with a famous introductory lecture on art in Bologna from the fourteenth century to Giorgio Morandi.

This was a new approach, linking the resurrected art of Ferrara with the modern Este tradition, an approach which would be further illuminated in years to come in the pages of Giorgio Bassani and, closer to the master, by Alberto Graziani - a genius damaged by the war - and Francesco Arcangeli. Arcangeli's study of Bastianino, published by the Cassa di Risparmio in 1962, is one of the most refined interpretations of Mannerism ever written, not just in Ferrara but in the north and in Italy more generally. I refer to the 1998-2000 restoration of the apse in the Cathedral, with the great and terrible Last Judgment.

I do not know if it is possible to compare and represent in rational terms the different critical nature and the different organisational approach of Nino Barbantini's exhibition, sponsored by Italo Balbo, the supporter of the Ferrara Renaissance, and the magnificent exhibition which only a year ago took the Este muse out along the motorways and waterways of northern Europe in order to display the marvels of the 'singular Renaissance' born and nourished in Ferrara at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.
The 'singular Renaissance' of which we speak thus had two high points, in 1934 and in 2003, in Ferrara itself. The first had the natural character of a 'revival' that took on the rhythm and the fervour of a workshop of critics and poets. The second and last, 'singular' by name and nature and held in Brussels under the auspices of the European Union, exposed and offered its characteristics to the constitutional development of the old continent.

It is clear that the first Ferrara exhibition was surpassed just a few months later by Longhi's critical outpouring, by the admirable increase in attributions and understanding. The new exhibition mounted in our own times has also benefited, half a century on, from a surprising number of masterpieces: as well as works of art "in the wild". Certainly, if we compare these two exhibitions, we can perceive a solid foundation of quality: and at the same time, perhaps, open our eyes to the now undeniable fact that the shape of these exhibitions, certainly in terms of the organisational and mental stresses now involved, may well be planned to start with, but is actually determined by the vicissitudes of lending schemes. Some large museums throughout the world are sending out anguished signals to the effect that they have reached the absolute limit of loan and transfer mileage.

Others complain that they are tired of being mistaken for export-import businesses. And the problem is growing out of all proportion. Time, it is true, is slowly eroding the options for exhibitions. A work of art stands at the crossing point of time and space: rigidly protected by museums, admirably dynamic in the fabric of exhibitions. These last, however, are exhausting the scope for independence and loans granted as the result of a toooptimistic calculation. Museums will soon have to develop new unused tools, together with a fresh vitality.