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    ducal decor
Fred Stern
Three Ages of Man
The Three Ages of Man
ca. 1514-15
ca. 1515-16
probably 1521-22
Jupiter, Mercury and Virtue
Jupiter, Mercury and Virtue
ca. 1523-24
ca. 1524-25
Allegory with Pan
Allegory with Pan
ca. 1529-32
Allegory of Fortune
Allegory of Fortune
ca. 1535-38
"Dosso Dossi: Court Painter of Renaissance Ferrara," Jan. 14-Mar. 28, 1999, at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, N.Y.

Maybe we didn't realize it, but Renaissance art need not only fill us with awe and breathless admiration. It can be fun, too.

That's what's taught by "Dosso Dossi: Court Painter of Renaissance Ferrara," the current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum.

Overall, the 50-odd paintings in the show recreate a wonderful time in 16th-century Northern Italy, showing luxuriant landscapes, fascinating imaginary cities and castles populated by real local inhabitants, not posed models.

Dosso Dossi (1486/87-1542) and his brother Balthasar (1490s-1548) were court painters to the Dukes Alfonso I and Ercole II d'Este. Their assignments were pleasant and apparently easy: simply decorate the Ducal living quarters and their various villas in the North Italian countryside.

The Dukes, father and son, were well steeped in the arts. Music was Alfonso's forte. He played a number of instruments, building a great many himself. He ate meals with the artists, engaged them in banter as well as philosophical discussions, and expected them to pitch in and make all manner of "extras." He expected them to design his fountains, sketch exterior and interior decorations and do other artistic odd jobs.

Ludovico Ariosto, the Este court poet who wrote the phantasmagoric Orlando Furioso -- it inspired Dosso's major painting Melissa -- ranked Dossi with Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and other giants of the Renaissance. Vasari was less sanguine in his Lives of the Artists. He loved Dossi's landscapes but did not consider him a great master.

The Metropolitan owns Dossi's The Three Ages of Man, is an early (ca. 1514-15) pastoral that already has the characteristics of the Dosso manner. Lush foliage, tall trees and formidable rocks dot the countryside. Two boys are shown watching a pair of lovers who appear to be members of the upper class. Off to the side are two elderly men in a clump of trees. The placement of the two men was an afterthought. They were painted on top of the completed vegetation, as x-ray research conducted by the Getty Trust reveals. The landscape is huge and the figures in it are quite small by comparison. Interestingly, the trees are summery where the lovers sit and autumnal near the two men.

Melissa (ca. 1515-16) comes from the Borghese Gallery in Rome. It depicts the good enchantress as she is about to change a dog back into a knight, thereby undoing the work of the bad witch Alcina. The knight's armor stands ready next to the expectant dog. In the background are three knights who might have been rescued earlier. The figures strapped to the tree suggests a kind of metamorphosis that might already have taken place. Here again Dosso changed the canvas as he worked, placing a dog where a man in armor had stood.

Drunkenness (probably 1521-22) is one of the seven allegorical rhomboids that were set into the gilt wooden ceiling of the first ducal apartment, probably in Duke Alfonso's bedroom. The others in the group depict anger, conversation, love (also called the embrace), seduction, music and violence. Drunkenness depicts a man crowned with grape leaves resembling Bacchus holding a cup. A woman, perhaps his wife, stands behind him casting a disapproving eye.

Jupiter, Mercury and Virtue (ca. 1523-24) is perhaps the most ambitious work in the exhibition. Jupiter is shown painting the wings of butterflies, while Mercury tries to silence Virtue, who has come to complain about her bad luck with men as well as with the gods. Dossi has used flamboyant colors, and bathed the town in the distance with an eerie light. Dosso is usually careful to get things anatomically correct, but here some details are wrong, such as Mercury's knee and Virtue's right arm. The garments worn by the three along with the setting are quite overpowering.

Sibyl (ca. 1524-25) is my favorite. It shows the prophetess and seer garbed in an elaborate golden cloak, a tablet in her elegant hands. Her eyes burn with stern intensity and her earrings and ribbons spark golden highlights clear across the canvas. The painting is a prized possession of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Allegory with Pan (ca. 1529-1532) combines all of Dosso's best elements. A wonderful lemon tree, its fruits close to harvest, shades one of the most glorious nudes this side of Botticelli. She is spread out on a carpet of millefleurs, while an elderly woman appears to protect her and a figure of Pan as a satyr shows his cloven hooves. A female figure reminiscent of the Melissa hovers nearby dressed in a brilliant court gown with gold trappings. In the distance is a beautiful city and in the skies a squadron of putti. This sensuous, enigmatic painting is now at the Getty.

Allegory of Fortune (ca. 1535-1538) is one of Dosso's late works. It differs in style and in feeling from most of the previous canvases. Its two figures are huge, muscular constructions and hint at a strong Michelangelesque influence. A male figure is shown holding a bundle of lottery tickets just out of reach of a female nude who in turn holds an elegant bouquet of flowers and fruits. This painting was said to have been painted for Alfonso's sister Isabella d'Este, who was ensconced in Mantua.

Dosso Dossi is a pleasant poetic voice recreating for us the glories of the North Italian courts in the brilliant language of his colors.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.