by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Art of Illumination at Ferrara

By Roderick Conway Morris
FERRARA, Italy 18 April 1998
Pierpoint Morgan Library, New York
Libro d'Ore by Taddeo Crivelli, 1461-63



The glittering pageant of Este rule that made this small town on the plain near the Po delta one of the most important cultural centers in Europe, ended with a whimper rather than a bang in 1598, when Duke Alfonso II failed to produce an heir and, on his death, the duchy reverted to rule by the Pope, after which Ferrara rapidly sank back into obscurity.

The anniversary of the fall of the House of Este at Ferrara is being marked by 'The Art of Illumination at Ferrara,' at Palazzo Schifanoia (until May 31), a gathering of more than 100 manuscripts and paintings from Italy, Europe and America from the times when the city became a magnet for artists, poets and intellectuals during the 15th and 16th centuries.

The show covers some of the same ground as the 'Painted Page' exhibitions in London and New York in 1994-95.

But by focusing on the phenomenon in Ferrara, about which a great deal of research has been done in the lastdecade or so, the exhibition high-lights the intimacy of the relationship between book arts and the development of architecture, sculpture and painting in the era that embraced the careers of Alberti, Donatello, Pisanello, Piero della Francesca, Mantegna, Cosme Tura and the Bellinis.

And Palazzo Schifanoia - whose Rabelaisian name means literally 'away-with-boredom' - with its Hall of the Months decorated with contemporary frescoes depicting the cultured, carefree life to which the Este court aspired provides the perfect setting.

The frescoes' central figure is Borso d'Este (1413-1471), builder of Schifanoia, shown with his horses, hounds and hawks, laughing at the witticisms of his favorite court buffoon, amid garden scenes of handsome young men and captivatingly pretty and elegant young women flirting and disporting themselves, while a diligent peasantry toils uncomplainingly in fields and vineyards around about, the whole sunny vision presided over by Venus in a water-chariot drawn by a team of snow-white swans, beneath the sparkling, beneficent constellations of the zodiac.

Ferrara's Golden Age occurred during the successive reigns of the three brothers, Leonello, Borso and Ercole, and the latter's son Alfonso.

Although trained in the arts of war and as addicted to hunting as most Renaissance despots, Leonello, who was tutored by the famous humanist Guarino da Verona, was highly educated and a connoisseur.

He actually ruled for less than a decade, but his refined tastes decided the future direction of Ferrara and put this statelet, whose population probably never exceeded 30,000, firmly on the map.

Borso, although less of an intellectual (unlike Leonello he did not know Latin or Greek), consolidated the city's position, and through his attention to Ferrara's agricultural resources, from which it earned much of its income, assured its prosperity, and by means of lavish gifts and tireless diplomacy succeeded in having it raised from a marquisate to a duchy.

Book illumination was in many ways an archetypal medieval art form, but what had once been primarily devotional objects also became during this period prestigious secular symbols.

Borso's commissioning in 1455 of a bible of an opulence that would have been the envy of an emperor or king (it took a team of artists led by Taddeo Crivelli and Franco dei Russi six years to complete) was a landmark in the Estes' lavish spending on books and their self-promotion as patrons of art.

Unfortunately, this dazzling work, which is lodged at the Este Library in nearby Modena, is so precious that it can no longer be displayed, though a facsimile, created partly because even scholars now have difficulty gaining access to the original, is on show.

The abundance of book-related commissions from both the court and religious institutions at Ferrara brought here nearly all the leading specialist illuminators of the era, along with many other artists.

Cosme Tura, the most distinctive and original long-term resident painter at the Ferrarese court, is well represented by both his illuminations and small paintings, which clearly demonstrate the parallel development of work done in books and in other media.

Indeed, it was undoubtedly the ability of the illustrated book to continue to attract accomplished and innovative artists and to adapt to evolving styles that kept illumination going strong even into the age of printing.

During the 400 years since thedemise of the Este at Ferrara, the city has suffered artistic losses, though happily a sizable chunk of its medieval and Renaissance architecture and layout have remained intact.

Palazzo Schifanoia at one point suffered the indignity of being turned into a tobacco factory, and its whitewashed-over frescoes were rediscovered only in the last century.

Some of the finest works of Ferrarese painting have survived within the covers of these wonderful books, which for practical and conservation reasons can only be displayed occasionally and in part. But the present sumptuous array at Palazzo Schifanoia gives a vivid intimation of the full magnificence of Ferrara in its heyday.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023