by Roderick Conway Morris

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Il Garofalo's 'The Deposition of Christ,' once attributed to Raphael,
was given to Czar Peter the Great in 1720.

Il Garofalo returns to Ferrara

By Roderick Conway Morris
FERRARA, Italy 18 April 2008


Russia's 'special relationship' with Italy dates to the late 15th century, when Italian architects led the reconstruction of the Kremlin in Moscow. And when Peter the Great founded a new capital on the Neva in 1703, he called in Italian architects and engineers, who continued to dominate the design of the city, St. Petersburg, for over 150 years.

It was only with the opening of the 'Window on the West,' as St. Petersburg came to be known, that Italian Old Master paintings began to arrive in Russia. The first to travel there, according to records, was a modest panel of 'The Deposition of Christ,' then attributed to Raphael. It was given by a Venetian connoisseur, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, to the Tsar's commercial agent to the Republic of Venice, La Serenissima, who presented it to his sovereign in 1720.

That 'Deposition,' long-since recognized to be by the Ferrarese painter Benvenuto Tisi, known as Il Garofalo, is now back in Ferrara, along with more than 60 works from 40 collections, for a retrospective of the 15th- and 16th-century painter.

'Garofalo: Painter of Ferrara of the Este,' which continues at the Castello Estense, or Este Castle, until July 6, is the inaugural joint venture of Ermitage Italia, the latest outstation of the St. Petersburg Hermitage, which has similar operations in Amsterdam, London, Las Vegas and Kazan, in the Russian republic of Tatarstan.

Given the number of works at the disposal of the Hermitage, it is not surprising that several Italian cities had vied to sign a deal with the Russian museum. By last summer, the shortlist had been whittled down to Ferrara, Mantua and Verona.

Ferrara had long enjoyed a reputation for staging first-class international exhibitions that attract a wide public. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the city was one of the first to secure important loans from Russian museums - for an exhibition in 1995 entitled 'Paul Gauguin and the Russian Avant-Garde,' at Palazzo dei Diamanti. In its quest to be the official seat for Ermitage Italia, Ferrara also offered the picturesque Este Castle in the center of town.

A mixture of medieval, Renaissance and sheer fairy tale, the fortress of Este Castle shares some of the architectural eclecticism of the Kremlin. The new foundation also includes a pair of buildings for research and administration staff, as well as accommodations for visiting scholars.

When the Este family failed to produce a legitimate male heir at the end of the 16th century, the city-state of Ferrara reverted to papal rule. The family took its moveable treasures and decamped to nearby Modena, and many of those treasures were subsequently sold off, ending up in museums across in Europe and in the United States.

Garofalo is unusual among Ferrarese Renaissance painters because so many of his works remain in the city - in churches, palaces and the National Gallery at Palazzo dei Diamanti. With the loans from Russia and elsewhere, about three-quarters of the artist's surviving pieces can be viewed in the town for the duration of the exhibition.

Born in 1481, Garofalo acquired his nickname from the village from which his family originated. As an apprentice, he was exposed to the influence of his teacher, Boccaccio Boccaccino, and other masters, including Mantegna, Lorenzo Costa and the Venetians.

It is believed that Garofalo visited Venice in 1508, where he encountered Giorgione and Dürer, but his greatest single influence was Raphael. He is thought to have worked in Raphael's studio in Rome around 1513-14. The influence was so marked that he was later sometimes described as the 'Ferrarese Raphael.'

In the 1490s, the ambitious Duke Ercole I increased the size of the city by two-thirds, laying out a large grid of streets. This 'Herculean Addition,' as it came to be known, turned Ferrara into what the historian Jacob Burckhardt called 'the first modern city of Europe.' But despite the energetic building of palaces - the most imposing being the ducal Palazzo dei Diamanti - churches, convents, monasteries and private houses, the vast expanse of the 'addition' proved impossible to fill and to this day contains open spaces.

Ercole's son, Alfonso I, who ruled from 1505 to 1534, turned his attention to transforming the Castello Estense into a residence fit for a modern Renaissance prince. He called on some of the greatest artists of the time - Bellini, Fra Bartolommeo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian and Dosso Dossi - each to produce for his private study a work portraying mythological scenes. Not all of them managed to do so, though Titian made use of sketches by Fra Bartolommeo and Raphael after their deaths.

Alfonso married Lucrezia Borgia in 1502. Her father, Rodrigo Borgia, who was then Pope Alexander VI, had twice married her off for political motives and her second husband was murdered, allegedly by agents of her brother Cesare. But while Lucrezia Borgia's name had been severely tarnished by the dark deeds of her father and brother, once in Ferrara, she became famous for her taste, generosity and charity.

As duchess, she presided over one of the court's most fruitful artistic and intellectual periods. It was she who gave Garofalo his first Este commission, to decorate the ceiling of one of her apartments in the castle. But Alfonso did not judge Garofalo gifted enough to contribute to the magnificent mythological cycle in his private apartments.

Nevertheless, with the continued construction of churches and other buildings in the Herculean Addition, and in the old town, Garofalo was never short of commissions. Demand dictated that almost all his works be of a religious nature, but in 1530 he did decorations for the Belriguardo, one of many pavilions and hunting lodges built by a succession of Este dukes. Those decorations are lost today, but three mythological scenes - of a pagan sacrifice, from London; a Venus and Mars, from Dresden; and an allegory celebrating the dynasty's Herculean connections, from Vienna - are among the most engaging in the exhibition.

One of Lucrezia Borgia's pious works was the foundation of the San Bernardino convent to accommodate the illegitimate female offspring of her own and other leading families. The list of residents came to resemble a roll call of the grandest houses of central Italy: Montefeltro, Malatesta, Strozzi and a Borgia, as Cesare Borgia's illegitimate child, Camilla, took the veil there in 1526.

In 1531, Garofalo began a cycle of large oils for the convent, which occupied him for more than six years. His 'Marriage at Cana,' destined for the refectory, was one of the most unusual, indeed quirky, and attractive of his career.

By 1792, the San Bernardino convent was in dire financial straits and it sold eight Garofalo oil paintings to Pope Pius VI. In 1840, Tsar Nicholas I bought four of them for one of his palaces outside St. Petersburg.

They are all on display today - three from the Hermitage and the fourth, 'The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes,' transported to the Russian Far East in 1931, having made the long journey back from the Museum of Art in the Russian city of Khabarovsk.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024