by Roderick Conway Morris

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Metropolitan, New York
The Three Ages of Man by Dosso Dossi, c.1515

Hauntingly unforgettable

By Roderick Conway Morris
FERRARA, Italy 24 October 1998


If the writer's best friend is the wastepaper basket, Dosso Dossi of Ferrara found the artist's equivalent in his habit of bringing a work even to an advanced state of completion, and then, his imagination fired by his subject, radically changing the composition, painting out figures and areas of the canvas that had already cost him hours of labor.

The upshot was some brilliantly original, if frequently mysterious works, unlike any others to come out of 16th-century Italy. And although Ariosto, author of 'Orlando Furioso,' the great Renaissance romantic epic, listed Dossi in the poem with Leonardo, Mantegna, Bellini, Raphael and Michelangelo and the other immortals of the era, his name is now comparatively little known.

While Dossi spent most of his career in Ferrara, hardly any of his works remain here. After the end of Este rule in the city, in 1598, they were dispersed far and wide. But this was not the only factor in Dossi's failure to sustain a posthumous reputation to equal the one he enjoyed during his lifetime - as is admirably demonstrated by 'Dosso Dossi,' an exhibition at Palazzo dei Diamanti of about 60 paintings by the artist, his brother Battista Dossi and some relevant contemporaries.

Dossi was born near Ferrara in about 1486, the same decade as Raphael and Titian. He spent time in Venice, where his early style was formed and where he was almost certainly encouraged by Giorgione's example of painting directly onto the canvas without preparatory drawing.

Dossi was established at the court in Ferrara by 1513, around when he visited Rome and came under the influence of Raphael and Michelangelo. He found inspiration as well in Flemish and German paintings and prints, of which there were fine examples in Italy. But for all his contact with other painters and their works, Dossi's effervescent imagination and idiosyncratic approach to his material guaranteed the distinctiveness of his own productions.

Ferrara's court was an intensely literary one and 'Orlando Furioso' its supreme monument. The poem glorifies the Este dynasty through their legendary ancestor Rogero (Ruggiero), one of the heroes of this teemingly eventful chivalric tale of Christian and Saracen knights, extravagant love affairs and fantastical incidents, such as the flying journey of the English knight Astolfo on Rogero's hippogriff, which ends with a visit to the moon where Astolfo finds Orlando's lost wits and brings them back to Earth to restore them to their owner.

This is the world, too, of Dossi's elusive pictorial fantasies. But, although they run in parallel to those of Ariosto and other writers, they have a self-sufficient life of their own, and indeed Dossi never appears to have done a literal illustration of any written work.

A classic case of Dossi's mode of operating both in terms of the process of his invention and its realization on canvas -- not to mention the eventual teasing problems of the end result's interpretation -- is the early work 'Melissa.' It appears to depict Melissa, the good enchantress in 'Orlando Furioso,' who restores to their proper form sundry knights who have been metamorphosed by her wicked sister, Alcina, into animals, birds, trees and stone. The sorceress, whoever she may be, is in the act of transforming a knight from beast to man, or vice-versa.

But it is typical of Dossi's humor that, as X-rays have revealed, having painted the figure of a knight standing beside the enchantress, Dossi changed his mind and replaced the man with a large, soulful-looking dog, a bird and an empty suit of armor.

Numerous other Dossi scenes are equally playful and gnomic, and defy definitive explanation. These qualities were highly appreciated at the Ferrarese court, but subsequent generations have found the canvases simply baffling.

The difficulties raised by the puzzling nature of much of Dossi's output have been further exacerbated by the fact that he hardly ever signed, let alone dated, his canvases. This has meant that technically inferior paintings have been attributed to him, which has undermined his standing. Thus, one of the aims of the current show is to suggest a core corpus of pictures that with reasonable certainty can be attributed to Dossi himself, an enterprise sometimes complicated by the collaboration of his more banausic brother Battista and studio assistants.

The artist was entrusted with a multiplicity of tasks by the Este dukes Alfonso and later his son, Ercole - from decorating carriages and barges to making flags, designing stage sets and doing studies of the animals in the dukes' extensive menagerie (an experience he put to good use in his own compositions).

Alfonso was a particularly sympathetic patron: He had his own studio, made musical instruments, painted and did ceramics, which the court ate off when all the available gold and silver tableware had to be turned into coin to finance protracted wars with Venice and the papacy.

During the conflict with Pope Julius II, Alfonso came into possession of an outsized statue of Julius by Michelangelo, which had been pulled from its pedestal by the rebellious mob in Bologna. Alfonso kept the head for his collection, and melted down the rest to cast an enormous canon, waggishly christened 'Julia,' to fire at the papal forces.

Ferrara's unique artistic ambience was to a great extent dismantled with the duchy's reversion to papal control 400 years ago, and the removal of Dossi's works from the complex environment for which they had been created made him one of the prime victims of this down-turn in the city's fortunes. He left few large-scale religious works, no portraits that can absolutely be attributed to him and few examples of his drawing. Yet his best works have a power and freshness that have stood the test of time and, once seen, remain hauntingly unforgettable.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023