Last week I was teaching a class on Northern Italian renaissance art, part of a course based on 19th century art history and the beginnings of connoisseurship of Italian art- Berenson et al. Instead of concentrating on well-known artists like Titian and Giorgione, I decided to take a walk on the wild side looking at lesser-known schools of art like Ferrara, Padua and Brescia. The School of Ferrara was always considered problematic in the eyes of those pioneers who mapped renaissance art geographically in the nineteenth-century. In the words of Crowe and Cavalcaselle:
“The Ferrarese are very like the Veronese in some respects; they are not first-rates, and their painting has a strong northern stamp; but they are more independent in their ruggedness and more powerful in the expression of passion. They adopt alternately the African types of Francesca and the grimacing ones of Mantegna, but they add to these something of the sadness and dryness of the Flemings. In Galasso these characteristics are combined with the comparative helplessness of the antiquated Christian time. Cossa and Tura, though but little younger, are abler and more spirited in this path, altering the technical treatment of detail and distance after the transalpine fashion; it is not improbable that they were struck by the originality of van der Weyden, whose visit to Ferrara in the middle of the century is now placed beyond a doubt. With Stefano and Ercole Roberti Grandi, we come upon Paduan features in their strength and bitterness; Costa and Ercole di Giuilo Grandi introduce a younger and fresher blood by imitating the Peruginesque. From first to last the Ferrarese are colourists.”
Cosimo Tura, A Muse (Calliope?), London, National Gallery, 1455-60. Cosimo Tura, The Annunciation, Museo del Duomo, Ferrara, c. 1469.
|Detail showing pagan deities: Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and an unidentified figure.|
Quite the most bizarre element in this fascinating work is the gyrating figures ensconced in golden panels and painted in grisaille. They have the look of satyrs or demons, as they twist and turn while hoisting their garments over their head in pagan abandon. You’ll have to wait until Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling until you see such inventive niche figures again. Actually, from reading Stephen Campbell’s excellent analysis, I’ve discovered that they are archaic representations of the classical gods and goddesses: Diana, Apollo, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars. Only on closer inspection do you discern their attributes. According to Campbell they may have astrological meaning, though this is too deep to go into here. Tura has cleverly set these pagan deities on black discs within their yellow cubicles, but they threaten to dance out into the Virgin’s space. And as Campbell astutely notes, the Venus (top left in detail) displays the figura serpentinata, thirty years before Leonardo invented it!
|A black squirrel|
Then there’s the rod that bisects the pillar at the centre; this holds a bird (on the viewer’s L) and another animal (on the viewer’s R). Crowe and Cavacaselle state confidently that it’s a cat, which leads me to conclude they don’t know much about animals. It is, in fact, a black squirrel tethered to a column by a red cord. I did have my doubts because squirrels don’t figure in annunciations, but take my word for it- it’s a squirrel. According to Campbell, and I can’t tell if this is a serious suggestion, the squirrel could alludes to Tura’s squirrel hair brush. I’d like to believe that. Tura is the kind of artist to put in a visual joke, but there’s no proof of that. In best Sherlockian fashion, if we turn our magnifying glass on the bird, this could be a vital clue.
|Tichodroma muraria or “wall-creeper”|
The sources state that the bird resembles the Tichodroma muraria, or “wall creeper,” a bird believed to frequent graveyards and nest in skulls. The Ticholroma muraria might therefore refer to the ruinous effects of time, and the squirrel might have a similar meaning. Checking Wikipedia’s entry on the Ticholroma muraria, I find no references to cemeteries or skulls, just buildings and quarries. The bird is thought to re-appear in another one of Tura’s paintings: a splendidly twisted and knotted St Jerome, also in the National Gallery. Here, the Tichodroma muraria can be found perched on a branch of a tree above Jerome’s lion. According to the NG’s website, the wall-creeper (and an owl) might symbolise evil. I haven’t read Campbell’s description of the St Jerome yet.
|Cosimo Tura, St Jerome, London, National Gallery, 1474.|
In Ferrara, Tura’s presence is well represented by frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia. This pleasure palace belonged to the d'Este family and is located just outside the medieval town walls.
View of the Salone dei Mesi, Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara, frescoes by Cosimo Tura and Francesco del Cossa, 1476-84.
Cosimo, along with Francesco del Cossa, helped produce an intricately conceived allegorical series about the months of the year and zodiac symbols, which seems to have been a learned interest in Ferrarese circles. The series contains contemporary portraits of musicians, labourers, and carnival floats drawn by more exotic animals; in the case of Mercury, griffons; in the case of Ceres, apes.
Cosimo Tura, Detail from Madonna of the Zodiac, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice, 1459-63.
Bernard Berenson, Italian Painters of the Renaissance: Venetian and North Italian Schools,. Phaidon, 1968, first pub. 1952.
Crowe and Cavalcaselle, A History of Painting in Northern Italy (in three volumes), ed. Tancred Borenius, John Murray, 1912.
Stephen John Campbell, Cosmè Tura of Ferrara: Style, Politics, and the Renaissance City, 1450-1495, Yale, 1997.