Dosso Dossi, Garofalo, and the Costabili Polyptych: Imaging Spiritual Authority.

Author:Fiorenza, Giancarlo

In the 1568 edition of his Life of the Ferrarese painter Benvenuto Tisi, called Garofalo (ca. 1476 or 1481-1559), Giorgio Vasari provides a detailed account of the artist's education and early career, including specific information on the genesis of the extraordinary Costabili polyptych (with frame, 31 feet 6 inches by 18 feet 11 inches, or 9.6 by 5.8 meters), now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Ferrara (Fig. 1). [1] The dating of the Costabili polyptych, which Garofalo executed in collaboration with the artist Giovanni di Niccol[grave{o}] de Luteri, known as Dosso Dossi (ca. 1486?-1542), lies at the center of a controversy. One art historian has recently stated that the entire chronology of northern Italian painting in the early sixteenth century hinges on knowing precisely when these two artists achieved the stylistic innovations exhibited by the polyptych--from the textural complexities to the embellishment of bodily form. [2] Since questions of artistic choice have direct bearing on the experience and hist orical status of the image, Vasari's early reception of the Costabili polyptych is primary in the establishment of a contextual framework. It is important to note that Vasari met Garofalo personally during his two visits to Ferrara between 1540 and 1542, gaining firsthand information on the artist's work. [3] Vasari relates that Garofalo had been called back to Ferrara from his sojourn in Rome, where he had studied under Raphael, in order to decorate a small chapel in the ducal castle (this probably occurred toward the end of 1512). [4] Once he had completed this project ("[l]a quale finita"), the artist took up the commission to paint the polyptych for Antonio Costabili (ca. 1450-1527), the chief magistrate (giudice) of the communal magistracy known as the Dodici Savi of Ferrara. Only after fulfilling his obligations for the giudice's polyptych ("[l]a quale finita") did Garofalo begin work on several other pressing commissions in the city, including an altarpiece for the church of S. Spirito, which Vasari de scribes as follows: "the Virgin in the air with the Child in her arms, and below some other figures." [5] This is unquestionably Garofalo's celebrated Suxena Altarpiece, now also in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Ferrara, which has a provenance from S. Spirito, in the chapel of the Immaculate Conception patronized by the Suxena family of Ferrara (Fig. 2). [6] It is well known that Garofalo imitated the composition of Raphael's Madonna di Foligno of 1512 for his own altarpiece, which shows the Virgin and Child appearing in the clouds above Saints Jerome and Francis and two donors, who kneel in worship before a magnificent landscape. Garofalo dated the Suxena Altarpiece December 1514--a date that strongly implies the Costabili polyptych was completed by the end of that year. [7]

Vasari's chronology agrees with a series of payments to Garofalo and Dosso recorded in the municipal ledger, or zornale, of the Commune of Ferrara (now housed in the Archivio di Stato of Ferrara); these payments have been published recently by Adriano Franceschini. [8] The first document, dated July 11, 1513, indicates that Antonio Costabili had commissioned Dosso and Garofalo to paint a polyptych for the high altar of the church of S. Andrea in Ferrara (now in ruins), at that time occupied by the Eremitani friars of the Augustinian order. [9] According to the initial payment, work was already in progress on the altarpiece ("de una tavola che depinzono"). A reimbursement to the artists on August 6, 1513, for the purchase of costly pigments in Venice, and interim payments on November 15 and 21 totaling 210 lire marchesane, suggest that Dosso and Garofalo worked continuously and closely together on the enormous Costabili polyptych. [10] Early sources confirm that Costabili possessed the patronage rights for the high altar and chancel of S. Andrea, his parish church, and that his altarpiece stood in the back of the chancel raised above the choir stalls. [11] Unfortunately, the municipal registers for 1514 and the following years are largely missing from the archives, thereby leaving Vasari's implicit date of completion for this imposing work open to question.

The Costabili polyptych still retains its original frame, albeit reconstructed after suffering severe damage during World War II. The towering central panel is set within a classical arch and shows the Virgin and Child enthroned, with the infant Saint John the Baptist to one side. A number of saints gather at the foot of the throne: those securely identifiable are Saint Andrew, the patron saint of the church, who bears a cross and gestures toward the Virgin; Saint Jerome, who holds an open book while resting his foot on a skull; and the youthful John the Evangelist, who, sitting cross-legged on the steps of the Virgin's throne, turns to address her as he pauses from writing his Gospel. The angels who float in the clouds above support the luxurious tapestry adorning the Madonna's high-backed throne, while several spiritelli, [12] in a motif echoed in the Suxena Altarpiece, display folios with citations from the Vulgate Book of Isaiah 9:6 written in bold majuscules: DEUS FORTIS; PRINCEPS PACIS. These phrases ar e unprecedented in Ferrarese painting, and a major part of this study will be devoted to determining their meaning within the framework of the polyptych. [13] A pronounced display of chiaroscuro enshrouds the entire composition, and its dramatic effect is especially prominent in the lower side panels depicting Saints George, the patron saint of Ferrara, and Sebastian, another Christian soldier. In the spandrel above Saint George sits Saint Augustine, who appears as a hermit dressed in the habit of the Eremitani (also known as the Austin friars), wearing a scapular, his bishop's miter resting at his feet. While the saint's dress denotes the eremitic character of the order of friars at S. Andrea, a remarkable and unexampled feature is the fiery red halo shining around Augustine's head. Equally arresting is the rain of fire shooting from within the interior of the cell that the saint points to urgently. The significance of these details has never been fully explained and demands attention. In the pendant panel, Saint Ambrose sits in contemplation with one hand at his breast and a manuscript resting on his lap. The oculus windows depicted in each of their two cells illuminate the figures with an otherworldly silvery light. The pediment contains an image of the Risen Christ emerging triumphantly from his tomb, another rare subject for the pinnacle of an altarpiece that deserves closer scrutiny.

The State of the Question

Very few paintings by Dosso can be securely dated, and it is important to note that the zornale documents anticipate the conventional dating of the Costabili polyptych, based on stylistic arguments, by more than ten years. [14] Previously, Alessandra Pattanaro's important discovery of Costabili's testament, dated July 30, 1527, which mentions the Costabili polyptych as extant, led scholars to all but anchor its date to about 1523-24 and assert that the commission arose in the context of the aging patron's funerary plans. [15] Alessandro Ballarin, who dismissed Vasari's chronology, compared the monumental portrayal of the saintly body to such works as Dosso's Saint Sebastian Altarpiece (Fig. 3), commissioned in 1518 and installed in 1522 in the cathedral in Modena, and the composition of the central panel to Garofalo's Madonna Enthroned with Saints, painted in 1524 for the high altar of the church of S. Silvestro in Ferrara, and now in the cathedral. [16] Judgments on the division of labor have more or less fo llowed Roberto Longhi, who attributed to Dosso the panels of Saints George and Augustine, as well as the Risen Christ, the Madonna and Child, the saint sitting on the steps, and those standing to the right of the throne. [17] Debate has arisen over the artist responsible for executing the panel of Saint Ambrose, yet it appears that Garofalo depicted this figure, along with the angels, John the Baptist, and the saints to the left of the throne in the central panel, as well as the panel of Saint Sebastian. [18] In their recent reconstruction of Dosso's chronology, Peter Humfrey and Mauro Lucco have endorsed Franceschini's dating of the polyptych's completion to 1514, citing artistic precedents in the works of Titian, Giorgione, and especially Raphael's early Roman works. [19] Despite the lack of documentary evidence, the authors suggested that Dosso himself had visited Rome prior to working on the polyptych, and Humfrey even entertained the idea that Dosso had already begun painting the altarpiece by late 1512. [20] However, in response to the reopened question of date, Andrea de Marchi and Luisa Ciammitti, among others, have deemed the altarpiece an unorthodox collaboration resulting from two distinct campaigns, with Dosso extensively repainting and "transforming" Garofalo's passages some years after 1513-14. [21] The impetus behind this evaluation comes from the detailed photography complemented by an examination report on the Costabili polyptych published by Vincenzo Gheroldi. [22] The photographs show very impressionistic brushstrokes over more tighly controlled areas of modeling and detail, which are most prominent in the highlights for the hair of the angels and spiritelli in the central panel (Fig. 4), and on the face and robe (especially the knee) of Saint Ambrose (Fig. 5). These "gestures of sprezzatura" are attributed to the hand of Dosso, who presumably, after a period of interruption, completed his panels and altered the work of Garofalo in a style that is seen to comply with the pictorial advancements made by Romanino and Parmigianino in the 1520s.

These observations have already made an impact on the scholarship of Ferrarese painting, but they require qualification because not enough emphasis is placed on the viewpoint of the...

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