The Magic Greenwood of Dosso Dossi

Article excerpt

Many large and colourful art books are mocked as 'coffee table books to adorn a room and beguile guests, yet from time to time there appears an opulent art book with a text that merits critical appreciation. Dosso Dossi(*), originally the catalogue of an exhibition at the New York Metropolitan Museum, is a work of some beauty in itself, from the cover (in Dosso's favoured colours of cypress green and dull witchhazel gold) inwards. The prefaces, commentaries, catalogue-entries, chronology and lavish colour-plates are trimly arranged and expertly apportioned.

Dosso Dossi, with his brother Battista as his assistant, was the principal court painter to Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara and Modena, who sustained the worrying position of Lucrezia Borgia's third husband. Alfonso's uncle and, later, his father, the Dukes Borso and Ercole, had recruited the first school of painters who worked at the ornate Ferrarese court: Tura, Costa, Roberti, Cossa and Bianchi. After Alfonso had persuaded Giovanni Bellini and Titian to work for him as visiting artists but failed to retain them in his provincial corner of Italy, he decided to exploit local talent and so established a further regional school of painting, which included Garofalo and Ortolano (well represented at the London National Gallery) and, surpassing and dominating the others, the native Ferrarese citizen, Dosso Dossi, son of one of his father's palace officials. Between them the three ducal patrons presided over the history of Ferrarese art.

Having chosen Dosso as his painter Alfonso appointed Ludovico Ariosto, another native Ferrarese, as the laureate of his duchy, part of which Ariosto for some time governed. Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, which inspired Tasso, Spenser and Milton, was probably the most influential poem of the age. Dosso was Ariosto's honoured friend, whom he praises alongside Raphael and Mantegna in the thirty-third canto of the revised and final version of the poem. It is a pity that the learned compilers of this book have not taken the risk of speculating on Ariosto's impact on Dosso's painting which, like Ariosto's genial epic, is romantic, often comic, sometimes enigmatic, and now and then bawdy. The Chronology, although useful and exact, lacks contingent detail, such as the career of Ariosto at Ferrara and the activities of contemporaneous painters in northern Italy.

The fragment, now in the London National Gallery, from Dosso's tondo painted on the ceiling of the anteroom to Alfonso's study, depicts a poet inspired by his Muse. Now that Titian's picture, also in the National Gallery, of a haughty dignitary in a padded doublet is no longer accepted as a portrait of Ariosto, it may be argued that Ariosto is represented here: a grey-haired Ariosto (who was about fifty years old when the tondo was painted), homelier in his features and less aloof in his bearing than Titian's gentleman in lilac satin. One notices the same heavy square face, deepset eyes, thick tip-turned nose and fleshy neck in Raphael's portrait of Ariosto in his Parnassus. Poets seldom look like poets. The Muse to whom the poet is so attentive wears a wreath of amorous summer jasmine instead of epic bays. A sprig of the jasmine is tucked into the poet's high round hat, of a type so fashionable in Ferrara that Duke Borso wears one in Cossa's frescoes. Jasmine, like Ariosto's rogue-heroine Angelica, comes from the Far East. The poet listens intently to his Muse's chant and registers it. Since the Muse of the Ferrarese poets, such as Boiardo and Ariosto, was not utterly chaste, she wears a diaphanous bodice under the cloak the poet is absent-mindedly loosening from her shoulders. The tondo was completed in 1526, just before Ariosto retired to his estate to finish his revision of Orlando Furioso. If the portrait is of Ariosto, his effigy, at least, would remain at the Ferrarese court after the original had departed.

The abrupt transitions of Orlando Furioso also surprise one in Dosso's paintings. …