Ferrarese culture was purely aristocratic, and its arts sedulously served the few. The ducal family, so often at war with the papacy, had no stronger stimulus to piety than to give a devout example to the people. Some new churches were built, but of no memorable quality. The cathedral received in the fifteenth century an unprepossessing campanile, a choir in the Renaissance style, and a pretty Gothic loggia and Virgin in its façade; non ragionam di lor, ma guarda e passa. The architects of the time, and their patrons, preferred palaces. About 1495 Biagio Rossetti designed one of the finest, the Palazzo di Lodovico il Moro; according to a doubtful tradition Lodovico had commissioned it in the thought that he might some day be driven from Milan; it was left unfinished when he was taken to France; its cortile, with simple but graceful arcades, is among the lesser jewels of the Renaissance. Lovelier still was the court of the palace built for the Strozzi (1499), and now named Bevilacqua (Drinkwater) from a later occupant. Imposing is the Palazzo de’ Diamanti, designed by Rossetti (1492) for Duke Ercole’s brother Sigismondo, and faced with 12,000 marble bosses whose diamond shape gave the building its name.
Pleasure palaces were in fashion, and had fancy names: Belfiore, Belriguardo, La Rotonda, Belvedere, and, above all, the summer palace of the Estensi, the Palazzo di Schifanoia—”Skip Annoyance,” or, as Frederick the Great would say, Sans Souci (“Without Care”). Begun in 1391, finished by Borso about 1469, it served as one home of the court, and as a dwelling for minor members of the ducal family. When Ferrara declined, the palace was turned into a tobacco factory, and the murals that Cossa, Tura, and others had painted in the main hall were covered with calcimine. In 1840 this was removed, and seven of the twelve panels were salvaged. They constitute a remarkable record of the costumes, industries, pageantry, and sports of Borso’s time, strangely mingled with personages from pagan mythology. These frescoes are the happiest product of a school of painting that for half a century made Ferrara a busy center of Italian art.
Ferrarese painters humbly followed the Giottesque tradition until Niccolò III stirred the stagnant waters by bringing in foreign artists to compete with them —Iacopo Bellini from Venice, Mantegna from Padua, Pisanello from Verona. Leonello added stimulus by welcoming Rogier van der Weyden (1449), who helped to turn Italian painters to the use of oil. In the same year Piero della Francesca came from Borgo San Sepolcro to paint murals (now lost) in the Ducal Palace. What finally formed the Ferrara school was Cosimo Tura’s zealous study of Mantegna’s frescoes at Padua, and of the techniques taught there by Francesco Squarcione.
Tura became court painter to Borso (1458), made portraits of the ducal family, shared in decorating the Schifanoia palace, and won such acclaim that Raphael’s father ranked him among the leading painters of Italy. Giovanni Santi apparently relished Cosimo’s dignified and somber figures, his ornate architectural backgrounds, his landscapes of fantastic rocks; but Raffaello Santi would have missed in these pictures any element of tenderness or grace. We find those elements in Tura’s pupil Ercole de’ Roberti, who succeeded his teacher as court painter in 1495; but this Hercules lacked power and vitality, unless we except the Frans-Halsian Concert once ascribed to him in the London Gallery. Francesco Cossa, the greatest of Tura’s pupils, painted in the Schifanoia two masterpieces rich in both vitality and grace: The Triumph of Venus and The Races, revealing the charm and joy of life at the Ferrara court. When Borso paid him for these at the official rate—ten bolognini per foot of painted space—Cossa protested; and when Borso failed to see the point Francesco took his talents to Bologna (1470). Lorenzo Costa did likewise thirteen years later, and the school of Ferrara lost two of its best men.
Dosso Dossi revitalized it by studying in Venice in the heyday of Giorgione (1477–1510). Returning to Ferrara, he became the favorite painter of Duke Alfonso I. Ariosto, his friend, ranked him and a forgotten brother among the immortals:
Leonardo, Andrea Mantegna, Gian Bellino,
Duo Dossi, e quel ch’a par sculpe e colora
Michel, più che mortale, angel divino, Bastiano, Rafael, Tizian.5
We can understand why Ariosto liked Dosso, who brought into his pictures an outdoor quality almost illustrative of Ariosto’s sylvan epic, and bathed them in the warm colors that he had borrowed from the sumptuous Venetians. It was Dosso and his pupils who decorated the Sala di Consiglio in the Castello with lively scenes of athletic contests in the ancient style, for Alfonso liked athletics more than poetry. In his later years Dosso painted with uneven hand the allegorical and mythological scenes on the ceiling of the Sala dell’ Aurora. Here the pagan motives rampant in Italy triumphed in a celebration of physical beauty and sensuous life. Perhaps the decadence that now began in Ferrarese art—due chiefly to the exhausting cost of Alfonso’s wars—had one source in this victory of flesh over spirit; the passion and grandeur of the old religious themes faded from a largely secular art, leaving it predominantly decoration.
The most brilliant figure in this decline was Benvenuto Tisi, named Garofalo from his native town. On two visits to Rome he became so enamored of Raphael’s art that, though two years his senior, he enrolled as an assistant in the young master’s studio. When family affairs recalled him to Ferrara he promised Raphael to return, but Alfonso and the nobility gave him so many commissions that he could never tear himself away. He consumed his energy, and divided his ability, in producing a multitude of paintings, of which some seventy remain. They lack both force and finish; and yet one Holy Family, in the Vatican, shows how even the minor artists of the Renaissance could now and then touch greatness.
The painters and the architects were only a fraction of the artists who labored to please the fortunates of Ferrara. Miniaturists produced there, as elsewhere in that eager age, works of a delicate beauty on which the eye rests longer and more contentedly than on many a famous painting; the Schifanoia palace has preserved several of these gems of illumination and calligraphy. Niccolò III brought in tapestry weavers from Flanders; Ferrarese artists furnished designs; the patient art flourished under Leonello and Borso; the resulting tapestries decorated palace walls, and were lent to princes and nobles for their special festivities. Goldsmiths were kept busy making ecclesiastical vessels and personal ornaments. Sperandio of Mantua and Pisanello of Verona made here some of the finest medallions of the Renaissance.
Last and least was sculpture. Cristoforo da Firenze molded the man, Niccolò Baroncelli the horse, for a bronze statue of Niccolò III; it was set up in 1451, two years before Donatello’s Gattamelata rose in Padua. Beside it, in 1470, was placed a bronze statue of Duke Borso, calmly seated as became a man of peace. In 1796 both monuments were destroyed by revolutionists who branded the bronzes as mementos of tyranny, and melted them into cannon to end all tyranny and all wars. Alfonso Lombardi adorned the “Alabaster Chambers” of the Castello with stately statuary; then, like so many Ferrarese artists, he decamped to Bologna, where we shall find him in glory. The court of Ferrara was too narrow in its ideas, tastes, and fees to transmute evanescent wealth into immortal art.