Masterpieces of the Este

On Saturday, March 8 at the Reggia di Venaria, the exhibition “Gli Este. Rinascimento e Barocco a Ferrara e Modena” (“The House of Este: Renaissance and Baroque Art from Ferrara and Modena”) opened!!

Curated by Stephen Casciu, the exhibition brings together 90 masterpieces made for the rulers of Emilia-Romagna and includes the works of Dosso Dossi, Correggio, Titian, Tintoretto, Guercino, Velazquez and other important masters documenting the superb artistic taste of the Este and the political ambitions of the House. The exhibition is housed in the Sale delle Arti of the Reggia di Venaria and is open until 6 July 2014.

So, what can we learn from their art? Well, I learned a bit about performance.

During the duchy of Alfonso II (circa1559-1597 ) Ferrara was a center of European musical and literary production, thanks to the presence of Torquato Tasso in court. He joined their menagerie of talent as a retainer of the Duchess Margherita Gonzaga, who is known for singing to the accompaniment of instruments such as the richly decorated l’Arpa Estense (Estense harp, displayed in the exhibition alongside the books of music used by the Duchess and her ladies).



I also learned a bit about the Carracci family.

A wide selection of paintings by Ludovico and Annibale Carracci in collaboration with Scarsellino and other painters of Ferrara are also on display. Some of these were commissioned for the ceilings of the apartments of Cesare d’Este and Virginia de’Medici (in their house, called the Palazzo dei Diamanti), documenting the last great artistic enterprise sponsored by the Este before the “Devolution” of 1598 and the forced transfer to Modena of the capital and princely collections.

This is what The Australian (newspaper) had to say about the Carracci:

“FOR about 60 years in the 16th century, Italian art was dominated by one family of gifted painters from Bologna: the Carracci, known for their rigorous adherence to anatomical correctness in drawings and for reviving the practice of working from life and studying nature.

The mastery of depicting the body was also a great point of pride in the family, and such was their authority that when they established a prestigious art academy and trained many other prominent artists, they were the envy of all Italy.

The most outstanding artist in the family was Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), renowned for the work he completed in Rome for Cardinal Odoardo Farnese. The monumental paintings and frescoes he created for the Palazzo Farnese are often ranked alongside Raphael’s Vatican frescoes and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel as one of the greatest schemes of decoration in Western art. He was so admired that he is buried in Rome’s Pantheon near Raphael.

In about 1592, when Carracci was about 30, he and his older brother Agostino and their cousin Ludovico were commissioned to decorate a room inside the Palazzo dei Diamanti, which belonged to Cesare d’Este, the powerful duke of Ferrara, who was connected by marriage to the Medicis. The Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, northern Italy, was considered one of the most stunning Renaissance palaces in the country and the duke was prepared to spare no expense in commissioning artists who would reflect its grandeur.

D’Este commissioned the Carracci to create a group of alternating oval and octagonal paintings to be placed in the coffered ceiling of the private rooms of the duke’s wife. D’Este decided the paintings should depict gods and goddesses of classical mythology, such as Pan, Venus, Pluto and Galatea.

Unfortunately, the paintings didn’t last long in situ. When Ferrara seceded to the Papal States in 1598, d’Este lost his treasures and his palace to the pope’s nephew, Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini. But the Carracci paintings were obviously especially valued by d’Este because they were mysteriously removed from the palace. For many years there was much debate as to where the paintings went, but it transpires that they were spirited away to Modena, about 75km west of Ferrara.

One of the paintings by Annibale Carracci that graced the ceiling of the Palazzo dei Diamanti is in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. It was acquired in 1974 under the Felton Bequest on the advice of British art consultant Mary Woodall.

Annibale Carracci, Pan c1592. Collection: National Gallery of Victoria. Felton Bequest, 1974. On Display, National Gallery of Victoria International, Melbourne.

At the NGV on Melbourne’s St Kilda Road, curator of international art Sophie Matthiesson describes Carracci’s Pan as a “great masterpiece” and a “technical tour de force”. Looking at the work, it is evident that this painting of Pan, crouched and dramatically foreshortened so that he is virtually crushed into his octagonal frame, was designed to be in a ceiling. The lower part of the body is distorted to appear in the correct perspective when seen from below, a difficult feat to achieve when painting a canvas on a vertical or easel surface.

The picture’s physical force is extraordinary, says Matthiesson. “The anatomy of the figure of Pan, with his hairy goat-like haunches, is extremely impressive. He looms down on us and yet he has this rather poetic gesture of leaning back with a hand crooked against his waist and another hand holding his pipes. And so he seems like a rather ferocious figure and yet he is in repose and he is in a gesture of musical self-containment, so there is this fantastic tension between his physical vigour and his poetic state of self-absorption.”

This is a treasure of a painting and they are lucky to have it!




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