Dosso Dossi. Part 1 – The Constabili Polyptych

In my last blog I looked at the lives of two American landscape artists, Marion and Elmer Wachtel and for many people outside of America these painters may have been completely unknown.  Today in my blog I want to introduce you to a great painter who may also be unfamiliar to many.  Today let me introduce you to the Italian High Renaissance painter Giovanni di Niccolò de Luteri who became known as Dosso Dossi.

The Constabili Polyptych

The Constabili Polyptych

Dossi was born in St Giovanni del Dosso, which is a small village thirty kilometres south west of Mantua.  His actual birth date is something of a mystery with various historical documents and biographers disagreeing, albeit a consensus of opinions puts it at around 1487.  His early upbringing is also somewhat shrouded in mystery.  However we do know Dossi had a younger brother, Battista, who was also a painter but said to be not as talented as his older brother.  We also know that his father, Niccolò de Luteri, was a native of Trentino, an autonomous northern province of Italy, close to the Austro-Italian border.  His father was a member of the Ferrara court of Duke Ercole I d’Este the Duke of Ferrara and later, after his death in 1505, his son Duke Alfonso I d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara.  His role was that of a spenditore, a bursar or land agent for the court and it was the name of the Duke’s property, Villa Dossi, which lent its name to his two sons.

Portrait of Alfonso I by Dosso Dossi (c.1530)

Portrait of Alfonso I by Dosso Dossi (c.1530)

There is much conjecture about Dossi’s early training.  Giorgio Vasari believed Dossi studied under Lorenzo Costa in Ferrara whilst others say he studied in Venice.  Dossi’s seventeenth century biographer, the priest, poet and writer, Girolamo Bruffaldi, wrote in his 1704 book Vite de’ pittori e scultori ferraresi (Biogrpahy of Ferrara artists) that Dossi studied in Rome and Venice.   Records show that Dossi was working for the House of Gonzaga in Mantua in 1512 and two years later was working as a court painter in Ferrara at the court of Alfonso I d’Este, and later his son Ercole II d’Este.  As a court painter Dossi’s time would have been spent decorating the private residences of the Court with large frescoes and paintings, often detailing historical or mythological themes.  Court painters of the Renaissance, like Dossi, would have been asked to provide designs for elaborate tapestries and conjure up theatrical sets and backdrops.  There would have been many portraiture commissions to carry out featuring the Duke and his family as well as portraits of the family members of the wealthy courtiers.

In his early days at court Dossi was sent by the Duke to Venice, Florence and Mantua.  The Duke also sanctioned Dossi and his brother Battista to produce altarpieces and secular works for the local nobility and princely patrons, such as the Duke of Urbino and Cardinal Bernado Bles the prince-bishop of Trent.

Portrait of a Man in a Fur Collar (Antonio Constabili) by Dosso Dossi (c.1520)

Portrait of a Man in a Fur Collar (Antonio Constabili) by Dosso Dossi (c.1520)

One of Dossi’s first tasks as a court painter was a collaboration with the painter, Benvenuto Tisi, known as il Garofalo.  Garofalo, who had been living in Rome, where he had once studied under Raphael, received an invitation to come to Ferrara and complete a commission from the Duke of Ferrara to decorate a small chapel.  On completion of the commission he was approached by Antonio Costabili to decorate an altarpiece.  Antonio Costabili was a Ferrarese soldier, nobleman and diplomat and prominent figure at the court of Alphonso I and was a leading patron of the arts.  The commission taken on by Garofalo and Dossi was the polyptych, which became known as the Costabili Polyptych.  It was for the high altar, which stood at the rear of the chancel, raised above the choir stalls of the Augustinian church of Sant’ Andrea in Ferrara, which was home to the Ordo Eremitarum Sancti Augustini, the order of the Augustinian Hermit monks.   This was an order of monks accepted into the Roman Catholic family by Pope Alexander IV in 1256.

The completion date of this magnificent work is contested by art historians but one clue as to the date is that Vasari wrote that the polyptych was completed prior to the death of Raphael and he died in 1520.  It should be remembered that Vasari, on two occasions, met with Garofalo in the 1540’s and therefore should have had accurate knowledge with regards the completion date of the altarpiece.  Others narrow down the completion date to around 1514.

Constabili Polyptych in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Ferrara

Constabili Polyptych in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Ferrara

The altarpiece is now housed in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Ferrara.  The paintings are still in the original altarpiece’s wooden frame but there has been much work on reconstructing it as it was badly damaged during World War II.  The altarpiece measures 31ft 6 inches high and 19 feet wide (9.6 x 5.8m).

Central Panel of the polyptych

Central Panel of the polyptych

The main central panel measures 174 inches x 96 inches (474 x 262cms) and features the Virgin Mary enthroned with the Christ Child.  Alongside her throne, on the right, is the infant Saint John the Baptist.

Angels and spiritelli

Angels and spiritelli

Above the throne, on either side there are angels and spiritelli.

John the Evangelist

John the Evangelist

On the steps below the throne sits John the Evangelist, cross-legged, pausing from his writing to look upwards towards the Virgin. On the floor besides him is a chalice.  The chalice is often associated with and symbolises John the Evangelist.  It alludes to John being put to the test by the high priest of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. The high priest said to him:

“…If you want me to believe in your god, I will give you some poison to drink and, if it does not harm you, it means that your god is the true God…”

Saint John blessed the cup of poison, neutralizing it and was then able to drink the liquid.

Saint Jerome

Saint Jerome

In the right foreground of the central panel we have Saint Jerome holding an open book whilst his foot rests upon a skull.  In the left foreground of the central panel we have Saint Andrew, the titular head of the church, who holds a cross and points towards the Virgin.

The two side panels of the polyptych depict two further saints.  Saint George, the patron saint of Ferrara, is featured in the lower right side panel whilst Saint Sebastian, the popular saint who was looked upon as a protector of the people against the plague appears in the lower left side panel.

The Spandrels

The Spandrels

Above these side panels there are two spandrels.  A spandrel is the almost triangular space between the left or right exterior curve of an arch and the rectangular framework surrounding it.

Saint Augustine (right spandrel)

Saint Augustine (right spandrel)

Saint Augustine, the patron of the Augustinian order can be seen in the right spandrel dressed as a hermit in the robes of an Eremitani friar with his bishop’s mitre on the floor by his feet and Saint Ambrose appears in the left spandrel with a manuscript resting on his lap.  His demeanour is one of contemplation as one hand rests on his breast as he studies the text.  Both spandrels have in the background an oculus window through which comes the light which illuminates the two saints.

The pediment

The pediment

The resurrected Christ is displayed within the pediment at the top of the polyptych.

This is a truly remarkable work of art.  At first sight it would appear that the Saints that have been depicted were just a random selection but having read Dosso Dossi, Garofalo, and the Costabili Polyptych: Imaging Spiritual Authority by Giancarlo Fiorenza he believes they were chosen very carefully and he goes into great detail in his article about the reasoning.  The article appeared in The Art Bulletin Volume 82, No.2 (June 2000).  It was from this complex article that I got most of my facts about this work but I decided to steer clear of the theories about the inclusion of the saints and other symbolic aspects of the polytypch and will leave you to seek out the article if you want to delve further.

In my next blog I will look at more of Dossi’s paintings and look at one of a young man which is now believed to be a portrait of a famous young woman !

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About jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.
This entry was posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Dosso Dossi, Garofalo, Italian artists, Renaissance Painters and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Dosso Dossi. Part 1 – The Constabili Polyptych

  1. segmation says:

    Love your blog and we at Segmation can not wait to see more on Dossi from you! Your blog always amazes me. I love your photos. >>> http://segmation.com/blog/

  2. Rodica Cretu says:

    Your last sentence reminds me of two photos seen by me, some years ago. The first one, that of a boy at the age between adolescence and manhood, was taken in the late 1930. The second, that of a young woman wearing her hear very short, was taken in the early 1970. It is true, the resemblance between father and daughter is uncanny. This is my example of gossip which elevated to the status of art becomes a spiritual authority. Thank you for your post. Interesting indeed.

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