D9 – Dosso Dossi and His Circle
Giovanni Francesco Luteri, known as Dosso Dossi, worked for Duke Alfonso I d’Este of Ferrara and subsequently the Duke’s son Ercole II. His brother, Battista, was also a painter and was referred to as Battista del Dosso (Battista from Dosso) or Battista Dossi. “Dosso” was likely a small family property, hence why it was applied to both brothers. Eighteenth century historians, however, erroneously concluded that Dosso was the family’s last name, hence the double “Dosso Dossi.”
Many of Dosso’s paintings are typified by references to obscure allegories, which are made all the more cryptic due to his tendency to omit traditional iconography. His wit transcended his work, expressing itself even in his signature, which was unique in that it was a D next to a picture of a bone (which is translated as “osso” in Italian).
Dosso was also well known for his use of Venetian color schemes imbibed with Roman classicalism and was especially praised for his landscapes, in part, due to his ability to depict nature as vibrant and teeming with life. His works exhibited in Room D9 of the Uffizi include his Apparition of the Madonna and Child to Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist.
On the right of the work is St. John the Baptist, identifiable via his cross-staff and his hermit’s robe, and on the left of the work is St. John the Evangelist, holding his own Gospel and a golden chalice with a serpent rising up, symbolizing Christianity’s triumph over death. The chalice alludes to a legend of St. John the Evangelist, wherein a poisoned cup was given to him, but he drank it without coming to any harm due to his faith.
Dosso was clearly familiar with Raphael’s work, Madonna of Foligno (c. 1511-12), and in fact, after Dosso’s interaction with Madonna of Foligno, all his altarpieces took on the work’s formulaic composition, i.e. the Virgin and Christ Child encased in a golden ring of light, surrounded by cherubs, with saints in adoration below.
Dosso, however, does not copy Raphael’s composition categorically. Instead, he employs his typical Venetian color scheme, characterized by deep, rich colors as opposed to those bright/pure used by Raphael and his Roman counterparts.
Another of Dosso Dossi’s paintings exhibited here is Allegory of Hercules, also known as Stregoneria (Witchcraft) (c. 1540-1542). It was also once described as “a painting of portraits of the duke of Ferrara’s buffoons.” As evidenced by the painting’s numerous names, no one is quite certain what this picture is supposed to depict, and it therefore has become the subject of multiple interpretations and scholarly debates.
One view is that the old man on the left is Hercules. Those that ascribe to this interpretation do so based on the distaff, i.e. a spindle usually used to spin wool and used by the hero Hercules during a period of enslavement, that is depicted in the middle of the picture (held by the seated man in green). During one of his bouts of madness, Hercules killed a prince named Iphitus, and, as punishment, Hercules was sold into slavery to Omphale, a Lydian Queen. During this period, the gender roles ascribed to the sexes by the Greeks were reversed, and Hercules used tools typically employed by Greek women, including the distaff.
“But Herakles had the misfortune to kill Iphitus, and thereupon sailed to Lydia and was for a long time a slave in that country under Omphale, which condition he had imposed upon himself as a penance for the murder of his friend. During this period the country of Lydia enjoyed peace and repose; but in Greece the old plague of brigandage broke out afresh, as there was now no one to put it down.” Excerpt From Plutarch's Lives, Volume I trans. AUBREY STEWART.
Yet, if this interpretation is accepted, Hercules is depicted here as an old, drunk man, not in his heroic prime. The various sexual references and illusions, including the pea pods, bird, and cheese depicted in the foreground, confirm Hercules’ descent into impotency and licentiousness. Additionally, the mask and tambourine sitting on the table are items that were typically used in Greek orgies. Hercules, if indeed the man is Hercules, is too busy looking at one of the women’s chests to notice the others are laughing at him. The picture therefore becomes a commentary on the detrimental impact of vice, which can consume the vitality of even Hercules.
Heracles was a popular subject in Ferrera due to his namesake Duke Ercole II d’Este, who had succeeded to the dukedom in 1534. Based on the connection between Heracles and Duke Ercole, some scholars find fault with the theory that the old man is Heracles because it would not have been likely for Dosso to depict a decrepit man as a stand in for his patron, the young Duke. So these scholars identify the old man as Bacchus, the god of wine.
The fruit basket that the woman is holding prefigures the still-life pictures that would later become immensely popular, especially by Dutch artists.
D10 – Painters from Ferrara
Some of Dosso’s works spill over into room D10, including his Rest on the flight to Egypt (c. 1516).
The work depicts the Holy Family’s sojourn to Egypt to escape King Herod’s so-called Massacre of the Innocents, as told in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2:
13. And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. 14. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: 15. And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son. 16. Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men. King James Version, Matthew 2:13-16.
Despite the work’s name, however, Dosso failed to include any indicia of the traditional story: he depicted no donkey, no traveling pack, no palm tree, indeed no indicia of travel whatsoever. Compare the Uffizi work with his later work of the same subject, which he and his brother completed in c. 1520-1530 and contains most of the traditional iconography:
Many scholars date the Uffizi Flight to Dosso’s early period because the background is far more structured than his later works and his foreshortening of the figures lacks his later finesse (e.g., if you look at Mary’s outstretched arm, it does not appear to be proportional to her body). Although more structured, the background is Dosso’s answer to the contemporary Venetian landscapes that were being produced, like Giorgione’s The Tempest, wherein the landscape itself seemed to take on the role of a protagonist in the work.
D11 – The 16th century in Bologna
Francesco Francia was Bologna’s leading painter. He stuck to religious paintings, mostly altarpieces featuring the Madonna, like the one displayed in this room. Francia was highly influenced by Perugino, which you can see in his placid figures, highly structured drapery, and rich colors. He also took heed of Raphael’s style, copying Raphael’s signature pyramidal structure.
St. Francis is recognizable from the stigmata on his hands, as well as his monastic robes. He appears clean-shaven, which is in contrast to 13th century depictions of the saint showing him bearded. During the end of the 13th century, however, beards had become associated with the poor, uneducated, and sick. Therefore, the wealthy merchant class wanted to disassociate St. Francis from his revolutionary ideas of poverty and began commissioning works with a clean shaven St. Francis whereas the political factions that favored social chance favored a bearded saint. Thus, both depictions were in use during the 15/16th centuries.
St. Anthony, on the other hand, is identifiable via his traditional attribute of the white lily, which symbolized his purity. (White lilies were also associated with the Virgin for the same reason). Whereas the red roses at the based of the pedestal reference the Virgin, who is known as “a rose without thorns,” an epithet which is itself an allusion (to the garden of eden where roses grew without thorns).
Homer’s Riddle by Bartolomeo Passerotti is the centerpiece of this room. The work was believed to be lost for centuries, but was recently rediscovered and purchased by the Uffizi.
The piece depicts a scene from The Life of Homer (the Greek edition of which was printed several times during the 16th century) wherein Homer meets a group of fishermen and asks them if they had a good catch. The Fishermen respond with a riddle:
They say he died on the island of Ios after finding himself at a loss, since he was not able to solve the riddle of the young fishermen. It goes like this: What we caught we left behind, what we did not catch we carry with us. And on his tomb the following epigram is inscribed: Here the earth covers the sacred head, adorner of warrior heroes, divine Homer.
According to the story, Homer thought so hard about the answer to the riddle that it killed him. The answer was lice. Those lice that the fisherman could catch, they threw into the sea while those lice that remained un-caught were carried with them.
D12 Bacchiacca – The Florentine Portraits
Francesco Ubertini, known as Bacchiacca, was a student of Perugino, but he also incorporated the new lessons from mannerism. He is known for his smaller paintings and unusual color combinations.
In his Predella with the Life of St. Achatius, Bacchiacca depicts three scenes from St. Achatius’ life: 1. Achatius defeating the rebel host; 2. Baptism of Achatius and his men; 3. Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand. The legend of St. Achatius is first referenced is in the Catalogus Sanctorum of Petrus de Natalibus, written around 1370-1400. The legend told of a Roman commander, St. Achatius, who was dispatched with nine thousand Roman soldiers against a rebel host that vastly outnumbered them. The night before the battle, an angel appeared to Achatius and his men, telling them if they were to convert to Christianity, then they would defeat the rebel host. The Roman soldiers took the message to heart and converted to the new faith, and thereafter defeating the host the next day. The Roman Emperor, however, later hears about the conversion and leads an army against Achatius and his now Christian army. Although no battle occurs, the Achatius’ men refuse to recant their new faith so the Emperor determines he will torture them. Yet, he cannot. Stones bounce off the men without doing any harm; the whips that were meant to flog them are dashed to the ground. Seeing these miracles, one of the emperor’s other commanders, Theodorus, switches sides and joins Achatius, bringing with him a thousand of his own men, bolstering the Christian army to ten thousand men. The Christians are then crowned with thorns, in mockery of Christ’s own passion, and baptized in their own blood before being led to Mt. Ararat and crucified.
Also located here is Bacchiacca’s Deposition (1518), which depicts the moment that Christ is taken down from the Cross. It was painted for the convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Milan.
Another work, known as The Nun, in this room is what is known as a “blanket painting,” meaning the portrait was hidden behind a thin plate, known as “tirelle,” which could be scrolled up or down to reveal the portrait beneath.
Currently, this work is attributed to Giuliano Bugiardini, although its authorship has been the subject of intense debate over the years (in fact, when Grand Duke Ferdinand III acquired it in 1810, it was believed to be a Leonardo). The portrait takes on the traditional formula used by the early 16th century artists to depict females, which was derived from Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. The half length portrait depicts the lady in three quarters pose, holding a book of hours, separated from the world by a barrier behind her. Her pose so closely resembles that of a work by Raphael, that some scholars believe Bugiardini may have traced it.
Interestingly, given that the portrait is known as “the Nun,” the lady’s bodice is subtly lower than was fashionable at the time, revealing more of her chest than was typically respectable. It is therefore likely that the woman is not a nun, but instead, the work received its name due to the landscape behind the lady, which in fact depicts the Hospital of San Paolo where nuns can be seen going about their day.
The cover of the portrait contains the words, “SVA CVIQVE PERSONA,” meaning “to each his own mask.” This phrase was likely derived from Adagia, a collection of proverbs published by the well-known humanist Erasmus. The proverb “suum cuique mihi meum,” translated literally as “to each his own, and mine to me,” was usually cited to explain that people prefer whatever they view as their own, whether that be their own looks, country, family, etc. The ancient Roman orator Cicero was famously fond of the proverb, and it is from one of Cicero’s letters that Erasmus quotes in his Adagia:
Suam cuique sponsam, mihi meam: I Suum cuique amorem, mihi meam To each his own bride, and mine to me: To each his own love, and mine to me.
Here, “sua cuique persona,” underscores that the sitter is removed from the world, i.e. the portrait itself is a theatrical mask (persona) and her inner self is not shown to the public world. This proposition demonstrates that the art of portraiture has come full circle. Indeed, in ancient sculpture, Roman Emperors portrayed themselves as the “ideal” Roman. In other words, the portraits that they presented to the public were indeed a “mask.” Subsequently, Leonardo da Vinci revolutionized portraiture in the 15th century with his Lady with an Ermine, which art historian John Pope-Hennessay dubbed the “first modern portrait” because it was “the first painting in European art to introduce the idea that a portrait may express the sitter’s thoughts through posture and gestures.” Yet here, the viewers are once again confronted with a mask, the sitter showing only what she wants to be seen. In fact, the representation of a portrait as a mask was enshrined in Cesare Ripa’s emblem book Iconologia, first published in 1593, which depicted the allegory of painting as a gagged woman with a mask hanging from her neck. Significantly, Bugiardini’s commentary seems increasingly prescient today as personally curated social media becomes the new portraits of the day.