Dosso Dossi. Part 2 – The tale of the young man who was a famous lady and the Ducal Palace of Ferrara

Dosso Dossi self portrait
Dosso Dossi
self portrait

The first painting of Dosso Dossi I want to showcase is one which is owned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia.  The gallery acquired the painting from a gallery in London in 1965 for £8000.  The title of the oval painting was then said to be Portrait of a Youth.  There was an element of mystery surrounding the art work as the artist of the work was said to be unknown.  It was only in the start of the twenty-first century that the gallery made a painstaking examination of the work during its restoration which would last several years.  The mystery to be solved was two-fold.  Firstly, who painted the work and secondly was the sex of the sitter a male.   The gallery staff looked for clues as to whether the sitter was a young man or a young woman.  In the background, behind the sitter, there is a myrtle bush and in art this was symbolic of Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love and symbolised feminine beauty.  Another clue to the sex of the sitter, according to the gallery’s conservator, Carl Villis, can be found in the inscription on the piece of paper which lies on the balustrade in the foreground.  The translation of which is:

“…brighter is the virtue reigning in this beautiful body…”

Portrait of a Young Man by Dosso Dossi
Portrait of a Young Man by Dosso Dossi

So in the opinion of the conservator the sitter was female.  The next questions to be answered were who was she and who painted the portrait.  After two years of intense scientific analysis and research in Italy, Australia and America the art curator and conservator, Villis came to the conclusion that the female was no other than a young Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI and brother of Cesare Borgia and furthermore the artist was Giovanni di Niccolo de Luteri, or as we now know him, Dosso Dossi.  So why Lucrezia Borgia?  Villis postulated that because the female figure in this painting is holding a dagger the depiction alludes to the Roman heroine Lucrezia, who after being raped by Tarquin, the son of the King of Rome, killed herself with a dagger so as to protect the honour of her family.

1502 coin featuring Lucrezia Borgia
1502 coin featuring Lucrezia Borgia

They also likened the depiction to the 1502 coin which was adorned with Lucrezia’s profile.  Maybe these are good arguments to make Lucrezia the woman in the painting but what made them believe the artist who painted her portrait was Dossi?  The belief that he was the artist followed an analysis of the painting’s pigments and the artistic style which indicated that it was likely to have been painted by Dossi.  Dossi ,if you remember from Part 1 of this blog, came from Ferrara as did Lucrezia.  In 1502 the twenty-two year old Lucrezia married her third husband Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, who later employed Dosso Dossi as the court painter – a coincidence ?  Maybe, maybe not!

National Gallery of Victoria paintings conservator Karl Villis (right) and director Gerard Vaughan stand beside the painting
National Gallery of Victoria paintings conservator Karl Villis (right) and director Gerard Vaughan stand beside the painting

The gallery awaits authentication by external scholars and art history experts and are right to be wary of being too dogmatic with regards their discovery as in 2007 the National Gallery of Victoria was embarrassed after it was revealed that it had wrongly attributed a painting by an unknown Dutch painter to Vincent van Gogh !

Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian (1523)
Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian (1523)

Dosso Dossi was a contemporary of four great High Renaissance Italian artists, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Titian and it is because of one of their famous works of art, Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne that Dossi came to complete his own work, Bacchus in 1524.

In 1523, Titian finished his painting entitled Bacchus and Ariadne which is now housed in London’s National Gallery.  The commission for Titian’s work was one of a cycle of mythological works, which he and Giovanni completed for Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, and it was to be hung in the Camerini d’Alabastro, a private room in the ducal castle.  Originally this part of the commission was given to Raphael who had made plans and sketches for what was to be his Triumph of Bacchus but he died in 1520 and Titian was given the commission to complete.

In the left of the painting we see Ariadne who has been abandoned on this island of Naxos by her lover Theseus, who has sailed off.  The white sails of his boat can be seen in the extreme left background.  In the painting we see Bacchus, the god of wine, leaping energetically from his chariot which is drawn by two large cheetahs.  His followers and fellow revellers appear, emerging from the forest in the right of the picture.  Bacchus is immediately smitten by the sight of Ariadne, who steps back in fear of his sudden arrival.  He promises to turn her into an eight-star constellation, which we see halo-like in the sky, above her head.  This beautiful painting from the Venetian School painter Titian is awash with beautiful colours, blues, reds and browns which enhance the mythological scene.

Bacchus by Dosso Dossi (1524)
Bacchus by Dosso Dossi (1524)

Dosso Dossi was a contemporary of four great High Renaissance Italian artists, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Titian and it is probably due to the popularity of Titian’s work that he was commissioned to copy part of Bacchus and Ariadne, a commission he completed in 1524.  The painting was simply entitled Bacchus and is a copy of the central character in Titian’s painting, with just a few small changes to the background landscape.  The painting probably came about through a commission given to Dossi from an admirer of Titian’s work, which he or she saw when it arrived at Ferrara the year before.

A woman fleeing on a wooded path by Dosso Dossi (c.1542)
A woman fleeing on a wooded path by Dosso Dossi (c.1542)

Another of Dossi’s paintings featuring Ariadne is entitled A Woman Fleeing on a Wooded Path.  This work at one time was thought to have been painted by Dosso Dossi’s younger brother Battista but now is generally believed to have been painted by Dosso himself because of the forms and the drapery, and the detail of the landscape, particularly the buildings in the upper right section.   The female figure has since been identified as being of Ariadne as noted in the lists of paintings by the influential scholar of the Italian Renaissance, the art historian Bernard Berenson.

The Three Ages of Man by Dosso Dossi (c.1515)
The Three Ages of Man by Dosso Dossi (c.1515)

One of Dossi’s most accomplished landscape works was completed around 1515.  It was entitled The Three Ages of Man.   This motif has been painted by many artists including Titian and Giorgione and depicts three pairs of males in three particular stages of their life, infant, youth and old age.  It is an allegorical concept of the cycle of life with depictions of the wonderment of the young child to the earthly pleasures of youth and finally the forlorn and Vanitas-like depiction of ageing men contemplating the end of life.  However there is some doubt whether the painting by Dossi falls into this allegorical category.  It is true there are three pairs of humans of differing ages but in each pairing there appears to be one male and one female.   Look at the two children.  They are connected to the “youthful” pair simply because they are spying on them as they enjoy the pleasures of youth.  He could well be a goat herder as accompanying the amorous couple are a number of goats also watching them intently.  The Italian biographer, historian and contemporary of Dossi, Paolo Givio, wrote that the artist’s works fell into two categories – the ones with serious subjects which he termed justis operibus and his landscape works which he termed parerga, which he says:

“…contain embellishments, intended to simply delight the eye and refresh the spirit without implying any more serious message…”

This painting by Dossi seems to fit into this second category

Much has been said about the ducal palace of Alfonso I d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara and the art that graced the walls of his palace.  In fact, by 1529, he had managed to create the most magnificent private art gallery of his time, including several masterpieces by Titian, hung as an ensemble. The Duke’s gallery, known as the camerino d’alabastro with its alabaster walls and gilded ceiling, contained the finest sculpture and paintings that money could buy. The power and wealth of Duke Alfonso allowed him to commission paintings from the most famous artists of the day. The elderly Giovanni Bellini completed the Feast of the Gods in 1514, which was the last painting he completed before he died. Sadly both Fra Bartolommeo and Raphael died before completing Alfonso’s commissions and so as we saw with the painting Bacchus and Ariadne the Duke turned to Titian who was still only thirty years old and though he was a student of Bellini he was still not famous.

Aeneas at the Entrance to the Elysian Fields by Dosso Dossi (c.1514)
Aeneas at the Entrance to the Elysian Fields by Dosso Dossi (c.1514)

In 1514 Alfonso commissioned Dossi to produce ten paintings for his Camerino d’Alabstro.  These works were to illustrate scenes from the twelve books of Virgil’s epic poem, Aeneid and would be so hung, high up on the walls, so as to imitate a frieze.  The first painting I have featured from this set, which is part of the National Gallery of Canada collection, is entitled Aeneas in the Elysian Fields and it illustrates a scene from the sixth book of the Aeneid.   In the work of art, we see Aeneas in the far left of the painting with his plumed hat, carrying the golden bough, and accompanied by the Cumaean sibyl as they arrive at the Elysian Fields.

Aeneas and Achates on the Libyan Coast by Dosso Dossi (c.1520)
Aeneas and Achates on the Libyan Coast by Dosso Dossi (c.1520)

The second of the three surviving paintings from the “frieze” is entitled Aeneas and Achates on the Libyan Coast.  This work is housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.  The depiction is based on the first book of Virgil’s Aeneid which is all about the story of Aeneas, who after the fall of Troy and seven years wandering, founded a settlement on the Italian peninsula, establishing the Roman state. In Book 1, Aeneas and his faithful companion Achates, having only just started their journey, and are forced to take refuge on the Libyan coast after their ships are wrecked in a storm.

Dosso Dossi worked for the Dukes of Ferrara for almost three decades.  He died in 1542.  His brother Battista who had taken over the mantle of chief court painter to the Duke of Ferrara on his brother’s death, died six years later.

I will leave you with the words from a pre-exhibition write-up that accompanied the 1999 exhibition of Dossi’s works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

“…In Orlando Furioso — the most widely read epic poem of the 16th century — Dosso is listed alongside Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Titian as one of the great figures of his age by the renowned Renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto, who likely admired Dosso’s poetic and subtle — indeed enigmatic — representations of myth and allegory. Dosso’s paintings have long been appreciated as celebrations of pictorial freedom and artistic invention, characterized by a rich palette, brilliant contrasts of light and shadow, and by the enduring echoes of joyousness, wit, and sensual delight. With the devolution of the Ferrarese court into the papal states in 1598, virtually all of Dosso’s oil paintings were dispersed to collections in Rome and Modena, removing them from the elaborate context for which they were created…”

A Man with a Quilted Sleeve by Titian

A Man with Quilted Sleeve by Titian (c.1510)

My Daily Art Display today is the oil on canvas painting entitled  Portrait of a Man, sometimes known as A Man with a Quilted Sleeve, painted around 1510 by Titian and which now hangs in the National Gallery, London.  There is some doubt as to the identity of the figure in the portrait.  Some art historians would have us believe that it is a portrait of Ludovico Aristo, the Italian poet whilst others believe it to be a portrait of a member of the noble and very wealthy Barbarigo family of Venice, who were early patrons of the young artist.  It is also possible that it is an early self portrait of the artist himself,  as in those days a number of Renaissance artists used the genre of self portraiture as a means by which their standing in the art world could be enhanced.

 As was the case of many of Titian’s portraits, the artist had the ability of giving his subject a flattering and dignified appearance.  The sitter looks directly out at us.   How would you describe the sitter’s expression?    There is an air of self-confidence and determination in his thoughtful gaze, which is enhanced by the relaxed and calm manner of his posture. Is there a tinge of arrogance in the way he gazes out at us?   He is almost but not quite smiling.  There is nonchalance in his expression.  Baldassare Castiglione, the Italian courtier, diplomat and famous Renaissance author wrote a book about Courtiers and the way they dress and their manners and he sums up the way grace and courtesy will triumph and be the hallmark of a refined man.  Maybe the expression on Titian’s Man with the Quilted Sleeve follows Castiglione’s rule that encapsulates the secret of the class of a refined man, for the author wrote:

 “…In so far as one may, flee affectation as if it were a sheer and treacherous precipice; and perhaps to propose a new idea, employ in all things a certain casual unconcern that will disguise artfulness and demonstrate what is done and said to be done effortlessly, as if giving the matter no thought…”

 This concept of “casual unconcern” became a guiding principal in painting in the 16th century. 

Note the stone parapet on which the subject’s arm rests.  If you look carefully one can see the artist’s monogram, “  T   V  ”  (Tiziano Vecellio) carved into to it.   This addition of a parapet or balustrade was a favoured convention of Venetian painters, which gives a separation between the observer’s space and the space occupied by the subject of the painting.  In this case, the parapet also acts as a hard textural contrast to the softness of the blue sleeve. 

The prominence of the man in the painting is enhanced by the plain and dark background.  Blue is the predominant colour of the man’s clothes and this gives the painting both a feeling of restraint and coolness.  What detail strikes you first with this painting?   Is it the man’s face and his facial expression or maybe it is the full, quilted blue sleeve in the foreground that captures your attention?  In tomorrow’s offering I will look at Jan van Eyck’s painting Man in a Turban and again the question is raised as to what we focus on, -the sitter’s face or the bright red turban?  However, the one thing that is outstanding about this portrait is the detail of that blue satin sleeve.  It is beautifully painted.  One almost feels that by reaching out one could touch the expensive fabric and smooth down the folds.  One is being shown quality material at its best.  Look carefully how the artist has painted the stitching of the satin in such great detail.  Note also how the artist shows a billowing effect of the soft quilted puffed-sleeve with its many folds. 

It is an enigmatic painting and the more times one looks at it, the more one discovers.  It is a veritable gem.


Venus of Urbino by Titian and the Sleeping (Dresden) Venus by Giorgione

Today I am remaining in Italy for My Daily Art Display but moving from fresco painting to one of the most famous and controversial oil paintings, the Venus of Urbinio by the Italian master Tiziano Vecellio.  Simply known as Titian, he is considered to be the most important member of the sixteenth century Venetian School of painters.  This oil on canvas painting hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and was completed by Titian in 1538.  The painting was commissioned by Guidobaldo II della Rovere, the Duke of Urbino, a title he inherited that same year, after the assassination of his father.   The painting was more than likely intended for the bridal chambers of the palace.  Titian was almost fifty years old when he painted this picture. 

However this is not a tale about one painting, rather a tale about two paintings of the Roman goddess of love, Venus.  One needs to go back to 1510 to the studio of Giorgione, the Italian High Renaissance artist, who painted, but never completed his painting, the Sleeping Venus, sometimes known as the Dresden Venus, which now hangs in the Gemäldergalerie, Dresden.  Giorgione had worked long and hard at this painting putting great effort into the background details and shadows.  Sadly he died at the young age of 33 and the completion of the landscape and background was left to his assistant Titian

The Dresden Venus by Giorgione (1510)

Giorgione’s painting of a nude woman reclining marked a revolution in art and some art historians believe this painting marked one of the starting points for modern art.   At this time, a nude of this size, as the main focal point of the painting, was unparalleled in Western painting.  Giorgione was actually reviving a tradition of the female nude that can be traced back to ancient Greek art.
 Was this painting erotic?   Maybe that is for the individual observer to decide.  The way she lies with her right arm behind her head exposing her breasts and her left hand on her groin may lead you to the conclusion that there were underlying erotic implications to this work of art.  Giorgione’s nude is painted in an idealized landscape setting. Many believe that she has not been painted for sexual desire, and that the nude is portrayed as a demure goddess asleep and oblivious that we are stealing a look at her.

So one can be certain that Titian had seen this painting for he completed the work of art for his dead colleague.   Titian was no doubt influenced by what he saw and there has to be a correlation between this work and his own Venus of Urbino some twenty eight years later.  Two well known sayings come to mind. An English cleric and writer, Charles Caleb said that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and Pablo Picasso said “Bad artists copy.  Great artists steal” by which he meant that great artists can draw inspiration from somebody else’s painting while still putting their own touch on it.   There can be no question that there is a definite similarity between the nude figure in the Venus of Urbino and the one in the Dresden Venus.

Venus of Urbino by Titian (1538)

Titian’s oil on canvas painting Venus of Urbino is one of his most celebrated and possibly the most debated of paintings.  Art historians will have us believe that the reason the word “Venus” (the Roman goddess of love and beauty) is in the title of the painting is because of the presence of roses and the myrtle tree in the painting which are traditionally attributed to Venus.   However other historians reason that because the painting shows maidservants searching in the cassone for clothes for the young woman, then this is simply a portrait of a naked mortal rather than a goddess.

Titian’s Venus is in complete contrast to the Venus of Giorgione. The main character in Titian’s painting is a young women reclining on a bed and as was the case with Giorgioni’s Dresden Venus; her left hand covers her groin.  Both women are voluptuous.   However there are some distinct differences between the paintings.  Titian’s Venus is painted in an indoor setting of some opulence, in what looks like a palace, somewhere in Venice whereas Giorgione’s Venus is painted in a landscape.   Titian’s Venus does not present us with any of the characteristics of the goddess she is supposed to symbolize: she is not shy or retiring, she does not give us the belief that she is unattainable, or aloof.  This Venus is a flesh-and-blood mortal, awake and fully conscious of the viewer’s presence

Titian’s young woman has her eyes open whereas Giorgione’s Venus has her eyes closed and may be asleep (hence the alternative title of his painting: Sleeping Venus) which gives her an air of aloofness and one has the feeling that she is unattainable.    With her eyes closed there is a lack of sensuality and seduction in her demeanour.  On the other hand, look at the facial expression of Titian’s Venus – what is she saying to you?  Is she giving you a look of indifference or is it a look of seduction?  Allegorically, is her expression one of lust or of one of marital love?   She appears to be totally at ease with her situation and maybe you, as the viewer, are the ones who are uncomfortable.  Her long chestnut hair falls over her naked shoulders.  Her nipples are erect.  The fingers of her left hand barely cover her groin and the dark shading is almost as if Titian has painted in pubic hair.  Notice how the painting is split in half vertically by the vertical line of the dark curtain behind Venus.  The drape ends just at her left hand which draws the observer’s eye to her loins which her fingers cover

The painting oozes with sensuality which is often played down by art historians but I will leave you to be a judge of that.  She is also wearing jewellery in the form of earrings, a small ring and a bracelet whereas Giorgione’s Venus was devoid of any such man-made accoutrements. 

In her right hand Titian’s Venus is holding a posy of red roses, the symbol of Venus and they give an accentuated tonal contrast against the white bed linen.  This same red is present in the mattress and the dress of one of the maidservants.  The small dog lies asleep nearby and symbolises fidelity, which lends to the theory that the overriding premise of this work of art is one of marital love.  On the window sill we can see a myrtle tree which symbolises undying love and commitment and a Hebrew emblem of marriage.

Titian’s Venus of Urbino will delight some and horrify others, like Mark Twain who saw the painting at the Uffizi, and wrote in his book, Tramp Abroad:

“…You enter [the Uffizi] and proceed to that most-visited little gallery that exists in the world –the Tribune– and there, against the wall, without obstructing rap or leaf, you may look your fill upon the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses — Titian’s Venus. It isn’t that she is naked and stretched out on a bed –no, it is the attitude of one of her arms and hand. If I ventured to describe that attitude there would be a fine howl –but there the Venus lies for anybody to gloat over that wants to –and there she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art, and art has its privileges. I saw a young girl stealing furtive glances at her; I saw young men gazing long and absorbedly at her, I saw aged infirm men hang upon her charms with a pathetic interest. How I should like to describe her –just to see what a holy indignation I could stir up in the world…yet the world is willing to let its sons and its daughters and itself look at Titian’s beast, but won’t stand a description of it in words….There are pictures of nude women which suggest no impure thought — I am well aware of that. I am not railing at such. What I am trying to emphasize is the fact that Titian’s Venus is very far from being one of that sort. Without any question it was painted for a bagnio and it was probably refused because it was a trifle too strong. In truth, it is a trifle too strong for any place but a public art gallery…”