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MLN 119.1 Supplement (2004) S271-S298
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Fables, Ruins, and the "bell'imperfetto" in the Art of Dosso Dossi
Santa Barbara, California
In 1528 Bernardo Cles, the Prince Bishop and future Cardinal of Trent, began construction on the Magno Palazzo, a lavish extension of the medieval Castello del Buonconsiglio. The development of the Magno Palazzo transformed the seat of the bishop of Trent into a modern Renaissance palace. 1 The new building boasted such elaborate spaces as a grand reception hall, an impressive library, and a classically inspired courtyard complete with an open loggia. The palace rests on a small hill with a view of the city and Trentine mountains. Beginning in 1531 Cles employed a number of the north Italian artists, including Girolamo Romanino, Marcello Fogolino, and Dosso Dossi, to decorate nearly all the rooms in the new palace with expansive fresco cycles of secular and religious subjects. Although Cles was away in central Europe on diplomatic missions during most of the painting campaign, he kept in close contact with the project supervisors (soprastanti) and frequently wrote letters directly to the artists. As patron, he demanded regular progress reports on the development of his palace, scrutinizing and commenting upon [End Page S271] preliminary designs supplied by the artists. The wealth of written correspondence between Cles and his supervisors reveals that the decoration of the palace evolved through a dialogue between patron and artist. 2 There is no evidence that the artist's followed a preconceived or fixed program. Instead, the cardinal relied heavily on the painters he employed to devise their own pictorial inventions, and he frequently staged competitions among the artists for the most prestigious and lucrative commissions.
Dosso, who traveled from the Este court of Ferrara to Trent in the summer of 1531, played a major role in decorating the palace, painting nineteen rooms in collaboration with his brother and assistant Battista. Among the seven remaining fresco cycles by Dosso to survive, his decoration of Aesop's fables in the dining room of the Magno Palazzo offers a provocative example of his powers of invention (Fig. 1). Known as the Stua de la Famea, the dining room is located on the second floor between two other rooms decorated by Dosso and his brother: the Camera del Camin Nero and the Volto avanti la Chapela, the latter serving as the entrance of the Magno Palazzo from the medieval castle. Dosso painted the dining room in the heart of winter at the end of 1531. Although his frescoes have suffered numerous losses and general fading, they still retain their original lyric beauty and irresistible charm. 3 The cycle consists of ten lunettes representing the fables of Aesop set in expansive landscapes. Three of the best-preserved lunettes represent the fables "The Frog and the Ox," "The Horse and the Lion," "The Fox and the Crow" and "The Kite and the Doves"—the latter of which appear together in a single lunette. 4 The playful and sometimes unruly animals are painted so small that they appear almost incidental. All of the lunettes have the same horizon line, which features a serene, late afternoon sky streaked with yellow and orange sunsets. Perhaps the most extraordinary [End Page S272]
Click for larger view
|Figure 1 |
Dosso Dossi, Fables and Ruins. Stua de la Famea, Castellodel Buonconsiglio, Trent.
images in the room are the fragmented antique statues painted in monochrome that flank each lunette in the spandrels, numbering fourteen in all (Fig. 2). It is important to note that their nudity was painted over with drapery at a later date. The meaning of the ruined statuary, along with their agonized expressions and agitated poses, has resisted explanation. But neither the fables nor the monochrome statues should be studied in isolation of one another. By investigating Dosso's assumptions and methods in conceiving his pictorial imagery for the dining room, I hope to illuminate what the juxtaposition of Aesop's fables and fragmented ancient statues would have engendered in the minds of Dosso's contemporary audience. [End Page S273...