Most of the cities of the province of Emilia-Romagna are stretched in a direct, diagonal line along the ancient Roman Via Aemilia, from Piacenza in the west through Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, Faenza, Forlì, and Rimini. The notable exception is Ferrara, located northeast of Bologna and close to the border of the Veneto. During the sixteenth century, these cities—although mostly small in population—were vibrant and quite distinctive, artistically and culturally. The three principal centers, Ferrara, Bologna, and Parma, were especially so, and each had a unique trajectory in both politics and the arts. Ferrara was home to one of the most important humanist courts in the Renaissance, that of the Este dukes, while Bologna was renowned for its university. Both Bologna and Parma are crucial in the history of Renaissance and Baroque painting, thanks to the groundbreaking and influential artistry of Correggio and Parmigianino, who were active in the first half of the sixteenth century, and to the innovations of Ludovico, Agostino, and Annibale Carracci in the second half.
During his long rule as signore, from 1463, Giovanni II Bentivoglio and his family were patrons of the arts on a grand scale. In 1506, Pope Julius II entered the city with great pomp, forcing Giovanni to flee. Save for a brief moment in 1511, Bologna remained part of the Papal States until the Napoleonic era. In the early years of papal rule, several works by Raphael arrived in the city and elsewhere in Emilia and had an immediate and far-reaching impact. Raphael’s influence was so strong that an entire generation of painters has come to be called Emilian classicists, or Romanists. A school of Mannerist artists also thrived in Bologna.
Francesco di Marco di Giacomo Raibolini (ca. 1447–1517), known as Francesco Francia, was patronized by Giovanni II, first as a goldsmith and then, for increasingly important commissions, as a painter. His earliest paintings date to about 1490, and in that decade and the next, he was probably the most sought-after artist active in the city. Around the turn of the century, Francia moved away from the linear and intensely expressive style of his early works to the smoother, blander style for which he became known (14.40.638), a shift no doubt motivated by familiarity with the works of Perugino. Francia was justly famous for his devotional paintings of the Madonna and Child—images that come close to those of Giovanni Bellini in terms of sheer beauty (1982.448), exhibiting the “sweet harmony” that Vasari felt so characterized his pictures. Enthusiasm for Francia’s carefully crafted, generally placid images has waxed and waned over time; to the modern viewer, Francia’s approach to painting does, in fact, represent a fascinating moment just at the crux of something new and more modern.
Papal rule in Bologna strengthened artistic links with Florence and Rome. Along with Raphael’s classicism, Mannerist tendencies were transmitted to the city by artists such as Amico Aspertini (ca. 1474–1552) and Prospero Fontana (1512–1597). Aspertini, a painter, sculptor, printmaker, and avid antiquarian, developed an eclectic style combining the gentle manner of his teacher Francia and an expressive intensity perhaps inspired by his stay in Rome (1500–1503), where he absorbed the lessons of antiquity first-hand. The younger Fontana became the leading Bolognese proponent of Mannerism. He traveled widely in the 1550s and 1560s, working as an assistant to various Mannerist painters, including Perino del Vaga in Genoa, Vasari in Rome and Florence, and Primaticcio at Fontainebleau, before settling in his native Bologna, where he established a teaching studio. Among his most gifted pupils was his daughter, Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614), who enjoyed enormous success as a portraitist and as a thoughtful painter of altarpieces. She worked for the great families of Bologna, especially that of Pope Gregory XIII (r. 1572–85), and was a favorite of the city’s noblewomen, who prized her portraits (62.122.141).
Mannerist aesthetics dominated Bolognese painting for much of the sixteenth century—until the Carracci burst on the scene in the 1580s. The brothers Annibale and Agostino Carracci and their cousin Ludovico launched an assault on Mannerism’s rarefied complexity and artificiality. Advocating a fusion of naturalism, the formal vocabulary of classicism, and the colorito of the great northern Italian painters, the Carracci ushered in the Baroque style (2009.252). Their transformative agenda was propounded through the Accademia degli Incamminati (Academy of the Progressives), which they established in 1582 and which quickly became the center of vanguard art in Bologna.
The small city of Ferrara was a crucible of Renaissance thought and art. Throughout the fifteenth century, its rulers, the Este family, commissioned works from the greatest contemporary painters—Jacopo Bellini, Andrea Mantegna, Rogier van der Weyden—and fostered a brilliant school of local painters, headed by Cosmè Tura and Ercole de’ Roberti. This patronage continued into the sixteenth century under dukes Alfonso I d’Este (r. 1505–34) and Ercole II d’Este (1534–59).
Alfonso’s court artist, from 1514 until the duke’s death, was Giovanni de Lutero (ca. 1486–1541/42), known as Dosso Dossi. Although Dosso painted many altarpieces and devotional pictures, he was considered a master of the evocative depiction of nature, and Vasari deemed him the greatest of all landscape painters in northern Italy. Dosso’s enchanting pastorals, filled with enigmatic literary conceits and playful allusions, reveal a romantic, often eccentric, sensibility. Stylistically, they are indebted to Giorgione and Titian, although the painterliness and brilliant coloring are unique to Dosso. Equally important, his role as court artist allowed him to stray from traditional Renaissance painting into a poetic world inspired by the Ferrarese poet Ludovico Ariosto, whose Orlando furioso (1516/32) was one of the most widely read books of the century. The poet and the painter often collaborated on theatrical productions, and, in a canto of the Orlando, Ariosto included Dosso in a roster of supreme artists, alongside Leonardo, Raphael, and Titian. The Metropolitan’s Three Ages of Man (26.83), painted by Dosso about 1515, perfectly expresses the classically inspired, but poetically shaped, art of Ferrara during the reign of Alfonso I.
Dosso worked alongside a number of gifted painters. From 1513 he collaborated on a spectacular altarpiece for the high altar of the Ferrarese Church of Sant’Andrea with Benvenuto Tisi (1481–1559), known as Garofalo, a slightly older and more established artist. Unlike Dosso’s work, Garofalo’s painting was insistently classical, inspired first by Francia and other Bolognese artists, and then by Raphael. Through his prodigious output—frescoes, altarpieces (17.190.24), small devotional paintings, and mythologies—Garofalo was influential in disseminating the High Renaissance style in the region. Among his collaborators was Giovanni Battista Benvenuti (active by 1512, died after 1527), known as L’Ortolano. Indeed, the connection between the two is so close that The Adoration of the Shepherds (30.95.296), now universally accepted as a work by Ortolano, was for many years attributed to Garofalo. The bucolic landscape in the background, so typical of Ferrarese painting, shows the influence of Ortolano’s contemporary, Dosso Dossi.
The sleepy city of Parma leapt to artistic prominence during the lifetimes of Antonio Allegri (active by 1514, died 1534), called Correggio, and Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola (1503–1540), called Parmigianino. Indeed, Correggio transformed the very appearance of the city with his astounding illusionistic frescoes in the domes of the cathedral and the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista. Although little is known of his life, Correggio’s influence on contemporaries and on later painting can scarcely be calculated. In the works of his early career (12.211), spent in his home town of Correggio (from which his name, obviously, derives), we see the artist scanning his horizon to the east and the west to understand the best in modern painting. After his move to Parma, probably by 1518, he developed a bold, sensuous style that anticipates Baroque virtuosity.
After Correggio, Parmigianino was the most influential Emilian painter of the first half of the sixteenth century. He is often considered Correggio’s artistic heir, although in his maturity he moved in a different direction, becoming one of the greatest practitioners of Mannerism. His signature style, characterized by icy lighting, elongated forms, and distorted spatial effects, produced a disquieting emotional intensity, often with erotic undertones (1982.319). In 1524, he embarked on a major career in Rome that was cut short by the sack of the city in 1527. From 1527 to 1539, he lived first in Bologna and then again in Parma, leaving behind a number of altarpieces and other paintings. Parmigianino was also a superb draftsman, employing a variety of techniques and media for preparatory studies and stand-alone works that had a critical impact on the development of printmaking (26.70.3; 1995.306).
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