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Monday, March 26, 2012

Lorenzo Costa

Lorenzo Costa
Several years ago I wrote on what I called the "Hockney Theory." Briefly, it deals with the painted evidence regarding the likelihood that many, if not most, painters from about 1500 to the latter part of the 1800s, working within the confines of their studios, employed some sort of monocular drawing device in helping them accurately transfer to paper or canvas the image of their three-dimensional subjects. Perhaps the most telling evidence to support such a theory can be found in the paintings of an artist working about the time ground lenses became available to those wealthy enough to afford them (kings, princes, popes, and artists). Doing a little research on my own, I've found such an artist. Actually Hockney found him first, but anyway. His name was Lorenzo Costa. He was born in Ferrara, Italy, in 1460 which would make him about forty and well into his working career as an artist by 1500, the approximate date Hockney postulates when such lenses became available in Europe.

The Concert, circa 1500, Lorenzo Costa
One of Costa's best paintings was created around 1490 (give or take five years). It's titled A Concert (above) and depicts a central figure of a male lute player, accompanied by a female figure on the left and a male figure on the right, all three with their mouths open, singing.  In the foreground, on a ledge, is some sort of stringed instrument with a bow, and an open (song?) book. It's a very charming painting but with a number of disturbing elements. The female figure on the left is starkly lit from the left, even over-lit, while both the male figures are very evenly lit. In all three there is a tendency for the eyes to be placed somewhat unnaturally high in the head while the hands of the two side figures seem small and a bit awkward, especially given the fact that they extend forward onto the marble ledge. The anatomy of the lute player's right hand, strumming the strings seems very natural. Conversely, that of his left hand, pressing the strings is most awkward.

Portrait of Battista Fiera, 1507-08,
Lorenzo Costa
Now,  about ten years later (1507-08), we see the same artists rendering a Portrait of Battista Fiera (right), a doctor in the Gonzaga court in Mantua. Costa suffered from Syphilis and may have painted the portrait as a gift to his care giver. At any rate, the three-quarter view face is markedly different from those in The Concert. There is a strong chin, the facial anatomy is quite natural, the eyes are this time well placed proportionately in the head, the face is strongly lit, the eyes, strong, penetrating as they peer out from the canvas. Even allowing for the fact that Costa's drawing skills might have improved somewhat over the intervening years, there is a substantial difference in this work over the earlier effort. The awkwardness Hockney so often refers to is gone. The painting has a photographic reality about it. The pose and head angle of the doctor is almost identical with that of the musician but their is an astounding difference in the "realness" and humanity exhibited. Could it be that Costa (or the Gonzaga family) owned a brand new optical viewing device by 1507?  Hockney thinks so. The painters eye of this artist does too.

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