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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Dosso Dossi

Aeneas and Achates on the Libyan Coast, 1510, Dosso Dossi
When we think of the Renaissance, we invariably think of Rome and the so-called "big three"--Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael--the "kingpins" of the Italian Renaissance. However, art historians don't refer to the Italian Renaissance for nothing. Just as there was a northern counterpart to this "rebirth of learning," there was much more to the Italian Renaissance than just Rome. Virtually every major urban art center on the Italian peninsula was the beneficiary of this enlightened era leaving behind a list of excellent, yet at the same time, secondary artists as long as your arm...both of them, in fact. We're well aware of the impact of Florentine and Venetian painters, but cities such as Milan, Siena, Ferrara, Mantua, Umbria, Naples, and to a lesser extent, two or three others, all contributed art and artists to this explosive period of creative endeavors. I came upon today one, rather peculiar example of this, the work of an artist from the north of Italy who painted under the almost laughable moniker, Dosso Dossi. (No, he didn't invent square dancing).
The figure on the left is a self-portrait while the figure on 
the right, also painted by Dossi, is merely purported to be.
Dosso Dossi was born in 1490, and that was not, needless to say, his real name. His birth name was Giovanni di Niccolò de Luteri (which might go a long way in explaining why he painted under an assumed name). His brother was also a painter and apparently went along with the ruse. His name was Battista Dossi. And though not as historically prominent as his older brother, he seems to me to have been the better painter. He had once, briefly, studied under Raphael (if that means anything). Both brothers were born in the province of Mantua (east of Milan). Had either of them lived and worked in a major Italian city at the time, we'd probably not even know of them. As it was, they were what might be called, "big fish in a small pond."
Allegoria della Fortuna, 1535-38, Dosso Dossi
That "small pond" was Ferrara. There, starting in 1514, Dosso Dossi served some thirty years as the ruling d'Este family's "court" painter . Dossi's brother worked alongside him much of the time, their style so similar its nearly impossible to tell which man worked on which part of their painting commissions. The works they produced for the d'Este dukes included the ephemeral decorations of furniture and theater sets. The elder Dossi is known to have worked alongside il Garofalo on the Costabili polyptych.
Lamentation over the Body of Christ, 1517-1520, Dosso Dossi
In truth, Dosso Dossi was, at best, a mediocre painter, not particularly known for his naturalism or attention to design. Dossi's work is said to be characterized by a certain nonchalance, making whatever he did appear to be without effort and almost without any thought. The overall effect of Dossi's style was therefore somewhat caricature-like, primitive, with eccentric distortions of proportion. Notice the awkward angle of Christ's head in Dossi's Lamentation over the Body of Christ (above) from around 1520. Dossi's gross distortion of the faces and arms of the women nearest Christ are particularly amateurish. Dossi is also known for the atypical choices of bright pigments for his cabinet pieces. On the other hand, what set him apart from his peers, were his atmospheric and “impressionistic” background landscapes and his imaginative treatment of mythological subjects. Many of Dossi's paintings bear cryptic allegorical elements framed around mythological themes, favored by the humanist Ferrarese court.

Jupiter, Mercury and Virtue, 1530s, Dosso Dossi
In Jupiter, Mercury, and Virtue (above) from around 1530, we see a visual perspective, a trio of figures occupying a surreal stage-like setting with Jupiter, the king of Roman gods in sitting with his legs crossed next to his thunderbolt. Once more we see a terribly awkward distortion of the neck and head as Jupiter calmly paints uncharacteristic butterflies on a blue canvas. With his back turned to his father, Jupiter, Mercury is seated in the center with his winged hat and green drapery blowing fiercely in the gusty winds. He puts his finger to his lips to shush a pleading female figure in a lavish golden dress and luxurious jewelry, identified as an allegory of Virtue.

Bacchus, 1524, Dosso Dossi. (What? No grapes?)
St. Sebastian, 1524,
Dosso Dossi
Dosso Dossi's most famous figure is that of Bacchus (above) apparently hurling something out of the picture to the left. The painting dates from 1524. Iconic as it may be, the best that can be said for Dossi's Bacchus is that he needs a baseball pitcher's uniform. He appears to have a pretty good arm. The town in the background looks like some-thing out of the 21st century. From a purely anatomical perspective, Dossi's St. Sebastian (right) is about as good as he gets, one of his few well-drawn (and painted) images. But, then again, maybe his younger brother did this one.

Portrait of a Court Jester, Dosso Dossi.
Whichever brother painted this one,
he certainly "nailed" it.


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