CossaFrancesco del Cossa was born in about 1435, the son of Cristoforo del Cossa, a stonemason who had worked on the campanile of Ferrara Cathedral. He was a follower of Cosmè Tura, and was probably influenced by Piero della Francesca who painted frescoes (long destroyed) in Ferrara. He is first recorded, still a minor, in September 1456 in a contract for a Pietà for Ferrara Cathedral (although it is unclear whether this was a picture or sculptural group). He became an independent master on 29 November 1460. He is recorded at Bologna in December 1462, and may have remained there until 1466-67, when he seems to have drawn cartoons for a series of stained glass windows for San Giovanni in Monte. He returned to Ferrara to work for Borso d’Este on the frescoes in the Palazzo di Schifanoia, but became so dissatisfied with the rate of pay that he left Ferrara in about 1470 to spend the rest of his life in Bologna. He died between February and May 1478 of the plague at the age of forty-two.
As well as panels from altarpieces and one or two portraits, Cossa’s small surviving output includes stained glass and intarsia after his designs. A single work of sculpture (the tomb slab of Domenico Garganelli, now in the Museo Civico at Bologna) is attributed to him. His principal pupil was Ercole de’ Roberti, who collaborated with him on the now dismembered Griffoni Altarpiece for San Petronio in Bologna and completed the frescoes (now destroyed) for the Garganelli Chapel in San Pietro in Bologna (now the Cathedral) after his death.
Bologna. Pinacoteca Nazionale.
*‘Pala dei Mercanti’. Canvas, 228 x 267.
A late work, painted in Bologna some four years before Cossa's death. According to the inscription along the base of the Virgin's throne, it was commissioned in 1474 by Alberto de’ Cattanei and Domenico degli Amorini, the judge and notary of the Foro de’ Mercanti (Chamber of Commerce). The Madonna and Child are seated under a coffered arch between ornate candlesticks adorned with fruit. Beads of red coral (symbolising Christ's Passion) and rock crystal (symbolising the Virgin's purity) are strung above their heads. In the upper corners, on top of the wall at the sides of the arch, are small kneeling figures of the Angel and Virgin of the Annunciation. On the left, St Petronius – patron saint of Bologna and perhaps a portrait of some eminent churchman – holds a model of the city. On the right, St John the Evangelist reads his Gospel. Alberto de’ Cattanei kneels in profile, as donor, behind the left of the throne.
Bologna. San Giovanni in Monte.
Designs for Stained Glass.
Cossa is usually credited with the design of two of the church's stained glass windows. One window (320 in dia) is in the large oculus over the entrance door and depicts St John on Patmos. The inscription on the scroll beneath the Evangelist's feet includes the name of the patron (Annibale Gazzadini) and what could be an abbreviation of Cossa's signature ('CA F'). Attributions have also been made to Lorenzo Costa and to Ercole de' Roberti. The other window (130 x 110) is to the left of the entrance and depicts the Madonna and Child enthroned with Four Angels. The coat-of-arms of the Bolognese Gazzadini family is represented beneath. The window was reframed in the nineteenth century and is incomplete. A missing section, depicting a chalice between two angels, is now in the Galleria Nazionale at Ferrara. Another missing section is said to have been signed by the glassmakers Jacopo and Domenico Cabrini and dated 1467.
Bologna. Santa Maria del Baraccano.
Madonna. Fresco (detached and reinstalled) behind the high altar, 400 x 250.
For Giovanni Bentivoglio, Cossa added two angels with candlesticks and a frescoed architectural framework to the earlier, much venerated Madonna del Baraccano, which he also restored. He was paid 100 ducats for the work, which he signed and dated 1472. It is uncertain whether the portraits are of Bente Bentivoglio, the original donor of the work, and Maria Vinciguerra, who initiated the devotion to this Madonna, or of Giovanni Bentivoglio and his wife.
Bologna. San Petronio.
St Petronius; St Ambrose. Designs for choir stalls.
On 27 September 1473, Cossa was paid 2 lire, 16 soldi for the cartoon representing St Petronius. The St Ambrose is also attributed to Cossa’s design. The choir stalls were executed in intarsia by Agostino de’ Marchi da Crema, who also carved the frame of Cossa’s Griffoni Altarpiece for San Petronio.
Boston. Museum of Fine Arts.
Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Wood, 61 x 61.
The story of the meeting of the wise Jewish king and the rich, beautiful Sabaean queen is told in the Old Testament (I KIngs: x, 1-10). The subject was quite popular in the Renaissance, particularly for cassoni (marriage chests). The twelve-sided Boston panel was a desco da parto – a decorated tray used for offering delicacies to a mother after she had given birth. On the back of the panel, a naked winged putto holds two large cornucopias, representing abundance or fertility. Previously in private French collections, the panel was acquired by Mrs Walter Fitz Scott of Boston in 1917 as a gift for the museum. It was attributed at first to Giovanni Boccati (a painter from Camerino, resident in Perugia), but is currently catalogued by the museum as 'attributed to Cossa'. Another desco da parto representing Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (Houston Museum of Fine Arts) is circular and much larger. It, too, has been attributed to Cossa (or his workshop or circle). Joseph Manca (Gazette des Beaux-Arts, November 1990) tentatively ascribed both panels to a Gherardo d'Andrea Costa (a shadowy figure mentioned in the account books of the Este court).
*Annunciation. Wood, 139 x 114.
The scene is given a fanciful architectural setting. The buildings are faced with exotic marbles and a richly variegated Corinthian column divides the picture. The tiny figure in the sky of God the Father releasing the dove is just visible through the left-hand arch, which leads into a street of impossibly elaborate palazzi. The Virgin's bedchamber is viewed through the right-hand arch. The outsized snail, appearing to slither along the bottom edge of the picture, has attracted much discussion. It has been variously interpreted as a symbol of the Immaculate Conception (because snails were supposedly made pregnant by the dew from heaven), a symbol of humility (because snails withdraw into their shells) or a symbol of the cycle of death and resurrection (because of the spiral on snails' shells). A difficulty with such theories is that snails appear in hardly any other religious works of the period, and an alternative view is that the snail is simply a trompe-l'oeil detail intended to amuse or to display the artist's skill. The long predella (26 x 115) is unusual in having no divisions. It shows a single Nativity scene across the entire width. It has sometimes been ascribed to Cossa’s studio. The altarpiece was acquired in 1750 (through the Bolognese canon and dealer Luigi Crespi) by Augustus III, Elector of Saxony, as a work of Mantegna (whose forged signature it once bore), and later attributed to Baldovinetti and to Pollaiuolo. Identified in 1934 by Roberto Longhi as the altarpiece painted by Cossa in about 1471 for the Chiesa dell’Osservanza at Bologna. According to Longhi, two small panels of St Clare and St Catherine now in the Thyssen Collection at Madrid formed the two ends of the predella.
Ferrara. Palazzo Schifanoia. Sala dei Mesi.
**Frescoes of the Months. Each about 500 x 320.
The Palazzo Schifanoia (meaning 'escape from boredom') was a pleasure palace for the Este court. The Sala dei Mesi is the main hall (25 by 11 metres) on the first floor, which was added to the palace by the architect Pietro Benvenuti for Borso d’Este shortly after 1465. The frescoes of the twelve months of the year originally went all round the room. Each fresco was divided into three sections: the upper part showing pagan triumphs; the middle one signs of the Zodiac; and the lower one scenes from the daily life of Borso himself. Each Zodiac sign is accompanied by three 'decans', or 'deans', one at each side of the sign and one above.
We know from a letter dated 25 March 1470 from Cossa to Borso, complaining that his rate of pay of 10 bolognini per foot was the same as that of the ‘poorest garzone in Ferrara’, that he was the artist responsible for the months of March, April and May. (The execution of May seems to be largely by assistants.) Of the other months, five (October to February) are lost, while September and parts of July and August are sometimes ascribed to the young Ercole de’ Roberti. Shortly after the frescoes were executed, many of the portraits were repainted or restored by Baldassare Estense (Duke Borso's painter half-brother).
After the ending of Este rule in 1598, the palazzo had many different owners and gradually fell into decay. For a long time it was used as a tobacco factory. The frescoes were plastered over in the eighteenth century. They were uncovered in 1835-40 and associated at first with Cosmè Tura. The three frescoes by Cossa were restored in 2001-4. The palazzo was closed after earthquake damage in May 2012 but has since reopened.
Month of March.
The upper band shows Minerva, goddess of Wisdom, in a chariot drawn by two unicorns. On the right, women gather round a loom. In the foreground, the Three Parcae (or Fates) spin, measure and cut the thread of life. The group of scholars in discussion on the left are thought to include portraits of professors and jurists. The sign of Aries (the Ram) is depicted in the middle band. The lower band shows, to the left, Duke Borso setting out for the hunt. An inquisitive dog inspects ducks in a pond. In the background, peasants prune vines, hounds chase a hare and the Duke leads a band of huntsmen. On the right, Borso is shown outside the entrance to his palace, surrounded by courtiers and listening to the suit of a poor man.
Month of April.
The upper band shows Venus, crowned with red and white roses, in a barge pulled by two swans. Doves flutter about her head. She holds a quince in one hand and the golden apple of Paris in the other. Mars kneels in chains at her feet, symbolising the triumph of love over war. On either bank of the stream, finely dressed youths and maidens engage in courtship. The white rabbits scampering among the couples symbolise fertiliity, as do the pomegranate bushes. The Three Graces pose on a hillock on the right. The sign of Taurus (the Bull) is depicted in the middle band. The lower band shows, to the left, Borso returning from the hunt. Much of this scene, which continued over the door, is lost. The strip running above it shows the horserace (Palio) celebrated in Ferrara on the Feast of St George. Spectators, including ladies with splendid headdresses, lean out of windows and watch from balconies draped with Oriental carpets. On the right, the smiling Borso gives money to his court jester Scoccola. Baldassare Estense may have repainted some of the portraits of courtiers.
Month of May.
The upper band shows Apollo, holding a bow and symbol of the sun, riding in a chariot driven by Aurora (Dawn) and drawn by horses representing Morning, Afternoon, Evening and Night. A group of poets stand on the left and the Nine Muses are represented upper right. The significance of the crowd of naked putti has not been explained. The sign of Gemini (the Twins) is depicted in the middle band. The lower band was largely destroyed in the eighteenth century when a door was cut through the wall. It showed peasants presenting Borso with a basket of cherries. Surviving fragments show reaping, pruning and other scenes of country life.
Gazzada (near Varese). Museo di Villa Cagnola.
Angel Gabriel; Virgin Annunciate. Wood, 25 in dia.
The attribution of these two small tondi, representing the Annunciation, has hovered between Cossa and the young Ercole de' Roberti. (The museum favours Ercole.) The panels belonged to the Griffoni Altarpiece, painted by Cossa and Ercole in about 1473 for a chapel in the church of San Petronio at Bologna. The major panels from the altarpiece are divided between the National Gallery in London, the Brera in Milan, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The Annunciation tondi occupied the two Gothic side pinnacles.
London. National Gallery.
*Saint Vincent Ferrer. Wood, 154 x 60.
The Spanish Dominican preacher Vincent Ferrer (canonised in 1455) was famous for his fiery sermons on the theme of the Last Judgement. He is shown standing on a pedestal, pointing to Heaven with one hand and displaying an open Bible with the other. Above are small figures of Christ (enthroned in a mandorla of gold leaf) and angels with instruments of the Passion (whips, spear, cross, column, sponge and nails). The landscape fancifully combines fantastic rock formations with classical ruins and Renaissance architecture. On the right, a turreted castle is seen through a rock arch, which supports a domed chapel and loggia. On the left, a stone hump-backed bridge leads to a sunken track, where tiny figures stroll to and from a building that appears to be constructed within a cave and has rocky pinnacles.
The picture was the central panel of an altarpiece painted for the Griffoni Chapel, sixth off the south aisle in San Petronio, the most important church in Bologna. The chapel was dedicated to St Vincent Ferrer, who had preached in front of the church. The altarpiece – a large traditional polyptych – dates from about 1473 (when, on 19 July, payment was made to Agostino de’ Marchi da Crema for the elaborate Gothic frame). It was moved from the church to the Casa Aldrovandi in about 1731. The central panel was purchased by the National Gallery in 1858 from the Costabili collection in Ferrara (where it was described as St Hyacinth by Marco Zoppo).
Two lateral panels of standing saints in the Brera and two half-length saints and a Crucifixion in Washington also belonged to the altarpiece and are attributed to Cossa. The predella (in the Vatican Pinacoteca) and seven small panels of saints (in Ferrara, Paris, Rotterdam and the Cini collection) are usually attributed to Ercole de’ Roberti, Cossa’s pupil. Two roundels with the Angel Gabriel and Virgin Annunciate (now in the Villa Cagnola at Gazzada, near Varese) are sometimes attributed to Cossa, sometimes to Ercole, and sometimes to a third artist in the shop (Vicino da Ferrara?).
Sixteen panels from the altarpiece have been identified in total – dispersed among nine different museums or collections in five different countries. All sixteen panels were brought together for an exhibition to be held at the Palazzo Fava, Bologna, in March-June 2020. The exhibition had to be cancelled just before the scheduled opening because of the coronavirus lockdown.
Madrid. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection.
Portrait of a Man holding a Ring. Wood, 38 x 27.
The young man, wearing a plain dark grey tunic and black hat, extends his hand across the parapet to show or offer the viewer a ring. Behind him is a landscape, clearly imaginary, with fanciful rock formations and a lake. There is a long tradition, possibly going back to the sixteenth century, that this picture is a portrait of the Bolognese goldsmith and painter Francesco Francia. It may have been used for his portrait in Vasari’s Lives, and it was certainly engraved as a Francia self-portrait in the eighteenth century, when it was in the collection of Marchese Valerio Boschi of Bologna. Rather than a goldsmith, the sitter could be a bridegroom offering a ring to his bride (who would have been the subject of a companion portrait). Yet other suggestions are that the diamond ring could be a symbol of the Este family or that it could be a tournament prize (like the ring in Rogier van der Weyden's portrait of Francesco d'Este in the Metropolitan Museum, New York). The attribution to Cossa seems to have been made first in 1913 (by the German art historian Detlev von Hadeln). It has been accepted by most subsequent opinion (though other Ferrarese painters – Ercole de' Roberti and Tura – have also been suggested). The minute technique and strong modelling suggest a debt to Antonello da Messina or to Netherlandish painters. The picture was sold by the Boschi family in 1858, and was subsequently in private collections in London (Sir William Neville Abdy), Berlin (Leopold Koppel) and Holland (von Pannwitz). Acquired by Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza in 1956.
Saint Clare; Saint Catherine. Two panels, each 27 x 8.
The two figures stand in stone niches on bases with classical egg-and-dart friezes. St Clare, founder of the Minoresses or ‘Poor Clares’, is dressed as a Franciscan abbess and holds a book and lily; Catherine of Alexandria is crowned as a princess and has her spiked wheel and martyr’s palm. The two small panels were attributed to Cossa in 1930 (by August Mayer in the Burlington Magazine). It was suggested by Roberto Longhi (1934) that they belonged to the altarpiece (now in Dresden) painted in about 1471 for the church of the Osservanza at Bologna. They would have been at the ends of the predella, at the bases of the pilasters of the frame. Formerly in the collection of Lord Wemyss at Gosford House, Longwiddry, Scotland. Acquired by Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza in 1935.
Saint Peter; Saint John the Baptist. Two panels, each 112 x 55.
St Peter studies a book and holds a pair of huge keys. The Baptist holds a reed cross with an image of the lamb and a crumpled scroll with the words 'Behold a voice crying in the wilderness' (John: 1, 23). Each stands on a rocky ledge in front of a pillar of an open arcade. The strings of coral and rock crystal beads hanging from rings around a pole behind the figures may represent the rosary. The rocky landscapes are minutely described (with jagged pinnacles and underground caverns, tunnels and bridges, a heron on the bank of a winding river, a domed church on a clifftop, travellers on foot and horseback). As Crowe and Cavalcaselle (1871) were first to point out, these two paintings were side panels to the St Vincent Ferrer in the National Gallery, London. They belonged to the great altarpiece executed in about 1473 for the Griffoni Chapel in San Petronio at Bologna. The two panels were purchased by the Brera in 1893 from the Ferrarese businessman Giuseppe Cavalieri. Restored in 2016.
Paris. Musée Jacquemart-André.
Madonna and Child. Stained glass, 55 in dia.
The design of this stained glass tondo is attributed to Cossa and the execution to the Bolognese glassmakers Jacopo and Domenico Cabrini. Two windows still in situ in the church of San Giovanni in Monte at Bologna are believed to be of Cossa design and Cabrini manufacture. Another window attributed to Cossa-Cabrini was formerly in the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin, and was destroyed during the Second World War.
Washington. National Gallery.
*Saint Florian; Saint Lucy. Two panels, each 79/77 x 55/56.
Instead of the usual dish, St Lucy holds two eyes transformed into a flower. The male saint was previously identified as Martin or Liberale. His identification as Florian (he also holds a flower) was proposed by Longhi (1934), who argued that the panels belonged to the altarpiece commissioned by the Bolognese merchant Floriano Griffoni for his chapel in San Petronio at Bologna, and were placed above the side panels of St Peter and John the Baptist in the Brera. Lucy was the name saint of Floriano’s wife (Lucia). Longhi’s reconstruction was later confirmed by the discovery of a drawing by the eighteenth-century Bolognese painter Stefano Orlandi. In 1858 the two Washington panels were owned by Conte Ugo Beni at Gubbio and attributed to Zoppo. They were sold in 1881-82 to Joseph Spiridon of Paris. Acquired by Kress in 1936. The two panels are among the best preserved of Cossa’s few surviving paintings (although the gold backgrounds have been regilded in places).
*Crucifixion. Tondo: 64 in dia.
Also well preserved (although again partly regilded). Longhi recognised that this round panel also belonged to the Griffoni Altarpiece, and fitted above the central panel now in the National Gallery, London. It was flanked by smaller roundels (dia. 25) of the Angel Gabriel and Virgin Annunciate, now in the Villa Cagnola, Gazzada. The Crucifixion, once in the Costabili collection at Ferrara, was acquired by Philip Lehman by 1914. It was formerly ascribed to Castagno (eg. in Berenson’s 1932 Lists); when Robert Lehman discovered it was Ferrarese, he sold it to Kress in 1943 in the belief that works from such a minor regional school were not worth having.
Madonna and Child with Angels. Wood, 54 x 36.
Once ascribed to Mantegna and later to a ‘Ferrarese follower of Piero della Francesca’, this panel was first attributed to Cossa by Adolfo Venturi (1930). It is now usually – but not universally – accepted as his earliest surviving work (about 1460-65?). Doubters include Joseph Manca: his entry in the 2003 catalogue of fifteenth-century Italian paintings at Washington labels the picture simply as ‘Ferrarese Fifteenth Century’ and tentatively suggests the name of the very obscure Gherardo d’Andrea. By 1890, the picture was in the hands of the famous Florentine dealer Stefano Bandini; it was later in the collections of Leo Nardus in France and Marczell von Nemes in Germany, and was acquired by Samuel H. Kress in 1932 from Conte Contini Bonacossi.
Profile Portrait of a Boy. Wood, 25 x 18.
Over the past hundred years, this abraded and retouched portrait has been attributed to a remarkable range of artists from different schools – including the Milanese Boltraffio, the Venetians Alvise Vivarini, Girolamo da Santacroce and Jacopo Bellini, and the Florentine Francesco Botticini. The idea that it might be by a Ferrarese painter seems to have originated with Frederick Mason Perkins in 1938. An attribution specifically to Cossa, with a dating of around the late 1460s, was accepted by Miklós Boskovits in the 2003 Washington catalogue. Formerly in the Paris collections of Otto Mündler and Gustave Dreyfus; acquired by Kress in 1937.