Dosso DossiDosso Dossi was the leading painter in Ferrara in the first half of the sixteenth century and the last major painter of the Ferrarese School. His name was Giovanni di Niccolò Luteri, and he was called Dossi after a place, Villa Dossi in the neighbourhood of Mantua, where his family owned property. (The double form Dosso Dossi does not seem to have been used until the eighteenth century.). He was the son of Niccolò di Latero, spenditure (bursar) of Duke Ercole I of Ferrara, and Jacopina da Porta, his wife. Early biographers (including Vasari) indicate a date of birth in the 1470s, but modern historians think he cannot have been born much before the middle or late 1480s. Vasari says that he trained under Lorenzo Costa, who ran a workshop in Bologna and was court painter at Mantua from 1507. It is at Mantua that Dosso Dossi is first recorded, in April 1512, receiving payment of 30 ducats for a large picture painted for Francesco II Gonzaga.
From 1514, Dosso was mainly at Ferrara, working in the service of Duke Alfonso d’Este and, from 1534, his successor Ercole II. He was often assisted by, or collaborated with, his younger brother Battista. As well as painting altarpieces and smaller devotional pictures, portraits and murals, the brothers carried out the many and varied tasks of court artists, which included making designs for tapestries, banners, tableware, maiolica and coins, decorating carriages and barges, and painting temporary festival decorations and scenery for comedies performed before the court.
Before he settled in Ferrara, Dosso had probably spent time in Venice, absorbing the influence of Giorgione, which predominates in his earlier work, particularly the landscapes. He certainly visited Venice in 1516 and 1518, and in 1517 Florence. In 1519 he paid a short visit to Mantua, in company with Titian, for the purpose of seeing Isabella d’Este’s art collection. Around 1518-24 Titian and Dosso were both involved in the decoration of Alfonso d’Este’s famous study (Camerino d’Alabastro) in the Castello at Ferrara, Titian contributing three superb paintings (now divided between Madrid and London) and Dosso contributing a large Bacchanal (now lost), a frieze of ten smaller canvases (half of which have been identified) and ceiling decoration (only fragments of which survive).
In 1520 Battista Dossi is recorded in Rome, working apparently in Raphael’s studio. There is no documentary evidence that Dosso ever visited Rome himself, but Raphael’s influence seems to become increasingly marked in his mature work. In about 1530, the two brothers were employed by Francesco Maria II della Rovere in the decoration of the Villa Imperiale, near Pesaro, where they worked alongside the young Florentine Agnolo Bronzino and the Umbrian Raffaellino dal Colle. A little later, in 1531-32, they were employed by Bishop Bernardo Cles in the decoration of the episcopal palace of Trent Castle, where they worked with other North Italian painters, including Girolamo Romanino. From the early 1530s, Battista seems to have played an increasingly prominent role in the workshop, and few of Dosso’s late works appear to be wholly from his own hand. Dosso died between 23 June 1541 (when he and his brother were reimbursed for a trip to Venice) and June 1542 (when he is described as dead in a legal document). Battista, who took over the workshop, died in 1548.
While he also painted many religious pictures, Dosso is now known mainly for his mythologies and allegories. These are highly imaginative, and it is rarely entirely clear what story or text is being illustrated. Landscapes of mood – pastoral idylls, romantic wooded glades and fantastic panoramas – often form the most important part of his compositions. His great subjects were magic and enchantment, and paintings such as the Circe or Melissa (Borghese Gallery, Rome) and Circe with Her Lovers (Washington) evoke a fairyland alluring, mysterious, wild and dangerous. Like Giorgione and Titian, he improvised on the canvas – composing and recomposing as he painted rather than relying on carefully prepared preparatory studies. (Very few drawings are attributed to him, and none can be related with certainty to a known painting.) He was an uneven artist: his compositions can sometimes appear unbalanced, his figures poorly articulated and his handling hasty. Relatively few works are documented or reliably dateable. There is sometimes difficulty distinguishing Dosso’s fully autograph paintings from those executed partly or wholly by Battista. There are also a good many ‘problem pictures’ – mostly portraits or hypothetical early works.
Allentown (Pennsylvania). Art Museum.
Standard Bearer. Canvas, 78 x 51.
The man’s flamboyant costume with slashed breeches is of the type worn by German or Swiss mercenary soldiers (Landsknect). Similar costumes are worn by the two main figures in Dosso Dossi’s Aeneas and Abates on the Libyan Coast (Washington), which dates from around 1520. The painting may have been inspired by engravings of standard bearers by German artists such as Hans Schaufelein. From the collection of Prince Barberini at Rome. Acquired by Kress in 1932 and allotted to the Allentown Museum in 1960. The paint surface is somewhat flattened and abraded.
Ajaccio. Musée des Beaux-Arts.
Magician(?). Canvas, 136 x 214.
This mysterious picture shows a woman sitting on a stool and stirring a steaming pot in what appears to be a dark kitchen. Playing cards are scattered on the floor and a suit of armour is visible in the background. One of some thousand works of art bequeathed to the city of Ajaccio by Cardinal Fesch in 1839. Previously unknown, it was discovered in the reserve collection and published as a work of Dosso Dossi in 2007 by Kristina Hermann Fiore (in Il Camerino di Alfonso I, edited by Alessandro Ballarin). It may be a work of collaboration between Dosso and his brother Battista. Restored for the reopening of the museum (Palazzo Fesch) in 2010.
Madonna and Child with St Joseph and St Francis. Wood, 63 x 48.
The two saints are squeezed rather awkwardly into the background and one wonders if they were part of the original composition. The painting is recorded in 1638 in the collection of Vincenzo Giustiniani in Rome as a work of Sebastiano del Piombo. It was sold with the Giustiniani collection in 1812 as by Fra Bartolommeo, and acquired by the Berlin museum in 1815. The attribution to Dosso Dossi was made at the end of the nineteenth century by Wilhelm von Bode and has been fairly generally accepted ever since (though Berenson persisted with an attribution to the Sienese painter Gerolamo del Pacchia). Probably a comparatively early work (mid-1510s), influenced by Titian.
Besançon, Musée des Beaux-Arts.
Travellers in a Wood. Canvas (mounted on wood), 46 x 46.
An elderly man on a mule converses with a man standing beside a donkey. They are accompanied by three armed guards – two in front with swords and one behind with a spear. This little painting, originally oval, probably formed part of some decorative scheme in one of the Este residences. Donated to the museum in 1894 by Jean Gigoux of Paris as a work of Giorgione. The attribution to Dosso Dossi was made in 1927 by Roberto Longhi and has been generally accepted. (Berenson, who proposed Giovanni Cariani, seems to have been the only significant dissenting voice.)
Birmingham. Barber Institute.
An Episode from the Aeneid. Wood, 59 x 168.
The painting has been called either the Trojans on the Libyan Coast or the Sicilian Games. The former subject is found in Book I of Virgil’s Aeneid, which describes how the Trojans, having just begun their wanderings after the sack of their city, took refuge on the coast of North Africa after their ships were wrecked in a storm. The latter subject is found in Book V, which describes how, having landed in Sicily, Aeneas held funeral games in honour of his father Anchises. The Trojans are shown preparing a feast (left), organising a running race (centre) and hunting a stag (left background). Two gods (Mercury and Jupiter?) appear in the sky. One of a series of ten canvases painted by Dosso Dossi in about 1520 for Alfonso d’Este’s study (Camerino d’Alabastro), which was located in the Via Coperta – a passage joining the castle with the Este palazzo at Ferrara. Other paintings from the series are in the galleries at Madrid, Ottawa and Washington. Three more are in private collections (two were sold at Sotheby's, New York, in January 2021 from the collection of the late Hester Diamond). The remaining three are untraced.
The ten oblong canvases probably formed a frieze above the famous Bacchanals painted by Titian (the Worship of Venus and Andrians, now in Madrid, and Bacchus and Ariadne, now in London), Giovanni Bellini (Feast of the Gods, now in Washington) and Dosso Dossi (Bacchanal with Vulcan, now lost). Dosso’s ten paintings of scenes from the Aeneid seem to have remained in situ until 1608, when they were acquired by the rapacious Cardinal Scipione Borghese. They left the Borghese collection in the early nineteenth century, when they were purchased in Rome by the Spanish neoclassical painter José de Madrazo, who brought them all back with him to Madrid. The cycle was dispersed sometime after Madrazo's death in 1859. Both the Birmingham and Ottawa paintings were acquired in London in 1932 by the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark, in whose collection they remained until 1964. The Birmingham painting is the less well preserved of the two: it has suffered fire damage, and parts (such as the trees in the background and the two figures in the sky) are much abraded and restored.
Budapest. Fine Arts Museum.
Madonna and Child with Saint, Donor and Angel. Wood, 42 x 34.
This small panel, composed like an altarpiece, shows the Virgin and Child enthroned in the centre, with a bishop saint standing on the left and a kneeling donor, introduced by an angel pointing, on the right. Probably early (mid-1510s). First recorded (as a work of Perugino) in 1855 in the collection of Baron Paul Luzénsky. Donated to the museum in 1913 by Bernhardt von Back-Szeged.
Cambridge (Massachusetts). Fogg Art Museum.
‘Condottiere’. Canvas, 84 x 74.
The soldier, arrestingly dressed in a large bright red hat, padded jerkin with blue-black and gold panels and a steel breastplate, grasps a great broadsword with both hands. The portrait, which had been in the possession of an English family called Wright since the eighteenth century, was sold in London in 1929 as a portrait by Giorgione of Gaston de Foix. It was bought in 1949 by Edwin H. Abbot of New York, who bequeathed it to the Fogg Museum in 1966. The attribution to Dosso Dossi was made in 1954 (by Wilhelm Suida in Arte Venezia). Attributions have also been made, more recently, to the youthful Girolamo da Carpi (Mauro Lucco) and to Battista Dossi (Nicholas Penny).
Chantilly. Musée Condé.
Portrait of a Woman with an Ermine. Canvas, 82 x 67.
She wears an elaborate jewelled headdress through which her dark hair is interwoven, and a voluminous black gown over a white blouse with ruching and black trim at the neck and cuffs. Such a costume was fashionable in Ferrara in the 1520s or 1530s. The ermine is a traditional symbol of purity. The portrait appears in Farnese inventories at Parma as a work of Giulio Romano. It was probably one of the pictures seized by the Farnese from Giacomo Gaufrido, the commander defeated at San Pietro in Casale, who was executed for treason in 1650. From the Farnese, it passed into the collection of the Bourbon kings of Naples and the Two Sicilies and whence into the Duc d’Aumale’s collection at Chantilly. The attribution to Dosso Dossi was made by Berenson in the first edition of his North Italian Painters of the Renaissance (1907). It has been retained by the museum, though the portrait has received scant attention in the literature on the artist.
Cracow. Wawel Castle.
*Jupiter Painting Butterflies. Canvas, 112 x 150.
The painting is usually thought to illustrate a dialogue, in the manner of the antique Greek satirist Lucian, composed by the architect, painter and artistic theorist Leon Battista Alberti. Virtue protested to Mercury that she had been assaulted by Fortune, who had left her ‘prostrate in the mud’. Mercury replied that the gods had no time to listen to her complaints, as they were busy making sure the gourds bloom in time and that the butterflies have beautiful wings. The bearded Jupiter, eyes shut, sits at an easel painting butterflies. He is sometimes thought to be a portrait of Alfonso d'Este or, alternatively, a self-portrait of Dossi. Generally dated either to the middle or late 1520s. Mercury’s caduceus, Virtue’s garland and Jupiter’s thunderbolt may have been added by another hand.
The picture is first recorded in 1659 in an inventory of the collection of Count Lodovico Widmann at San Canciano in Venice. It was still in Venice in 1857, when it was owned by the widow of the painter Michelangelo Barbini. It was acquired at auction in Vienna in 1888 by Count Karol Lanckoronski, the Polish aristocrat, writer and collector, who housed his major art collection in his neo-baroque palace in Vienna. The picture was confiscated by the Nazis in 1939 and reserved for Adolf Hitler's personal collection. It was restored to the Lanckoronski family in 1947 and donated to the Kunsthistorisches Museum at Vienna in 1951, but In 1999 the Austrian Court of Justice ruled that it should be returned to the Lanckoronski family. It was donated in 2000 by Countess Karolina Lanckoronski, Karol's centenarian daughter, to the Polish State Art Collection, and is now exhibited with the Lanckoronski collection at Wawel Castle.
Jupiter is portrayed with the same jutting bearded chin in a recently discovered painting by Dossi of Jupiter and Semele (sold at Sotheby's, London, in July 2013). While different in size and format (180 x 131), it seems possible that the recently discovered work formed part of the same cycle as the Jupiter Painting Butterflies.
Detroit. Institute of Arts.
Holy Family. Wood, 52 x 43.
An early work, with curious gnome-like figures and an attractive Giorgionesque landscape with feathery trees. Said to have come from the collection of Baron Alexander Vay in Hungary. Given to the Institute in 1930 by Mr and Mrs E. Raymond Field. Removal of repaint in 1994 showed the Virgin's face to be badly abraded. A variant at Parma excludes the figure of Joseph.
Saint Michael; Saint George. Canvas, 205/206 x 119/121.
These two large canvases, based on compositions by Raphael, were painted for Ercole II d’Este, who made payments to the ‘painter master Dosso’, ‘his brother’ and ‘his apprentices’ for them in February-April 1540. They were made for an unnamed room in Ercole’s palazzo. The Saint Michael is attributed either to Dosso or Battista (or regarded as a collaboration between the two brothers). The Saint George is attributed either to Battista or to Girolamo da Carpi. Among the ‘hundred best paintings’ from the collection of the bankrupted Francesco III d’Este, Duke of Modena, acquired by Augustus III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, in 1745-46.
The Dream; Aurora with the Horses of Apollo. Canvas, 82/89 x 150/155.
These two canvases, representing Night and Dawn, are from a set of three (the third represented Day) painted to hang above windows in the Este palazzo at Ferrara. They were once often attributed, in part at least, to Dosso Dossi; but evidence has been discovered in the Este archives that Battista Dossi was paid for them in March 1544, some time after the elder brother’s death. Among the pictures acquired from the Este collection at Modena in 1745-46.
Eger (Hungary). Castle Museum.
Violence. Wood, 71 x 67.
This octagonal (originally oval) panel is one of nine painted by Dosso Dossi for the ceiling of Alfonso d’Este’s bedroom in the Castello at Ferrara. Five others are in the Galleria Estense at Modena. Together with another, representing Anger (now in the Fondazione Cini at Venice), the Eger panel is recorded in Rome in 1726 in the collection of Marchese Matteo Sacchetti, and was later in the Capitoline Museum.
Faenza. Pinacoteca Comunale.
Head of Virgin (37 x 30); Head of Pharisee (33 x 22).
Damaged fragments from an altarpiece, representing Christ Disputing in the Temple, painted by Dosso and Battista Dossi for the chapel of Giovan Battista de’ Buosi in Faenza Cathedral (1st on the right). The altarpiece is the only panel painting by Dossi mentioned at any length by Vasari, who describes it as ‘very beautiful’ and says it was installed in 1536. The composition is known from an eighteenth-century copy by Vincenzo Biancoli. The two fragments were acquired by the museum in 1884.
Ferrara. Pinacoteca Nazionale.
*Costabili Polyptych. Wood.
The arched main panel (476 x 242) shows the Virgin and Child Enthroned, with the Evangelist sitting cross-legged on the steps of the throne and Andrew, Jerome and other saints standing at the sides. The inscriptions ('Mighty God' and 'Prince of Peace') displayed by angels (or spiritelli) are from Isaiah 9: 6. St Sebastian and St George are represented full-length in the two wings (each 245 x 105), and St Ambrose (kneeling in contemplation in a monastic cell) and St Augustine (pointing to a rain of fire) are depicted in the spandrels (each 160 x 104). The Risen Christ is in the pinnacle (167 x 104). This huge altarpiece (more than thirty feet high) was commissioned by Antonio Costabili, chief magistrate of Ferrara, for the high altar of his parish church of Sant’Andrea (largely destroyed in the Second World War). It was a work of collaboration between Dosso Dossi and his older Ferrarese contemporary Garofalo – who appears to have designed and executed the central Virgin and Child and the saints to the left of the throne, the side panel of St Sebastian and probably the spandrel depicting St Ambrose. The altarpiece used to be dated to about 1530 or even later, but new documentary evidence shows that both artists were already working on it in July 1513. The date of completion is unrecorded. Some art historians have argued that the altarpiece was probably finished as early as 1514. Others have argued that it was probably left substantially unfinished for some years (possibly because the two artists quarrelled or their styles were judged incompatible) and was finished by Dosso alone (who extensively repainted what Garofalo had done earlier). The altarpiece was taken to the Pinacoteca in 1846. It still retains its original frame (albeit reconstructed after serious damage when the Palazzo dei Diamanti was bombed in 1944).
Adoration of Magi; Nativity. Wood, 39 x 54.
These brightly coloured and well preserved two panels are from the predella of an altarpiece painted for the Festini Chapel in the church of San Francesco at Ferrara. Garofalo, Dosso Dossi and Ortolano all appear to have collaborated on the altarpiece. The main panel of the Massacre of the Innocents and the lunette of the Flight into Egypt were painted by Garofalo. Both are now also in the Ferrara Pinacoteca. The centre panel of the predella – a Circumcision painted by Garofalo – is in the Louvre. A tondo of the Flight into Egypt, now attributed to Ortolano, also belonged to the altarpiece. All six panels were ascribed to Garofalo until 1945, when Giuseppe Raimondi (curator of an exhibition in Bologna) attributed the Adoration and Nativity to Dosso Dossi.. They have been considered very early works (about 1512-13?). The Adoration has marked similarities with the Adoration of the Magi attributed to Giorgione in the National Gallery, London. Transferred from San Francesco to the Pinacoteca in 1864.
Man with Compass and Globe; Man with Book. Canvas, 140/154 x 175/121.
These two canvases, formerly in the Barbara Piasecka Johnson collection at Princeton, were acquired in 2002 by an Italian savings bank foundation (Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara) and placed on loan with the Ferrara gallery. They are from a series of at least five paintings showing draped male figures with attributes of the arts or sciences. (Others are in the Chrysler Museum at Norfolk (Virginia), the Queen's University at Kingston (Ontario) and a private collection.) One theory is that the paintings represent ancient philosophers and mathematicians. Another is that they belonged to a cycle portraying the Seven Liberal Arts. On the second interpretation, the man with a compass and globe might represent Astrology and the man with a book might represent Grammar.
Agony in the Garden. Wood, 42 x 33.
This small, dramatic night scene is also on loan from the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio, which acquired it at Sotheby's (Milan) in 1992. Critical opinion has been divided over the picture. It was included as an early work of Dosso Dossi in the 1998-99 monographic exhibition at Los Angeles and Ferrara. But it was attributed to Battista Dossi by Alessandro Ballarin in his monumental two-volume study published in 1994-95, and it was shown as a work of Battista in the exhibition (Dosso Dossi: Rinascimenti Eccentrici) held at Trent in 2014.
Virgin in Glory with the St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist. Canvas (transferred from panel), 153 x 114.
The Baptist holds a book and a cross with an entwined scroll inscribed with the text [Ecc]e A[gnus] Dei (John: 1, 29). The Evangelist holds a chalice with a serpent in it (alluding to the challenge made to him by a priest at Ephesus to drink a poisoned cup). An altarpiece from the church of San Martino at Codigoro (40 km. east of Ferrara). Early (late 1510s or 1520s). Sold to the Uffizi in 1913, and transferred shortly afterwards from panel to canvas. It was damaged in 1993 by the Mafia car bomb in the Via dei Georgofili. Discoloured varnish was removed in the restoration, enabling the vivid colouring to be better appreciated.
*‘Stregoneria’. Canvas, 143 x 144.
This curious burlesque has been variously called Stregoneria (Witchcraft), Bambocciata (Lowlife), a Drinking Party, an Allegory of Hercules and Bacchus in His Votaries. It was described in the seventeenth century as the ‘portraits of the buffoons of the Dukes of Ferrara’, and it has been recently suggested (by Linda Carroll in the January 2003 issue of Modern Language Notes) that it represents entertainers and artists at the Este court, including the actor and playwright Angelo Beolco (grinning in the centre), the poet Ariosto (in profile at the back), and perhaps Dosso and Battista Dossi themselves (upper right). Probably very late (1535-40). Bought at Siena for Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici in 1665. Exhibited at the Uffizi since 1950.
Rest on Flight into Egypt. Wood, 52 x 43.
The attribution of this little panel has never been questioned. The squatness of the figures and weakness of the drawing (eg. the foreshortening of the Virgin’s arm) suggest that it is a comparatively early work (middle or late 1510s?), though considerably later datings have also been proposed. Recorded as a work of Dosso Dossi at the Pitti Palace in 1832; transferred to the Uffizi in 1919. Well preserved.
Portrait of a Warrior. Canvas, 86 x 78.
Heavily bearded, he wears a large beret on the side of his head and has a metal breastplate strapped over his leather jerkin. He poses against an evening landscape with a bay tree on the left and a walled town in the distance. This Giorgionesque portrait is first recorded in 1798 in the Grandducal Guardaroba as a work of Sebastiano del Piombo. The attribution to Dosso Dossi appears to have been first suggested in Zwanziger’s 1911 German monograph on the artist, and received the influential support of Roberto Longhi and Bernard Berenson. Attributions have also been made to Battista Dossi and to Bernardino da Asola. Heavy repaint was removed in a 1994 restoration.
*Nymph and Satyr (Angelina and Orlando?). Canvas, 58 x 83.
A raven-haired beauty, naked beneath a fur-lined robe that slips off her shoulder, is threatened by a snarling figure with beast-like features. The subject, like that of so many of Dosso Dossi’s mythological paintings, has not been securely identified. The ‘nymph’ has been sometimes thought to represent Angelica, the beautiful daughter of the King of Cathay in Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato and Ariosto’s sequel Orlando Furioso. On this identification, the object round her neck is the magic ring of invisibility given to her by the African knight Ruggiero. Alternatively, the ‘nymph’ has been identified as Antiope and the satyr as Jupiter in disguise. Recorded in old inventories with attributions to Andrea Schiavone (1675) and Giorgione (1691). Dosso Dossi’s authorship seems to have been first recognised in 1885 by Adolfo Venturi, who identified the picture as Dossi's painting of 'a Satyr and a woman who has a shawl thrown over her shoulders' acquired in 1604 by the German painter Hans von Aachen on behalf of the Emperor Rudolf II. Usually considered an early or very early work (though suggested datings have ranged from 1508-9 to the early 1520s). The removal of extensive repaint in 1981-82 revealed the serious abrasion of the original paint surface.
Saint John the Baptist. Wood, 73 x 56.
The saint is portrayed half-length, wearing a red tunic over his camel skin, holding a reed cross in his left hand and pressing his right hand to his breast. The scroll wrapped around his arm is inscribed with an abbreviated (and now barely legible) quotation from St John's Gospel: 'I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness'. In the loosely brushed landscape to the right, the saint is shown baptising Christ in the River Jordan. A daub of yellow and red colour represents the descent of the Holy Spirit. The picture is first recorded at the Pitti Palace in 1855 as a work of Giorgione. The attribution to Dosso Dossi was published in 1890 by Giovanni Morelli (Della Pittura Italiana). While it has been generally accepted, opinions on dating have differed widely. The painting has suffered badly from flaking.
Florence. Horne Museum.
Allegory of Music. Canvas, 162 x 168.
The subject has not been conclusively explained. The blacksmith has been thought to be the Old Testament Tubalcain, the first metalworker, and the two women have been thought to be his mother Zillah and sister Naamah, and the putto with a lighted torch has been thought to represent inspiration. Alternatively, the smith could be the Roman god Vulcan, the nude female his wife Venus and the putto Cupid. The two stone tablets, one circular and the other triangular, are inscribed with perfectly legible musical notation. The inscription on the triangular tablet has been identified as a canon by the Franco-Flemish composer Josquin Desprez (the second Agnus Dei from the Missa L’Homme Armé Super Voces Musicales, published in 1502). The Allegory of Music was probably painted in the 1520s for Alfonso d’Este. Like so many of the Este pictures, it seems to have gone to Rome after Ferrara fell to the Papacy at the end of the sixteenth century. Probably the painting of ‘Vulcan and Venus in the forge, representing the invention of Music’ recorded in the 1650 inventory of the Borghese collection. Somewhat damaged and repaired.
Florence. Fondazione Roberto Longhi.
Boy with a Basket of Flowers. Wood, 67 x 65.
Probably a fragment of a large circular ceiling panel painted by Dosso Dossi in 1524-26 for the Camera del Poggiolo in the Castello at Ferrara. Acquired by Longhi by 1955. There is another fragment in the National Gallery, London. (The Fondazione’s pictures can only be viewed by appointment.)
Graz. Alte Galerie.
*Hercules and the Pygmies. Canvas, 114 x 147.
The literary source for this most unusual subject was the Imagines of the third-century Greek writer Philostratus. Hercules, who had fallen asleep after slaying the giant Antaeus, was attacked by an army of pygmies out to avenge the giant’s death. He gathered the little warriors up in his lion skin and carried them to Eurystheus to play with. The subject alludes to the name of Dosso’s patron Ercole II d’Este, who succeeded Alfonso I as Duke of Ferrara in 1534, and it has been suggested that Hercules might actually be a portrait of the duke. The collaboration of Battista, in what must have been a comparatively late work, is suspected by recent critics. (His hand has been seen particularly in the landscape and pygmies.) From the collection of Daniel Penther (died 1887), conservator at the Vienna Academy, where the painting was previously exhibited.
Hartford (Connecticut). Wadsworth Atheneum.
Orlando and Rodomonte Fighting. Canvas, 82 x 136.
The picturesque subject is from Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (Canto 29). Orlando's unrequited passion for Angelica, the beautiful daughter of the King of Cathay, had driven him mad. Wandering naked, he encountered the Saracen King Rodomonte at the narrow bridge leading to the mausoleum built by Rodomonte for Isabella, the Castilian princess he had passionately loved and inadvertently killed. When Rodomonte dismissed the unarmed Orlando as an unworthy opponent, the two wrestled and both fell into the river. The painting is probably either the original or a replica of a picture of this subject attributed to Dosso Dossi in Este inventories from the seventeenth century. By 1882 it had entered the collection of William Graham, the Glaswegian MP and patron of the Pre-Raphaelites. Later owners included the English aristocrat Earl Brownlow and the Viennese industrialist Oskar Bondy. The picture was confiscated by the Nazis in 1938, but it was returned to Bondy's widow after the War and sold to the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1949. It has sometimes been given to Dosso Dossi himself; but the execution would be unusually meticulous for him, and recent opinion has tended to favour an attribution either to Battista Dossi or to an unidentified follower.
London. National Gallery.
Lamentation. Wood, 37 x 31.
The Three Maries grieve over the body of the dead Christ. In the foreground lie the crown of thorns and the dice thrown to divide Christ's garments. In the left distance, beneath the hill of Calvary with the three crosses, a crowd of figures is described with a few brush strokes. Probably comparatively early (about 1515-20). Possibly the Pietà by Dosso Dossi recorded in the 1592 inventory of the collection of Lucrezia d’Este. Acquired at a London auction room in about 1905 by the art historian Sir Claude Phillips, who published it as a work of Dosso Dossi in the 1906 Art Journal and bequeathed it to the National Gallery in 1924.
*Adoration of the Magi. Wood, 85 x 108.
A night scene, eerily lit by a huge moon with a pink corona. Two magi (Caspar and Melchior) kneel before the Virgin and receive the blessing of the Christ Child. They have placed their gifts on the ground. The third magus (Balthasar) stands holding his gift (a jug with frankincense). The elderly Joseph sits on the left, resting his elbow on a book of scripture. In the left background, two shadowy figures (pagan philosophers or Old Testament prophets?) stand at the entrance of what looks like a cave but could be the arch of a ruined classical building, symbolising the decline of the pagan world. The panel is first certainly recorded only in 1885, when it was sold at Christie’s as a work of Giorgione. To judge by the free brushwork, it might be relatively late (late 1520s or 1530s). Bequeathed to the National Gallery in 1924 with the collection of the industrialist Ludwig Mond.
Man embracing a Woman. Wood, 53 x 57.
The identities of the woman (who wears a wreath of a summer jasmine) and the man (who has a sprig of the flower behind his ear) are uncertain. They were called Fiametta and Boccaccio in the nineteenth century and later a Muse and a Court Poet. A more recent suggestion is that the man is a clown at the Este court called Gonnella. The picture (which has been made up into an approximate square by the addition of triangular slivers of wood at the sides) is thought to have been a fragment of a large circular ceiling panel, which was painted by Dosso Dossi for the Camera del Poggiolo in the Castello at Ferrara. Payments for the panel were made to Dossi between December 1524 and January 1526. According to a seventeenth-century description, it showed five figures (one of whom was Gonnella). Another fragment, representing a Boy with a Basket of Flowers, is preserved in the Fondazione Roberto Longhi at Florence. According to old sale catalogues, the London panel came from the Palazzo Borghese. Recorded in England since 1828, it was ascribed to Giorgione for most of the nineteenth century. Purchased by the National Gallery in 1887 from the Pre-Raphaelite painter and dealer Charles Fairfax Murray. It has suffered some damage, particularly to the sky and the woman’s wreath.
Bacchanal. Canvas, 141 x 168.
Much damaged and repainted, and consigned to the reserve collection in the basement galleries. The precise subject is uncertain; the Feast of Cybele is one possibility. Once mistakenly supposed to be the ‘Bacchanal with Vulcan’ painted by Dosso Dossi for the Camerino d’Alabastro in the Castello at Ferrara. Possibly a 'Bacchanal' recorded in a Ferrara inventory of 1631, and very probably the ‘Bacchanalian Festival … with a fine landscape background’ included in the 1830 sale of the collection of the English painter Sir Thomas Lawrence. Later in the collection of the Marquess of Breadalbane, it was bequeathed to the National Gallery in 1941 by Sir Lionel Feudel-Phillips. Previously accepted as a damaged autograph early work, but now classed by the museum as the work of a follower of Dossi.
London. Royal Collection.
Holy Family (or Virgin and Child with Saints). Canvas, 170 x 173.
The subject is uncertain. It has been interpreted as the Holy Family with either the Virgin’s parents (Joachim and Anne) or the Baptist's parents (Zachariah and Elizabeth). Alternatively, the two male saints on the left could (as stated in a 1627 inventory) be Peter and Paul. The Child clutches a cockerel, symbolising a new dawn or possibly Christ’s betrayal by Peter. The flowers in the foreground – lilies scattered and wild strawberries growing – allude to the Virgin’s purity. Acquired by Charles I with the Gonzaga collection; sold by the Commonwealth but recovered at the Restoration. Probably a mature work (late 1520s). The picture currently hangs in the State Bedroom at Windsor Castle.
Saint William(?). Canvas, 85 x 73.
St William of Gellone, who fought with Charlemagne against the Saracens, was regarded as the exemplar of Christian knighthood. He is shown, perhaps, laying aside his armour, having chosen to become a monk. The knight-saint has been alternatively identified as the much more familiar George. Probably comparatively late (early 1530s). Recorded in the Royal Collection since the reign of Charles I. The picture currently hangs in the 'East Closet' at Hampton Court Palace. There are many replicas (at Dijon, Vienna, Brussels and elsewhere), mainly Flemish.
Los Angeles. Getty Museum.
Saint George. Wood, 70 x 61.
The saint is shown half-length, holding his broken lance and the dragon’s severed head. A rainbow appears in the sky. Probably early (1510s). Unrecorded before 1969, when it was sold at Versailles as a work of Giorgione’s School. Acquired by the Getty Museum in 1999.
*Mythological Scene (Allegory with Pan?). Canvas, 164 x 145.
The exact subject is obscure. It was formerly called Jupiter and Antiope or Vertumnus and Pomona, while a recent theory associates it with the story of Nicea by the late antique poet Nonnus. The satyr with the pipes on the right is probably the wood-god Pan. The nude sleeping on a bed of flowers might be the nymph Echo (who spurned Pan for the beautiful youth Narcissus) and the old woman in the centre Terra (Echo’s protector). The woman in the green gown and red cloak has defied identification; she was painted over (probably by Dosso Dossi himself) with landscape and uncovered only during a mid-nineteenth-century restoration. She originally held a musical instrument (viola da gamba), while a sword hung from the lemon tree. The picture has been cut down on the left, removing most of one of the Cupids in the top left corner. It may date from around the middle or late 1520s. The lemon is a symbol of fidelity in love, and it has been suggested that the picture could have been painted to celebrate the marriage in 1528 between Ercole II d'Este and Renée of France, daughter of King Louis XII. Raphael’s influence is evident. (The pose of the female nude seems to have been taken from Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving of the Judgement of Paris, while two of the putti are similar to those in the Galatea fresco in the Villa Farnesina.) First recorded in 1851 in the collection of the Marquess of Northampton at Castle Ashby. It remained at Castle Ashby until 1983, when it was sold to the Getty Museum. The figure of the nude and the face of the old woman are somewhat damaged.
*Allegory of Fortune. Canvas, 179 x 217.
The female nude – holding a cornucopia, wearing a single shoe and sitting on a bubble – is thought to personify Fortune. Her pose appears to be based on an antique statue known as the 'Crouching Venus' (a version of which was in the Gonzaga collection and is now at the British Museum). The man – holding a bundle of lottery tickets and sitting beside a golden urn – is thought to represent Chance. The picture is probably a comparatively late work (about 1530). It was possibly painted for Isabella d’Este, who used a bundle of lots as one of her emblems. In 1624, it was in the collection of Cardinal Alessandro d’Este at Modena. Later in the Litta collection at Milan, it disappeared from view until it was sensationally rediscovered in 1989 at a flea market in New England. The fortunate buyer strapped the large picture to the roof of his car and brought it to Christie’s in New York. It was bought by the Getty Museum the same year.
The Trojans on the Strophades Islands. Canvas, 59 x 186.
The long oblong canvas illustrates two episodes from Book III of Virgil's Aeneid. In the right foreground, the Trojans hold a feast after landing on the Strophades Islands. In the left background, they are attacked by harpies – fierce bird-creatures with female faces. The picture, discovered only recently, was acquired by the Prado (through Christie's) at the beginning of 2020. It was one of ten canvases, all painted by Dosso Dossi and depicting scenes from the Aeneid, commissioned for Alfonso d'Este's Camerino d'Alabastro – his study in the Castello Estense at Ferrara. Other canvases from the series are in the Barber Institute at Birmingham, the National Gallery of Canada at Ottawa and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Three others are in private collections and the remaining three are untraced. The ten canvases probably formed a frieze above the famous Bacchanals painted by Titian, Giovanni Bellini and Dosso Dossi. Two of the Bacchanals – Titian's Worship of Venus and the Andrians – are also in the Prado.
Madrid. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection.
Stoning of St Stephen. Canvas 80 x 90.
The fantastic city on the lake must be intended to be Jerusalem. The spectator sitting with the pile of cloaks must be Saul (Paul). Published as a work of Dosso Dossi in 1934 by Roberto Longhi; later critics have generally ascribed it to Battista Dossi or seen a collaboration between Dosso and Battista. It may date from the 1530s. Probably the ‘landscape with the stoning of St Stephen by the hand of Dosso’ recorded in the posthumous 1624 inventory of Cardinal Alessandro d’Este at Rome. Acquired by Thyssen-Bornemisza from the Nottebohn collection, Hamburg. In 2004, it was among the pictures placed on loan with the newly refurbished Museu Nacional d’Art in Barcelona.
Saint George; Saint John the Baptist. Wood, each 163 x 49/48.
This pair of standing saints originally formed the wings of a triptych in the church of San Paolo in Massa Lombarda, south of Ferrara. The altarpiece was probably commissioned by Francesco d'Este, who rebuilt the church. St George is said to be a portrait of Francesco (Don Checchin), who was the youngest son (born in 1516) of Duke Alfonso and Lucrezia Borgia. Probably a very late work. (The date 1538 is inscribed on Garofalo's companion altarpiece of the Resurrection, which is still at Massa Lombarda.) Purchased in 1900 from the Arciconfraternita da Santa Maria at Massa Lombarda. The panels, which were dirty and had suffered somewhat from warping, were restored in 2014.
Saint Sebastian. Wood, 182 x 95.
The saint, naked except for green drapery that billows across his loins and between his legs, is bound by his wrists to the branch of a citrus tree. From the church of Santissima Annunziata at Cremona, where it was described by Ridolfi (1648) as a work of Giorgione. Taken to the Brera in 1808. The Giorgione attribution was retained until 1871, when Cavalcaselle recognised the style of ‘one of the Dossi’. The picture might date from the mid-1520s. The panel appears to have been trimmed at the sides and cut down by some 50 cm at the bottom. The paint surface has suffered from blistering. Restored in 2010-11. X-rays have revealed substantial pentimenti: the saint's head was originally turned the other way and his legs, now close together, were originally spread apart.
Modena. Galleria Estense.
*Virgin and Child with St George and St Michael. Wood, 283 x 177.
This fine altarpiece was probably painted around the same time as the Virgin and Child in Glory with Saints of 1518-21 in Modena Cathedral. The Virgin (who somewhat resembles Raphael's Madonna di Foligno) is seated on a crescent moon – an allusion to the Woman of the Apocalpse (Revelation 12: 1). The figure of St MIchael (who loosely resembles Raphael's picture of 1518 in the Louvre) stands with one foot on a serpent-tailed demon, which exhales its dying breath. St George – a knight in shining black contemporary armour –stands with a green banner beside the dragon he has slain. The picture was an altarpiece from the church of Sant’Agostino at Modena. It is undocumented, but the choice of saints points to an Este connection. (Alfonso d'Este was a Knight of the Order of St Michael; the Este castle at Ferrara was known as the Castello di San Michele; and George was patron saint of Ferrara.) The picture left the church in 1649, when it was acquired by Francesco I d'Este. It has suffered some damage, shrinkage in the wooden support having caused many vertical paint losses. The colours appear richer and fresher since a restoration, completed in early 2010, which strengthened the support and removed old repaint and discoloured varnish.
*‘Buffone’ (‘Court Jester’). Canvas, 61 x 53.
The young man, dressed in red and with long dark hair under a large cap with feathers, leans against a tree hugging a lamb, his face breaking into a broad grin. The damaged inscription on the scrap of paper has been read as Sic G[i]enius. This intriguing picture has often been dated around 1515-20, though Alessandro Ballarin (Dosso Dossi: La Pittura a Ferrara, 1994-95) has put it as early as about 1508. It has been suggested (by Linda Carroll op. cit.) that it could represent the young Paduan playwright Angelo Beolco as his peasant character Ruzante. Very likely the ‘half-figure of a buffoon laughing with a sheep in his arms’ recorded in 1648 in the collection of Camillo Pamphili at Rome. Probably at the ducal gallery at Modena by 1663. The paint surface is very worn.
Five Allegorical Heads. Diamond-shaped panels, 105/108 x 95/96.
The five panels with groups of half-figures are thought to represent Music, Conversation, Drunkenness, Love and Seduction. They belonged to a set of nine that Dosso Dossi painted in the 1520s for the ceiling of Alfonso d’Este’s bedroom in the Castello at Ferrara. Three others are known: one (representing Anger) is in the Fondazione Cini at Venice; another (Violence) is in the Castle Museum at Eger in Hungary; and the third (an Allegory with Three Boys) was sold at Christie’s, New York, in 2005. The panels, originally oval, were set into a framework of richly carved and gilded wood. They seem to have remained in situ until 1608, when they were divided up between Cesare d’Este, Duke of Modena, and Cardinal Scipione Borghese.
*Nativity with Donors. Wood, 243 x 165.
An angel descends from heaven with the ducal crown and sceptre. The two kneeling men are (unreliably) said to be portraits of the late Duke Alfonso and the new Duke Ercole II. Payments were made in 1534 for the picture, which was installed in Modena Cathedral on 29 November 1536. The documents appear to identify Battista Dossi as the principal author, and he appears to have been responsible for the foreground figures. The Nativity was painted at the same time as an altarpiece representing St Michael, which was originally in the Cathedral at Reggio Emilia and is now in the gallery at Parma. The two altarpieces were commissioned by Duke Alfonso in thanksgiving for the return of Modena and Reggio Emilia to his dominion. (The two cities had been removed from Este rule by Pope Julius II in 1510 but were restored to the duchy by Charles V in 1530.) The Nativity was removed from Modena Cathedral to the Galleria Estense in 1783. It was taken to France in 1796 and returned in 1815. Good condition (restored in 2014).
Portrait of Ercole I d’Este. Canvas, 83 x 69.
Ercole I (1431-1505), son of Niccolò III, succeeded his half-brother Borso as Duke of Ferrara in 1471 and was the father of Alfonso I. This posthumous portrait may have been based on an earlier likeness by Ercole de’ Roberti. It is sometimes identified with a portrait of Ercole I for which Dosso Dossi was paid in June-October 1524. Originally oval, it is first recorded at Modena in 1784 with an attribution to Girolamo da Carpi. It has sometimes been considered a copy (though allowance should perhaps be made for the difficulty of producing a posthumous portrait).
Portrait of Alfonso I d’Este. Canvas, 147 x 114.
The Duke leans on one of the famous Ferrarese canon, which were used to great effect in the Battles of Polesella (1509) and Ravenna (1512). One of these battles is presumably depicted in the background. The composition may have been influenced by a lost portrait by Titian, which also (according to Vasari) showed the Duke with a canon. Possible a work of collaboration, with Dosso contributing to the design and Battista mainly responsible for the execution. Taken from Ferrara to Modena early in the seventeenth century.
Modena. Duomo (2nd altar on left).
*Virgin and Child in Glory with Saints. Wood, 367 x 190.
Saints John the Baptist, Sebastian and Jerome (or Job) are on the ground; Lawrence and James (or Roch) are with the Virgin and Child in the clouds. The altarpiece is one of Dosso Dossi’s few securely documented works. It is also mentioned briefly by Vasari. It was installed on 18 June 1522 over the altar of the Comuna (an association of priests serving the cathedral), having been executed in 1518-21 in Dosso's studio in Ferrara and shipped to Modena when completed. The monumentality of the figures and the clearly defined spatial definition suggest the influence of the Roman works of Raphael. Originally in the fourth chapel on the left, it was moved to its present position in 1914. In good condition (restored in 1995 and again in 2019).
Moscow. Pushkin Museum.
Landscape with Legends of the Saints. Canvas, 60 x 87.
The miniature scenes include: St Jerome in Penitence (left edge); St Francis receiving the Stigmata (top left corner); Martyrdom of St Catherine (centre left); the tiny figure of St Christopher wading in the shallows of the lake (right distance); and St George slaying the Dragon (right). Nothing is known of the early history of the picture, which has been in Russia since the early nineteenth century and came to the Pushkin Museum in 1933 from the monastery of Donskoi at Moscow. The attribution to Dosso Dossi was made in 1941 (by Victor Lasareif in Art in America).
‘Sacra Conversazione’. Wood, 50 x 74.
The Baptist on the left and St Joseph on the right. The female saint and the man standing behind have not been identified. Formerly ascribed to Giovanni Cariani, it is one of a group of religious paintings (which also includes Sacre Conversazioni at Philadelphia, Glasgow and the Pinacoteca Capitolina in Rome) controversially attributed to Dosso Dossi in 1927 by Roberto Longhi as very early works. In the catalogue to the 1998-99 Dosso Dossi exhibition, Mauro Lucco tentatively suggested an attribution to Sebastiano Filippi, a little known artist in the Dossi circle. From the Farnese collection in Rome.
New York. Metropolitan Museum.
*Three Ages of Man. Canvas, 76 x 112.
The subject of the painting, which includes one of Dosso Dossi’s finest landscapes, is uncertain. The title ‘The Three Ages’ was first suggested in 1925 by Adolfo Venturi, and derives from the three pairs of figures: the two boys hiding behind the rock (supposedly illustrating childhood), the two lovers (maturity) and the two elderly men on the right (old age). Doubt has been cast on this interpretation by X-rays, which have revealed that the two old men were not part of the original composition but later additions, painted over the completed foliage. The goats behind the lovers may symbolise lasciviousness. Probably an early work, dating from the 1510s or early 1520s. Little is known of its history. First recorded in the early twentieth century in the hands of a Milanese dealer, it was bought by the Swedish art historian Osvald Sirén for $8,000 in 1918 and acquired by Metropolitan Museum in 1916. Well preserved, apart from some paint losses along the bottom edge.
Norfolk (Virginia). Chrysler Museum.
Allegory of Arithmetic(?). Canvas, 145 x 119.
A muscular man, naked to the waist and with red drapery over his knees, holds up a tablet inscribed with numbers. One of a series of canvases (five are currently known) representing draped male figures. The figures have been called Learned Men of Antiquity, Philosophers, Prophets and Apostles, but may represent the Seven Liberal Arts. There are no early references to the paintings, which could have decorated a room – perhaps a study or library – in one of the Este residences or in the Castle at Trent (where the Dossi brothers worked in 1531-32). The canvases have been cut at the top, and they may originally have been arched, so as to fit under a vaulted ceiling. The monumentality of the figures and their highly mannered poses suggest the influence of the Roman works of Michelangelo and Raphael (perhaps especially the Ignudi of the Sistine Ceiling). They have sometimes been considered late works (towards 1540), but were dated by Ballarin (1995) around 1520-21. The Chrysler picture was acquired by the American railway magnate Henry Walters in 1902 with the vast collection of Don Marcello Massarenti of Rome, and was formerly in the Walters Art Gallery at Baltimore. It was donated to the Chrysler Museum in 1971. Another painting from the series is in the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University, Ontario. Two others, formerly in the Barbara Piasecka Johnson collection at Princeton, were acquired in 2002 by an Italian savings bank foundation (Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara Carife).
Nottingham. Castle Museum.
The Christ Child learning to Walk. Wood, 44 x 42.
This charming little panel, depicting a subject very rare in Renaissance art, was given to the museum in 1910 by Sir Kenneth Muir Mackenzie and previously attributed to the sixteenth-century Roman School. The attribution to Dosso Dossi, as an early work, was suggested first in 1983 by Philip Pouncey and then published by Oliver Garnett in an article in the July 1984 Burlington Magazine. Attributions have also been made to Battista Dossi (Alessandro Ballarin) and to Sebastiano Filippo.
Ontario. Agnes Etherington Art Centre.
Allegory of Rhetoric(?). Canvas, 141 x 121.
A white haired and bearded man, naked except for a red cloak draped over his right shoulder and his knees, sits on a stone bench clutching a scroll. A book lies on the bench beside him and another is propped up at the bottom right edge, A lion (perhaps a later addition) crouches in the bottom left corner. Donated to the Etherington Art Centre in 1984 by Alfred and Isabel Bader of Milwaukee. From a cycle of canvases, which may have represented the Seven Liberal Arts. Another painting from the cycle (perhaps representing Arithmetic) is in the Chrysler Museum at Norfolk, Virginia. Two others – one (140 x 175) showing a man with a compass and globe and the other (154 x 121) a man with a book – were acquired by the Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara Carife in 2002. A fifth canvas, showing a man with a compass, ruler and tablet, is in a private collection.
Ottawa. National Gallery of Canada.
*Aeneas at the Entrance to the Elysian Fields. Canvas, 58 x 168.
The painting illustrates an episode from Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid. Aeneas, shown on the far left in a plumed helmet and carrying the golden bough, is guided by the Cumaean Sibyl over the bridge into the Elysian Fields in the Underworld. One of a series of ten canvases painted by Dosso Dossi in about 1520 for Alfonso d’Este’s Camerino in the Castello at Ferrara. Other paintings from the series are in the Barber Institute at Birmingham, the Prado in Madrid and the National Gallery at Washington. Three more have been identified recently in private collections. (Two of these, formerly owned by the New York art dealer and interior designer Hester Diamond, were sold at Sotheby's in January 2021 for $6.2 million.) Formerly in the collection of the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark, the Ottawa painting was purchased for the gallery in 1964.
Portrait of a Man. Canvas, 97 x 77.
The man, thirtyish probably with a short beard, wearing a dark tunic with a white fur collar and a broad hat that is almost lost in the dark background, sits a little to one side, his right hand resting on the hilt of his sword. His identification with Cesare Borgia (who died in 1507, some ten or fifteen years before the portrait was probably painted) is fanciful. The provenance of this splendid portrait is unknown. It was traditionally ascribed to Giorgione, and later catalogued as a work of the Venetian School (1849) or of the ‘School of Sebastiano del Piombo’ (1913). The attribution to Dosso Dossi seems to have been suggested first in 1956 by Roberto Longhi (Officina Ferrarese). There are clear similarities with the portrait of a man (Gonnella?) in the National Gallery’s ceiling fragment, which dates from 1524-26.
Parma. Galleria Nazionale.
Saint Michael. Wood, 243 x 167.
The picture combines the subject of the Archangel Michael vanquishing the Devil with an Assumption of the Virgin in the upper part and in the left distance, where the apostles surround the empty tomb. An altarpiece commissioned by Alfonso I d’Este for a chapel dedicated to St Michael in the Cathedral of Reggio Emilia. Duke Alfonso had sworn he would dedicate an altar to St Michael after learning in 1530 of the return of the cities of Modena and Reggio Emilia to Este rule. The picture was painted between the end of 1533 and December 1534, and appears to be a work of collaboration between Dosso and Baptista Dossi (with Battista responsible for the rather clumsy Virgin in the upper part). It remained in situ until 1788, when it was sold to a Canon Cassoli. Acquired for the gallery in 1907 from a private collection.
Madonna and Child (‘La Zingarella’). Wood, 49 x 34.
Early. A variant at Detroit includes the figure of St Joseph on the left. Acquired by the gallery in 1851 from the Dalla Rosa Prati collection at Parma.
Pesaro (Monte San Bartolo). Villa Imperiale.
Frescoes in Camera delle Cariatidi.
Around 1530, Francesco Maria I della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, and the Duchess Eleonora decided to enlarge the old Sforza castle at Pesaro and transform it into their summer residence. Girolamo Genga was put in charge of the project, and a large team of painters – including Dosso and Battista Dossi, Agnolo Bronzino and Raeffellino dal Colle – was assembled to decorate the rooms. Vasari alleges that the Dossi brothers acquitted themselves so badly that the Duke had all their work destroyed and redone by Genga. However, frescoes surviving in a small room, known as the Camera delle Cariatidi, are generally attributed to the two Dossi. Maidens transformed into caryatids support a pergola painted on the ceiling. The Dossi may also have contributed to some extent to the decoration of the next room, known as the Camera delle Semibusti and originally the Duke’s bedroom, perhaps painting the large Cupid on the spandrel of the vault and the allegorical female figure (representing Architecture?).
Philadelphia. Museum of Art.
Portrait of a Man (Angelo Perondoli?). Canvas, 89 x 118.
The man, austerely dressed in black and posing before a dark grey curtain, points with his left hand to a maze drawn on the top of the parapet (probably alluding to the complexity of the path through life, with many false turnings). He glances sadly to the left towards an armillary sphere (barely visible at the picture’s left edge). In a bizarre scene in the stormy landscape on the right, a bird killed by a bolt of lightning lies smouldering on the back of a saddled ass. Usually dated around 1520. Acquired by John G. Johnson in 1908 from Bernard Berenson (who was presumably responsible for the attribution).
Holy Family with a Husband and Wife as Donors. Canvas, 97 x 116.
The Child takes a bird from the Virgin’s hand. A striped cat (perhaps representing lust or bestiality) parades in the foreground. The letters ‘LX’ on the pedestal are unexplained. Formerly in the collection of Prince Leuchtenberg, where it was attributed to the Bergamask painter Giovanni Battista Moroni. Purchased in 1910 by Johnson (from Trotti of Paris) on the recommendation of Bernard Berenson, who thought it the work of ‘a Venetian painter close to Lorenzo Lotto’. The attribution to Dosso Dossi was published in 1927 (in Vita Artistica) by Roberto Longhi, who included it in a group of hypothetical early works of the artist dateable to about 1512-17. The attribution remains controversial. Mauro Lucco (in the catalogue of the 1998-99 Dosso Dossi exhibition at Ferrara and New York) tentatively suggested a later sixteenth-century Ferrarese painter, Sebastiano Filippi, as a candidate.
Providence. Rhode Island School of Design.
Entrance of Animals into the Ark. Canvas, 106 x 112.
Previously in a private collection in London, the picture was acquired as a work of Dosso Dossi by the museum in 1954. A subsequent restoration revealed, under repaint, a large area of damage on the right-hand side. Very possibly the painting by Dosso Dossi of this subject recorded in the 1592 inventory of the collection of Lucrezia d’Este and in the 1603-82 inventories of the Aldobrandini collection in Rome. Often considered one of Dosso Dossi’s earliest surviving paintings.
Rome. Galleria Borghese.
**Circe or Melissa. Canvas, 176 x 174.
Dosso Dossi’s most famous painting. The subject, gorgeously dressed in a gold turban and crimson and gold brocade and holding what appears to be an astrological chart, was simply called ‘una maga’ (a female magician) in seventeenth century inventories. In 1790, she was referred to as Circe – the mythological sorceress who turned men and woman into birds, beasts, monsters and stone. Julius von Schlosser (writing in a 1900 issue of the German journal Jahrbuch) was the first to identify her as Melissa – the benign enchantress in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Melissa freed humans whom the wicked sorceress Alcina had transformed into animals and plants. She has been thought to be shown in the act of burning Alcina’s seals, while gazing up at two men who emerge from the branches of trees. At her side, a knight transformed into a dog looks at his armour, while three soldiers in the right background have already apparently been liberated from Alcina’s spell. Opinion has been divided over whether the painting is early (mid-1510s) or a mature work (towards 1530). Probably one of a group of Ferrarese paintings given by Marchese Enzo Bentivoglio to Scipione Borghese in 1607. Restored in 1996 and generally well preserved (though parts, including the face, are worn and retouched).
*Apollo. Canvas, 119 x 116.
Apollo, wearing a laurel wreath, raises the bow of his fiddle (viola da braccio), having begun his lament for Daphne, who appears in the background being transformed into a laurel tree. The laurel wreath and tree may allude to the name of Laura Dianti, the lady-in-waiting who became Alfonso d’Este’s mistress after the death of his second wife Lucrezia Borgia in 1519. The representation of Apollo was probably inspired by Raphael’s in the Vatican Parnassus of 1509-11. Dosso Dossi’s painting may date from the late 1520s. It was probably among the Este pictures brought to Rome by Cardinal Aldobrandini, and by 1633 it was in the collection of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi. It was bought from Ludovisi’s heirs by Cardinal Luigi Capponi, who bequeathed it to the Borghese in 1659. Both subject and artist were eventually forgotten, and in 1790 and 1833 the painting was catalogued as Orpheus with Lyre by Caravaggio. Apollo’s green mantle is abraded, but the painting is in generally good condition.
*Diana and Callisto. Canvas, 134 x 164.
Called ‘Venus asleep with two wakeful nymphs’ in the Borghese inventory of 1650 and simply a ‘large painting with forests and trees and three women’ in the inventory of 1693. The current title first appeared in 1790. If it is correct, the reclining nude would be the nymph Callisto, in labour after Jupiter’s seduction, and the old woman presumably her midwife. The woman in classical dress would be Diana, pointing to the sky to indicate that Callisto will be turned into the constellation Ursa Major. X-rays have revealed that Dosso Dossi painted over a fourth female (perhaps Jupiter’s jealous wife Juno) rushing towards the others from the left. An attempt (by Felton Gibbons in 1968) to re-interpret the subject as the Transformation of Syrinx has not won general support. Another, more recent suggestion is that the picture could represent the story of Canens, Roman Goddess of Song. In Ovid's Metamorphoses, Canens pined away when her lover, Picus, was turned into a woodpecker by Circe (supposedly the woman pointing upwards). The picture was once often judged a work of collaboration between Dosso and Battista Dossi but is now generally attributed to Dosso alone. It may date from about 1530.
*Saints Cosmas and Damian. Canvas, 225 x 157.
This altarpiece, representing the two doctor saints in consultation over a sick man, was painted for the Spedele di Sant’Anna at Ferrara. The woman standing on the right is probably the donor. The inscription ‘ONTO D’ on the jar of ointment resting on the step has been thought to be a cryptic and humorous signature – Onto Dosso meaning ‘bone grease’. Often regarded as one of Dosso Dossi’s latest works, though some recent opinion sees stylistic similarities with the altarpiece of 1522 in Modena Cathedral. Given by the Bishop of Ferrara to Scipione Borghese in 1607.
Madonna and Child. Canvas, 35 x 28.
This rapidly executed panel is one of Dosso Dossi’s smallest pictures. It is, remarkably, his only known surviving painting of the Madonna and Child. It was probably made either for Alfonso d’Este or his wife Lucrezia Borgia, and is recorded as a work of Dossi in the 1592 inventory of the collection of their granddaughter Lucrezia d’Este. It passed, like so many of the Este pictures, into the hands of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, and entered the Borghese collections with the marriage of his heir Olimpia Aldobrandini.
Nativity. Wood, 50 x 32.
This delightful little picture was probably also painted for Duke Alfonso or Lucrezia Borgia, and is recorded as a work of Dossi in the 1592 inventory of Lucrezia d’Este’s collection. Both the Madonna and the Nativity may be comparatively early (around 1517-18).
Gyges, Candaules and Rhodope. Canvas, 42 x 54.
This little painting is described for the first time in the 1693 Borghese inventory simply as a ‘nude lady half-covered with two men, [one] with a crown on his head’. The current title was proposed in 1909 by Lionello Venturi (L’Arte) and refers to a story recounted in Herodotus’s Histories. Ascribed in old inventories to Paris Bordone (1693) or to Pomarancio (1790), and later attributed to the late sixteenth-century Ferrarese painter Scarsellino (Morelli and Berenson). The attribution to Dosso Dossi, as an early work, was made by Roberto Longhi in his 1928 gallery catalogue.
Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Canvas, 70 x 70.
The saint, half-length, reads from a book in her left hand and rests her right arm on the rim of her wheel. Recorded as a work of Dosso Dossi in the 1650 Borghese inventory, but later (1790) given to Caravaggio and catalogued by Adolfo Venturi (1893) as ‘an enlarged copy of a Garofalesque head’. The attribution to Dosso was revived by Roberto Longhi in his 1928 Borghese catalogue. However, Anna Coliva (in the catalogue to the 1998-99 Dosso Dossi exhibition at New York and Los Angeles) has authoritatively rejected the attribution, following a technical examination of the painting and research into its provenance. She concludes that the picture is a copy by the late Mannerist painter Cavaliere d'Arpino and that it probably entered the Borghese collection when Paul V seized the contents of the artist's studio in 1607.
Rome. Galleria Nazionale (Palazzo Barberini).
*St John the Evangelist and St Bartholomew with Two Donors. Wood, 248 x 162.
Commissioned by the Ferrarese nobleman Pontichino delle Sale (one of the donors on the left) as an altarpiece for his chapel in Ferrara Cathedral. A dedicatory inscription with the date 1527 (possibly on the frame) is recorded in the eighteenth century but has now disappeared. One of the few panel paintings by Dosso Dossi mentioned by Vasari. It was probably taken to Rome at the end of the sixteenth century, and later passed into the collection of Cardinal Flavio Chigi. Acquired by the gallery from Prince Ludovico Chigi in 1918. The picture (which has been transferred from panel to canvas and then remounted on panel) is very damaged.
Rome. Galleria Doria-Pamphili.
*Dido. Canvas, 96 x 75.
The subject was first identified as Dido in a guidebook of 1794. The painting is usually thought to show her distraught at the departure of Aeneas (Book IV of the Aeneid). An alternative interpretation is that it shows a character from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso – either Bradamante, the female knight who fell in love with the Saracen warrior Ruggiero, or Fiordiligi, the Moorish princess who converted to Christianity. Sometimes considered comparatively early (late 1510s) and sometimes a mature work (around 1530). From the collection of Olimpia Aldobrandini (heir of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini), who married Camillo Pamphili in 1647. Its format has been altered on several occasions. Described as oval in a 1682 inventory, it was later inserted into a niche decorated with the Borgia coat-of-arms. These additions were removed in 1960. Restored again for the 1998-99 Dosso Dossi exhibition and in very good condition.
Portrait of an Old Man with a Laurel Branch. Canvas, 104 x 91.
The branch may indicate that the man is a poet. The attribution to Dosso Dossi was published only in 2003 (by De Marchi in Paragone). Until the late nineteenth-century the portrait was given to Titian, and later attributions were made to Pordenone, Scipione Pulzone and Bernardino Licinio. The Dossi attribution is supported by the discovery of an old inscription with the artist’s name on the back on the canvas (previously concealed by relining) and by the identification of the portrait with one by the artist listed in early seventeenth-century inventories of the Aldobrandini collection. The portrait probably dates from the 1530s. Restoration, which has removed additions to the sides, has shown it to be in generally good condition, though with some damage at the edges.
Rome. Pinacoteca Capitolina.
Holy Family. Canvas, 236 x 171.
An altarpiece. In a most unusual composition, the Virgin is interrupted in her reading from a huge book of prophecies by the Child, who leaps from the arms of Joseph to clasp her round the neck. Formerly ascribed to Giorgione or to Veronese. The attribution to Dosso Dossi was made in 1889 by Adolfo Venturi. The figure of the Child and the head of Joseph seem to be by another, possibly later hand. The picture was probably painted for the altar of a church in Ferrara and taken to Rome when the city fell to the Papacy in 1598. Recorded in 1624 in the collection of Cardinal Emanuele Pio di Savoia, and among the pictures acquired by Pope Benedict XIV in 1750 from the Pio da Carpi family. Much damaged, especially the landscape.
Rome. Castel Sant'Angelo.
'Il Bagno'. Canvas, 109 x 162.
Young women and naked youths engage in amorous conversation on a riverbank. A group of three musicians stand behind them and, in the right foreground, two children hold monkeys (or perhaps a monkey and a dog). Next to nothing is certainly known of the history of this painting, which was previously in a private collection in Milan and was given to the museum in 1928 by the art dealer Alessandro Contini Bonacossi. Originally ascribed to Giorgione, it was attributed to Dosso Dossi by Roberto Longhi, who identified it with the Bacchanal painted for Alfonso d'Este's famous study (Camerino d'Alabastro) in the Castello Estense at Ferrara. This identification is no longer taken seriously, but the picture has been subsequently linked with another of Dossi's early commissions. On 11 April 1512, the artist was paid 30 ducats for having painted 'a large picture with eleven figures' for Francesco Gonzaga's palazzo of San Sebastiano at Mantua. Doubt has been cast on this identification as well. It has been argued that the Castel Sant'Angelo picture does not correspond particularly well with the brief description of the documented work (it has more than eleven figures and is not especially large), that it is too weak a picture to be even a very early work of Dossi, and that it appears to incorporate motifs borrowed from later paintings by Titian. The museum, nonetheless, has retained the attribution, and the picture was included in the 2014 Dosso Dossi exhibition at the Castello di Buonconsiglio at Trent.
Rovigo. Pinacoteca dell’Accademia dei Concordi.
Madonna and Child enthroned with Five Saints. Wood, 293 x 214.
St Andrew stands with the cross on the left with St Jerome behind him; St John the Evangelist sits on the steps on the right with St Paul and St Nicholas of Tolentino standing behind. An altarpiece from the parish church at Arquà Polesine. It was acquired, divided into two parts, by Conte Nicolò Casilini, who had it restored and donated it to the gallery in 1833. Probably a work of collaboration between Dosso and Battista Dossi (and possibly also Sebastiano Filippi).
St Benedict and St Bartholomew; St Lucy and St Agatha. Wood, each 222 x 106.
These two panels (once wrongly assumed to have formed a triptych with the Madonna and Child enthroned with Five Saints) came from the church of San Bartolomeo at Rovigo, where they hung at the sides of the altar of the Sacrament. Sometimes ascribed to Girolamo da Carpi.
St Petersburg. Hermitage.
*Sibyl. Canvas, 69 x 64.
Inscribed on the stone tablet held by the sibyl: LVX NON DA…/TVR…ABISO (‘Light is not given to the Abyss’). The painting was acquired in 1815 by the Russian Consul (Gessler) in Cadiz, and entered the Hermitage with an attribution to a rare Spanish painter, Gaspar Becerra, who had worked with Vasari in Rome. The attribution to Dosso Dossi was made in 1912 by Lionello Venturi (in L’Arte). It has been generally accepted, though some Spanish art historians have retained the old attribution to Becerra (whose name is written on the back). Heavy repaint (which concealed the inscription on the tablet) was removed in 1935.
Stockholm. National Museum.
Portrait of Man. Canvas, 86 x 71.
The bearded man (large black hat and black tunic over a shimmering gold silk doublet) rests his elbow on the ledge of a window opening onto a landscape with a tower and stormy sky, and sheathes or unsheathes his sword. Recorded in the 1662 inventory of Queen Cristina’s collection at Rome as a portrait of Cesare Borgia by Correggio, and still attributed to Correggio when sold with part of the Orléans collection in London in 1798. After many years in England with a certain Thomas Hope and his descendants, the portrait was acquired by Hjalmer Linder, who donated it to the museum in 1919. An attribution to Girolamo Romanino (proposed by Otto Benesch in the 1926 Burlington Magazine) was widely accepted for a time. The attribution to Dosso Dossi was first suggested only in 1955 (by Mina Gregori in Paragone) but has had substantial support. It was accepted, though with a query, when the portrait was included in the 1998-99 Dosso Dossi exhibition.
Trent. Castello del Buonconsiglio.
Bernardo Cles (or Clesio), Bishop and future Cardinal of Trent, began a lavish extension of the medieval castle in 1528. From 1531, he employed a number of artists, including Dosso and Battista Dossi, Girolamo Romanino and Marcello Fogolino, to decorate the new Magno Palazzo. The Dossi were responsible for several of the more important rooms, but their work is mainly quite damaged. At the top of the staircase, a fresco of St Vigilius recommending Cardinal Cles to the Virgin and Child is dated 1532. A frieze with Putti Playing in the Sala Grande is probably chiefly by Battista, as are the Putti in lunettes and Gods and Goddesses in the ceiling of the Antechapel. The decoration of the ceiling and walls of the Biblioteca are largely ruined. Frescoes depicting Aesop’s Fables were discovered under whitewash in 1961-64 in the Stua della Fameja. The paintings of the Virtues and Liberal Arts in the Camera degli Stucchi are dated 1532.
The castello was a highly appropriate venue for the 2014 exhibition Dosso Dossi: Rinascimenti Eccentrici.
Venice. Fondazione Cini.
Anger. Wood, 107 x 93.
This diamond-shaped (originally oval) painting was a ceiling panel in Alfonso d’Este’s bedroom in the Castello at Ferrara. There are five other such panels in the Galleria Estense at Modena and another in the Castle Museum at Eger (Hungary).
Victoria. National Gallery.
Portrait of Lucrezia Borgia(?). Wood, 75 x 57.
This oval portrait was purchased by the gallery for £8,000 in London in 1965 as the work of an unknown artist. It was described at the time as a Portrait of a Youth, but the myrtle bush in the background (symbol of Venus and of feminine beauty) and the inscription on the scrap of paper (referring to virtue and a lovely countenance) indicate that the sitter is a woman. In November 2008, after several years of restoration and research, the gallery announced that it considered the painting to be a portrait of Lucrezia Borgia by Dosso Dossi. It is suggested that the dagger held by the sitter alludes to the Roman heroine Lucretia (who stabbed herself after Tarquin’s rape in order to protect family honour) and hence to the sitter’s Christian name. A resemblance is claimed between the sitter and the likeliness of Lucrezia Borgia on a bronze portrait medal struck in 1502 (though the medal shows her much younger and in profile). No certain painted portrait of Lucrezia exists to confirm the likeness. If the Victoria portrait were of Lucrezia, it would probably have been painted shortly before her death in 1519, at the age of thirty-nine, during a miscarriage. An alternative suggestion (made by Maike Vogt-Luerssen in Lucrezia Borgia, 2010) is that the sitter could be Renée (Renata) of France, Lucrezia’s daughter-in-law, who became Duchess of Ferrara in 1534.
Vienna. Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Saint Jerome. Canvas, 50 x 74.
In the background, two monks leave a church to address a group of turbaned figures. Signed bottom right with a humorous monogram – a large letter ‘D’ with a bone (osso) stuck through it. Usually dated around 1520. From the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm. The canvas has been cut down on the left, removing the head of St Jerome’s lion.
Washington. National Gallery.
*Circe and Her Lovers. Canvas, 101 x 136.
In classical mythology, Circe was an amorous sorceress, who lived on the island of Aenea, transforming men and women into animals and birds. The subject has been alternatively identified as Alcina, the wicked sorceress in Orlando Furioso, who also turned humans into birds and beasts. Nude except for some green fabric draped over her left knee, she points to a stone tablet and has a book of spells open at her feet. Her ‘ex-lovers’ include a stag, hind, greyhound, white puppy, two lions, hawk, owl and spoonbill. This exquisite, but damaged, painting has sometimes been judged a very early work (painted around about 1511-13, before Dosso Dossi settled in Ferrara) and sometimes dated rather later (mid-1520s). Possibly the ‘lanshape with a witch by Dorse of Ferraro’ or ‘landscept of inchauntm of Dorsey’ acquired by Charles I of England in 1627-28 with the Gonzaga collection. The first certain record of the painting is in 1886, when it was sold in London with the estate of William Graham and entered the famous collection of Robert and Evelyn Benson. Bought by Kress in 1943 from Duveen, who had acquired the Benson collection en bloc in 1927. The pigments have tended to grow transparent with time and the animals have been partly recreated by a restorer.
*The Trojans preparing to leave Sicily. Canvas, 59 x 88.
The canvas is one half of a long horizontal picture that was probably cut in two in the late nineteenth century. The subject, previously called the Departure of the Argonauts and then Aeneas and Abates on the Libyan Coast, is now identified as the Trojans building a ship in anticipation of their departure from Sicily (Book V of Virgil's Aeneid). The two flamboyantly dressed soldiers in the right foreground could represent the earlier episode of Aeneas being welcomed by his friend Acestes after landing on the Sicilian coast. The picture belonged to a series of ten canvases – all painted by Dosso Dossi and depicting episodes from the Aeneid – that was commissioned around 1520 for Alfonso d’Este’s Camerino in the Castello at Ferrara. The canvases were probably installed as a frieze around the top of the four walls. Other paintings from the series are in the Barber Institute at Birmingham, the Prado in Madrid and the National Gallery of Canada at Ottawa, while three others have been identified in private collections. All are loosely painted, suggesting that they were intended for distance viewing. The Trojans preparing to leave Sicily was acquired by Kress from Contini Bonacossi in 1936. The right-hand half of the canvas was discovered very recently and acquired by the Washington museum in 2021.
The Trojans making offerings at the Grave of Anchises. Canvas, 59 x 86.
Two episodes from Book V of the Aeneid are shown. In the foreground, Aeneas offers libations at his father's grave on Sicily. In the background, the Trojans build the temple dedicated to Venus on Mount Eryx. The canvas, formerly in a private collection in the south of France, was acquired by the museum after its auction at Christie's in April 2021. It is the right-hand half of a long horizontal picture from Alfonso d'Este's Camerino. The left-hand half was acquired by the museum in 1936.
Saint Lucretia. Wood, 52 x 41.
The subject, identified by a large inscription on the top of the wall, was an early Christian Spanish virgin martyr and name saint of Alfonso d’Este’s wife, Lucrezia Borgia. The picture was possibly commissioned by Lucrezia herself for private devotion, or painted after her death in 1519 as a memorial for Alfonso or one of their sons. The painting is recorded in 1671-72 in posthumous inventories of the collection of Cardinal Antonio Barberini, and remained in Rome until the 1930s. Acquired by Kress in 1938 from Jacob Heimann of New York. Very well preserved. A pendant, in a private collection, shows Saint Paula in a similar landscape.
Worcester (Massachusetts). Art Museum.
Holy Family. Wood, 29 x 26.
This little panel, showing the Virgin and Child and St Joseph seated in a nocturnal landscape, may represent the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. Sometimes called an early work, but more usually dated around the mid-1520s. There is a related picture (which is larger and reverses the position of the figures) in the Uffizi. Acquired in Florence in 1921 from Philip J. Gentner (the museum's first director).