Here's how Ferrara and Bologna overlapped in the Renaissance. Interview with Vittorio Sgarbi

The "Renaissance in Ferrara" exhibition is one of the highlights of 2023: an exhibition from which many themes emerge, foremost among them the intertwining of Ferrara and Bologna events. We talked about it with Vittorio Sgarbi, curator of the exhibition with Michele Danieli.

The exhibition Renaissance in Ferrara. Ercole de’ Roberti and Lorenzo Costa, curated by Vittorio Sgarbi and Michele Danieli (in Ferrara, Palazzo dei Diamanti, from February 18 to June 19, 2023), is one of the most significant of the year, as well as one of the most discussed. Many themes emerge, first and foremost the intertwining of Ferrara and Bologna events. What vision does this exhibition express? How did it come about? How will the project evolve? We talked about it with Vittorio Sgarbi. Interview by Federico Giannini.

Vittorio Sgarbi at the exhibition Renaissance in Ferrara. Ercole de' Roberti and Lorenzo Costa
Vittorio Sgarbi at the exhibition Renaissance in Ferrara. Ercole de’ Roberti and Lorenzo Costa

FG. The exhibition Renaissance in Ferrara. Ercole de’ Roberti and Lorenzo Costa is one of the most important this year and beyond. To begin to delve into some of the relevant themes that emerge from the exhibition I would start with the title: I know that in the organization you discussed it at length, also because it is not only about the Renaissance in Ferrara, but it is an exhibition in which Ferrara and Bologna events are intertwined.

VS. I paved the way for the Bolognese Renaissance: it is peculiar that I do it from Ferrara, but it is inevitable because half of the works we exhibited are by painters from Ferrara in Bologna. Hence two problems result: first, why that exhibition and why in Ferrara, at the Palazzo dei Diamanti; second is the title. The first exhibition, the one in 1933 wanted by Italo Balbo and Renzo Ravenna, was called “Exposition of Ferrara Renaissance Painting,” a title perhaps more correct than ours. But a title could also have been “The Renaissance in Ferrara,” meaning everything Renaissance in Ferrara. Then it could have been “Renaissance in Ferrara,” and that’s yet another formula, because the specification complement would mean a Renaissance that was born there and is spreading. I chose “Renaissance in Ferrara,” because the exhibition takes place in Ferrara, however in fact most of those artists no longer work in Ferrara, so the state in place that is in the word “a” actually does not correspond to the fact that the exhibition has works coming in from Bologna.

We recalled the great exhibition of 1933: how does this project differ from that of ninety years ago?

The exhibition that could not be a replica of Nino Barbantini’s 1933 exhibition, commented on by Longhi with theOfficina Ferrarese of 1934 (although I wanted to have a plaque put in Palazzo dei Diamanti saying that theOfficina Ferrarese was born here: I will have another one put up saying that contemporary art arrived here thanks to Franco Farina, so we will remember the two important moments), because repeating it would have been improper. Also because in the past years, among the various activities of the Ferrara Arte Foundation that I chair today, there have been a few exhibitions of ancient art: Bononi, which was successful, and then Cosmè Tura and Francesco del Cossa, who were the two leaders of the Renaissance in Ferrara. So at this point I wanted to proceed to create a Renaissance exhibition that would be spread over a time frame of two or three years and touch on all the artists that were not done in modern times: the first one after Tura and Cossa is Ercole de’ Roberti and the second one is Lorenzo Costa, so in fact we covered a hole of artists that were there in the exhibition of ninety years ago, but never had a monograph. And as Tura and Cossa got it in 2007, today Ercole and Costa got it.

A long-term project then. What will be the next chapters?

The next exhibition will be on Mazzolino and Ortolano, two wonderful masters that no one has ever seen, then the third will be on Girolamo da Carpi, who is a great painter and architect, in dialogue with masters who worked with him and already monographed though (namely Garofalo and Dosso Dossi), and the last will be on Bastianino and Scarsellino, two great painters who have also never been monographed. So we end a journey from 1471, when Borso d’Este became Duke of Ferrara, to 1598, when the Este family was driven out and went to Modena. This is the picture: four times of Renaissance in Ferrara with the same title. In this majestic and solemn celebration of my city, not only is the Renaissance reevaluated, not only is the power of the Este reevaluated, but the art of the Este is reevaluated as well: they are formidable artists but with petty names, because no one knows Mazzolino, Garofalo, Ortolano, Scarsellino, Bastianino: however, they are very important so much so that the market has often rewarded artists like Dosso Dossi who then made millionaires.

Set-ups of the exhibition Renaissance in Ferrara. Ercole de' Roberti and Lorenzo Costa.
Arrangements for the exhibition Renaissance in Ferrara. Ercole de’ Roberti and Lorenzo Costa
Set-ups of the exhibition Renaissance in Ferrara. Ercole de' Roberti and Lorenzo Costa.
Set-ups of the exhibition Renaissance in Ferrara. Ercole de’ Roberti and Lorenzo Costa

And how did this idea of a project on the Renaissance in Ferrara come about?

Two opportunities were taken. The first is the restoration I strongly criticized, then corrected with my guidelines, of the Palazzo dei Diamanti: now everyone says it’s beautiful, but before there was a cage that would have been attached with an extension of the new rooms, all of which I had rejected through a collection of 60,000 signatures of all the greatest architects and art historians, from Emiliani to Cervellati. So we put them in the corner and they were forced to change the intervention: so, corrected the restoration of the palace, we had two years when the palace had to be closed. Since it was Palazzo dei Diamanti it could reopen with a contemporary art exhibition because there, in the years from 1963 or to 1993, there was the period when director of the Gallerie Civiche d’Arte Moderna was was Franco Farina, famous master who had done all the contemporary art exhibitions making Ferrara, for those of my age, the first contemporary art exhibition venue in Italy when there was nothing in those years: there was no Rivoli, there was no Pecci, there was no Panza di Biumo, there was no Maxxi, there was no Madre, there was no Mambo. So a miracle: a small town doing contemporary art in the most beautiful Renaissance palace. The second opportunity is given by the fact that in Palazzo dei Diamanti, upstairs, there is the Pinacoteca Nazionale in which almost no one goes, because there is the staircase, and the exhibition part downstairs is generally for contemporary art. So we wanted to do the Renaissance painting with tribute to Roberto Longhi and with connection to the upstairs, which was actually done with a single ticket. Since I came back as undersecretary then I have the idea of making Ferrara a city with its own autonomous museums, as is the case in Florence with the Uffizi, and separating it from Modena: Franceschini’s timidity (or distraction) has created a paradox, whereby there are the Estensi Galleries with the city of Modena as the leader, where the Estensi go after Ferrara. Then Modena will have its museums and Ferrara will have its museums, which are no less than the museum in the most beautiful palace of the Renaissance, which is the Pinacoteca Nazionale full of Ferrara masterpieces, the Museo di Spina which is the first archaeological museum in Emilia Romagna and which is in a Renaissance palace, and Casa Romei, and then an autonomous museum system would be created in Ferrara, which should start this year with the next director appointments. So in this process it was clear that a celebration needed to be created for the reopening of the museum and the autonomy of its picture gallery, with the picture gallery having a dialogue with the exhibition.

You mentioned Roberto Longhi several times, so much so that you even honored him with a plaque at the Palazzo dei Diamanti. Well: eighty-nine years have passed since Longhi’sOfficina Ferrarese, which is a piece of writing that we have all read and studied on because it is still very topical for deriving interpretive lines on the Renaissance in Ferrara. However, are there, in your opinion, parts on which one could open new reflections or develop new ideas, new visions starting precisely from that fundamental text?

There is the prospect of a post-Longhian, or ultra-Longhian vision, which is substantiated by including the Ferrarese masters that Roberto Longhi, when he came to Ferrara in 1933 and wrote theOfficina ferrarese the following year, tended to exclude. Longhi was making a path of reevaluation of the art of the Po Valley, considering that which is in Bologna and Modena and then goes all the way to Morandi as the great Bolognese master (the greatest of the twentieth century), that which is more Lombard which has its leader in the greatest great painter of all who is Caravaggio, and the Ferrara one that is an enclave of visionary, metaphysical and surrealist painters that we have seen in this beautiful exhibition, however it does not allow, or does not enhance, a Renaissance in Bologna. I have been working on this project for years. Of course, to make Ferrara the Renaissance in Bologna is a nonsense, and to make it in Bologna would make sense but it would be largely made up of people from Ferrara. In fact I proposed it to Fabio Roversi Monaco [editor’s note: president of the Genus Bononiae Foundation] after my highly criticized but beautiful exhibition, Da Cimabue a Morandi done as a tribute to Longhi (while Rinascimento a Ferrara I made it as a tribute to Carlo Volpe who is Longhi’s student who studied the Ferraresi in Bologna). At that time, however, a controversy arose with signatures, against me, from a number of exhibition envious people who invented that I had moved Raphael’sEcstasy of Saint Cecilia from the museum where it is and where no one traditionally goes, that is, the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna, to Palazzo Fava, an institution of the Genus Bononiae Foundation: all untrue, because it is true that at the center of the exhibition was Raphael’s masterpiece that changed the history of Emilian art in 1515, theEcstasy of Saint Cecilia, but it is also true that Luigi Ficacci, superintendent at the time, had lent it in agreement with Roversi Monaco, president of the foundation, and of course I was not the one who was against it. It seems, however, that it was only I who moved the work 800 meters. And then by the way that work went to Madrid and nobody said anything. I now those people there I hate them, because they attribute to me a fault that I don’t have, and they tried to rubbish a beautiful exhibition. I at that point find myself being the lightning rod for something that doesn’t concern me and I tell them to fuck off: that exhibition was very beautiful, it then had 100,000 visitors but it started with the stain, with the original sin of moving Raphael, to move it from a museum where nobody goes and because of a deal that Roversi Monaco made without me with Ficacci. This is the real story. If you are the head of the entity organizing the exhibition and the loan is obtained by the superintendent, why do I have to pay for it? Everyone collected signatures against me, but then the exhibition was also successful because it was full of beautiful and rare works. Some of them by the way later signed on my side not to destroy Palazzo dei Diamanti (and it was an important thing not to make it a birdcage with that kind of prosthesis they had imagined). Anyway, Roversi Monaco is very amused by the success of Da Cimabue a Morandi and asks me for another exhibition. So we plan the exhibition “Renaissance in Bologna,” which is a novelty, because we explain that Bologna is no less important than Ferrara and has a Renaissance that begins with painters from Ferrara, but then they become painters from Bologna: Lorenzo Costa, Amico Aspertini, Girolamo da Carpi and others. He gets excited, I send him a proposal in 2015, then I send him a second in 2016 even a third in 2017: at which point, however, I discover that the exhibition “Renaissance in Bologna,” planned as a large exhibition with 150 works, is reduced to an exhibition on the first nucleus from which it all starts, namely the Griffoni Polyptych, a masterpiece by Francesco del Cossa divided between the National Gallery in London, the Pinacoteca di Brera, the Vatican Museums, and the Cini Foundation: all the little pieces of this polyptych are scattered in a dozen museums. The Griffoni Polyptych is the revenge of a great visionary and surreal Ferrara artist named Francesco del Cossa who made beautiful frescoes on the most beautiful of Schifanoia (the months of March, April and May, in which you can see that he painted better because there is gold and there is azurite, and because the frescoes are well preserved while the others are all crumbling). At one point Francesco writes to Duke Borso d’Este saying that he sees himself paid like the last garzone in Ferrara and asks to be paid a little more. The asshole tells him no, and Francesco del Cossa tells him fuck off and goes to Bologna, starts working for the Bentivoglios, and does his first work in Bologna, which is the Griffoni Polyptych, a totally Ferrara work, however made for Bologna: from there starts the Bolognese Renaissance, which is made by Ferraresi who cross paths with the greatest sculptor of the Po Valley Renaissance who works in Bologna (and he is Bolognese but originally from Puglia), and his name is Niccolò dell’Arca. Niccolò dell’Arca in 1463 made the first expressionistic, wonderful and extraordinary sculpture, which probably influenced the people of Ferrara, but because there is a prejudice from Varchi’s time that there is a primacy of painting over sculpture, Gnudi and others argue that that wonderful work, which is the famous Lamentation, is done in two stages, because according to them it is not possible that it is those figures shouting that are shouting that are influencing the Ferraresi, but it is the Ferraresi who are influencing the Bolognese, so a debate opens up that I resolve by discovering a work by Niccolò dell’Arca that is now in my collection [ed: the bust of San Domenico from 1474-1475] and that allows us to say that the Lamentation is all in 1463. So it’s a Bolognese push for Ferrarese painting, when instead they say it’s Ferrarese painting that influences Niccolò dell’Arca over the years-all bullshit. So the Bolognese Renaissance is there, it starts with Niccolò dell’Arca and then it crosses over with Ferrara, after which Ferrara goes Bologna, so you could have a big exhibition of all the Ferraresi in Bologna, with Ferrara remaining a little bit ungarnished, however in fact they were born in Ferrara. So that’s why “Renaissance in Ferrara,” because there is a constant coming and going.

Set-ups of the exhibition Renaissance in Ferrara. Ercole de' Roberti and Lorenzo Costa.
Arrangements of the exhibition Renaissance in Ferrara. Ercole de’ Roberti and Lorenzo Costa
Set-ups of the exhibition Renaissance in Ferrara. Ercole de' Roberti and Lorenzo Costa.
Set-ups of the exhibition Renaissance in Ferrara. Ercole de’ Roberti and Lorenzo Costa

However, the Bolognese Renaissance exhibition that was supposed to flesh out this post-Longhi vision remained on paper.

I proposed this exhibition done in Ferrara, in which, however, most of the works and artists have to do with Bologna, among them also a key painter (whom again I discovered) named Antonio da Crevalcore whom I discovered in 1984-1985 and on whom I did a monograph. An artist born in Crevalcore, near Cento, so of Ferrara culture, but working in San Petronio in Bologna, and that’s another case of exporting a Ferrarese. So in Bologna you have Francesco del Costa, Ercole de’ Roberti, Niccolò dell’Arca, Antonio da Crevalcore ... fuck the Renaissance is there, but then Roversi Monaco commissioned a friend of mine, named Mauro Natale, a student of Zeri, to do the exhibition on the Griffoni polyptych. Whereupon I call him and tell him that that is the heart of my exhibition, which was supposed to include this work and all the other things up to 1530-1540 like Biagio Pupini, Girolamo da Treviso il Giovane, all people that nobody knows. Instead, Natale pulls out the heart of the artichoke and does the exhibition on the Griffoni polyptych in Palazzo Fava, an exhibition on which, moreover, a lot of money was spent. Of course, it was an interesting exhibition, and it was also done during Covid, but if you are a normal person and you read “The Renaissance in Bologna,” you realize that that is an exhibition that any person would come to see, which cannot be said for an exhibition on Francesco del Cossa’s Griffoni Polyptych. Because you don’t know what a polyptych means, you don’t know what Griffoni means, Francesco del Cossa doesn’t know anybody, you even get Covid, so it was a missed opportunity: an exhibition made with an embryo of my exhibition, and with a work that certainly is fundamental and is set there, but it had to be put in context. However, years go by and I do the Renaissance in Bologna ... in Ferrara, because both Ercole de’ Roberti and Costa were painters born in Ferrara but active in Bologna. So to go back to the question earlier about Longhi, what changes from Longhi’s time is that Longhi, despite his pupil Volpe, did not want to accept that the Ferrarese Renaissance would also become Bolognese, that is, he had his idea of a kind of satellite that closes in on itself, that is, Ferrara, a city full of madmen, full of geniuses, which are the Ferraresi: he does not understand, however, that the Ferrara people descend like Martians with a spaceship into Bologna, find fertile ground because Niccolò dell’Arca is there, and a Bolognese Renaissance is born. Then maybe one day they will have this exhibition, in ten or twenty years, and I will announce it now instead. Because it already exists in pectore in Volpe’s mind, in the mind of his pupil Benati, and in my project, which was rejected because Natale came along and did the Griffoni polyptych exhibition (which no one understands what it means... Renaissance in Bologna, but it is the embryo from which the Renaissance starts). So now people who go to Ferrara see a piece of the Griffoni polittico that was done for Bologna, they see Niccolò dell’Arca who did a work for Bologna that I have in my collection, they see Crevalcore who did San Petronio, so in fact I organized an exhibition on the Bolognese Renaissance with painters from Ferrara, and that is the novelty of the exhibition. So much so that then Costa is all Bolognese, because yes he was born in Ferrara but then he worked in Bologna: so this exhibition is an evolution from Longhi, because in the meantime it is about two painters who worked more in Bologna than in Ferrara, and then it opens the way for the Renaissance in Ferrara, because these painters are from Ferrara but the Renaissance bursts out in Bologna. So there is a big knot of a Bolognese Renaissance that is still unresolved: everyone knows what the Florentine Renaissance is, everyone knows what the Venetian Renaissance is, everyone knows what the Roman Renaissance is, even the Ferrara Renaissance anyway after Longhi is known, while the Bolognese Renaissance does not exist. Moreover, in the Bolognese Renaissance a meteorite falls which is precisely Raphael’s altarpiece that in 1515 orients everything that came from Ferrara towards a Raphaelesque dimension and begins a phase in which there are Innocenzo da Imola, Girolamo da Treviso il Giovane, Biagio Pupini, all the beautiful painters who are a contamination between the occupation of Ferraresi in Bologna and the occupation of Raphael who also arrives in Bologna, sends this work and makes a mess so all painting naturally changes. Bologna is an area of syncretism, because it assimilates the premises of Ferrara and then Rome with Raphael, from which Parmigianino then comes. That’s why I say I did a Renaissance exhibition in Bologna -- in Ferrara. And I called it Renaissance in Ferrara. I mean, a mess!

An interesting aspect of the exhibition is the reaffirmation of the attribution of the Settembre di Schifanoia to Ercole de’ Roberti, in the exhibition you see the reproduction which is a kind of invitation to go and see the fresco live, and then in the catalog Michele Danieli’s essay comes back to this theme. And again it comes back to Longhi, I would like it if something could be added about this fundamental attribution.

It is a miracle of Longhi’s that without any document and without any testimony he imposes on us on the basis of his ipse dixit that that fresco is so invention, so surreal, so perspective and so Pierfrancesque that he says it is by Ercole de’ Roberti. And we study Ercole de’ Roberti only on Longhi’s eye. Only one person contradicts Longhi, Ranieri Varese, but no one buys it; Danieli, on the other hand, also confirms that the debut of the 17-year-old Ercole is right there in Schifanoia, and then after a while he will go with Francesco del Cossa to Bologna, he follows him, they were friends evidently. However, the philological certainty that it is Ercole Roberti is only Longhi’s eye. That is, he threw out the name of Ercole but we have no document, no one who says that.

Earlier we mentioned a figure that emerges from the exhibition with relevant prominence, that of Antonio da Crevalcore. I would like to conclude by first saying something about him, and then I would like to ask if, beyond the “well-known” names (because in any case Ercole de’ Roberti and Lorenzo Costa are prominent names), there are, in that period and in that area, other artists like Antonio da Crevalcore who are little studied, little known, who deserve to be studied and rediscovered.

There is Pannonio, a Hungarian painter (there are works related to the exhibition in the Pinacoteca), then Maccagnino, who is an invention of Longhi but of whom we have no certainty, then again Vicino da Ferrara (a name Longhi gives to a very elegant painter who is “close” to Ercole de’ Roberti and also to Francesco del Cossa, and that is why “Vicino da Ferrara,” because painter that is... close to Ferrara). As for Antonio da Crevalcore, he was a variously misunderstood artist, except for an essay by Zeri whose Princeton St. Francis and portrait in the Correr in Venice and then another work, destroyed in Berlin, remain alive: no one had written anything about him. Antonio da Crevalcore first was technically--a line from Venturi (of the History of Italian Art) and a note from Longhi. Bobi Bazlen, the famous editor, said that he did not write books, but only notes without text, and that his work is notes without text, because many people write books having nothing to say, so they become voluminous. But books are nothing but inflated notes. I did exactly that: I took a note by Longhi and made a volume out of it, because the Crevalcore reconstruction comes from a total underestimation of both Venturi and Longhi, then Zeri got curious by publishing three or four works of which one or two were wrong, then the three paintings appeared in Monte Carlo that were so important that I wrote a monograph for Mondadori, and at that point the works since then (1985) appeared in Monte Carlo, they were never seen again, so I published them, and people talked about them. In the meantime, I found another work that I attributed to him, but that identifies a new figure, which is a painter named Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, namesake of Sodoma, and who is a painter of whom we have some records who was studied by a fellow named Buitoni who gives his name to a work (which I had instead attributed to Antonio da Crevalcore) that bears the name “Pala Grossi,” because it was held by a gentleman who died and whose name was Grossi, who was in Modena. More Sgarbian intervention: I got that work to be given on deposit by the Grossi family in Ferrara, so now it is displayed in front of the triptych so this work that I add, even though the attribution does not match because it is actually by Bazzi, the works by Bazzi, the already known works and the triptych make me make a volume from which a personality comes out very heavy, especially for the three works bought by Memmo, which have never been exhibited before today and which are really the fusion point between a painter of Ferrarese culture, of Ferrarese training, and Bologna where the works are made, so Crevalcore is the key painter, Crevalcore and Niccolò dell’Arca who are close are the two artists who bridge between Ferrara and Bologna, one Niccolò dell’Arca who anticipates from Bologna to Ferrara and the other who is Crevalcore who is born in the Ferrara air then goes to Bologna. So, technically, the exhibition has this key block with the part of Ercole de’ Roberti and Costa who are more or less monographed, it has the room where there are Niccolò dell’Arca, Crevalcore and the master of the Pala Grossi i.e. this Bazzi, who are really a Bolognese enclave inside the Renaissance exhibition in Ferrara, because Niccolò dell’Arca was born in Apulia but he’s all Bolognese and he only works Bologna, so that’s Bologna to Ferrara, then there’s Crevalcore which is Ferrara to Bologna and so in fact we have to rework a Renaissance strategy that makes Ferrara and Bologna overlap. And the exhibition does that even if we do it in Ferrara -- so we call it “Renaissance in Ferrara.”

Warning: the translation into English of the original Italian article was created using automatic tools. We undertake to review all articles, but we do not guarantee the total absence of inaccuracies in the translation due to the program. You can find the original by clicking on the ITA button. If you find any mistake,please contact us.