Court Jester

Dossi's Jupiter, Mercury and Virtue (ca. 1523-24).Photo: courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Renaissance has many moods, not all of them profound. Dosso Dossi (1486?-1542), a great secondary figure of the period, was a quintessential court painter who gave himself to the witty, playful, and theatrical. He might paint a religious picture if properly paid, but would then devote his deepest energies to, say, the pretty trim on the cloak of the Virgin or the fluttering of the tree near St. Something. For most of his life, he worked for Duke Alfonso I of Ferrara, a man of great social aspirations – often the most useful kind of patron – who hoped to turn his city into a model of Renaissance splendor. Dossi generated much of the visual panoply of Alfonso’s court, creating theatrical sets, helping with decorations, painting palace frescoes, even designing the streamers for trumpets.

Unfortunately, history has not been kind to him. When Ferrara came under the control of the papacy in the late sixteenth century, the city’s art was disbursed. Dossi’s frescoes were mostly destroyed; paintings were sent in all directions; numerous works and bits of delightful ephemera were lost. Over the centuries, many surviving paintings have been badly washed and scraped and generally knocked about, losing their delicate tones, which is a particularly cruel fate for a Venetian-inspired art of soft mood and atmosphere. Just as important, perhaps, the influential Renaissance artist-critic Giorgio Vasari did not approve of Dossi, regarding him as not quite serious enough. As a result, Dossi’s character as an artist, never powerfully distinctive, has not developed a vivid historical profile.

“Dosso Dossi: Court Painter in Renaissance Ferrara,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – jointly organized by Andrea Bayer of the Met, Dawson Carr of the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Andrea Buzzoni of the Civiche Gallerie d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Ferrara – should add some luster to Dossi’s reputation. Nowadays, Renaissance artists are rarely given substantial retrospectives; many works of the time were painted on wood and are too delicate to travel. This exhibit of 60 works, mostly on canvas, is large enough to represent most phases of Dossi’s painting. It also conveys how complex the period was – how crisscrossed by contrary ideas. Dossi’s main inspiration was the Venetian art of Giorgone and Titian, but he was also one of art’s great crows, willing to pick up interesting bits of sparkle and shape from Raphael, Michelangelo, and Giulio Romano, to say nothing of Netherlandish painting and the prints of Dürer and Altdorfer. Dossi seems to have felt no need to escape, transcend, or dominate his sources. Instead, he played among them, creating an art of jazzy improvisation. He refused to bother with preparatory drawings, for example, simply beginning a picture and adding and removing figures depending upon the whim of his eye. When illustrating a story, he had no qualms about changing it.

Melissa, a sweetly bizarre picture, is a particularly good example of Dossi’s sensibility. A rather early work, it depicts a lavishly dressed sorceress – almost certainly benign – who seems to be breaking an evil spell that has turned a number of knights into animals, plants, and stones. Seated in an opulent landscape blooming with details that would please court taste, she is about to awaken several little doll-like humans who appear to be half grown into the vegetation. In the foreground below these trapped dolls lies a great hunk of empty armor upon which sits a bird; at any moment, it seems, a knight will suddenly flash into full form – and assume his abandoned armor. Dossi’s scene-stealer, however, is a great gray dog who is staring spellbound at the armor and the bird. He could be either a bewitched knight or an animal waiting, loyally, for his master to reappear in the armor. In any case, his eyes convey an unworldly but also very human intensity, that of the trapped person who cannot get out. Dossi heightens the anticipation by including a bird, for this particular dog has the focus of a cat about to spring.

Dossi was especially admired among contemporaries for his rendering of landscapes. Drawing upon both Venetian and Northern European traditions, he loved to depict a town in the misty distance, half hidden by rolling hills and the plumes of trees. Often, he appeared more interested in a bit of fanciful countryside than in the literal subject of a picture. Like many landscape and still-life artists, he seemed to prefer a mood of dreamy implication to one of clear, direct statement. (The strewn flower petals in his Allegory With Pan contain more genuine erotic life than the flashy but rather formulaic nude.) While Dossi could charm the Duke’s courtiers with such works, he differed from most successful court painters in one important respect: He did few portraits. He must have found them constraining. They demanded too much fealty to appearances; the brush could not play at will. Still, a few great individuals emerge in his work, notably a wonderful old sot. Instead of depicting the usual rotund slobberer, Dossi portrays a drunk who thinks he is still in control, the sort who walks on eggshells as he approaches you, with fixed eyes, wanting to have a serious convershation.

Probably the work closest to the artist’s heart is Jupiter, Mercury and Virtue, which directly confronts the sort of criticism traditionally directed at a court painter like Dossi. In art, there is a never-ending argument between moralists and aesthetes – between those who think art must serve a lofty purpose and those who think art need serve only art. Depending upon the players and circumstances, this argument ranges from the shaded and subtle to the simplistic and hotly partisan. There can be no doubt where Dossi stood, though he presented his views with a light, almost comic touch. The story he chose to illustrate tells of Virtue coming to complain to Jupiter about her ill treatment by, among others, Fortune. For a month, she has been forced to wait outside the palace while the gods spend their time making cucumbers blossom and painting the wings of butterflies; finally, Mercury tells Virtue that Jupiter has no wish to quarrel with Fortune – and sends her away. In the painting, Dossi presents the ruler of Olympus as an effete, cross-legged painter who has put aside his thunderbolt because he would rather dream of rainbows and daub the wings of butterflies onto his canvas. Certainly, he wants nothing to do with this loud woman who clasps her breast in earnest supplication. And so Mercury tells her to hush. Art must not be bothered by Virtue’s tiresome demands.

Court Jester