Banishing boredom in Ferrara

I have just finished reading Ali Smith’s 2014 novel How to be Both (Penguin). It is in two parts – one is narrated by a Renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa (although Smith spells it Francescho) and one part by a contemporary teenage girl living in Cambridge, England. I read in a review that half the books were published with the artist’s part first and half with the teenager’s first (George, for Georgia, is her name). The version I read began with the artist’s story, which is the most challenging stylistically (and, at times, I found it a bit boring). I found the teenager’s story much easier to read and more interesting – I think I’d have preferred to have read a version with her story first! Of course, I’ll never know now. The artist is in our times, but it’s unclear (to me, at least) if he’s meant to be a ghost/spirit or is actually imagined by the teenager and her friend for a school project. That’s about all I want to say about the book – there are plenty of online reviews for those who want to know more.

I was particularly interested in the artist as I saw some of his works on my 2014 Italian art tour. As Smith says in her novel, and it’s true, not much is known about him. Born about 1435/6, he died about 1477/8, so he was about 42 when he died. This birthdate is from the National Gallery, London website – Wikipedia says c. 1430, which would make his death age 47.

More from the National Gallery website: “Cossa was, after Cosme Tura, the leading painter at the Este court at Ferrara in the 15th century. He was the son of a stone-carver and is first recorded as working in Ferrara in 1456, with his father, on an altarpiece. Much of his work at Ferrara is destroyed; his main surviving works there are the frescoes painted before 1470. Cossa later moved to Bologna, where he apparently settled.  Cossa’s style derives from the work of Mantegna and the circle of Squarcione; and also the work of Donatello in Padua. At Ferrara a highly accomplished version of this style, notable for ornamental detail, formed the basis of a flourishing local tradition. Cossa influenced the work of Ercole de’ Roberti, who was probably his pupil and assistant.”[1]

The National Gallery, London has one painting by Cossa, depicting Saint Vincent Ferrer, it was the central panel of a Bologna altarpiece.[2] This is described in Smith’s novel. The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, has three works by him[3] – one, a Saint Lucy, is also mentioned in Smith’s novel.

Borso detail sculpture

Borso d’Este sculpture at Museum Schifanoia

His time in Ferrara coincided with the reign of Borso d’Este. The Este family ruled Ferrara for just over 200 years – as marquises from 1393, and dukes from 1471 till the title died out in 1597 and Ferrara was added to the Papal States (the family moved to Modena, taking some of their art treasures, including a huge Bible made for Borso, which we saw at the wonderful Estense library in Modena). Borso was made Duke of Modena and Reggio in 1451 and Duke of Ferrara in 1471, only a few months before he died. Another well-known family member of the next generation was Isabella d’Este who married into the Gonzaga family of Mantua and was an art patron (Leonardo drew her portrait). Her sister Beatrice married into the wealthier Sforza family of Milan.

But back to Borso and the Palazzo Schifanoia. As Wikipedia says: The name “Schifanoia” is thought to originate from “schivar la noia” meaning literally to “escape from boredom” which describes accurately the original intention of the palazzo and the other villas in close proximity where the Este court relaxed.[4]

The palazzo (now a museum) façade is much plainer today than when it was built. You enter a hall with some items on display, including the sculpture of Borso. Upstairs is the ‘Salone dei Mesi’ (salon of the months) – the room with the frescoes.

The frescoes are related to the calendar illustrations that appear frequently in Northern European manuscripts, but here there is a special emphasis on Borso d’Este as a wise ruler. The programme was possibly devised by the court astrologer Pellegrino Prisciano (he features in Smith’s novel as ‘the falcon’ which is what his first name means). There are three bands in each month – in the top register there is a representation of the ancient deity who presided over that month, with the signs of the related zodiac in the middle zone and the courtly activities and practical labours appropriate for that month on the bottom. Portraits of Borso and his courtiers appear in various scenes on the lower level.[5]

However, like the other artists, Cossa was paid by the square foot for his work for Duke Borso. A letter exists from him to Borso complaining he was being paid the same as the “worst dauber in Ferrara”, and as he didn’t receive more, he left Ferrara for Bologna in 1470.[6]

In the centuries after his death Cossa’s reputation suffered from misidentifications of his works and by Vasari’s confusion of him with Lorenzo Costa. The frescoes were whitewashed over and only rediscovered in the nineteenth century. Cossa’s “importance was secured in the nineteenth century with the discovery of the Hall of the Months frescoes and the subsequent (documented) attribution to him of the murals on the east wall. Since then, Cossa has become established in the triumvirate of leading quattrocento Ferrarese painters, along with Cosmè Tura and Ercole de’ Roberti.”[7]

A fresco is a type of wall painting. The term comes from the Italian word for fresh because in ‘buon’ or true fresco, paint is applied to the plastered wall while it is still wet. This means the paint dries along with the plaster making a very durable surface. The other method of fresco painting is ‘fresco a secco’ where the paint is applied to a dry wall – this isn’t as durable. The drawing was made under the top layer of plaster – often in a red pigment – the pigment and the drawing came to be known as sinopia.[8] Only as much plaster as can be painted in one day is spread on the wall; each day’s work is called a giornata.

Cossa is known to have painted in buon fresco the three months of March, April, and May:

  • Allegory of March: Triumph of Minerva
  • Allegory of April: Triumph of Venus
  • Allegory of May: Triumph of Apollo

My images are above, but if you want better quality the Web Gallery of Art has good images.

There are two rooms upstairs – the room next to the hall of the months is notable for its ceiling. It is called the room of the stuccoes:

Ferrara still has some wonderful streets laid from medieval times – as well as the ‘Herculean addition’ – laid out around 1492 for Ercole (‘Hercules’) d’Este: an early example of town planning. Also an impressive cathedral. Oh, and Savonarola was born there and has a statue! Today, as a tourist, it’s also a great place to escape boredom.


[1] See:

[2] See:

[3] See:

[4] See:

[5] See:

[6]  See:

[7] See:

[8] See:


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