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The witty landscapes of Dosso Dossi

For the Italian painter, the countryside was a realm of diversion and delight.

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One of the numerous subjects treated by Pliny in his Naturalis Historia of the late first century AD was art. In the course of his discussion of the ancient masters he described the work of Spurius Tadius, also known as Ludius or Studius, a Roman painter who flourished under the reign of Augustus. It was Studius, said Pliny, who “first introduced the most attractive fashion of painting walls with villas, harbours, and landscape gardens, groves, woods, hills, fish-pools, canals, rivers, coasts”. These features were enlivened by people going about their daily business “on donkey-back or in carriages… fishing, fowling, hunting, or even gathering the vintage”. His scenes, moreover, were “lively and witty”.

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The idea of “pure landscapes”, which depicted nature alone, was a later invention. In the wall paintings of imperial Rome, people were as natural a feature of the landscape as trees or hills. Although Pliny’s book was familiar to the humanist courts of Renaissance Italy, Studius’s conception of landscape was curiously slow to take hold, despite the era’s obsession with the antique. It was Dosso Dossi, a painter attached to the dukes of Este at Ferrara, who took it on himself to give new expression to the lost Roman tradition.

Dossi (1486/87-1542) is now seen as something of a curiosity, a slightly eccentric painter from one of the Renaissance’s fringe courts. In his own time, however, his reputation won him both a place in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists and a mention in Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso. There, Ariosto named the most distinguished artists “yet living or of earlier day”, and sitting alongside Mantegna, Leonardo, Giovanni Bellini, Raphael, Titian and Michelangelo (“less man than angel and divine”) were “The Dossi” – Dosso and his less talented younger brother and collaborator Battista.

Vasari’s opinion of Dosso was rather lower than Ariosto’s. He suggested the painter owed his reputation to the poet: “The pen of Lodovico [Ariosto] has given more renown to the name of Dosso than did all the brushes and colours that he used in the whole of his life.” Still, he acknowledged Dosso executed landscapes “better than any other painter engaged in that branch of the profession”. The sniffy tone was because, for Vasari, landscape was a Flemish and German genre that existed low in the hierarchy of art; and since he was a proud Tuscan who believed the best artists came from Florence, or failing that Rome, that Dosso was from Lombardy was not to his credit either. Never- theless, Dosso was an idiosyncratic painter not an isolated one. He not only came to know Titian well over the course of many years, as well as meeting Michelangelo, Raphael and Giulio Romano, but also subsumed lessons from their art into his own.

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Dosso’s real name was Giovanni Francesco di Niccolò de Luteri, his nickname “Dosso” derived from a small family property near Mantua, while the plural “Dossi” was a conflation of the two painting brothers that came about after a much later confusion over their names. It was from Venice, and from Giorgione and the young Titian in particular, that Dosso first took inspiration. He spent several years in the city and adopted not just the lush Venetian palette but also Giorgione’s method of composing directly on the canvas rather than working from preparatory drawings in the Florentine manner. It meant few drawings from his hand have been identified.

Dosso was recorded in Ferrara from 1513 and from then on worked almost exclusively for Duke Alfonso I d’Este and then his son Ercole II. His duties were to produce not only portraits and altarpieces but also a wide range of decorative and ephemeral work – theatre sets, carriage decorations, banner and flag conceits, tapestry designs and painted woodwork for the ducal apartments.

This sense of lightness and pleasure – of entertainment – can be found in his landscapes. Although he would sometimes work from literary sources, such as the now lost series of ten landscapes illustrating episodes from the Aeneid that he painted as a frieze for Alfonso’s private apartment, he did not let the putative subject dominate but would improvise on it, sending the eye around the image to alight on incidental delights. These were what Paolo Giovio, a physician, historian and another early commentator on Dosso, called parega: embellishments to offer pleasant diversions.

In this painting, known as The Three Ages of Man (circa 1514-15), now in the Met in New York, Dosso’s moral message – the transience of youth as it passes from childhood through maturity to old age – is entirely secondary to a wit that is on display in the voyeuristic goats, the amorous swain’s wandering hands and rapidly reddening cheeks, and the two spying boys chortling with delight.

For Dosso, the burgeoning foliage of the countryside outside the coastal town that can be glimpsed through the trees is as much of a subject as the human action; in fact, the silk-clad courtly lovers who have escaped the town for their tryst are painted over a bush, so the landscape was originally even more prominent. Dosso hardly bothers to tether the figure groups to each other or the landscape but makes the scene all the more vibrant by the flicks of his brush, the unmodulated and slightly otherworldly colours, and the sharp contrasts of light and shade. This is not a real place but a realm of dalliance, drenched in a poetic atmosphere that would reappear some 200 years later in the Rococo fêtes champêtres of Jean-Antoine Watteau and Nicolas Lancret.

Much about Dosso remains a mystery. There is almost nothing known about his private life, though Vasari tantalisingly revealed that the Dossi brothers’ relationship was fractious (“These two were always enemies, one against the other, although they worked together”). His paintings are invariably undated, and his subjects are difficult to understand fully, not least because he would change them as he worked, aiming for pictorial harmony rather than thematic sense. But Vasari also recorded that Dosso was “much loved” by Duke Alfonso “because he was an affable and pleasant man”, and it is these traits that bubble to the surface in his landscapes, too.

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Michael Prodger is associate editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 03 February 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s tragedy