In the late 15th century, while other Italian cities were well into the turmoil of the Renaissance, Ferrara was still in the late middle ages artistically speaking.

Looking at the frescoed walls of the Salone dei Mesi in the Palazzo Schifanoia (completed around 1470), we see a dazzling visual account of contemporary court culture and the political ambitions of Duke Borso d’Este. This is the international gothic style at its elegant and erudite best. It is an able mix of astrology, politics and mythology celebrating Borso’s astuteness, generosity and – dearest to his heart – his aristocratic lineage.

Borso d’Este, a vain man who “never went out without being covered in jewels”, according to Pope Pius II, looked to France for friends. Most particularly he looked to Dijon, the capital of Burgundy – a vast dukedom which then included Flanders. He was deeply suspicious of the territorial ambitions of both the Pope himself and the Venetian Republic, whose southern border was the river Po, a few kilometres north of the city.

One of the finest works in the Palazzo dei Diamanti’s exhibition of art produced during Borso’s reign is the head-and-shoulders portrait made by half-brother Baldassare in 1471, the year Borso received his dukedom from the Pope. This shows a fleshy, jowled figure in profile against a dark background, wearing a crimson velvet hat and gold-trimmed jacket. His expression is implacable, if not cruel, a far cry from the flattering portraits of Borso at the Schifanoia. These show him engaged in frivolous pursuits such as hunting or tossing coins to his favourite dwarf.

Leonello, Borso’s elder brother, had succeeded during his reign in luring northern artists to his court. The show opens with several beautiful but faded portrait sketches of the youthful Borso by Pisanello, the leading artist of the late Gothic period in Italy. The Flemish artist Rogier Van der Weyden was also in Ferrara for a time. His 1464 piece “Entombment of Christ” combines extraordinary intensity of feeling with the sensuous qualities of gorgeous colours and wind-blown drapes. The red stockings and elegantly pointed shoes belonging to Joseph of Arimathea strike an incongruously fashionable note.

But the two stars of the show are the Ferrarese artists Francesco del Cossa and Cosmè Tura. The latter was appointed official court painter in 1458, imposing his particular style in different mediums.Illuminated manuscripts form an important part of the show. Many use a more expressive and rational language, such as Giorgio D’Alemagna’s Missal (made between 1449 and 1457). They leave the Gothic idiom far behind.

Tura’s interpretations of religious themes are startling. He offers an early form of expressionism, combined with the brilliant colours and passion for detail associated with northern art. His “Circumcision” shows a child truly in pain, while in the “Madonna col Bambino” of 1470, the Virgin is seated in a tabernacle, which becomes a window opening on to the countryside. On either side of her hang bunches of grapes on which are perched two vibrantly coloured birds: a goldfinch, symbol of the Passion, and a woodpecker, symbol of the Resurrection.

The tiny “Madonna of the Zodiac” (c. 1470) although only 22cm by 14cm in size, shows a golden-haired Virgin gazing in adoration at the Christ child, superimposed on a gold disc marked with the signs of the Zodiac, her head marking her own sign. This was the kind of cryptic work that enthused early Renaissance courts, who may have interpreted it as a possible Christian interpretation of the questionable art of astrology. The Madonna and child in a garden (between 1450 and 1455) is markedly Flemish in style: from the Madonna’s exaggerated high forehead and turban-like headdress to the exquisite details of the leaves of the fruit trees behind her and the grasses at her feet. A kind of mystic flame, the colour of pomegranate seeds, burns behind her head – adding to the disquieting atmosphere omnipresent in Tura’s work.

No less uncomfortable is his “Pietà” (1460). This is no flaccid Christ-figure, lying relaxed across his mother’s knees, but a hunched figure, his face distorted with pain, one hand stanching the flow of blood from his side. The meticulous, unrealistic and almost fairy-tale rendering of Mount Golgotha in the background is reminiscent of early works by Salvador Dalí.

While Tura had probably studied in Padua and Venice before coming to Ferrara, Francesco del Cossa came from Florence. His work is imbued with humanist ideals and thus more rational than Tura’s enigmas. With del Cossa’s handsome and spacious “Portrait of a Man” of 1472 we are suddenly looking at a work of the Renaissance.

Del Cossa, responsible for much of the decoration at Palazzo Schifanoia, is also the author of perhaps the most beautiful work in the show. This 1469 pen and brown ink drawing shows a page walking up some steps holding a swathe of ribbons in one hand and a torch in the other. He is moving rapidly, judging from the way his full sleeves and jacket tails fly behind him. This is Ferrarese art at its best. A miraculous synthesis between the clarity and order of Florentine painting and the neo-medieval frivolities of Ferrara. It is difficult to believe that a mere 150 km separates the two cities.

‘Cosmè Tura and Francesco del Cossa: Art in Ferrara under Borso d’Este’, Palazzo dei Diamanti, Ferrara, until January 6. Tel +39 (0) 532 244949

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