The most delightful surprise of the season is the Dosso Dossi exhibition, which has just opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For anyone who loves painting, this show is pure pleasure, and all the more so, perhaps, because it is so unexpected. Don’t fret if the name is unknown to you. Dosso (as he is called), whose dates are 1486-7 to 1542, is a name little known to anyone outside the circle of scholars, connoisseurs and dealers who specialize in the study of the Italian Renaissance masters. He gets mentioned in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists , but Vasari didn’t really approve of Dosso. He won the admiration of 16th-century court poet Ludovico Ariosto, who placed Dosso and his brother Battista in the company of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian in his epic Orlando Furioso , but who reads Orlando Furioso today? If Dosso is now mentioned at all in popular surveys of Renaissance art, it is usually to identify him as one of the followers of Giorgione.
The Met exhibition, entitled Dosso Dossi: Court Painter of Renaissance Ferrara and numbering some 60 paintings, is in fact the first such exhibition to be devoted to the artist’s work. It has already been seen in Ferrara, Italy, where it was exhibited at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in the fall, and in the spring it will travel to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The show brings together important loans from Italian collections–especially the Borghese Gallery in Rome–and from museums in Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, St. Petersburg, London, Paris, Madrid and the United States.
What is immediately striking about Dosso’s painting is its sheer sumptuousness and amplitude. Paintings that are relatively small in size seem barely able to contain the prodigal virtuosity the artist has brought to them, and some of the larger pictures–the Allegory of Hercules , from the Uffizi in Florence, and Jupiter, Mercury and Virtue , from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna–offer the eye almost more than the mind can entirely take in at a single viewing. Everything in Dosso’s art–the brilliancy of the color, the mastery of the drawing and the swaggering confidence with which pictures of considerable complexity are executed, as if on a dare–seems to approach a point of surfeit. Even the virtuosity of its realism–the details of the sandals worn by the figures in the Allegory of Fortune , from the Getty Museum, or the variety of textures in the Orientalist costume worn by the figure in Melissa , from the Bor- ghese Gallery–seems at times almost too much of a good thing.
Yet Dosso’s appetite for abundance and amplitude is often leavened by his wit. It was certainly an amusing idea to portray Jupiter, the ruler of the Olympian gods, not only as a painter but as a painter of butterflies, as Dosso does in Jupiter, Mercury and Virtue . (With his discarded thunderbolt lying at his feet, Jupiter is seen seated at an easel, with brush and palette in hand.) The subject is apparently based, somewhat loosely, on a dialogue composed by Leon Battista Alberti in the 1430’s. At least one scholar who has studied the sources, as we learn from the catalogue accompanying the Met show, has suggested that “Dosso’s depiction of Jupiter was a self-portrait, and that the artist had chosen the subject to illustrate his own horoscope.” According to this interpretation, “Jupiter and Mercury were in conjunction in the sign of Virgo on July 22, 1529, providing an approximate date for the picture, and before that on July 26, 1429, providing a birthdate for the painter.” Needless to say, there are other scholars who reject this reading as “unnecessarily esoteric.”
As to exactly what some of Dosso’s allegorical paintings may or may not “mean,” I am content to leave the problem to minds that command greater learning–and, apparently, greater powers of invention–than any I can lay claim to. About some pictures, however, no esoteric knowledge or speculative prowess is required to understand the veracity of their depictions. There wasn’t much about human nature that Dosso himself did not understand, and in one of the allegorical rhomboids that are included in the Met show–the painting devoted to Drunkenness , from the Galleria Estense in Modena–he has given us a picture of a sot that is so hilarious, so alarming and so true to life that heavy imbibers are advised to give the painting a pass lest it haunt their sleep for the rest of their drinking life. The look of resignation on the face of what I take to be the drunkard’s wife is pretty chilling as well.
Although Ferrara was one of the great centers of art and learning in Renaissance Italy, few of us are closely acquainted with its history, and this is no doubt one reason why Dosso has remained relatively unknown to all but specialists. The dispersal of Ferrara’s artistic treasures that followed upon the end of the Este family rule in the late 16th century had the effect of consigning a great many of his pictures to the mercies of the art market. This, in turn, created problems in attribution. It wasn’t until 1914, nearly 400 years after Dosso’s death, that the first serious monograph was devoted to his work. And now, nearly another century later, we have at last been given an exhibition of his paintings.
Dosso Dossi is a marvelous exhibition, and it remains on view at the Met through March 28. At the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, it will be on view from April 27 to July 11.