PAINTING DURING THE EARLY RENAISSANCE (1400-1495). PAINTERS OUTSIDE TUSCANY. Melozzo, Francesco del Cossa and Cosimo Tura

One of Piero della Francesca’s disciples was Melozzo da Forlì, born ca. 1438 in Forlì (now a municipality in Emilia-Romagna, and the capital of the province of Forlì-Cesena). Melozzo was thought to be born in a wealthy family named Ambrosi from Forlì. During his formative years he was also influenced by Andrea Mantegna.

Later, Melozzo moved to Urbino, probably between 1465 and 1474, to work for the Duke Federico da Montefeltro. While in Urbino, Melozzo met Piero della Francesca, who would have a profound influence in his style and use of perspective. He also had the opportunity to study architectures by Bramante and the work of Flemish painters who were then also working for the Duke of Urbino, in fact, Melozzo probably worked in collaboration with Justus of Ghent and Pedro Berruguete to decorate the studiolo of the Ducal Palace.

Pope Sixtus IV called him to Rome around 1472-1474 to decorate the Vatican Library. For these set of frescoes Melozzo painted the three rooms of the Library, and in 1477 he finished his first major work, the only one that remains from these set of frescoes and that was later transferred to canvas. This interesting fresco represents Sixtus IV Appointing Platina as Prefect of the Vatican Library. This fresco, detached from its original place, today occupies a place of honor in the Pinacoteca Vaticana (the Vatican Painting Gallery). In this fresco, the portraits are admirable, as well as the color scheme, soft and very natural; but, furthermore, Melozzo could be recognized as a disciple of Piero della Francesca because of this fresco’s background painted with an admirable sense of perspective with the windows of a gallery seen in the distance, through which light enters illuminating the whole room. However, what was new and surprising about this work, the great contribution of Melozzo da Forlì, is his new sense of perspective based not only on the convergence of lines towards the “vanishing point” located on the horizon (according to Brunelleschi’s teachings and practiced by all Florentine artists), but on an aerial perspective based on a bold foreshortening from the bottom up. In this way Melozzo obtained extraordinary results: the viewer thinks he/she is contemplating the figures and architectural elements from below.

Sixtus IV Appointing Platina as Prefect of the Vatican Library, fresco (transferred to canvas), by Melozzo da Forlì, 1477, (Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City). The fresco represents the historical event of the foundation of the Vatican library in 1475 and the nomination of its first head, Bartolomeo Platina, and was the central decoration of the Vatican Library. The then reigning pope, Sixtus IV, seated on the right, is shown in the company of several individuals, including two of his nephews. The standing figure in the center of the composition facing Sixtus can be identified as his nephew the cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, later Pope Julius II. Bartolomeo Platina is kneeling in front of Pope Sixtus IV. The man standing beside the throne is Apostolic Protonotary Raffaello Riario, and behind Platina are Girolamo Riario and Giovanni della Rovere. Platina points his finger to the Latin inscription below and composed by himself, which exalts Sixtus’ deeds in Rome. The background represents classic architectures in perspective, with arcades and a gilded coffer ceiling.

Between ca. 1472-1474, Melozzo painted the vault of the apse in the Basilica of the Holy Apostles in Rome with the Ascension of the Christ between angels, which was considered one of the most beautiful of his works. These frescoes were also detached from their original location, and their fragments went on to adorn the staircase of the Quirinal Palace (the figure of Christ who appears boldly and effectively foreshortened), while others are now in the Vatican in the sacristy of St. Peter’s and which had a strong influence in the work of Raphael. Despite them being very mutilated, they are today one of the innumerable art jewels conserved in Rome. From these frescoes, the set of Angels by Melozzo (today in a hall in the Vatican Museums) appear as youthful and strong figures, somewhat feminine because of their perfect hair curls and elegant gestures; each one plays a musical instrument with solemn delight: the violin, the lute or the tambourine. Another work from his Roman period is an Annunciation that can still be seen in the Pantheon.

Triumphant Christ, fresco (transferred to canvas), by Melozzo da Forlì, 1481-1483 (Palazzo del Quirinale, Rome).  This picture is a fragment of a monumental fresco executed in the chancel of the church of Santi Apostoli in Rome. The overall theme of the monumental fresco was the Ascension of Christ. Only 16 fragments of the fresco survived. In this fragment, the central figure of the ascending Christ appears in the middle of clouds and putti, his arms extended, his hair and beard floating in the breeze, his eyes gazing calmly downward. The picture below is a detail of an angel at the foot of Christ taken from the same fresco. These solemn, monumental figures, strongly foreshortened, testify to the full maturity of the great artist from Forlì, a follower of Piero della Francesca, and his skill in the use of perspective.

Musician Angels (above and below), fresco, by Melozzo da Forlì, 1480-1484, (Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City). Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere (later Pope Julius II) commissioned the decoration of the apse of the Basilica of the Santi Apostoli in Rome to Melozzo. Only fragments of this fresco decoration remain, showing scenes with the Ascension, Apostles and Musician Angels. Vasari described Melozzo as “a great artist for perspective” emphasizing the painter’s undisputed skill in bold foreshortening in the style of “di sotto in su” (from below looking up), a characteristic that Melozzo made his own, though it was derived from paintings by Piero della Francesca and Mantegna.  These Angels play a variety of musical instruments, from the triangle, to drums, violins, lutes and tambourines.

Musician Angel, by Melozo da Forlì (Museo del Prado, Madrid). Melozzo created Angelical types characterized by elegance and expressiveness.
Annunciation, fresco, by Melozzo da Forlì, ca. 1470’s (Pantheon, Rome). This fresco is located just inside and to the right of the entrance of the Pantheon. It depicts the traditional iconography of the Annunciation to Mary, with God in Heaven sending the dove of the Holy Spirit down to Earth, while the Archangel Gabriel kneels in front of Mary to announce to her the good news.

After the death of Pope Sixtus IV in 1484, Melozzo moved from Rome to Loreto, where he decorated with frescoes the dome of the sacristy of San Marco in the Basilica della Santa Casa, commissioned by cardinal Girolamo Basso della Rovere. This is the only one of his works that has been preserved intact, finished ca. 1488, and that reflects the artist’s taste for flying figures captured in fantastic foreshortenings. This is one of the first examples of a cupola decorated both with architecture and figures, and it went to greatly influenced the Camera degli Sposi painted by Andrea Mantegna between 1465-1474.

Fresco cycle in the Sacristy of St. Mark, by Melozzo da Forlì (Basilica of Santa Casa, Loreto). This Sanctuary of the Holy House at Loreto was constructed in the 15th century to enshrine the Holy House (Santa Casa) of the Virgin Mary, which tradition held had been brought from the Holy Land to Loreto by angels during the 14th century. Around the crossing, with the Santa Casa enshrined in the center, are four octagonal rooms, closed off by doors, that are referred to simply as sacristies. Two of the four were painted in the 15th century, the Sacristy of St. John by Luca Signorelli, and the Sacristy of St. Mark by Melozzo da Forlì. There is a close connection between the gospel texts of Sts. John and Mark, and the pictorial programs of these two painted sacristies. The paintings in the Sacristy of St. Mark focus on the Passion, appropriately, since it is Mark who describes it in the greatest detail. In the Sacristy painted by Melozzo, it is the vaulting, with its deep, vivid colors, that immediately captures the viewer’s attention. This eight-part Gothic vaulting (pictured above) is one of the most astonishing examples of monumental illusionistic wall painting from the 15th century. The wall area below (see next picture) it is conceived as an open arcade, the deep, coffered faces of its arches rendered in dramatic perspective. Through these wide arches, seen from below, one could at one time look out at seven scenes from the Passion, only one of which, Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, survives, since Melozzo never finished this commission.

Vaulting fresco decoration of the Sacristy of St. Mark by Melozzo da Forlì, 1477-1482 (Basilica of Santa Casa, Loreto). Each face of the dome was painted with ornamental paneling composed of Melozzo’s favorite elements: guilloches*, acanthus, bead-and-reel, palmettes, and dolphins, all converging on a central garland of Della Rovere oak leaves that embraces the cardinal’s coat-of-arms who commissioned the frescoes. Thanks to his accurate technique in foreshortening, Melozzo painted figures that seem to sit or float in the actual space of the sacristy.
Above and below, detail of the vault decoration at the Basilica of Santa Casa (Loreto), fresco, by Melozzo da Forlì. The detail above shows three angels holding different instrument of the Passion of Christ below the garland of puttis. Sitting on the frieze at the start of the vault are the seated figures of different Prophets (below).

Detail of one of the Angels holding instruments of the Passion, from the vault decoration at the Basilica of Santa Casa (Loreto), fresco, by Melozzo da Forlì.
Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, fresco, by Melozzo da Forlì, 1477-1482, 2.30 m width (Basilica of Santa Casa, Loreto).  The wall area below the vaulting of the Sacristy of St. Mark was conceived by Melozzo as an open arcade which he rendered in dramatic perspective. Through these arches the viewer could see seven episodes of the Passion of Christ. which only one was painted by Melozzo: Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, with lush Tuscan landscapes opening into the distance, and similar to those Benozzo Gozzoli painted in his Journey of the Magi fresco for the Palazzo Medici in Florence.

Melozzo died in November 1494 in Forlì and is buried there in the Church of the Santissima Trinita (Most Holy Trinity). While today we know few of Melozzo’s pictorial production, art scholars agree that he contributed to the evolution of pictorial art through his care and finish in painting, his fine and dignified figures, and above all his bold and novel use of perspective. The paintings of Melozzo strongly influenced the work of Michelangelo, Raphael and Donato Bramante.

Pestapepe, detached fresco, by Melozzo da Forlì, 15th century (Pinacoteca Civica, Forlì).  This figure known in Italy by the name pestapepe (“pepper grinder”) belonged to a widespread repertoire of types which appears in several other Italian paintings from the 15th century. This fresco by Melozzo, badly damaged today, was originally painted as a grocer’s sign. It is an energetic and rare example of rather coarse realism and secular painting of the Renaissance, and is Melozzo’s only known secular subject.


Simultaneously with all these events, the stay of Piero della Francesca in Ferrara, around 1450, had a decisive influence on local artists. The pictoric tradition of the International Gothic, with Flemish reminiscences of the works by Van der Weyden, mixed there with the artistic novelties contributed by Piero: a new spatial sense, dramatic realism and serene compositions showing precision and calm. The combination of all these ingredients heavily influenced the works of Cosimo Tura (ca. 1430 – 1495), Francesco del Cossa (ca. 1430 – ca. 1477), both from Ferrara, and Andrea Mantegna (ca. 1431 – September 13, 1506) born in Isola di Carturo, close to Padua, but who also happened to be in Ferrara in the mid-15th century. Perhaps the most representative work of this unusual mixture of Gothic linearism and Renaissance plasticism is the marvelous series of frescoes painted in 1470 by Francesco del Cossa in collaboration with Cosimo Tura, for the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara. This is a vast fresco cycle with allegories about the zodiacal signs and months of the year. One of these allegories, and one of the most remarkable images in this series, is the horde of naked toddlers in the Allegory of May – Triumph of Apollo, apparently painted as a symbol of springtime’s prolific blossoming, the crowded rows of babies looks like a modern phalanx of infantile Rockettes dancers. The Allegory of April includes the Triumph of Venus, in which gentle groups of pairs of lovers walk and embrace on a river bank, thus recreating the climate lived in those times in the court of Borso d’Este, in Ferrara; it also has a depiction of the three Graces, one of the earliest Post-classical representations of this theme in painting, and that together with the strange architectures of rocks and plants, adds a touch of mysterious poetry to the whole of the composition. Even today we are moved by that humanism that exudes from the observation of these frescoes, together with an acute sense of reality and with a delicate elegance reflected by the costumes and attitudes of the various characters.

View of the fresco decoration of the Salone dei Mesi (“Hall of the Months”), by Francesco del Cossa and Cosimo Tura, between1476-1484 (Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara, Italy). This large room was decorated with a series of allegorical frescoes symbolizing the months and the zodiacal signs. The length of the room is 24 m, the width 11 m and the height 7,5 m. Other artists that work in these frescoes were Baldassare d’Este and Ercole de’ Roberti. The allegories of the different months are distributed in different walls: on the southern wall are January and February, on the eastern wall are March, April and May, on the north wall are June, July, August and September, and on the west wall are October, November and December. Today there are only few fragments of these frescoes on the southern and western walls, while those on the eastern wall and most on the northern wall are in relatively good condition. For all the allegories, the episodes are arranged in a three horizontal register friezes; in the upper register (“the sphere of mythology”), each month and its planet are paralleled by their ancient divinity in a triumphal procession. The middle layer shows the signs of the zodiac, while below were depicted the courtly events appropriate to the particular time of year. The picture depicted above shows, from left to right, frescoes corresponding to the months of September, August, July, June, May, April, and March, respectively. The decoration was commissioned by Borso d’Este (Duke of Ferrara). The name Borso gave to this pleasure palace “Schifanoia” is thought to originate from “schivar la noia” meaning literally to “escape from boredom” which describes accurately the original intention of the palazzo.
Allegory of March: Triumph of Minerva, fresco, by Francesco del Cossa, 1476-1484, 500 x 320 cm (Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara). Following the narrative program of the whole fresco cycle, the Triumph of Minerva is represented on the upper register: in the center is the goddess Minerva on a triumphal chariot, on the left a group of poets and magistrates, on the right women with symbols of feminine labor (see detail in the picture below). The middle register represents the zodiac sign Aries, while the lower layer depicts a hunting scene.

This detail from the Allegory of March: Triumph of Minerva fresco, by Francesco del Cossa (Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara) is part of the lower register and represents men tending grape vines.
Allegory of April: Triumph of Venus, fresco, by Francesco del Cossa, 1476-1484, 500 x 320 cm (Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara). The upper register depicts the Triumphal chariot of Venus, pulled by a pair of swans, with Mars kneeling before her. The middle register represents the bull, the astrological symbol of the zodiac sign Taurus, and in the lower register we see Borso d’Este and the buffoon Scocola, alongside their retinue, to the right next to the arcade.
The upper register of the Allegory of April: Triumph of Venus fresco, by Francesco del Cossa (Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara) represents, alongside Venus and Mars on the chariot, groups of young couples talking, kissing, playing instruments and frolicking. At the upper right corner are the three Graces (see detail below), one of the earliest Post-classical representations of this theme in painting.

Allegory of May: Triumph of Apollo, fresco, by Francesco del Cossa, 1476-1484, 500 x 320 cm (Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara). In the upper register the triumphal chariot of Apollo is flanked to the left by poets and to the right by the nine Muses behind the low hill, and on it, right next to the chariot, in first term, a group of naked babies (see pictures below). In the middle register we see the symbol of Gemini at the center, above it a kneeling man listening to music played on a wind instrument, on the left a teacher instructs a young boy the rules of poetry or music, and on the right a man stand with a bow. In the lower register are represented different rural activities.

Madonna with the Child and Saints, tempera on canvas, by Francesco del Cossa, 1474, 227 x 166 cm (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna). This work was commissioned for the Palazzo della Mercanzia nel Foro dei Mercanti in Bologna. The saints on the painting are St. Petronius to the left, and St. John the Evangelist to the right. The man in profile kneeling behind St. Petronius is Alberto de’Cattanei who commissioned the painting.
Annunciation and Nativity (Altarpiece of Observation), tempera on panel, by Francesco del Cossa, 1470, 137 x 113 cm, and 26,5 x 114,5 cm (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden). This panel and predella were the altarpiece of the church of the Observation in Bologna.
St. John the Baptist (from the Griffoni Polyptych), oil on panel, by Francesco del Cossa, 1473, 112 x 55 cm (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan). Behind the figure of John the Baptist there’s a rocky landscape, pinnacles, open arcades, and natural bridges supporting turreted castles and domed churches, characteristics that were typical of the paintings by del Cossa.
St. Lucy (from the Griffoni Polyptych), oil on panel, by Francesco del Cossa, 1473, 79 x 56 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington). This painting was probably one of the upper side panels of the Griffoni Polyptych, whose panels are nowadays spread in different museums. The strange plant with human eyes held by St. Lucy is an allusion to the medieval legend that this saint, the patron saint of eyesight, sacrificed her eyes for her Christian faith.
Portrait of a Man with a Ring, oil on panel, by Francesco del Cossa, 1472-1477, 39 x 28 cm (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid). The identity of the sitter is unknown. It seems, however, that this portrait worked as a record of the sitter’s engagement, as he is holding the ring he will give to his betrothed.
Allegory of June: Triumph of Mercury, fresco, by Cosimo Tura, 1476-1484, 500 x 320 cm (Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara). The upper register depicts the Triumph of Mercury, to the left, men discussing and boys playing instruments, to the right, a shop and the beheaded Argus up on the hill. In the center register, Cancer’s zodiacal symbol. In the lower register, the Duke Borso d’Este and his entourage riding toward the palace, receives petitioners; in the background a landscape with the Po River.
Allegory of July: Triumph of Jupiter, fresco, attributed to Cosimo Tura, 1476-1484, 500 x 320 cm (Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara). The upper scene depicts the Triumph of Jupiter, to the left a wedding and monks at a sanctuary, to the right clerics and a knight, and a young man resting in the background. In the center Leo’s zodiac symbol, and below Duke Borso receiving dignitaries.
Allegory of August: Triumph of Ceres, fresco, by Cosimo Tura, 1476-1484, 500 x 320 cm (Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara). At the top, the triumphal chariot of Ceres surrounded by agricultural scenes. In the center the astrological symbol for Virgo. At the bottom, Duke Borso receiving dignitaries and preparing for a hunt.
Allegory of September: Triumph of Maia, fresco, attributed to Cosimo Tura, 1476-1484, 500 x 320 cm (Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara). The upper scene depicts the triumphal car of Maia, to the left Vulcan’s forge, to the right the love nest of Mars and Venus. In the center the astrological symbol of Libra. Below, different scenes depicting a grape harvest, preparation for a hunt, and Duke Borso receiving ambassadors.
A Muse (Calliope?), oil with egg on poplar panel, by Cosimo Tura, 1455-1460, 116 x 71 cm (National Gallery, London). Cosimo painted a series of images of the Muses for a studiolo for the Este castle of Belfiore near Ferrara. The painting was supposed to be displayed high up in the room, hence its low vanishing-point.
Annunciation, tempera on canvas, by Cosimo Tura, 1469, 349 x 305 cm (Museo del Duomo, Ferrara). Originally, this work was done to cover the organ of the Cathedral in Ferrara, and displays a high degree of intense expressionism.
Portrait of a Young Man, tempera on panel, by Cosimo Tura, ca. 1475,  27 x 14 cm (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). It has been thought the sitter to be Duke Borso d’Este.


Guilloche: A decorative technique in which repetitive architectural patterns of intersecting or overlapping spirals or other shapes are used.