I’ve never seen them in person, but the celebrated frescoes by Francesco del Cossa representing March, April and May in the Room of the Months at the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara have still captivated me for years. They were painted by del Cossa in 1469-70 at the behest of Borso d’Este, the Duke of Modena and Ferrara, who is featured prominently in typical Renaissance fashion. The complex astrological and classical schemes in the murals keep me guessing, but it’s the details that keep me looking. Let’s look at March as a case in point.
Francesco del Cossa, Allegory of March: Triumph of Minerva, c. 1469-70, at Palazzo Schifanoia and Web Gallery of Art.
The del Cossa murals have three sections: the gods above, the zodiac in the center, and the d’Este court below–but everyone looks accessible and interesting. In the case of March, triumphant deity Minerva, patroness of learning and crafts, is seated in her chariot surrounded by scholars deep in discussion and craftswomen hard at work (at least some of them–all while beautifully dressed and coiffed). These women–most particularly the Three Fates in the foreground– have received a lot of attention from Renaissance costumers and reenactors: even though they dwell in the realm of the Gods they seem quite grounded, by the details of their dress and activity–quite in contrast to those who occupy the realm below.
The central section of the Allegory of March is the most mysterious: here we see the somewhat familiar Athena hovering over the ram Aries, with two oddly-dressed characters on either side. They are deccans, mediating spirits who ruled for only periods of ten days: a black man dressed in rags and a rather effeminate arrow-and ring-bearing young man (???)–what’s happening here? These guys could represent lots of things–fortitude, beauty, caution–but why the adrogyny, why the rags? The ragged man was so captivating to novelist Ali Smith that he inspired her Man Booker Prize short-listed novel, How to be Both (2014), told partially from the perspective of Francesco dell Cosso.
Leather commemorative binding of Ali Smith’s How to be Both by Derek Hood, featuring pieces of the March mural and a famous letter from del Cossa to Borso d’Este asking for more money for the commission–when he was rebuffed, he left Ferrara for good: Begging to recall to your highness, that I am Francesco del Cossa, who made those three fields towards the antechamber entirely by my self: so if you, your Highness really don’t want to give me more than 10 bolognini [pennies] per square foot, I’d be losing 40 or 50 ducats…..I’ve got a name these days, and this payment leaves me on a par with the saddest apprentice in Ferrara…and I’ve studied, I study all the time, and I’ve used gold and good colours at my own expense…and done the whole thing in fresco, which is really advanced work……
I’ve got a name these days: a nice expression of Renaissance confidence in achievement, and attitude! Del Cossa places us firmly on the ground–and in his own time–in the lower register of the mural where we see Duke Borso reigning under a very impressive loggia as his subjects go about their March-appropriate activities: the courtiers hunt and the peasants prune. Obviously there’s some damage here, but in the upper left hand corner there’s a perfect vignette of daily life: while men prune grapevines atop an impressive brick foundation (Del Cossa’s father was a mason) we see dogs chasing March hares, who look like they’re definitely going to get away.