Weird Lost World

An exhibition of works by Renaissance master Cosm? Tura gives this neglected artist a chance to finally take center stage.

Cambridge, MA –

The "Cosm? Tura: Painting and Design in Renaissance Ferrara" exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner's Museum has high ambitions. With its large and learned catalogue, academic symposium, and air of scholarly authority, the exhibition attempts a complete cultural "makeover" of a historic master. Cosm? Tura has been unfairly overlooked, the Gardner show says, and it proves that he is long overdue for a major comeback.

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To scholars and specialists, Tura has been a recognized Renaissance star for well over a century. But no one quite managed to place him in the galaxy of Leonardo, Botticelli, Giorgione, and Michelangelo. The reason is simple: he is just too weird.

In his book "Italian Painters of the Renaissance," Renaissance scholar Bernard Berenson wrote that Tura's "figures are of flint, as haughty and immobile as Pharaohs, or as convulsed with suppressed energy as the gnarled knots in the olive tree. His world is an anvil, his perception is a hammer, and nothing must muffle the sound of the stroke."

Scholars have suggested that ascetic painters of northern Europe, whose art was well known in Tura's Ferrara, may have influenced his work. Tura's intense, swirling lines could have also been a product of the decorative, "courtly" taste of his chief patrons, Ferrara's ruling Este Family. Or perhaps the city of Ferrara itself, a kind of Renaissance Akron, Ohio, full of dull streets in a featureless landscape, inspired the artist's violent reaction to his insipid surroundings.

What the show reminds us, more than anything, is that Tura's entire world is a lost one, vanished in centuries of war, cultural upheaval, and changing fashion. Famous while he lived, Tura was rapidly forgotten after his death. His major works were broken up and dispersed among many collections long before anyone got around to taking a second look. So perhaps the real Tura is gone forever.

Despite the heavy, scholarly apparatus, the show is anything but dry. Perhaps chosen to suit the rather claustrophobic dimensions of the Gardner's special exhibition gallery, Cosm? Tura presents its subject in miniature, with a handful of mostly small-scale works. At this level, the harshness that so startled Berenson melts away. What remains is charming, and requires no scholarly translation.

This is not to say that Tura's notorious strangeness was a critical illusion. But in a culture that has come to terms with half a dead cow as art, Tura's obstinate departure from received ideas seems considerably less jarring than it did in Berenson's heyday.

To our post-modern eyes, Tura's oddness -- his meticulously worked surfaces, his faces which actually show emotion, his barren, tortured landscapes, and the implied contradiction between the sharp edges of his style and the pure beauty of his paintings, seem less uncomfortably off-center than they did to the Victorians. Today, such flinty individuality has broader appeal than the slick, saccharine, and conventional productions of some better-known Florentine artists. We like our artists tough and want them to stand out from the crowd. Tura certainly fills the bill.

Tura was one of the first Italians to master the Northern European technique of painting in oils. The evidence suggests he had access to the finest and most costly pigments and, though it is safe to assume these works have been restored many times, enough remains to suggest Tura's splendid use of color. The tiny works on view -- sometimes no more than a few inches across -- sparkle with the gem-like tints of French illuminated manuscripts (or, as some scholars have noted, the brilliant hues of 15th-century Venetian art). The result is pure delight.

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In the "Piet?" (ca. 1460), the cloak on a Roman soldier in the background picks up the bright orange-red of the blood on Christ's feet and torso. Above the wasted landscape, the sky shades into a deep azure. In the several fragments exhibited from the Roverella Altarpiece (partly destroyed by artillery fire in 1709 and later broken up and dispersed), the orange-red returns and is contrasted with robes in a pale magenta and a blue that fades almost to slate. All three tones are brilliantly set off against the muted earth tones of Tura's landscapes.

The unnatural curves of Tura's compositions, so disturbingly evident especially in black-and-white reproductions, are far less jarring in the actual works, at least the ones of this small scale. In "Saint Peter" and "John the Baptist," which once belonged to Berenson, the complex curves of the drapery harmonize with the progressive arches of the landscape. Devotional works meant to be seen at an intimate distance, the surface of these paintings is carefully worked with thousands of tiny brushstrokes that invite a lingering, appreciative look.

Tura was one of the first Italians to use classical mythology as well as Christian themes as subject matter. Although "Hercules and the Nemean Lion" (ca. 1470), was once less painterly than it now seems (the drawing was apparently reworked in the 17th or 18th century), it does show how the new subject matter opened up possibilities for dramatic compositions. In fact, Tura may have developed such classically inspired, three-dimensional nude studies even earlier than better-known artists in Florence.

Besides paintings and drawings, the exhibition includes examples of so-called "minor" arts as tapestry, manuscripts, and commemorative medals. Except for the intricately illuminated manuscripts, these objects, designed by Tura or by his contemporaries, will be of only passing interest to non-specialists. But they serve to show the complex, jack-of-all-art-trades role of the Renaissance artist -- a role that often cast Tura more as a Hollywood stylist, interior decorator, or graphic designer than what we now think of as an independent artist.

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The Italian Renaissance we think we know is largely the creation of Victorian Romantics like critic John Ruskin and Bernard Berenson, and fanatic collectors, including Isabella Gardner. They invented a view of the Renaissance that strongly favored the aesthetics of the aforementioned Florence and of Venice -- an art of classical calm and balance with Raphael and Titian at its center.

This standard Renaissance view seems worlds away from the eclectic and cosmopolitan court of Tura's Ferrara. But the Este family, among the greatest and most sophisticated art patrons in European history, were hardly provincial rubes. Was the view of art from Ferrara just as rich, as developed, and as satisfying as the view from Venice or Florence? The Gardner show suggests that it might have been. If the Renaissances we have been missing are all as delightful as the one in this exhibition, we should be grateful for these broadened horizons.

The "Cosm? Tura: Painting and Design in Renaissance Ferrara" exhibition is on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner's Museum through May 12, 2002.