One day at work I made friends with an intern. His cube was across from mine and when I was walking by his desk I noticed this artwork as the background image on his computer:
“Oh hey” I belted out “that’s from Palazzo Schifanoia!”
You should have seen this intern’s face. “You know about Palazzo Schifanoia?!?!?!” As it turns out the intern was Italian and his home town was Ferrara, home to the magnificently weird frescoes inside Palazzo Schifanoia.
This conversation launched my favorite flavor of friendship: The Art Friendship. Once we discovered our mutual delight in Italian Renaissance art and architecture, the names Giotto, Bramante, Piero della Francesca and Alberti were flying across the gray barrier of our office cubicle. You know those people who are always huddled in the corner talking about football?—that was us, but with art history.
Can you guess what happened next? Well of course HOB and I traveled to Ferrara to see the frescoes in Palazzo Schifanoia, armed with loads of advice from my friend.
Palazzo Schifanoia roughly translates as “Boredom Sucks” and this name perfectly illustrates the palaces’ purpose: to entertain the family and court of Ferrara’s Este family. Think of it as a kind of country club slash sports bar slash arcade but with better art.
I confess we were underwhelmed with the palace itself, which is mainly filled with a forgettable museum collection. We trudged through the galleries followed uncomfortably closely by a security guard until—a Renaissance revelation—frescoes!
The Salone dei Mesi (Room of the Months) is an unapologetically pagan celebration of easy living. Created from 1476 – 84, the frescos illustrate a humanist vision of month-by-month life in Ferrara’s courts. While each month has a vaguely mythological theme, there’s no moralizing or religion here. These frescoes exalt the leisured lifestyle of the Ferrara’s rich and privileged class.
As no photos were allowed in the Palazzo, all pictures of the frescoes are from Web Gallery of Art.
Allegory of March: Triumph of Minerva.
The months of March, April and May were painted by Francesca del Cossa.
Allegory of March, Triumph of Minerva (detail).
Because sometimes you need a lot of ladies in matching headgear to weave a rug….
Allegory of March, Triumph of Minerva (detail) Aries
Seriously, how hot is this guy? His perfect curls, his seductively ripped outfit, the way he dangles his, um, cord between his legs—yowza! I’ve never been interested in astrology, but if this is really what Aries looks like I’m going to start checking my horoscope beginning today.
Allegory of March, Triumph of Minerva (detail),
The guy holding a falcon is not nearly as hot as Aries.
Allegory of March, Triumph of Minerva (detail).
This scene showing pruning of vines is quite wonderful: I love the contrast of the older men in white pruning the lower vines while the more nimble boys climb up high to tend the upper vines. Notice the carefully rendered buildings in the background of the vineyard. Those are hunting dogs in the foreground.
Allegory of April, Triumph of Venus.
That’s Venus riding the swan boat. She holding an apple and a flower while Mars kneels in front of her. (In fact, Mars is actually chained to Venus, showing he is shacked by love—super corny, but I guess subtlety is not the point here). The rabbits to the right of the boat of are symbols of fertility.
Don’t overlook the cool trompe l’oeil bit at the bottom with a man dangling his feet over the painted architecture of the fresco.
Allegory of April, Triumph of Venus (detail).
Dude in the tighty-whities and turban is holding the key to a new month.
Allegory of June: Triumph of Mercury. (Cosmè Tura painted the months of June though September).
When you’re Mercury you get around on a float pulled by griffons.
The astrological sign of Cancer is the lady levitating about the lobster.
Allegory of September (detail)
Whoa—this fresco showing the workshop of Vulcan is super weird! What’s with the monkey on the right and the inset guitar pick of Romulus and Remus?
Allegory of September (detail).
What does this couple do in September? Thow off their clothes in front of their bed and get their nookie on under the watchful gaze of potbellied babies.
The present day Renaissance city of Ferrara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it still closely resembles the Ferrara as seen this detail from Allegory of April:
HOB (wearing my purple sun hat) in front of Ferrara Cathedral.
On the advice of my friend we lunched at Antica Osteria Delle Volte, a restaurant in continuous operation since 1435—perhaps the boredom-hating Este family once ate here too? We devoured the Ferrarese specialties cappellacci di zucca (ravioli stuffed with pumpkin) and pasticcio di maccheroni alla ferrarese (a kind of macaroni pie filled with gravy). Almost as tasty as Mr. Aries from the March frescoe, those dishes.
In case you were wondering, my Italian friend got married—to another intern, natch—and they moved to Rome and have now a cherubic toddler named after Orlando Furiousio, a Renaissance epic poem written in Ferrara. We’re still Art Friends.
How we got to Ferrara: we stopped over on a train from Padua on the way to Ravenna.
Where we slept: Argentario Hotel. Price: €60 for a double. Recommended: yes.