Besides the Cathedral, Torre Civica and Piazza Grande, which are inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list, the Galleria Estense is another major attraction in Modena that you should not miss if you are interested in culture and art. It was opened to the public in 1854 and since 1894 it has been located on the fourth floor of the Palazzo dei Musei, occupying four large halls and sixteen rooms. The museum is dedicated to the exceptional and diverse art collections accumulated by the Dukes of Este and it comprises Italian paintings from the 14th to the 18th centuries, marble and terracotta sculptures, decorative art objects, drawings, bronze statuettes, majolica pottery, medals, ivories and musical instruments.
In the consecutive two posts, I’ll firstly give you some practical information such as the opening hours and admission fees of the gallery. Then, I’ll focus on introducing to you the masterpieces exhibited here. It’s a little pity that the info boards on site are only in Italian and if you are interested in a particular painting, you’ll have to use Goole Translate to translate the text. Nevertheless, the official website is available in English and you can read about some masterpieces on it. In fact, most of my introductions below will also be based on it. As I mentioned above, in this gallery, you will not only see paintings, but also sculptures, drawings, medals, musical instruments and so on. Therefore, I would recommend at least 2 hours to spend here. If you can understand Italian and are particularly interested in painting of the Parma School, Ferrara School or Venetian School, I suggest you leave even more time.
1. Practical information
1.1 Opening hours
- Monday & Sunday: 14:00 – 19:30
- Tuesday – Saturday: 8:30 – 19:30
- every first Sunday of the month the gallery is open from 8:30 to 19:30 with free admission
- on public holidays the gallery is open from 14:00 to 19:30
- on Thursdays in June the gallery is open from 8:30 to 22:00
- on the website, it says “on the last Sunday of the month the gallery is closed”, but when I was there it was open (29th April). Therefore, I suggest you check with the local tourism office for more updated information.
1.2 Admission fees
- Standard ticket: 6 euros
- Reduced ticket: 3 euros
- the ticket office closes 30 minutes before the closing time of the gallery
- entrance to the museums, monuments, galleries and archaeological areas of the Italian State is free for all citizens of the European Union who are under 18 years of age
- for more information about the conditions for reduced-price ticket and free entry please click here.
Now, let’s start exploring the art treasures in the Galleria Estense.
“Bust of Francesco I d’Este” by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Once entering the gallery, across the first hall, you will see the impressive “Bust of Francesco I d’Este“. However, before looking at the sculpture, let’s take a look at the sculptor. Gian Lorenzo Bernini was the leading Italian sculptor of his age, credited with the creation of the Baroque style of sculpture. As one scholar commented, “What Shakespeare is to drama, Bernini may be to sculpture: the first pan-European sculptor whose name is instantaneously identifiable with a particular manner and vision, and whose influence was inordinately powerful….” As I read from Wikipedia, Bernini possessed the ability not only to depict dramatic narratives with characters showing intense psychological states, but also to organize large-scale sculptural works that convey a magnificent grandeur. His skill in manipulating marble ensured that he would be considered a worthy successor of Michelangelo, overshadowing other sculptors of his generation.
Besides being a renowned sculptor, Bernini was also an architect and city planner, who designed both secular buildings and churches and chapels. During his long career, Bernini received numerous important commissions, many of which were associated with the papacy. At an early age, he came to the attention of the cardinal-nephew (a cardinal elevated by a pope who was that cardinal’s uncle, or, more generally, his relative), Cardinal Scipione Borghese, and in 1621, at the age of only twenty-three, he was knighted by Pope Gregory XV. Following his accession to the papacy, Pope Urban VIII (previously Cardinal Maffeo Barberini) is reported to have said, “It is a great fortune for you, O Cavaliere, to see Cardinal Maffeo Barberini made pope, but our fortune is even greater to have Cavalier Bernini alive in our pontificate.” Bernini made great contributions to the Vatican City, which include the design of Piazza San Pietro in front of the St. Peter’s Basilica, one of his most innovative and successful architectural designs. Within the basilica he is also responsible for the Baldacchino, the decoration of the four piers under the cupola, the Cathedra Petri or Chair of St. Peter in the apse, the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in the right nave, and the decoration (floor, walls and arches) of the Maderno’s nave.
What’s more, Bernini designed massive works combining both architecture and sculpture, especially elaborate public fountains and funerary monuments. In fact, the first works that I saw of his were the fountains in Rome, which include the Fountain of the Triton (Fontana del Tritone), the Barberini Fountain of the Bees, the Fontana delle Api, the Fountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi), as well as the statue of the Moor in La Fontana del Moro.
As I learnt from Wikipedia, Bernini was also a painter and a man of the theater. He “wrote, directed and acted in plays, also designing stage sets and theatrical machinery, as well as a wide variety of decorative art objects including lamps, tables, mirrors, and even coaches.” He fell from favor in later neoclassical criticism of the Baroque and it was only in the late-19th century that his achievements were recognized and his artistic reputation restored. The art historian Howard Hibbard concludes that, during the 17th century, “there were no sculptors or architects comparable to Bernini”.
The “Bust of Francesco I d’Este” is undoubtedly a masterpiece by Bernini, which arrived in Modena on 1st November, 1651. It was commissioned for Bernini by Duke Francesco I d’Este, through the intercession of his brother Cardinal Ronaldo. In fact, the artist didn’t meet his model in person but completed the work based on portrait paintings sent to him from Modena. Thanks to his mastery over marble, Bernini “succeeded in channelling the duke’s zealous nature into the effigy, creating the very picture of nobility and power“. It is said that Duke Francesco I d’Este was so satisfied with the result that he paid Bernini an enormous sum of 3000 scudi. How much was that? It’s the same amount of money that Pope Innocent X had paid the artist for the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona in Rome. Can you imagine? The same amount of money was paid for a “small” bust and a huge fountain? It’s either because the duke was super rich or he was really impressed by Bernini’s talent and accomplishment.
In the first hall, there are some Roman antiquities which are worth your attention, but I’ll introduce them by the end of my next post. Now, after crossing the room where the “Bust of Francesco I d’Este” is exhibited, we will see some important paintings by Francesco Bianchi Ferrari, Cima da Conegliano, Cosmè Tura and Correggio (Antonio Allegri).
“Madonna and Child (Madonna Campori)” by Correggio (Antonio Allegri)
This is one of my favorite paintings in this gallery, probably because it reminds me so much of the “Raphael sweetness“. The moment I saw this painting, I thought of the harmony, balance and ideal beauty of Raphael’s works, in particular, his “Tempi Madonna” exhibited in the Alte Pinacoteca in Munich (as you can see in the 2nd picture above). Can you notice the similarities? For example, the tender facial expressions, the smooth facial features, the soft garments and the elegant poses and gestures? Both paintings show the motherly love that the Virgin gives to Baby Jesus, which reminds us of the love that we see every day in our secular life, a love that is both divine and earthly.
Antonio Allegri, usually known as Correggio, was the foremost painter of the Parma School of the Italian Renaissance, who was responsible for some of the most vigorous and sensuous works of the 16th century. In his use of dynamic composition, illusionistic perspective and dramatic foreshortening, Correggio prefigured the Rococo art of the 18th century. What’s more, he is considered a master of chiaroscuro. There are echoes of Mantegna’s style in his work, and a response to Leonardo da Vinci as well. When I introduce to you the Galleria Nazionale di Parma, you can see the influences in his masterpieces such as “Madonna and St. Jerome” and “Madonna della Scodella “.
Now, let’s come back to the “Madonna Campori” in this gallery. Purchased in 1635 by Cardinal Campori for the chapel at Castello di Soliera near Mantua, part of the Campori estates from 1636 onwards, the painting entered the collection of the Galleria Estense in 1894 through the bequest of the Marquis Giuseppe Campori. It is usually dated around 1517 – 1518, by a stylistic comparison with Correggio’s “Madonna and Child with the Infant John the Baptist” (1518), now exhibited in the Prado Museum in Madrid. In this regard, it’s a rather youthful work of the artist. It is said on Correggio Art Home that in this painting, the artist has overcome the Leonardo model (such as “The Virgin of the Rocks”), whose influence had been very strong on the Madrid canvas, and opted in favor of the new Raphaelesque suggestions (such as “Madonna of Foligno” and “Tempi Madonna”). As I read from the official website, “The loving, maternal gesture of the Virgin as she slightly bows her head to feed the Christ Child is rendered with exceptional naturalness and intensity, without lapsing into sentimentalism. The profound dialogue of their gazes is made complete by the delicate execution of gestures including caresses and the charming interaction of fingers in the foreground.” All in all, during my visit of the gallery, this painting made me stop and think. This painting touched my heart and totally won my appreciation and admiration.
“Lamentation over the Dead Christ with Sts. Francis and Bernardine of Siena” by Cima da Conegliano
Cima da Conegliano was an Italian Renaissance painter, who mostly worked in Venice. He can be considered part of the Venetian school, although he was also influenced by Antonello da Messina, particularly on the landscape background and the tranquil atmosphere of his works. He mostly painted religious subjects, often on a small scale for homes rather than churches and he often repeated popular subjects in different versions with slight variations.
This panel was commissioned by Alberto III Pio, Prince of Carpi, for his own funeral chapel in the Franciscan Chiesa di San Niccolò. It stayed there until the mid-1600s, when it was purchased by Francesco I d’Este for his own collection. It was probably Alberto III Pio himself who dictated the unusual iconography of the painting, which is a rare visual interpretation of the theme of the Lamentation over the Dead Christ. As I read from the official website, Cima “expressed the spiritual nature of the painting with his signature stylistic traits: pervasive luminosity, realism and restrained expressivity of faces, and naturalism of gestures.” In the background, we can see Calvary with three crosses, a spot outside Jerusalem where Jesus is said to have been crucified. Originally the site was called Golgotha, which in Aramaic means “place of the skull”. The Latin word for skull is calvaria, and therefore, many Christians refer to the site of the crucification as Calvary in English.
“Crucifixion with Sts. Jerome and Francis” by Francesco Bianchi Ferrari
Francesco Bianchi Ferrari was an Italian painter of the Renaissance period. Some source says that he was born in Ferrara but some other source also mentions Modena as the place of his birth. He was a pupil of Cosimo Tura, whose work I’ll mention in the next section, and he is said to have been an instructor of Correggio.
This altarpiece, originally from the Chiesa di San Francesco in Mirandola, was purchased in 1818 by Francesco IV d’Austria-Este. In 1888 Adolfo Venturi attributed it to Bianchi Ferrari, making the panel the artist’s oldest work, dating back to the end of the 1480s. It is said on the official website that the point of reference for this crowded composition was undoubtedly the monumental Crucifixion frescoes on the walls of the decrepit Garganelli chapel in San Pietro, Bologna, carried out by Ercole de’ Roberti between 1475 and 1485. However, other characteristics of the work can be attributed to its Modenese context. For example, the naturalism of the figure of St. Francis, the torsos of the crucified and the group of Marys are reminiscent of Guido Mazzoni’s (who was born in Modena and left many famous artworks in the city) multi-coloured terracotta mourners, while the incised definition of outlines was typical of the Tarsia masters active in the city.
“St. Anthony of Padua” by Cosimo Tura
Cosimo Tura was an Italian early-Renaissance painter and is considered one of the founders of the School of Ferrara. Born in Ferrara, he was a student of Francesco Squarcione of Padua. Later he obtained patronage from both Duke Borso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara and the first Duke of Modena and Duke Ercole I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara from 1471 until 1505. His pupils include Francesco del Cossa and Francesco Bianchi, whom I mentioned above. He appears to have been influenced by Mantegna’s and Piero della Francesca’s Quattrocento style, which encompasses the artistic styles of the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance.
This work, despite its age-old association with the Este family, only joined the Galleria in 1906, purchased by the Ministry when the Ferrarese Santini family’s painting collection was sold off. In fact, among Tura’s surviving late works, only this one (1484) can be assigned with assurance and it is undoubtedly one of his masterpieces. The sculptural image of the saint dominates the gaze of the observer, exceeding the limits imposed upon it by the painted architectural frame. The marine landscape, especially the yellow and purple light at the horizon, reminds us of a particular time of the day, the dusk. The dignified suffering expressed on the saint’s face is typical of Tura, as well as the folds of the tunic which holds tightly to his body.
In the next hall, you will see many works by Dosso Dossi, another master belonging to the School of Ferrara.
Various Works by Dosso Dossi
Madonna and Child with Sts. George and Michael the Archangel
Dosso Dossi was an Italian Renaissance painter who belonged to the School of Ferrara, painting in a style mainly influenced by Venetian masters, in particular Giorgione and early Titian. From 1514 to his death, he was court artist to the Este Dukes of Ferrara and of Modena. He often worked with his younger brother Battista Dossi, who had worked under Raphael, which explains why some of Dosso’s works also reflect the influence of the master. He painted many mythological subjects and allegories with a rather dream-like atmosphere and his portraits often show rather unusual poses or expressions for works originating in a court. Such examples can be seen both in this gallery and in the Brera Pinacoteca in Milan, which I wrote about recently.
Dosso Dossi probably completed the large altarpiece around 1518, and in 1649 it entered the Estense collections upon the request of Duke Francesco I d’Este. Sorry for the reflection on the picture but it’s rather difficult to find a perfect angle considering the size of the work. As you can see in the 1st picture above, the composition is divided into two sections. The upper half depicts the Madonna and Child sitting on a crescent moon, symbol of the Immaculate Conception (because Virgin Mary is widely identified as the Woman of the Apocalypse), while the lower half shows St. Michael the Archangel, defeating the demon who exhales his last breath, and St. George (an important saint for the House of Este), who represents the militant Christian, defeating the dragon (sin) that weakens at his feet. As I learnt from the official website, the composition shows reference to works by Raphael, (for example, his “Madonna of Foligno” and “The Ecstasy of St. Cecilia”) who was in Bologna by 1515.
Just in case you are not familiar with the story of The Woman of the Apocalypse. According to Wikipedia, she is a figure from Chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation. In this narrative, the woman gives birth to a male child that is attacked by the Dragon identified as the Devil (Satan). When the child is taken to heaven, the woman flees into the wilderness leading to “War in Heaven” in which the angels cast out the Dragon. The Dragon attacks the woman, who is given wings to escape, and then attacks her again with a flood of water from his mouth, which is subsequently swallowed by the earth. Frustrated, the dragon initiates war on “the remnant of her seed” identified as the righteous followers of Christ. The woman is widely accepted to the Virgin Mary.
In the same hall, you will see some more works by Dosso Dossi but unfortunately the explanations are only in Italian. Even if I tried to use Google Translate, it’s a bit difficult to understand the special terms. I really hope that someday, in the best case in the near future, the Italian texts can be accompanied by English ones and these important works can be more widely appreciated.
“Portrait of Francesco I d’Este” by Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez
Last but not least, by finishing this post, I’ll introduce to you another precious piece of the Este dukes’ collections. This time, it was painted not by a master of the Ferrara School, not by one of the Parma School and not even by an Italian painter. It was done by Diego Velázquez, a Spanish painter, the leading artist in the court of King Philip IV of Spain, and one of the most important painters of the Spanish Golden Age. He was an individualistic artist of the contemporary Baroque period. In addition to numerous depictions of scenes of historical and cultural significance, he painted many portraits of the Spanish royal family, other notable European figures, as well as commoners. It is said on Wikipedia that, from the first quarter of the 19th century, Velázquez’s artwork was a model for the realist and impressionist painters, in particular Édouard Manet. Since that time, many famous modern artists, including Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Francis Bacon, have paid tribute to Velázquez by recreating several of his most famous works.
Among the most distinctive portraits by Diego Velázquez is the one that he painted of Francesco I d’Este, the Duke of Modena, during the duke’s visit to Madrid in 1638 to secure the support of Philip IV of Spain. It was acquired by the Galleria Estense in 1843. The duke is shown at three-quarter length in armor, wearing a red sash and bearing the Toson d’Oro livery collar bestowed on him by the King. His head turns towards the viewer, attracting the attention of whomever that’s passing by. As commented on the official website, “The liquid brushstrokes which evoke the gleaming metal and pink sash become tighter in the young face of the duke”, who kept ruling Modena and Reggio for another 20 years, making it one of the most splendid eras of the Estense dynasty.
By now, I’ve finished the first part of my introduction to the Galleria Estense in Modena. We’ve seen a bust and a portrait of Duke Francesco I d’Este, at the beginning and end of the post respectively. We’ve seen the elegant and beautiful Madonna by Correggio as well as some important works by Cima da Conegliano, Francesco Bianchi Ferrari, Cosimo Tura and Dosso Dossi. In the second part, which is the next post, I’ll focus on some works by the masters of the Venetian School such as Tintoretto and Veronese. Nevertheless, the highlight should be the Portable Altarpiece by El Greco, a painter, sculptor and architect of the Spanish Renaissance. By the end, I’ll finish the post with some works by Guercino, which are among my personal favorites, and some Roman antiquities.