in One Takes | 07 MAR 13
Featured in
Issue 153

Picture Piece: Frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara

Francesco del Cossa’s frescoes in the Hall of the Months

in One Takes | 07 MAR 13

Details from Francesco del Cossa, Mese di Marzo (Month of March), Hall of the Months, Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara, c.1469

When gods go into exile what do they do? They put on their multi-layered travelling coats and embark on a journey through time. As migrants, they don the costumes of the countries they traverse, until an art work opens up a space in which they can shed their disguises and be free.

This is the image Aby Warburg evoked in a lecture he gave in Rome in 1912, to illustrate how key visual motifs pass from one culture to another over the centuries, before their dormant potential is awakened by an artist. The case Warburg makes is for Francesco del Cossa’s frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy (c.1469). They are part of a cycle depicting the months of the year. Seven of the original works have been recovered, including the three that Del Cossa was commissioned to paint: March, April and May. Their pictorial language is as captivating as it is hermetic. Strange characters abound. Warburg defines them as astrological powers governing the months, allegorically embodied by celestial figures from antiquity.

He charts their journey: in Baghdad, the ninth-century Persian scholar Abū Ma’schar compiles astrological knowledge from Greece and India in a manual. In Toledo, the 12th-century Jewish savant Aben Esra translates the text into Hebrew. Twenty years after a French version emerges in Mechelen in 1273, the Paduan Pietro d’Abano translates it into Latin. When Borso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, commissions the frescoes, it’s D’Abano’s version of the original text, by then known as Introductorium maius, that he presents to the artist.

Warburg claims that, centuries later, Del Cossa feels the ‘Greek heart’ beating in these ciphers and frees the gods within. Indeed! His empathic painterly style permits the planetary protagonists to become full-blooded agents once more. Each fresco is divided into three sections: the top part shows gods overseeing seasonal activities, while the bottom panel depicts events at the Este court. Yet the real magic occurs in the central section, where allegories designate the temperamental conditions of the months. In March, a pensive Athena hovers over a vigorous Aries flanked by two figures: a black man in rags with a majestic air, who looks like he could spring into action at any moment yet desists in order to prophesy the future; and an androgynous young man, who critically eyes a ring, or perhaps an embroidery hoop, in his left hand like it’s a foe he is contemplating attacking with the giant arrow or needle in his right.

How can it be, Warburg asks, that in Del Cossa’s frescoes these figures of ancient knowl­edge return after 700 years of exile in scholarly treatises with their vitality undiminished? Because, he says, the motifs have the ‘astral-religious power to attract’. In The Signature of All Things (2009), Giorgio Agamben writes that Warburg meant it literally: Warburg saw that certain images do not just ‘represent’ something; they are ‘signatures’ of a mystical energy constellation. They both mark and channel its force. A work plugged into a mystical nexus relays its power to you. Painting a ciphered motif with wit is like reading out a spell in the right way: suddenly it works, and the stars talk to you via the fresco. At winter’s end, in March, they say: behold how the taciturn observer relates to the hesitant man of craft, silently sharing their unspoken visions of possible futures.