Study of Dosso Dossi’s Jupiter, Mercury and Virtue
Dosso Dossi (c.1486-1542) was a Renaissance painter from the city of Ferrara in Northern Italy. Collaborating with his brother Battista, Dosso created some of the most groundbreaking yet baffling works for the dukes of Ferrara. Dosso’s paintings, however, remained largely unheard of apart from occasional appearances in academic journals, until a series of traveling exhibitions in 1999 brought the artist back in attention. Heavily influenced by High Renaissance masters Leonardo and Michelangelo, as well as by Venetian painters, Dosso adopted a rich yet still subtle colour palette. What set him apart from his peers, on the other hand, were his atmospheric and “impressionistic” landscape and imaginative treatment of mythological subjects. In 1523, commissioned by Duke Alfonso I d’Este, Dosso painted Jupiter, Mercury, and Virtue, a profound rendition on canvas of extraordinary scale (44 1/8 x 59 inches). The painting is an illustrious demonstration of Dosso’s skills and visions during of his mid-career. To show this, this paper includes a visual analysis of the painting as well as a description of major iconographic aspects in context with the artistic and social developments in High Renaissance Ferrara. In Jupiter, Mercury, and Virtue, from a visual perspective, a trio of figures occupies the surreal stage-like setting; the leftmost is Jupiter, the king of gods in Roman mythology. Sitting with his legs crossed next to his thunderbolt, Jupiter is calmly painting butterflies on a blue canvas, a delicate extension of the hazy sky in the background. With his back turned to his father Jupiter, Mercury is seated in the centre with his winged hat and green drapery blowing fiercely in the gusty winds. He puts his fingers to his lips to shush a pleading female figure in a lavish golden dress and luxurious jewelry, identified as an allegory of Virtue (Creighton 1999, 1). Jupiter, Mercury and Virtue, in comparison to Titian and Giorgione’s paintings and Venetian art in general, not only has the trademark serene and radiating colours, but also a significant chromatic depth and subtle variation. Through mixing and layering pigments and oil, Dosso achieved astonishing levels of detail and texture in both shadow and highlight, which transform accordingly to the unified light source. The light source, meanwhile, is accentuated by an overall chiaroscuro applied to the entire canvas. Following Leonardo’s tendency to use complementary colours to accomplish compositional unity, Dosso stressed the issue by juxtaposing Jupiter’s red drapery with Mercury’s green one. Meanwhile, large portions of gold blend harmoniously with vast areas of blue in the background. Dosso’s realistic depiction of gestures and facial expressions is also reminiscent of Leonardo’s works. This is most evident from Mercury and Virtue’s exchanging gazes and hand gestures, which intensify the drama and emotion in the scene in addition to the already authentic portrayal of human body. In terms of dealing with human body, Dosso’s achievement is akin to that of Michelangelo. Over and above the clinically precise anatomy, the figures embody exceptionally relaxed and elegant postures. To hint interaction among the figures, Dosso placed each of them at an angled position with their shoulders twisted and legs crossed, much like the contrapposto poses found in Michelangelo’s sculptures. Small patches of localized chiaroscuro replicate the idealized yet soft muscles to create a sense of weight and plasticity, particularly on Mercury’s exposed arms and feet. Regardless of numerous signs of influence from works of High Renaissance masters such as Leonardo and Michelangelo, as well as Venetian paintings, Dosso’s Jupiter, Mercury and Virtue demonstrates a great many aspects of originality in its visual presentation alone. At its immense size, the painting seeks to convey a large amount of information with its intricate details, as...
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