Lorenzo Costa’s Triumphs in the Bentivoglio Chapel. Spiritual Salvation and Artistic Invention in Renaissance Bologna


This dissertation examines the pictorial decoration of the Bentivoglio chapel in the church of San Giacomo Maggiore, a space under the patronage of the de-facto ruling family of Bologna in fifteenth-century Italy. Specifically, my research offers the first, detailed analysis of two previously overlooked, albeit striking pictures, the so-called Triumph of Fame and Triumph of Death. These two paintings, realized by the Ferrarese artist Lorenzo Costa in 1490, draw their subject matter from the homonymous work by Italian poet Petrarch (The Triumphs), and feature triumphal chariots, allegorical personifications, celestial visions, ancient characters, and portraits of Bentivoglio family members past and present. By conflating Christian and biblical iconographies with imagery drawn from vernacular poetry, classical mythology, history, and moral philosophy, these images disrupt our expectations about chapel decoration in Quattrocento Italy and resist traditional categories of artistic genres. Through a combination of close visual and textual analysis and the study of art criticism and theory, of the history of literature, and of the reception of the classical and medieval traditions, this dissertation situates Costa’s Triumphs in the lively cultural milieu of fifteenth-century Bologna, at the intersection of seignorial court, university, and artistic practice. 

Ultimately, this haunting diptych emerges as a unique expression of the multi-faceted Renaissance. 

First, the debated relation of these pictures to Petrarch’s poem is here reconfigured through the lens of the religious syncretism that characterized Quattrocento humanist culture and allowed scholars and intellectuals of the time to reconnect pagan knowledge and Christian wisdom. One such figure, Bernardo Lapini, known as Licino, produced a Christianizing reading of Petrarch’s poem that associated the triumphal parades therein described to different stages of the journey of the human soul, from its creation to its ultimate reunion with God. This way, the apparently secular subject matter of Costa’s paintings can be understood in their eschatological overtones, and the significance of the Triumphs within a sacred space that was intended to serve as the burial site of the Bentivoglio family is unearthed. 

The analysis of specific figures within the two compositions (for instance, the woman seated on the chariot of Fame who conflates multiple identities as the ancient Muse of History as well as an allegory of Fame and Fortune, and the musician in Eastern dress in the foreground who is identified here as the ancient poet Orpheus) offers further evidence for the syncretism at play in these images and in Quattrocento visual culture, ultimately calling into question clear boundaries between sacred and secular images and between spaces like the chapel and the studiolo.

Secondly, this dissertation argues that the ingenuity demonstrated by Costa in his engagement with existing textual and visual sources sought to advance the arts in the process of emancipation from mechanical crafts to intellectual pursuits while exemplifying the imaginative nature of Renaissance art. By paralleling the mode of reading, commentating, and annotating texts distinctive of Bologna’s academic community, Costa’s images rival with poetry and philosophy in the construction of meaning and the revelation of higher truths.Finally, the Triumphs display distinctive Renaissance tropes about the divine nature of artistic inspiration to celebrate the creative powers of artists as image-makers. Through the scene of the Creation of Adam, whose body appears still in the process of being formed out of the earth, Costa draws a parallel between God’s prerogative power to create life from nothing and the artist’s ability to generate new forms through his imagination and the manipulation of natural elements.

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