COSTA, Lorenzo the Elder
(b. ca. 1460, Ferrara, d. 1535, Mantova)


Oil on wood, 95,3 x 75,6 cm
National Gallery, London

Costa was a native of the northern Italian city-state of Ferrara, and much influenced by Cosimo Tura. By 1483 he had settled in Bologna, working for the ruling Bentivoglio family. After the death of Mantegna in 1506, Costa succeeded him as court painter in mantua, where he died.

Although this painting is dated to Costa's Bolognese period, it may more accurately reflect performances at the court of Ferrara, where music was especially appreciated and secular music evolved earlier than in other Italian centres. It is unlikely, however, to be a portrait commissioned by the sitters. Most probably it was one of a series decorating a room: whether other pictures would have represented more musicians with different instruments, or the 'sister arts' of poetry, dance and so on, we do not know.

Costa captures faithfully the effect of making music in concert. The singer-lutenist in the centre leads, his eyes on the music book on the ledge before him. The others join him in polyphonic song - we can tell they are sounding different notes by the different shapes formed by their open mouths - beating time to keep together. The man on the right looks at the leader carefully, the woman on the left places her arm on his shoulder the better to follow. At some stage during the performance these two musicians might accompany the lead singer on the fiddle and recorder in the foreground.

While the Concert is rare for the period in having no religious or symbolic connotations, it is by no means the only instance of a late fifteenth-century artist seeking to suggest polyphonic sound - see for example the angels singing in Piero della Francesca's Nativity. Costa was later to adopt a softer painting manner, but this work, like his bust-length portraits, tries to emulate the meticulous realism of Netherlandish painting.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.