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Ludovico Mazzolino (Ferrara c.1480-after 27 September 1528)
Ludovico Mazzolino (Ferrara c.1480-after 27 September 1528)

The Nativity, with the Procession of the Magi

Ludovico Mazzolino (Ferrara c.1480-after 27 September 1528)
The Nativity, with the Procession of the Magi
oil and gold on panel
18 x 13 3/8 in. (45.7 x 34 cm.)
A.B. Godfrey, Brook House, Canterbury.
with Giuseppe Bellesi, London, 1948.
S. Zamboni, Ludovico Mazzolino, Milan, 1968, p. 56, no. 67, fig. 5a.
A. Ballarin, Dosso Dossi: La pittura a Ferrara negli anni del Ducato di Alfonso I, Padua, 1995, I, pp. 234-235, no. 123; II, fig. 169.

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Lot Essay

This captivating Nativity is a rare surviving work by the Ferrarese painter Ludovico Mazzolino, who specialized in finely painted cabinet pictures of devotional subjects and New Testament narrative scenes. Mazzolino was born around 1480 in Ferrara, were he may have undertaken an early apprenticeship with one of that city's preeminent painters, Ercole de' Roberti. Mazzolino traveled at a young age to Bologna to study with Lorenzo Costa, but by 1504 is recorded back in Ferrara, where he received the important commission from Ercole I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara and Modena, to decorate eight chapels in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli (destroyed in 1604). Mazzolino's early career consisted primarily of such prestigious Este commissions, which also included works in the guardaroba and camerini of the Duchessa Lucrezia Borgia in the Ferrara Castle (untraced).

The composition of this Nativity reflects a type that first appeared early in Mazzolino's career in a handful of small panel pictures, including depictions of the subject in the Huber-Escher collection, Zurich; the Borghese Gallery, Rome; and the National Gallery, London (see S. Zamboni, op. cit., nos. 35, 54, and 73). The present panel, datable to c. 1513, is considered by Silla Zamboni to be the most mature of this group. The principal composition, poetic mood and warm, variegated palette reflect Mazzolino's awareness of Giorgione's innovations, lending support to the theory that he may have traveled to Venice and worked directly with Giorgione before settling in Ferrara in 1509 (S. Zamboni, op. cit., p. 56). The full, gracefully-rounded drapery folds and elegant pose of the elderly Saint Joseph may also reflect the influence of Raphael, whose work Mazzolino could have seen in Ferrara in the Este collections. The Madonna's angular drapery folds and the irregular, craggy forms of the distant hills, on the other hand, suggest Mazzolino's study of Northern prints, which often informed his work over the course of his career.

Among the most striking and original elements of this richly colored panel are the freshly observed, animated vignettes scattered on the two cliffs in the background. At left, the procession of the three Magi unfolds towards the foreground through a distant ridge, populated by highly individualized, lively characters in Renaissance garb. The three Kings themselves have reached the foot of the hill and turn towards each other excitedly as their horses march ahead. At right, six doll-like saints--Francis, Mary Magdalene, Jerome, Sebastian, John the Baptist, and Benedict--populate the steeply sloping hillside, vehemently enacting the narrative moment for which each is best-known. Similar charmingly eccentric, diminutive figures appear in Mazzolino's Nativity of c. 1510-1511 formerly in the Hertz Collection, London and the Adoration of the Shepherds of c. 1512-1513 in the Galleria Capitolina, Rome. These motifs, as Zamboni has noted, may have been inspired by the work of his Bolognese contemporary Amico Aspertini (1474/5-1552), with whom Mazzolino may have had some connection at this time (S. Zamboni, op. cit., p. 56).

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