Cossa, the son of a stone mason, was born in Ferrara about 1436. Although the artist's first documented activity occurred in 1456, his earliest surviving datable paintings are from 1469 or so, making it difficult to reconstruct his early development with any confidence. Cossa's style shared in and helped to define the characteristic Ferrarese manner of the time: his works are filled with cleverly folded draperies, improbable rocky landscapes, bizarre anatomy, and fanciful coloring. Unlike some of his Ferrarese contemporaries, he seems to have imbibed the regularized and stereometric manner of Piero della Francesca, who had painted frescoes (now lost) in Ferrara. While Cossa borrowed the characteristic anatomy of Piero, especially in his faces, he was no follower of that master, and Cossa's art always retains the mannered delicacy of local miniature painting and other North Italian sources.
The largest and most famous of Cossa's surviving works is the east wall of the Hall of the Months in the Palazzo Schifanoia, datable to 1469-1470. In three registers Cossa painted courtly portraits, astrological figures, and triumphs of classical deities. The charm and sensuousness of court life in Ferrara is reflected in Cossa's gentle gardens, playful landscapes, and fanciful garments. Angered at the low rate of pay he received for the Schifanoia murals, Cossa left Ferrara in 1470 for Bologna, where he had already worked in the 1460s, and remained there until his death. His first Bolognese commission was probably the Pala Osservanza, which included a large Annunciation in a fanciful architectural setting and a predella with the Nativity (both now in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden). In about 1473/1474, Cossa and the young Ercole de' Roberti painted an altarpiece in San Petronio for Floriano Griffoni; the National Gallery of Art possesses several elements of the dismembered polyptych, including a Crucifixion, Saint Florian, and Saint Lucy. Like the Griffoni altarpiece, Cossa's signed and dated Pala dei Mercanti (1474; Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna) departs somewhat from the gentle style of the secular frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia. The painting, representing the Madonna, saints, and donors, is endowed with powerful emotions, sculptural figures, and dramatic chiaroscuro. The minute realism and powerful modeling that Cossa achieved in his later works--for example his Portrait of a Man (Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid)--reveal a debt to Antonello da Messina or Netherlandish painters, some of whose works were available in the Ferrara-Bologna area.
Cossa's varied output included designs for stained glass (San Giovanni in Monte, Bologna), intarsia (San Petronio), and sculpture (tomb of Domenico Garganelli, now Museo Civico, Bologna). At the time of his death, Cossa was painting the Garganelli chapel in Bologna (a project later completed by Ercole de' Roberti). His foreshortened figures on the chapel vault, now lost but mentioned in sources, were apparently indebted in their skillful illusionism and overall design to dome decorations by Melozzo da Forlì.
In the centuries after his death Cossa's reputation suffered from misidentifications of his works and by Vasari's confusion of him with Lorenzo Costa. His importance was secured in the nineteenth century with the discovery of the Hall of the Months frescoes and the subsequent (documented) attribution to him of the murals on the east wall. Since then, Cossa has become established in the triumvirate of leading quattrocento Ferrarese painters, along with Cosmè Tura and Ercole de' Roberti. [This is the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Ortolani, Sergio. Cosmè Tura, Francesco del Cossa, Ercole de'Roberti. Milan, 1941.
d'Ancona, Paolo, and Cesare Gnudi. I mesi di Schifanoia in Ferrara. Milan, 1954.
Longhi, Roberto. Officina ferrarese (1934), seguíta dagli Ampliamenti (1940) e dai Nuovi ampliamenti (1940-1955). Florence, 1956: 28-36, 128-131, 179-180.
Neppi, Alberto. Francesco del Cossa. Milan, 1958.
Ruhmer, Eberhard. Francesco del Cossa. Munich, 1959.
Emiliani, Andrea, et al. Tre artisti nella Bologna dei Bentivoglio: Francesco del Cossa, Ercole Roberti, Niccolò dell'Arca. Exh. cat. Bologna, 1985.
Bacchi, Andrea. "Francesco del Cossa." In La pittura in Italia: Il Quattrocento. Ed. Federico Zeri. 2 vols. Milan, 1986-1987: 2(1987):603-604.
Bacchi, Andrea. Francesco del Cossa. Soncino, 1991.
Boskovits, Miklós, and David Alan Brown, et al. Italian Paintings of the Fifteenth Century. The Systematic Catalogue of the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 2003: 214.