Cosmè Tura, born about 1433, the son of a Ferrarese shoemaker, spent nearly all of his known career in Ferrara. Beginning in 1451 he worked regularly for Borso d'Este (d. 1471) and Ercole I d'Este (d. 1505) and carried out private commissions from leading families for chapels in local churches. Tura's artistic beginnings are difficult to trace because neither records of his training nor documented early works survive. His inventive and clever artistry has some affinity with the dry, linear styles of Francesco Squarcione, Andrea Mantegna, Marco Zoppo, and Giorgio Schiavone, and has points of similarity with the art of Bartolomeo Vivarini. There is some justification for the frequent claim that Cosmè studied in the Veneto or that he had considerable early contact with artists from that area. Closer to home, the busy school of miniaturists working in Ferrara seems to have inspired Tura, especially his use of festive, pastel coloring and representation of fantastic landscape forms.
Tura's datable works fall to c. 1468-1469 and after, so the earlier paintings can be arranged in only a hypothetical chronological order. The Madonna and Child with Saint Jerome and a Female Martyr (Musée Fesch, Ajaccio), made perhaps in the early 1460s, already has the energy and bold, lively coloring that are Tura's hallmarks. His polished, affected Muse (National Gallery, London) probably dates to c. 1460 or slightly later and can be linked to Borso d'Este's commission for a cycle of the Muses in his studiolo at Belfiore. Among Tura's masterpieces are his Annunciation and Saint George and the Dragon for the organ doors in the cathedral in Ferrara (finished by June 1469) and the Roverella altarpiece (originally San Giorgio fuori le Mura, Ferrara, probably c. 1474). The polyptych's central panel, the Virgin and Child Enthroned (National Gallery, London), is distinguished by delightful green and pink coloring; profuse and intricate sculptural decoration; flattened space; and otherworldly figures with broad, unnatural facial features. At times Tura's pictorial distortions and gaunt, melancholy figures convey strong religious expression, as in his Pietà (Musée du Louvre, Paris) from the Roverella altarpiece and his Saint Anthony of Padua of 1484 (Galleria Estense, Modena), which is his last datable painting.
There are relatively few problems of attribution with Tura's mature works, for his style is distinctive, characterized by stylized drapery folds, unusual physiognomic forms, and rocky landscapes often bathed in a decorative, streaky white light and hazy, bright colors. Tura usually made complex underdrawings, which are frequently visible to the naked eye through paint layers that have thinned or been abraded over time; these now form a distinctive aspect of his pictorial surfaces. Because the conditions at the court of Ferrara discouraged it, Tura did not maintain an active commercial bottega like those that flourished in Florence and Venice during this time, and there are few extant workshop pictures that one could confuse with Cosmè's autograph pieces.
Much of Tura's documented work as court painter for the Estensi consisted of festive decoration--triumphal cars, harnesses, parade banners, shields, and caparisons--and he designed tapestries and silver vessels for the rulers of Ferrara; such pieces must have encouraged his decorative and lively painting style. Unfortunately, nearly all of his secular work is now lost. He is documented as having painted many portraits, but only one, the Portrait of a Young Man (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), has been widely ascribed to him. Now-lost religious works include the design for architectural sculpture in the chapel at the Este villa of Belriguardo (1469-1472) and scenes from the New Testament painted for the Sacrati family in the Ferrarese church of San Domenico (1467-1468).
Although he lived until April 1495, Tura's documented activity for the Este court ends in the mid-1480s, and we have no evidence that he worked on any major commissions during his last ten years, when he was apparently in poor health. Besides, Tura's lively, linear manner was losing favor during the 1480s. After his activity at the Este court ceased, Ercole de' Roberti's more moderate style, with broader figures and softer modeling, came to prevail. Tura's well-crafted, creative, and striking art was praised during his lifetime by Giovanni Santi and Filarete, as well as by local patrons and humanists. Tura has rightfully gained recognition as one of the most spirited geniuses of quattrocento painting. [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: 5-82.
Longhi, Roberto. Officina ferrarese (1934), seguíta dagli Ampliamenti (1940) e dai Nuovi ampliamenti (1940-1955). Florence, 1956: 23-27, 125-127, 179.
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Ruhmer, Eberhard. Tura: Paintings and Drawings. London and New York, 1958.
Lippincott, Kristin. In Dictionary of Art 1996, 3-428-433.
Campbell, Stephen. Cosmè Tura of Ferrara: Style, Politics and the Renaissance City, 1450-1495. New Haven and London, 1997.
Manca, Joseph. Cosmè Tura: The Life and Art of a Painter in Estense Ferrara. Oxford, 2000.
Cosmè Tura: Painting and Design in Renaissance Ferrara. Stephen Campbell et al. Ed. Alan Chong. Exh. cat. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, 2002.
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: 655.