Lights on the vision of Borso d’Este

Salone dei Mesi
Illuminazione museale della parete est. Da sinistra a destra, gli affreschi di Francesco del Cossa relativi ai mesi Maggio, Aprile, Marzo / Museum lighting on the east wall. From left to right, the frescoes by Francesco del Cossa relating to the months of May, April, March photo©Henrik Blomqvist

The language of lighting in a new perspective of contemplation of the frescoes in the Room of the Months of the Palazzo Schifanoia

The desire to discern and grasp the meaning of things swept forward by an inner impulse towards the revelation and the discovery of the secrets that are hidden in the sublime richness of artistic composition is part of human nature. The same Aby Warburg was not shy in indicating a research method in which “attempting to carefully illuminate every single spot of darkness, brings light on the great moments of general development in their connection.” Probably the desire to “bring to light” the hidden meaning concealed in the sign and in its being part of a whole, in a rich and complex composition, belongs to man as much as the work of art depends on the phenomenon of light, especially if the latter is ingeniously staged. In the knowledge of the perceptual senses and the evocative representation there is a dimension of encounter between history and technology, and also between the depth of the creative gesture and the instrument that amplifies its forms of reading and interpretation. Light is an indissoluble active part of this exploratory dimension; it is, at the same time, the primordial ingredient of cognitive exploration but also the energetic matter that causes the irreversible degradation of the palpable substance.

Parete Est,
Parete Est, combinazione di scene: la fascia dello Zodiaco e l’enfatizzazione di particolari tematici / East wall, combination of scenes: the Zodiac band and emphasis on thematic details photo©Henrik Blomqvist

Thus, a part of the mystery and charm of the Salone dei Mesi (Room of the Months) is precisely caused by the relationship of the presence and absence of the frescoed surfaces, which is triggering an intriguing chessboard of scenes and non-scenes, and of an accomplished iconic syntax alternating between empty and full spaces and more or less random residual fragments. In the project of perceptual enhancement, the lighting intervenes with respect and moderation, not only because of the high priority given to the protection and conservation of the frescoes themselves, but to ensure the same staging that since ancient times modulated the role of space and of Architecture, according to the best enjoyment by the spectator, now a visitor. In fact, it is just in welcoming the significance of the space in the dialogue with the artistic composition of the frescoed months that the need to intervene physically with great discretion has grown: an artificial form shaped to trace the perimeter of the room in a contained proportion, hosting all the technology necessary for the implementation of the museum light and the interpretative narration.

parete nord,
Parete Nord, combinazione di scene di dettaglio e la scena dello Zodiaco / North wall, combination of detail scenes and the Zodiac scene photo©Henrik Blomqvist

If Pellegrino Prisciani could have chosen to tell the nexus between the individual months, and in the same month the reason behind the influence of the stars on men, to finally arrive at the representation of the pervasive presence of Borso d’Este in the scenes of earthly life, perhaps he would have done so by pointing his finger and guiding the observer’s gaze according to his own ordered and pre-established conception. Who better than the conductor knows how to direct attention by harmonising his musicians for a successful performance? There are still countless unexpressed details worthy of study and research in the frescoes you can contemplate in the hall. In the exploratory and lyrical narrative dimension lies the vision of the historian Giovanni Sassu, who inspired the interpretative path of the lighting direction “directing” the choices on the faces, on the details, on the portions of the architecture, and on the scenic-symbolic figurative legacies towards a completely unprecedented key of reading. From the physical perimeter element, designed on the ground, beams of light flow from the bottom up, following a path never explored before: the transformation of the optical ratio of the geometry of light from the conventional projection to an anamorphic modulation. The conquest of specific solutions for single details or groupings of details constitutes the overcoming of the visual-perceptual challenge that finds its origin in the Renaissance ideas and knowledge, starting from the rules of perspective deformation and staging according to the focal point of the spectator. The Room of the Months is thus revealed in its entirety or in parts, offering the opportunity of contemplating the seven remaining months or the chronological sequence of the phases of realization of the frescoes themselves. The appearance of a row of lighting scenes in a blur of images and the alternation of precise and mathematical backgrounds such as the squares of the individual frames brings attention to the graphic quality of the compositional rhythm, but at the same time allows you to perceptually isolate the individual figures and appreciate their completeness, integrity, and uniqueness, underlining their strong modern and metaphysical personality.

Parete Est,
Parete Est, scena di dettaglio conclusiva di una delle sequenze dinamiche / East wall, detail scene at the end of one of the dynamic sequences photo©Henrik Blomqvist

Symbolism and abstraction are the two principles that guided the choice of a language of light that could not simply follow in the footsteps of traditional museums but had to face the great challenges of the present, with the consequent great questions: what future for Palazzo Schifanoia, and what fate for a place full of lyricism, beauty, and cosmic symbolism such as the Room of the Months? Once again, light is not the answer but it is a path, offering a different way to see the invisible, to remind us that behind every contemplative experience there is an essential game of cross-reference with the emotions of the viewer, and then not only with his eye hungry for knowledge. If light allows the curious, the scholar, and the historian to enter the cosmos wanted by Borso d’Este, it must also allow him to enter his emotional world, all the way in the profound reasons that made possible a vision of life, of power, and of the stars, which has no equal in the artistic creation of the time. The lighting designed and achieved in the Room of the Months has this ambition, and places the visitor in that indispensable condition of suspension from reality in order to draw on a magical dimension of disclosure and identification at the same time. Fritz Saxl’s aphorism “the fundamental act of human knowledge is to orient itself amidst the chaos through the position of images and signs” could not do better in reminding us how the scrutinizing of astral symbolism becomes a necessary act for the achievement of a journey into ancient times, and at the same time into the ineffable transience of the present. For this reason, a ray of light rests on a seductive and mysterious gaze in the month of March and seems to want to ignite an imaginary dialogue out of time, giving our contemplative experience that touch of magic and poetry that certainly inspired Francesco del Cossa and the other artists in the accomplishment of the extraordinary creative feat in the Salone dei Mesi

Parete Nord ed Est,
Parete Nord ed Est, mesi da Settembre a Marzo in senso antiorario, autori vari / North and East wall, months from September to March, counterclockwise, various authors photo©Henrik Blomqvist

Technical Appendix
The redevelopment project of the visual perception is based on the use of digital technologies for the management and control of the light flows that are differently arranged for the illumination of the frescoes in their entirety or in limited portions of the same. The lighting principle is based on the use of specially transformed and customized projectors to meet the geometric demand due to the limited distance between the walls and their floor mounting structure. Optical systems and suitably shapeforms allow the creation of luminous shapes and geometries following the rigorous principle of anamorphosis. A total of 52 light scenes are prepared, with overall views (months) and views of details (details), from which two dynamic sequences are drawn, one aimed at exploring the months and one useful for reading the zodiacal band as well as some figurative and symbolic details. From the point of view of the perceptual innovation, the premise of the project concerns the implications of the neuro-stimulating effect of the global contemplation alternating with a detailed investigation. The neuro-scientific research has laid the foundations for a greater understanding of this phenomenon in the visual field and has made it possible to identify the reasons for an alternating path of visual stimuli with different luminance and formal contents. The deepening from the general view to that of the single detail allows a significant form of exploration in the formation of new synapses, contributing to the formation of new neural maps in the visitor’s head. The formation of iconic images, consisting of extrapolations of larger compositional portions, has a higher value for visual cognition when perception occurs by subtraction. This value is due to the fact that the brain focuses only on the semantic value of the illuminated detail and it takes only a few seconds for the image to take on a permanent character in the memory. This occurs thanks to the emotional component, which, accompanying the vision, acts as a neurotransmitter allowing the deep sedimentation of the exploratory-cognitive experience. 

Summary table of the technical equipment
Summary table of the technical equipment
- Aby Warburg, Arte e Astrologia nel palazzo Schifanoia di Ferrara, Ascondita, Milano, 2006
- Giovanni Sassu, “Verso e oltre Schifanoia”, in Cosmè Tura e Francesco del Cossa. L’arte a Ferrara nell’età di Borso d’Este, Ferrara Arte, Ferrara, 2008, pp. 415-455
- Giacomo Bargellesi, Palazzo Schifanoia, Istituto Luce Cinécitta, Venezia, 1945
- Rudolf Arnheim, Arte e percezione visiva, Feltrinelli, Milano, 1984
- Semir Zeki, La visione dall’interno, Arte e Cervello, Bollati Boringhieri, Milano, 2007

This article was originally published on LUCE n°334, 2020