Born in Ferrara, Lorenzo Costa trained with the Ferrarese painter Ercole de’Roberti. In the early 1480s he is documented in Bologna at the court of Giovanni II Bentivoglio (Bologna, 1443–Milan, 1508) who ruled that city between 1463 and 1506. In 1464 Giovanni married Ginevra Sforza, widow of Sante Bentivoglio and niece of Francisco II, Duke of Milan. Together they had twelve children. Giovanni II ruled over a wealthy and brilliant court and commissioned works of art for churches and palaces. Among other commissions for the family, Costa decorated the oratory of Santa Cecilia and the family chapel, both in the church of San Giacomo Maggiore, as well as working on the decoration of the new palace, destroyed in 1502.
The inscription at the upper edge of the canvas enables us to identify all the figures, which are arranged in line and grouped around Alessandro Bentivoglio who holds a musical score. From left to right in the top row we see Bianca Rangona, Monsignore Bentivoglio, two anonymous singers, and Caterina Manfredi on the far right. In the lower line, from left to right we see a self-portrait of the artist, Pistano, Hermes Bentivoglio (in red, positioned frontally), an ecclesiastical canon and Alessandro Bentivoglio. This was not the only occasion on which Costa depicted the family. In 1488 he painted Giovanni II and his wife together with eleven of their children on the walls of San Giacomo Maggiore. Comparing that work with the present one, similarities have been seen between the figures of Hermes and Alessandro Bentivoglio and Bianca Rangona despite the idealisation evident in the present canvas.
This unfinished group portrait is interesting in various respects. Firstly, due to the presence of the self-portrait and the particular way in which the artist included himself in the group, as it provides a valuable image of daily life at the court in which Costa worked and thus of the Italian Renaissance in general. Costa used his hat as a base for his signature and the date of the painting although these are now almost illegible. The second point, made by Heinemann in 1969, is that this is one of the first known Italian group portraits.
The canvas, which entered the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in 1930, was acquired from the Mercuria gallery in Lucerne in 1934. The Museum’s archive possesses reports dating from before its acquisition written in April 1934 by Wilhelm Suida and Tancred Borenius, and in May 1934 by Lionello Venturi in which all three authors attribute the canvas to Costa.
The date on the painting conforms to the style of the dress worn by the sitters. Despite this date, in 1956 Roberto Longhi dated the canvas to around 1490, relating it to another oil by Costa, A Concert, in the National Gallery, London. Longhi pointed to the stylistic similarity between the two compositions.