Joos van Cleve: Lucretia, c. 1520–25.
In the last years of his life, Raphael designed a palace for his friend Giovanbattista Branconio dell’Aquila, a papal advisor, goldsmith, and the personal keeper to Hanno, the white elephant brought to Rome in 1514. The palace was located in the Borgo, the district between Castel Sant’Angelo and the Vatican.
Around 1660, the palace was demolished together with the adjoining block, named Isola del Priorato after the nearby Priory of the Knights of Malta, to create the Piazza Rusticucci. Not much remains, an engraving from not long before the demolition and this sketch by Giovanni Battista Naldini.
Dosso Dossi: Apollo and Daphne, 1524.
This painting was probably commissioned by Alfonso d’Este and may allude to his love affair with the lady-in-waiting Laura Dianti, after the death of his wife, Lucrezia Borgia, in 1519. The painting was inspired by the story of Apollo and Daphne in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Apollo is singing his love for Daphne and interrupts his performance at the moment when the nymph is transformed into a laurel tree (allusion to Laura) in the landscape on the left. Apollo accompanies his song on a viola da braccio, the instrument played by Duke Alfonso.
Witches, as a motif, entered the history of art around 1500. The oldest item that seems to have survived is a 1497 print by Dürer, the girl in the older Love Magic painting cannot be considered a witch. But it was Dürer’s student Hans Baldung Grien who really exploited the topic, in this painting and numerous prints and drawings.
There are several reasons why he may have loved this subject. One less obvious is that he was, far more than his teacher, interested in natural poses, and the anatomy of the body in motion. Some of his witches have poses that wouldn’t make much sense in any other context. This painting is rather static, but note the legs of the witch on the left. His Judith has the same pose. It’s a natural way of standing relaxed, though only when leaning against something. In painting, it may have been a first.
There had recently returned from France Cardinal Bernardo Divizio of Bibbiena, who, perceiving that King Francis possessed not a single work in marble, whether ancient or modern, although he much delighted in such things, had promised his Majesty that he would prevail on the Pope to send him some beautiful work. After this Cardinal there came to the Pope two Ambassadors from King Francis, and they, having seen the statues of the Belvedere, lavished all the praise at their command on the Laocoon. Cardinals de Medici and Bibbiena, who were with them, asked them whether the King would be glad to have a work of that kind; and they answered that it would be too great a gift.
Leo X commissioned Florentine Baccio Bandinelli in 1520 to make this full-size marble copy of the famous Laocoon group as a gift to François I. It was not finished until the reign of Clement VII, who could not bear to part with it, sent some antiquities to the King of France in its stead, and in 1525 sent Baccio’s Laocoon to Florence, where it was put into the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici on Via Larga. It is now at the Uffizi.
François eventually did get his copy later, in the 1540s, when Francesco Primaticcio made a bronze cast of the group.
Danaë was the daughter of King Acrisius of Argos, whom an oracle had prophesied that he would be killed by his daughter’s son. To keep her childless, he locked her into a tower, but Zeus impregnated her in the shape of golden rain. The child was Perseus. Acrisius cast mother and son out to see in a wooden box, but they were saved and of course in the end the prophecy was fulfilled.
As early as Horace and Terence, authors have used the story as a metaphor for the power of gold, and most paintings of Danaë are thinly veiled bordello scenes. But there is another interpretation, found most prominently in the Fulgentius metaforalis, which describes her situation as thus:
High up, walled in a tower, in great misery, surrounded by guards, pregnant, violated by gold she sits: chastity violated. Jan Gossaert (who signed as Joannes Malbodius from his place of birth, and is sometimes known as Jan Mabuse) seems to follow this interpretation in his 1527 painting, which is the oldest of this topic outside manuscripts. He not only emphasizes the tower situation most other artists ignore completely, he gives her a blue coat, the attribute of Mary.
Another remarkable thing about this painting is the similarity with the Danaë on a Boeotian red-figure crater from the classic era that the Louvre acquired in 1898. Jan Gossaert was the first Flemish painter to travel to Italy, maybe he saw a similar picture there. The Domus Aurea had already been discovered at the time, and the word grottesche had made its way into the Italian language.
It seems that Hans Baldung Grien was the first artist to paint Judith in the nude. It is no coincidence that this picture was done by a supporter of the Protestant reformation, at the time (ca. 1525) when this movement was really gaining momentum, Luther’s translation of the New Testament had been printed a few years earlier. Biblical nudes are a typical Protestant theme, Catholic (especially Italian) painters are on the whole more likely to draw from ancient mythology.