Caravaggio and the Painters of the North
From 21 June to 18 September 2016
This small panel was part of the decoration of a cassone or wedding chest. According to an old description, the chest had three scenes on the front divided by small columns. This information derives from an inventory of 1638 of the collection of Vincenzo Giustiniani in which a pair of chests with the story of the Argonauts is recorded and attributed to Ercole da Ferrara. The present panel was in a private collection in Brussels and later in the F. B. Gutmann collection in Heemstede. It entered the Villa Favorita in 1934. A year before it entered the Thyssen collection the panel was exhibited for the first time in an exhibition on Renaissance painting in Ferrara, although it had by that date already been studied by Berenson, who attributed it to Ercole de’Roberti. From that point on the attribution of this panel and of the other surviving, identified panels were the subject of debate by art historians. Venturi, Salmi and Longhi agreed with the attribution to Ercole de’Roberti, while Manca andMolteni disagreed.
The panel illustrates one of the episodes from the story of the Argonauts in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book VII). These Greek heroes accompanied Jason on a mission to find the Golden Fleece. The name of the group derives from their ship, the Argos, that transported them during their adventure, and was also the name of the person who built it. The present panel depicts the moment when Jason, accompanied by Medea, daughter of king Aeëtes, leaves Colchis, having captured the Golden Fleece that was guarded by a dragon and having survived a series of tests with Medea’s invaluable help.
The panel, which has been cut down at the upper part and on the right side, depicts the Argos — depicted as a large, 15th-century ship — leaving shore with the principal characters on board. The landscape in which the boat is set is depicted with a uniform approach to line and colour, with the sea and sky blending together and few other references to natural elements. This lack of specificity in the setting for the great sailing ship produces a fantastical effect and the vessel seems to float in the air rather than sail. The artist used the warmest and most contrasting tones for the elegant and sophisticated clothes worn by the small figures.
Two fragments have been identified from the panels that decorated the Giustiniani cassone. They are The Battle of the Argonauts in the Rucellai collection, Florence, and Court Dignitaries in the Peter Wilson collection. Other identified panels are Jason and the Dragon, which was in the Houstoun-Boswall collection in London; The Expedition of the Argonauts in the Museo Civico, Padua; and A Court Banquet in the Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris. These scenes have been attributed to various artists including Ercole de’Roberti, Lorenzo Costa and an anonymous master.