(Monticelli di Firenze 1503 - Florence 1572)
The contest of Apollo and Marsyas
Oil on canvas, 82.5x127 cm.
Milan, Giorgio Baratti Collection
This is one of three versions of the Contest between Apollo and Marsyas, the most well-known of which is held at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg (1). The Hermitage painting, originally on a panel, was transferred to canvas, with the resulting deterioration of the pictorial surface; furthermore, an irregular section, which accounts for almost one-third of the total height, has obviously been cut off from the top of the composition, while minor gaps can be found at the bottom and sides.
The other two versions are less well known. The first is a panel - which I have not personally seen - in a private collection in New York (2); the second is the canvas in question. The two works are closely related in size, general composition and detail; their rectangular shape, of a higher height than the Hermitage’s work, allows you to appreciate, in all its splendour, the spectacular fantastic landscape that opens out in the distance, providing an interesting example of Bronzino’s landscaping talent. The airy panorama that extends above the mountains and lakes is missing in the Hermitage painting, except for the far left; as a result of the reduction of the upper part, the remaining trees, paths and the footpaths at the centre and the right of the middle plane are inconsistent following a more careful examination. On the other hand, in this version on canvas these same details are meticulously painted and are of an extraordinary pictorial quality. Even here, unfortunately, the surface is slightly compromised by craquelure caused by the gradual loosening of the canvas over time, which causes cracking in the pictorial layer
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The difference between the elongated horizontal format of the Hermitage painting and the rectangular and higher height of this work and of that of New York undoubtedly has a precise meaning. The cover of a virginal generally has the shape of a right-angled triangle, with the long side opposite to the right angle often curved inwards to form an arc rather than a straight line. An example of such a lid - perhaps the interior rather than the exterior - is the Silenus Gathering Grapes by Annibale Carracci, held at the National Gallery in London and dated to 1599 (3). The contest between Apollo and Marsyas held at the Hermitage could have been part of a larger wood panel of irregular shape - it was a rectangle with a right-angled triangle resting on the upper side - perhaps later reduced by the former owner. The hypothetical irregular section, now missing, is documented by the landscape in the background of this canvas and the New York panel. If we imagine a right-angled triangle above it, the view would have included the cave covered by the trees on the right and, continuing towards the centre, the distant city, before reaching the lowest point of the horizon above the lake on the far left. The downward trend of the landscape we observe in the two larger rectangular versions of Bronzino’s composition refer to the triangular shape of the original cover, which probably would have included many of the features just described, but without a substantial portion of the sky
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To conclude, I cannot help but emphasize the importance of Bronzino’s view of the landscape - as witnessed by this version of the Contest - in the evolution of landscape painting in the Marche area. Evidently the Florentine artist struck Federico Barocci, a frequent visitor to the Palazzo Ducale in Pesaro, who was familiar with the paintings of Titian owned by his patron, Duke Francesco Maria II, son of Guidobaldo for whom Bronzino had worked. In the painting by Barocci held at the National Gallery of the Marche in Urbino, the Stigmata of St. Francis, which was financed by Francesco Maria della Rovere, the entrance of the cave where the saint kneels to receive the stigmata reveals an understanding of the mountainous landscape in front of which Bronzino places the scene of the austere musical contest between Apollo and Marsyas; the same roots of the trees that emerge from the ground can be seen, struggling in vain to take hold on the rigid rocky surface (4). The tops of trees that overlook the ground in Bronzino’s picture are suggested by small brush strokes, a dotting technique that shows foliage in Barocci’s landscape studies, such as the one held at the British Museum in London (5).
(From Nicholas Turneri’s historical and critical board)
1) Oil on panel transferred onto canvas, 48 x 119 cm, St. Petersburg, Hermitage, inv. GE 250. See the T. Kustodieva data sheet in Bronzino. Painter and poet at the Medici court, exhibition catalogue (Florence, Palazzo Strozzi, September 2010 - January 2011), edited by C. Falciani and A. Natali, Florence 2010, pp. 84-85, n. I, 16). In the data sheet for the painting at the Hermitahe, Kustodieva lists a series of copies and engravings based on Bronzino’s composition.
2) Oil on panel, 82 x 122.5 cm, New York, private collection. J.T. Spike, The Fable of Apollo and Marsyas by Agnolo Bronzino, edited by E. Frascione, Florence 2000; Id., Apollo and Marsyas painted by Bronzino in Pesaro for Guidobaldo II of Rovere, in Della Rovere in the Italian courts, acts of the symposium (Urbania, 16-19 September 1999), vol. II, Places and works of art, by Bonita Clerici et al., Urbino 2002, pp. 69-78.
3) Tempera on panel, two sections: 54.5 x 69.5 cm and 36.1 x 19 cm, London, National Gallery, inv. 93.1 and 2; cfr. D. Posner, Annibale Carracci, London 1971, vol. II, p. 51, n. 115.
4) Oil on canvas, 360 x 245 cm, Galleria delle Marche, Urbino. See J. Mann’s data sheet on Federico Barocci, Renaissance Master of Color and Line, exhibition catalogue (St Louis, St Louis Art Museum and London, National Gallery, 2012-2013), edited by J. Mann and B. Bohn, St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis 2012, pp. 238-251.
5) The example reproduced here, from the British Museum, is probably a study for the Stigmas of St. Francis of Urbino (see Federico Barocci, Renaissance Master..., p. 245).
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