Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Penelope's Web: Francesco Primaticcio's Epic Revision at Fontainebleau

Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Penelope's Web: Francesco Primaticcio's Epic Revision at Fontainebleau

Article excerpt

When Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1549), sister of King Francis I (1494-1547), visited the royal chateau of Fontainebleau in 1542, she remarked that the absence of the king during her stay dulled the charm of her experience: "because to see your buildings without you, it is a dead body, and to look at your buildings without hearing your intention about them, it is like reading Hebrew." (1) Given the highly allusive character of Fontainebleau, with its distinctive language of interior decoration that emphasized myth and classicizing ornament realized in a variety of media, it is not surprising that Marguerite would desire princely illumination. While her comments have been seen to characterize an "impenetrable" program requiring "initiation"--especially regarding the recondite decoration in the Galerie Francois I--or "a royal imperative ... to execute a complexly symbolic decor celebrating the monarch," they can also be taken at face value. (2) However remote and indecipherable, the innovative formal language of Fontainebleau's decoration not only invited, but seems to have prompted, discussion in order to enliven viewing experience. Marguerite's emphasis on reading and her desire for intimate exchange more readily speaks to the fundamental connection between art and letters, between visual and verbal modes of address whose shared goal, eloquence, permeates the courtly imagination and provides the opportunity for intelligent inquiry and discovery.

One of the main artists responsible for the development of Fontainebleau was Francesco Primaticcio, who was born in Bologna in 1503 and died in France in 1570. (3) Primaticcio is a fascinating individual whose career as a whole has attracted heightened attention in recent years. (4) A versatile artist who excelled as a draftsman, painter, architect, and stuccoist, throughout his life Primaticcio worked simultaneously as a merchant of antiquities. Although his artistic training is obscure, documents place him in Venice from 1524 to 1525, selecting for Federico II Gonzaga of Mantua precious objects from galleys returning from the East. (5) In 1527 Primaticcio was in Mantua, working alongside Giulio Romano on the decoration of the Palazzo Te. (6) According to Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), when King Francis I sought an artist expert in painting and stucco, Federico recommended Primaticcio, who subsequently moved to France in 1532 and immediately engaged himself with the decorations at Fontainebleau. (7) There he collaborated with another Italian artist, the Florentine Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540), who had arrived two years earlier. Together, Rosso and Primaticcio had a tremendous impact on French artistic culture, combining the achievements of Italian painting, elaborate stucco relief, and sumptuous ornament for the royal residence. When Rosso died in 1540, Primaticcio assumed artistic control over all royal commissions and went on to earn coveted titles at court. In 1544 he was honored as Abbe de Saint-Martin-es-Ayres a Troyes, and in 1562 was appointed Conseiller du Roy. (8) The artist traveled extensively throughout his career, returning to Italy on numerous occasions, not only for personal matters but, significantly, in order to make bronze reproductions of antique sculpture found in Rome for the French king. (9) As a result, he possessed one of the most sophisticated visual vocabularies of any artist of his day.

Despite detailed records of Primaticcio's activity at Fontainebleau, most of his decorations have unfortunately perished. An extraordinary work to have survived from this period is his Ulysses and Penelope (fig. 1), with its captivating portrayal of epic personalities from Homer's Odyssey. (10) Now in the Toledo Museum of Art, the painting measures 44 3/4 x 48 3/4 inches, and dates to about 1560. The quality of the painting is exceptional and, notwithstanding some compromised areas, the relatively good condition of the canvas enables viewers to appreciate its original visual impact. …

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