Previously unrecorded, this finely-preserved parade shield has recently emerged as an important addition to a small group of such extraordinary objects often attributed to Polidoro da Caravaggio, Raphael's most enigmatic pupil and follower. The origin and use of this group of lavishly decorated parade shields remain something of a mystery. They were most likely made to be used as part of the armour worn by princes and military commanders in triumphal entries and parades, which, during the High Renaissance, became increasingly magnificent emulations of the triumphs of the Roman Emperors and generals of the classical past, documented in ancient art and writing. An entire tradition of all'antica armour, designed to cast the bearer into the guise of the classical hero, can be traced to the fifteenth century but reached its zenith in the sixteenth, when Milanese armour-makers such as Filippo Negroli (active 1532-1551) became renowned suppliers of breastplates, helmets and full suits of armour in ornate, classically-inspired style (see the richly illustrated exhibition catalogue J.-A. Godoy and S. Leydi, Parures triomphales: Le maniérisme dans l'art de l'armure italienne, Geneva and Milan, 2003). Shields such as the present gave painters an additional opportunity to participate in the preparation of triumphs and other festivities, and to demonstrate their skill in this unusual context.
The group to which this shield belongs comprises the finest examples to have survived. A recent discovery, the present shield is believed to be one of the last of the group in private hands; the others are in the Louvre, Paris (inv. OA1138-9); Royal Armouries, London (V16); Museo Civico, Turin (5AA); Gemäldegalerie and Rüstkammer, Dresden (105, N71); State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg (Z.O.3514); Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (no. 42.50.16); Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Collection of Carl Otto Kretzschmar von Kienbusch (1977.167.751); City Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow (A7627F); Arundel Castle, West Sussex; Maxstoke Castle, Warwickshire; and Christie's, London, 5 July 2011, lot 1, £361,250 ($578,000). The subject of each shield's decoration differs but all draw on classical history, mythology or allegory, perhaps in some complex programmatic interrelationship; many of the subjects seem to be allegories of different types or stages of love, emblematized in scenes of hunting or military prowess.
The present shield is decorated in a style very close to that of the Turin shield and to that sold at Christie's in July 2011, and the subject matter of the present can be read in close comparison to the latter, suggesting that the two were painted as a pair within the group. The decoration of the July shield showed scenes involving Diana, goddess of hunting: on the recto, she is shown in the forest with her chaste companions, Eros leading in a youth who can either be interpreted as a young man being introduced to the sacred rites of hunting, or (and perhaps equally) as one whose amorous regards for the nymphs must be bound by chastity. The verso shows the myth of Actaeon, with a central space reserved for the shield handles. This sequence can be read as an allegory of Sacred Love, personified by Diana, while the present shield provides an allegory of Profane Love, personified by the goddess Venus, who is shown in triumph on her chariot on the recto, leading a gaggle of enthralled men and women by the leashes clasped in her hand, while Cupid or Eros flies ahead. The relief on the wheel of her chariot depicts an episode from the Loves of the Gods. On the recto, in a visual vocabulary which has more to do with medieval and Renaissance chivalric romance than classical prototypes, a bearded knight is visited in his dreams by Fortune (identified by the sail she holds, to catch 'the winds of Fortune') and a beautiful woman with a serpent's tail, bearing gold -- the personification of Seduction or Deceipt. In the lower register, the knight has wakened, the beautiful woman has vanished, and Fortune eludes him in the forest. The erudite symbolism behind the two shields, together a juxtaposition of the Triumph of Venus (Profane Love) and the Triumph of Diana (Chastity or Sacred Love), may be inspired by Petrarch's vernacular poem Trionfi (1351-74), which describes the allegorical triumphal processions of Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time and Eternity. It is not impossible that other surviving or lost shields were painted to represent Petrarch's other Trionfi, or that an enactment of the poem as a masque or other entertainment holds the secret for the origin of some or all of the shields.
The style and choice of coloring of these two shields, essentially a grisaille with passages picked out in orange, recall both marble relief sculpture and Greek vase painting, and place the shields within the Renaissance campaign of renovatio, the renewal of the culture of ancient Rome, of which triumphal processions were themselves a part. The imitation of sculpture belongs to the larger tradition of paragone, in which painters would vie with sculptors and other artists working in three-dimensions (in this case, armourers such as Negroli amongst them) in the perfection of their art; while the evocation of vase painting is a striking reflection of the interest in Greek black-figure and red-figure vases which is sparsely documented but had been emerging from the fifteenth century onwards (it is noteworthy that Vasari held red-figure vases to be Roman -- see Vite, 1550, ed. G. Milanesi, 1878-85, VI, p. 571). As with all examples of renovatio in art, the idea of a hero's shield, richly decorated with mythological scenes, is rooted in classical texts; the shield of Achilles and its decorations is described by Homer over 130 lines of the Iliad (XVIII, 478-608), while the shield of Athena, lent by her to the hero Perseus and decorated with the head of the gorgon Medusa, was to inspire both Leonardo da Vinci (Vasari, Vite) and Caravaggio (Uffizi, Florence) to imitation.
Although no point of origin is documented for this shield and others like it (Venice, Mantua, Bologna, Florence, Rome and Naples all having been suggested), they seem quickly to have spread to a number of European courts; the earliest documentary reference is one of 1543 in the inventory of the Gonzaga armory at Mantua (S.W. Pyhrr and E. Fahy, 'A Renaissance Painted Shield Attributed to Girolamo da Treviso', in C. Blair et al., Studies in European arms and armour: The C. Otto von Kienbusch collection in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 1992, p. 100), while the painter Diego de Arroyo (c. 1498-1551) is documented as making a saddle of similar style for Prince Philip, future Philip II of Spain, in 1544 (Madrid, Real Armería; see Godoy and Leydi, op. cit., p. 498). An attribution of such shields to Polidoro da Carvaggio had already been proposed by 1925, and most of the group was published by Pierluigi Leone de Castris as the work of Polidoro and his collaborator Maturino da Firenze in 2001 (P.L. de Castris, Polidoro da Caravaggio: L'opera completa, Naples, 2001, pp. 197-204). In the ground-breaking 1992 study by Stuart Pyhrr and Everett Fahy, Fahy advanced an attribution to Girolamo da Treviso, the polymath artist, sculptor and military engineer who specialised in grisailles evocative of Roman relief sculpture, the most famous of which is perhaps the political satire Evangelists stoning the Pope (Royal Collection, London, Hampton Court). The present shield is distinguished by having a wholly intact outer edge, showing painstakingly designed and executed original bands of ornamentation, where many of the other shields, including that sold in July, have lost this vulnerable margin.