Bernardino Orsi (Reggio c. 1450-c. 1532)
Bernardino Orsi (Reggio c. 1450-c. 1532)

Jason and the Golden Fleece

Bernardino Orsi (Reggio c. 1450-c. 1532)
Jason and the Golden Fleece
with the coat-of-arms of the Guidotti family (lower right)
tempera on panel, laid down on board
18 x 21 in. (45.7 x 53.2 cm.)
Painted for a member of the Guidotti family, Bologna, possibly for the marriage of Sallustio Guidotti to Griseida, natural daughter of Giovanni II Bentivoglio, in 1486.
Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani (1564-1637), Palazzo Guistiniani, S. Luigi dei Francese, Rome; his posthumous inventory, 9 February 1638: 'Stanza Grande de Quadri Antichi', nos. 97-8, 'Due quadri in tavola sopraporti con l'historia de gli Argonauti divisi con colonne dipinte con prospettive larg. pal. 7 alt. pal. 2 in circa di mano si credi di Ercole da Ferrara con loro cornici nere' (L. Salerno, 'The Picture Gallery of Vincenzo Giustiniani - III: The Inventory, Part II', The Burlington Magazine, CII, April 1960, p. 141), from whom acquired in 1803 by
Antonio Canova (1757-1822).
Carlo de Roner d'Ehrenwerth.
Purchased in Venice by Sir George Houston-Boswall, 2nd Bt. (1809-1886), Blackadder, Berwickshire, and by inheritance to the vendor.
G. Cecchini, Indice ragionato della collezione d'antichi dipinti del fu nobile Carlo de Roner D'Ehrenwerth, Venice, 1847, no. 46, as Stefano da Ferrara (the catalogue entry attached to the reverse).
F. Zeri, 'Appunti per Ercole de' Roberti', Bollettino d'Arte, L, 1965, pp. 74-6, as Ercole de' Roberti and studio.
B. Berenson, Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Central Italian and North Italian School, London, 1968, I, p. 121, as Studio of Ercole de' Roberti.
P. Venturoli, 'Lorenzo Costa', Storia dell'Arte, 1969, p. 163.
P. Tosetti Grandi, in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, XXX, Rome, 1984, p. 212, as Ercole de' Roberti and studio.
P. Tosetti Grandi, 'Lorenzo Costa miniatore', La miniatura italiana tra Gotico e Rinascimento, Atti del II Congresso di Storia della Miniatura Italiana, I, Florence, 1985, p. 329, no. 1.
M.G. Diana, 'Alcune precisazioni per il percorso giovanile di Lorenzo Costa', Paragone, XXXVII, no. 431-3, 1986, pp. 47-8, as the young Lorenzo Costa.
J. Manca, The Life and Art of Ercole de' Roberti, Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1986, pp. 355-6.
C. Turril, Ercole de' Roberti's Altarpieces for the Lateran Canons, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Delaware, 1986, p. 333.
P. Tosetti Grandi, 'Favole tolte da Ovidio e da altri poeti: per tre coppie di cassoni nuziali bolognesi', Bolletino del Museo Civico di Padova, LXXIX, 1990, pp. 240ff., fig. 9.
P. Tosetti Grandi, in A. Ballarin and D. Banzato, eds., Da Bellini a Tintoretto, exhibition catalogue, Padua, Musei Civici di Padova, 1991, pp. 75-7, under no. 11, as Ercole de' Roberti.
J. Manca, The Art of Ercole de' Roberti, Cambridge, Massachussetts, pp. 184-5, as by an Emilian, probably Ferrarese artist.
S. Campbell, 'Recensione a J. Manca. The Art of Ercole de' Roberti', The Burlington Magazine, CXXXV, 1993, p. 767, as 'connected with Roberti or with subordinate artists emulating his style'.
G. Pavanello, 'Sulla collezione di Antonio Canova: i cassoni degli Argonauti di Ercole da Ferrara', Bolletino del Museo Civico di Padova, LXXXII, 1993, p. 266.
A. Bacchi and A. de Marchi, Francesco Marmitta, Turin, 1995, p. 18, fig. 30, as 'Bernardino Orsi da Collecchio (?)'.
M. Molteni, Ercole de' Roberti, Milan, 1995, p. 172, no. 35, as Lorenzo Costa.
R. Bentivoglio, in Saur Allgemeines Künstler-Lexikon, XXI, Munich and Leipzig, 1999, p. 439.
E. Negro and N. Rosio, Lorenzo Costa, 1460-1535, Modena, 2001, pp. 141-2, no. 78.A.f, illustrated.

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Lot Essay

This remarkable picture belongs to a celebrated series of scenes from the Story of Jason and the Argonauts in two panels which was one of the key secular works of the closely related schools of Ferrara and Bologna in the late quattrocento. Its association with this series was first recognised on the basis of an old photograph by Federico Zeri and has been universally accepted; but the attribution of the components of the elements of the two larger panels that constituted the series has been the subject of considerable discussion.

Ercole d'Antonio de' Roberti, with whom this panel was associated as early as 1628, was the youngest of the trio of major painters who emerged in Ferrara in the later fifteenth century. The formative influence on his early development was not Cosimo Tura but his younger contemporary Francesco del Cossa, in whose studio he is recorded in 1473. Like Cossa, Ercole came to be closely associated with the court of the d'Este at Ferrara, but his most ambitious altarpiece was painted for Ravenna and he worked in Bologna in 1482-6, before returning to Ferrara, where in 1486 he received the first of a series of commissions from Eleanora, Duchess of Ferrara. Thereafter, with the single exception of an altarpiece that does not survive, he worked exclusively for the d'Este. In 1489 he was decorating the camerino associated with the duchess's garden that was used by her son, Alfonso I d'Este. A year later Ercole supplied decorated furniture for the wedding of the duke's sister, Isabella, to the Marquis of Mantua. A series of panels of Virtuous Women at Fort Worth, Modena and Washington may have been executed for Eleanora. In 1493 Ercole began to work for Alfonso on the decoration of his new palace, Belriguardo, which no longer survives. The duke clearly took a close interest in the project, and it has been suggested that the panels of the Story of Jason were painted for Belriguardo (K. Lippincott, in J. Turner, ed., The Dictionary of Art, London and New York, 1996, 26, p. 459), however, the arms of the Bolognese family of Guidotti on this and the companion panel in Paris (see infra) have been thought to establish that the series were painted on the occasion of the marriage in 1486 of Sallustio Guidotti to Griseida, natural daughter of Giovanni II Bentivoglio (1443-1508), the de facto ruler of Bologna, although the inclusion of the Bentivoglio arms may merely imply the association of a member of the Guidotti family with Bentivoglio.

Roberto Longhi attributed those of the companion scenes that were known to him in 1934 to Ercole's pupil, the Ferrara-born Lorenzo Costa. Costa also went to Bologna in the early 1480s and received his first documented commission from Giovanni II Bentivoglio in 1483: he was to become Bentivoglio's chosen painter. Particularly in his later years, Ercole, like other court painters, delegated the execution of both pictures and sculptures that he devised or designed to assistants, but by 1486 Costa himself had mastered his idiom, and would have been perfectly capable of designing compositions of equal sophistication: he too when working at speed for a specific event such as the marriage of 1486 would have needed to call in assistance. Zeri, when publishing this panel in 1965, considered that it was designed by Ercole, but executed by an assistant. Tossetti Grandi, who like Zeri had not seen the panel, attributed it to Ercole himself; while Molteni like Longhi considers it to be by the young Lorenzo Costa. Negro and Roio argue that the stylistic orientation in the ambience of Ercole of the series implies a date prior to Roberti's return from Bologna to Ferrara and regarded the involvement of the young Costa as 'plausibile anche se non accertabile', rejecting the alternative suggestion of Bernardino Orsi di Collecchio, proposed by Bacchi and de Marchi in 1995. Their attribution is accepted by other scholars, including Mauro Lucco and Everett Fahy, and seems to be persuasive.

Father of the better-known Lelio Orsi, Bernardino came from Collecchio Parmese and in 1485 supplied an altarpiece for the Boiardi family at Reggio. He and his family moved to Bologna in 1488, but he may already have executed the striking altarpiece of Saint Jerome in the Castelli Chapel of the church of San Petronio at Bologna, which postdates 1484, and has also in the past been regarded as an early work by Costa. That the Saint Jerome is by the same hand as the Argonaut series is demonstrated by similarities between this and the Padua panel, and Bacchi and de Marchi point to equally compelling parallels between the Paris panel and Orsi's signed altarpiece of 1501. The Argonaut scenes, conceived while Orsi worked in the ambience of Ercole and, indeed, the youthful Costa, and the equally individual Atalanta and Hippomenes (Berlin; Bacchi and de Marchi, fig. 33) demonstrates that he was as inventive and eccentric a master as his better-known son.

The story of the Argonauts, transmitted by Apollonius of Rhodes (Argonautika), by Ovid and the younger Philostratus, recounts the adventures of Jason, rightful King of Iolcus, and the companions with whom he set out to secure the Golden Fleece at Colchis, at the eastern end of the Euxine (the Black Sea), the daughter of whose king, Medea, helped him to achieve his quest; and of the long return voyage of the Argonauts, the itinerary of which varies in early accounts of the legend. The epic, one not frequently treated in the quattrocento, may have had a particular resonance in both Ferrara and Bologna as the Argonauts were supposed to have sailed up the River Po on their return voyage from Colchis. The specific literary sources were accounts of the Argonauts by Apollonius of Rhodes and Valerius Flaccus (Bacchi and de Marchi, p. 18).

The measurements in palmi recorded in the Bentivoglio catalogue suggest that the two panels each originally consisted of three compartments divided by matching columns: of the total of six compartments two are intact, with the columns that separated these at the sides: this panel, the Flight of the Argonauts from Colchis at Padua (Museo Civico, no. 324) and the Banquet of Aëtes in the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris: these are regarded by Molteni as respectively by Ercole and Costa and as by the inferior Master of the Manfredi Cassoni. The inclusion of the arms on the lateral columns of this and the Paris picture may imply that these were the central elements of the two original panels, and this scene in a sense represents the climax of the epic. The left halves of two other sections survive, Jason's Battle with the Giants born from Dragon's Teeth from the Rucellai collection, Florence, now owned by the Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze (also attributed to Ercole and the Manfredi Master by Molteni) and the well-known Ship of the Argonauts, long associated with Ercole, which was considered by Tossetti Grandi to represent their return to Iolcus, in the Thyssen collection (Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza), the latter additionally cropped above and below: this is attributed by Molteni to Costa. A smaller fragment, with a seated king and three courtiers standing behind him was once in the possession of Peter Wilson: Tossetti Grandi considered this to represent Alcinus but Negro and Roio identify this as of Aëtes at the court of Colchis, Molteni cataloguing it as by Ercole and an unspecified assistant. That the series as a whole was designed by Ercole is wholly plausible, as is the view that this panel like the sections now in Padua and at Madrid are by the young Lorenzo Costa, who was to emerge from the orbit of Ercole to become one of the two great masters of High Renaissance Bologna.

When the panels left the Guidotti collection cannot be ascertained. Vincenzo Giustiniani amassed one of the great collections of the early seventeenth century and is justly celebrated for his patronage of and acquisition of works by contemporary artists: he owned fifteen pictures by Caravaggio, employed Albani and Domenichino and in his later years acquired canvasses by Claude and Poussin. He was also a notable collector of classical sculpture, as was no doubt known by Canova, who purchased the two complete panels from his descendants in 1803. The subject of the panels no doubt appealed to the great neo-classical sculptor. Roner d'Ehrenworth was a discriminating collector of Renaissance pictures, as the catalogue issued in 1847, evidently with a view to the sale of his pictures, demonstrates. Sir George Houston-Boswall, 2nd Bt. married in 1847 Euphemia, daughter and heiress of Thomas Boswall of Blackadder, heir of an East Indian fortune, whose name he took. The Houston-Boswalls evidently visited Venice shortly thereafter, and purchased at least two other pictures from the Roner d'Ehrenworth collection: Antonello da Messina's celebrated signed Portrait of a young man in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid (no. 18 (964.47)); and Giovanni Bellini's Gabriele Veneto (private collection), recently published by Antonio Mazzotta ('Gabriele Veneto e un ritratto dimenticato di Giovanni Bellini', Prospettiva, 134-5, 2009, pp. 2-24), who observed that the printed entry attached to this, matching that on the Jason, was extracted from the Roner d'Ehrenworth catalogue.

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