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Piero di Cosimo (?Florence 1461/2-1521)
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Piero di Cosimo (?Florence 1461/2-1521)

Jason and Queen Hypsipyle with the women of Lemnos: a spalliera

Piero di Cosimo (?Florence 1461/2-1521)
Jason and Queen Hypsipyle with the women of Lemnos: a spalliera
indistinctly signed and dated '[PETRV]S. V. 1499' (centre right)
oil on panel, laid on panel
35¾ x 59 in. (90.8 x 149.8 cm.)
D. Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo. Visions Beautiful and Strange, New Haven and London, 2006, pp. 145-61, and 320-4, fig. 112.
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Lot Essay

Jason and Queen Hypsipyle with the Women of Lemnos was first reinstated to the oeuvre of Piero di Cosimo by Everett Fahy, and published recently by Dennis Geronimus in Piero di Cosimo. Visions Beautiful and Strange (op. cit), from which this entry is largely drawn. Until that publication this spalliera panel had remained little-known and in private collections, once mentioned by Evelyn Sandberg Vavalà in 1933 in a letter to the then owner, in which she attributed it to Piero di Cosimo on the basis of style, relating the face of the mounted figure, now-called Hypsipyle, on the right, with that of the Virgin in Piero's Innocenti Altarpiece of circa 1493 (op. cit., p. 322, note 167 and fig. 159). Cecil Gould (correspondence of 26 May 1989; op. cit., p. 322, note 177), who was also one of the few who knew the picture, added it to the three-panel series of Jason and the Argonauts, commissioned for the bedroom of Lorenzo Tornabuoni and Giovanna di Maso degli Albrizzi, that comprised The Departure of the Argonauts from Iolcus by Pieto del Donzello, dated 1487 (The Mari-Cha Collection); Biagio d'Antonio's The Betrothal of Jason and Medea in the Temple of Apollo (Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs); and Bartolomeo di Giovanni The Banquet of the Argonauts in Colchis (The Mari-Cha Collection). Geronimus suggested an alternative tripartite Lemnos cycle, linking it instead to Piero's pair of Vulcan canvases, The Finding of Vulcan of Lemnos and The Return of New Life to Lemnos (traditionally called Vulcan and Aeolus) in the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa respectively, all commissioned for an as-yet unidentified erudite patron, presumably to celebrate the advent of his marriage. Everett Fahy, on the other hand, does not support this interpretation.

This spalliera panel would have been made for adorning the sala, anticamera or camera of a private home. Sometimes made as the backrests for benches, spalliera panels were increasingly elaborately framed at eye or shoulder (spalla) level, as part of the wainscotting of a room. As such, they opened the room up onto an imaginary realm, often with poetic, mythological and fantastical vistas, allowing the artist greater freedom than more conventional paintings. As an artist known (and indeed celebrated) for his imagination, inventiveness and sheer oddity, even within his own lifetime, spalliera and cassone panels were not surprisingly Piero di Cosimo's particular forte. Along with Vasari's stories of an absent-minded, eccentric and solitary genius (who ate only hard-boiled eggs that he prepared at the same time as boiling glue for making size), it becomes evident that it was Piero's favole, or painted fables, along with his festival designs for public celebrations that brought him the most renown. Other than Botticelli, Piero was the most distinguished painter of cassone and spalliera panels in Renaissance Florence.

Piero di Cosimo trained as a workshop assistant for Cosimo Rosselli, from whom he took his name. According to Vasari, Piero accompanied Rosselli to Rome and painted the landscape background in Rosselli's fresco of The Sermon on the Mount, commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV for the Sistine Chapel. Piero's early work showed the influence of Leonardo and Filippino Lippi, and then from around 1490 the more bulky forms of Signorelli, and Netherlandish landscapes. One abiding influence for Piero, as with other artists of the time, would have been Hugo van der Goes's Portinari altarpiece (Uffizi). Jason and Queen Hypsipyle with the Women of Lemnos is unique amongst his oeuvre as it is both signed (indistinctly) and dated 1499; otherwise it is a typical work. As Geronimus notes, 'in addition to the damage visible in the faces of all three male protagonists, a clear discrepancy in execution can be made out...perhaps evidence of an assistant's hand or of subsequent overpaints. Original oil glazes have survived best in the landscape passages and the figures' costumes' (op. cit., p. 322, note 168). The head of Queen Hypsipyle and some of the heads of her female companions, do however remain quite well preserved.

Originally called Return from the Hunt, Geronimus has identified this panel with the story of the love affair between the philandering Jason and Hypsipyle of Lemnos, queen of the volcanic island opposite the ancient city of Troy. It represents a rarely-depicted interlude on Jason's voyage to capture the Golden Fleece from Aeëtes, king of Colchis (whose daughter, the enchantress Medea fell in love with Jason; Metamorphoses 7:1). The Lemnos women had been punished by Aphrodite so that they were shunned and abandoned by their husbands, and so in revenge the women rose up and slaughtered every male on the island. Their Amazonian existence only came to a halt when Jason and the Argonauts landed. The present panel with its frieze-like procession of huntresses, shows Hypsipyle leaning from her horse to embrace Jason. The two men carrying their quarry on foot can be variously interpreted as Jason's entourage, or the twins that Hypsipyle would later conceive; as Dante wrote: 'And [Virgil], without my asking said: Look at that tall one coming, who does not seem to be shedding any tears for the pain: how regal is his bearing still! That is Jason, who by courage and wit robbed the Colchians of the ram. He visited the island of Lemnos after the bold, pitiless women had put all the males to death. There with tokens and elaborate words he deceived Hypsipyle, the young girl who, before that, had deceived all the other women. He left her there pregnant and alone: such guilt condemns him to this punishment, and also for Medea vengence is taken' (Dante, 'Inferno', XVIII, 82-97, in The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, ed. and trans. by Robert Durling, New York and Oxford, 1996, I, pp. 278-9).

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