Long attributed to Polidoro da Caravaggio, Raphael's most enigmatic pupil and follower, this extraordinary object belongs to a group of lavishly decorated parade shields whose origin and use 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 the 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 Godoy and Leydi, op. cit.). 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. It is one of the last in private hands; the others are in the Louvre, Paris (inv. nos. OA1138-9); London, Royal Armouries (V16); Turin, Museo Civico (5AA); Dresden, Gemäldegalerie and Rüstkammer (105, N71); Saint Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum (Z.O.3514); New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art (inv. no. 42.50.16); Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Collection of Carl Otto Kretzschmar von Kienbusch (1977.167.751); Glasgow, City Art Gallery and Museum (A7627F); Arundel Castle; and Maxstoke Castle. The subject of each shield's decoration differs but all draw on classical history, mythology or allegory, the present showing 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 nypmhs must be bound by chastity. The verso shows the myth of Actaeon, with a central space space reserved for the shield handles. The style and choice of colouring of the present shied, essentially a grisaille with passages picked out in orange, recall both marble relief sculpture and Greek vase painting, and place the shield 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, armours 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 (Florence, Uffizi) 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 (Pyhrr and Fahy, op. cit., 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 the present shield to Polidoro da Carvaggio had already been proposed by 1952, 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 (loc. cit.). In 1992 Everett 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 satirical Evangelists stoning the Pope (London, The Royal Collection, Hampton Court).