Often confused with Bonifazio de' Pitati--to whom this work has been attributed several times in the past--Stefano Cernotto was a Dalmatian painter active in Venice from 1530 until at least 1548. Cernotto's quirky style and miniaturist interest in detail, evident in the present work, are also apparent in the paintings he contributed in the 1530s, along with Bonifazio, to the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi, which housed a succession of Venetian financial magistrates. Like Bonifazio, Cernotto was an important exponent of the Giorgionesque idiom in Venice, where he was a proponent of a similar conservative style that hearkened back to older masters such as Giorgione, Titian and Bellini.
In his Recherches sur les Poètes couronnez, Jean-François Du Bellay, Abbé du Resnel (1692-1761), declared that the custom of crowning poets with wreathes of laurel leaves was as ancient as poetry itself. Abolished as a pagan institution during the reign of Emperor Theodosius (347-395), the tradition is thought to have been revived by Petrarch (1304-1374), but is also mentioned in the earlier writings of Boccaccio and Dante, the latter of whom longed to receive the honor in his native Florence, from which he had been exiled. This delicately painted work, formerly identified simply as a 'Pastoral Allegory', is an intimate rendition of this romantic theme: a wizened poet in a brocaded, fur-trimmed robe kneels humbly at center, supporting himself on his arm. Leaning forward with apparent anticipation, he gazes up towards a female figure--who may represent his creative Muse--about to crown him with a wreath of laurels. A young man looks on holding a recorder, a motif frequently found in Venetian pastoral scenes in the Renaissance. On the left is a passage of peaceful landscape, in which a traveler makes his way towards a distant city which, as evident by the gondola on the body of water in front of it, is certainly meant to represent Venice.
Though relatively rare in western art, the subject of the present picture seems to have been popular in northern Italy, as an Homage to a Poet by a follower of Giorgione (London, National Gallery, inv. NG1173), and an Apollo Crowning a Poet by Jacopo Tintoretto (Kingston Lacy, UK National Trust), attest. The convex shape of the present work suggests it may originally have embellished a piece of furniture or cassone (marriage chest) or may have served as a parade shield for public pageantry such as a triumphal procession. It has been suggested that the present work is a pendant to the work sold with the attribution to Domenico Campagnola at Sotheby's, London, 12 November 2013, lot 91. Together with that work, which depicts An Allegory of Painting, the present panel can be seen as an illustration of the Horatian maxim 'Ut pictura poesis' ('As is painting, so is poetry'), which continued to inspire engaged discussion in the 16th century.
We are grateful to Mauro Lucco for suggesting the attribution to Stefano Cernotto on the basis of photographs. Dott. Lucco's article devoted to Cernotto, 'Occultato nell'ombra di Bonifacio Veronese: disvelamento di Stefano Cernotto' (Artibus et Historiae, 2013, forthcoming), provides a thorough re-evaluation of the artist's career and is a significant contribution to the scholarship on this intriguing painter.