This previously unpublished sheet is a significant addition to the œuvre of Francesco Primaticcio, and specifically to the corpus of drawings made in connection with his highly sophisticated, exuberantly artificial, and supremely elegant masterpiece, the Galerie d’Ulysse at the château of Fontainebleau, south of Paris. Beginning his career in Italy, among others assisting Giulio Romano on the decoration of the Pallazzo Te in Mantua, Primaticcio moved to France in 1532 at the invitation of King François I, a move that started a new chapter in the history of art in France. After taking over the project of the decoration of the Galerie d’Ulysse from Rosso Fiorentino, Primaticcio worked on it until his death, assisted by various artists, including another Italian, Niccolò dell’Abate (see lot 12).
The long gallery's decoration in fersco and stucco was sadly destroyed in 1738, and our understanding of it relies almost entirely on surviving preparatory drawings, later prints and drawings after it, and descriptions by visitors (see S. Béguin et al., La galerie d’Ulysse à Fontainebleau, Paris, 1985; and D. Cordellier et al., Primatice, maître de Fontainebleau, exhib. cat., Paris, Musée du Louvre, 2004-2005, pp. 292, ff.).
The composition of the present drawing, until now only known from a 17th Century engraving by Louis I Elle, called Ferdinand (S. Béguin, op. cit., pp. 183, 185, fig. 97), was one of six gracing the ceiling of the twelfth of the sixteen bays of the Galerie d’Ulysse, and surrounding a larger octagonal painting representing Minerva carried in the skies (ibid., pp. 124, 126). The drawing’s subject has been described in 1731 by the abbé Guilbert as the King of Thrace, Poymestor, killing the son of the King of Priam, Polydorus, a subject taken from the Iliad (ibid., p. 183). But several elements do not seem to fit the scene, not least the fact that Polydorus is usually represented as a young man. Ernst Gombrich has suggested another interpretation: the old King Priam, turning to the chained Greek Sinon seated next to him, after the figure behind him warns him of the Greek’s deceit (ibid., p. 185). However this question may be resolved, one cannot but admire how Primaticcio places the three figures in claustrophobic proximity while granting each a distinctive pose and monumental presence, using the full potential of the painting’s double-scalloped rectangular format to heighten the dramatic content.
Several other pen drawings of this type for other sections of the ceiling of the Galerie d’Ulysse survive, including one at The J. Paul Getty Museum (inv. 84.GA.54; G. Goldner, European Drawings 1. Catalogue of the Collections, Los Angeles, 1988, no. 36, ill.) and one most recently at Sotheby’s, London, 7 July 2011, lot 45 (Fig. 1; see V. Romani in Cordellier, op. cit., no. 141, ill.). Primaticcio made in preparation for the latter sheet a lively sketch in red and black chalk at the Uffizi (ibid., no. 140, ill.), suggesting that the pen drawings, including the sheet offered here, were the result of a barely documented process of work on the multitude of designs by Primaticcio for the Galerie d’Ulysse. Their neat style and squaring in black or (as here) red chalk are evidence that they represent the last step leading to the painted work. A comparison with the (mirrored) engraving made after the painting by Ferdinand (see above) makes clear that the drawing represents Primaticcio’s final solution for the composition.
The inscription in white bodycolor at upper right is that of a seventeenth-century Frenchman, owner of an unsurpassed collection of drawings by Primaticcio, Niccolò dell’Abate and other Fontainebleau artists, much of it now at the Louvre (B. Py, ‘Histoire des dessins de Primatice du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle’ in Cordellier, op. cit., pp. 54, 59); with ‘Bologne’, he referred to Primaticcio's native town.
Fig. 1. Primaticcio, Aeolus confining (or liberating) the winds. Sotheby’s, London, 7 July 2011, lot 45.