The Maffei, originally from Verona where they are mentioned as early as 850, are recorded in Rome from 1394, the date of Pietro Maffei's testament. Three cardinals were elected from the family; Bernardino Maffei (d. 1553) on 6 August 1549, Marco Antonio (d. 1583) in 1570 and Orazio (d. 1609) in 1606, who all became archbishops of Chieti. The members of the Veronese branch of the family were created counts by the Emperor Sigismund in 1443, a title that was confirmed by Charles V in 1524, by Ferdinand in 1558 and by Rudolph II in 1598. The Roman branch was first elevated to counts in 1670 by Carlo Emanuele I, Duke of Savoy.
This tapestry belongs to a small but distinct group of game park tapestries depicting struggles between various wild and often mythical animals. A tapestry with identical subject, but the swan in the background substituted for a smaller bird perched on a tree stump, and with differing borders was offered anonymously in these Rooms, 11 December 1969, lot 156. Another, depicting a horse being attacked by two lions within a border identical to that tapestry was sold anonymously at Christie's New York, 18 March 1989, lot 139. A further tapestry from the same series and depicting a dragon being attacked by a leopard and a lion, previously in the collection of Solange Guiffrey, was sold anonymously at Sotheby's Monaco, 19 June 1992, lot 837.
Origin of the Subject
This distinct group forms part of the popular game park tapestries known as Pugnae ferarum, which depict combats between animals. Possibly the most celebrated of this group of tapestries are 44 Brussels panels at Wawel Castle in Cracow (J. Szablowski, ed., The Flemish Tapestries at Wawel Castle in Cracow, Antwerp, 1972, pp. 191 - 286) by Jan van Tieghem, which are believed to have been manufactured in the 1550s or 1560s. The rising interest in such animal-tapestries may originate in the great geographical discoveries and their accounts that became more widely known at the time. The menageries that existed at the royal and princely courts likely formed the basis for artists that painted these designs. Many scenes are based on ideas from the research and scientific conclusions drawn by learned men from antiquity, such as Aristotle and Pliny, who mixed both reality with fiction. Towards the middle of the 16th Century scientists, such as the Swiss Conrad Gesner, started to publish new findings. These new publications further inspired the popular interest in nature and the subsequent rise in tapestries dealing with this subject matter (J. Szablowsk, Idem., pp. 191 - 286).
Pugnae ferarum are sometimes believed to incorporate allegorical meanings. It is therefore interesting to consider that the Griffin is often taken to represent the good qualities of both the eagle and the lion, both watchfulness and courage. As a Christian symbol it represents the dual nature of Christ, divine (bird) and human (animal), while it can also symbolise those who oppress and persecute Christians, combining the preying of the eagle and the fierceness of the lion. The dragon on the other hand represents evil and can be a symbol for Satan, while the swan behind them is frequently likened to chastity, perfect purity and thus to Christ because of its pure white feathers.
Place of Manufacture
Tapestries of this type were widely manufactured and indeed similar subjects, depicting a wild cat combating a donkey, a fox killing a cockerel, and a lion attacking a sheep and a deer, survive in the Château-Musèe, Gaasbeek, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Philadelphia Museum of Art, respectively, all signed by the Enghien weaver Hendrick van der Cammen who executed these tapestries in the second quarter 17th Century (G. Delmarcel, Tapisseries anciennes d'Enghien, Mons, 1980, cats. 24 - 26, pp. 56 - 61).
This tapestry does, however, relate most closely to other game park tapestries from Audenarde, by association of the borders of the most closely comparable tapestries. The inner and outer bands of the borders are closely related to those that illustrate the Story of Alexander, which was woven in Audenarde in the 1580s. The staff entwined by scrolling foliage on a brown ground of this tapestry can be found in a similar spirit on a series depicting La Main Chaude that was woven in the early 17th Century (I. De Meûter, M. Vanwelden, Tapisseries d'Audenarde du XVIe au XVIIIe Siècle, Tielt, 1999, pp. 170 - 175, and pp. 193 - 195 respectively). The tradition of depicting the Pugnae ferarum was firmly established in Audenarde in the third quarter 16th Century, when a number of such game park tapestries were woven with their distinctive pergolas and in the fourth quarter 16th Century without (De Meûter, op. cit., pp. 134 - 139 and 140 - 141).