Virgil relates how Dido, legendary founder and Queen of Carthage, became enamoured of the Trojan prince Aeneas when he washed up on her shores. The passion was engendered by Venus, and ended in tragedy as Aeneas was destined to leave Carthage and continue his journey. As his ships sailed off, Dido ran herself through with Aeneas' sword and cast herself on a funeral pyre.
The scene represented here is from earlier in Dido's history, and relates to the founding of Carthage itself. According to legend, when Dido arrived in North Africa she asked the local ruler, King Iarbas, if she could buy some land. Reluctant to do so, Iarbas agreed to sell her only as much as could be covered with a bull's hide. Dido cunningly cut the hide into thin strips and tied them together so that it encompassed enough land to build the city of Carthage. The legend no doubt arose because the Greek word 'byrsa' meaning bull's hide, is so similar to 'Bosra', the Phoenician name for Carthage. Dido is represented here with a stretched bull's hide beside her and an inscription below which has been convincingly reconstructed as 'I am Dido the Carthaginian woman, who erected the walls called Byrsa.'
Antonio Lombardo, a member of an extraordinary family of sculptors active in Venice in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, was court sculptor to Alfonso I d'Este at Ferrara from 1506 until his death in 1516. Exactly what Antonio executed for Alfonso, and its original location within the ducal palace is far from easy to establish. However, a series of 28 reliefs now in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg are clearly from Ferrara, and three of them bear inscriptions with Alfonso's name, in one case in conjunction with the date '1508' (Molinier, loc. cit.). Recent research has tended to suggest that these reliefs, some of which are figurative, others of which are ornamental, were divided between Alfonso's 'Studio di Marmo', and the more celebrated 'Camerino d'Alabastro' (Hope, Goodgal, locs. cit.), which also contained paintings by Giovanni Bellini, Titian, and Dosso Dossi.
The attribution of the present marble to Lombardo is based on its clear relationship to a number of reliefs of similar subjects which are today scattered throughout the world, including the Hermitage series mentioned above, as well as two others pictured overleaf. Perhaps the most compelling comparison is with the relief of Mars in the Galleria Estense, Modena (fig. 1). Among the many obvious stylistic similarities, the proportionally large head of each figure, and the dramatic diagonals created in the backgrounds of both reliefs are highly distinctive.
As John Pope-Hennessy points out (loc. cit.), there is no absolute proof that the majority of the marble reliefs in this large group, apart from those in St. Petersburg, once formed part of the decoration at Alfonso I's palace at Ferrara. There are, however, cogent reasons for believing that some of them - including the present relief - did.
The decoration of the 'Studio di Marmo' was executed from 1508-1511, and combined marble reliefs, whose precise meaning remains opaque, with ornamental panels, some of which bear Stoic inscriptions. By contrast, the paintings known to have adorned the 'Camerino d'Alabastro', probably already finished by 1508 (Hope, op. cit., p. 646), celebrate the joys associated with Bacchus and Venus. Three other extant reliefs can be related to the present one on the basis of iconography. They represent Euridyce, Portia, and Lucrezia. Along with Dido, they represent famous women of antiquity whose love remained true unto death. When bearing in mind that Alfonso's wife was also Lucrezia (Borgia) it becomes apparent that these four reliefs are particularly suitable candidates for inclusion in the decorative scheme of the celebrated Camerino.