Much remains elusive about this fascinating court scene, which seems to depict the opening of a ball, and which brings to mind descriptions of the court of Louis XIV by Saint-Simon and paintings by Hieronymous Janssens. In this case the artist is yet to be identified, he would, however, appear to be Flemish, like Janssens, but a lesser hand working more in the style of Erasmus de Bie.
Mercedes Viale Ferrero loc. cit., has identified the event as a ball at Chambéry, the capital of the Duchy of Savoy (it was ceded to France in 1860), held in celebration of the marriage between the Duke Carlo Emmanuelle II (1634-74) and Francesca d'Orléans Valois, the daughter of Gaston d'Orléans (the brother of Louis XIII, by his second wife Marguérite de Lorraine). The marriage by proxy took place in Paris in November 1662, and was solemnised in Annecy in April 1663. From Annecy, the couple is known to have proceeded to Chambéry, before making their way to the administrative centre of Turin. The young Duchess was to die several months later on 14 January 1664, and the Duke then married his first love, Giovanna Battista di Savoia Genevese-Nemours in the following year.
Although Viale Ferrero provided no evidence to support her thesis there are a number of reasons for accepting her identification of the scene. The costumes appear to date from the 1660s, and the face of the main protagonist seems not unlike that of the Duke as recorded in a series of engraved portraits reproduced in A. Griseri, Il Diamante, La Villa di Madama Reale Cristina di Francia, Turin, 1988, pp. 306-15. Another factor in support of her proposal, or at least that the scene depicts an event in the Savoyard court, is the set of tapestries on display of the Life of Achilles designed by Rubens in the early 1630s (for the most recent account of which, see F. Lammertse and A. Vergara et al., Peter Paul Rubens The Life of Achilles, exhibition catalogue, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Museo Nacional del Prado, 2003-4). This seems likely to be the only known painting to show a cycle of tapestries designed by the Flemish master actually on display, and is of added interest as the painting is likely to date from circa 1660-70, just some twenty or thirty years after his death.
Given that the artist was here not required, or was unable, to make a precise record, one should not read too much into omission of detail (for instance, none of Rubens's motifs at the bottom of the compositions is included, whereas, the putti and festoons, as depicted in the modelli, seem to have been summarily recorded). But what can safely be said is that the sequence here exhibited did not follow that of the hero's life, while certain of the tapestries seem to have been cut up in order that all the available wall space should be covered.
Rubens' series consisted of eight scenes; on display on the three walls of the ballroom that could be shown, are six tapestries in whole or in part. On the far wall in the centre is Achilles dipped into the river Styx (Lammertse and Vegara, op. cit., no. 10) where Achilles' legs have been reversed and the festoons have been omitted. To the left is Achilles slaying Hector (ibid., no. 7) mainly as rendered in the modello. To the right is the Death of Achilles (ibid., no. 8) with only one herm depicted, that on the right. Covering the nearby corner of the room is Achilles trying on his helmet, a single figure with a festoon bearing putto above (as in the modello) and a herm - presumably two strips cut from the tapestry of Achilles among the daughters of Lycomedes (ibid., no. 3). The greater part of the remainder of this tapestry, showing the daughters of Lycomedes (as in the modello) and the herm, is shown on the opposite wall to the right of the tester beneath the canopy. To the right, in the opening of the partition occupied by the orchestra, is an excerpt from the Return of Briseis (ibid., no. 5) showing the women mourning over the dead Patroclus, with the festoon bearing putto above, but no sign of Achilles, as the actual design would require. The right hand part of the tapestry hangs opposite, where to the left of the tester the youthful groom (with the putto bearing a festoon, but no herm) can be discerned.
We are grateful to Guy Delmarcel who has pointed out that this set of tapestries (in six pieces) was indeed owned by the Dukes of Savoy, and still exists in the Palazzo Reale, Turin. Delmarcel added that Carlo Emmanuelle II was a great collector of tapestries, and it is possible that he acquired them in his youth. They may, however, have been acquired either by his over-bearing mother, Cristina of France, or his father, Carlo Emmanuelle I, who died in 1637.