It is likely that this painting entered the collection in 1608, the year in which Enzo Bentivoglio had a large number of works sent from Ferrara, on request from Cardinal Scipione Borghese. The fairy-tale-like scene, in which the end of a deer hunt unfolds in a courtly, narrative setting, is filled with elements of Flemish art, which was greatly appreciated at the Ferrara Castle, in all likelihood the original home of this extraordinary landscape.
Likely collection of Scipione Borghese from 1608; documented in Inv. 1693, room IV, no. 26; Inventario fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 37. Purchased by the Italian state, 1902.
The painting depicts a magical landscape, enveloped in a blue light that softens the contours of the buildings and rise of the cliff that slopes down to the wide river that dominates the painting. Indeed, the episode that gives the work its name takes place in that very river: the killing of a deer during a hunt, amidst a whirl of men and horses and waves churned up by their movements. Meanwhile, in the little village beyond the river, we see scenes of everyday life unfolding outside the houses and, in the foreground, on the opposite bank, little clusters of noblewomen, knights and soldiers frame the hunting scene. The ladies are sitting together on the ground, while a man dressed in red standing next to them seems to be indicating or writing on the trunk of one of two trees with the tops cut off.
The attribution of the painting has always been controversial. The earliest inventory that mentions the painting is dated 1693 and reports that the work was in the Casino di Porta Pinciana. According to some scholars, it can be identified as one of the works attributed to ‘Dosi di Ferrara’, an attribution that was accepted by most scholars between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, while others have seen it as the landscape marked number 322, which in fact corresponds to what we find on our painting at lower left, and attributed in the seventeenth-century document to Paul Bril. Scholars have linked this painting to the stripping of the Alabaster Chambers in the Este Castle and consequential decision of Marchese Enzo Bentivoglio to send, in 1608, what remained of the art in the ducal chambers to the Roman residence of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a provenance that cannot be proven in the present case.
In 1924, Carlo Gamba was the first to attribute the painting to Nicolò dell’Abate, an attribution repeated by Roberto Longhi and Aldo De Rinaldis, who strengthened the theory by comparing the work to the Landscape with Boar Hunt in the Galleria Spada, Rome (inv. 24).
This initial comparison with the Dossi painting is understandable, since Nicolò reworked the Dossi brothers’ approach to landscape in the present work, updating it with a cooler, more acid palette and setting the scene in a courtly atmosphere.
Besides familiarity with the Dossi brothers’ work, Nicolò also had a talent for the precise sculptural description of the human figure, honed during his training in the Modena workshops of the sculptor Antonio Begarelli and his father Giovanni, updated with the classical style of Raphael and Correggio and the precise, detailed reproduction of elements derived from the study of and, perhaps, collaboration with, the Flemish painters working in Emilia in the middle of the sixteenth century. Francesco Primaticcio recommended him to Henry II, who invited him to participate in the decoration of Fontainebleau, his contribution to which made him one of the leading exponents of the local school of painting. Alongside his colleague and supporter from Bologna, he worked in the Salle de Bal (1554) and the Galerie d'Ulysse (1559–1560) and had the opportunity to experiment with different materials and techniques, creating designs for enamels, tapestries and ephemeral decorations commissioned by the sovereigns from north of the Alps.
This painting can be dated to his Bologna years, immediately before he left for the French court, considering the originality of the composition, with its distinctive fairy-tale-like atmosphere and the bright, lively palette used to describe the figures, mixed with their elegantly aristocratic poses and elongated, silhouette-like bodies. These elements seem to anticipate the Carraccis’ approach to the mythological theme of the frescoes in the Bologna residences of the Fava and Magnani families.