Like Nicolò dell’Abate’s Landscape with Ladies and Knights, of which it was long considered a pendant, this painting was probably among the group of paintings sent to Cardinal Scipione Borghese from Ferrara. There is an inscription with the date on the entry arch of the building in the foreground, from which the procession of strangely dressed men and fantastical animals begins. The precise, well-defined drawing style, along with the paratactic arrangement of the figures and the landscape setting distinguishes the painting from the similar work by Nicolò dell'Abate.
Paolo Savelli inventory, 1610 (Spezzaferro 1985; Fumagalli 2007); collection of Scipione Borghese, documented in the Inv. circa 1630, no. 26; Manilli 1650, p. 100; Inv. 1693, room VIII, no. 414; Inv. 1790, room X, no. 6; Inventario fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 13. Purchased by the Italian state, 1902.
Although some scholars have argued in that this painting came from the collection of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini (for a discussion of this theory and a rereading of the documents, see Herrmann Fiore 2002), a more convincing theory is the one advanced more recently by Elena Fumagalli (2007), who traces the arrival of this enigmatic painting in Rome to the prince Paolo Savelli, who gave it to the Borghese cardinal (Spezzaferro 1985). The other painting listed in the inventories of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini starting in 1603 seems to have been a painting by Dossi of a similar subject or, more precisely, a similar type of subject, which must have been quite popular in sixteenth-century Ferrara.
The Savelli document reports a ‘painting with little phantasms’, which could easily be the preceding one in the 1693 Borghese inventory, which is described as including ‘a chariot pulled by a camel’. This highly unusual scene, which has been conventionally titled Magical Procession, features a series of figures, instruments and animals on the borderline between real and fantastical, theatrical and carnivalesque, fully in keeping with the goliardic atmosphere that sometimes filled the Este capital during festive processions (Tuohy 1996).
Thanks to an inscription on the door of the house in the foreground, we can date the painting to 1528. The work is of special interest since it is one of the oldest and rarest cases attesting to knowledge of the work of the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch ('s-Hertogenbosch, 1453–1516), which was known in Italy through pieces by that artist in the Grimani Collection in Venice (Limentani Virdis 1997) and the circulation of woodcuts designed by him.
Although the issue of attribution remains thorny and unresolved, the painting is in any case traceable to the Ferrara area. In the inventories, the work is always attributed to the Dossi brothers, up until its attribution to Girolamo Sellari, known as Girolamo da Carpi (Gamba 1924), which has sometimes been repeated in more recent times (Coliva 1994, Stefani 2000). In agreement with Turner (1965), Amalia Mezzetti (1977), rejected the attribution to Sellari, noting the strong likeness of the Borghese painting to works by Benvenuto Tisi, known as Garofalo, a theory more forcefully supported by Alessandra Pattanaro (2002), who indeed attributes it to that painter.
However, without any other works of this type in the artist’s oeuvre to confirm this theory nor any documents proving that he was commissioned to paint it, it seems more correct to exercise caution when attributing the work directly to Garofalo’s hand.
The unique bird’s eye view, eccentric ravine-like forms of the landscape and lenticular description of some of the details suggest a Po-Valley rereading (the Po region being the reference for the palette) of a few aspects of northern painting, in particular the work of Joachim Patinir (Dinat or Bouvignes, c. 1485 – Antwerp, 1524) and Henri met de Bles, also known as il Civetta (Dinant, c. 1490 – Ferrara, after 1566), the latter being an artist who spent a long time in the Este city.