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Orpheus

Provenzale Marcello

(Cento 1575 - Rome 1639)

The mosaic, dated and signed at the bottom centre, was made in 1618 by Marcello Provenzale for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, whose coat of arms - an eagle and a dragon - is evoked virtually to the right of the protagonist and in the four medallions within the Greek frame that runs along the edge.

The work represents Orpheus. He sits beneath an oak tree, singing an anguished song whose melody, as narrated by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, could soften the hardest hearts, attracting a multitude of wild beasts. In fact, the young musician is portrayed with animals, including reptiles, birds and felines, creating a sort of zoological sample of the known fauna of the time, in line with the naturalistic interests of the day. Behind the protagonist is a glimpse of the access to the underworld, referring to the sad story of Eurydice, the beautiful young nymph loved by Orpheus, and kidnapped by death following a snakebite. According to the myth, her soul, brought back to this land for a moment, was sent back to the afterlife forever after the hero, disobeying a ban imposed on him by Hades, turned to the threshold of Hell to look at his wife, losing her permanently.


Object details

Inventory
492
Location
Date
1618
Classification
Period
Medium
Mosaic
Dimensions
cm 44 x 63
Frame

17th century dark bronze frame, 46.1 x 64.8 x 5.5 cm.

Provenance

Rome, Borghese Collection, 1618 (Della Pergola 1955); Inv. 1693, room XI, no. 40; Inv. 1700, room VIII, no. 4; Inv. 1790, room VII, no. 86; Inventario Fidecommissario 1833 p. 30; purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Inscriptions
"MARCELLI PROVENZALIS CENTEN. OPUS A. 1618"
Exhibitions
  • 1972 Roma, Galleria Borghese;
  • 1985 Roma, Palazzo Venezia;
  • 1996-1997 Lecce, Fondazione Memmo;
  • 2009 Kyoto, The National Museum of Modern Art;
  • 2010 Tokyo, Metropolitan Art Museum.
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 2009 Cecilia Bernardini (restauro completo)

Commentary

Marcello Provenzale produced this mosaic in 1618 for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, which we know thanks to the date inscribed on the lower border and because the artist included the prelate’s coat of arms in the composition. In fact, to Orpheus’s right we can make out the Borghese dragon and eagle who, drawn by the sound of a lira da braccio, approach the young man, mingling with the other animals.

This composition, cited by a number of sources (Baglione 1642; Furietti 1752; Ciampini 1690; Rossini 1725), features in all of the Collection’s inventories and is one of the most famous and most refined works of the mosaicist from Cento. It depicts Orpheus, the young shepherd who travels to the netherworld to bring back the soul of the nymph Eurydice, killed by a snakebite. Having failed in his attempt, the youth mourns the loss of his beloved and sings a sad song that attracts all the animals. Here he is portrayed seated under an oak, about to touch the bow to the chords of his lira, while behind him, to his right, we can make out the gates of hell enveloped in flames.

According to Camilla Fiore (2010), the subject, rooted in a very old iconographic and symbolic tradition developed around this theme, alludes to the Borghese family, in particular Scipione, here celebrated by Provenzale as the new Apollo, the perfect prince and a paragon of Good Government. Furthermore, having read the inscription under an engraving by Giovanni Battista Pasqualini inspired in 1622 by the Borghese mosaic, the scholar also recognises a certain self-celebration of the artist from Cento, who depicts himself as Orpheus to allude to his own innate ability to attract the most sensitive among the animals and even bring stones to life, proving wrong, among other things, those who considered his art to be the mere execution of other people’s models. In fact, the inscription by Pasqualini, who was a relative of Marcello’s, recites: “To the most Excellent Cardinal Borghese. If the song of Orpheus brought shades back to life and drew the wild beasts to him, and if Amphion was able to similarly attract the hard stone used to erect the sturdy walls of Thebes, today the rare virtue of Marcello Provenzale, unique in his production of mosaics, is reminiscent of Orpheus himself, attracting animals with the sound of his silent lira, and with the one hundred thousand tiny stones used in this work, which possess beautiful and extremely rare hues, he builds a defence against the oblivion of his name, and an eternal memory of the magnificence of Your Eminence, and attracting even the obeisance even of metals, you shall appreciate the engraving that I myself present to you, owed to thyself for many a reason, among which that the dumb uncouth animals themselves endeavour, as in the golden age, to represent the glorious Borghese emblem, under its vast wings, enticer of new Orpheuses. And I make my most humble reverence to Your Eminence, In Rome on 14 February 1622. The Humble and Devote Servant of Your Most Revered Excellence, Giovanni Battista Pasqualini.”

Finally, according to Alvar Gonzalez-Palacios (1976), the figure of Orpheus is a derivative reference to the allegory of the Prize by Giuseppe Cesari (Rome, Gabinetto Nazionale per la Grafica, inv. F.C. 31256), which would be proven by the similar disposition of the feet and the arrangement of the figure’s upper limbs. This hypothesis was questioned by Fiore (2010), who did acknowledge certain similarities, but preferred to speak of an “influence” of a number of different models.

Antonio Iommelli




Bibliography
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  • S. L'Occaso, Provenzale, Marcello, voce in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, LXXXVI, 2016, ad vocem.