Described by Giulio Romano’s contemporary Pietro Aretino as ‘anciently modern and modernly ancient,’ the Mantuan artist’s work features classical imagery combined with modern dynamism. This design for a saltcellar unites goats and a child, perhaps illustrating the myth of Jupiter being nursed by the goat Amalthea. The exquisitely finished drawing was probably made for presentation to a patron at the court of Mantua. The Gonzaga dukes were particularly familiar with the subject matter as Jupiter was the focus of the fresco decoration in their palaces.
Dynamically rendered with iron gall ink to a highly finished state, Giulio Romano’s Design for an Ornamental Salt Cellar was most likely a presentation drawing for a patron. The vessel is composed of a scalloped bowl supported by three goats which turn back to lick the salt contained in it. A patterned band made of twisted pairs of dolphins decorates the neck of the container. The lid displays a frieze decoration with acanthus leaves and a putto. This drawing is a fine example of the twisted forms and dynamic compositions that distinguish Giulio’s work in Mantua. For example, the movement of the emerging child and the goats that twist backward transform the classical scalloped bowl into an ironic and ingenious composition typical of the courtly taste then en vogue at the Gonzaga court in Mantua. Pietro Aretino, a contemporary author and friend of Giulio Romano, wrote in a letter that his work in Mantua was ‘anciently modern and modernly ancient.’ This quote aptly describes Giulio’s combination of the classical Roman imagery he had learned to imitate during his time in Raphael’s workshop with the mannerist dynamism that make his works in Mantua distinctly modern.
Close examination of the Courtauld drawing helps illustrate its function within the design process. The paper is of very fine quality, made from beaten linen fibers. This suggests that the drawing may have been meant for a patron since studio drawings would not have required such high quality paper. The intention for such drawings is demonstrated by a drawing of another saltcellar in the collection of Chatsworth House in which Giulio wrote ‘This I made for his Lordship Don Ferrante Gonzaga’ under the vessel. The Chatsworth drawing and numerous other surviving vessel designs from Giulio’s time in Mantua demonstrate the taste and demand for such objects and an interest in their production and design. Their preservation reveals the interest in collecting drawings in the sixteenth century both by wealthy patrons and artists, and illustrates the value of drawings for decorative objects both as a commodity and as a model.
Another drawing in the Victoria and Albert Museum has similar paper dimensions and a digital overlay of the two drawings reveals that the Victoria and Albert Museum’s drawing is nearly an exact copy of the drawing in the Courtauld gallery. Technical details in the Courtauld drawing, such as the artist’s adjustment of the height of the neck of the vessel, show that the artist modified the design as he worked while the drawing in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection shows precise line making. The smudging around the design in the Victoria and Albert Museum implies that the original drawing was transferred to a new piece of paper by laying the original over a sheet of paper rubbed with charcoal and then tracing the original with a stylus– leaving the imprint on the underlying sheet. This transfer technique was described by Giovanni Battista Armenini, a sixteenth century historian, as being used in Giulio Romano’s workshop. The scratch marks on the Courtauld drawing and the inferior quality of the paper and rendering of the Victoria and Albert Museum drawing suggest that the Courtauld drawing was an original composition by Giulio Romano and the Victoria and Albert Museum drawing was a transferred copy by Giulio or his workshop. A similar copy of the drawing in the Galleria Estense in Modena also seems to be another tracing. The location of the object on the page is the same as the copy in the Victoria and Albert Museum, suggesting that the version in Modena was transferred from the drawing in the Victoria and Albert Museum rather than the Courtauld drawing. The multiple versions of this design demonstrate the replication of drawings in the sixteenth century and raise questions about the function of each drawing in the artistic process. Another copy of this drawing exists in the Ellesmere collection, but the dimensions of the design do not correspond with the other versions and therefore it was probably copied freehand by a follower of Giulio Romano.
Records of the Gonzaga collection demonstrate that many of Giulio Romano’s designs for silver were actually made. In an inventory from 1542 there is no mention of a saliera that matches a description of the drawing. However, there is an object listed as ‘a saltcellar with three goats’ that is listed in an inventory from 1563 that was made after the death of cardinal Ercole Gonzaga. The correspondence of the description and the drawing suggests that this work may have been made into silver. The existence of multiple versions of the drawing furthers this argument as the finer version may have been for the patron, the initial tracing for the goldsmith and the third copy for a record of Giulio’s invention.