MICHELE COLLIER // Ambiguous narratives: reading all’antica reliefs in the studiolo in early-sixteenth-century Italy

The first two decades of the sixteenth century in north-east Italy saw the production of a unique type of small, rectangular marble relief sculpture, depicting one or occasionally two figures from Greek myth or Roman history. The twenty or so reliefs that are known today vary from approximately 20 to 28 cm wide by 38 to 50 cm tall and are dominated by a large figure, or figures, in such high relief that some appear to be almost free-standing sculptures. The figures in each relief stand on a ledge which protrudes at a right-angle from the base of a background slab, and in several cases the ledge is inscribed with a line of Latin text that makes either a comment on morality or a reference to the myth depicted. The lack of documentation relating to these objects, whose popularity did not outlast fifty years, and whose manufacture did not spread throughout or outside of Italy, leaves unanswered questions as to exactly when, why, by whom and for whom they were made. Julius von Schlosser, in 1913–1914, attributed them to the Venetian sculptor Antonio Lombardo (c.1458–c.1516), who with his brother Tullio (c.1455–1532) was at the forefront of developments in sculptural technique in the Veneto in the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries. The two multiple-figured reliefs for the façade of the Scuola di San Marco, whose depth of approximately 11cm is ‘unique’ in quattrocento relief sculpture in Venice, demonstrates the Lombardo brothers’ sculptural experimentation with relief and perspective.1 The dramatic, deeply carved figures in these larger reliefs, protruding from their background in order to engage with the viewer, may have provided the inspiration for the smaller reliefs, whose size made them perfectly suited for appreciation at close quarters, in the studiolo, a library, an intimate space for art and learned dialogue.

There is general agreement amongst scholars that the idea for their design, the invenzione, came from Antonio Lombardo. However, in the latest published research on the small reliefs, art historian Anne Markham Schulz has argued convincingly that they were not executed by Lombardo as had previously been thought. Schulz proposes that many sculptors were involved in producing the reliefs and links eight with Giammaria Mosca (c.1495–1574), and one with his master Antonio Minello (c.1465–1529).2 The majority of research on the reliefs has focused on their style, as scholars attempted to identify the sculptors involved in their execution. The subject matter of each relief, however, has been addressed only superficially and the figures have been interpreted as straightforward moral exemplars of loyalty, chastity and fidelity. This simplification has left scholars wondering why so many of the reliefs portray characters that are in pain and on the verge of death. My interpretation of the reliefs will focus on their literary allusions and this article responds to Aby Warburg’s observation of the juxtaposition of Olympian gods and ‘“oriental” astral demons’ in the frescoes of Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara. Warburg commented that the contrasting themes suggested by these figures (superstition and the role of fortune on the one hand and Greek rationality, beauty and order on the other) expressed the ‘tension, ambivalence and anxiety’ inherent in the Renaissance revival of antiquity.3 A detailed analysis of the literary sources for the figures in the small marble reliefs together with an exploration of classical texts that were being circulated among humanists leads me to contend that the characters were chosen for their complex and morally ambiguous mythological and historical narratives in order to provoke intellectual thought and stimulate debate in the intimate space of the studiolo. Placed alongside the literary collection in the studiolo, the reliefs, I suggest, would have encouraged a Renaissance humanist to reach for the texts in which the characters appeared to remind him of the dilemmas that they faced and to speculate on the circumstances that gave rise to their anguish and pain.

marble sculpture of Eurydice
Fig. 1. Giammaria Mosca, Eurydice, 1520– 1529, marble, 40.7 x 26.1cm, Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples, courtesy of The Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo.
reverse inscription of marble sculpture of Eurydice
Fig. 2. Giammaria Mosca, Eurydice (reverse), 1520–1529, marble, 40.7 x 26.1cm, Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples, courte¬sy of The Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo.

The Studiolo

“When evening comes I go to my study … I enter the ancient courts of rulers who have long since died … I am not ashamed to talk to them and ask them to explain their actions, and they, out of kindness, answer me. I forget every worry … I live entirely through them.”


Niccolò Machiavelli, ‘Letter to Francesco Vettori’ (10 December 1513), reproduced in Peter J. Steinberger, Readings in Classical Political Thought (Cambridge, MA: Hackett Publishing, 2000), 550.,

The studiolo was a personal space that defined its owner as a reader and collector of paintings, statues, coins and gems. The room could contain ‘political meanings, memories, and obligations’ and visitors would be invited into it to engage in humanist debate.5 Part of the homes of individuals belonging to affluent levels of society, from the Medici to merchants, it was a place to study classical literary works, to contemplate paintings and sculpture, many of which reflected the ancient world, and to enjoy music and poetry. Many of the objects collected were valued as ‘iconographical source[s] of information about the past’ which would confirm the owner’s knowledge of classical authors such as Ovid and Pliny, and offer the opportunity for scholarly interpretation of the myths that were found in the works of the Greek and Roman authors and poets.6 It is my contention that the small marble reliefs were produced for contemplation in the intimacy of the studiolo, which would have been an ideal space to debate the moral intricacies of the actions of the figures in the reliefs and relate them to contemporary discourses. A particularly relevant contemporary work, published in 1505, is Pietro Bembo’s Gli Asolani, a text whose dialogic exploration of the nature of love is effectively a model for studiolo discourse and the production of knowledge through friendly debate.7

The small reliefs are likely to have complemented a patron’s desire for objects that displayed their knowledge of ancient texts and imagery. Artists commissioned to make such objects would have been familiar with the Renaissance literature on ancient texts, if not the texts themselves.8 De Sculptura, an important treatise by Pomponius Gauricus, was published in Padua in 1504, at the time of the Lombardo brothers’ extensive involvement in sculptural commissions in the region, and it predated by a few years Mosca’s apprenticeship with Minello. In this text Gauricus proposes that the sculptor should incorporate literary narrative into his work, following the example of ‘ancient predecessors such as Phidias and Lysippus’. That supports the idea that the reliefs were designed to encourage the viewers to engage visually in literary discourse.9 Padua university’s renown for natural philosophy attracted students and scholars from the whole of Europe and this intellectual climate thrived in the court cultures of the ruling Gonzaga and Este families in Mantua and Ferrara. The miniature size, and to some extent the very form, of the reliefs may have been inspired by the small, free-standing sculptures of bronze specialists, such as Antico (1460–1528) who worked for the Gonzagas in Mantua, and Riccio (c.1470–1532) who was based in Padua.10 Riccio’s famed skill in expressing a charac­ter’s emotional state was emulated by the sculptors of many of the reliefs. Their small size makes them not only attractive when viewed from a distance like bronze statuettes, but also perfectly designed for the kind of close reading that would be paid to a text in the candlelit study.11

Philoctetes in marble
Fig. 3. Assistant of Giammaria Mosca, Philoctetes, c.1510, marble, 40 x 22.5cm, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, photograph copyright The State Hermitage Museum, photograph by Leonard Kheifets.

The mythological images popular in the courts of Ferrara and Mantua have been described by art historian Stephen Campbell as ‘humanistic erudition in illustrated form which asked to be deciphered, since they contained mysteries to be divulged to an aristocratic or intel­lectual elite’.12 Isabella d’Este, a significant political and cultural figure in the Italian Renaissance and patron of the arts, collected mythologically themed paintings and objects for her studiolo at the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua and had a ‘highly literary’ approach to her commissions.13 In line with contemporary writer Paolo Cortesi’s proposal that rooms for private leisure should be decorated with subjects whose interpretation ‘sharpens the intelligence’ and ‘fosters the cultivation of the mind’, d’Este chose to decorate the ceilings of her first camerini in the Castel San Giorgio with mottoes and imprese, and these took the form of enigmas and intellectual games.14 It was important that the objects within the studiolo should be seen as more than simply displays of wealth. One way to achieve that was to present these sculptures as a form of reading. The environment of the studiolo encouraged reflection on the relationship between text and image. The reliefs provided the humanist with an opportunity to contemplate the exigencies of political life and private passions.

Word and Images: The Fantuzzi Reliefs

The only two small reliefs for which the patron is known bear inscrip­tions on the reverse side. Gaspare Fantuzzi (c.1465/70–1536) had the back of both his Eurydice (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2) and Philoctetes (Fig. 3 and Fig. 4) reliefs inscribed in Latin. Fantuzzi cultivated the friendship of lead­ing humanists, most significantly that of Giovanni Antonio Flaminio of Imola (1464–1536), with whom he corresponded in Latin on aspects of classical culture and mythology.15 The small reliefs bear no marks to sug­gest that they were fixed to a wall and, lacking the ability to stand alone, they would have been suited to placement alongside texts on the tilted display shelves that were part of the study. In this way the reliefs could be picked up and handled in the same way as a book and turning them over would reveal the inscriptions to the viewer. The many objects in Fantuzzi’s collection appear to emphasise his learning; for example the dedication ‘ΔΩΡΟΝ.θΕΟϒ.ΔΑΜΑΡ (a wife the gift of God)’ on a medal depicting the profile of his wife is a witty play in Greek on her name, Dorotea.16

However, the inscriptions Fantuzzi chose to place on the two small reliefs should not necessarily be taken as a guide to extracting a straightforward moral. The inscription on the Eurydice relief reads: ‘GASP FANT BON SVAVISSIMO CONIVGII FOEDERI AMORI QVE (Gasparo Fantuzzi from Bologna, dedicated [this] to the sweetest bond of marriage and to conjugal love)’, and that on the Philoctetes relief is: ‘GASP FANT PRIM CAROL ANT F IN SERVAN DAE FIDEI MEM ORI AM (Gasparo Fantuzzi first son of Carlo Antonio installed this in remembrance of keeping faith)’. Scholars have paired the inscriptions on the reliefs of Eurydice and Philoctetes in Fantuzzi’s collection and also attempted to link these characters thematically. Schulz describes the figures as ‘ostensibly ill-sorted subjects’ but sees a connection in that their inscriptions combine to commemorate the faith and bond of matrimony.17 Whilst noting that the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice had made Eurydice a ‘recognized exemplum of marital fidelity’, Shulz concedes that the significance of Philoctetes is ‘obscure’ and suggests that the sculpture depicts ‘the punishment awaiting betrayers of a sacred trust’ (in Sophocles’ play Philoctetes is bitten on the foot by a snake for trespassing on the sanctu­ary of Chryse).18 Other scholars have seen the relief of Eurydice on its own terms as ‘a touching expression of Fantuzzi’s love for his wife’, or a memorial to her.19 The characters in the two reliefs also share the sealing of their terrible fates by snake-bite, which connects their pathos with the Laocoön group, unearthed in Rome in 1506, whose figures are shown resisting in vain an attack by serpents. My belief is that the two reliefs can be understood as working together, not in relation to marriage but as examples of keeping faith, which had particular significance for the Fantuzzi family and which is an important theme in the stories of both Eurydice and Philoctetes.

The story of Philoctetes was also known from the commentary by Dio Chrysostom, a rhetorician of the first century CE, on the lost plays by Aeschylus and Euripedes, and features in a commentary by Servius on Virgil that was popular in the Renaissance. In Servius’ ver­sion of the tale, Hercules presents Philoctetes with his bow and arrows (impregnated with the gall of the Lernean hydra) for keeping secret the location of his burial. Subsequently Philoctetes gives away the secret whilst trying at the same time to appear innocent of the betrayal. To appear to maintain faith he doesn’t speak of the location but rather indicates it with his foot, which he subsequently wounds with Hercules’ poisoned arrow. There are four extant reliefs of Philoctetes, all of which depict him seated on a tree stump, fanning the wound on his foot with the wing of a large bird, an image derived from an engraved antique sar­donyx inscribed by the Hellenistic artist Boethos, one of the many copies of which is documented in a letter written by an agent of Isabella d’Este from Venice.20 The Latin inscription carved at the base of three of the reliefs, ‘VVLNERA LERNAEO DOLET HIC POEANTIVS HEROS (this Poentian hero suffers from the Lernean wound)’, demonstrates that the sculptor was familiar with this version of the tale. Whether inflicted by a snake or an arrow, the wound is clearly a punishment for not keeping faith. The stench of this wound and the agony it caused Philoctetes on the journey to fight the Trojans led his fellow Greeks to leave him on the island of Lemnos for ten years, until the gods told them that they would never win the war without the famous bow and arrows. Wendy Stedman Sheard has proposed that Sophocles’ tale of the wounded archer was an exemplum of ‘patience and the noble endur­ance of pain, rewarded at the end by a triumphant reversal of fortune’.21 There is, however, a further complexity to this tale of conflict, power, and honour, which concerns the morality of choosing between the needs of the individual and those of society.

All the known versions of the myth focus on the return of Odysseus to Lemnos where he attempts to deceive Philoctetes, either by stealing the bow and arrows whilst disguised (according to Aeschylus), or by gaining his confidence in pretending to have also suffered at the hands of the Greeks (according to Euripedes). Sophocles, however, adds a third character, Neptolemus, to the myth to stress the importance of keeping faith.22 Neptolemus was also decreed essential by the gods for success in the war and accompanies Odysseus on his mission, wearing the armour of his father Achilles. Odysseus explains to the reluctant Neptolemus that dishonesty is necessary to win the war, and that he will be glorified for his bravery and wisdom. However, after winning the trust of Philoctetes by promising to take him home, Neptolemus is trou­bled by his conscience and, refusing to break the trust that he has gained, stands with Philoctetes against Odysseus. Neptolemus exemplifies to Philoctetes the importance of keeping faith and ultimately the archer is persuaded to journey to Troy and fight alongside his comrades.23 The tale is ambiguous and morally complex. There are several examples of betrayals of faith and no character is entirely without guilt.

marble inscription reverse Philoctetes
Fig. 4. Assistant of Giammaria Mosca, Philoctetes (reverse), c.1510, marble, 40 x 22.5cm, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, photograph copyright The State Hermitage Museum, photograph by Leonard Kheifets.

The history of the Fantuzzi family is one in which the issue of keeping faith has strong resonance. The family had been supporters of the Bentivoglio family, rulers of Bologna until the city was brought under papal rule. In 1508, however, Gaspare broke his faith with the Bentivoglio by refusing to join the (unsuccessful) rebellion to bring back them back to power.

Despite his lack of involvement Gaspare suffered exile from the city along with other rebels. When the Bentivoglio were restored to power in 1511, Fantuzzi was able to return to Bologna, but the new regime lasted only a brief time. Fantuzzi and his family changed their allegiance in response to a request to aid the restoration of papal power in the city, and in 1514 Gaspare was sent as ambassador to ask Leo X to prevent the Bentivoglio family from returning to Bologna.

These events were contemporaneous with the period of pro­duction of the marble reliefs, and they have direct parallels with the effective exile of Philoctetes and his subsequent refusal to support his former countrymen in the war against Troy.24 Edmund Wilson describes the story as a ‘curious drama’, focusing on a ‘gradual psychological con­flict’ in which the varying levels of deception and desertion of duty of its three male characters, Philoctetes, Odysseus, and Neptolemus, ‘makes complicated demands on our sympathies’.25 The story’s theme quite possibly had a poignant relevance for Fantuzzi, relating to the conflicting political pressures that led to his own breaking of a long-held faith with the Bentivoglio family. Of course, it may well be that Fantuzzi would have reflected on this conflict in private rather than have offered it for debate.

Textual knowledge also opens up the meaning of the relief of Eurydice, whose depiction without her husband Orpheus is unusual. Identification of the figure requires knowledge of the details of Ovid’s myth, in which Eurydice steps on a snake and receives a fatal bite. For example, the vernacular editions of the tale that were published in 1497 and 1522 were accompanied by woodcuts that show multi-layered images with Eurydice stepping on the snake in the foreground, and behind her, Orpheus negotiating a passage across the Styx into Hades with Charon the ferryman.26 Eurydice was considered to be an exem­plum of conjugal faithfulness in the sixteenth century, and scholars have suggested superficially that the reason for Fantuzzi’s inscription on the relief is based on Orpheus’ great love for his wife and his journey to the underworld to try to bring her back to life.27 Eurydice is, however, a strange figure to choose to depict ‘the sweetest bond of marriage and conjugal love’, as her marriage ended in disaster. Fantuzzi, and his well-educated companions, moreover, would have been aware of the multiple allusions contained within the Ovidian and Virgilian versions of her myth. Although Ovid tells that treading on the snake was simply an accident that befell Eurydice while she was dancing on her wedding day, Virgil presents her as a model of chastity, describing how she was bitten whilst fleeing from the advances of the shepherd Aristaeus.28 The tale need not have ended in disaster in either case, however, as Orpheus was given the chance by Pluto and Persephone to lead his wife out of the underworld on the condition that he did not look back at her until they reached the world above. Orpheus, of course, broke the pledge and in turning to check that she was still following him, lost her as she slipped back into the depths of Hades. Eurydice thus suffers twice at the hands of men, injured while fleeing from an attempted rape, and subsequently deprived of the chance to return to life, owing to her husband’s lack of trust in the gods keeping their part of the bargain. The relief seems to me to fit more closely with themes of the importance of keeping faith, and the consequences of breaking faith, that are suggested in the Philoctetes relief. The reliefs of Eurydice and Philoctetes exemplify the dis­astrous consequences that can ensue from a loss of faith.

marble statues Laocöon
Fig. 5. Laocöon, 40-30 BCE, marble, 208 x 163 x 112cm, Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican, Rome, copyright 2016, photograph Scala, Florence.

Turning now to why so many characters are in pain and on the verge of death, it is useful to group the reliefs into gods (Venus, Mars, Mars/ Achilles, and Pan and Luna), and mortals (Dido, Mucius Scaevola, Portia, Cleopatra, Antony, Lucretia, Philoctetes and Eurydice). Five of the characters in the mortal or ‘human’ reliefs, including all but Eurydice of the females, commit suicide, which was considered a mortal sin in the Renaissance and which in itself would have been likely to prompt an ethical debate amongst humanists. The appeal of owning such potentially disturbing images is, I believe, closely linked with the discovery of the ancient statue of Laocoön in Rome in 1506 (Fig. 5). This larger-thanlife- size statue group was recognized from Pliny’s ekphrastic description, in which it was prized as ‘a work to be preferred to all that the arts of painting and sculpture have produced’.29 It was Michelangelo, an early visitor to the find, who moved the focus of attention from the group as a whole to the main figure, its muscular straining body and tortured expression. Many copies of the statue were in circulation and patrons appreciated artists who incorporated adaptions of the poses of the figures into their paintings and sculpture.30 Antonio Lombardo had used Laocoön as the model for a figure in his 1508 relief, The Forge of Vulcan, for Alfonso d’Este’s private marble study in Ferrara.31 The expression of the father, trying frantically to release himself and his sons from the fatal grip of the snakes, was admired not only for its heroic nature, but also as a sort of ‘pathosformel’ or example of ‘affetti’, the visual expression of physical and psychological reactions.32 Laocoön became the archetypal sculptural depiction of physical and emotional pain, with sixteenth century theorists noting that the Laocoön group could stir the emotions and create empathy in the viewer.33

The pervasive influence of the Laocoön is found in the reliefs in question. The tilted-back head of the Baltimore Lucretia (Fig. 6), with open mouth and eyes turned towards the heavens, for instance, has been likened to the anguished expression of Laocoön himself.34 The position of Portia’s head (Fig. 7) emulates that of Laocoön’s younger son. So too does the tilt of Cleopatra’s head in another relief, showing her agony through open mouth and upturned eyes. The tortured pose and anguished expression in the three extant reliefs of the Roman hero Mucius Scaevola, whose bravery was commended by Livy and earned him a place in Dante’s Paradise, mimic that of Laocoön’s elder son and show that akin to Laocoön he suffers as a result of devotion to his country.35 As well as suggesting the Laocoön visually, it is possible that the moral ambiguities inherent in the story of the priest of Neptune may have contributed to the choice of themes for the reliefs. Virgil’s Aeneid (c.30–19 BCE) tells the story of Laocoön’s attempt to warn his fellow Trojans of an attack by the Greeks. After Neptune intervened and sent sea serpents to attack the father and his two sons, the Trojans were persuaded that the warning was false and brought the horse filled with Greek soldiers into the city, exposing themselves to the attack that resulted in the fall of their city.36 These themes of lack of faith and deception, as well as unjust punishment of Laocoön by the god Neptune, are expressed visually through the anguish of paternal love. The tale is complicated further by two variant versions narrated by Servius which portray Laocoön as a sinner, punished either for making love with his wife in a sanctuary, or for sacrificing in her presence.37 Laocoön, there­fore, is a character who, like many of the subjects of the reliefs, invites empathy but who is also flawed.

Many of the figures in the reliefs are seen to be dying as a result of love, and these sculptures raise questions about the different kinds and focuses of love. Gli Asolani is a key contemporary text that provides insight into what was seen as the problematic nature of love, and which does not seem to have been connected with the reliefs by previous scholars. It is set in a northern Italian court and written in the vernacular by humanist Pietro Bembo. Presenting his text as a dialogue Bembo mirrors the activities in the studiolo, creating three male and three female characters who engage in an intellectual debate about love in which each is encouraged to express their opinions and experiences. The subject matter was based on Bembo’s personal experiences together with tales from classical myth, drama and history.38 Gli Asolani’s publica­tion in Venice in 1505 locates it firmly within the region, period and culture that is the focus of this study. Reprinted over twenty times in the sixteenth century, it was an immediate ‘best seller’ and humanists would have been eager to read and include it within their collections.39 Its first publication was dedicated to Lucrezia Borgia (the wife of Antonio Lombardo’s patron, Alfonso d’Este), whom Bembo had met in Ferrara.40 Bembo explains that his purpose in writing the book is to help the reader to discover which love is good and which is not, which gives pleasure and which causes grief, describing how man’s nature causes him to love the things from which he ought to flee, to fail to love those he ought to seek and sometimes to shun or to pursue each less or more than is becoming. Many of the reliefs, in focusing on different kinds of love, make excellent companions to Bembo’s text, illustrating that ‘at no season is it possible not to know love of some kind, since nature has given all men, along with life, the faculty of ever loving one thing or another’.41 Though only the characters of Lucretia and Dido (under Dido’s other name of Elissa) actually feature in the reliefs, those charac­ters are effective representations of the whole of Bembo’s text, which is designed to inspire a dialogue about different aspects of, and responses to, love. I contend that the studiolo worked in the same way.

Perottino, the first male in the text to speak, tells of the ‘power that the passion of love wields over human minds’. This power is there to be seen in the anguished features of the reliefs of LucretiaCleopatraPortia, and Eurydice.42 Perottino introduces characters whose love has not fol­lowed the smooth and blissful path described by his fellow debaters. He describes love as ‘that which consumes and destroys’, naming stories of intense love: the ‘unfortunate liaison’ of Pyramus and Thisbe, whose love ends in the unplanned tragic suicides of both; the ‘endearments’ of Paolo and Francesca, her ten-year affair with her husband’s brother being the reason for their double murder; ‘the longstanding guilt’ of Medea, whose desertion by Jason prompted her to execute her vengeance by killing their children; and ‘the unbridled illicit passion’ of Myrrah and Byblis, an incestuous love that raises questions about the innocence of their actions, similar to those debated in the case of Lucretia. These are para­doxical examples, and are intended to be read as such in order to stimu­late debate on love. The ‘tragic exits’ made by all of them, the fictional Perottino says, were invented by the ancients to teach us about love.43

marble Venetian / Paduan, Lucretia
Fig. 6. Venetian / Paduan, Lucretia, c.1520- 30, marble, 34.3 x 23.8cm, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, courtesy of The Walters Art Museum.

The visual representation of myths to express a moral, whether simple or complex, had a long tradition. Roman imperial sarcophagi commonly used mythological scenes to emphasise certain aspects of the deceased. In these cases, however, the ability to portray multiple figures on the sides of the sarcophagi enabled the sculptor to focus on certain aspects of the narrative, and thereby limit potentially ambiguous ele­ments in the myth, in order to highlight attributes of the deceased and convey messages of comfort to the survivors. In the Renaissance, the stories of Orpheus and Eurydice, Diana and Actaeon, Jason and Medea, and Dido and Aeneas were frequently depicted on cassoni, large decora­tive domestic chests that are associated with marriage and that were used to store belongings. Here, their messages may be more complex. Art historian Malcolm Bull’s suggestion that these tales do not have much in common other than as reminders of the importance of erotic love seems unduly restrictive given that, in addition to erotic love, the tales involve desertion, death and retribution. Location and context are of rel­evance with such representations. In the case of the Roman sarcophagi such myths were often used to represent positive moral messages in a public funerary context, while those depicted on the cassoni invited more complex interpretation in a private, family context. At the far extreme, the small relief images for contemplation in the studiolo, with representations of isolated figures, provided the greatest opportunity for multiple interpretations as can be seen from a consideration of the image of Lucretia (Fig. 6).

Giammaria Mosca, Portia, early sixteenth century, marble
Fig. 7. Giammaria Mosca, Portia, early sixteenth century, marble, 45.5 x 32.7cm, Galleria Giorgio Franchetti alla Ca’ d’Oro, Venice, courtesy of The Ministero dei benie delle attività culturali e del turismo.

In the single extant relief of Lucretia, the loss of the figure’s right arm, presumably wielding the dagger that she would plunge into her breast, leaves only the Latin inscription on the ledge on which she stands as identification: ‘CASTIS EXEMPLAR VXORIBVS (an example of chastity to wives)’.44 Lucretia was celebrated as an example of chastity by Petrarch who places her ‘at the forefront of truest honour’ and Boccaccio who describes her as ‘the outstanding model of Roman chastity, and sacred glory of ancient virtue’.45 The figure in the relief is almost completely removed from a low-relief background that depicts a broken Roman arch and a plinth (inlaid with coloured marble) on which she rests her left hand. In presenting a woman naked and in emotional

anguish, perhaps the sculptor places a heterosexual male viewer in an uncomfortable position: attraction to her beauty and vulnerability associates him with Tarquin, Lucretia’s nefarious seducer. Schulz sees the inscription as addressed to a ‘limited female audience’, but I suggest instead that it would spark a debate on the tensions generated by Lucretia’s rape and suicide, and the complicated themes of female sexuality and chastity, morality, patriotism, and heroism.46 It was the early

Christian theologian Saint Augustine who first raised concerns about Lucretia’s morality and worthiness as a model of virtue, because in his eyes, her succumbing to the vice of despair meant that her suicide lacked noble motivation. Her surrender to her seducer raised for him questions of her own pleasure in the act and her desire to retain public honour.47 Amongst the various versions of her story, Livy has Lucretia declare her innocence, thereby vindicating her suicide and preventing her from setting a precedent for unchaste women to escape punishment. Livy’s tale raises issues of personal and public liberty, as Lucretia’s husband, Lucius Junius Brutus, used the rape as the basis for his vow to free the people of Rome from the tyrannous reign of the Tarquins. Ovid, by contrast, stresses the emotional and sensual aspects of the story.48

Rather than place her with the suicides, Dante was more sympathetic to Lucretia and placed her in Limbo, along with other ‘virtuous pagans’.49 In Gli Asolani, Bembo, in contrast with all those discussed above, highlights the plight of Tarquin, an aspect not usually dwelt on, and uses the character of Perottino to announce that the lover was overcome with such a strong passion for Lucretia that it resulted in his exile, the loss of his kingdom, and ultimately his death. Bembo thus adds another moral dilemma into the already complex tale, provoking debate as to the extent of Tarquin’s guilt and whether he is deserving of compassion.50

Another story of lust and rape features in the relief of Pan and Luna. The depiction of a young girl with a sheep in this sculpture subverts the expectation of a pastoral idyll showing instead a naked young girl who has been knocked slightly off-balance by the sheep as it nuzzles high inside her right thigh. The iconography relates to an oft-overlooked episode from Virgil’s Georgics III, which reveals that the moon is being violated by the god Pan in disguise. Virgil writes ‘with the lure of such snowy wool … / Pan, god of Arcady, captivated and tricked the Moon, / Calling her down to the deep woods – a call she disdained not’.51 The final words suggest that Luna, like Lucretia, may have been complicit in the violation.

The female figure in the relief of Portia (Fig. 7), plucking a hot coal from a brazier, would have been easily identifiable to anyone with knowledge of Roman history as the wife of Brutus, one of the assassins of Caesar. The inscription ‘PORTIA SVM BRVTI CONIVX ET NATA CATONIS QVAM DEDIT OPTATAE FLAMMEA PRVNA NECI (I am Portia, wife of Brutus and daughter of Cato, whom a fiery live coal consigned to a desired violent death)’, confirms her identity. Bembo’s Perottino lists women from antiquity, who, upon the death of their husbands, experienced such grief that they ended their own lives.52 As Plutarch recounts, however, although hugely admired and respected by the people, Brutus was also an assassin, with Portia complicit in her knowledge of his villainous plans.53 Brutus’ murder of Caesar raises a moral dilemma similar to that of Lucretia’s suicide as it is interpretable as either vice or virtue in Christian eyes.54 The Portia relief, whilst superficially providing an exemplum of conjugal love, would have opened up a much larger moral debate, intensified by reference to Dante, who placed Brutus in the jaws of Satan, one of only three of the characters in the Commedia who was subjected to this fate.55

The reliefs of Cleopatra alone, or those of her grieving over the body of her lover Antony as she takes her own life, are also images of tragic love. Their story is again one of shifting loyalties. Antony, who had been the loyal general of Caesar, supposedly displayed weakness in succumbing to the attractions of Cleopatra, whose extravagant display of Eastern luxury and decadence represented the antithesis of Roman virtues. Cleopatra had two notably scandalous relationships, first as the mistress of Caesar (until his assassination in 44 BCE), and subsequently as the mistress of Antony, leading Dante to place her with the carnal lovers in the second circle of Hell and describe her as ‘lussurïosa (lustful)’.56 Her multi-faceted character would have invited discussion on other amoral actions, for example, ordering the murder of her sister Arsinoe in order to protect her position as ruler. The story exemplifies Perottino’s evocation in Gli Asolani of the power of love to ‘procure not only sighs and tears, not merely

Venus Anadyomene
Fig. 8. Antonio Lombardo, Venus Anadyomene, c.1510-1515, marble, 40.6 x 25.1cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, copyright Victoria and Albert Museum.

individual deaths, but even the ruin of ancient seats, of mighty cities and of whole provinces besides’, epitomised for him in the story of Paris and Helen, and the fate of Tarquin’s people.57

Cleopatra’s power over Antony that turns him from his duty to Rome evokes Virgil’s tale of Dido and Aeneas. Both stories feature powerful women rulers who lose all they have, not only through love, but in both cases in seeking to deflect their lovers from their duty. Unlike Cleopatra, however, it is Dido’s grief at her failure to prevent Aeneas from returning to his duty that prompts her death. With regard to the relief of Dido, the inscription confirms her identity: ‘PUNICA SUM [ERE]XI QUAE MOENIA BYRSA (I am Punic [Dido] who erected the Byrsan walls)’, as does the bull hide draped over the column on which the naked figure rests her hand. Dido would tear this hide into strips to mark out the territory for the foundation of the city of Carthage over which she ruled until her death.58 In the different ver­sions of Dido’s tale, particular aspects of her story are emphasised to reveal the various types of love that she faced. Dido features as unfor­tunate in love in Gli Asolani: cast off by ‘her roving paramour’ Aeneas.59 According to Virgil, Dido takes her own life, not only in despair at having been deserted by her lover Aeneas, but having herself deserted the memory of her first husband. Dante places her alongside Cleopatra among the lustful in Inferno V.60 Boccaccio and Petrarch, however, aban­doned Virgil’s account in favour of a celebration of Dido’s ‘sacred and inflexible’ chastity, Boccaccio describing her suicide as the means to avoid marriage to Northern African King Iarbus, thus remaining true to the memory of her first husband Sychaeus who had been killed by his own brother.61 The scholarly interpretations of the relief as portraying Dido as the ‘intelligent, prudent and courageous’ founder of Carthage fail to engage with the different types of love that emerge from these alternative versions of Dido’s story.62

A humanist in the studiolo, holding a copy of Gli Asolani and contemplating the beautiful relief of Venus Anadyomene (Fig. 8), may have had his reveries disturbed by Perottino’s belief that: ‘love is not the son of Venus, but is the offspring of man’s sensuality and vice’.63 Exposing her nakedness to the viewer’s gaze, Venus is both an object of desire and an example of ideal beauty, and would have been an attractive addition to the studiolo of either a male or a female patron. The educated viewer, who had read Hesiod’s Theogony (c.700 BCE), would know, however, that his version of the myth adds a barbarous twist to her birth, in that it reveals that the goddess of love was created from the violent castration of Uranus (the god of heaven, and creator of ideal forms) that produced the foam in the sea from which Venus emerged.64 The inscription on the ledge upon which Venus balances, ‘NUDA VENVS MADIDAS EXPRIMIT IMBRE COMAS (Naked Venus wrings spray from her hair)’, is the final part of a sentence taken from Ovid’s Ars Amatoria III, in which the poet describes a gem on which Venus is incised, as: ‘your jewel was rough when being shaped: now it is a noble gem, whereupon naked Venus is wringing her spray-drenched tresses’.65 Knowledge of the full Ovidian source, would, as noted by Edgar Wind, perhaps allow a Renaissance viewer to appreciate the skill and erudition of the sculptor, in addition to the complexities of the tale of Venus itself.66 The image of Venus rising from the sea was based on the ekphrastic descriptions of several ancient writers of a lost painting by Apelles of Cos (c.332–329 BCE), which gave her a special interest for humanists.

The popularity of these reliefs began and ended in the Italian culture of the studiolo, a conclusion that is evidenced by the fact that one of the sculptors, Mosca, who left Italy to work in Poland in 1529, did not continue their production in that country.67 Their categorization by scholars as examples of love, chastity or virtue, takes account of only one aspect of the multi-layered narratives of the characters portrayed. The display of a single figure means that the larger narrative must work by the memory and invention of the viewer, opening up the reliefs to a greater interpretive range. The proliferation of meanings and moods that the reliefs could evoke in the light of different textual knowledge may have provoked an element of competition among the intellectuals who were invited to view them. It was precisely the activity of tracing the histories of the figures that allowed the Italian Renaissance viewer to understand their complex actions and possibly uncover personal reso­nances that may not have been immediately apparent.

Warburg asserts that a tragic sense of ‘classical unrest’ was fundamental to the culture of Greco-Roman antiquity.68 This ‘ten­sion, ambivalence and anxiety’ that Warburg identified as repeated in images of antiquity in the Renaissance is embodied in the small marble reliefs whose characters are part of narratives that contain complex moral choices. The reliefs give an insight into the environment of the studiolo and its function not only as a space for display but for debate. Contemplating the reliefs would have encouraged intellectual engage­ment with the actions of the characters in their various literary forms and opened a wider debate on the issues at the centre of contempo­rary texts such as Gli Asolani. More than simply ornamental, the small marble reliefs link text and image and allow us an insight into some of the potential conversations and intellectual exchanges that would have challenged the guests invited into the intimate space of the Renaissance studiolo.


  1. Wendy Stedman Sheard, ‘Tullio Lombardo in Rome?: The Arch of Constantine, the Vendramin Tomb and the Reinvention of Monumental Classicizing Relief ’, Artibus et Historiae, 18, 35 (1997), 161–179, 166.
  2. Anne Markham Schulz, Giammaria Mosca called Padovano: A Renaissance Sculptor in Italy and PolandText and Illustrations (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), 62.
  3. Aby Warburg, The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity: Contributions to the Cultural History of the European Renaissance, David Britt trans. (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 1999), 273.
  4. Niccolò Machiavelli, ‘Letter to Francesco Vettori’ (10 December 1513), reproduced in Peter J. Steinberger, Readings in Classical Political Thought (Cambridge, MA: Hackett Publishing, 2000), 550.
  5. Leah R. Clark, ‘Collecting, Exchange and Sociability in the Renaissance studiolo’, Journal of the History of Collections, 25, 2 (2013), 171–84, 175.
  6. Stephen Campbell, The Cabinet of Eros: The Studiolo of Isabella d’Este and the Rise of Renaissance Mythological Painting (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), 87.
  7. Pietro Bembo, Gli Asolani, Rudolf B. Gottfried trans. (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1954).
  8. Schulz, 164.
  9. Pomponius Gauricus, De Sculptura (1504), André Chastel and Robert Klein trans. (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1969), 63: ‘Sed non possum equidem non mirari, Cur tamen ipsi sua ratione nequeant, quod olim Phidias, Polycletus, Lysippus’.
  10. Denise Allen and Peta Motture eds., Andrea Riccio Renaissance Master of Bronze (London: Philip Wilson, 2008), xi; see also, Eleonora Luciano, Antico: The Golden Age of Renaissance Bronzes (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art; London: Paul Holberton, 2011).
  11. Denise Allen, ‘Riccio’s Bronze Narratives: Context and Development’, in Denise Allen and Peta Motture eds., Andrea Riccio Renaissance Master of Bronze (London: Philip Wilson, 2008), 15–40, 35.
  12. Campbell, 6.
  13. Malcolm Bull, The Mirror of the Gods: Classical Mythology in Renaissance Art (London: Penguin, 2005), 14.
  14. Campbell, 12, 75.
  15.  Jeremy Warren, ‘Gaspare Fantuzzi, A Patron of Sculpture in Renaissance Bologna’, The Burlington Magazine, 149, 1257 (2007), 832.
  16. Warren, 833.
  17. Schulz, 67.
  18. Sophocles, ‘Philoctetes’ (409 BCE), in Sophocles, Electra and Other Plays, E.F. Watling trans. (London: Penguin, 1953), ll.1327–29.
  19. Wendy Steadman Sheard, ‘Antonio Lombardo’s Reliefs for Alfonso d’Este’s Studio di Marmi: Their Significance and Impact on Titian’, in Joseph Manca ed., Titian 500 (Washington, D. C.: National Gallery of Art, 1993), 315–329, 325.
  20. Schulz, 65; Oscar Mandel, Philoctetes and the Fall of Troy (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1981), 125n.3.
  21. Wendy Steadman Sheard, ‘Bernardo e Pietro Bembo, Pietro, Tullio e Antonio Lombardo: metamorfosi delle tematiche cortigiane nelle tendenze classicistiche della scultura venezi­ana’, in Maria Grazia Bernardini ed., Tiziano Amor Sacro e Amor Profano (Milan: Electa, 1995), 119 (my translation).
  22. Edmund Wilson, The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997), 275; see also, Mandel.
  23. Wilson, 280.
  24. Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani: Fabron-Farina, 44 (Rome: Instituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1994); see also, Marzio Faietti and Konrad Oberhuber, Bologna a l’umanesimo 1490–1510 (Bologna: Nuova Alfa, 1988).
  25. Wilson, 172–3.
  26. See Ovid, Ovidio Methamorphoseos Vulgare (Venice, 1497), f. LXXXIIv; Ovid, Ovidio Methamorphoseos Vulgare (Venice, 1522), f. LXXv.
  27. Schulz, 68.
  28. Ovid, Metamorphoses, Mary M. Innes trans. (Middlesex: Penguin, 1970), X; Virgil, The Eclogues, Georgics and Aeneid, C. Day Lewis trans. (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), Georgics, IV.315-558.
  29. Pliny the Elder, Natural History (1469), in H. Rackham, D.E. Eichholz and W.H.S. Jones eds., Loeb Classical Library, 10 vols, vol. 5, H. Rackham trans. (London and Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press., 1950), 36.37.
  30. Sarah Blake McHam, Pliny and the Artistic Culture of the Italian Renaissance: The Legacy of the Natural History (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 222.
  31. Schulz, 62.
  32. McHam, 218.
  33. McHam, 219; Anton Francesco Doni wrote about the statue’s capacity to move the viewer in Il Disegno (1549), and Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo expanded the discussion of the affetti in 1584.
  34. Schulz, 74.
  35. Dante, Paradiso (1304), Charles S. Singleton trans. (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1991), 4.83–4; Livy, The Early History of Rome, Aubrey de Sélincourt trans. (London: Penguin, 1969), 2.13, 102–104.
  36. Virgil, 2.40–56 and 190–240.
  37. A. F. Stewart, ‘To Entertain an Emperor: Sperlonga, Laokoon and Tiberius at the Dinner Table’, The Journal of Roman Studies, 67 (1977), 76–90, 84.
  38. Bembo, xi.
  39. Judith Gregory, Gli Asolani and some Venetian Paintings of the Early Cinquecento (PhD dissertation, University of Delaware, 1998), 15.
  40. Hugh Shankland, The Prettiest Love Letters in the World: Letters between Lucrezia Borgia & Pietro Bembo, 1503 to 1519 (London: Collins Harvill, 1987), 64.
  41. Bembo, 6: ‘perciò che non amare come che sia in niuna stagione non si può, quando si vede che da natura insieme col vivere a tutti gli uomini è dato che ciascuno alcuna cosa sempre ami’.
  42. Bembo, 28: ‘Amore insieme con molti altri fatto Idio…non per altro rispetto, se non per dimostrare a quelle grosse genti con questo nome d’Idio quanto nelle humane menti questa passion poteva’.
  43. Bembo, 25: ‘di tutti I loro dolorosissimi fini’.
  44. Schulz, 73.
  45. Petrarch, The Triumphs of Petrarch, Ernest Hatch Wilkins trans. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), ll. 130-13; Boccaccio, On Famous Women, Guido A. Guarino trans. (New York: Italica Press, 2011), 101.
  46. Schulz, 74.
  47. Saint Augustine, The City of God against Pagans, R.W. Dyson ed. and trans. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 1.19; Patricia Emison, ‘The Singularity of Raphael’s Lucretia’, Art History 14, 1 (March, 1991), 372–96, 376.
  48. Ian Donaldson, The Rapes of Lucretia: A Myth and its Transformations (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), 8.
  49. Dante, Inferno (1308–1321), Charles S. Singleton trans. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 4.128.
  50. Bembo, 26: ‘Né di Tarquinio altresi fingono gli scrittori, al quale fu l’amore, che di Lucrezia il prese, e della privazion del regno e dell’essiglio insieme e della sua morte cagione’.
  51. Virgil, 3.391-93.
  52. Bembo, 38.
  53. Plutarch, Makers of Rome: Nine Lives by Plutarch, Ian Scott-Kilvert trans. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), 223–270.
  54. Emison, 378.
  55. Dante (1989), 34.65–6.
  56. Dante (1989), 5.63
  57. Bembo, 26: ‘Per la qual cosa manifestamente si vede Amore essere non solamente di sospiri e di lagrime, né pur di morti particolari, ma eziandio di ruine d’antichi seggi e di potentissime città e delle provincie istesse cagione’
  58. Matteo Ceriana ed., Gli Este a Ferrara: Il Camerino di alabastro: Antonio Lombardo e la scultura all’antica (Milan: Silvana Editoriale Spa, 2004), 270. The Greek word for skin of a bull is Byrsa.
  59. Bembo, 52: ‘Abandonata dal vago Enea la dolorosa Elisa se medesima miseramente abandonò uccidendosi, alla qual morte non traboccava, se ella meno seconda fortuna avuta avesse ne’ suoi amorosi disii’.
  60. Dante (1989), 5.61.
  61. Boccaccio, 88; Petrarch, ll.154–5.
  62. Ceriana, 272.
  63. Bembo, 20: ‘Amore…non figliuolo di Venere, come si legge nelle favole de gli scrittori…né di Marte o di Mercurio o di Volcano medesimamente o d’altro Idio, ma da soverchia lascivia e da pigro ozio de gli uomini, oscurissimi e vilissimi genitori, nelle nostre menti procreato, nasce da prima quasi parto do malizia e di vizio’.
  64. Hesiod, Theogony, cited in Jane Davidson Reid, The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts 1300–1990, vol. 1 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 188–206, 112–14.
  65. Ovid, The Art of Love and other Poems, J. H. Mozley trans. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1979), 3.223–24.
  66. Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (London: Faber and Faber, 1968), 264n.2; McHam, 174.
  67. Schulz, 175.
  68. Warburg, 273.