Re-creating Antiquity in the Renaissance :

Alfonso d'Este's camerino d'alabastro

by Raichel Le Goff

presented as a postgraduate seminar at Oxford University 1995


A small room richly decorated and hung with beautiful paintings, the so-called camerino d'alabastro of Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara has been famed as a great work of art from the sixteenth century onward. It has thus attracted a vast amount of scholarship plagued by competing views and controversial interpretations. Attempts to reconstruct the camerino itself, to visualize where the paintings were hung in the room and in what order, recall in part the various bids by archaeologists to re-create the gallery of Hellenistic masterpieces described by Philostratus the Elder in the 3rd century A.D. The camerino as Alfonso knew it, no longer exists, of the six paintings originally planned for the room only four are known and the earliest record we have of the appearance of the camerino is a precarious account in Vasari's second edition of the Vite.

I have attempted to wade through a fair portion of the bulk of material on the subject and with this essay aim to present what I consider the most sensible of viewpoints concerning both the history of the camerino and the iconographic meaning of the paintings that decorated it. This will save you the trouble, for example, of picking up Edgar Wind's extraordinary account of Bellini's Feast of the Gods before you realize he got it all wrong when you read Philip Fehl's later interpretation.

So how did the camerino come into being?...

It was whilst recovering from an illness in 1511 that Alfonso d'Este formulated plans to create a personal picture gallery in his private apartments at Ferrara. Two factors may have influenced this decision and both are connected to his sister, Isabella d'Este Marchesa of Mantua. In 1511 Isabella had sent her Latin tutor, Mario Equicola to visit Ferrara probably in order that he could report back on the condition of her brother's health. Whilst there, Equicola wrote to Isabella : "The Duke is pleased that I have stayed here eight days; the reason is the 'pictura' of a room in which six fables, or stories, are to go: I have found them and given them [to him] in writing".

Alfonso certainly was influenced in the planning of his camerino by the example of his sister, who expended a great deal of care and money on the construction and furnishing of her studiolo in the castello at Mantua. The main feature of her studiolo was a series of paintings by Mantegna, Perugino and Lorenzo da Costa illustrating abstruse moralizing allegories based on antique literary sources. Isabella fancied herself as something of a classical scholar even though she had no Greek and only a fundamental grasp of Latin. In 1505, the Marchesa invited a Greek scholar, Demetrios Moschos, to make the first translation into the vernacular of the Eikones a text written by the 3rd century Sophist, Philostratus the Elder. It described in vivid rhetoric, over sixty-five Hellenistic paintings that the author had supposedly seen in a noble's villa outside Naples. It was the most complete insight yet into an entire age of painting that had been lost to mankind and as such, it fascinated Isabella who had an insatiable thirst for the marvels of antiquity. Isabella had loaned her Italian translation of the Eikones to Alfonso and he was in possession of it when Equicola came to visit in 1511. It is the reading of this book, which I believe must be seen as the second contributing factor toward the creation of the camerino d'alabastro.

At the beginning of the book, Philostratus writes that the villa where he saw these paintings was :

resplendent with all the marbles favoured by luxury, but it was particularly splendid by reason of the panel-paintings set in the walls, paintings which I thought had been collected with real judgement, for they exhibited the skill of very many painters.

It is these principles which guided Alfonso in the creation and decoration of his own private gallery which became known as the camerino d'alabastro because of the precious marble carvings it contained. Presumably these panels of carved alabaster sheathed the walls. We know that Alfonso had paid the Venetian sculptor Antonio Lombardo for a series of such panels in 1508 and it is thought that Alfonso could have had them installed in a separate camerino di marmo before utilising them later in the decorative scheme of the camerino.

Eventually, Alfonso would commission one painting from Raphael and two from Titian for this room that were based on these descriptions from Philostratus. By doing this, Alfonso was consciously identifying with the anonymous collector and owner of the 3rd century Neapolitan Gallery. Such interests were indicative of an overall desire to revisit the classical world, a rinascimento dell'Antichita. As early as ca. 1350 Petrarch had hoped that future generations would be able to 'walk back into the pure radiance of the past', and the Eikones along with other classical ekphrastic texts, became a vehicle through which this could be achieved. 

The first artist Alfonso commissioned to paint pictures all'antica was Giovanni Bellini who completed a Bacchanal signed and dated 1514, two years before his death. For ten years (1501-1511) Isabella had been waiting for Bellini to deliver a Bacchanal to Mantua, but he never completed the picture for her. It is ironic that her brother should then obtain a Bacchanal from Bellini in relatively little time and it is a possibility that the painting Alfonso received, may have been the very one intended for his sister. The date and signature helps disprove Vasari's theory that Bellini was too old to complete the picture and Titian stepped in to finish it. By looking at the x-rays of the Bacchanal (now in Washington) we can see the painting was not finished by Titian but altered by him, as Bellini's original finished landscape is evident beneath Titian's overpaint. In fact, it may not even be correct to say that "Titian altered Bellini", for there appears to have been a third intermediate hand involved, possibly that of Dosso Dossi and it seems more likely that Titian was asked to correct Dossi's inadequate repainting of Bellini's landscape.

Philipp Fehl has shown that the literary source for Bellini's Bacchanal was inspired from an illustrated translation of Ovid's Fasti which was published in Venice in 1497. This Ovidio volgarizato differs somewhat from the original Greek text. When it tells the story of the god Priapus' desire for the nymph Lotis, it changes the Olympian Gods into mortal Thebans and we know from the x-rays of Bellini's painting, that this popularized version is the one first painted for Alfonso.

In the painting today, we see that all the figures have been given the attributes of Gods. These were added later and in most cases, such as Jupiter's eagle, they seem quite awkwardly placed, to the point of appearing absurd. Again, the Ferrarese artist Dosso Dossi who is generally thought to have intervened in the landscape is accused of having tampered with the figures. Not only does this intervention betray Bellini's original intentions, but it entirely changes the story of Lotis and Priapus. Alfonso himself no doubt orchestrated these altercations to Bellini's picture and it could be that having read the ovidio volgarizato he had since been made aware of the original Greek version of the story and aspired to be textually correct.

So we must now read Bellini's Bacchanal as it was altered according to the patron's wishes and as we view it today. The Gods of Olympia are gathered about for a feast and observe the action of Priapus trying to stealthily remove the clothing of Lotis the sleeping nymph under the tree. Next to the couple are seated Apollo and his consort Ceres, then there is Neptune who caresses the thigh of Gaea whilst Jupiter sips wine from a goblet with his eagle beside him. The reclining figure in front is Mercury, a simple shepherd in Bellini's original painting, he now holds the celestial caduceus. The childlike Bacchus draws wine from the barrel whilst Silenus and his ass look on and behind the barrel is Sylvanus, a spirit of the forest. Maenads and satyrs weave in and out of the group distributing wine and food and for musical accompaniment, Pan plays his pipes in the background. The scene we witness is the prelude to an attempted rape but soon the ass will bray, awaken Lotis and she will escape from Priapus. The females in Bellini's picture were fully clothed and gestures were less provocative. The alterations ensure that breasts are exposed and the overall tone is more lascivious, in tune with Ovid's poetry.

Bellini's picture served as a reference point for the rest of the camerino paintings. The next commission was given to Raphael for a "Triumph of Bacchus" which the artist promised to do for Alfonso, but failed to complete before his death six years later. Raphael had sent a preparatory drawing to Alfonso which the Duke passed on to a local artist, Pellegrino da San Daniele. When Raphael heard that Pellegrino was now painting this Triumph of Bacchus he informed Alfonso that he would change the subject of his own painting for the camerino to a Meleager and the Caledonian Boar Hunt. Had Raphael completed this picture, it would have resulted in three out of the five paintings in the camerino being based on descriptions from Philostratus.

The third artist to be approached by Alfonso was Fra Bartolommeo, although there is a story that on a trip to Rome in 1512, Alfonso was so impressed by the Sistine Chapel ceiling that he asked Michelangelo to paint a picture for the camerino and although Michelangelo agreed, nothing more is known of the commission.

Fra Bartolommeo was asked to paint a Worship of Venus, which describes one of the more well-known descriptions from Philostratus. However the frate only managed to execute a preparatory drawing for the painting before his death in 1517 and the commission was passed on to Titian.

Alfonso had still managed to procure only one painting for his camerino, a project which had been evolving over six years. At this point, frustrated with the delays and disappointments plaguing his commissions to artists, he decided to re-construct the entire camerino.

The original structure accommodating the camerino dated from 1471 and consisted of a two storey corridor crossing the street to connect the Palazzo and the Castello. It was a very narrow structure, as after two renovations by Alfonso, the ceilings still only measured some eleven and a half feet in width. Enlarged in 1499, it was widened again by Alfonso in 1505 in order to accommodate a series of rooms which were to become his private apartments (referred to as the camerini). When Federigo Gonzaga visited his uncle in 1517, the Duke moved out of the camerini for Federigo to be able to stay in this suite of luxurious rooms that included the camerino with its one lonely Bellini. However in 1518 records indicate that Alfonso entirely rebuilt, perhaps even pulled down and began again the complete structure. When Isabella visited her brother in 1520 the internal decoration was still unfinished and as late as 1524, Alfonso was writing to the Marchesa to boast of the new marble floors he was installing throughout the camerini.

Meanwhile, Alfonso's agents in Rome badgered Raphael constantly to complete his Caledonian Boar Hunt whilst Titian was in Venice painting the Worship of Venus (now in the Prado). When Raphael died in 1520, his heirs offered to have Raphael's studio complete the picture, but Alfonso refused. Dosso Dossi ended up filling the space on the wall that should have been Raphael's, with a painting described by Vasari as a Bacchanal of Men. A small percentage of scholars believe that the painting now in the National Gallery is the Dossi from Alfonso's camerino.

Alfonso was so concerned about ensuring Titian would execute his painting within the promised period of six months that not only had he sent Fra Bartolommeo's sketch and a copy of the text from Philostratus together with detailed instructions, but the very canvas and stretcher upon which Titian was to paint. Eighteen months later and Alfonso still did not have his Titian, but finally, after repeated invitations from the Duke, Titian took the Venus to Ferrara in October 1519 and completed it there during a three-month stay.

Relatively few of Philostratus' scenes provided appropriate subjects for paintings in the Renaissance, involving as they did, incredibly intricate compositions often containing multiple episodes relating obscure literary themes. The Erotes is a difficult composition with a large cast of characters engaged in diverse actions but it is a pleasant theme giving Titian the chance to paint a plethora of nude cupids in an apple orchard. It is evident that Titian read closely the text as his Worship of Venus is a slavish realization of the ekphrasis and it was the impact of the opening sentences that caught his imagination when Philostratus emphasises the great number of cupids : 'See, Cupids are gathering apples; and if there are many of them, do not be surprised. For they are children of the Nymphs and govern all mortal kind, and they are many because of the many things men love'.

Titian's visualization of Graeco-Roman painting is more revealing of the mind of an Italian artist of the sixteenth century than it is of what we have now found on ancient Campanian walls. His reading of Philostratus is conditioned by a set of aesthetic values homogeneous to Titian's own cultural climate. Unable to escape from the time in which he lived, Titian has placed picturesque country cottages in the landscape and a church spire on the horizon. So rather than attempting to interpret Philostratus from an archaeological or historical point of view, Titian's approach is philological and The Worship of Venus relies on the ekphrasis as a guide to his own artistic creativity.

Yet by recreating this painting he is responding not only to the power of the ekphrasis, but is consciously establishing a link between himself and the ancient masters who painted the pictures in Philostratus' Neapolitan gallery. In this sense, both Alfonso's and Titian's ambitions for the camerino reflect a Renaissance tendency to see their own civilization as the direct continuity of the classical past as opposed to standing at a fixed distance from antiquity. Alfonso at least, must have been well convinced by this reconstruction of a Graeco-Hellenic masterpiece as he immediately asked Titian to paint another one. Although the literary source for the Bacchus and Ariadne (now in National Gallery) does not come from Philostratus, it does come from a text that contains a description of a work of art from classical antiquity. The ekphrasis in a poem by Catullus a Roman poet of the 1st century B.C., tells of a luxurious tapestry that adorned the royal marital bed of Peleus and Thetis. The scene woven into the tapestry showed on one side, Ariadne turned towards the ocean and looking after the ship on which Theseus had departed, and on the other, "seeking thee, Ariadne, and fired with thy love", came Bacchus and his retinue of satyrs, sileni and maenads. It was Titian's task to integrate the two scenes onto the one canvas. It is often written that having won Alfonso's confidence, Titian was given more of a free hand with the design for the Bacchus and Ariadne than with the Worship of Venus. Yet there is one factor that leads me to believe that Alfonso had not relaxed his reigns on the artist as much as supposed. Another classical text is paraphrased in Titian's painting, the source being Ovid's Ars Amatoria (1. 525-566.) which also relates the meeting of Bacchus and Ariadne on the Greek island of Naxos, but describes specifically the God's mighty leap from his chariot. The painting is clearly a hybrid of the two sources and is more likely to be the result of implicit instructions from Alfonso with the assistance of his humanist advisers, than Titian's own free invenzione. Titian was not a classical scholar intimately familiar with Latin and Greek texts. His next painting for the camerino was again, based on a description from Philostratus, for which he would have had to rely on the vernacular translation in Alfonso's personal library. After Ferrara and without Alfonso's patronage, Titian never again would paint such complicated erudite mythological compositions.

At the end of 1521 the Bacchus and Ariadne was still far from completion. Alfonso tried to get Titian to Ferrara as it was thought he would work faster under the surveillance of his patron. Alfonso's agent in Venice, Tebaldi offered Titian a trip to Rome with the Duke as an enticement and Titian initially accepted but he then faked illness. Tebaldi went to visit him and reported the problem was actually due to "women trouble". He suggested to the Duke that an advance on payment would lure Titian to Ferrara as money seemed to be the only thing the artist cared for and although money was duly sent, it was not until January 1523 that Titian took the painting to Ferrara.

It seems by now that Alfonso had found his very own Apelles and even though he was exasperated by Titian's slow pace, the Duke was not going to risk engaging another painter. The structural works to his camerino were nearly finished and he now had three paintings to hang in the five spaces he had allotted. The camerino being small with one entire wall taken up by two windows and a large fireplace, the original number of six paintings conceived at the beginning of the project in 1511 had shrunk to five large canvases with a series of smaller pictures to run as a frieze above. It is recorded that the Dossi brothers were working on decoration of the camerini in the 1520's and they are the likely authors of the frieze featuring scenes from the Aeneid. Several sections of this frieze have come to light in various museum collections.

With Titian's third and final painting for the camerino the iconography becomes even more convoluted. Philostratus tell us:

The stream of wine which is on the island of Andros, and the Andrians who have become drunken from the river, are the subject of this painting. For by the act of Dionysus the earth of the Andrians is so charged with wine that it bursts forth and sends up for them a stream [of wine].

It is a picture celebrating the gift of wine from Bacchus, whose ship is moored in the harbour. Laughter, song and revelry seduce the Andrians in their never-ending drinking bout. The words of a popular contemporary french song are indicated by Titian on a sheet of music in the foreground : "he who drinks and does not drink again, does not know what drinking is".

The most intriguing figure is the reclining beauty who despite the blatant display of naked flesh, is totally ignored by the revellers. One man caresses the bare foot of a clothed girl, but nobody is the slightest bit interested in the sleeping nude. In the Andrians Philostratus lists some of the most famous rivers of classical Greece, there is much talk of streams, rivers and flowing waters. The girl is most often explained as an Andrian who has drunk too much wine but I believe that this figure is a female personification of the source. Her long hair flows in rippled waves over the upturned bronze vase she uses as a pillow, the vase itself a traditional attribute of the source. Titian would have been aware of this from studying prints and drawings of classical statues such as the Fountain Nymph Sleeping once in the Galli collection alongside Michelangelo's Bacchus. In Titian's picutre, the river itself is depicted by Titian as an old river-god lying in the distance "on a couch of grape-clusters" (Philostratus, I. 25.). Yet it is a stream of wine which the river produces to succour the Andrians and in ancient Greek mythology, the personification of a stream is always female. Philostratus states that the Nile and Ister would be greater rivers if they had a stream like this one. The stream and its wondrous qualities remains the focus of the ekphrasis and Titian has made her the focal point of his picture. Even the fluid rhythms of her body and the way it is posed are mimetic of the sinuous movement of water. Her toes point the way of the direction the source flows into the ewer of a man taking his fill at th of wine at the stream. She is an allegorical figure invisible to the Andrians and displayed purely for the sensual enjoyment of we, the beholders, or to be more specific, for the delectation of the Duke of Ferrara.

With the Andrians in place and Titian's final visit to Ferrara in 1529, the decoration of the camerino came to an end. It had taken Alfonso some eighteen years from conception to completion and he had just five years to enjoy the treasures of the camerino before his death in 1534.

With his renaissance concept of the antique, Alfonso most likely thought he had managed to re-capture antiquity by way of imitation, yet by a series of accidents his original Philostratan plan of having examples of different schools of Italian painting was replaced by a scheme dominated by the work of one artist, Titian. 


FOOTNOTES - Apologies the footnotes have not been formatted with a numerical index yet, however they should appear in textual order below.

 A good example of how problematic study of the camerino can be, is Bacchanals by Titian and Rubens : papers given at a symposium in Nationalmuseum, Stockholm March 18-19, 1987, ed. Gorel Cavalli-Bjorkman. On the Camerino by B. L. Brown illustrates one reconstruction of the camerino which differs completely to that suggested by C. Hope which illustrates the Foreword to the book. There are thirteen essays in the same book and hardly one agrees with the other.

 As usual, development in modern technology and the use of x-rays together with newly-discovered documents continually coming to light, means that early scholarship no matter how brilliant it may seem, is generally superseded by modern research. cf. E. Wind, Bellini's Feast of the Gods, A study in Venetian Humanism, London, 1945 and Philipp P. Fehl, "The Worship of Bacchus and Venus in Bellini's and Titian's Bacchanals for Alfonso d'Este", Studies in the History of Art, National Gallery, Washington, 6, 1974, pp.37-95.

 Letter dated 9 October 1511, cf. P. Holberton, 'The Choice of Texts for the Camerino Pictures', in 'Bacchanals by Titian and Rubens', Nationalmuseum Stockholm, 1987, p.57 ff. n.32. - NB : an otherwise unreliable article.

 Twenty-eight relief panels attributed to Antonio Lombardo survive in the collection of the Hermitage, Leningrad (see Genius of Venice, R.A. Catalogue, London 1983, cat. no. S7). One of them records the date 1508 and three name the patron, Alfonso d'Este. Yet not everyone is convinced that they are the panels that decorated the camerino.

 Petrarch, Le Familiari, quoted in T.E. Mommsen, "Petrarch's Concept of the Dark Ages" , Speculum, XVII, 1942, p.226 ff.

 ibid.

 Fasti, 390-439.

 Philostratus the Elder, Eikones (Imagines), Hunters I.28

 ibid., Erotes, (I.6).

 Titian went away from the philological viewpoint a little more toward an archaeological approach for his later painting illustrating Philostratus' Andrians, where it seems that Titian was evidently acquainted through drawings and prints with various antique sculptures in Rome.

 Catullus, Carmina, (LXIV).

 Titian did not adhere so closely to the text - at least not to the original Greek text as we know it today, - he may however, have been faithful to the translation offered in Isabella's volume, although I have yet to read one of the only three copies in existence.

 Philostratus, Andrians, I.25.

 Qui boyt et ne reboyt il ne siet que boy re soit. 


copyright © Raichel Le Goff
ISBN 960-85312-0-9
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