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All That Glistens

Antonio Tempesta
Florence 1555 – 1630 Rome
Alexander the Great on his horse Bucephalus
oil on copper
12 ¾ x 17 ⅜ inches
32.7 x 44 cm

Painter, draughtsman, and printmaker, Tempesta is best known for his magnificent battle scenes whose technical innovations would be felt by generations of artists. While his paintings on stone are the most famous, he also produced a number of impressive, delicate works on copper, such as the Battle Scene in the Fesch collection in Ajaccio (fig. 1) and our Alexander the Great on his Horse Bucephalus. The latter, a recently discovered battle scene, closely resembles the former in its brilliant colors and execution, while focusing on an individual personality rather than a broad view of battle. Drawing from his Army Attacking Over a Bridge etching of 1601 (Rijksmuseum, inv. RP-P-H-G-185; fig.2), Tempesta readapts the dynamic composition, centered around the striking pose of the rearing horse, to create the heightened painted drama of the Macedonian hero.

Fig. 1 Antonio Tempesta, Battle Scene, ca. 1605, oil on copper, Musée Fesch, Ajaccio
Fig. 2 Antonio Tempesta, An Army Attacking Over a Bridge, 1601. Rijksmuseum, inv. RP-P-H-G-185

One of the most sought-after artists working in Rome during the first quarter of the seventeenth century, Tempesta began his career in Florence as a student of the Flemish artist Jan can der Straet, known as Giovanni Stradono (1520-1605). Around 1580, under the patronage of Francesco I, Cosimo de’Medici’s son, and part of the team of artists working under Vasari, Tempesta painted a series of grotesque ceilings in the Uffizi (fig. 3) and the Palazzo Vecchio. Wonderfully detailed, these architectural adornments demonstrate the artist’s participation in the competitive studiolo culture of Late Mannerist Florence.

Fig. 3 Ceiling of the Galleria degli Uffizi with painted details by Antonio Tempesta. Photo by Yuan Fang.

Moving to Rome in the late 1570s or 1580s, Tempesta quickly found a place in the cultural fabric of the Eternal City, earning many commissions from the Papacy, beginning with Pope Gregory XIII. One of his most important patrons was Cardinal Alessandro de’Medici, who would become Pope Leo XI. Perhaps Tempesta found papal support for Alexandrine imagery due to this connection. Some also link the new Pope’s intended support for the Holy Roman Emperor’s struggles with the Turks to the vogue for depictions of Alexander’s battles in the Orient. After 1605, Cardinal Scipione Borghese and his cousin, Camillo Borghese, the next pope, Paul V (elected 16 May 1605) also saw the parallels with Alexander the Great’s battles against the Persians and papal foreign policy in the East; the new Pope, Paul V, was keen to unite France and Spain against the encroaching Turks. Links between Tempesta and this prominent Italian family are supported by a number of other works, such as by a print by Francesco Villameno after Tempesta’s Battle of Gaugamela (fig. 4), which prominently features a dragon and eagle, the heraldic creatures of the Borghese family coat of arms. Edgar Peters Bowron’s notes in his “Brief History of European Oil Paintings on Copper” that the provenance of many of these paintings produced in Counter-Reformation Rome shows that that they were frequently given as papal and diplomatic gifts.

Fig. 4 Francesco Villamena after Antonio Tempesta, Battle of Guagamela, ca. 1601- 24, Rijksmuseum, RP-P-1944-1578

Our copper is similar to Tempesta’s popular Crossing of the Red Sea on alabaster, one version being in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome, another in a private collection, recently with Sotheby’s in New York, all featuring, vivid, multi-figural depictions of epic battles. In each case, the artist demonstrates his ability to include a mass of people within a relatively confined composition. Surely aware of the prominent battle scene painter, Il Cavalier d’Arpino (1568-1640), who completed his well-known works for the Palazzo dei Conservatori around 1595 (fig. 5) and is considered a key transitional figure from Late Mannerism to the early Baroque, Tempesta’s monumentality of form and crispness of detail continues this stylistic transformation. After the turn of the century, Tempesta’s work displays a growing interest in such secular subjects, as attested to by his popular 12-peice Life of Alexander series of 1608.

Fig. 5 Il Cavalier d’Arpino, Battle Against the Inhabitants of Veyi and Fiden, ca. 1595, fresco, Musei Capitolini, Rome

Attesting to Tempesta’s popularity, he is named, together with Baglione and Bernini, as one of the three chief teachers of the institute in Rome and “most excellent in these exercises” in a document dating to 1624. Remaining in demand throughout his life, his ceilings in the Uffizi are a lasting testament to his legacy, and his paintings feature prominently among the acquisitions of art listed in the early account books of the prefetto di Roma, Taddeo Barberini, as well as other local patrons and collectors. ❖


Private collection, Boston, since the 1920s

Related literature

Linda C. Hults, The Print in the Western World: An Introductory History, Madison, 1996, pp. 184-186.

Michael Bury, ‘Antonio Tempesta as printmaker: invention, drawing and technique’, in Stuart Currie, Drawing 1400-1600: Invention and Innovation, Brookfield, 1998, pp. 189-205.

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