Paris Bordone

Diane and Callisto

Paris Bordone
( Treviso, 1500 - Venise, 1571 )

Oil on panel 28.5 x 110 cm

Switzerland, Private collection

From Titian to El Greco, exhibition, Piero Corsini, Inc., New York 1991, no. 6; Le Meraviglie dell’Arte, Important Old Master Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Maison d’Art, Monte-Carlo, 2005; From Light to Enlightenment, Exhibition in the Shanghai Art Museum, China, 12 -17 November 2005.

F. Dabell, From Titian to El Greco, exh. cat., Piero Corsini, Inc., New York 1991, p. 36, no. 6 ; Frank Dabell, Le Meraviglie dell’Arte, exhibition catalogue, Maison d’Art, 2005,N 4, pp 25-29, color ill. p. 27 ; From Light to Enlightenment, Exhibition catalogue, Shanghai Art Museum, 2005, N 2, pp. 22-25,129-130.

This recently discovered work illustrates the story of Diana and Callisto described by Ovid (1). The emphasis here is on lost virginity, the frequent theme of the vengeful loves of the Gods. In the left background of this Arcadian scene, we see the prelude to the story in which Jupiter has transformed himself into the Goddess Diana and is seducing Callisto. As one of Diana’s nymphs, she is bound by chastity. This picture may be one of the works described in 1568 by Vasari who had met Paris Bordon in Venice in 1566: “at this same time [that is, the 1540s] he painted many of Ovid’s Fables for the Marchese d’Astorga, who took them with him to Spain” (2).

Callisto is depicted in the panel at a moment when the real Diana, with her huntress’ javelin, invites her to bathe with the other nymphs. On the right, Callisto’s secret is revealed. Two nymphs disrobe her as she attempts to flee, ashamed by her pregnancy. In the background on the far right, Callisto kneels in supplication before Juno who is about to turn her into a bear, jealous of her husband Jupiter’s involvement. The beauty of the picture clearly lies in Bordon’ s loving depiction of these legendary figures, arranged in a loose frieze, and his offsetting of pale flesh colours and typically pink and rich ochre draperies, his landscape with dark trees.

Our senses are engaged through the two most appealing aspects of Venetian Cinquecento painting: the landscape and the nude. The main purpose of the picture was to excite and delight the viewer with the depiction of nude and scantily-dressed figures in a sylvan landscape. The figures and their fluttering draperies are characteristic of Bordone’s mannered style and evoke, in their attitudes, Classical sculpture. The depiction of Callisto in the left foreground is very similar to Titian’s figure of Ariadne in his famous Bacchus and Ariadne (London, National Gallery of Art). The dynamic portrayal of Callisto on the right is derived in reverse from the figure of the fleeing Dominican in Titian’s Saint Peter Martyr Altarpiece of 1530 (formerly in Venice, SS. Giovanni e Paolo; destroyed by fire in 1867).

The figures in our Diana and Callisto may have been influenced by Giorgione’s lost composition of “Diana con molte Ninfe ignude ad una fonte, the della bella Calisto le violate membra scoprivano”, described by Carlo Ridolfi in 1648 (3).

Our painting may have been one of several cassone or wainscoting panels made to decorate a room. One of its apparent companions is the Calydonian Boar Hunt (present location unknown) (4). Apart from near-identical dimensions, this mythological panel displays close parallels in handling, figure style, and tonality. In particular, there is a striking similarity between the pregnant Callisto on the right of our picture and the figure of Atalanta, like Diana, another virgin huntress-shooting her arrow at the boar. The shadows cast by these figures are also depicted in an identical manner. Stylistically similar works include the fragmentary panel with Four Nymphs in a Wood (Jacksonville, Florida, Cummer Gallery of Art), with what appears to have been its companion, a much abraded Diana as Huntress (Alexander City, Alabama, Adelia M. Russell Library) (5). The characteristic nymphs are manifestly reacting to a scene which takes place on the right and must have belonged to a larger panel. Moreover, there is a continuation of the dark thinly-painted line which defines the horizon in each panel and which resembles that on the extreme left of our picture. Professor Mauro Lucco has suggested a date in the 1540s for these works. Our Diana and Callisto and these related paintings reveal a neglected aspect of Bordone’s oeuvre and show his poetic approach to pastoral-mythological themes (6).

1 - See Ovid, Metamorphoses, II, 442-453; idem, Fasti, II, 155-192. See also E. Panofsky, Problems in Titian, mostly Iconographic, New York 1969, part VI, “Titian and Ovid”, especially pp. 158-60. Figs. 166-170 provide interesting comparisons from woodcut illustrations to Ovid published between 1497 and 1553. For further remarks about the theme of Diana and Callisto, with special reference to Titian’ s later poesy, see A. Gentili, Da Tiziano a Tiziano. Mito e allegoria nella cultura veneziana del Cinquecento [2nd edition], Rome 1988, pp. 183-204.
2 - See G. Vasari, Le Vite…, ed. G. Milanesi, Florence 1881, vol. VII, p. 465 (Life of Titian); and Lives of the Most Eminent Painters Sculptors and Architects by Giorgio Vasari translated by Gaston Du C. De Vere, London [1912-15], vol. IX, 1915, p. 181.
3 - See C. Ridolfi, Le Meraviglie dell arte…, Venice 1648, part I, p. 80 (ed. Detlev von Hadeln, Berlin, 1914, vol. I, p. 98).
4 - The panel, which has always been erroneously described as a Death of Adonis, measures 31x110 cm. It was with the Galleria Monatti in Rome in 1948 and was published by Bernard Berenson, (Italian Pictures of the Renaissance, Venetian School, London 1957, vol. II, pl. 1127) as homeless. It was sold by Finarte, Milan, 16/25 March 1968, lot 9, and illustrated by G. Mariani Canova in “Nuove note a Paris Bordon”, Arte Veneta, XXII, 1968, p. 172, fig. 251.
5 - These panels were associated by Giordana Mariani Canova in 1968 (see note 4) and provide us with an interesting addition to this exiguous group of works. The fragment in Jacksonville measures 30.5 x 40.6 cm, while that in Alexander City (in the Doria Collection in Genoa before it became part of the Kress Collection) measures 27.9 x 65.4 cm. The anomalous figure of Mercury in the background of the latter picture may be a reconstruction. See F. Rusk Shapley, Paintings from the Schools XVI-XVIII Century; London 1973, p. 37; and Canova, op. cit., pp. 172-73. An earlier cassone painted by Bordone in a tighter manner is the Mythological Scene (Birmingham, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 42 x 96 cm), which can be dated to the 1530s and associated directly with two other little-known panels with Scenes from the Grape Harvest (Bergamo, Accademia Carrara). These pictures are each 42 cm high – bigger than our panel – and may have once formed part of another decorative ensemble.
6 - These pastoral themes are discussed by D. Rosand, “Giorgione, Venice, and the Pastoral Vision”, in Places of Delight: the pastoral landscape. The Legacy of Venice and the Modern Vision, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art and Phillips Collection 1989, pp. 20-81. Bordon s contemporaries also treated the theme of Diana and Callisto. For Bonifazio Veronese (1487-1553), see S. Simonetti, “Profilo di Bonifacio de Pitati”, in Saggi e Memorie di storia dell arte, 15, 1986, pp. 83-134 and especially p. 112. This Diana and Callisto (formerly New York, Suida-Manning collection; now at the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, Texas) is illustrated in Berenson, op. cit. (note 4), pl. 1143. For the Diana and Callisto (Amiens, Musée de Picardie) by Schiavone, see D. Mc Tavish, in The Genius of Venice 1500-1600, exh. cat., London, The Royal Academy of Arts, 1984, pp. 206-07, no. 90.

Frank Dabell