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Federico Zuccaro (c. 1542-1609)

Calumny c. 1569-72

RCIN 405695

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Calumny is one of two surviving versions of this composition; the other is a larger gouache in the Caetani Collection, Rome. However, while the provenance of the Caetani version can be confidently traced, the early history of the Royal Collection painting is more open to debate. No scholar has, however, doubted that it is a fine autograph work by Federico Zuccaro.

On the death of his brother Taddeo in September 1566, Federico took charge of the decoration of the Villa Farnese at Caprarola for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. Letters between patron and artist in 1569 record disagreements over payment and later in that year one Jacopo Bertoia was brought in to replace Federico. This painting is Zuccaro’s response. It is one of three allegorical designs he executed at various times during his life in reaction to personal slights and to promote his ideas about painting. His 'Lament of Painting' (Il Lamento della Pittura), a print of 1579, answered critics of his frescoes in the Cathedral in Florence; his 'Porta Virtutis' (Gate of Virtue) of 1581 defended his altarpiece for the church of the Madonna del Baraccano in Bologna against its detractors and resulted in his expulsion from Rome by Pope Gregory XIII in 1581. The connection between these three allegories and the personal circumstances they addressed were widely known and discussed at the time. In all three Federico uses classical mythology, adapted for personal use. The specific source for the Calumny is Lucian’s fourth-century bc description of a lost painting of exactly the same subject, painted in similar circumstances by the great Greek artist Apelles.

Lucian’s description made the 'Calumny of Apelles', as it is always called, the world’s most famous lost painting. During the Renaissance it was discussed by Alberti in his 'De Pittura' of 1434 and ‘re-created’ in Botticelli’s famous painting (Uffizi). Federico’s is an adaptation rather than a re-creation, for, as it is ‘the Calumny with the Happy Ending’. In Lucian’s account Calumny drags the young man representing Innocence off by the hair in triumph, accompanied by Envy, Treachery and Deceit and followed by a Repentance and Truth. Federico’s hero, by contrast is, led off, his dignity intact, under the protection of Mercury. A detailed explanation of the allegory here was written by the artist’s son, Ottaviano Zuccaro, though he diplomatically passed over the specific reasons for the painting.

On the left sits King Midas, famous for his bad judgement and shown with ass’s ears. He is being turned against the innocent ‘hero’, being led away on the right by figures of Suspicion and Calumny, the latter holding up a lighted torch in her left hand. Envy lurks in the shadows behind, with emaciated breast and snakes in her hair. Minerva, goddess of wisdom, restrains the king from releasing Rage, blindfolded and manacled. The animals represent the vices that thrive under bad government: a fox (Cruelty), a wolf (Malice), a toad (Avarice), a harpy (Greed) and a leopard (Fraudulence).

The frame is an emblematic cornucopia: each corner bears symbols of Minerva, her aegis emblazoned with a Medusa’s head. Each side has a cartouche in the centre flanked by two fictive stone figures, interspersed with Federico’s own emblem of the sugar-loaf (zucchero). Reading anticlockwise, starting with the left-hand side, the cartouche shows Aeneas holding the Golden Bough he took on his journey to Hades, which symbolised for Ottaviano ‘the desire for virtue’. On the lower edge of the frame the cartouche shows Aeneas prevented from climbing a hill surmounted by a temple of virtue by animals, described by Ottaviano as a wolf (for ignorance), an ass (lasciviousness) and wild boar (lust), although here they are an ass, goat and sheep. A ship in the background is tossed in a storm, symbolising the difficulty of the virtuous life. Two young men sit on either side of this cartouche; the one on the left embraces an ox, representing noble Toil; the one on the right breaks a yoke, signifying base Servitude. On the right-hand side of the frame the cartouche shows Hercules crowned with laurel, holding a palm of Victory and a shield of Minerva (with a Gorgon’s head), while he crushes and impales two monsters. Below the cartouche are putti with trumpets, to signify the fame and glory which should accompany Virtue, although, the two trumpets may represent good and bad fame. On the upper border of the painted frame the cartouche shows Juno riding a chariot drawn by peacocks over a calm, windless sea upon which kingfishers (or halcyons) were said to nest (hence the phrase ‘Halcyon Days’). This scene symbolises the peace achieved by the virtuous. On the left of the cartouche Hercules appears with his club and the skin of the Hydra; on the right a younger man embraces an eagle and a lion, representing high and noble thoughts.

Federico makes a clever play here with space and with the ambiguous relationship of reality and artifice. We can read the whole as reality: a window opening on to a logically defined and clearly lit judgement hall, with figures passing behind the frame on both sides and a window opening beyond; or we can see it as artifice: a painting, symmetrical and frieze-like, enclosed in a fabulously elaborate frame, alive with similarly unreal scenes. The carved figures of the frame, caught in light and shadow, seem to have as much life as the inner scene and seem to sit proud of the picture surface projecting into our space.

Calumny records Federico’s deep-felt anger for a slight now confused in history; it also incorporates moral and theoretical ideas about art in general. It has entered the language of art: Vincenzo Catari’s manual 'Imagini de gli delli degli antichi' (1615) quotes from it, while Rubens incorporated its design in his bookplates and drew a new interpretation of it to decorate his house.

The painting has been recently conserved, and recent examination has revealed sketchy underdrawing and minor changes of design between the drawing and painting stages, both of which suggest that this is an autograph work rather than a studio copy. This conservation work also removed areas of retouching and overpaint to reveal previously hidden passages of original paint: the nude woman to the right now holds an ermine (as in the original painting) rather than the dove which had been painted over it; Midas has his original ass’s ears, rather than the porcine ones painted over them. A large-scale preparatory drawing for the whole painting is in Hamburg and one for the centre lower cartouche in Christ Church, Oxford.

Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007