(Florence 1555 – 1630 Rome)
Oil on copper
12 ⅞ x 17 ⅜ inches (32.7 x 44 cm)
Private Collection, Boston
Antonio Tempesta began his career in Florence, working on the decoration of the Palazzo Vecchio under the direction of Giorgio Vasari. He was a pupil first of Santi di Tito, then of Jan van der Straet, called Stradanus – two of the most prominent late mannerist painters active in Florence. In the 1570s and 80s Tempesta worked for a series of important Roman patrons, mostly painting large part fresco decorations. These include work in the Vatican Palace and in the Church of San Stefano Rotondo, both for Pope Gregory XIII; the Roman palaces of the Giustiniani and Rospigliosi; at the Villa Lante in Bagnaia, the Palazzo Farnese in Caprarola, and the Villa d’Este in Tivoli.
However, Tempesta’s fame rests less on his large fresco decorations than on his work as both a printmaker and as a painter of small-scale battle scenes. Between 1589 and 1627 Tempesta produced over 1000 prints –single sheets and series, etchings and engravings, of Biblical, literary, mythological subjects; hunting scenes, and topographical views. But while his prints were distributed throughout Europe, Tempesta’s paintings – especially those on the precious supports of stone and copper — remained largely in the collections of his Roman patrons.
The present work is a brilliant example of such a work. In it we see an armed general on horseback leading his troops into battle. He holds a spear in his right hand as he turns back to face the viewer. To his left are his soldiers, carrying spears, shields, banners, and a battle horn. The procession continues to the right and below as caparisoned soldiers head to battle. In the distance the armies are engaged – tiny figures moving from both left and right into combat, fire and smoke wafting over the scene while above and in the distance fortification looms.
All is rendered with exactitude and vivid coloration – enhanced by the copper support which gives a luminous quality to the painting. The composition finds strong parallels in other works by Tempesta – for example, in two prints from his series of the Battles of Alexander; from Matthäus Merian the Elder’s Battle Scene after a Tempesta design; and from other Tempesta Battle Scenes on copper, such as those in the Museo Borgogna, Vercelli, and, most of all, that in the Musée Fesch, Ajaccio.