(Florence 1555 – 1630 Rome)
A Pair of Paintings:
Amazonomachy (Battle Between the Greeks and the Amazons)
and The Egyptians Halted by the Lord During the Passage of the Red Sea
Oil on canvas, both
17.7 x 21.7 inches (45 x 55 cm)
Private Collection, United Kingdom (until 2014)
Private Collection, Italy
These two paintings, conceived as pendants and in excellent condition, are unique examples in grisaille by their author, Antonio Tempesta. Painting in monochrome is part of a longstanding tradition in the history of European art of creating images devoid of color—recently the subject of a highly acclaimed exhibition at the National Gallery in London. Tempesta’s decision here to paint in black and white was undoubtedly intended as a display of his virtuosity. That so much of the artist’s output was as a printmaker of etchings and engravings gives this essay into black-and-white painting additional resonance. Tempesta’s expert skill in describing the forms, modelled only in light and shadow, would have greatly excited its original owner and continues to impress today.
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 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 one thousand prints, including single sheets and series, etchings and engravings. But while his prints were distributed throughout Europe, Tempesta’s paintings remained largely in the collections of his Roman patrons. The present pair are thought to have been painted during the height of Tempesta’s activity in the Eternal City.
The two Battles portray distinct but thematically linked subjects. The first depicts an Amazonomachy, a battle between the Greeks and the Amazon women. Amazonomachy were a common mythological subject that were frequently represented in Greco-Roman bas-reliefs, which may have influenced Tempesta’s choice to paint these works in grisaille, possibly emulating ancient sculptural sources. This painting depicts an imagined encounter that cannot by tied to a specific text. The hero Hercules, identifiable by the skin of the skin of the Nemean lion wrapped around his head and torso, appears in the center of the canvas. He is surrounded by mounted and standing soldiers shown facing off in a crowded, dynamic composition.
The second painting depicts the Old Testament story of the Egyptians Halted by the Lord During the Passage of the Red Sea, focusing in on the convoy of Egyptian soldiers in pursuit of Moses and the Israelites. The composition closely reflects the account in the Book of Exodus (14:27), which tells that after the Israelites had reached land, the Lord closed the passage at daybreak, destroying the Pharaoh and his army. Here, the first rays of sunlight shine through the clouds as the scene descends into chaos, the waters beginning to close in on the figures. This divine light plays a crucial role in the painting, both illuminating the frightened expressions of the soldiers and their horses and balancing out the V-shaped composition of the group in the foreground. As pendants, these two paintings are related thematically in their treatment of battles between different peoples and cultures, and are united in their presentation of the victory of reason and justice over lack of order and abuse of power, in this case associated with the Amazons and the Egyptians.
Antonio Tempesta’s authorship of these paintings has been confirmed by Sandro Bellesi and Pierluigi Carofano (in separate reports, attached). Carofano notes that these works are a significant addition to Tempesta’s oeuvre and important for our understanding of his career as a painter. Due to the stylistic similarities to the works of the late Mannerist painters in Florence and Rome—particularly Giorgio Vasari, Giovanni Stradanus, Taddeo Zuccaro, and Cavalier d’Arpino—Carofano has proposed that they date from just before 1600 during Tempesta’s stay in Rome. A clear sign of the influence of the artist’s sojourn in Rome on these works is that Tempesta borrows the position of the figure lying on his back at left and the soldier escaping at right in the Egyptians Halted from Taddeo Zuccaro’s Conversion of Saint Paul in San Marcello al Corso. Carofano has furthermore suggested that the format and typology of the paintings indicates that they may have been designed and executed as a model for fresco decorations.