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Saturday, March 7, 2015

Self-Portrait of an Era: 3. Culture


A detail from another tapestry of the former Gonzaga collection; this one is currently in France, in the Musée National de la Renaissance, Écouen. It represents a very usual subject in a very unusual way. The subject is The Death of Phaeton, but showing his tomb instead of the moment in which the young son of Helios falls towards the earth -- finally crashing into the Po River in Northen Italy -- after proving unable to pilot the Sun's chariot. His sisters, while mourning him, are changed into poplars; here, rather than five sisters, the gradual metamorphosis of one is described. The woman dressed in yellow-green is Phaeton's mother, Clymene.

But the most remarkable detail is the tomb itself, shaped like an obelisk, an archaeological find of which some specimens were brought to Rome precisely in the Renaissance. Attempts to decipher the hieroglyphs were immediately made, although quite naively, we can say a posteriori. Here, however, the artist who drew the preparatory cartoon, the great Giulio Romano, seems to be aware that obelisks were connected with the Solar Cult. After all, he was the main disciple of Raphael, who, in his last years, had worked as the archaeological superintendent of the Popes (this had forced Raphael to neglect painting, and Giulio had succeeded him in the decoration of the Vatican rooms).