Diana and Callisto

Oil on wood panel 28.5 x 110 cm circa 1520-1522 or circa 1545

Although the period of Paris Bordone’s initial apprenticeship is difficult to reconstruct, it is clear that during the 1510s he studied not only with Titian but looked closely at Giorgione, “whose manner – said Vasari – pleased him enormously”. Bordone was too young to have personally known the older painter, but there is a good deal of evidence that he had direct knowledge of his work. Vasari’s statement should therefore be taken seriously, because it explains Bordone’s enduring loyalty to the naturalistic ideals of Giorgione, who had transformed landscape painting into idyllic “poesia”, inspired by sentiment, a new sort of poetry that could compete with music and architecture as extensions of the imagination and spirit. The first recorded use by a painter of the term “poesia” with reference to painting occurs only after the middle of the 1500s, when Titian adopted the word for the Danaë sent to Philip II; however, the change in aesthetic perceptions had taken place half a century earlier, thanks to Giorgione. The analogy between poetry and painting, and between music and landscape, is fundamental for an understanding of the evolution of Venetian painting, especially that of Paris Bordone. From the beginning the painter worked explicitly in the footsteps of Giorgione, Titian and Palma il Vecchio, but he also looked at Lotto, Savoldo, Pordenone, Romanino, Bonifacio Veronese, and Moretto da Brescia.

“Giorgionismo” is a complex phenomenon that underlies Venetian painting of the Cinquecento. Bordone was capable of interpreting nature and architecture in purely sentimental or ideal terms, since he believed that art was the place for absolute fiction, in opposition to any kind of realism. If for Bordone Giorgione was nothing more than “a youthful infatuation, soon forgotten” – which is hard to believe – then Titian, who directly inherited “Giorgionismo”, left a long-term mark on his compositions and style. Thus even if what Vasari said were true (that Titian was a reluctant teacher), this did not stop the young Bordone from becoming one of the principal heirs and original interpreters of “Giorgionismo tizianesco”, as Sydney Freedberg referred to it. The fables of Ovid were at the heart of his interests from the very beginning, and this is evident in some exceptional panels, intuitively brought together as a group for the first time by Frank Dabell: the Apollo and Daphne in the Seminario Patriarcale in Venice, the Diana and Callisto with Maison d’Art in Monte Carlo, Diana the Huntress in Alexander City, Alabama, the Calydonian Boar Hunt (auctioned in Munich in 2015), and the Four Nymphs in a Wood in Jacksonville, Florida.

The mythological fable of Diana was very popular in Venice. For example, Giovanni da Udine treated the subject when he was summoned to Venice together with Francesco Salviati by Marino Grimani in 1539-1540, for the decoration of the Stanza di Diana in the Patriarch’s palace at Santa Maria Formosa. Many others, included Titian, painted the story, and Bordone’s interest in mythology continued into the late years of his career, as seen in other pictures and documents. He painted a “Diana che si lava con le sue Ninfe in un fonte” for the physician Angelo Candiano (c. 1483-1560), a former counsellor of Francesco II Sforza in Milan. In 1534 Candiano had healed Mary of Hungary (1505-1558) from a grave illness and remained in her service; the Queen was the sister of Charles V and governor of the Low Countries between 1531 and 1555. In 1537, generously rewarded with an annual pension of 3,000 ducats, Candiano returned to Milan, where in the following year he was created Count Palatine by Charles V. At his request, Bordone painted two pictures (lost) to give to Queen Mary: a Saint Mary Magdalene in a hermitage, accompanied by Angels, and a Diana bathing in a spring with her nymphs.

Bordone’s Diana, flanked by two Nymphs, receiving the head of Actaeon after he had been shot as a stag, formerly in the Dresden Gallery (acquired in 1749, destroyed in 1945), dates to the period in which he worked for the Fuggers, the great Augsburg bankers active at the court of Charles V. One of the artist’s greatest masterpieces, a work of high Wagnerian drama, this work shows the esteem in which he held this ancient fable. When Bona Sforza, Queen of Poland and Duchess of Bari, passed through Treviso in 1556, she personally met Bordone. Vasari mentions another (lost) painting with Jupiter and a Nymph, which Ridolfi identifies as Callisto, sent by Bordone to the King of Poland.

In Paris Bordone’s erotic paintings, the bodies behind his female figures are not solely the fair Classical forms of the statues in the Grimani collection, but women made of flesh and blood. In his pictures of Venus, Flora, Diana, Bathsheba and others drawn from the realm of female eroticism, the painter made use of real models. The charm and refinement of these nudes and half-nudes show that he was inspired by the world of so-called “cortigiane honeste”. Beyond poetic metaphors, Bordone’s women are powerfully sensual; they are, as Claude Phillips wrote, like splendid animals.

In this scene of Diana and Callisto the female figures are multiplied, nude, across the landscape, in a sort of erotic kaleidoscope created purely for the joy of the beholder, who becomes a pleasure-loving plein air voyeur. The painting before us is a brilliant example of both the laxity of Venetian morals and of Bordone’s extraordinary naturalism in conveying eroticism with sumptuous elegance.

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