La sfida delle Pieridi (c.1523-1527)

Rosso Fiorentino (1495-1540)

La sfida delle Pieridi (The Challenge of the Pierides)
Oil on wood transferred to canvas, 31 x 63 cm
Musée du LouvreParis

A rare mythological subject

This small painting represents an episode reported by Ovid in his Metamorphoses: equaling the Muses in number, the nine daughters of Pieros, king of Macedonia, decide to challenge them to song, invoking the nymphs as judges. One of the Pierides then engages in the joust, recounting the struggle of the Giants against the gods, ridiculed for their cowardice. But the Muse Calliope then comes to their defense, telling the story of Ceres, goddess of the Earth, who went in search of her daughter Proserpina kidnapped by Pluto, the ruler of the Underworld. This poignant tale carries the victory, but the Pierides, furious, insult the Muses who then transform them into noisy magpies.

In the Rome of Clement VII Medici

Thanks to the testimony of Giorgio Vasari, we know that Rosso Fiorentino invented this composition during his stay in Rome, between 1523/24 and 1527. Thirty years old, the Florentine settled in the Eternal City, probably following the election of Pope Clement VII Medici.
According to Vasari, Rosso Fiorentino had already won over Roman enthusiasts with some drawings he had sent them. As soon as he arrived in Rome, he obtained the order from the publisher and print dealer Baviera of several drawings intended to be engraved. A flourishing market for prints had developed in Rome over the past few years, dominated at the time by Marcantonio Raimondi, who had notably reproduced several of Raphael‘s inventions. It was another artist, Jacopo Caraglio, who engraved Rosso‘s drawings with a chisel, including isolated pieces, such as the Challenge of the Pierides, and series, such as the cycle of the gods, each represented in a niche.

Worthy heir of Raphael

If the drawing for the engraving of The Challenge of the Pierides is unfortunately lost, we know of several prints of the plate engraved by Caraglio. The composition imagined by Rosso follows quite precisely Ovid‘s text, which placed the story in Greece, in the shade of a wood on Mount Helicon, one of the privileged residences of the Muses, where the horse Pegasus, from a kick, had caused the Hippocrene spring to spring up, clearly visible in the center of the stage. On the left, the Muses are naked, because their physical beauty reveals, according to Neoplatonic thought, the truth of the ideas they embody. Their superiority over the Pierides is also manifested by the musical instruments they hold: the lyre of Calliope, the harp and the shawm contrast by their precise and harmonious chords with the tambourine, the bagpipes and the goat’s horn with their noisy and with uncertain notes. The jury assembled to decide between them is made up of three nymphs leaning on large jars, accompanied by three river deities recognizable by their languid pose. Standing in a circle, four gods converse with satyrs, some of whom can be identified by their horns and others by their legs. Next to Minerva, we recognize Apollo by his bow and arrows, Bacchus by his vine crown and Mercury by his winged headdress.

Rosso invents a very symmetrical scene inspired by the great compositions of Raphael in the Vatican Chambers, more particularly the School of Athens and Parnassus in the Chamber of the Signature. Certain attitudes also take up ancient models, such as Apollo in the very sculptural pose close to the Apollo of the Belvedere, or the muse kneeling on the left whose head resting on the arm recalls the image of Mnemosyne, the mother of the Muses.

Success of an invention

The print by Caraglio after the drawing by Rosso was a real success which forced it to be engraved again, a task undertaken by Enea Vico in 1553 then by Androuet du Cerceau in France. It served as an inspiration throughout the 16th century, especially for majolica painters. The French were the most seduced by the image that we find quoted in works as varied as a collection of Royal Songs (The Virgin and Child in a Garden, around 15401550, miniature on vellum, Paris, National Library of France) than a painted enamel cup attributed to Léonard Limosin (Paris, Louvre Museum) or a painting from the school of Fontainebleau (Venus à sa toilette, Paris, Louvre Museum).

Original or copy?

This fortune of engraving has prompted several specialists to place the painting in the Louvre among the many copies and derivations. It is true that Vasari only evokes a drawing for engraving and not painting. The work has been attributed to different artists over time: given to Rosso by Crescenzi at the beginning of the 17th century, it is considered to be by Perino del Vaga in the collection of Charles I and then Louis XIV and his successors. It was Mariette, a great connoisseur of engravings, who returned it to Rosso, but his idea did not take hold until the middle of the 19th century. Since the middle of the 20th century, criticism has remained divided on the autography of the painting. It is indeed not easy to appreciate this work very damaged by time. Suffering from lifting of the pictorial layer, it was transposed from wood to canvas by Robert Picault in 1765. His spectacular method, which preserved the wooden support, unfortunately caused multiple losses of material and numerous wear and tear.

The scientific examination, carried out by the Center for Research and Restoration of Museums of France (C2RMF), delivered important arguments in favor of his autography. The preparation of the paint is covered with a layer of ocher color printing, rare at the time but which Rosso experimented with from his Roman years. The X-ray also revealed interesting repentances in the parts where the composition of the Louvre differs from the engraving of Caraglio. This is the case with the crouching muse, represented with her face in profile and her feet crossed in the print, but turned towards us and her legs parallel in the painting. Moreover, the composition of the Louvre differs in many respects from engraving. The painter breathed more life into the composition by expanding the format. The attitudes, clothing and hairstyles of the characters were often changed, in a spirit quite characteristic of Rosso. The characters’ expressions are also much more lively and convincing.

The restoration of the work in 1972 had already highlighted the quality of the pictorial execution, nervous and skilful: the very precise drawing of the figures, the quality of the modeling, particularly of the naked bodies of the muses, and the sureness of the highlights of light that create beautiful color variations (the cangianti). On the shoulder of the Pieride located on the far right, there are even rapid hatchings, characteristic of Rosso‘s pictorial writing.

His personality also shines in the tangy palette of the cangianti as in the sometimes caricatural expression of certain faces. The Florentine nevertheless allows himself to be seduced here by the sensual grace of Parmigianino and the fantasy of the landscape stagings of Polidoro da Caravaggio with which he lived in Rome in those years. (Louvre)

Text by Vincent Delieuvin (July 2021)

See also:

• Muses | Ovid (43 BC-17/18 AD): The Metamorphoses (English)