Tapestry Council of the Gods

Council of the Gods

The Cagnola Collection in Gazzada (Va) has an important collection of tapestries, mostly from Belgium and Holland, dating from the 16th to 18th centuries. To be precise, there are 21 pieces to which another piece believed to be lost was recently added.
One of the most interesting is definitely the Council of Gods [Figura 1] displayed in 1939 at the famous Leonardo exhibition in Milan.

As will be made clear shortly, the tapestry in question has little to do with Leonardo, however, Leonardo with tapestries does.
We read in the Gospel (Mt 14):
12 On the first day of the Unleavened Days, when the Passover was being immolated, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go to prepare so that you can eat the Passover?” 13 Then he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the city, and a man will come to meet you with a pitcher of water; follow him 14 and there where he enters say to the master of the house, The Master says, Where is my room, that I may eat the Passover there with my disciples? 15 He will show you upstairs a large room with carpets, already prepared; there prepare for us.

Figura 2
Figura 3

And this is how Leonardo painted the scene for the refectory of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan [Figura 2], arranging on each of the side walls four tapestries that unfortunately time has made illegible.

But this is not the only circumstance that links Leonardo to tapestries: there is a masterpiece shortly after the Last Supper, a faithful replica woven on tapestry (it differs only in the background), which has been on view in the Vatican Museums since 1931 [Figura 3].

The work was the focus of a presentation as part of the celebrations for the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, then departed for the Château de Clos Lucé in Amboise, Leonardo’s last home, where it was on display from June to September 2019 in the exhibition “La Cène de Léonard de Vinci pour François Ier, un chef-d’oeuvre en or et soie,” and then arrived at the Palazzo Reale, Milan where it was on display from October 8 to November 17, 2019 in the exhibition entitled “Leonardo’s Supper for Francis I: A Masterpiece in Silk and Silver.”

The most suggestive hypothesis arising from the latest studies on the subject is that the tapestry may have been made before September 1516, the year Leonardo moved to France, and that Leonardo himself may have engaged in at least some supervision.

But back to our tapestry, requested on loan by the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche for an exhibition entitled On the Thread of Raphael. Enterprise and Fortune, designed to dissect the relationship between Raphael’s art and the art of tapestry. The loan has not been finalized, but the exhibition, scheduled in Urbino from May 4 to Sept. 13, 2020, will happen.

One of the two curators, Nello Forti Grazzini, is a great expert on the subject, author of the section devoted to tapestries, undoubtedly the best, in the catalog of decorative arts of the Cagnola Collection (AAVV, La Collezione Cagnola. The decorative arts, Nomos, Busto Arsizio, Varese, 1999, pp. 9-58).

We start precisely from the data provided by Forti Grazzini to understand the relationship of our tapestry first with Leonardo and now with Raphael.

Figure 4 A e B

The characters
Starting from the left, we see Apollo with a lyre, Bacchus (Dionysus) crowned with vine shoots, Hercules with a club, Vulcan and two-faced Janus; at their feet two river deities; the Tigris and the Nile, reproducing a famous pair of statues found on the Capitol in Rome [FIGURE 4a e 4b].

The two statues date from the second century A.D. from the Baths of Constantine on the Capitoline Hill and were already there when, in 1543, Michelangelo (that’s how we brought all three greats together!) placed them at the foot of the new staircase of the Senatorial Palace.
A curiosity: the statue facing right once depicted the Tigris, transformed in the 16th century (presumably when the square was laid out) into the Tiber, replacing the tiger with the she-wolf with twins.

Figure 5

The background
We posed the problem of identifying the background starting with the “rock,” which Prof. Gianni Giancane of Lecce, Italy, a geologist, has possibly identified as the cliff of Orvieto, a tufa conformation on which the city stands [Figura 5].

We extended the search to the habitation, which, at first glance, seemed to reproduce a Nordic environment

For the shape of the roofs of houses [Figure A e B].

Again, however, a plausible confirmation of Orvieto is provided by comparing the image of a glimpse of township with the facade of the Duomo [Figura 6] and that of the Julius Bridge [Figura 7] of Roman origin, rebuilt on the ancient model at the behest of Pope Julius II della Rovere (pontiff from 1503-1513).

Figures A and B
Figure 6
Figure 7
Figure 6
Figure 7
Figure 8

Date and location (Orvieto) can come in handy for us to confirm the tapestry’s time and scope of production. Decisive for dating purposes, however, is the tapestry’s iconographic source, consisting without a shadow of a doubt of the same subject frescoed by Raphael by the end of 1518 on the vault of the loggia of the Villa Farnesina in Rome, the penultimate episode of the Stories of Psyche commissioned by Agostino Chigi [Figura 8].

It is curious that Raphael imagined the Council of the Gods as a mock tapestry applied to the ceiling of the Loggia [Figura 9].

Compared to the Cagnola tapestry, numerous variations can be observed, including the complete transformation of the setting, which can be considered an invention of the cartoonist [FIGURE C e D].

Figure 9
Figure C
Figure D

The comparison also tells us that the tapestry was cut. It was probably an “espalier,” and since espaliers were widespread in the early and mid-sixteenth century, then became rare until they disappeared in the second half of the century, Forti Grazzini speculates that the Cagnola tapestry is to be dated within the middle of the century “…not far from the sure termine post quem; the year 1518 when the Psyche frescoes were completed.”

The cartoonist must have been familiar with the Farnesina cycle although he probably relied, given the many variations, on preparatory drawings. It is ruled out using printed sources because the oldest one, engraved by Giovanni Jacopo Caraglio in 1527, shows an entirely different composition [Figure 10, note 1].

Figure 10

Why Leonardo?
In 1939 the tapestry was believed to be of Lombard manufacture and the Raphaelesque image mistaken for a figurative product of Lombard Leonardism. Forti Grazzini speculates that at the time a juxtaposition was made with the rock that appears in a tapestry of Milanese manufacture, depicting the Presentation to Caesar of the Head of Pompey, which is in the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris [Figura 11].

Who is the author of the tapestry.
According to Forti Grazzini, the alleged proximity highlighted above with the Farnesina frescoes suggests that the cartoon was not executed in Northern Europe (in Flanders cartoons were mostly taken from engravings by Raphael), “…but likely in Rome by an Italian artist,” moreover,

the tapestry lacks the meticulous herbals that distinguish tapestries designed in Flanders (note 2), and very un-Flemish is the rocky background.
Thus, the Cagnola tapestry cartoon is supposed to have been prepared in Rome between the end of the second and the beginning of the third decade of the 16th century by an artist who, according to some simplifications, should not be part of Raphael’s small circle of followers.

The presumed identification of Orvieto as the background landscape, mentioned earlier, would acquire the sense of a further confirmation of the cartoonist’s “Lazio” origin.
Since there are no records of tapestry manufactures in Rome at the time, it is reasonable to believe that the cardboard was sent for weaving in Flanders, not necessarily in Brussels. Finally, the absence of gold and silver threads makes it plausible that it was intended for a bourgeois patronage rather than for some court.

Figure 11
Figure 11

The fact that the tapestry drawing is counterpart to the fresco drawing does not indicate that it was taken from an engraving (again counterpart to the drawing from which it is taken), but rather the opposite. The technique of execution of the tapestries, which cannot be described here, means that the tapestry, like the engraving, also appears in counterpart to the model.
Figure shows a possible, tentative identification of the botanical species obtained through the contribution of botanical scholar Elvira Gerosa.