Francesco di Giorgio's "Abduction of Helen" Reconstructed

January 7, 2014

A Francesco di Giorgio "Get-Together" in the Berenson Reading Room


Francesco di Giorgio - Abduction of Helen

Two fragments of a "spalliera" panel painted by Francesco di Giorgio Martini  --one in the Berenson collection, the other in the Stibbert Museum-- have now been reunited at I Tatti.


Below, Marilena Caciorgna explains how her research on the Berenson panel,
for the forthcoming catalogue of the European paintings collection, helps
demonstrate that the two panels belong together.They will remain on view in the in the Berenson Reading Room until 23 January. Please Note: Berenson Library exhibitions may be visited by registered library patrons only and are not open to the general public.


Exhibition of Helen panels

The text of the explanatory panel:

The Workshop of Francesco di Giorgio Martini

The Sienese Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439–1501) was an architect, engineer, sculptor, and painter, who also wrote important treatises, and was capable of undertaking the translation of ancient authors such as Vitruvius. In the late 1460s and early 1470s he ran a workshop specialized in decorations of cassoni and spalliere. Spalliere could be part of the upper wainscoting of a bedroom, but they were also inserted above cassoni, or wedding chests. Decorated with allegories or subjects from classical antiquity, such furniture was displayed in bedrooms as inspiration to the young wives to be chaste and faithful.

The Reconstruction of the Spalliera

Di Giorgio, I Tatti panel

Francesco’s fragmentary panel at I Tatti was part of a spalliera.

The panel was repainted in the seventeenth century with a depiction of Christ in the Tomb. Shortly before 1910 the photographer Harry Burton acquired it from a church in Tuscany. When several incised lines of architecture were noted under the repainting, Burton had the panel restored and then sold it to Bernard and Mary Berenson at I Tatti.

Di Giorgio, Stibbert panel

In 1976 Fabio Bisogni connected the panel at I Tatti and another by
Francesco di Giorgio and his workshop at the Museo Stibbert in Florence.

Close observation and technical analysis of both panels at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure have confirmed Bisogni’s hypothesis. In the Stibbert panel there are elements that continue in the I Tatti panel, most particularly the temple as well as the orchard, the vegetation on the ground, and the background hills with rivers running through them. Several figures have similar clothing.

It appears that the Stibbert and I Tatti panels were cut at different heights from a single spalliera panel, which was composed of two horizontally grained planks. Using the join between the planks in each fragment as a lead, the two sections of the composition can be aligned. The difference in scale between the figures in the two scenes can be explained by the original location of the fragments within the spalliera: the Stibbert fragment includes the protagonists who dominated the foreground on the left side, and the I Tatti panel represent secondary actors from the middle ground on the right side.

The Iconography
The identification of the scene represented in the I Tatti panel has been the object of debate, but Fabio Bisogni maintained that together the two panels depicted the Abduction of Helen of Troy. The source for the iconography can be found in texts recounting the story of Troy that circulated in early Renaissance Siena, such as the Troiano and the Storia di Troia.

The Sienese Domenico da Monticchiello, born in the first quarter of the fourteenth century was the author of the Troiano. A fifteenth-century codex of this, copied in 1438 by Gherardo da Castel del Piano, is evidence that the Trecento text was still appreciated in the age of the humanists. The poem describes how in springtime, when the trees produce flowers and fruit, the handsome Paris arrives at Cythera, the island sacred to Venus and the land of Menelaus, husband of Helen. When Paris docks his ships, he sees a temple, built, like the one in the paintings, of precious materials, including gold and silver, and adorned with many vases, lamps, and candelabras, where a feast for the goddess was underway. When Helen learns that Paris, the most beautiful man in the world, is at the festival, she too wants to sacrifice in the temple. The abduction results, and this is specifically the scene represented in the spalliera. The Trojan soldiers leaving a few men to guard the ships, enter into the temple, and also try to abduct Helen’s attendants, who escape shouting.

In 1322 the Sienese nobleman Andrea di Deo degli Ugurgieri copied the Storia di Troia by Binduccio dello Scelto, another source for the iconography of the Stibbert-I Tatti spalliera. This is of some significance given that the Ugurgieri coat of arms appears on the cassone representing the Story of Oenone, now in Los Angeles, decorated by Francesco di Giorgio’s workshop. It is possible that this cassone and the spalliera were part of the decoration of the same bedroom or even of a single piece of furniture. The decorative scheme of the Stibbert, I Tatti, and Getty panels would thus have encompassed a celebration of the loves of Paris.

This exhibition is the fruit of the cooperation between the Museo Stibbert, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, and Villa I Tatti, and has been made possible by the efforts of Roberto Bellucci, Marilena Caciorgna, Ottavio Ciappi, Marco Ciatti, Enrico Colle, Ilaria Della Monica, Simona Di Marco, Cecilia Frosinini, Machtelt Israëls, Lukas Klic, Jonathan K. Nelson, Giovanni Pagliarulo, Lino Pertile, and Carl Brandon Strehlke. The texts are by Marilena Caciorgna and Machtelt Israëls.