The Battle between the Philistines and the Israelites,
oil on canvas, 146 x 230.7 cm, framed
possibly executed for the Gonzaga, Dukes of Mantua;
Private European collection;
where acquired by the present owner
We are grateful to Mauro Lucco, Bernard Aikema and Vilmos Tátrai for all independently confirming the attribution after examining the present painting in the original and for their help in cataloguing this work.
The present painting appears to be previously unpublished and it is therefore a spectacular and important addition to the oeuvre of Jacopo Robusti, il Tintoretto.
The present picture shows a battle, described in violently agitated terms, seemingly fractured into multiple episodes of death and salvation. There are those that are speared as they leap the palisades and those that try to escape by hiding in a deep dyke. The presence of elephants and what appear to be dromedaries in the background, suggests an Oriental or African setting, also clearly indicated by the fugitive, in the extreme left foreground, who wears a turban. Though the battle scene has many figures, there are two obvious protagonists. In the right foreground, a youth closes in on an elderly man of gigantic proportions, lying face down before him on the ground. This is a representation of David, about to strike the final blow to his vanquished opponent, Goliath. Although there is no reference in this episode to elephants, it can be assumed that this is an imaginative addition to the story. The recumbent figure, juxtaposed with that of the youth, corresponds to the giant proportions of Goliath who, according to the Bible, was about three and a half meters tall. The story is told in Samuel 1:17, where it is written that David killed the unconscious Philistine with his own sword. In the present picture, however, the young protagonist is wielding a spear in both hands. This is surely an iconographic anomaly, but the IRR of the picture (see illustration), which yields other interesting data as well, indicates that originally the young warrior pointed a slightly broader object with a hilt at his victim; undoubtedly a sword. It is difficult to say why the painter decided to change the sword into a spear, but the spear could allude to David’s Triumph, when the young hero enters Jerusalem, bearing Goliath’s head on a lance or spear, a much depicted episode in Renaissance and Baroque art. This must be why Lorenzo Lotto, in his tarsia showing David about to attack Goliath in Santa Maria Maggiore at Bergamo, from 1522-23, depicted a spear lying on the ground next to the young Israelite.
The present picture is extraordinary because the combat of David and Goliath is seldom shown in the context of a major battle scene. The reason for this spectacular iconographic extension is not entirely clear but it is possible that the present picture was part of a larger cycle of paintings, possibly depicting Old Testament scenes or, more specifically, scenes from the life of David. In support of the latter hypothesis, we can look to a series of four frescoed lunettes by Giulio Romano, which depict precisely this subject (see A. Pigler, Barockthemen, Budapest 1974, I, p. 135). It may be a coincidence, but these four frescoes are situated in the Palazzo Te at Mantua, the summer residence of the Gonzaga family who, half a century later, ordered a cycle of eight large canvases showing the Fasti Gonzagheschi (glorious episodes of the Gonzaga family) from Tintoretto. These large pictures were executed in two installments, in 1578-79 and 1579-80, and were placed high up on the walls as friezes in the Sala dei Marchesi of the Mantuan Ducal Palace. They are now in Munich and part of the collection of the Alte Pinakothek (see C. Syre, Tintoretto. The Gonzaga Cycle, Munich 2000). From a technical point of view, the pictures of the Gonzaga cycle have elements in common with the present David and Goliath. The brilliantly undulating composition of the present picture, with its multiple scenes of combat, compares to paintings from the Fasti cycle like the Relief of Legnano, or the Battle on the Taro. Stylistically, this is a typical work by Jacopo Tintoretto, not only on account of the smallest details, such as the swift brush strokes, and the swirling turbine of their touch, but also on account of the constantly changing perspectives, as if to reflect the relentlessly changing directions of a glance suddenly drawn on to new subjects. These are elements that conform to the dictates of the maniera moderna of which Tintoretto was a dedicated follower.
There is no doubt that this picture, just like those forming part of the Gonzaga cycle, was executed in the busy Tintoretto workshop where, at the time, Jacopo’s son Domenico was an important presence and probably his prime assistant. It is difficult to say exactly how this teamwork worked because more research into the functioning of the Tintoretto bottega is still needed, but the present picture is not only marvellous in its final appearance, but also extremely fascinating in its formative stage. This is clear from the X-ray and IRR images (see figs. 1 and 2), which yield a mass of truly spectacular information on the painting’s genesis.
From the x-ray and infrared reflectogram, it would seem that the canvas initially showed a series of large architectural structures lined up over most of the surface, notably on the right side. Such constructions are reminiscent of some of the Fasti Gonzagheschi (e.g. The Entry of the Infante Philip II of Spain into Mantua, 1549). The X-ray reveals, moreover, the presence of one or more large figures in the large and middle ground, which have been eliminated in the final stage of the work. Such figures occur in the Fasti Gonzagheschi as well. These works are the only ones, after the Battle of Asola canvas, in which Tintoretto tested himself in the depiction of battle, which he did not handle in terms of the movement of large groups, but rather as a succession and sum of individual episodes. Even the way in which he delineates the branches, dividing the canvas into a succession of tableaux, coincides with the fractured lighting and silhouetting of trees and grass fronds in the Sala Superiore della Scuola di San Rocco. Thus we must consider that the present magnificent invention by Tintoretto was planned and executed in the Tintoretto workshop in the late 1570s or the early 1580s, in close connection with the Gonzaga commission. Evidently, it was originally planned as a quite different composition, even closer to the Fasti, and only at a later point converted into the present David and Goliath.
The present painting was clearly designed to be viewed from sottinsù, just like the Fasti Gonzagheschi. Moreover, the placement of the two figures of David and Goliath to the extreme right, in the foreground, may indicate that the viewer was supposed to approach the picture from the left. This would mean that the original location of the picture was high on the wall of a large room or corridor, almost certainly in line with other paintings, forming a frieze; again, just like the Fasti.
So the question arises: was the David and Goliath a Gonzaga commission? It should not be forgotten, at this point, that the story of David and Goliath traditionally had a strong political connotation (cfr. for instance Michelangelo’s early David in Florence). It is interesting to note that David’s sword was changed into a spear, stressing the young hero’s righteous triumph rather than his prowess in battle. However, there appears to be no record in written or printed sources of such a commission. There is only one intriguing notice, pointed out by Paolo Bertelli, which concerns an anonymous painting, described in an 1803 inventory of the Ducal Palace in Mantua as being located in a room in the apartment of Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga. The picture was described as “Davide nell’atto di aver ucciso il gigante Golia, l’armata in distanza che fugge ma molto patito”. The work was presented at auction in 1847 and again in 1853 but its present where-abouts are unknown. As the description of this work matches the present painting, it would be an interesting possibility to identify them as one and the same. There is a problem, however, because the painting described in the inventory measured circa 2.40 by 3.30 metres, whilst the present painting measures 1.46 by 2.30 metres, a significant difference. Nevertheless, the correspondence in subject is such that could be maintained, with all due caution, the hypothesis of a Gonzaga commission.
Further research might yield additional elements to corroborate these conclusions, which are hypothetical. Nonetheless, one thing is certain: David and Goliath is a major work from the mature period of Jacopo Tintoretto, dating to around 1575-1580.
We are especially grateful to Bernard Aikema and Mauro Lucco for their help in cataloguing the present painting.
Execution and technique
Imaging analyses of the present painting show an extremely complex and interesting history beneath the surface. The support is made by two canvases sewn horizontally. X-rays (RX) indicate a large use of a very radiopaque pigment (probably lead white) to constitute some of the buildings on the right half of the canvas and, with less evidence, also on the left one. These buildings can be interpreted as a perspective view of a square, an environment that was most probably not intended for the David and Golia, but for another subject.
Apart from these vertical structures, the great part of the white brushstrokes that can be seen in RX pertains to the actual composition. Many figures present a net of enveloping white lines that are not only those of the final layer where the pigment is mixed with lead white, but they can be interpreted as an underdrawing made directly to study and develop the human forms and shapes, the complexity can vary from figure to figure. Some characters and ideas were abandoned during the painting´s development.
The creative process also includes another kind of drawing that can be seen only by IR reflectography: a drawing made with a black brush, quite large, sometimes handled with complete freedom, such as in the background, otherwise used as a quick contour, which can been seen for example on the figures, especially for larger ones. In the upper part of the composition the drawn lines appear to refer to the sketch for the architecture and in the upper left, some curved strokes suggest arches, possibly to create a portico, perhaps made of vegetation. In the upper right an internal, or external setting, can be hypothesized, perhaps among the soldiers’ tents. Some quick sketches of vegetation can also be seen in the center top of the canvas.
Both the kinds of underdrawing, those made by white brushstrokes and those made using a black medium, are typical of the pictorial praxis of Jacopo Tintoretto, who studied figures in various different ways. Sometimes he started compostions with drawings on paper and it is known that he used a home theatre with small mannequins. A method used, for example, in the paintings of the Gonzaga Cycle, as well as some early works such as the Crucifixion in Padua which has been recently restored.
A set of spectroscopic examinations performed by portable X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) and Reflectance Spectroscopy (vis-RS) allowed identification of the pigments used by Tintoretto. Over a white or off-white calcium-containing ground, probably gypsum, the palette of colours includes deep blue lapis lazuli mixed with lead white for the clothes of some of the soldiers and David, as well as for the water in the ditch in the foreground. The sky, instead, is painted with azurite to obtain bluish tones. A large use of lead-tin yellow (giallorino) is apparent in the landscape, in the grass and plants, where brown earths and copper-containing pigments (verdigris, sometimes azurite) are used according to the desired tone. An impressively wide species of trees and herbs are included in the vegetation, which appear to have been added at the end of the painting process and largely contribute to the movement of the general composition. These greens have now altered in tone, as occurs for other paintings by Tinoretto. Vermilion and/or a carmine-type red lake are used for the red or pink clothes.
Cleaning should allow the original hues typical of Tintoretto to be recovered to some extent.
We are grateful to Gianluca Poldi for his analysis of the present painting.
Fig 1: X-ray of the present painting
Fig 2: Infrared reflectogram of the present painting
Specialist: Mark MacDonnell
realized price**EUR 907,500USD 985,500
estimateEUR 300,000 to 400,000USD 326,000 to 434,500
Old Master Paintings
Date: 18.10.2016, 17:00
Location: Palais Dorotheum Vienna
Exhibition: 08.10. - 18.10.2016
**Purchase price incl. all charges, commissions and taxes
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