The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has acquired a painting by 16th c. Ferrarese master Dosso Dossi, reuniting it with its other half, which has been in the museum since 1939. The Trojans Building the Temple to Venus at Eryx and Making Offerings at Anchises’s Grave (c. 1520) has not been seen since the mid-19th century. It emerged at Christie’s Old Masters auction on April 21st where it was purchased for $400,000 by an anonymous individual who then donated it to the NGA.
The Trojans and its companion piece, traditionally titled Aeneas and Achates on the Libyan Coast, were part of a cycle of 10 paintings made to encircle the cornice of the study of Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. The works depicted scenes from the Aeneid and adorned the top of the room. On the walls below them were five large-scale works by Bellini, Titian and Dossi.
The richly decorated study was one of the Camerini d’Alabastro (small rooms of alabaster), a suite of private rooms Alfonso had built and clad in white marble (hence the moniker) to make a striking backdrop for the bright colors and dynamism of the Venetian masters he’d commissioned to decorate the walls with scenes from Greco-Roman mythology. Feast of the Gods, a collaboration of Giovanni Bellini and Titian which is also in the NGA, Feast of the Cupids (Titian), Bacchanal of the Andrians (Titian), Bacchus and Ariadne (Titian), adorned its lower walls. Dossi was not Venetian, but he was heavily influenced by Titian’s palette and finely-detailed landscapes.
The Trojans Building the Temple to Venus is a scene from Book V of The Aeneid when the Trojan refugees set out for Italy with a much-reduced fleet after Juno tricks the women into burning the ships. Some Trojans stay behind and found a city. Aeneas makes offerings at his father’s tomb (foreground), and in the distance at Eryx a new temple to Venus is being dedicated.
When Alfonso II, the last duke of the legitimate Este line, died without heir in 1597, the Pope refused to recognize the Holy Roman Emperor’s appointment of Duke of Modena Cesare d’Este, Alfonso II’s cousin from the cadet branch of the family. Pope Clement VIII claimed Ferrara and kicked the cadet branch out of the city. Ferrara would be administered by a Papal Legate acting as a civil governor until the 19th century.
The masterpieces in the Camerino d’Alabastro and the rest of the great Este collections were confiscated by Papal Legate Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini who kept what he wanted and sold the rest. All 10 of the panels of the Aeneas frieze remained in place high on the walls until they were bought by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1608. The stayed in the Borghese family until they were acquired by a Spanish collector in the early 19th century. At this point they were still intact as a group. The last time they were documented together was in 1856. Sometime later, the series was dispersed. Worst of all, one of Dossi’s Aeneid paintings was cut in half, creating two works out of Aeneas and Achates on the Libyan Coast and The Trojans Building the Temple to Venus at Eryx and Making Offerings at Anchises’s Grave.
Not that the right section of this work has reemerged, it suggests the left scene has been misidentified. Instead of Aeneas and Achates preparing for departure on the Libyan Coast, a scene from Book I of the epic, it is now believed to represent the Aeneas and Achates building ships to carry them to mainland Italy from Sicily in Book V.