Giorgio Vasari's "Allegory of Justice"

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Allegory of Justice (1543) by Giorgio VasariMuseo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte

"Allegory of Justice"

This large painting was commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in 1543 to adorn his palace in Rome - the Palazzo della Cancelleria. In this work, the painter celebrates the virtue of Justice with a complex and sophisticated iconography. Vasari, although a respected painter in his own right, is better known for authoring the "Lives of the Artists" (published 1550, 1568).  In a letter written to Cardinal Alessandro dated 20 January 1543, Vasari himself describes the composition's symbolism...

The seminude feminine personification of Justice occupies the center of the painting.

Three putti carry weapons down the stairs to arm and defend Justice.

Her right arm, draped in a rich blue mantel, rests upon an ostrich. Because of its long neck and the slowness of its digestion, the ostrich warns of the need to face all challenges with patience.

With her left hand, Justice bestows a laurel crown upon the head of Truth.

Truth holds two doves within her hands, which are a symbol of innocence.

Time, personified as an old bearded man, gently caresses the chin of Truth, who is thus presented to Justice to our left.

Time's head is surmounted by an hourglass and wings. Both symbols suggest that truth is revealed by time.

From the waist of Justice, seven chains cascade down, binding the personifications of seven vices below her.

Here we see Corruption, personified as an old man with a beard, stooped over in fixation upon something below him.

The object of his gaze is a pile of treasure, as Corruption desires money, jewellery and the symbols of power instead of true justice.

To our left of Corruption is the vice of Ignorance, who is kneeling above the head of a donkey.

Above Ignorance is Cruelty, who turns her back to us, unconcerned with the strife of the innocent.

The two faces of Treason and Fear appear below the two doves held by Truth.

Falsehood and Slander thus appear below Truth, being visually and symbolically crushed by her weight.

Below the right hand of Justice are the fabled 12 tablets of Romulus, founder of Rome and father of ancient religion.

Atop the sceptre held by Justice's right hand is a hippopotamus - an animal that kills his mother and father without any care, similar to a just judge who does not forgive a neighbor.

The laws of Moses, called the Torah or Pentateuch, are presented in a red binding above the globe.

And below the right foot of Justice are two volumes, one green and the other red, representing civil and canonical institutions.

Under the guidance of the renown historiographer and prelate, Paolo Giovio (1483-1542), Vasari thus conceived a sophisticated allegory drawing upon ancient painters cited by Pliny. Cardinal Alessandro Farnese was truly delighted by Vasari's "invenzione."

Credits: Story

Curated by James P. Anno

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