An exploration of the fresco by Antoniazzo Romano
On January 1, 1490, the painter Antonio Aquili, called Antoniazzo Romano, wrote to Gentil Virginio Orsini informing him that he was ready to go to Bracciano with his team of workers; though, he concluded, it would have been better to wait the milder days of Spring time for the procedures of fresco painting. Today for reasons of preservation, this 11 meter long painting, is located in a hall of the castle, but originally it was under an arch before the courtyard partially exposed to the elements.
With this work the patron aimed at completing his self-fashioning through the representation of two events which had an impact on his recent political life: on the
right, the meeting with Piero de Medici in 1487;
on the left, the military parade through the territory of Bracciano in 1489 following his nomination as captain of the Aragonese troops.
The scene on the right shows the young Piero de Medici genuflecting before the Lord of Bracciano. During his travel to Rome in occasion of the marriage of his sister Maddalena, Piero (the son of Gentil Virginio’s cousin Clarice and Lorenzo the Magnificent), stopped in Bracciano on a diplomatic mission. The painter represented the Orsini and Medici courts according to the Renaissance ceremonial etiquette with
the precious costumes of such special event. On the side of Gentil Virginio, beside a Moorish page with bichromatic hose, there are a cardinal in red identifiable as Giovan Battista Orsini and a young man in blue probably Gian Giordano, the first son of the patron. The Medici court is lavishly extravagant with elegant jackets, colorful hats and precious feathers. As suggested by world expert on Antoniazzo Romano, Anna Cavallaro, Piero was called il Fatuo (the vain) for his ostentatious exhibition of wealth and luxury.
The classical architecture with busts, reliefs and a frieze with griffons and grotesques, echoing the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina in the Roman Forum, is an expression of the patron’s desire to be displayed in a cultivated humanist context all’antica. Through war, diplomacy, marriage and culture, the Orsini established contacts with the major Italian families of the Renaissance.
The scene on the left, open through a hilly landscape around a lake surrounded by towers, shows Gentil Virginio in triumph. It is a landscape evocative of Bracciano of course, yet the Orsini “state” around 1490 extended from the Tyrrhenian Coast, across the Appenines, almost to the Adriatic Sea. From Latium to Abruzzo, the sequence of Orsini possessions signalled the strategic power of the family which controlled almost every consular road leading to Rome and toward the Kingdom of Naples. Gentil Virginio appears with a cuirass on a white horse grasping the baton of
command of the house of Aragona. The golden chain around his neck is the symbol of the Order of the Ermine. The miniature bears (orsi in Italian) on the horses’ bridles make him a member of the Orsini family in the guise of an emperor.
The group of knights following the protagonist have been identified by Cavallaro.
The condottiere Bartolomeo d’Alviano (brother in law of Gentil Virginio) appears on a white horse while Gian Giordano on a brown one. The figure with a laurel wreath in the crowd could represent that humanist culture that the Orsini had taken as a model for the building of their family identity. As the Orsini “state” extended from the Patrimony of the Church to the Kingdom of Naples, by implication their culture incorporated both the Roman studium urbis of Pomponius Leto and the Neapolitan Academy of Giovanni Pontano. With this in mind, it is possible to see a book on the ground under the brown horse and a series of inscriptions on the armours. On Bartolomeo d’Alviano’s cuirass one can read “la virtù fa….”, a motto that implies the exertion of virtue even during a war; while on the armour of Gian Giordano the quotation (Laudare parum est laudem[ur]) is taken directly from the myth of Arachne from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” As a whole this is a typical image of that quattrocento culture which fused together arma et litterae, the art of war and humanist culture.
If the scene on the right is depicted as a solemn event against a triumphal arch designed according to the rules of perspective reflecting the inventions of the Italian Renaissance, the scene on the left is influenced by the International Gothic style. The characters seem to multiply as they form military squads which advance according to
a serpentine narrative moving around the curves of the landscape.
Details are mesmerizing: trumpeters direct the military parade, flags are decorated with Orsini roses, horses are covered with precious saddlecloth, soldiers wear varied armours, boats are moored on the lake’s shores, and there is even a monkey on the back of a mule. As explained by Cavallaro there are all the details of the chronicle of the cavalcade written by Stefano Infessura, the most famous chronicler of the time, depicted with even further minutiae by Antoniazzo Romano.
Fresco with Gentil Virginio Orsini by Antoniazzo RomanoCastello Odescalchi