BMCR 2023.09.31

Reinventing Alexander: myth, legend, history in Renaissance Italian art

, Reinventing Alexander: myth, legend, history in Renaissance Italian art. Turnhout: Brepols, 2022. Pp. 348. ISBN 9782503597430

The ambition of this book is to address a chapter of the Alexander tradition that has not been studied to date: “the iconographic transition from the medieval ‘Alexander of legend’ to the Renaissance ‘Alexander of history’ that took place in Italy over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries” (p. 255). Consequently, Daniotti makes the distinction between ‘legend’ and ‘history’ not only when she refers to the textual traditions, as George Cary first did in his seminal 1956 study, but also to the visual traditions. She stresses that these categories, ‘legend’ and ‘history’, “are not mutually exclusive but rather intertwined and overlapping, with no sharp distinction between them” (p. 11). Daniotti refers to Alexander as a cultural myth, “re-shaped again and again, with each age creating its own Alexander” (p. 10). She shows that it was humanists, starting with Petrarch and with significant contributions by Angelo Decembrio and Pier Paolo Vergerio, who questioned the credibility of the various traditions and reassessed their diverse elements, thus leading, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, to “a historically grounded representation” (p. 9) of Alexander.

Daniotti organizes her study in 5 chapters, in chronological sequence, covering the timeline from thirteenth-century manuscript illuminations and San Marco’s Pala d’Oro, renovated in the 1340s, to the 1560s, when Paolo Veronese’s Meeting with the family of Darius was painted. In Chapter 1 she examines the “legendary tradition”, with Pseudo-Callisthenes—as Isaac Casaubon called the author of the anonymous Greek Romance—playing a paramount role, thanks to Archpriest Leo’s Latin translation made in Naples around 950. During this period “Alexander is transformed into a chivalric hero and a restless explorer, whose curiosity for the unknown is limitless” (p. 18). In Chapter 2 Daniotti gathers together disparate works that attest the persistence of the ‘legendary’ tradition in Quattrocento Italian art, yet the signs of a transition are already detectable. She discusses the Doria tapestries (not stricto sensu Italian), where medieval imagery coexists with depictions of the latest artillery and weaponry, and a little-known illuminated manuscript of Curtius Rufus (Madrid, ms. Vitr. 22.9), where the ‘historical’ Alexander appears next to the ‘legendary’ one, with the marvellous element tempered, despite the belief, held in the court of Alfonso I, King of Aragon, that the text had miraculous healing powers. In Chapter 3, Daniotti deals with the emergence of an historical Alexander in the works of humanists—educational treatises have an important role here— now that previously unknown ancient Greek sources, classified by the author by date of availability, have started to come to light. In this chapter the reader becomes familiar with Petrarch’s late interest in Alexander, who is present in his De viris illustribus (1341-1343) as an insane and lustful figure, chosen to demonstrate by contrast, as in Livy, the moral superiority of the Romans, the poet’s intention being “historiam renarrare”.[1] We also learn here that it was Boccaccio who popularized the episode of the Gordian knot, narrated by Curtius Rufus but almost unknown in the Middle Ages. Chapter 4 is devoted to the emergence of “a new Renaissance iconography” during the Quattrocento. Dianotti explains that it “is the radical change in the social and cultural fabric of fifteen-century Italy that brings about the reinvention of Alexander” (p. 257): now different episodes of his life begin to appear on domestic artifacts, such as cassoni (painted chests, called forziere in the Quattrocento) and spalliere (painted wooden panels hung on walls). The purpose of these objects was to convey moral lessons to newlyweds, and the episodes chosen are meant to show Alexander as a moral exemplum: of magnanimity, continence and even chastity. This chapter concludes with an examination of various iconographic cycles of uomini famosi, in some of which the “lingering presence” (p. 150) of the medieval conception of history—with its division of world history into empires and its providential outlook—can be felt. Noteworthy among them is what Daniotti calls a “transitional cycle” (p. 158), devised by Coluccio Salutati for the Palazzo Vecchio’s Aula Minor, known to us today only through documentary records (Salutati’s tituli accompanying the figures),[2] as it was destroyed in the 1470s. The cycle, influenced by Petrarch, extols the Roman Republic: Alexander is here presented as a world emperor, a link in the chain of translatio imperii; yet his attempt to impose the practice of proskynesis at court is purposely, Daniotti believes, not suppressed by Salutati in a context celebrating the political institutions of Florence. During the same period, attempts are made in manuscripts to create an authentic pictorial representation of Alexander, based primarily on ancient coins. Lastly, Chapter 5 presents the consolidation of Renaissance iconography: after various attempts, some of which are based on mistaken interpretations of figures on ancient artefacts, we now have a single portrait type for Alexander and entire cycles are devoted exclusively to him. It is worth noting here the emergence, among other episodes, of the iconographic theme of the marriage of Alexander and Roxane, intended to illustrate the power of love; devised by Raphael, who brought to life an ekphrasis by Lucian,[3] this episode was transposed by Sodoma to the Farnesina and circulated widely thanks to an engraving by Gian Giacomo Caraglio.

The book is volume no. 15 of a series by Brepols entitled Alexander redivivus. On checking the content of the other volumes in the series, one realises the magnitude of Daniotti’s task: volumes covering such a broad spectrum of topics are usually the work of more than one author, as is the case with volume 2 of the series: Figures d’Alexandre à la Renaissance (2012). However, thanks to the structure Daniotti adopted and to her organization of part of her data on the basis of episodes in Alexander’s life, her material is manageable. Inevitably, the content of the book is very dense; each chapter contains several compact essays on various texts/artifacts or issues that can be isolated as separate entities. One of these is her analysis of the scenes from the life of Alexander in the Sala Magna of Palazzo Chiaramonte (the Steri), in Palermo, where, she proposes, Alexander is associated, through a visual trick—he appears flanked by the two oracular trees of the Sun and the Moon—with Christ himself. Another is her fine analysis of the Sala Baronale in the Piemonte castle Della Manta, where Alexander appears as a mature kosmokrator with a globe suspended in mid-air and accompanied by an arcane titulus (“fu pui en herbes”), whose meaning she manages to resolve thanks to her meticulous research.

Daniotti is manifestly at ease not only with her classical sources (for instance, she highlights the importance of Justin’s Epitoma of Pompeius Trogus’ World History) and humanist literature (prefatory and dedicatory letters are not overlooked), but also with medieval historiography (such as the four stages of salvation history, the biblical/patristic theory of the four monarchies and the chronological scheme of the sex aetates mundi) and with details of art history.  She draws our attention (for example) to the fact that it was simply not possible to “read” the magnificent ceiling at Steri, given the height of the room, as well as to the fact that figures that are painted and finished from head to toe in one giornata, i.e. in one day’s work, cannot represent specific persons as this would have required a much more time-consuming type of work. Her common sense combined with her in situ examinations enables her to comprehend peculiarities, such as the prominent central position reserved for Alexander in the L-shaped corridor of Palazzo Trinci.

Daniotti reads her texts very closely; thanks to her sound knowledge of Latin, she can propose the proper nuance where needed, as in Filelfo’s titulus “Magnus Alexander bellisque horrendus et armis” where horrendus, she argues, is “not stricto sensu negative” (p. 167). Whenever questions remain open, she engages with scholars in the relevant field. She disagrees, for instance, with Daniel Arasse on his theory of a “galerie dynastique mythique” in the case of the cycle in the Sala Baronale in the Castello della Manta, and with Creighton Gilbert on the interpretation of the cycle of uomini famosi in the Neapolitan Castel Nuovo. She also corrects widely accepted assertions, insisting that the uncommon Alexander at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts is not unique, since a similar iconography can be traced in a contemporary panel from the Longleat House Collection. Her methodology is honest: she does not try to present a coherent narrative by cherry-picking her examples, but examines even the items that do not fit in, the unica, such as the surprisingly medieval Begetting of Alexander (1527-1528) by Giulio Romano. She carefully chooses the wording of her formulations and assertions (“as far as I am aware, unique”, p. 166), and does not hesitate to acknowledge the occasional impasse (“nor am I able to conclude…”, p. 165). Her positions are expressed with clarity, assurance and unpretentiousness.

Daniotti has mastered the bibliography of a wide gamut of fields—classics and their transmission, neo-Latin literature, medieval French literature, manuscript illumination, architectural decorative cycles (she is particularly strong at dealing with tituli), numismatics, heraldry. Of course, when the subject matter is so huge, one cannot cover everything to perfection, so in some cases the bibliography is a little dated. It is a pity that Daniotti (and her excellent source, Noëlle-Christine Rebichon) could not consult, because it is not published, Nicolas Roche’s PhD thesis[4] on imaginary coats of arms, which would have allowed her to understand the complexity of the attribution of coats of arms to imaginary figures (Roche enumerates 27 coats of arms in the case of Alexander), and that when she deals with the gem representing Athena and mistaken by Cyriac of Ancona as representing Alexander, she does not refer to Michail Chatzidakis’s study on this issue.[5] It would also have been useful to provide a few missing inventory or access numbers, for instance on the drawing attributed “on questionable grounds” (p. 60) to Raphael (or to Pietro Perugino);[6] indeed, the lack of inventory or accession numbers even in the list of illustrations can be frustrating, especially when one cannot always have access to the bibliography she quotes. Nonetheless, given the task undertaken and the excellent result, this is a minor flaw.

The study is complemented by two valuable appendices—an inventory of episodes from ancient historical sources found in Renaissance Italian art (1450-1600) and an inventory of the existing painted cycles of Alexander in Italy (1500-1600)—, which will without doubt be useful to future researchers. A thematic classification of the bibliography might have been more convenient for those studying a specific aspect of the topic, but this would have made it more difficult to consult. Thankfully, Brepols has permitted a wealth of iconographic material to be published, some of it rare.

It goes without saying that research of this scope could only be possible at the Warburg Institute of London, where not only scholars but also books are in dialogue with each other, and where a precious photographic collection can be accessed. Another factor that certainly contributed to the success of this Herculean feat is that Daniotti had the chance to be supervised, in her PhD dissertation, by Jill Kraye, who is a legend herself. Despite the very few shortcomings mentioned, this is a piece of impeccable scholarship.



[1] Francesco Petrarca, De viris illustribus, proemium, in Id., Prose, a cura di Guido Martellotti, Milano-Napoli, Ricciardi, 1955, p. 220.

[2] T. Hankey, “Salutati’s Epigrams for the Palazzo Vecchio at Florence”Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 22, no. 3/4 (1959): pp. 363–65. Cf. G. Tanturli, “Epigrammi per il Palazzo della Signoria”, in T. De Roberts, G. Tanturli, S. Zamponi, Coluccio Salutati e l’invenzione dell’Umanesimo, Firenze, Mandragora, 2008, pp. 183-186.

[3] Herodotus, or Aetion, 4-6. See Loeb Classical Library 430, pp. 146-147.

[4] N. Roche, Les armoiries imaginaires des personnages de l’antiquité, de l’Orient et de la Bible (XIIe-XVIIe siècle), Thèse pour le diplôme d’archiviste paléographe, École nationale des chartes, Paris, 1997.

[5] The gem is part of the Antikensammlung of Berlin’s Staatliche Museen: Inv. FG 2305. See M. Chatzidakis, “Ciriacos Numismata und Gemmae. Die Bedeutung der Münz-und Gemmenkunde für die Altertumsforschungen des Ciriaco d’Ancona”, Mitteilungen Des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz 54, 1 (2010), pp. 31–58; cfr. Id., Ciriaco d’Ancona und die Wiederentdeckung Griechenlands im 15. Jahrhundert, Petersberg, Michael Imhof / Mainz, Franz Philipp Rutzen, 2017, pp. 170-177 and 399, Abb. 354.

[6] Paris, Le Louvre, Cabinet des dessins, Fonds des dessins et miniatures, INV 3889, recto.