On the occasion of Emperor Charles V’s visit, the Villa del Principe already had an abundance of “beautiful tapestries that were plentiful to adorn any royal home, with impeccably fashioned figures”. These were the words of a gentleman who was present at the celebrations organized by Prince Andrea Doria to welcome the Emperor, describing the Villa in a letter to Isabella d’Este, and it still appears this way to those who visit the museum today.
In Genoa, the art of tapestries and “tapeserie” reached its prime during the Renaissance thanks above all to the close economic ties of the Genoese Maritime Republic with Flanders, the region where tapestries were woven.
Today, the Villa del Principe museum houses three cycles of tapestries, dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, making a total of eleven wonders from the European Renaissance.
THE TAPESTRY OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT
The two tapestries preserved in the Hall of Giants with Stories of Alexander the Great are considered by experts to be among the most significant tapestries of the fifteenth century. Woven with gold and silver thread, silk and wool yarns, they were made in the 1460s in Tournai in the Duchy of Burgundy, which at that time, during the reign of Philip the Good, was considered one of the most vibrant states in Europe. The two tapestries, just under forty square metres each, may have been part of a cycle that the merchant Pasquier Grenier provided to the Duke of Burgundy. As is often the case with tapestries of that period, the name of the artist who designed the cartoons is not known with certainty: some scholars have advanced the theory that they were by the painter Jacques Daret.
This tapestry represents various episodes of the life and legend of Alexander the Great, considered by the Dukes of Burgundy as a model of political and moral virtue, a just and heroic ruler and the hero of fabulous adventures.
The first tapestry refers to scenes from Alexander’s youth, namely the arrival of the wild horse Bucephalus, later tamed by the young hero; the clash with Pausanias; the death of his father, Philip, and the passing of the crown to Alexander as heir. The second tapestry depicts, on the left side, the conquest of a city, conceived here as a fifteenth-century siege. Indeed, the tapestry reflects the Burgundian world of that century, as is clear from the depiction of dress, weaponry and architecture. The work is centred around an episode drawn from the legendary tale of Alexander’s life: the hero, seated in a sedan chair studded with jewels, holds two red rods with skewered hams. Chained to the cage containing Alexander, four griffins try to reach the meat and thus flap their wings, lifting Alexander upwards until they reach Paradise. Since the Macedonian sovereign’s desire for knowledge never subsided, he sought to explore the deep blue seas. On the right, we can see Alexander inside a glass barrel being lowered to the seabed, holding two torches needed to illuminate the darkness of the abyss. Finally, in the lower right corner, the last chapter of this epic narrative represents Alexander after he has conquered the peoples of the world, reaching the ends of the earth and killing the monsters that live there. The iconography of these splendid tapestries is based on the Romance of Alexander, a collection of legends that began to develop soon after the hero’s death and which, through multiple translations, reached the Middle Ages, when tales of the great ruler were once again rewritten.
THE TAPESTRY OF THE MONTHS
The complete series of Months, a contemporary replica of a cycle created in Brussels around 1525, was composed of twelve tapestries and is listed in the posthumous inventory of Andrea Doria’s goods. After some dispersion, the Doria collection now has three items from this series. Each of the tapestries has a central circle containing the divinity which mythology associated to that month. A series of scenes appear around it, especially farming activities that occur during that period of the year. The circles are surrounded by figures of winds and minor deities pertaining to each month.
The January tapestry bears the zodiac sign of Aquarius. The main scene is dominated by the figure of two-faced Janus, the divinity who gives the month its name; dressed in luxurious clothes that reflect Renaissance fashion, the god is seated at a table holding the keys of the temple dedicated to him. The doors of this temple were kept open in times of war and closed in time of peace. Next to Janus are Bacchus and Ceres, and in the upper corners Juno, in her triumphal chariot pulled by two peacocks, appears with Iris, the winged messenger of the gods.
February portrays the divinity Februa in the central medallion, surmounted by the zodiac sign of Pisces. Februa is featured during purification rites which were regularly held during the month of February in ancient Rome. Beside her are domestic scenes of daily life typical of the cold climate of February. The upper corners of the tapestry portray allegories of the winds that move the clouds from which snow falls.
August is represented by Ceres, goddess of crops and abundance, who is depicted in the central medallion of the tapestry. Near her is the figure of a barefoot man threshing wheat together with two women and their children, a symbol of fertility. Beyond the circle, at top left, appears “Segessa” (Segesta), the Latin deity invoked during harvesting. On the right another minor deity is identified by the inscription “Cuculina” (Tutulina, protector of stored grain), and she carries as long shovel, symbolising her connection to manual work and the fruits of the earth.
THE TAPESTRY OF THE BATTLE OF LEPANTO
This series of tapestries, destined to adorn the Hall of the Shipwreck, celebrates the Battle of Lepanto, the most important military event of the sixteenth century.
In May 1571, Pope Pius V formed the Holy League bringing together the Papacy, Spain, Venice and her rival Genoa, for a crusade against the Ottoman Turks. The Christian victory at the battle of Lepanto was a significant success for the League, putting an end to the ten-year Turkish supremacy in the Mediterranean.
This set of six tapestries and two dividing panels housed in the Villa del Principe were commissioned by Giovanni Andrea I, Andrea Doria’s nephew and successor who participated in the Lepanto expedition. Andrea Doria entrusted the preparatory drawings to Lazzaro Calvi who created the central scenes, and to Luca Cambiaso who designed the frames and allegorical figures. The tapestries were woven in Brussels and shipped to Genoa in 1591.
The sequence of the episodes begins with the Christian fleet’s departure from Messina in Sicily, with the ships under the supreme command of Don John of Austria, illegitimate son of Charles V. At lower left Giovanni Andrea I’s vessel, the “Capitana Nova”, is recognizable thanks to the stern light shaped like a celestial globe, a gift from his wife Zenobia. On the left of the central scene appears the allegory of Concord, with the iconographic symbols of the caduceus and the lyre; on the right, Nemesis is identified by the measuring rod and bridle offered to her by a child.
The second tapestry illustrates navigation along the Calabrian coast showing the advance of the Christian fleet as they sail to engage with the Turkish navy. The tapestry represents the moment when the fleet of the Holy League skirts the coasts of Calabria in the direction of Corfu, the island off the coast of Epirus which was a Venetian stronghold. From there they reached Lepanto, near the Curzolarian islands, formerly known as the Echinades, where the battle with the Turks took place. The allegorical figures flanking this episode are Vigilance, on the left, symbolized by a rooster, a lion’s head and a crane and, on the opposite side, Dominance over the Seas is symbolized by thick locks of hair flowing in the wind and by Neptune’s trident.
The third tapestry portrays the Deployment of the Fleets. On the right we see the Turkish forces, organized in a continuous formation designed to outflank enemy ships. The Christians, on the left, were divided into four: in the centre, the galleys of John of Austria, on the left, the Venetian galleys of Agostino Barbarigo and on the right, those of Giovanni Andrea Doria I. In the second row the ships in the back are under the command of Alvaro Bazan, and the middle shows the Venetian galleys, equipped with considerable cannon power which proved decisive for the battle. The allegories of Hope and Prudence flank the central scene, the first characterized by a lily and the second by the heads of three animals (a wolf, a lion and a dog).
The tapestry dedicated to the Battle of Lepanto depicts the combat itself, which turned out to be extremely bloody. The victory of the Holy League during a battle whose outcome wavered for a long time was won thanks to the superior firepower of the Christian fleet. The tapestry portrays the figure of Fortune beside of the central scene, balanced on a sphere next to a cornucopia, and Fortitude, characterized by the presence of a skeleton, a crown and an oak branch.
The penultimate tapestry is dedicated to the Christian Victory and the escape of the seven Turkish galleys. Encouraged by the onset of night, seven Turkish ships, commanded by the privateer Uluç Ali, managed to escape capture. Giovanni Andrea I, whose ship is seen engaged in the futile effort of pursuit was harshly criticized for his decision to interrupt the Christian formation in an attempt to carry out a manoeuvre to circumvent the Turks. The tapestry has several elements showing triumph over the enemy, represented in chains in the lower portion.
The last tapestry of the series depicts the Return to Corfu. The victorious Christian fleet towed approximately 130 Turkish ships taken prisoner during the battle to the Venetian port. In the foreground one can see Giovanni Andrea’s ship with its precious prey: the Turkish flagship. Accompanying the scene are Glory, who is always symbolized with a swan, and Fame, with a trumpet, a spear and wings studded with eyes, ears and tongues.