Spotting the influence
Take Alma Tadema’s “Sculpture Gallery” (below, on the right) which parades semi-portraits of the artist and his family in amongst famous works of sculpture from antiquity – “Hercules strangling the snakes”, or the lampstand from the House of Pansa at Pompeii (discovered in 1812).
But sometimes the story is more puzzling.
On the walls of the Capitoline Museum in Rome (in the room with the Spinario if you know it), there is a great picture of Alexander the Great defeating Darius, the king of the Persians (below). Anyone who knows the mosaic of the same subject at Pompeii (from the House of the Faun), will instantly spot
the resemblance: Alexander zooming in from the left, Darius about to take flight on the right (his horses already turned round) , a confused melee in front (with a horse’s bum right in your face in the middle).
It looks obvious that the painter had seen the mosaic and recreated/adapted it in his painting.
Except that the painter in question is Pietro da Cortona, who died more than 200 years before mosaic in the House of the Faun was excavated.
I've often puzzled about this one, but as I had the husband with me (in his role as local professional art historian) when I went to the Capitoline Museum a few weekends ago, I decided to go through the different explanations systematically. None are hugely convincing.
Here they are:
1. The Mosaic from the House of the Faun was in fact known much earlier.
This one seems out of the question. Pompeii wasn’t rediscovered till the middle of the eighteenth century and the discovery of the mosaic is well documented (Goethe’s son was one of those who saw it dug up). No sane theory on Pompeii could accept that the mosaic was visible in the mid seventeenth century.
2. As the mosaic may itself be a copy, then maybe some other version of the original prototype did survive till the mid seventeenth century – or a version of a version of a version. The similarity in other words is a consequence of both works of art going back to the same prototype, but is not a consequence of Pietro actually having copied the mosaic.
This is favourite get out strategy in cases of this type. The trouble is that absolutely no evidence to support it. We have no other versions of the scene, so far as I know – and we don’t even know that the mosaic WAS a copy, anyway.
3. A refinement on number 2 is that Pietro has seen a written description of the supposed “original” (or a version of it), and he recreated it from the text, rather copy from an image.
Same problem: there is no evidence for any such text whatsoever.
4. Both Pietro and the mosaic maker were visualizing an ancient description of this battle (which is either the Battle of Issus of Gaugamela).
5. Mere coincidence. How unlikely is it that two artists would choose quite independently to show Alexander and Darius in this lay out. After all there are only so many variants on how you show a victory in battle.
I might almost be prepared to buy this, BUT it’s that horse’s bum that rules it out for me.