Spalliera Panels with the Story of Patient Griselda
These three long panels illustrate the story of a young peasant woman, Griselda, as told in The Decameron, a fourteenth-century collection of novellas by the Italian author Boccaccio. They were likely destined to decorate the chambers (or camera) of a newly-wed couple, since the tale celebrates a woman’s loyalty and marital fidelity, against the odds.
It is very likely that these panels were commissioned at the time of the marriages of two brothers of the noble Sienese Spannocchi family, which took place in January 1494. Their father, Ambrogio, was the papal banker to Pius II Piccolomini, also from Siena.
Our panels have been connected with two others of a similar shape and size at Longleat House, Wiltshire, which depict ancient leaders Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. They are attributed to the workshop of the Florentine painters Domenico and Davide Ghirlandaio. The picture of Alexander the Great included the Spanocchi coat of arms.
These three long panels tell the story of a young peasant women called Griselda, which was taken from The Decameron, a fourteenth-century collection of novellas by Italian author Boccaccio. Her beauty caught the eye of a local nobleman, the Marquis Gualtieri di Saluzzo. After they married he put her through a series of emotional ordeals, but her steadfastness and loyalty to him throughout earned her his renewed affection, as well as the nickname, ‘patient Griselda’.
The three paintings were likely made to decorate the chamber (or camera) of a newly-wed couple, since the tale celebrates a woman’s loyalty and marital fidelity, against the odds. Furthermore, they are the size and shape of panels known as spalliere, which were inset into the walls at about shoulder height (spalliera is Italian for shoulder). Vertical channels carved into the reverse of all three panels provided space for battens (narrow strips of wood) which would have secured them in place on the wall.
It’s very likely that they were commissioned at the time of the marriages of two brothers of the noble Sienese Spannocchi family. Their father, Ambrogio, was the papal banker to Pius II Piccolomini, also from Siena. Antonio married a Sienese woman called Alessandra Placidi, while his brother Giulio married Giovanna Mellini, from Rome. Accounts of the wedding celebrations, which took place in January 1494, record that it was a lavish affair: there was a performance of another of Boccaccio’s stories, and a large temporary structure resembling a Roman triumphal arch was built for the occasion.
Our panels have been connected with two others of a similar shape and size at Longleat House, Wiltshire; like ours, they were also once owned by the nineteenth-century collector, Alexander Barker. They depict ancient heroes Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, and have been attributed to the workshop of the Florentine artists, Domenico and Davide Ghirlandaio. Vasari, the sixteenth-century biographer of many artists, writes that Domenico, along with Bastiano Mainardi, decorated a room at the Spanocchi Palace with lots of stories inhabited by tiny figures. It seems likely that he was referring to the Longleat pictures, to which both Davide and Bastiano definitely contributed. The subjects, Alexander and Julius Caesar, might relate to Alessandra and Giulio, two of the newly-weds.
The picture of Alexander the Great included the Spanocchi coat of arms, and some of the figures in it wear exactly the same livery (uniform) as the servants in our panels, giving another reasons to connect our panels with those at Longleat, and both to the commission mentioned by Vasari. Despite the wealth of the Spanocchi and the obvious importance of the commission, we do not know the identity of their painter – these panels have given him his name.