Many of Europe's leading artists were drawn to Fontainebleau and the court of Francis I, initially to decorate the king's château, on which construction began in 1528, after Francis' release from imprisonment in Madrid, where he was held by the Emperor Charles V. The first artist of note to arrive in Fontainebleau was Rosso Fiorentino in 1530, followed by Primaticcio in 1532 and Nicolò in the very early 1550s. Both Francesco and Nicolò were to remain in Fontainebleau more or less continuously until their deaths in the early 1570s. The Mannerist style which had developed after the High Renaissance in most of the major artistic centers in Italy, from Venice to Rome, via Bologna and Florence, was to flourish in Fontainebleau and develop into an innovative and idiosyncratic style, which made relied heavily on the fantastical and the mythological. The Italian Mannerist idiom was to become more concentrated at Francis' court and the elongated forms and affected gestures ever more exuberant and deliberate, as evidenced in the present Pandora.
Nicolò was already an artist of repute by the time of his arrival in France and had been patronized throughout his native Emilia. If he was perhaps initially subordinate to the older Primaticcio, the relationship quickly developed into one of equal collaboration. Increasingly Primaticcio would focus on producing designs which Nicolò would execute, as may have occurred with the present work, as Sylvie Béguin first noted on a Witt Library mount. In the 2004 exhibition dedicated to Primaticcio (see Literature), her opinion that the painting is by Nicolò was cited once more. Dominique Cordelier compares the design of the present work to a figure in a drawing of Lot and his Daughters in the British Museum, London (inv. no. 1946-7-13-46).1 More recently, Forti Grazzini (see Literature) has proposed that the work was painted under the watch of Primaticcio and Nicolò but mostly by a close associate. He suggests a date of execution between 1556-1560, during the reign of Henry II, shortly after Franceso Salviati's visit to Paris and while Nicolò was working with Primaticcio on the Stories of Ulysses in Fontainebleau. Forti Grazzini goes on to identify the figure not as Pandora but as Sophonisba, the Carthaginian lady who drank poison rather than be enslaved and humiliated by the Romans.
In Greek mythology Pandora, whose name means "all-gifted" or "all-giver," was fashioned from clay by the god Hephaestus and was sent to earth by Zeus to become the wife of Epimetheus. Her traditional attribute of the pithos, a large urn, has in recent times been substituted for a box, giving us the expression "Pandora’s box." When she opened her urn, as she is about to do in the present work, all the evils which have since beset mankind flew out, and the Golden Age came to an abrupt end, leaving only Hope in the urn. It is said that this was Zeus' punishment to mankind for the theft of fire by Prometheus, Epimetheus’ brother. Since there are clear parallels between the story of Pandora and that of the Fall of Man, the early Church took her as a pagan counterpart for Eve.
1. Cordelier, under Literature, p. 349, reproduced.
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