Details & Cataloguing

Old Masters Evening Sale


Bernardo Strozzi
GENOA 1581 - 1644 VENICE


Graf Auersperg, Graz;

Possibly Attems Collection, Graz;

Han Coray-Stoop (1880–1974), Erlenbach, Zurich;

His sale, Lucerne, Fischer, 2–5 September 1942, lot 1164 (as Saint Agnes);

Acquired by the father of the present owner;

Thence by inheritance.


L. Mortari, Bernardo Strozzi, Rome 1966, p. 140, reproduced figure 228;

L. Mortari, Bernardo Strozzi, Rome 1995, p. 159, cat. no. 351, reproduced;

C. Manzitti, Bernardo Strozzi, Turin 2013, under Addenda, p. 266, cat. B, reproduced.

Catalogue Note

Exceptional in its quality, condition and technique, this ravishing depiction of Arachne was painted by Strozzi circa 1628–33, either just before or just after his departure from Genoa for Venice.1 It is part of a group of bust-length depictions of female allegorical and historical figures and of saints that Strozzi began to create early on, perhaps in response to the visit to Genoa of Simon Vouet in 1620–22. Whatever their inspiration, Strozzi produced these beautiful 'portraits' throughout his career, adapting his depictions to the theme at hand: refined and ethereal for his saints, sensual and seductive for his profane subjects.

Handled with extreme brio, this Arachne ranks amongst the very best of this type of painting. It depicts the mythological figure of Arachne, a young weaver from Lydia, who was so skilled at her craft that she rivaled the goddess Athena, the divine patroness of the art. A contest was arranged, and having been bested by the mortal Arachne, the infuriated goddess cursed the girl, turning her into a spider in punishment for her effrontery. In the painting, Strozzi has provided none of the dramatic narrative of this myth, but has painted simply a depiction of a young girl set against a dark background. She is elegantly dressed, her hair pulled back from her face by a red tie, not bound well enough to stop wisps of hair from escaping, a detail which Strozzi brilliantly suggests by dragging thin brushstrokes across Arachne’s face. Arachne glances heavenward, much like a saint, although with perhaps more of a self-satisfied expression than would be appropriate for a sacred sitter. It is only the inclusion of a weaver’s shuttle loaded with thread held in her hand that identifies her. In fact, the subject is so subtle that until very recently it has been misinterpreted as a depiction of a saint with the palm of a martyr.2

The choice of wood as a support is extremely unusual for Strozzi and only a handful of works in his large and varied corpus are painted on panel. In addition to the present painting there is the Healing of Tobit in the Cleveland Museum of Art (inv. 1993.5) and a Portrait of Claudio Monteverdi (formerly in the Strakosch collection, Vienna, see Mortari 1995, pp. 220–21, cat. no. II.47). However, closest to the present panel in format and subject is a depiction of Berenice (Musei Civici, Udine, see Bernardo Strozzi, Milan 1995, exhibition catalogue, pp. 258–59, cat. no. 80). Slightly larger in size, that panel also depicts a rather unusual classical subject, that of the Ptolemaic Queen Berenice cutting her hair in order to insure her husband’s victory in battle. Both paintings are of the mezzo busto format, although the Berenice includes both hands of the sitter, a requirement given the action of the painting.

The choice of the subject of Arachne is also somewhat unusual. The depiction of ancient heroines was of course common; but the story of the ill-fated Arachne was less suited for paintings of noble women of antiquity, which were meant to elevate the viewer. One need only look at the most famous painting of the subject from the seventeenth century, Velázquez’s masterpiece of the Story of Arachne at the Prado, Madrid, where in the distance the hapless mortal weaver is about to be punished by Minerva, to understand that the subject is less edifying than most. Given both the unusual support and subject of the Arachne, it seems likely that the painting was intended for a specific patron. Whatever its genesis, the composition must have pleased Strozzi as he repeated it in at least two other versions, both of lesser quality and on a more usual canvas support: one was formerly with Galerie Sanct Lucas, Vienna, and the other formerly with Galerie Miethke, also in Vienna, until it was sold at the Dorotheum in 1938.3 

1. See Mortari 1966, p. 140, and Mortari 1995, p. 159.

2. This mistake is made not only in the 1942 sale, but even by Luisa Mortari in her monographs on the artist.

3.  Mortari 1995, p. 159, cat nos 353 and 353 respectively, the latter reproduced.

Old Masters Evening Sale