The depiction of the Arno is a pivotal image within the scheme, above the central window of the west wall of the Sala dell'Udienza, and is described in some detail by Giorgio Vasari in his life of Salviati: 'e dirimpetto alla Pace che arde l'arma è il fiume Arno, che avendo un corno di dovizia abbondantissimo, scuopre (alzando con una mano un panno) una Fiorenza, e la grandezza de'suoi pontefici e gli eroi di casa Medici' (‘in front of the Peace burning the arms is the river Arno, with a most abundant horn of plenty, who reveals (lifting with his hand a cloth) Florence, and the greatness of its pontiffs and heroes of the Medici family’).3 This decorative scheme is one of the most sophisticated frescoed ensembles in the whole of Italian Mannerism.
Salviati won the commission on his return to Florence in 1543, having left the service of Pierluigi Farnese, in Rome, whom he served from 1541, after his stay in Venice. Salviati’s motivation to return to Florence came, according to Vasari, from an anonymous friend who, together with Piero di Marcone, a goldsmith he had befriended while in Rome, persuaded the artist that if he went back to Florence he would certainly find employment in the Duke's service.4 Vasari goes on to stress the challenges and political implications of obtaining such an important commission, in addition to which the artist would have to win the approval and support of his Florentine peers, before being granted a Medici commission.5 Many of those with whom he had previously collaborated, in 1539, on the decorations erected for the wedding of Cosimo and Eleonora, were still working in the service of Cosimo I. Salviati, though Florentine by birth and early training, had formed his style mostly in Rome. This invaluable experience gave the painter particular standing among his fellow artists in Florence, and was a great advantage when painting the grand decoration for the Sala dell’Udienza, illustrating episodes from the life of Furio Camillo, taken from epic Roman history. This was a commission devised with the intention of validating, through historical precedent, the legitimacy of Cosimo I de’Medici’s rule, each scene alluding to an event in the Duke’s own life.
Another study, recently sold in London6 and also preparatory for the figure of the river Arno, in the same media and of a similar size, but in reverse to the present drawing, with the bearded river god lifting the cloth that would, in the final work, reveal the city of Florence in the distance, is much closer to the final composition. Both these appear to be presentation drawings for this pivotal figure, and they must have been drawn at the same moment and for the same purpose, remaining together until recently. They may even once have been part of the same page in an album, possibly put together in the late 17th or early 18th century. Salviati combines in this drawing great elegance of execution with a thoroughly mannered pose, one hand lifting the cloth while his other arm rests on an urn from which pours water, symbolizing the abundance of the river Arno.
1. The drawing bears another old attribution, probably early 18th century, on the verso
2. N.B. the interesting pentimento on the level of the left hand holding the cloth
3. G. Vasari, Le Vite de più eccellenti Pittori, Scultori ed Architettori, ed. G. Milanesi, Florence 1881, vol. VII, p. 24
4. Ibid., p. 21
5. Ibid., p. 22
6. 'Reclining river god facing left, and lifting a cloth with his right hand', now in a private collection, was sold London, Sotheby's, 5 July 2017, lot 22
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