While these beautifully conserved panels were known to Bernard Berenson and Federico Zeri, in 1999 Marco Tanzi was the first scholar to publish the works (see Literature), on Everett Fahy's recommendation. Tanzi dates the panels to the mid-1490s, noting that the disposition of the architecture is characteristic of the artist's stay in Florence between 1493 and 1495. Spalliere are typical of the fashion in Florence in the fifteenth century for painting secular and mythological subjects on furniture such as headboards or benches, which were often attached to the more common cassone panels. While images of battles, scenes of romance or allegories were commonplace, these particular episodes from Achilles' life before the Trojan War are extremely rare.
As is often the case with Renaissance panels which narrate events from ancient mythology, various sources are used and conflated. In the case of the present works, inspiration is drawn from multiple authors including Statius and Hyginus. The first spalliera shows Achilles being handed over by his mother Thetis to the centaur Chiron, while on the right bank of the river we see the arrival of mother and son among the daughters of Lycomedes, the ruler of Scyros. The central scene in the middle distance has traditionally been interpreted as Achilles' immersion in the River Styx, one of the most celebrated episodes in the young hero's life, when his mother, knowing of his fate, dipped him in the river attempting to make him invulnerable but famously failed to submerge the heel with which she held him. Stefania Castellana (see Literature) has recently argued, however, that this is in fact drawn from a subsequent moment in the narrative and probably shows an intimate moment between Achilles and Deidamia, one of Lycomedes' daughters. Certainly this would account for the different appearance, including hair colour, and clothing of the two figures carrying the different children.
This usefully leads us into the narrative of the second panel: Deidamia and Achilles had become romantically involved while he was hidden among her sisters at Lycomedes' court. Thetis had once more tried to alter her son's destiny by trying to keep him away from the war in Troy. On Ulysses' arrival on Scyros, however, he was quick to discover Achilles, who is seen at the centre of the design, drawing his sword, and indeed wearing the same garments as in the middle distance of the first panel. Achilles was quick to leave Deidamia behind, heart-broken, as he joined the ships in the distance and set sail for the Trojan War. The episode at the far left could be interpreted as Achilles, still dressed as a woman, entrusting to a shepherd for safe-keeping Neoptolemus, the child he had with Deidamia.
1 Castellana 2017, pp. 127–28, cat. no. 13, reproduced in colour plate XIII.
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