National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Fresco Cycle with the Story of Procris and Cephalus

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These nine paintings are the only examples of an Italian Renaissance fresco series in America. Fresco (Italian for “fresh”) uses earth pigments that are painted quickly on damp plaster. As the plaster dries, the colors are chemically bonded into the wall surface. Some three centuries after these murals were created, they were removed from their original setting and mounted as panels.

In the early 1520s, a Milanese nobleman commissioned Bernardino Luini, Milan's leading artist during the High Renaissance, to paint the cycle. Luini’s frescoes form one of the earliest and most extensive depictions of a classical theme in northern Italy. Derived from mythology, the tale concerns Prince Cephalus and Princess Procris of Attica, whose brief marriage ends when the bride is killed accidentally by her husband. The moralizing subject warns of the dire consequences of jealousy.

Bernardino Luini
Milanese, c. 1480-1532

Fresco, which achieved its highest development during the Renaissance in Italy, demands rapid work before the plaster sets, although details may be added afterward. Bernardino Luini mastered the technique brilliantly, as is apparent in the clear, even lighting and cool, enchanting colors that pervade these pastoral landscapes.

Luini’s aristocratic patron, Gerolamo Rabia, owned two residences: a palace in Milan, the Casa Rabia, and a country estate, the Villa Pelucca. Luini frescoed both homes with pagan and biblical subjects during the early 1520s. Although documents are not conclusive as to which house the Cephalus and Procris paintings adorned, the Casa Rabia was famous for Luini’s representations of myths and fables. To commission such unusual topics, Gerolamo Rabia must have shared his Renaissance contemporaries’ keen interest in classical antiquity.

This story of wedded bliss ravaged by distrust is found in Book VII of the Metamorphoses by the ancient Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.-A.D. 17). While some scenes in Luini’s frescoes may refer to Ovid’s poem, the cycle is actually closer in theme and mood to a contemporary play. First staged in 1487, Cefalo was only the second Renaissance drama to be based on classical sources. Niccolò da Correggio, the playwright, freely adapted the antique narrative and added Christian overtones.

This tour illustrates the nine panels in a likely narrative sequence. In the process of dismantling the frescoes in the early 1800s, however, some elements must have been lost, and several of the surviving scenes are ostensibly fragments, with figures cropped at the edges. Since their original order is unknown, the following arrangement is plausible, if not definite.

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