Fundación Casa Ducal de Medinaceli

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La "Apoteósis de Hércules"

Of the numerous artworks housed in the Casa de Pilatos, the Sevillian residence of the Duchess of Medinaceli, one of the most striking is the ceiling painted by Francisco Pacheco, master and father-in-law of Diego Velázquez, in the room originally known as the Camarín Grande and now called the "Pacheco Room" []. It is a long, narrow room built for the 3rd Duke of Alcalá along with other adjacent rooms and designed by the architect Juan de Oviedo in the first decade of the 17th century. The flat ceiling consists of a wooden structure inlaid with painted canvases.

Pacheco's ceiling is the second example of its kind, which was unprecedented in Seville. It was preceded, two years earlier, by that of the house of the poet Juan de Arguijo [], and was followed shortly afterwards by that of the main salon in the Archbishop's Palace. We thus have at least (as far as we know) three important examples of a type of decorative ceiling that was hitherto unknown in the city and would not be repeated.

Significantly, the three people who commissioned them--the poet Arguijo, a young (3º) Duque de Alcalá with his advisor Francisco de Medina, and Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara--were acquaintances and belonged to the same humanist circle in Seville. But whereas there are still many unknown factors surrounding the ceilings of the house of Juan de Arguijo and the Archbishop's Palace, Pacheco's ceiling in the Casa de Pilatos is one of the most widely and best documented artworks in the history of Spain.

The painter himself refers to it in his treatise on painting, Arte de la Pintura, stating that he executed "the work in the camarín of the Duke of Alcalá, in tempera, which contains eight fables with grotesques and other adornments". Later on he pointed out that he began it in 1603 after arranging to be paid a thousand ducats and that he took a year to complete it (it is signed in 1604). He goes on to say that he was advised by the painter and treatise writer Pablo de Céspedes on the tempera medium, unknown to him, and by the humanist Francisco de Medina on iconographical questions. He finally states that "in none of this have I used cartoons of the same size, but small drawings". Three of these sketches--of which there must have been many given the difficulty of the foreshortenings--survive in different collections: one of the central panel depicting the "Apotheosis of Hercules" and two of two of the smaller panels illustrating the "Fall of Phaeton" [] and "Envy".

This is therefore an exceptionally well documented work which Pacheco evidently considered to be one of his most outstanding achievements. And quite rightly so, bearing in mind the difficulties it posed: a ceiling painting that required compositions in an unfamiliar sotto in su  perspective; abundant (though very modest) nudes; a medium, tempera, which he had never used; and themes from classical mythology of which he possessed only a bookish knowledge. For all the above reasons, Pacheco sought the help of the members of his "Academy", humanists with marked Italian leanings.

It should be pointed out that as regards actual layout, nor were ceilings of this type common in Italy, where vaulted ceilings decorated with fresco painting were more frequent. But there were flat ceilings inlaid with canvases in Venice, where the painter and treatise writer Vasari must have seen them and even produced one for the Compagnia dei Sempiterni in the Palazzo Corner-Spinelli.

This reference to Vasari is important, as both the ceiling of Arguijo's house and that of the Casa de Pilatos are clearly derived from that painted by Vasari in the Salone delle Arte in his own home in Arezzo, c. 1548, which is furthermore executed in tempera, like the two in question. The only feasible manner in which this model could have found its way into Seville is through Pablo de Céspedes who, as stated earlier, assisted Pacheco, as the artist himself admits, and also most likely Alonso Vázquez, to whom the ceiling of Arguijo's house is attributed.

Not much is known about Céspedes' activity in Rome, though he lived in the city during the 70s and frequented the circle of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, which included prominent people like Fulvio Orsini and Paolo Giovio, and was close friends with Zuccaro and St Luke's Academy. Indeed, he may have met Vasari himself there, as the latter was working in the Vatican at the beginning of the decade. Whatever the case, Vasari would have been to Céspedes and, through the latter, to Pacheco, a model of a pittore letterato. Céspedes also travelled extensively through Tuscany and would almost certainly have visited Arezzo to admire Vasari's house.

But Vasari not only provided indirect inspiration in technical aspects; the set of allegories on the ceiling of the Pacheco Room displays the same type of exalted erudition that characterises the art of  Tuscan Mannerism. It denotes the involvement of the poet and humanist Francisco de Madina, preceptor to the (3rd) duke, who intended the ceiling to be a "moral lesson".

Indeed, the large central panel shows Hercules ascending to Olympus []. As is well known, the Theban hero, although the son of Zeus, was also the son of Alcmene, a mortal, and therefore was not blessed with the gift of immortality. He earned it through his own efforts, through his heroic virtue. The hero was therefore presented to the duke as a model for the "arduous path to glory", as an inscription states. Another inscription, sic petitur caelum, from Ovid's Fasti (I, 307), refers to the virtues required for achieving this glory, which is attributed to the astronomers who succeded in overcoming their mortal weakness and "looking further beyond". The Hercules proposed to the Duke of Alcalá is thus a philosophical hero tinged with neostoicism, an example of rough nature tamed by its contact with the philosophers, derived from Plutarch.

However, the "path to heaven" was not without its hazards, as revealed by the paintings that surround the central panel depicting the apotheosis of the hero. We find a series of exampla from Antiquity used as moral warnings: the first three--Phaeton, Bellerophon and Envy []--would allude to vices that should be avoided, and the other three--Icarus [], Ganymede and Astraea--to the virtues required for the path.

Astraea, goddess of justice, needs no further explanation; her virtue lay in finding the "right measure", as underlined by her attribute, the scales. Ganymede, the young man abducted by Zeus on account of his beauty found a less scabrous interpretation in Renaissance neo-Platonism as a symbol of the purity of the soul snatched from heaven through the contemplation of divinity. Icarus refers not so much to the bold young man as to his father Daedalus, who also features in the composition and was regarded as an image of prudence from Antiquity. On the side of the virtues needed by the young duke we therefore have Justice, Purity and Prudence.

On the opposite site we find Apollo's sun Phaeton, who, determined to drive the sun chariot [], caused terrible tragedies and was regarded as a symbol of Rashness. Bellerophon, the mythical tamer of the horse Pegasus, grown supercilious from his feats, attempted to climb Olympus using his own means but was toppled by the gods, and is therefore an image of Arrogance. Lastly, Envy, with her serpent tresses, was considered the sum of all evils, in contrast to Justice, who was the sum of all virtues.

Pacheco's ceiling, with its artistic limitations, is therefore an eloquent testimony of Sevillian humanism during the transition from 16th to 17th century, one of the safest enclaves of which was the Casa de Pilatos and the protection of the (3rd) Duke of Alcalá--an enclave in which the young Velázquez was furthermore trained and developed his art.

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Vicente Lleó