Large plate: An allegory on the sack of Rome
Francesco Xanto Avelli
circa 1486 - circa 1542
Xanto, whose full name was Francesco Xanto Avelli, was born in Rovigo at an uncertain date probably c 1486 or a little earlier. He seems to have received some training as a painter before first coming to Urbino c 1521/22. There is evidence that at this time he worked closely with the great maiolica painter Nicola da Urbino.
It seems probable that he spent some time in Gubbio c 1524-25 working with or in the workshop of Maestro Giorgio Andreoli, famous for its red lustres. After c 1525 he probably worked mainly in Urbino though he seems to have sent pieces back to Gubbio for lustring in the Andreoli workshop. There is some evidence that he may have made a trip north to Romagna, perhaps c 1528-29, but he was certainly fully established in Urbino by 1530.
Xanto was one of the great masters of ‘istoriato’ maiolica. This is the term used to describe pieces decorated with figure scenes which cover virtually the whole surface of the piece. The taste for maiolica of this type was established in the 1520s and Urbino became the leading centre of production.
Xanto is rare among maiolica painters in that something of his character emerges from his writings. A manuscript set of sonnets praising his patron the Duke of Urbino survives in the Vatican archive and includes some data of biographical relevance.
Xanto was also the first maiolica painter to regularly add explanatory inscriptions on the backs of his works, a practice soon taken up by other painters. Short inscriptions appear from c 1528 and more elaborate ones from 1530. These sometimes give the impression of great erudition, though it is likely that Xanto used Italian translations of the Latin texts from which his subjects are taken rather than consulting them in the original.
Another unusual aspect of Xanto’s career is his use of allegorical subjects of his own invention which appear at all stages of his career. Many of these seem to comment on recent political events, particularly the sack of Rome in 1527-28. Often the precise meaning of the allegory is now obscure.
There is no firm evidence that Xanto himself ran a workshop. In an important document of 1530 concerning a dispute between workshop owners in Urbino and their employees, Nicola da Urbino is listed as an owner, but Xanto is among the employees. There is one splendid large dish of 1541 inscribed as having been painted by Xanto in the workshop of Francesca da Silviano. But this comes at the very end of his career and the unusual inscription is perhaps explained by the unusual size of the plate. For Xanto’s other works, although they are always of high technical quality, there is no evidence as to which workshop fired them.
The development of Xanto’s career can be traced from 1530 owing to his habit of signing and dating his works. From before 1530 there are a group of works attributable to him some of which bear, on the front, the monogram F.R. or F.l.R. These show a more muted palette than his later work, but are generally now considered to be by him. Seemingly also attributable to Xanto are a group of works with red lustre fired in the workshop of Maestro Giorgio Andreoli in Gubbio. From these John Mallet has deduced that Xanto was probably working in Gubbio c 1524-25. He also seems to have continued sending finished work back to Gubbio from Urbino to receive an additional lustre firing.
In the last years of the 1520s Xanto’s palette changes, the colours become stronger and brighter. During the 1530s there seems to be increasing evidence of hurried execution. Compositions sometimes become quite awkward and there is a range of quality in execution which implies the use of assistants. As might be expected the greatest amount of personal attention seems to be lavished on the largest pieces.
Elisa Sani has assembled an oeuvre of 421 surviving pieces either signed by Xanto or attributable to him. The vast majority of these are plates. Many come from services which bear coats-of-arms of the original owners. Another important category is that of plaques; these become more numerous in the late 1530s.
Xanto had a curious method of employing engraved sources in his works. Rather than copy engraved sources in their entirety, he often preferred to invent his own compositions lifting figures from a variety of different prints. He sometimes rotates a figure or turns it upside-down to suit a new purpose and the results can be disconcerting. He had a substantial but limited stock of prints to work from and sometimes used the same figure more than once in different contexts.
The Sack of Rome plate
The large plate under discussion has on the reverse an inscription which can be translated roughly as follows:
‘On the 5th May under the patronage Juno, the lancers and Spaniards entered Rome and held Peter and Bacchus in their power
Francesco Xanto Avelli of Rovigo painted it in Urbino 1530’
It is typical of Xanto to specify that his subject belong to the category of ‘Historia’. Other inscriptions often carry either this qualification or another such as ‘Nota’ or ‘Fabula’. ‘Nota’ is more normal for allegorical subjects.
Following the word Historia is a flourish in the form of a ‘y’ which is characteristic of Xanto. Since a similar flourish appears on other works which are unsigned, it can help to determine authorship.
Dating from 1530, this is one of the earliest known works by Xanto to be signed in full. The artist was in that year one of a group of maiolica painters who were pressing for higher wages. The workshop owners in response formed an agreement not to employ the recalcitrant painters. The appearance of a full signature on many of Xanto’s works from this date may indicate a level of independence from the control of any particular workshop and a bid for recognition of the painter’s individual contribution.
The first part of the inscription refers to events on 5-6 May 1527 when troops of the Holy Roman Empire arrived at the walls of Rome and attacked the city. After their defeat of the French, the troops of Emperor Charles V mutinied because they had not been paid. They forced their commander Charles III duc de Bourbon to lead them against Rome. They arrived at the city walls on 5 May and launched their assault on the following day. The duke was killed early in the battle and the undisciplined troops pillaged the city. The Pope was forced to flee to the Castel Saint’Angelo and there found himself imprisoned and obliged to purchase his freedom for 400,000 ducats.
Xanto painted a sequence of plates with subjects which, in allegorical form, deal with the subject of the sack. Even with the help of inscriptions on the backs these allegories can be difficult to interpret. A plate formerly in the Museo Internazionale della Ceramica in Faenza has a subject which symbolizes the effective imprisonment of the Pope. Others formerly in the Bohnewand and Henry Harris collections and in the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg, show variations on the idea of the city being punished by the Emperor. Others at Polesden Lacy and in the Castello Sforzesco, Milan, seem to be commentaries on the moral laxity of the city or the ignominy of her defeat.
Xanto’s visual commentaries on the subject of the sack of Rome are extremely remarkable. They are among the very few contemporary visual responses to the traumatic events of 1527 which in many ways marked a turning point in the self-confident era of the Italian Renaissance. Each of Xanto’s allegories appears to be unique and of the artist’s own invention. It is impossible to detect a political stance on the artist’s part, but he would doubtless have been influenced by the antagonism that existed between his patron the Duke of Urbino and the Medici Pope Clement VII.
The plate under discussion is the largest, the most complex and most impressive of all Xanto’s images of the sack. Three figures are mentioned in the inscription: St Peter, Bacchus and Juno. Peter appears at the extreme right edge of the composition holding the gold and silver keys (the keys to heaven and earth) and stands perilously on an orb. The orb is a standard attribute of the fickle Fortuna, who may fall in one direction or the other at any moment, and perhaps carries the same meaning in this instance.
Bacchus appears at the left edge of the composition along with the drunken Silenus. As the inscription makes clear Bacchus is also equated with Rome. The same is presumably true of the prominent figure of the crouching Venus in the centre, with Cupid on a pedestal beside her. Xanto treated Venus as emblematic of Rome on a plate from the Pucci service in the Louvre, and was apparently doing the same on a plate in the British Museum. Perhaps the figures of Bacchus and Venus are intended to convey the debauchery and lasciviousness of the Papal city punished by the arrival of the Imperial troops. This would be comparable with the plate at Polesden Lacy, which shows emblems of Rome’s avarice and lasciviousness, the latter represented by a figure of Cupid.
If Bacchus and Venus are equated with the city of Rome, the goddess Juno, as the inscription informs us, acts as patroness of the Imperial troops. Hercules, who appears with his club on the right, is obviously on the side of the troops as well. The allegiance of Mercury in the background, identifiable by his winged helmet, is ambiguous. In the foreground is a River God, evidently representing the Tiber. Above him and to the right are a young and an old man in conversation whose identity is not clear. The remainder of the figures appear to represent either Imperial troops or their Roman victims.
It is safe to assume that all of these figures are derived from engravings. The prominent figure of Venus in the centre is taken from an engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi after the famous antique statue of the ‘Crouching Venus’. The same source was used for the figure of Venus on a fragment of a plate in the Bargello.
The figures of Silenus and Bachus are taken from an engraving by Marcantonio of a ‘Bacchic scene’.
Another important source is Marcantonio’s engraving after Raphael’s ‘Parnassus’ in the Vatican Stanze which provided the figure of Juno (taken from the Muse immediately to the right of Apollo in that engraving), all five of the air-born putti and the young and old man conversing.
The group of Imperial soldiers on the right includes a number of figures taken from Marco Dente’s print after Bandinelli of the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’. This applies to the soldier who raises his dagger as well as to his victim. The same pair of figures appears on a plate in the British Museum, and the female figure on two other plates, all allegories of the sack. The same Dente print also provides the source for the soldier wielding a mace, the soldier to the right of him seen full face, and the soldier in front of him holding a baby.
The soldier seen from behind on the right wearing a Phrygian cap is taken from Marco Dente’s print of the ‘Rape of Helen’ after Raphael, another source used by Xanto on numerous occasions. The figure on the ground below the soldier in the Phrygian cap is taken in reverse from Raimondi’s engraving of the ‘Martyrdom of St Lawrence’ after Bandinelli. The figure of the Tiber is probably based on the River God in Raimondi’s engraving after Raphael of ‘The Judgement of Paris’.
46.0 cm diam.
Signature & date
Signed and dated verso, ".../ fra[ncesco]: Xanto. Ave[lli]:.../ 1530".
Not on display
Referenced in 1 publication
Richard Beresford, Look, 'Xanto's masterpiece?', Sydney, Oct 2012, pp 14–15, col illus p 15.