The young Roman Mucius Scaevola is shown unarmed and bare legged wearing a cuirass and thonged Roman kilt. He stands taking his weight on his left leg and places his right hand in a flaming brazier supported on a tripod. The hero, his head covered in dense curly hair, suffers the pain wide-eyed and open-mouthed, looking upwards. He stands on a narrow ledge, pressed up against a low parapet, with the walls of a square tower to the left. Within this deceptively simple composition there is a great subtlety and sophistication, from the swelling movement of the tightly confined body to the carefully managed limbs betraying a masterly comprehension of anatomy.
This tablet was conceived as one of a series of Roman gods, goddesses, heroes and heroines all of a similar size and format that could presumably have been bought individually, in pairs, or even in larger sets. l Each seems to represent one of the human virtues as praised in classical literature. Here we have the heroes of antiquity replacing the prophets and saints of the Old and New Testaments. Thus Mucius Scaevola represents Fortitude; Venus Anadyomene, Truth; Lucretia, Chastity; Portia, Conjugal Loyalty; Eurydice, Fidelity; and so on. It was previously suggested that a prime series formed part of the 'Camerino d'Alabastro' or 'Studio di Marmo' of Alfonso I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, but this has now been discounted.
The tablet is known in three examples; the other two are in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, and the Bargello Museum in Florence. They have all been damaged but the finest example, in sculptural quality and condition, is that in Edinburgh, which was confirmed when all three reliefs were displayed together in Ferrara in 2004. The Dresden replica of the relief has an inscription cut on the left side of the altar, CON / STA / N[TIAE] and on the right side, R[OMANA], an epithet previously applied to Alucius Scaevola by an anonymous author in De Virislllustribus, X11—'Vir Romanae constantiae'. The series has generally been assigned dates within the 1520s, but more precise dating within the decade, without new documentation, is unrealistic.
The style of the Edinburgh tablet is quite consistent with Mosca's documented relief of The Miracle of the Unbroken Glass (1520—7) in the shrine of the saint in the church of San Antonio, Padua (the Santo). The figure of the standing warrior in the work is closely comparable. The style owes much to the Lombardo family, especiallv to Tullio, but the conception and execution is less monumental and more self-consciouslv elegant.
Mosca indulges in elaborate contrapposto — the pose in which one part of the body is twisted in the opposite direction from the other — and sometimes even avoids making his draperies reveal the underlving form of the body. There is also a connection with the early style of the engravings of Domenico Campagnola — for example, his Shepherd and the Old Warrior. Campagnola, who would certainly have known Mosca, settled in Padua around 1520 and remained there for the rest of his life.
Padua was a notable centre of learning concentrated around the ancient university founded by the Emperor Frederick II in 1238. The city by legend was founded by the Trojan hero Antenor and it was later the birthplace of the historian Livy (who related the story of Mucius Scaevola) and the first-century Roman poet Valerius Flaccus. In the early sixteenth century an intellectual circle flourished in Padua conscious of their antique ancestrv and dedicated to reconstructing classical culture, among them Pietro Bembo, Nicolò Leonico Tomeo, Pomponius Gauricus and Giambattista Leone. According to the Venetian patrician and humanist Marcantonio Michiel (1484—1552) the philosopher Giambattista Leone commissioned the marble relief of The Judgement of Solomon by Giovanni Maria Mosca as a present to 'an English bishop'. Neatly fitting this description is the damaged relief in the Louvre, Paris which stylistically is similar to the Edinburgh relief, especially in the figure of the executioner. The base is inscribed 'Posthumus', one of Leone's names, while the English bishop can be identified as the future Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Reginald Pole (1500—1558), who from 1520 to 1526 was studying at Padua with Leone. The latter also commissioned the great bronze paschal candlestick by Riccio for the basilica of San Antonio.
Such reliefs as Mucius Scaevola were produced for the pleasure of learned men at Padua and Venice, in much the same way as bronze plaquettes and statuettes. These marble reliefs were relativelv small, easily portable, and clearly not intended to be attached to walls as at least two of them, the Philoctetes in the Hermitage, St Petersburg, and the Eurydice in the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, bear beautifully cut long inscriptions on the reverse. Some of these reliefs were probably commissioned as tokens to friends and relations who the donors believed manifested, or should manifest, some of the same virtues as the gods and heroes of antiquity.
This text was first published in The Age of Titian: Venetian Renaissance Art from Scottish Collections (2004)