Back in 2004 I received an email from Andrew Daniels, an art writer and researcher who had recently been asked by an elderly lady if he could tell her anything about a print that she had of the Bay of Naples. He suggested to her that it probably dated from the 15th century and, as a panoramic view in its own right, was quite unusual, and that he would try to find out more. That brought him to the Dunnett website because the painting in question was one that was used as the cover for the Penguin edition of ‘Race of Scorpions’, details of which are available on the Bibliography page, with the information that it is attributed to Francesco Rosselli (1445 – c.1513), and depicts the re-entry of the Araganese fleet after the Battle of Ischia in 1442.
Much encouraged he had tried to find more information, such as the current location of the painting, but had so far drawn a blank, so he was writing to me to ask if I had any other sources of information on the painting or if the publishers might have any. I hadn’t, and knowing that the editors who’d worked on HN had since moved on I doubted if Penguin would either, but I was sufficiently intrigued to start my own net research, and being professionally involved with search engines I was able to find some resources that had escaped Andrew up till then.
Searching based around variants of “Francesco Rosselli Naples Napoli” etc. I found a couple of Italian sites, and although my knowledge of Italian is barely even rudimentary I was able to extract the name of the painting as being “Tavola Strozzi” with sufficient information to move on to some other sites. Now of course as soon the name Strozzi came up I was further intrigued. I’m not sure if Dorothy had any input into the cover designs but just maybe there was more to the choices than there appeared. Tavola appears to mean table, in the sense that the painting was done on wood, and it seemed that it was either commissioned or donated by Filippo Strozzi. It is now in the Museo di San Martino in Naples.
One of the sites is unfortunately no longer there but there is some useful information at some others including the following.
Although some of the sites appeared to suggest that the painting was anonymous others suggested that Francesco Rosselli was an accurate attribution. However the date of the depiction quoted on the book cover seemed to be doubtful and 1465 appeared to be suggested instead, with the painting donated by Strozzi in 1472/3. Andrew thanked me for my research pointers and, being familiar with the 14th and 15th centuries, felt that these dates would fit in well with Filippo Strozzi’s return to Florence in 1466, after his family’s banishment by the Medici in 1434. Filippo had been on intimate terms with the Italian courts, especially Naples, and a gift sent there after his very ‘grand’ re-establishment in Florence would help to cement his status.
He further felt that the suggested date for the naval depiction in the Italian extract I’d sent him – 1465 – seemed more sensible than the 1442 Battle of Ischia suggested by Penguin. It celebrates a victory achieved under the current regime (Ferdinand I of Naples, from 1458), and more or less coincided with Filippo’s return to Florence. Thus seeming more relevant to both parties.
At this point Andrew confessed that he had “only read the first two volumes of ‘Niccolo’ – they’re both still on my bookshelves, and I never got round to the rest”. I replied that while they were perhaps not the easiest of books to read because of the many puzzles and complex plots, they contained rich and meticulously researched descriptions of 15th century life in Europe and would repay the time spent in all sorts of ways. He later promised he would return to them.
Andrew continued his research and told me he’d found reference to the picture in Alison Cole’s ‘Art of the Italian Renaissance Courts’; which had been on his bookshelves all the time! (That sort of thing happens to me too!) He also found Lorenzo de’ Medici’s visit to Naples in Macchiavelli’s ‘History of Florence’ (Chapter IV), though unfortunately the website on which this was available at the time is no longer holding it.
Not long after he sent me a copy of the report he’d given to the owner of the print who had started the enquiry, and indicated that she was very happy with it.
Your picture of Naples is known as the Tavola Strozzi, or â€˜Table of the Strozziâ€™, because it was painted on wood, common practise at the time. The original is in the Museo di San Martino in Naples. Topographical views were popular in the later 15th century because of the influx into Italian Courts of Flemish paintings, which included detailed landscapes.
The Strozzi were a famous and powerful family in Florence, but from 1434 – 66, they were banished from there by the Medici, the ruling family. As a result, Fillipo Strozzi, born in 1438, became well known in several princely courts, especially Naples, where he gained wealth and influence. Naples was ruled at that time by the house of Aragon, and from 1458 to 1494 by Ferrante of Aragon, also known as Ferdinand the First.
The Strozzi were allowed back into Florence in 1466, and Fillipo returned in â€˜grandâ€™ style, becoming even more wealthy and powerful. He built a famous â€˜palazzoâ€™ there for himself and his family, and became a trusted advisor to Lorenzo deâ€™ Medici, the leader of Florenceâ€™s â€˜Republicâ€™.
Itâ€™s believed that Fillipo commisioned your picture of Naples from a Florentine map-maker and artist called Francesco Rosselli, in order to present it as a gift to Ferdinand in Naples. This would have been a shrewd move, as gifts to prestigious acquaintances underlined his own status in Florence. Itâ€™s not certain that Francesco painted it, but it seems likely as he too had spent much time in Naples. It was painted in 1472 or 1473, and supposedly depicts the triumphant re-entry into the Bay of Naples of Ferdinandâ€™s fleet, after heâ€™d routed his Angevin enemies in the Battle of Ischia in 1465.
The picture may also be connected to a daring diplomatic visit made by Lorenzo deâ€™ Medici to Naples in 1479, when the Florentines were under threat from an alliance made up of Naples, Milan and Pope Sixtus IV. Lorenzo personally sailed into Naples, spending several months there and completely winning over Ferdinand and his people. Lorenzo emerged a hero, celebrated for his international statesmanship. (In fact, there was more to it than that, but thatâ€™s the legend!) The picture may have been presented to Ferdinand on the occasion of Lorenzoâ€™s visit in 1479, whether as a gift from Fillipo Strozzi or Lorenzo himself is debateable. This seems likely given Fillipoâ€™s links with Naples and his position of trust with Lorenzo â€“ he must have been seen as a perfect mediator by Lorenzo, and encouraged to exploit his connections?
Altogether a perfect illustration of the sort of delightful byways that reading Dunnett can take you down. We have a number of Italian readers amongst the newsletter recipients and discussion groups. Perhaps one of them can add something to this research? Dorothy’s books were well translated into Italian and still sell well there, and she always enjoyed her promotional trips as well as the research ones. She once told me that the head of her Italian publisher was also a director of La Scala Milan and used to get her the best seats in the house for the opera, which she adored.
I wonder if any of the other cover paintings have similar connections to the stories…