Giulio Campi - inv. 1543

Giulio Campi (c. 1500-1572)

Allegory of Vanity
oil on canvas  
95 x 88 cm
1879 bequest Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli
Inv. 1543

Palma Room
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A woman, reading a musical score, starts up, surprised by a cherub who brings a skull out from beneath the table. A richly dressed man sits serenely beside her while a black servant is outlined against a column. The same characters appear on the left in a landscape, on horseback and accompanied by a valet. In the distance a view of the sea with ships and a village with northern-style architecture, perhaps deriving from a print from north of the Alps.

The painting is a complex allegory of Vanity, indicated by numerous symbols illustrating this theme: the skull refers to death that ends everything; the musical scores of a duet (as on the score) allude to love and to music to show the fleetingness of both; the orange flowers on the woman’s breast and her scanty garments recall passion seen as equally temporary. The many symbols of wealth - the sumptuous material of their clothes and the jewels adorning the various people (note the servant’s magnificent pearl earring, and the man’s many rings) - include a valuable rug that covers the table, made in Turkey in the 16th century.

The painting can be dated to the 1530s; this would coincide with the Mannerist style of the work, realised for an educated client capable of appreciating the sophistication of the intricate symbolism. Giulio Campi, whose signature can be read on the edge of the score in front of the woman, was one of the most important painters in Cremona. He was a learned man and we know other allegorical similar works by him.